Sunday, July 5, 2015

Hometown Heroes without Honor

Mark 6:1-6 He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. 4Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” 5And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Have you ever wondered what happened between verse 2, where the people are astounded, remarking about Jesus’ wisdom and his power; and verse 3, where they start to tear him down?

I have a theory. I imagine the conversation to go something like this: (except without the American names…)

Hey Joe, have you heard this guy preach? He’s amazing. He just gets it. In all the years I’ve been coming to this synagogue, I’ve never heard anyone tell the story quite like that! And a healer too? Fred hasn’t been up out of that wheelchair in 8 years, and this Jesus tells him to get up and walk and up he goes. I really think he could change some things around here. A few more weeks of this and we might just be different people altogether! Why, I think he may be a hero!

Now wait a minute, Charlie. It’s fine to have some smooth talker come up here every once in a while and make us wonder if there isn’t something better out there. That Rabbi from over at Capernaum has done that a time or two, but you’re getting a little too worked up. And what do you mean change some things? Why would we want to change anything? We’re just fine doing things the way we’ve always done it.

And so it begins. Joe convinces Charlie that it wasn’t conviction he just felt in his heart, and that nothing needs to change. Rather than focus on what God may have been trying to speak into their community, they invested their time trying to tear down the messenger.
  
Not this local kid, we know too much about him. Not a woman again. He’s too old, she’s too young, he’s got a tattoo, she’s a little too loud. Too much Jesus, not enough Jesus, the music’s too loud, to slow, too fast, I can’t even hear it. Don’t bring that projector in here and put the songs on the wall. These hymnals are old and outdated, and they smell bad. Wafers, bread, wine, grape juice? She’s so far to the right, could he be any more of a liberal? So many possibilities for offense!

What if we thwart the power of God to transform our lives because we pick apart the messenger or the prophet that God has sent to us?

Note that in Marks version of this story, the text says that Jesus “COULD do no deed of power there”. The writer of Matthew’s gospel softens it to say that Jesus “DID not do many deeds of power there”.

Either way, whether Jesus couldn’t do it, or didn’t do it, the fact remains that God had work to do in Nazareth and the intended instruments of that work were Jesus and the disciples. People’s lives were supposed to be transformed, but instead, they scoffed at him, and they set out on a fault finding mission.

Surely this man can’t be worthy to have such power. He’s just one of us. Surely this illegitimate child, born out of wedlock, has no wisdom or moral code that is greater than our own. And with each spoken doubt or accusation, the accuser takes one more step away from the truth that God was trying to show him (or her) about themselves.

Oh, what a fabulous technique it is to ignore our own issues and make some up about someone else instead! It’s the age old diversion tactic known as fault-finding!

Fred Van Amburgh says of fault-finding, “It requires no thought, no consideration, no character, no talent to be a fault-finder...It is much easier to find fault than to find ways to help. How easy to be critical and how hard to be correct. How easy to find fault with others and how hard to mend our own ways.”  (http://www.livinglifefully.com/faultfinding.htm)

We, the people, need to spend a whole lot less time being offended, and a whole lot more time being astounded at the power of God at work right in front of us!

Oh, but we live in a world now where offense is lurking around every corner. The public discourse is so polarized and social media gives otherwise reasonable people a platform to spout off things they would never say to a person face to face. And if all else fails, there’s always the option to unfriend.

All of us have been in situations in our lives where the people around us didn’t appreciate us the way they should have. Whether it was a family member, an old teacher, or the kid whose girlfriend you stole in 8th grade. It’s easy for us to relate to Jesus in this narrative. We’ve been there. What does it take to get a little respect, right?

What if we consider the times that we’ve been more like the scoffers in the synagogue than we are like Jesus? I’ll give you a minute to think about it… If you’re like me, you won’t need long. It was just yesterday, and last Wednesday, and a month ago.

You see, God is forever trying to do something in my life that I’m not ready for, or don’t recall signing up for. And I would always rather point out to God, and anyone else that will listen, that there is someone in much greater need of redemption, and God and I should both focus our energies there.

And God laughs.

And what if the scope of this message is even bigger than the church, which it surely is?

Who are the other hometown heroes without honor?

Local police officers (probably not where you live, of course) but in other places, who are the butt of all manner of donut shop jokes and called all sorts of derogatory names.

