Reflections

World Cup, Patriotism, and the Language of Faith

By Rev. Mindi

I’m sure I’m not the only pastor uneasy about the Sunday closest to July 4th. Our Christian faith gets convoluted with civil religion and the separation of church and state goes out the window—even in most American Baptist churches I know, where we spout the words of Roger Williams in our Baptist history classes but place the flag prominently on the left hand side of the chancel. Every church I have served has had the American flag in the sanctuary. On the other hand, every church I have visited in a country other than the U.S. has not had their country’s flag in the sanctuary.

It’s a tricky thing to maneuver as a pastor. Do we sing patriotic hymns or not? If we say God Bless America, do we also say God Bless Afghanistan, Algeria, and Australia? Ideally, I would do none of it, and try hard to remember that we pray for Christ’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.  I would rather that we remember that all people are God’s children, no matter our citizenship or documentation in worldly nations. I would not have the flag in the sanctuary if it was up to me—but it is not.

At the same time, I am writing this right after the USA vs. Belgium World Cup game, in which the USA games have been watched more than any other sporting event in recent memory in the United States. People from all religious backgrounds, all ethnicities, all political views, have been rooting together, and more interestingly, getting caught up in the entire World Cup fever. The World Cup has been a place where national pride, the language of faith (“I Believe That We Will Win”) and the energy of millions has been funneled together. And while the United States did not advance, the game was well-played and there is a sense of being part of a global community, even if it is limited through this sporting event and its fans (temporary or loyal to soccer/futbol).

Patriotism in and of itself is not a bad thing at all, but when we convolute our love of God and our love of country together, we end up with flags draped on the cross, and forget that our God is the God who created all of us, and we forget that the United States has more than just Christians as citizens and participants. We shove God and the United States into the same box.

While many pastors I know will not even mention Independence Day on Sunday, for those of us who cannot get away from some sort of patriotic display, let us open the boxes completely. Let us pray for God to bless America, along with Afghanistan through Zimbabwe. May we show the same sense of pride of being citizens of the reign of God. And may we learn a lesson from the World Cup—our language of faith—“I Believe that We”—can also be adapted to suggest faith and trust in other human beings, and that we are stronger together. 

Love Rescue Me

By Rev. Mindi

We were crammed in to a four-passenger Cessna, with our baggage in the tail. Four teenagers on their way to Church Camp, two of whom were actually Baptist, one who was Catholic and one who was not raised in church, as far as I knew. Lightest kid sat in the back. I sat next to my fellow churchgoer, and my good friend from high school, my Catholic friend, sat up with the pilot.

The airport in Kodiak, Alaska was built during World War II, and was built precisely because of the amount of fog. The Japanese had invaded the Aleutian Islands and the fear was that they were building up to an invasion of North America through Alaska.  Nonetheless, fifty-plus years after the war, the fog was no longer convenient but a definite problem. The year after this, my brother and friend would try to fly down to Church Camp and be stuck at the Anchorage International Airport for over twenty-four hours due to the fog (it was only the two of them that year, so they got to travel on a real airline).

We had thirteen kids going that summer, and so the seven-passenger Cessna, which had better equipment and was a faster aircraft, had gone ahead of us. Missionary Air was a service in Alaska to help pastors get out to the bush communities, but they also would fly us to church camp for free when we had enough kids that needed to go.  They were able to land.  However, the radar was not working that day at the Kodiak Airport, and the pilot didn’t have the better instruments on this plane.  So we dipped out of the foggy cloud-clover over some rocky island (there are many islands in the Kodiak archipelago), but the pilot made the decision to turn and fly back to the Kenai Peninsula. And as we flew back, about forty-five minutes into the flight, I noticed the pilot kept leaning over and looking down.  “What are you looking at?” I shouted up at him over the roar of the twin-engine Cessna.  “Looking for land,” he shouted back.  At that point, my friend in the front seat began to pray.

It was the first time in my life I thought I might die. Seventeen years old, and even though I had experienced the death of loved ones and had gone to my grandfather’s funeral that spring, it was in that moment, above the white lofty clouds, blue sky and blazing sun, somewhere above the Gulf of Alaska that I thought this might be it.  And it turns out I wasn’t too far off—we started to run out of fuel while landing in Kenai. One engine sputtered out on descent and we had a bit of a bumpy landing. But we landed. We were safe. We were ok.  Later that afternoon we took off for a second attempt after refueling and hearing that the weather had cleared, and had a beautiful trip down to Kodiak, and were later reunited with our other campers that had flown out that morning and those that came from Kodiak on the beautiful, temperate rain-forested Woody Island, where the mist rose out of the trees every morning and you couldn’t see across the two-mile channel to Kodiak Island because of the thick choking fog, but where it burned off every afternoon for a brilliant sunset turning into a gorgeous starscape every night.

Church Camp was the place where my faith sprouted, where I was challenged in my faith and in my very being. I remember every year facing the challenge of, having already been saved, trying to come up with some reason I needed redemption and saving again, because the joyful catharsis of being saved on the last night of Church Camp was something I wanted to experience every single year. Because I was so emotionally vulnerable as a teenager, it was easy to start believing I was a horrible sinner who needed saving, was un-loveable and needed to be loved by God in order for everything to be right. This coming from the one-in-a-million youth for whom D.A.R.E. actually worked for. I never smoked, drank, did drugs or slept around. I was a “good kid.” So therefore, there a) must be something wrong with me that I hadn’t realized and needed to find out so I could be saved, or b) was not interesting to anyone else because I was too good and didn’t need to be saved.  Tough times for this Christian teen.

But it was that last year at camp, just after high school graduation, that changed things for me. Besides my near-death experience (well, it probably wasn’t really, and maybe I just imagined the engine going out as the pilot never admitted that to us though we were all convinced it was) that same week I was at camp a family friend—my age—committed suicide.  After my mom called me and told me, I told my camp counselors, whom I’m pretty sure just thought I was another needy teenager when I became a bit emotional about it (I don’t mean to be flip, but I remember that no one—not the camp counselors or the camp pastor—thought this was a huge thing, that a family friend had taken his own life)—I felt empty. Death was such a final reality and our friend was gone. And there was nothing I or anyone could do to bring him back.


What I really wanted was someone to comfort me, to tell me everything was ok—that I was ok. And as I look back now (“that summer seemed to last forever…” sorry, sidetracked) I realize that I WAS OK. All OF US WERE OK. There was nothing that was so bad that any of us had done. A few there had smoked pot and drank. Some had probably had sex by then. What would have been helpful were some trained counselors to deal with some of the real issues of drug addiction, or at least referrals that way.  But I think what we needed to know the most was that we were not broken people. We were still kids! What had we done that was so awful and horrible? But we were made to think that in order to be whole, to be loved by God, to be accepted, we had to be broken first, and that we had to somehow feel bad about who we were and had been.

I still believe in a God of redemption. I still believe in Jesus as my Savior, Redeemer and Friend. But I no longer believe that Jesus wants me to be emotionally abused and shamed before being able to accept love. There is nothing in the Gospels that says “First, be ashamed of who you are. Second, tell everyone how bad you have been. Third, accept Jesus before you leave camp because you don’t know when else you’ll have the chance to be saved.”  No. What I read of Jesus is him saying immediately, “Your sins are forgiven.”  What I see Jesus doing is accepting people as human beings first and foremost.

I thought about this today because now I live in Seattle and the fog creeps in on my hillside church and parsonage every morning these days, and I’m reminded of Woody Island and how the fog seemed to choke out hope of seeing beyond what was in front of us, but then it would burn off and we’d see the beauty of creation beyond anything we could imagine. Orcas jumping fifty yards off the dock. Sea lions butting up against the pilings. Bald eagles nesting in the trees above Canoe Lake. And the lone red bull (seriously, not making this up) wandering the island, leftover from the days when cattle were ranched there, when the last homesteader left.