The football player who had a bad game the day your team lost, and whose name is used in conjunction with all sorts of curse words and insults, as if somehow the armchair quarterback doing the criticizing might have played better.

Any elected official, who immediately upon taking office, is seen as worthless and incompetent, and inevitably fails in the eyes of even the ones who voted him or her into the office.

We have a tendency to use people up and throw them away, both in the church, and in our society.

Consider for a moment 300,000 homeless veterans.

300,000 homeless veterans.

How does a bright, outgoing 17 year old go from the high school cafeteria to homeless vet before he’s 25? Let me tell you how, because I’ve seen it happen so many times, it makes my stomach turn to think about it.

Military recruiters, often perceived as cool by high school students are granted access to our public high schools and often spend time in the cafeteria wooing possible recruits. Potential recruits are promised a cash bonus of more money than many of their parents make in a year as soon as they complete their training. It’s a great opportunity to get out of the place where they may feel stuck and they take it. (please note that this is not a statement against military service, but a concern over the moral implications of sending kids who are barely driving and have never even lived on their own to make the very adult decision to take a human life, and then to fail to offer the psychological care required to deal with the aftermath of such a decision)

In an environment of sustained, simultaneous wars, they are sure to be sent “over there”. Some of them come home in a box. Others come home bearing scars, physical and emotional, that will never heal. Sometimes they have their enlistments or their deployments involuntarily extended. And when they come home, they are different. They’ve seen things that no human being should ever have to see. They don’t know how to relate to their people, and their people don’t know how to relate to them.

Unresolved PTSD or moral injury lurks inside them, and life as they knew it is no more. And far too often, the kid in the cafeteria with the bright future becomes the twenty-something homeless vet, searching the streets for a place to fit in and a group of people with whom she or he can connect.

And we ask, what did he do to end up here? He should have had plenty of money when he came home, he didn’t have any way to spend it over there. He must have made some really bad decisions. Must be drugs or alcohol, or maybe gambling. Whatever it was, he made his bed and now he has to lay in it.

Except that he has no bed.

And why is the question always what he did to get himself in this situation and never: why am I not in this same situation? Because I’ve made some really bad decisions, and I’ll bet you have, too. And maybe, just maybe, that shift in our thinking would drum up some compassion.

Less offense. More compassion. Less judging. More loving.

Luke’s version of this story gives us a little more detail about just what it was that Jesus said that incited such anger: He dared to put himself in the long line of Hebrew prophets calling for God’s justice in the land. Reading from Isaiah, he claimed the words as his own mission: “The spirit of the lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Mic drop.

It all sounds good until the folks in the room start to wonder what happens to their own status when all of these “others” get lifted to honorable status. The answer of course, is nothing, others don’t need to be dishonored for our honor to mean something. In God’s economy, there is enough honor to envelope every single child of God. But the perceived threat is great.

And so it begins. Dislike the message, discredit the messenger.

Again..."It requires no thought, no consideration, no character, no talent to be a fault-finder...It is much easier to find fault than to find ways to help. How easy to be critical and how hard to be correct. How easy to find fault with others and how hard to mend our own ways." 


Thanks be to God that our redemption draweth nigh. May we open our hearts and minds to the transformation that God is offering. Amen.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sermon: The Gift of Baptism, January 11, 2015
Text: Mark 1:4-11

As we come together this weekend to remember and celebrate the baptism of Jesus, we are extended an opportunity to spend some time in reflection on our own baptism. We are invited to consider just what baptism is to us, and how it has transformed our lives.

Baptism is…

Affirmation, only deeper, more like unconditional acceptance. We need to be accepted just as we are. Affirmation is that release of endorphins that we feel when we posted something on Facebook 30 seconds ago and somebody likes it. And then as we sit and watch the number grow. It’s that feeling that our young people know when they see how many followers they have on Instagram. Our need for affirmation in some cases is so heightened in our world of social media, that a lack of instant affirmation throws us into the realm of anxiety, depression, self-loathing, wondering what is wrong with us and/or the picture we just posted, that nobody has liked it. And to make matters worse, now we can see who saw it, but didn’t choose to click like. I personally have a theory that the founder of Facebook, that Zuckerberg guy, is in cahoots with the national association of therapists or something. Maybe not though, come to think of it, because when we go into a deep self-doubt hole, we rarely seek professional help to speak rationality to us, rather we often act out in passive aggression, refusing to like other people’s things, or just flat out berating them on how they could have the nerve to look at our thing, but not like our thing. I could go on about this, but I won’t.