I don’t write this to shame my camp counselors, many of whom were just a few years older than me and had the heavy, heavy burden of trying to get kids saved before they went back home. And some of us came from some pretty rotten families. Some came from foster care. Some had been abused by elders. It’s not to say we didn’t need saving—we did.  But that week at camp was what saved us, again and again. A week among the trees, on an island away from everyone else, away from teen pressures, away from the family members who didn’t love us or couldn’t care for us. But I don’t think we were broken.  Perhaps what we needed so desperately to hear was the message of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, simply because we were children, human beings. Not because of our own brokenness, but because of the brokenness of the world. The brokenness of a world in which a teenager took his own life.  The brokenness of a community in which parents abandoned their children. The brokenness of a place in which youth escape these pressures and pain through drug abuse and alcohol.

Maybe we did need saving, but we needed to know that God loved us, and that we weren’t broken, we weren’t damaged goods, we weren’t horrible, sinful people. We were simply children of God.  And I’d like to let my camp counselors off the hook for the job of saving us. I think many of them were trying to figure this all out for themselves as well.

The last day of camp I got up early before breakfast and morning devotions. I snuck my Discman out of my sleeping bag and crept out the door, walking down the path to Lower Inspiration Point, where the sign carved into the tree read, “Be still and know that I am God.”  There was a little peninsula with rotted-out beams in rows for a little outdoor chapel, jutting out into a point in Canoe Lake, and an old driftwood cross erected in front. A tree grew out near the tip of the peninsula, and just beyond the tree was where many kids were baptized over the years, baptized into a temporary community of faith that would be scattered by Saturday.  I sat down on the beam pews and listened to Rattle and Hum by U2, and the song “Love Rescue Me” with Bob Dylan singing came over the headphones:

                Love rescue me

                Come forth and speak to me

                Raise me up and don’t let me fall

                No man is my enemy

                My own hands imprison me

                Love rescue me

                …

                Yea, though I walk

                through the valley of the shadow

                Yea, I will fear no evil

                I have cursed Thy rod and staff

                They no longer comfort me

                Love rescue me

And in that moment as I listened to that song and that album, I kid you not, a bald eagle flew overhead, swooped down and marred the surface of the still lake waters. And I knew that I was being raised up.

The God of Church Camp that said “You must be ashamed. You must regret. You are sinful and unworthy, and you are only worthy if You accept me” was gone. That kind of thinking no longer comforted me.  Instead, this idea of God’s love—God’s love for me because I was me—saved me.

And that love by Jesus is still saving me. I have failed many times as a pastor and a mom and a wife. I have failed as a community leader. I have failed in many ways. But I’m not broken.  I’m not terrible. I’m not damaged goods. I am loved.

  

SCOTUS Decisions: Reflections, Part 1

By Rev. Mindi 

 Due to the SCOTUS decisions of Tuesday and pending Wednesday’s decisions, I thought I would forgo my usual Wednesday article and reflect on some of the court decisions made on Tuesday, with the idea that others may contribute reflections following the decisions announced on Wednesday morning. For a comprehensive list of the decisions made, go to http://www.supremecourt.gov/  These decisions impact us as Americans, but are often not mentioned on Sunday morning. As clergy and church leaders, I feel that it is imperative that we reflect within our faith communities on these issues and offer some way of responding, through word, action, and prayer.

Tuesday’s decision on the Voting Rights Act http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/12pdf/12-96_6k47.pdf was a split decision, with the court upholding the 1965 act in that voting procedures must be approved by the federal government (preclearance) in areas where racial discrimination in voting practices has taken place. However, the court struck down the part of the law that dictated which states and jurisdictions were affected by this, stating that the coverage formula needed to be readdressed to be up with the times.  The Supreme Court is sending this part of the act to Congress to decide.  Seeing how it’s been difficult to get Congress to act on anything, this is frustrating to those of us who know how prejudice is still used in discriminating at the voting booth.

As people of faith, what can we do? How can we respond? I think of the number of churches that have partnered together with other organizations for voter registration drives and work to make sure those in our communities are registered to vote. Secondly, we also need to listen to those who have experienced prejudice at the polls, for those whose registrations were considered to be illegitimate, for practices that deterred others from voting. We need to make sure that we speak out for fair voting procedures in our own communities and be involved in voting rights for all citizens. And we need to speak up and take action against unfair voting practices.

Another decision on Tuesday was about adoption http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/12pdf/12-399_8mj8.pdf This was a hard case. This story gained nationwide attention in the news, and so it’s easy to take sides and feel sympathetic with all parties involved. But what we need to keep in mind is the history of white governing officials making decisions for American Indian children, and the continued intervening and taking children away from their family and culture of origin. It’s important for us as people of faith to be mindful of our history, to be aware of how Euro-American culture is still perpetuated as American culture and that Euro-Americans still push values associated with that culture on to others.

Finally, I want to end with some reflections on a situation not in the Supreme Court but in Texas. Senator Wendy Davis, as I write this, is standing for thirteen hours without a chair or ability to lean on anything to filibuster a law that would basically prevent abortion clinics from operating in Texas http://news.yahoo.com/texas-senator-filibusters-against-abortion-bill-164526586.html  (side note: my husband pointed out that these rules by the Texas Senate make it so that anyone who has a disability in which they cannot stand is inherently discriminated against from being able to do their job, but I digress… somewhat).

This ban on abortion clinics and restrictions on clinics and doctors ignores Roe V. Wade, ignores the laws that protect a woman’s right to choose and places women’s health and responsibility to make choices about her health.  I have written in the past about the need for both sides on the issue of abortion to come together and find some common ground in reducing abortions, but laws like these will not reduce abortions. Many women will be forced to go out of state, possibly into Mexico where the health regulations for such clinics are not at the same standards in the United States, and many more will probably receive unsafe, illegal abortions. Besides abortion, many of these clinics provide health screenings, birth control, counseling and other vital services to low-income women, and they will be shut down because of one procedure they perform that is controversial. Also, all abortions would be banned after 20 weeks. Seeing how the 20 week mark is the screening ultrasound date that is covered under most insurance policies and not before that, many women and doctors do not know that there is any health risk to fetus or mother until that point, and under Texas law if it passes, it would be too late.

As people of faith, we may differ on the issue of abortion, but we need to stand up for women’s health in the case of extreme measures. The Texas law will go too far, will ignore the Constitution and will trample on women’s health.  I’ve shared in previous articles about the need for conversations on health, birth control, and sex in general in the church to reduce abortions and raise the level of women and men’s health.  As leaders, we cannot be afraid of speaking out on these issues, when people's very lives and health are at risk.

*****

As people of faith, we watch and wait in earnest for Wednesday’s decisions on DOMA and Prop 8. We pray for justice to be done, for freedom to be upheld, and most of all, for love to prevail. Check back for reflections here after the decisions are released.

What kept me (a young adult) in the church

By Rev. Mindi

There have been a number of discussions, tweets, chats, blogs and other articles on why young adults are leaving the church.  The most recent was Christian Piatt’s blog post here.  He lists seven reasons to think about, but there’s another that has been nagging me for a while: authenticity. I grew up in a small startup church in Alaska, a church that I still have my name on as a member.  It’s a church that from the beginning did not imagine itself as a large, growing church, drawing in several families and youth.  It’s a church that set out to meet needs, starting as four families meeting together.  When my family joined a couple of years after it started, the church created its first Sunday School class for children.  Over the years, if kids came, there was a class, if there were no kids, there was not a class.  People didn’t panic when families moved or stopped coming.  The church simply molded into whoever we were at the time.

When I was in high school, we had a youth group for about a year, but then we didn’t for a while.  There were plenty of other churches offering youth activities and some families drifted there, and sometimes I just went along with my friends to other churches.  But the church recognized a need: there were few summer programs for kids in our area except for camps.  There was a camp our congregation supported, and the church decided that any kid who wanted to go to camp would go for free.  One year we sent 13 kids to camp—from a church of about 25 members!  But part of the reason we didn’t need a youth group, in my view, was that from an early age, we were part of the church.  We were encouraged to remain in the church service (the church actually stopped offering childcare during worship after my first few years there).  We were invited to participate in ways we were comfortable—lighting candles or reading Scripture or even preaching on occasion as we got older.  When I was baptized at the age of thirteen, a week later I was welcomed into the church and asked to serve on the Deacon board, the only board in the church.  There was no such thing as “Junior Deacon” in our church.  We were all part of the church together.

What I have learned from my small startup church over the years is to be authentic.  Too many churches try to be all things to all people.  They start up programs and ministries hoping to attract the kind of people they want, such as young adults, rather than just being themselves and embracing the community that they are.  As a young adult, I went off to college and attended a wonderful church where I felt the same kind of authenticity from the pastor and leaders.  They were glad some college students were attending, but recognized that we weren’t going to come every Sunday and that they weren’t going to be a big draw as the campus population was more evangelical and conservative.  But I do remember the finals week care packages they sent to each of us who came as we studied for exams.  I remember being given the opportunity to preach, both there and in my home church, recognizing my gifts for ministry.  I remember other friends preaching, leading music and book studies, working with children, or just attending worship and Easter brunch, because they were accepted as they were, and the church did not try to be anything but who they were.

My home church never became a big church, but there were young adults, older adults, and ages in between that have come over the years and call it their church home because it was an authentic church, and they were welcomed and affirmed as who they were, their authentic selves.

I have seen too many churches try new programs—if we move Bible study to a different time, they will come.  If we have a praise band play every 4th Sunday, they will come.  It’s like a Field of Dreams for mainline churches—and I distinctly remember the moderator of the first church I served saying, “If we just open the doors, they will come.”  But it doesn’t work that way.  This is reality, not fantasy.  And the best thing we can do in the church is to be authentic.

Stop pretending to be something you are not.  Stop trying to cling to a dream of the past when every pew was filled and you had multiple Bible studies occurring at the same time.  And please, stop targeting young people in the hopes that young people mean young families which means more children who can grow up and carry on the legacy you remember from your own childhood.  We can all see right through that.  Instead, remember that church does not start at the doors, but that we as the church must go outside.  We are the church in the pew or in the coffee shop, in Bible study or in the office, in the beauty salon and in the seat on the plane.  We are the church wherever we are.  If we start remembering that and start being ourselves, we can grow the body of Christ.  And we can definitely reach out to young adults, and to all sorts of people, if we are authentic in the world and inside the walls.

Letting Go

We all know that change is often hard. We all know that change is often necessary.

We all know that change is often feared.

I remember hearing once during a conversation on Missional/Emergent church that people really don’t fear change, but what they fear is loss.  And as I have transitioned from one ministry to another, that thought has struck me in a new way:

We don’t fear change, we fear loss.

We don’t want to lose what we have, so we try to hold on desperately.

To hold on desperately, we must have power, so we become concerned with gaining/keeping power.

Most conflicts in the church become power struggles.  As the church continues to change, even transform, into the 21st century, we are more and more concerned with gaining and holding on to power so we won’t lose what we have.  So we can keep the traditions we like that we associate with memories of what “good church is.”  So we can get back to the church we remember, when it was thriving (at least, how we remember it, how it appeared), when people went to church.

Problem is, we can’t make people go to church.  We can’t make people want what we remember.  We can’t make people be like us.  So we dwindle and dwindle.

And the center of the power struggle is… the building.

But stop for a moment.  When we look at the first and second century Christians, when we read the letters of the New Testament, I don’t remember Paul writing about any conflict over a church building.  There were power struggles, yes—but no church building.  People met in each other’s homes, at the synagogues, or down by the river.

We know that church buildings were not long in coming, and by the fourth and fifth centuries there were church buildings in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.  While we know there were rival church groups, and in the divisions of orders within the Catholic Church after the first millennium, for the most part church buildings were not build to be in competition with each other.

Then came the Protestant Reformation, and a few hundred years later, the Great Awakenings in the United States.  And church buildings sprung up like daisies.  Church groups built new buildings across the green, or even across the street, from other church buildings.

Church buildings were, of course, the community center for many.  It’s where you went if you were poor or in need.  It’s where you went to pray and seek counsel.  Church buildings had a significance for all people within the greater community.

Now a new transformation is beginning—or is it just getting back to our roots?  We don’t need the church building the way we once did.  YMCA’s, community centers, malls and parks have taken away the social needs.  A greater understanding of faith life has led to many to seek individual ways of finding faith.  And when the church has insisted you need community, you need a church building—you need the old ways—society has found a way to resist even greater.

The church needs to let go of the building.  It was not part of our earliest memories, nor did Jesus call us to go and build church buildings—he called us to go and make disciples.

The church building is the center of power for many people.  They have put their hopes and dreams and their finances into the building.  Many were involved in the design and décor of certain rooms in the building and also determine the function and use of those rooms.  The building committee or trustees determine what needs to be done about the building and what finances are used or what is needed to maintain the function of the building.  The building itself is called the church.  Many churches continue to use a picture of the building as their logo for promotion.

One of the biggest problems for the church today is the continued mistake of thinking the church is the building.  And even churches who are aware of this problem continue to do so by masking this mistake under colorful language of “being good stewards of the blessings we have.”  There is nothing wrong with that statement in itself.  If the “blessings,” however, is understood by most to be the building and/or finances, then you have a problem.  The words have changed, but the attitude and belief is still there.

I think the building symbolizes power, control and stability for many in the church.  It means we are something in the community. We are important and we would be missing if we were gone.  Those last statements are important; however, what the church building often also represents is that we are in control. And that is the crux of the problem: are we really in control?  Should we be in control?

Letting go of the building is a symbolic letting go of centralized power.  Rather, when we decentralize power, we allow for power-sharing among members, but more importantly, there is freedom for the work of the Spirit and an acceptance that control does not happen in an office, a sanctuary, or a Sunday School room—control is something that is shared, empowered by the Holy Spirit—and even at times, let go of.

I’m not suggesting everyone go out and sell their buildings.  However, I am suggesting we let go of the concept of building ownership,  letting go of the phrase “being good stewards of the building” with its connotations of power and ownership as the focus of our work and even our identity.  I think churches should get out of the renting business and instead see themselves as building partnerships.  We need partnerships with other congregations, ballet studios, artists, non-profits, childcare centers and others that might use our building.  When we are simply landlords, it is hard (if not impossible) to do ministry because we are worried about what might happen to our building, what kind of damage might happen or what needs to be cleaned up and who will pay for it.

When we are partners, we recognize that God is the one in control.  We recognize opportunities for ministry are not just ours but are everyone’s and that we all can be involved.  We recognize that we are all on the same side—trying to promote God’s goodness and beauty and love and justice in a world that needs it.  We recognize true stewardship of all of our gifts and are interested in working together to create a community center, a place of worship, a place of peace and contemplation, or whatever we envision lead by the Holy Spirit, together.

Identity Crisis

I have not been back to my alma mater’s campus in 13 years. The year I graduated college, the school was gifted more land and some buildings from a closed plant and since my graduation the campus size has grown to more than twice its original size. Buildings have changed functions and many have been remodeled and renamed. In talking with a few alumni today, including family members, the first thing everyone said was “My, how it has changed,” and expressed some disappointment. As I walked around campus and recalled some wonderful memories, I realized that most of the greatest memories were not specifically about the place but about the people I was with at the time, friends that I have kept in touch with as well as friends who have slipped away. Professors who have since retired and staff who have moved on—all the relationships I made in the four years I was there.  It is not the same, but the experiences and memories will stay with me.