Because I say all of this to say that we are created for relationship, and we crave the acceptance that comes when someone loves us as we are, where we are, for who we are. God does that with us. Sometimes one or two humans get it right too, but we should first seek it from the one who never fails. Remember at the moment that Jesus came up from the waters of his own baptism, he and those around him heard God’s voice of affirmation, acceptance, and blessing. “You are my son, in whom I am well pleased” Wrapped up in those words are identity, worth, and unwavering acceptance. Our baptism gives us the opportunity to re-enact the baptism of our Lord, and hear for ourselves those same words of love.

It is an initiation, into something much larger than ourselves. When we are baptized, we are actually initiated into many communities. One of those is the group of candidates that we are baptized with. In many protestant denominations, baptismal candidates spend several months meeting together in a pastor’s class. Imagine being an impressionable youth and spending time each week with a group of your peers who are held together by common faith, thinking of how you will live out faith in each of your lives, and what it will mean to take this next step on your spiritual journey. The bonds that are formed in those groups are strong and long lasting.

The next community that you are initiated into is the local church. While it may seem that baptism is an individual act between the pastor, the candidate, and God. It really is much more than that, and I would argue that it was always meant to be more than that. Look at the baptism of Jesus…Jesus was intentional about aligning himself with Jewish community, but not just any Jewish community. He could have, and probably did on many occasions, go and dip himself in the cleansing pools outside the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. But he chose instead to find John the Baptist and his followers out in the wilderness, and wade into the Jordan River for his baptism.

Think about that for a minute…sterile pools in town, at the door of the temple, or a river, an ever flowing stream, that as far as they can see, never begins and never ends. There, readily available for anyone to wade into, the elements of nature integrated into the experience. It was everything that organized religion and civilized society would frown upon. And yet it was chosen, by our Lord, to be the place where he received his blessing and accepted his calling.

And we become connected to Jesus and every other baptized person through our shared experience. We often sing a song at Table of Grace, by Christopher Grundy called Stepping In. Part of it says “There is a prayer, like a wide river, it never ends, does not begin, around the world, it’s always flowing, and I am stepping in, we are stepping in. That’s what happens when we are baptized. We step into a stream touched by all who have gone before us and all who will come after us.

It is surrender. It’s a giving up of the old and grabbing hold of the new. Admitting that we can’t and don’t want to live this life on our own, and that we want to walk with God and our faith community through all of the milestones in our lives, good and bad. Imagine with me, if you will, your dust covered body, about to wade into the flowing stream. Each particle of dust represents a sin, a regret, or some burden that you have carried for way too long. As you are dipped into the water, your toxins, the dust particles, remain at the top. They aren’t strong enough to penetrate the flow of the water, and so they float away, downstream. And as you come up out of the water, you can feel the newness of God’s love and redemption, clinging to your body like a glove. So it is with our baptism, we enter those waters with sin and death clinging to us with all their might, but the purity of strength of God’s love are too much, and they wash us clean. The old life has been surrendered, and we come out ready to experience the new. Thanks be to God!

It is tradition, with meaning. It’s not a tradition like Uncle Joe getting drunk on Thanksgiving and knocking over the dessert table every year. But a tradition more like your grandmother handing down her wedding ring because there was so much love in her relationship with your grandfather that she wants to share that with her children and their children and so on. It should bless us to know that we get to experience the same sacrament as Jesus, the disciples, and so many heroes of our faith over the last 2000 years. And it blesses us equally to know that this rich and beautiful tradition will be shared by our grandchildren, and great-great-great grandchildren, along so many others who will live beautiful, God centered lives, connected to our own through Baptism.