I also visited the church I attended during my four years of college.  It, too, has changed—there was a building expansion and remodel after I graduated.  The sanctuary has added a stage and things have been moved around.  It is different.  Many of the people I knew have passed on, but there are still familiar names.

We all know we have mistaken the church for the building, and we continue to do so in mistaking the church for the institution.  People complain about change. Things are different. They aren’t how they used to be.  The truth is, they never will be the same, things are always changing, and most of the time, things were never exactly the way we remembered them, anyway.

In order for the church to truly be transformed—or be the church, the body of Christ that Paul experienced—we have to get away from building and institutional identity. The church is the ecclesia, the gathering of people. It is not the building. It is not the four-board structure with a moderator.  It is not the Pastor’s Bible Study on Sunday morning.  It is not the Fellowship Hall or the kitchen or the sanctuary.  Church happens in those places, but they are not the church.

In order for the church to continue to exist we must move away from this mistaken identity.  Otherwise we will always complain about things changing, especially when our roles within the institutions change and the building is changed.

Relationships, however, are things that are always changing every time we interact with someone. Friendships change and grow, sometimes they grow apart. Families change and grow. We expect this. We expect people to grow up and grow old. We expect friendships to change and strain and grow.  We take this for granted. At times we are surprised when a friendship grows cold or a relationship ceases, but I don’t know anyone who expects their relationships to always stay the same. We know that people change and grow.  However, we have put this expectation on our churches to stay the same.

Our relationship with God changes and grows.  We all experience transformation in relationship with Christ and do not expect to remain the same after we encounter God.  We hope to experience lifelong growth with God in our journey of faith.  But again, we put this expectation on our churches, to stay the same.

It is time to for us to let go of our identity as a place or a particular structure.  We are the church, ecclesia, the gathering of people.  When we remember this, we know that change will always come, and that it is welcome, it is familiar, and it is what is necessary for us to continue to grow.  Otherwise, if we remain committed to keeping our identity as a structure or building, we will continue to be disappointed, continue to sigh when something new happens, and continue to wish we could go back in time to the way things used to be.  We can be stuck, or we can grow.

Saying Goodbye, and Hello

We are saying goodbye to our church, community and state that we have lived in and been a part of for the past 2 ½ years. Goodbyes are never easy, among colleagues and friends, and also among church members. Church relationships are tricky. The old-old school of thought was that the pastor was part of the church family. If a pastor came to the church single, many in the church would work to set up the single pastor with a suitable partner for the future. Pastor’s families were expected to be in attendance and involved in the church thoroughly. My mother, a PK (Pastor’s Kid) herself, tells me of how she was expected to babysit children of the church when needed and for free. My grandmother had a china set with settings for 12 and coffee service for 16. My step-grandmother shared that in one church she was expected to serve the punch at every church meal. Ministers were part of the social clubs in town, often invited by church members, and ministers went golfing with their members on Saturday mornings. There were no days off in that school of thought—the minister and “his” family were always on.

The old-old school of thought was replaced by the old (modern) school of thought, which is that the pastor should keep strict limits with their congregation. Friendships were strongly discouraged. Professional boundaries needed to be set and maintained. Ministers were encouraged to seek friendships outside of the church, to attempt to not overwork their hours (though the hours of work were still estimated to be 50-55 hours a week) and to protect their family from the burdens of church life outside of Sundays.

I was taught in the old school, modern way of pastoral boundaries. In my last congregation I served, I was strict with my boundaries. I rarely spent time outside of meetings, worship, visitations and educational events with congregants. I protected my family’s time. When I felt a connection to church members in terms of hobbies or interests, I did not pursue beyond the church walls very often. As a result, when I left that congregation, I received a note that expressed disappointment that some felt they never got to know me as well as I knew them.

That note has stuck with me as I transitioned from pastor to pastor’s wife. While the role is different, this time around I did allow for friendships within the church. Having moved to a location where we had no family or friends in the surrounding area, friendships were a necessity. And try as I may to make friends outside of the congregation, my first friendships were within the church. And now, as we prepare to leave, I think about saying goodbye, and the ups and downs of these relationships.

As the culture has shifted, with the advent of Facebook and other social media in the last ten years, so has the dynamic of pastor/congregation boundaries. Many ministers are “friends” on Facebook with their members. Some still try to keep a professional page but many share pictures and events from family life. Our personal and professional lives are more integrated.

While this certainly can be abused, it can also lead to great connection. I think we still need to set some boundaries. I know I have made mistakes, both in being too concerned about holding boundaries and the reverse, of being too involved at the level of friendship. We need to strike a healthy balance.

My previous congregation’s previous pastor had been more integrated in the church community. Members were over at the parsonage much more often and the previous pastor spent more personal time with members at birthday parties, cookouts, dinners out and other celebrations. When I came, I set stricter boundaries for myself and for the congregation, and as a result, I received that note, which made me aware that perhaps I had been a bit too strict with the “rules” of professional boundaries.

As we move into newer ministries that are based more on relationships between people than on traditional commitments to institutions, we need to shift our thinking on how we relate to our congregations, in ways that are safe and healthy, but not restrictive to genuine interrelationship with Christ and the community.

As my husband and I say our goodbyes, and both of us prepare for new pastoral ministries, I hope to shift safely into the newness of both relationship-building and ministry, letting go of old “rules” that were so strict as to stifle genuine relationships, and embracing new ways of fostering relationships that are healthy and generate authentic connections in new ministry.

Into the night of his very own room (a tribute to Maurice Sendak)

Forgive this article today. It may seem superficial or just silly. I had an idea for an article today but it wasn’t coming together.

Then Maurice Sendak died, and I knew I needed to write about him, and Where the Wild Things Are.

Where the Wild Things Are is, as everyone knows, a beloved children’s classic.  I never bothered to see the movie because I knew it would create an unintentional background and write in a new story where one never was.  The same happened with the full-length motion picture The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.  Sometimes, we really should leave the classics alone, for we lose the beauty and innocence of the original tale.

Every one of us has a wild streak, a time when we don’t play by the rules and we do things because we want to.  We make mischief of one kind and another until we find ourselves alone, because we’ve pushed others away by our actions.  We enter The Wild, becoming a Wild Thing.  We join the Wild Rumpus.  We are driven by desire to satisfy ourselves.

But at some point, we realize that living by our desires doesn’t fulfill us.  We realize that the people who love us the most are the ones we may have pushed away—and we attempt to fill that emptiness but we remain hollow.  Like Max, we may hear the call of The Wild even say that we are loved, but we know the real love is the love that calls us into responsibility, into caring for others, and that real love is always waiting for us.

No matter where we wander and roam into The Wild of the world, we know that we can always turn back.  Supper will still be waiting for us, and it will still be hot.

Rest in Peace, Maurice Sendak, for teaching me about faith before I could read, and more importantly, about love like a mother has for her Wild Child.  May you make your way home from the Wild, and may you find your supper still waiting for you, hot.

The Beauty of the Church

Sometimes I get disillusioned with “the church.”  I hear stories of people who were run out, who were gossiped about, who were hurt by the very people who were supposed to love them.  I hear of pastors who were treated like the sole employee with their boss being a board of 15 who criticized every decision the pastor made, every minute of the pastor’s time and every breath or sigh taken during the sermon.  I hear stories of bully pulpits and sanctuaries where children were definitely not welcome. There have been times when I have been down about “the church.”  I become very critical of an organization that can perpetuate myth in tradition, that runs on models outdated and yet expects the pastor to be a miracle worker.  I have been hurt by people in my churches in the past.  I have been hurt as a guest by a pastor using their pulpit to instill fear and justify their own narrow beliefs.  I have been hurt by the things said casually about other people, even in general terms, that were degrading to certain groups of people that happen to be who my family is made up of.

It’s easy to walk away from the church.  I see people do it all the time, I have had people visit me as a pastor and now speak to me as a chaplain about why they will never set foot in a church again.  They are done with organized religion.  They are done with the institution called “the church.”

It breaks my heart.  But rarely do I try to encourage them to go back.  Sometimes the damage is too great.  Instead, I always encourage them to continue on the spiritual journey.  And my hope and prayer is that perhaps they will find their way back to the church.  But me, as clergy, as a direct representative of the institution that has harmed them, I don’t feel it is my place to tell them to come back.  I wouldn’t tell the victim of domestic abuse to go back to the person who has abused them.  But I would tell them they can love again, that in time, perhaps they can trust again.  The same I would say to those abused by “the church.”  I would encourage them to continue on their spiritual journey, and my hope is that they would find a loving, supportive, embracing community.

I love the Church, the Body of Christ described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12.  I don’t love all manifestations of the church.  But I love what it is supposed to be.

The church is supposed to be the place where you feel you are a part of the Body of Christ.  You are valuable.  You are significant.  Your gifts are useful and necessary.  You have an important part to play in the whole body’s function.  You are part of the family.  You are loved, exactly as you are, exactly as you were made by God.  You can come with your wounds and hurts and find comfort and strength.  You can come with your worries and fears and find courage.  You can come with your grief and find some ease.  You come and find your burdens are born by others, your joys are shared by others.

Thankfully, I have experienced the church as this: the body of Christ.  I realize it is hard for me to say this as clergy and have any clout beyond that, but before I was a minister, I loved the church.  As a teen, the church was where I was welcomed and embraced and encouraged in my call to ministry.  As a child, the church was where I was included and loved just as I was.

It saddens me when people throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Whereas I understand completely how individuals, even groups of people have been hurt by the church and have left, I am grieved that there are people calling for the end of the church.  I do believe the church is changing, dying even, but with death there is always the hope of resurrection—something new.  It may look completely different than it is now.  But my hope and prayer is that the church—whatever it is—will be the Body of Christ.

All too often I have friends who claim to be spiritual but not religious—who want nothing to do with church.  Fine.   I actually have no problem with that because the “church” they are rejecting I would reject as well, a place where people are harmed rather than healed.  But it is when my friends go to nothing—there is no faith community, no gathering of people to talk about spirituality or God or whatever—when there is just an absence, this is where I grieve.

I’m not talking about those who have rejected those things and have gone to atheism (that is a different kind of grieving for me, I will admit), but for those friends who rejected the church of their childhood and are raising children, and they tell me they want their children to have the values they were taught but not in the church, and don’t know where to turn—I grieve for them.  I grieve for the ones who want to talk about spirituality and faith but feel they have no place to go.  And I grieve for the ones who simply ridicule those of us who stayed in the church.  I have friends among them all.

But I know one person, who once described his return to church after a twenty-year absence as a “homecoming.”  He walked in the doors and was immediately greeted.  Someone came to his seat and welcomed him.  The people shook his hands and shared their names and made him feel comfortable.  The preacher shared a message of hope.  The songs were uplifting.  And communion was shared with all as a welcome to Christ’s table.

This is the beauty of the church, that for all the shortcomings of the earthly “church” (and as I used to say, the problem with churches is that they are full of people!), there are some who will find their way home again, and find the love, grace, peace and joy that we expect to be there.

Easter Sunday to Doubting Sunday

Easter Sunday has passed.  Doubting Sunday is around the corner.

I love how the Revised Common Lectionary places the second half of John 20 the Sunday after Easter.  It’s unfortunate for those regulated to always preaching the Sunday after Easter, when many senior pastors take the day off, and as one who has preached many times on that Sunday, it can get tiresome.  Thankfully, it’s a day when even in some of the more formal Protestant traditions won’t bat an eye if you go off-lectionary.

But I love this day because I need it after Easter.  Easter is often a time when long-held understandings (or misunderstandings) of the Christian story are upheld formally, even if every other Sunday strict blood-atonement theologies are challenged.  It’s the Sunday when everyone’s family is in town and the C & E people come and so the same message is often shared.  The tomb is found empty.  Christ is Risen!

It’s not a bad message by any means.  But where is the room to ask the questions?  Where is the space to say, “Could that have really happened?”  Where is the challenge to the old formulaic answer that because Adam sinned, we are born into sin and need Christ to save us, so Christ had to die as a sacrifice?  Is it safe to question on Easter Sunday, either in the pew or in the pulpit?

Thankfully, we have Thomas, who was no different than Peter who denied Jesus or any of the others who fled.  And we have this Sunday, when the C & E people have gone back home, when others are out of town and it’s typically a low attendance day, perhaps there is more space in the pew and pulpit to speak those challenges, those questions and doubts.

In my Christian Faith journey, the questions and doubts have flowed and ebbed over the years, going from the extreme of coming forward to accept/rededicate my life to Jesus about four times in my teen years, to considering forgoing Christ and exploring Unitarian Universalism and Judaism in my first year of seminary.

But Christ always calls me back.  Despite my rejection of theologies presented to me in my youth and at times doubts of the resurrection stories in the Gospels, I have never been able to leave Jesus behind.  Like Thomas, at times I want proof, I want answers, but it is through encountering Christ I am compelled to stay within the Christian tradition, and through relationship with the Body of Christ, I am compelled to stay within the church—even if that means at times facing traditional simplistic explanations and theories.

Christ is Risen!  And praise God for the space and room to doubt, question, and challenge.  And thanks to Thomas, who paves the way for questioning believers, who keep coming back even when the doubts and challenges pester our hearts.

Hunger and Heroines: The Hunger Games and The Book of Judges

Disclaimer: I haven’t seen the movie, but I have read the trilogy.  There will be some spoilers from the books in this post. There is a lack of good female role models in both the Bible and in most general literature.  When it comes to heroines, and I’m writing in terms of comparing with male counterparts—the ones who survive, who are triumphant, who despite the challenges and difficulties and limitations they have faced, they have succeeded—there are surprisingly few.  Generally speaking, our movies and books are full of heroes, male leaders who inspire and lead and who we look to and say “I want to be like that” or “I want a leader like that.”  Our Bible is packed with them, from Joshua to David and even Daniel in the lion’s den.

I am a peace-loving activist but I do enjoy adventure stories, specifically science fiction and fantasy, and often the heroes and heroines have to fight to survive.  But there are stories where the heroes are not necessarily heroic in the death and trauma they cause—I think of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins of Tolkien’s creation, unlikely heroes—Bilbo works to create peace behind the scenes, even at the wrath of his friends, and Frodo gives of himself, to the point of sacrifice, to save the world.   There are unlikely heroes in the Bible as well.  I think of Joseph, betrayed and left to die by his brothers, betrayed by the woman he worked for, who rises to power and uses his power to help others and eventually the very family that abandoned him.

Katniss Everdeen of the Hunger Games trilogy is a heroine who has to fight to survive.  However, rather than as a trained warrior, she is the girl who volunteered to take her sister’s place in a government-sanctioned act of child sacrifice.  She is the girl who hunted to provide for her family and now uses those skills in an attempt to survive, a promise kept to her sister, but all the while knowing that she will most likely die.  Throughout the trilogy, when she acts in violence to save herself or others, she takes no pride or joy in it.  Throughout the books she remembers that it is a system of violence that she has been thrown into that forces her to fight, and it is the system that is the enemy, not her fellow tributes caught in this systemic act of sacrificial violence.

When I read the trilogy, I could not help but think of the Book of Judges in the Bible.  At first, I remembered two heroines from chapters 4 and 5: Deborah and Jael.  Deborah who is a judge, a leader of Israel in the early days, and Jael, a non-Israelite woman who helps Israel gain victory over King Jabin of Canaan by driving a tent peg into the head of Sisera, the commander of the Canaanite army.  It’s bloody and violent, but it’s the first and only time a woman—two women for that matter—rule and claim a tactical victory.