Baptism isn’t incidental, it’s foundational. David Lose, one of my heroes in the profession of preaching and teaching about Jesus writes “Jesus’ baptism isn’t preamble to all that comes later in his life, it’s the highpoint and climax of the story in a nutshell. Again and again, as Jesus casts out unclean spirits, heals the sick, feeds the hungry, and welcomes the outcast, he will only do to others what has already been done to him, telling them via word and deed that they, too, are beloved children of God with whom God is well pleased. And the darkest moment of the story when Jesus feels absolutely abandoned is followed immediately by the story of resurrection, where the messenger testifies that God has kept God’s baptismal promise and continues to accept and honor Jesus as God’s own beloved Son. So also, at our low moments, we might remember that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is the same one who promised in baptism to never abandon us and to love and accept us always and still as beloved children, even and especially when we have a hard time loving and accepting ourselves.”*

It isn’t an end, but a beginning. Being initiated into such a community of believers, filled with the affirmation and unconditional acceptance of our creator, in the tradition of those who have informed our lives, having surrendered that which separates us from God, symbolically once, but knowing that we will continue a lifetime of surrender, empowered to give to others what has been given to us, we go forth from the waters of our baptism having been made new. Ready to be an agent of God’s love, grace and mercy in a world that needs it so badly. Thanks be to God for the gift of new life, given anytime we ask, and for the sacrament of Baptism to stand as the ever present reminder that our lives are not our own.

Remember now your own baptism. Dip your toes or your fingers into some of water, eyes closed, feeling God as close to you as the water to your pores, and know that you are loved, and that God is calling you to walk in God’s light, giving to others the gifts of love and healing that have been given to you. And if, by chance, you haven’t been baptized, that’s okay! Know that the gift of baptism is for you too, if you desire to step into the stream and surrender. I or any other pastor will be happy to talk with you about your decision.

Blessings my friends, may you all be renewed in your spirits as you consider the gift of baptism, and all that it means for your life. Amen.



*http://www.davidlose.net/2015/01/baptism-of-our-lord-b/

Sunday, January 4, 2015

2015: The Year of Embodiment

Today I had the honor of filling the pulpit at Community Christian Church in Jefferson City. It's a beautiful worship space, and also the place where I baptized my oldest child. It was a blessing to be there! Below is the sermon that I preached.

Sermon: New Year, New Us!
Community Christian Church, Jefferson City, MO, 1/4/15
Text: Jeremiah 31:10-14 and John 1:16-18

There is just something extra special about worship services that mark the beginning or the end of something. And here today, the air is still full of the wonder of Christmas, God born anew into our world, and the opportunity and possibilities of a blank canvass heading into this new year.

Some of you are likely happy that 2014 is gone. Perhaps you muttered the tired line “don’t let the door hit you on the way out” as the year came to a close. Some of you may be sad to see it go, clinging to some victory, joy, or celebration brought to you by 2014.

However we look at it though, 2014 is gone, and 2015 has snuck right in. There are two ways that I know for sure that we’ve moved into a new year. One is that I write the date incorrectly on a check, and the second is that I almost print the church bulletins with last year’s date. I’ve done both of those this week, so it’s official. So given the fact that it’s here and there’s nothing we can do about it, it seems like a good idea to think a bit about how we’ll handle it. Hence, today’s sermon, New Year, New Us!

By now I’m sure that you’ve already been inundated with offers to create a new you in this new year. Scrolling through my email inbox on January 2 after a couple of days of being unplugged allowed me to get the full effect of the end of year/beginning of year mash-up. January 31 brings all the last minute offers I can handle, suggesting that there are many places that I could get rid of any pesky money that might still be lying around after Christmas. And then comes the onslaught of New You emails on January 1. They suggest that I need an overhaul in every aspect of my life. My weight, my health, my career, my finances, my spiritual journey; and I wonder, have these people all been spying on me? How do they know that I’m in such bad shape, and such well-rounded bad shape at that? Do you wonder these things?

Well, yes, they have been watching our every move; our purchases, our google searches, our Facebook likes and our tweets will provide most any marketing expert all the information they need to make us their next target. More importantly though, they know we’re human, and that more often than not, we fall short of where we had hoped to be at this point, sometimes due to our own bad decisions, and sometimes due to unfortunate circumstances beyond our control.

The writers of today’s texts knew a few things about bad decisions and unfortunate circumstances…

Jeremiah prophecies to the remnants of a decimated Northern Kingdom, the 30 chapters leading up to this one relentlessly suggest that the destruction they have experienced is largely due to their unfaithfulness to the God who has sustained them up to this point. Chaos reigns, but one thing is clear: they will never again experience God’s presence in the places and the ways that they were accustomed to. Jeremiah’s words are hanging somewhere between exile and restoration, between judgment and mercy.