As a youth I was drawn to this story in the Bible that was never read aloud in church or in Sunday School—I happened to discover it during a year when I read through the Bible myself.  Heroines presented to me in Sunday School included Esther and Ruth—yes, both were cunning and used their wits to survive, but neither ever led their people the way Deborah did or used a tent peg as Jael.

However, as I continued to read the trilogy, my thoughts shifted from chapters 4 and 5 to chapter 11, the story of Jephtah and his unnamed daughter.  Jephtah, another judge of Israel, in a stupid act of trying to appear pious (my interpretation) makes a rash oath to sacrifice to God “whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me” (vs. 31).  Jephtah has followed God, had claimed victory, has felt the spirit of the Lord upon him, and then he says those words.  And of course, the first thing to come out of his house is not a goat or a lamb, but his only child, his daughter.  She assures him that he must fulfill his oath and after a time of mourning that she will never marry or have children, she is sacrificed to God, the same God who makes it clear to Israel that God does not want human sacrifice, especially of children (remember Genesis 22 when God stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac).

The whole point of the sacrificing of tributes in a bloody sport in the Hunger Games trilogy is to remind the people of the last war they fought and that war is pointless (mainly because there is a superior force in the Capitol that will defeat them, but the general sense is that the last war, along with previous wars, were terrible bloodbaths that were also detrimental to the environment, and that war is not the answer—but to remind them of that, they sacrifice children).  Jephtah’s oath was made as an act of devotion, to show God and everyone that Jephtah was true to God’s ways—but his oath turns into the ultimate act against God, a sacrifice of a child.

The use of violence to create peace is the ultimate oxymoron—as evidenced by the “Peacekeepers” in the Hunger Games trilogy.  The sacrifice of children is the punishment of the future generation for the sins of the past.

Judges takes place after the Israelites have entered the land that was promised to them, but before they have a king.  Judges is part of the great historical collection of the Bible that was edited by the Deuteronomist, interpreting the history of Israel through the understanding that when the people, especially their leaders, followed the laws and commandments of God as retold in Deuteronomy, the people were blessed, and when they did not, they faced punishment.   Much of the book of Judges claims that the Israelites did what was evil in the site of the Lord, and therefore they face attacks and wars from other nations, because they did not stay true to God’s ways.  Now, we know as readers we must understand the historical context and the need to explain why bad things happened to the people, and that through historical scholarship we understand that the Deuteronomist editor interpreted the reasons for these wars and battles and tragedies were because the people turned away from God’s ways as dictated in the Law, as recorded by the Deuteronomist.

The same kind of reasoning was used by the Capitol government in the Hunger Games trilogy to support the Hunger Games—that because the people of the districts rebelled in the past against the Capitol, this child sacrifice in the Games was a just punishment.  History gets reinterpreted to justify the violence that has occurred and continues to occur.

But back to Katniss and our heroine.  The Hunger Games is told in first-person narration.  So while we hear the history of Panem, this country that has arisen from the ashes of what was North America centuries into our future, and while we hear Katniss’ account of why the Hunger Games exist, we also get to hear her questions, her objections, and her protests.  And the greatest acts of her protest comes in the times she chooses not to resort to state-sanctioned violence.  Perhaps the greatest act of rebellion she commits in right in the very beginning, when she volunteers in her sister’s place, to save her sister’s life.  Unlike Jephtah, who sacrifices his own daughter, Katniss is willing to sacrifice herself, to give herself over to save her sister, and as we discover, she is willing to sacrifice herself to save others as well, even though the will for self-survival also remains strong, the desire to not participate in the system of violence is even stronger.

And while I could as a Christian write about the similarities between this and the great hero we call the Savior, I choose to write about Deborah and Jael and Jephtah’s daughter.  Deborah, who had the wisdom and guidance of God to lead her people; Jael, who did act in violent deception, which Katniss also falls into (I didn’t say she was a perfect heroine, and there are times she participates in systemic violence, but not without regret, shame, and harm done to herself, which she recognizes); and Jephtah’s daughter, for Katniss is sent for sacrifice by the rashness of a system that does not understand it is doing the very thing it is trying to prevent: by punishing the future generation, they guarantee a future war instead of preventing one.

So what did I learn from this comparison?  Besides the obvious fact that our heroines and heroes aren't perfect, the truth is we still continue to live out the Book of Judges and our own Hunger Games.  At times, we turn away from God and do "what is right in [our] own eyes" (Judges 17:1; 18:1; 19:1 and 21:25).  We create unjust systems for our own kind of retributive justice, punishing the next generation for the sins of the current generation.  But the greatest heroines and heroes, the people we should look up to, are the ones that buck the system of violent retribution and say no more.  They are the Oscar Romeros and the Dorothy Days, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s and Ghandi's and Aung San Suu Kyi's.  They are the former gang members and the Veterans for Peace.  And they are the ones who have seen the face of violence, the pain and suffering in our world, and have said no more to violence.  And we can be like them.

Tickets Please?

AJ, my three-year-old son, and I went to the museum in Fort Worth recently, because his mom (my wife) was out of town.  We got to the entrance and purchased our tickets and I asked about the children’s section.  The woman helping me probably assumed AJ was older as per his height and certainly did not know about his autism.  I politely listened to her talk about an exhibit that I knew was beyond AJ’s attention and comprehension.  So we went onto to the children’s section, and to my disappointment most of the items were too complicated for his interest, but he seemed happy to be among the energy of the children.  He does not interact with other children but he does enjoy the energy.  We then went to the water area, and if you know anything about AJ, water is as exciting as letters and numbers.  AJ ran around in circles and got soaked.  AJ was ecstatic and so was I.

After I got him into the dry clothes I decided to go by the exhibit that was recommended.  I bet we were the quickest through as it was all much too complicated for this tall non-communicative three-year-old.  So we went on to the store where AJ was again happy to be among the energy of a crowd.

I share this story because I have read many discussions about what the church should or will look like in the future.  I believe it is an important conversation--a conversation that has occurred since Paul.  We all know there is no formula for church success, and if one thing works for a specific community, it will not necessarily transfer to another, even if the communities look similar.  I am sure most reading this are saying that I am stating the obvious--I am because I keep running into people who write or talk about church as if they were the ticket sales person at the museum.  The generalizations and assumptions seep in even to the best intentions.

I must admit for a moment out in the water area, I felt awkward because AJ did not play with any of the water things properly.  I then noticed his smile and heard his squeals of joy as he splashed in the water.  Those moments are wonderful, such are the moments when he writes letters and words, and recites the alphabet.  These are not normal for his age, but it is what we utilize with his teachers and specialists to encourage better communication.  We go through a lot of hard work to truly share these happy moments with him, for he now lets us into his enjoyment and we have great hope.

As church, we need to do the hard work of discernment and research for each community, new and old.  We need to encourage each community to work for its own vision, finding its joy, its specialties, and work as a community to discover God’s vision for each community.  It is hard work, especially because it is too easy to see programs working at other congregations, especially in churches that look similar, or too easy to depend only on leadership, be it pastor, board, or just the key active lay leaders, to “sell” the vision to the congregation.  New church plants are clearly individual and unique, but humans often look to others for ideas, and that is fine for established and new church starts, if you are honest about your community’s vision from God.  What are your community’s unique gifts and joy?  The answers will lead the church toward the work needed for discernment, and it will be fun.

It will be hard and unique work and the result is a vision that truly calls out of the normal, secular, world, and the Body of Christ will run around influencing the world, for we will be following the “happiness” that surpasses all understanding.

Pacifying the Inevitable Resurrection

Change is inevitable, or so it has been said.  There are many types of changes, and preparation for change is also inevitable.  The classic metaphor of preparation of change is the nursery for one’s first child.  As we prepared our son’s first room, we researched what we may expect and need.  Once A.J. moved into his nursery we were prepared for the change, or as prepared as any parents could be for such a huge change. Parenting has many changes, and some are easier than others, and sometimes there are changes that you do not expect.  I recall Mindi, my wife, did not want to use a pacifier, however on the second day of A.J.’s life I was sent out to find what will become known as his “binky.”  The first two years A.J. seemed to always have his binky.

We discussed different methods of getting him parted from his binky.  Originally it was based around reasoning with him, such as giving all his binkies to a younger baby who needed them or perhaps a little trickery that included the “binky fairy.”  However, A.J. to this day still does not communicate (part of his autism) on the level one would need for either of those plans to have a chance to work.  We got him into a Headstart program starting shortly after he turned three, and while we had at least weaned him to only have the binky when he slept or napped, he would not be allowed to have one for nap time at the center.  He would rarely fall asleep without the pacifier in place.

We dreaded taking the binky from him, but if we wanted him to nap at Headstart he was going to have to learn to sleep without it. Not to mention we knew he was sometimes going to “nap” just to have the binky time, but not sleep.  We considered just not giving it to him, cold turkey, but how could we explain why since he does not communicate?  My wife found a great idea-- she was going to cut off the nub and hand him the binky and say it was broken.  So that was the plan.  We kept putting it off, for we liked him sleeping at night and an occasional nap.  We were terrified and convinced he would not sleep well, and thus keep us up.  Since we felt we knew what this change would entail, we even picked a week where it seemed less of a burden.

So we even threw out all binkies, save the one Mindi cut the bulb off, no turning back.  She handed him the broken binky at bed time as she usually would, saying, “Mama broke it.”  He looked at it and laughed and laughed.  He held it and fell asleep almost as quickly as normal.  The next night he laughed as well.  By the end of the week he wasn’t even looking for the binky.

We delayed this process for fear of what we knew certainly would happen.  Honestly, we can often predict our son’s behavior, and it is smart to be prepared, hence the diaper bag filled not only with pull-ups, but snacks, books, straws, crayons, coloring pages, and of course wipes for any sort of mess.

During the Transfiguration, Peter came up the mountain saw the great event and assumed making booths to contain and hold this event was the answer.  This assumption came out of fear, as it says in the scripture, and I believe this not only refers to this specific moment on the mountain, but the inevitable resurrection.  Jesus even tells them to hold onto this sign and God’s command to listen to Him, after He had been raised from the dead.

We know what Peter witnessed, that the tomb was empty and the change was not the change we were terrified of—death—it was resurrection.  To contain the church of the good ol’ days, to believe we know the Bible, to worry about change we are terrified of actually doing, having programs without vision--this is how we try to put Jesus in a booth.  We need to share the empty tomb, the great change, the laughter over death, the Resurrection!!!

Reading the Bible, Again

On January 1st, in the evening, I picked up my Bible that I had been given at my baptism, flipped to the “Read The Bible Through a Year” chart, and began with day one.  I’ve read the Bible all the way through twice, once taking several years just reading a chapter an evening, and once in our first year of marriage, JC and I read the “One Year Bible.”  But I’ve begun this project many times throughout the years, only to fail for one of two reasons: I get behind in my daily reading about midway through January, or I get bored in Leviticus. I’ve heard a number of mainline preachers over the years say you shouldn't read the Bible straight through: there’s a lot of useless information such as the “Begats” which you don’t need to know, plus all the outdated law codes, and on top of it, the stories may begin in chronological order but it gets messy in the history and prophets—they weren’t written in chronological order to begin with.

Another argument I hear against reading the Bible straight through is from those who came out of more fundamentalist/evangelical traditions, who argue that they were forced to read the Bible this way, as-is, verse by verse, with no study guide or in-depth study on what they were reading.

But I think there’s something missing by not reading the Bible all the way through, at least once in your lifetime. This is how our scriptures have been put together. This is the canon we have now (though one can argue for Protestants this version has been around for much less time than the fuller version our Catholic and Orthodox siblings have).  This is the Bible, love it or loathe it, that we have, that millions around the world read (of course in various languages, translations and paraphrases).

I love the simple fact that I and perhaps thousands of other people have begun reading the Bible together on January 1st.  We may be reading at different paces, with different charts, we may get behind or read more quickly, but almost all of us started on January 1st with Genesis 1:1 and will end on December 31st with Revelation 22:21. Some of us will read the Psalms throughout the year, some of us will read both Old and New Testaments at the same time, but we all are reading these scriptures together, throughout the year, in an individual but collective way, as Christians and as skeptics, as conservative and as liberals, from all walks of life.

There are other reasons for reading the Bible all the way through as well: every time I read it, I understand a passage differently.  I pick up on something I didn’t before (Digression: This time, only eleven days in I have noticed that in Genesis 5:29 Noah is really the first Messianic figure in a sense: “He named him Noah, saying ‘Out of the ground that the Lord had cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands.’“  I had never noticed that before—that the curse Adam experiences after disobeying God in the garden, which is the basis of the doctrine of original sin, is overcome with Noah, prophesied at his birth by his name!) I know the context of all those verses that have been taken out of context and use as proof texts for Scripturally-based arguments.  I remember where certain passages and stories are in the Bible more clearly each time I read when someone asks me my opinion or has a question about the Bible.  I gain new, fresh insights on the Scriptures and on their application in my own life.

As clergy, I think the practice of reading Scripture as a spiritual practice is a tough discipline to take on. We have to read the Bible to prepare for Sunday sermons or Bible studies.  We read it as part of our work, part of the job we do, and it’s hard to look at the Scripture without a critical eye for study or how to bring the Scripture to relevancy in our congregational life.  It can be difficult to let go and read the Scriptures in a way that is part of our spiritual life.  I think of all spiritual practices that clergy and lay leaders engage in both in leadership and in personal life—such as prayer, charity, fellowship, etc—devotional reading of the Scriptures may be the hardest to do in our personal life.  This does not mean to take away our critical eye or to not store away and take notes for sermons in the future, but it does mean to allow for the words to simply be sacred, for the words to simply be inspiring, for the words of Scripture to connect us with the Divine.  Lectio Divina is a practice that has become popular again in recent years, in Protestant circles as well as Catholic, as a way of prayerfully reading and meditating on the Scriptures, rather than studying and critiquing them.

So as this New Year is still dawning, there is still time to develop a practice of reading the Scriptures devotionally. You don’t have to do it in a year’s time, just one chapter a day.  Or you can double-up and be caught up by the end of January if you prefer.  I continue to marvel in the new insights I find in Scripture, and at the fact that millions around the world declare the Bible to be their sacred scripture, and that thousands of us are trying to read it all in a year, every year.

Sunset, Sunrise: Light Returns

As a child, at this time of year I would wake up in the dark, ride the schoolbus in the dark, and even have first recess outside in the morning in the dark.  By 9:30AM the sky would turn from black to dark blue and eventually a rosy color by 10:30AM.  The sun would peak up over the Chugach Mountains to the south around 11:30.  Then as I rode the bus home the sun would be setting just a few peaks down from where it rose, the sky would turn rosy-pink and be dark again by 5PM.  If you think handling that limited amount of daylight is hard, just try living in Barrow, Alaska.  Their sun sat on November 19th, over a month ago.  It will rise again on January 24th, 2012.   I encourage you to see the calendar for Barrow’s sunrise and sunset and understand how quickly the light/darkness ratio changes throughout the year here.  It's pretty amazing. While Christmas is celebrated around the world, when one travels north of the 45th parallel, one truly understands how Christmas began as a solstice celebration (this year it is at 12:30AM on December 22nd) in the northern pagan cultures of Europe.  Ironically, during winter in the Northern Hemisphere is actually when the earth is closest to the sun, but the tilt of our earth is what gives us our seasons, and gives us winter when we are over two million kilometers closer.  But it is the darkest time of the year for us in the north, and one understands the need for light to return to the world and to our lives.  And we should also remember that while Hanukkah is not nearly as big of a holiday to Jews as Christmas is to us Christians, it is also a celebration of light in a time of darkness at this time of year (and Hanukkah of course begins at sundown tonight).