This is a people profoundly changed by their experiences of loss and of exile. It is a lost and vulnerable people being gathered by their God, much like a people, hopeless in so many ways, gathered at the manger of the newborn King, shepherds and kings alike, looking for new life and a fresh start. John writes to a community some 700 years after Jeremiah, who also struggle with their circumstances AND their belief! Their struggle is different, but no less real, and the need for God to intervene and correct our course had not then, and still has not gone away!

The Jeremiah passage shows us that out of death and destruction, God creates new life. The gospel passage shows us that out of nothing, God creates new life. Most of us fall somewhere on that spectrum right now, between death and destruction, and just a blank canvass. I wonder how there can be any question for us, whether God can create new life for us too? And yet, we’re just not sure.

As we ponder what a new us might look like in 2015, we have to look back at the old us of 2014. It seems clear that 2014 revealed to us a disheartening level of brokenness in our world. Some of which we may have thought was long gone, and some of it new, thanks to the barrage of polarizing and sensationalized information that is served up to us 24/7 via the media, social and otherwise.

Slate magazine dubbed 2014 “the Year of Outrage”, noting that “following the news in 2014 is a bit like flying a kite in flat country during tornado season. Every so often, a whirlwind of outrage touches down, sowing destruction and chaos before disappearing into the sky.”1

Outrage seems to have become a way of life for us. “It rises from our disappointment.”2 Out of the ashes of broken dreams, failed ventures, tainted relationships, and shattered hopes; outrage is like the smoke that wafts through the air, lingering, waiting to hitch a ride on some unsuspecting host. It is a natural, and even honorable response to the things that happen to us and to others in a broken world. The problem comes when outrage becomes our destination, rather than a stop on our journey to something better.

Perhaps that something better is something akin to incarnation, that which we celebrate when we honor the baby Jesus at Christmas. Jesus was God incarnate, putting on human flesh to be present among us and show us the way. The life and teachings of Jesus give us the opportunity to bridge the human/divine gap too. When we, who are human flesh, put on ourselves the attributes of God, wisdom, faithfulness, steadfast love, grace and mercy, we might call that embodiment. What if 360 days from now, we were able to look back and point to the ways that 2015 was the year of embodiment? Where the people of God spoke words that honored God and God’s people, where they (we actually) acted like we believe the truths that we proclaim, and where followers of Jesus emulated his selfless actions?

Jesus himself expressed outrage, most notably remembered in the episode that we call “Jesus cleansing the temple”. He is angered by the exploitation that he sees taking place by people in power at the temple, taking advantage of those who had little to spare, and turning sacred space into a marketplace. He was so angry that he made a whip out of cords and ran them all out, overturning their tables as he went. There are, for sure, some institutions today that need a good cleansing and would benefit from the removal of some money-changers, but that’s a topic for another day. The point today is that even after expressing deep outrage at what was going on, Jesus didn’t stay there. He went on to heal, and teach, and grant new life. The text says “many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name”.

Outrage makes way for incarnation. Rev. John Allen writes about our embodiment of the divine will in terms of “incarnational intention”. I think he’s onto something. He writes:

“God’s incarnational intention is that God’s story gets lived out in recognizable ways in the world. Not only over some grand cosmic saga, but also in the way we engage the specific broken places in our communities and even in the forgettable interactions we have with our neighbors.

God’s incarnational intention is that God’s presence becomes unmistakable in our midst because the faithful have put their bodies, and not just their language, into effect for what they believe to be true.

God’s incarnational intention is that the faithful enact our hope in liturgy AND life. That we embody God’s justice and love in the world, not just by speaking it, but by living it out. Not through testing philosophical edicts against the long arc of history, but by showing up in the world we have, as the people we are, to make God into flesh once again.”3

Thanks be to God for the gift of Christmas, pure love, wisdom, grace, and mercy, wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger; sent to us in hopes that we might apply the gifts to our own lives. May we who call ourselves God’s children, receive and embody the gift in 2015. New year, new us! Amen.

1&2. Slate Magazine, The Year of Outrage http://www.slate.com/articles/life/culturebox/2014/12/the_year_of_outrage_2014_everything_you_were_angry_about_on_social_media.html

3. Rev John Allen, The Politics of Incarnation. http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-incarnation-john-11-18/

Sunday, December 21, 2014

When Christmas Hurts

Tonight at Table of Grace, we held our annual Blue Christmas service. It’s something that we’ve done every year since we started the church, and even though it is always attended by somewhere between 1 and 8 people, I believe it is one of the most important services that we do. I borrowed a new name for the service this year from an Episcopalian colleague, who calls her Blue Christmas service “When Christmas Hurts”. Sometimes, it’s not just that folks are a little extra down or lonely during the Christmas season, sometimes Christmas, and the reminders of what we no longer have, hurts, badly.