The prophet Isaiah wrote over fifteen hundred years ago “Arise, shine, for your light has come,” in chapter 60.  Isaiah was writing to a people returning from the exile, described as a time of darkness for the people and for the land.  The light has come to them; and yet Isaiah writes that the people of Israel themselves have become the light, as other nations will be drawn to them.

As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, we remember that our Christian celebrations could not take place without our ancestors of other faiths and traditions that started worshipping and celebrating at this time of year, recognizing the promise of light returning to the earth and to their lives.  We remember the darkness of the exile and that light symbolized the promise of the hope of return for the people in the days of Isaiah.  We remember what the coming of Jesus meant to the first-century peoples in the darkest times of the Roman Empire.  What does the returning of light to our world mean to us today?  In what darkness have we been exiled to?  What light do we desire to return to our lives and our world?

And in seeing how during the winter in the north, the earth draws closest to the sun during the darkest time, does our faith journey have any parallels?  At times has our faith been fragile, trembling with doubts and fears, but when we look back, we can finally see how close God has been?

We sometimes read the words of John 1:3-5 at Christmastime: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Isaiah teaches us that while God is bringing the light to us, we become the light to the world.  As Christ becomes the light, then we become the light sent out into the world of darkness.

For Christians, let us celebrate the birth of Jesus, but let us not forget all the others who are celebrating and who came before us recognizing that the light is returning to our world.  Let us work with others to be the light of the world, to bring hope and healing, as we prepare to enter the New Year.  Arise, shine, for your light has come, and now, you are the light to the world.  Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Solstice, and Happy Holidays.

Bored with Spiritual? Put on your Helmet

(Response to http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/daily-devotional/spiritual-but-not-religious.html) I was riding my motorcycle just above the speed limit, nothing unsafe or extreme.  I came upon a convertible automobile that was far left in the lane going slow.  It looked like it may be turning left even without a signal.  So I slowed, even if the car was turning I would slow and then it was obvious the car was not going to turn, thus I slowed even greater, even though I could have easily passed on the right with the space and the power of my bike.  However, I have only my leather and helmet and would rather take a minute to insure the rubber side always stays down.  Well, apparently the driver of the car saw me coming and was concerned as well and assumed I would go around on the right unsafely and stopped.  So I stopped.   No big deal, I’d rather everyone be extra safe.   The driver seemed confused and  I waved her to go on, as she did technically have the “right of way.”  I thought nothing about it until the next light for now I was in the left lane to go straight and the convertible was the right lane to turn right.  I came to a safe stop and lifted my visor as I do at most stops, to hear the driver in the convertible screaming at me.  I was pretty sure I did not run over her cat and I know I did nothing dangerous and actually I was extra safe.  I was so confused at this irate barage of words.  I responded with my hand lifted up and saying, “blessings upon you.”   The light turned and I gently resumed my course.

I was upset that I was yelled at.  I even replayed the whole episode in my head a number of times, and I cannot figure out what I had done wrong.  It seems that my only mistake was to be on a motorcycle, a sportbike no less.  There had to be something in the angry driver’s past experience that made her react so vehemently.  I could do nothing correct, and even though I tried by following the rules of the road, I was screamed at, because I was something in her eyes.  She did not see all the other helmets, that is the “hats” I wear, such as husband, father, son, friend, and child of God.

I share this story for all of us Christians who meet people who see us the same as all other Christians, specifically ones that had hurt them previously.  I want to react as I did on the road, but I must admit I was in shock and only had a moment and I believe the Holy Spirit had me bless this hysterical driver.  But I must admit I am not always as good with people who learn I am a preacher.  They project their own past experiences upon me.  Luckily I have not been screamed at, but I have heard the line “I am spiritual, but not religious.”  I used to attempt to convince them that church was important and relevant and some of the conversations were quite interesting.  More than few times I had heard “I would go to your church.”  That alone is not a reason to go to church, but I must admit it would make me feel good.  I have found myself getting bored with these conversations, and honestly annoyed as well, because the assumptions I hear in those conversations is that my vocation is not needed and harmful.  So, yes I agreed with Lillian Daniel’s blog titled, “Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.”  I thought it was a well written reflection with good humor and truth, yet the reaction I observed from people who were not clergy and/or active in the church made me reflect further.

Now those who have been abused, ostracized, and harmed by the church, I welcome hysterical screaming and I would be willing not only to offer a blessing but also an apology.  Most (not all) of those that tell me that they are spiritual and not religious were not directly hurt, but had not found the church relevant and they need to share this disappointment and misunderstanding of their lives.  Thus upon reflecting on Lillian’s reflection I have decided not to change seats on the airplane (unless there is a seat with more legroom), but rather put on my helmet and ask the hard question:  How did we, the Body of Christ, not make our church relevant?

As Paul writes, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” (1 Corinthians 12:12) So when someone who has found Christianity irrelevant sees I am part of this Body, I must realize that they already see me as wearing a suit of irrelevancy.  To try to convince them to come to church may lead to an interesting dialogue for myself, but it confirms their assumptions; and to simply find them boring confirms the same assumption, the church is irrelevant.  I believe we need to listen, even if it hurts, and leave them feeling blessed and heard.  Hopefully, we will hear through our clergy helmets and learn how to make the Body of Christ more relevant.

The Way of Peace -- A Lectionary Meditation

This second Sunday of Advent is known to many as Peace Sunday. Peace is, of course, difficult to come by. The world is certainly not at peace, and if truth be told the same can be said of our communities and even families. Peace is in the minds of many a utopian dream that will never see fruition. The realist in me recognizes that peace is not something that can be easily attained and that perhaps there will be interim measures to keep order, if not peace, in the land. But that’s the realist in me, but that realism must be tempered by God’s vision of peace. It is a vision that is clearly espoused in Isaiah 11. But even if a direct appeal to peace is not as clearly present in the Romans and Matthew passages, what all three share is a vision of the Way of the Lord, which according to Matthew, John the Baptist has been called to prepare for.

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A Candle of Hope -- A Lectionary Meditation

We begin the Advent journey by lighting a candle of hope, and hope is in the biblical scheme of things more than wishful thinking. The hope that the season of Advent holds out to us as we light this first candle is rooted in the promises of the God who is ever faithful. It is rooted in the covenant relationship that exists between God and humanity. Therefore, we can gather and sing with a sense of purpose the final stanza of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”: O come, Desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind; bid envy, strife and quarrels cease; fill the whole world with heaven’s peace. Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!” (Chalice Hymnal, 119). And so as we begin the journey we do so in the company of Isaiah, Paul, and Matthew’s Jesus. Each of these texts for the first Sunday of Advent speak to the hope that is present in us, and reminds us that we should continue to stay awake and live according to the promises of God.

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Envisioning the Reign of God -- Lectionary Meditation

There are very few true monarchs left in the world. Most are of the sort that “rule” in England. They’re mainly figureheads who are trotted out on special occasions. True power is held by someone else, whether Parliament or the Prime Minister. Americans don’t very much like monarchs, whether constitutional or not, though we seem to have an interest in things royal, as long as we don’t have to support them with our taxes. So, for moderns, the idea of proclaiming Christ the King Sunday might seem rather odd. Yet, this is the Sunday in which we proclaim Christ as King, as the one in whom and through whom God creates, sustains, and rules the universe. In observing this particular Sunday, we conclude another liturgical cycle. When the church gathers a week later, it will begin the cycle once more with a season of waiting, a season waiting for a king to be born. These two realities – the hope and the fulfillment can be found present in these three texts that hail God’s king, the one who according to Jeremiah will execute justice and righteousness. One of the things that we must realize as we observe this particular event is that God’s idea of a realm or a kingdom often differs from what we might have in mind.

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