I seem to be reminded of this harsh reality even more this year than in years past. I think it’s because our youngest, Morgan, is an 11 year old sixth grader, just like I was when my world came crashing down around me. It was on this night 32 years ago, that I went to bed, a little bummed that I wouldn’t be enjoying the day before Christmas break celebrations at school the next day, due to the fact that I had chicken pox. Little did I know that chicken pox would be the least of my heartbreaks that Christmas. When I woke up the next morning, I woke with a terrible headache. I remember walking into the kitchen in my underwear and t-shirt that I had slept in, and feeling a little awkward when I saw that our kitchen was full of people. They all sat around the table as if they had been there for hours while I slept. 

I don’t remember any of the words, just that it was too light in the kitchen, it hurt my head. And there were too many people, and I was in my underwear. And they said he was gone. My brother. My hero. Gone. Something about Christmas shopping and dark and windy roads, and sleeping and driving, or not, and a wreck, and gone. 21 years old and gone. In my young mind, and with his wild nature, it seemed somehow inevitable that it would be a car wreck, someday. But now? This soon and this close to Christmas?

It wasn’t my first taste of death. I believe it was in the spring of that same year when I awoke to the news that one of my best friends had died of some fluke illness, and just like that, she was gone. Funny, I remember something about underwear and a headache that day, too. The difference, of course, is that Kendra’s house was the one that had too many people in the kitchen for a weekday morning, and her sister was asking “what happened” and “how” and “why so soon”.

Even though it wasn’t my first experience with death, it was my first experience with hating Christmas. I carried that with me for a couple of decades. I don’t remember anything that I got for Christmas that year, except the thing that made me hate it. It was a little ceramic thing, a knick-knack. They told me that he bought it for me. I never really understood the story, and I had questions. Did he buy it on a previous shopping trip? What 21 year old man buys his kid sister a gift in advance? Where had he kept it? Had he wrapped it himself? Did he buy it that night? Did someone find it in the wrecked car? If so, how did they know he bought it for me? So many questions, though none that I would ask. Instead, I would just let them rumble around inside me, fueling my anger and my newfound dislike of Christmas. Years later, I would find a Christmas gift, still wrapped, in a file cabinet at my grandparents’ house, with a tag that said: To Grandpa From Roger. I wondered if he had the same questions. I didn’t ask.

I’m not sure when I got over hating Christmas. As I grew into an adult, I had all sorts of excuses. I owned a retail store, and worked ridiculous hours through the Christmas season, right up to Christmas Eve. Somewhere along the line, I had to get away to pick up gifts for everyone else for multiple family celebrations that would take place, often beginning that very night. People were demanding, rude, and thankless; and deep down I knew that even with a successful Christmas, we’d be right back in the red within a couple of months, pinning our hopes to the next Black Friday to Christmas Eve cycle. Maybe it was when I got out of the jewelry business, maybe it was when the joy of seeing my kids excited on Christmas morning became greater than the pain of dashed hopes and shattered dreams. Maybe it was when I realized that Christmas was about new birth, and sixty-fifth chances, and God breaking into the harsh reality of my life to say “I am here, will you stop being so damn stubborn and walk with me?” And yes, I think God would say damn, among other things that we’ve been taught not to say out loud.

Whenever it happened, I bet I wasn’t ready. I wouldn’t have made the choice myself to move forward and to begin to see the beauty of the season again. Thankfully, God doesn’t usually ask if we’re ready. In our Blue Christmas service tonight, I read an adaptation of a passage from Madeleine L’Engle’s “First Coming”. I’d like to share it with you.

“God did not wait until the world was ready, till the nations were at peace. God came when the heavens were unsteady and prisoners cried for release. God did not wait for the perfect time. God came when the need was deep and great. God dined with sinners in all their grime. God did not wait until the hearts were pure.  In JOY God came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt. To a world of anguish and shame. God came in JOY, and his light never goes out. God came to a world which did not mesh; to heal its ill, and shield its scorn.  In the mystery of the Word made flesh, the maker of the stars were born. We cannot wait until the world is whole, to raise our songs with joyful voice, to share our grief, to touch our pain. God came in grace, with love. Rejoice!”

God knows that right now our need is deep and great, that we live in a world of anguish and shame, and that we still don’t mesh. Thank God it doesn’t matter! God breaks in anyway. God shines light in all the dark places of our hearts, our souls, our world; and as hard as the darkness tries to fend off the light, it can’t. John 1:5 tells us that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Thank. You. Jesus. Thank you for coming into this broken world and especially into this broken heart. Thank you for your assurance that joy comes in the morning.

Tonight also happens to be the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. As part of our Blue Christmas service, we share a “Blessing for the Longest Night”, which ends with these words: “So when this blessing comes, take its hand. Get up. Set out on the road you cannot see. This is the night when you can trust that any direction you go, you will be walking toward the dawn.”

And so I’ll walk. I’ll walk blindly forward in the darkness of a world filled with love and hate, violence and peace, justice and grave injustice. I’ll walk in trust, knowing that even as God’s light shines in the darkness of my own heart, it does so in the hearts of billions of others as well. And I’ll believe that there will be a dawn. I hope that you’ll believe with me.

We closed our service tonight with this song from the Indigo Girls. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RhSLK_iMLaw


Listen, sing, watch, and believe. There’s still our joy. Christmas Blessings to you, my friends. May you experience anew the magic of God born into our midst; even when Christmas hurts. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Trading the Turnpike of Expediency for the Dirt Road of Connection

There’s a thought that’s been floating around in my head for the last several weeks and I haven’t been able to grab it and put it into words. And then, thanks to one of my Facebook friends, today it came to me. My friend was commenting on the Oklahoma Tourism ads, revealing her skepticism about their honesty, having never experienced such beauty herself. Her comment was this: “all my drives through Oklahoma with nothing in site but tolls.....no thank you.”

I read her words and immediately it hit me. You have to leave the turnpike if you want to see the beauty. If you don’t, you’re destined to believe that all a place has to offer is gas stations, fast food, and run down casinos. For those of you who have never driven the Oklahoma Turnpike, you can pretty easily substitute I-70 from Kansas City to St. Louis in your mental image. True, if that were your only experience of the Show-Me State, you wouldn't think there was much to show. If you never left the interstate in Missouri, you would miss all the sights that look like these (and many more!):

             


                        
And as much as I believe this shift in perspective is important in our geographic explorations, I think it is even more necessary in our interactions with people. I have the opportunity to decide if I’m going to view people that I meet through a ho-hum, when do I get off this road, I-70 lens, or through a knock-my-socks-off, wow that’s beautiful, thank you God lens. 

I wish I could post pictures of all the people that I’ve met through Table of Grace that I have had the honor to see through lens #2. I would show you endless pictures of people whose lives may appear messed up, hopeless, and down-and-out at first glance; and who, in reality, have had the most profound, positive impacts in my own life.

They would be pictures of people who have fought and are currently fighting addictions, who have shown me more courage and authenticity in their struggles than I've ever seen anywhere else.

There would certainly be pictures of young people who struggle with self harm, suicidal thoughts, and debilitating deficits in self-esteem; who have taught me about wrestling so hard with fear, doubt and pain, that every scar tells a story of struggle and redemption.

There would be pictures of numerous people struggling to reconcile their sexual preference or gender identity with everything that society and religion has previously told them. If there were a way for the picture to show their hearts and minds, you might see the resolve, strength and compassion that comes from somebody having to go against every existing system in order to just be who they are. You might see the gift of tolerance and appreciation for diversity that takes root in a person who has truly experienced a life of being “the other”.

There would be adorable pictures of children who are crazy cute, with huge smiles, that sometimes mask the pain of troubles at home, bullying at school, and disorders that make sitting still and just communicating with others a major challenge. Yesterday at church, I leaned over one of those kids to talk to the person next to him, and as I leaned past him, he grabbed me and gave me a hug that melted my heart. I can’t begin to count the number of heart-melting hugs, notes, and smiles I've received from kids who others have seen as out of control and disruptive. I continue to be blessed to my core by these holy disruptions.

There would be pictures of straight, middle class, seemingly “normal” individuals and families who don’t struggle with the effects of exclusion, or extreme poverty, or mental illness; but have a commitment to being present with and being in relationship with others whose lives are different than theirs. If you could see inside them, you would see minds that know the truth that we are all part of one human family; and you would see hearts that have both experienced and rejected the privilege of being what the rest of the world might call “normal”. They come because they believe whole heartedly that diversity, respect, and a sense of belonging for all people really can transform our world.

I could go on forever about the hidden blessings that I've discovered in the ragtag collection of people that we have gathered at Table of Grace as a direct result of our commitment to welcoming everyone. It is, simultaneously, the most important and most challenging commitment that we have as a faith community. Today I’m thankful that I got off the proverbial turnpike, and started traveling the back roads of human interaction. I’m thankful that somewhere along the line, somebody taught me to look past the surface and into the soul of the people that I have been blessed to encounter. Each and every one of you has knocked-my-socks-off; and all I can say sometimes is “Wow, that’s beautiful! Thank you, God!”

For those of you who are still on the Turnpike, judging other people at first glance as nothing more beautiful than fast food, gas stations and run-down casinos; I would invite you to spend some time travelling the back roads of human interaction. Dismiss your judgments long enough to see the soul. You are sure to have your eyes opened, your heart changed, and your life enriched by what (and who) you will find.


Blessings my friends. May you discover some gems in your travels. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

More, with less.


The vision of The Pantry.
video

We are in need of the food items listed on the donation list to make this work so we are asking for your help. You can help us feed some folks meals by donating to The Pantry. Here is the donation sheet. Please feel free to print it out, fill it out and/or donate anytime. Thank you for your support!
















Monday, December 2, 2013

Welcome to Advent. Let's Hope.

The caption on the picture on the front of our Table of Grace brochures says “Where Hope is Alive!” It’s a bold statement to make, suggesting that we are a community of people who have not yet given up hope. We live in a world of dashed hopes, a world where one who continues to hope in the face of adversity may be seen as some kind of Pollyanna; or at least completely out of touch with reality. Most of us have mastered the art of dismissing our hopes in advance to save ourselves the disappointment later.

The first week of Advent calls us to hope. Not only does it call us to hope, it calls us to sit with that hope…to hold on to it, until we return the next week to light the next candle. I wonder if we are willing to be that vulnerable, to open ourselves up to hope that we hold onto for long enough to convince ourselves that the thing for which we hope might actually be a possibility.

I wonder if allowing ourselves to hope for better living conditions for the homeless people in our community would cause us to seek God’s guidance in helping to be a part of the solution. I wonder if having the audacity to hope for racial equality in our world would cause us to spend some time getting to know the people who don’t look like us, who we claim to want to liberate. I wonder if hoping that people in a village in Africa might someday have access to clean drinking water would encourage us to spend less on frivolous gifts this Christmas, and send the money we save to an organization that can make that happen. I wonder if allowing ourselves to hope for a government that represents our collective interests would push us into a level of civic engagement that begins to reclaim the voice of the people in the public sphere.

I wonder. And I hope. I hope that deep down, we know that God is alive in our biggest dreams and our greatest hopes. I hope that we recognize that God’s Spirit uses the creative space that hope provides to bring great transformation in our lives. I hope, above all else, that we can remember how to hope like a child counting down the months to a birthday or the days to Christmas; and that having remembered, we will start to live in our hope for days and weeks and months at a time. And perhaps that we will let ourselves believe the word of the Lord spoken through the prophet Jeremiah “For I know the plans I have for you," says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope."

Our hope is a gift from God. Don’t shove it in the back of the closet like the ugly sweater your Aunt Sally gave you last Christmas, or the combination hammer/corkscrew/TV antenna from your mother-in-law. Get it out, use it, enjoy it, let it transform you. I bet you’ll find that it begins to transform the people around you as well.

What are you hoping for right now? I challenge you to hold onto that hope, and allow yourself to think about it this week, maybe even to talk about it. Offer it to God in your prayer time and allow it to creep into your dreams. Let’s just see what happens.

And while you’re hoping, here’s an earworm from the Dixie Chicks…

I hope, for more love, more joy and laughter
I hope, we'll have more than we'll ever need
I hope, we'll have more happy ever after
I hope, we can all live more fearlessly
And we can lose all the pain and misery
I hope, I hope