A Prayer at the Start of Lent

2013-02-17 11.10.32Holy One,
Will you be disappointed if I confess my unreadiness?
It seems I can still feel the creekiness in my knees
as I regain my feet after kneeling at the manger.
The trek to Bethlehem was long this year.
Yes, despair gave way to joy as your Light
danced from horizon to Bethlehem to my heart.

Then there were days of Light, an opportunity to see
you, my neighbors, and myself through your eyes,
with better vision than I am accustomed to.
Yes, I heard Beloved echo down through the centuries,
touching, transforming, claiming countless lives,
including my own.

And just a few days ago, I watched with Peter, James, and John
as you were transfigured to show forth your glory and repeat
Beloved for those of us who might have missed it.
Your glory was enough to cast out demons
and fill a fickle crowd with awe.

Now you are in dust and ash,
reminding me of my frailty,
inviting me into repentance,
into the fullness of life as your beloved.
I should want to travel this road with you,
knowing that new life waits at the end.

Forgive my reluctance.
This journey seems too close to the last.
I’m travel-weary from the trip to Bethlehem and not
sure I can make it through the wild places, the desert places.
I feel the weight of my humanity –
the pain, the grief, the reluctance that slow my steps…
The moments of judgment, racism, fear that have gone unchecked…
The impulses to hide, to run, to clothe myself with apathy…
Forgive me.

Holy One,
My intentions are good, you know they are.
I know there will be times when what I intend will not be what I do
and I will give in to the temptation to hide in the familiar, shadowy places.
Find me there.
Accompany me through it all
until I come to the cross
when I will endeavor to watch and wait for you
so that once more I may rise to the new life
you offer now and always to your
beloved.

I’m lacing up my boots for this journey.
I’m trusting you to show me the way.
And, yes, I’m grateful for your patience and you love
which hold me fast
in the moments when I could fall apart.

I’m almost ready.

In your mercy, O Lord, lead the way.

Amen.

RCL – Year C – First Sunday in Lent – February 14, 2016
Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Romans 10:8b-13
Luke 4:1-13

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It’s a Both/And Kind of a Thing

2014-09-27 11.32.28I’m not a very good mountain climber. I always end up at the back of the group and sometimes I don’t even make it to the top. On the occasions I do make it to the peak, I often experience waves of vertigo as I am not particularly comfortable with heights. Yet, there’s nothing quite like the view from the top of a mountain. The world looks so peaceful, picturesque, perfect even. If I’ve made it to the top to enjoy the view, I need to sit a good long while before I can begin the climb back down. And sometimes, if the view is particularly good, I don’t want to leave. It would be so nice to just stay.

When I hear Peter’s desire to stay on the mountaintop in the presence of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah I understand. If I am enthralled by the landscape views, how much more so by the view of the Glory of God? While building tabernacles and hanging out on a mountaintop isn’t exactly what God wanted for the long term, Peter endeavored to respond to the spectacular, incomprehensible events unfolding before his eyes. And it isn’t like the voice from heaven was scolding Peter. There was a command to listen without comment on anything else.

It’s also, at least in Luke’s account, likely that they spent the night on the mountain. Perhaps this was purely practical in terms of resting. Maybe it was also imperative. Maybe they had to stay put long enough to soak up some of those remaining rays of glory so they would have what they needed for the coming days. Capturing the Glory of God in a permanent dwelling wasn’t a good idea, but taking time to sit still and rest in the aftermath of divine radiance was the best possible response.

Peter, James, and John probably had no idea what they would encounter after they came down from the mountain. Likely, Jesus did. The crowd that gathered there with their ignorance, fear, and needs is the same crowd that always seemed to gather around Jesus then and now. They didn’t grasp that God was in their midst, but they knew that Jesus could do something for them that they couldn’t do for themselves. He could calm, quiet, and cast out their demons. And he did. And people saw the glory of God yet again. However, no one was suggesting building any tabernacles where the demon had been cast out. Funny how that is.

In this very familiar text the glory of God is revealed in spectacular fashion  – twice. The brilliant radiance on top of the mountain was the first. The exasperated casting out of a demon was the second. The former has become a metaphor for the mythic search for intense spiritual experiences that are coveted by so many and rationalized as rare and fleeting. The latter has become a metaphor for “real life,” the valley in which we should be living and working. We are told so often that we can’t stay on top of the mountain because there is work to do. Really, we can’t stay on top of the mountain because it isn’t practical. God doesn’t live in tabernacles built by human hands in a particular place, no matter how beautiful or sacred the place.

Similarly, that crowd that was ignorant, needy, and demanding isn’t necessarily everyday life and work, either. Sometimes we are crowd. Sometimes we are the confused disciples. Sometimes we are the one possessed. How often do we notice when Jesus has cast out one of our familiar demons albeit less literally than that described in the Gospel account? We might notice later, when we are moving on to somewhere else.

Somehow, over the centuries we’ve managed to twist this Transfiguration story into an either/or and life is almost always a both/and. We don’t always live on top of the pristine, radiant mountain nor do we live constantly with messy crowds and demanding demons. Mostly, we are in between. The point of the story, though, is that God’s glory is revealed in both places. Yes, differently, but God is there in all God’s glory on top of the mountain and down in the crowd. And for all those in between times, God is there, too. Remember that Jesus traveled with his disciples – up the mountain, on top of the mountain, down the mountain, and in the midst of the crowd.

Maybe the real point is to look for God and listen to the voice that claims us wherever we find ourselves and not linger too long as we soak up the glory because there are other mountains, other roads, and other crowds and God is waiting for us there, too.snowman-1115425

RCL – Year C – Transfiguration –
February 7, 2016
Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
2 Corinthians 3:12–4:2
Luke 9:28-36 (37- 43)

Top photo by Rachael Keefe. Bottom photo from Pixabay. Used by permission.

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Praying the Texts

If you are preparing a sermon this week, you might want to look at the reflections I shared here. Otherwise, here is my prayer based on this week’s texts:

2012-08-09 20.43.56God of all creation,
You knew the Prophet Jeremiah before he was born
and set him aside to speak your word to a people in need.
He doubted your choice to make him a prophet,
maybe even after your touch put words in his mouth.
You gave him such power.
He could destroy or build with his words that were truly yours.
Forgive me when I am filled with more doubt than Jeremiah ever was.
Forgive me when I don’t want to speak your words at all.
Perhaps even more so, forgive the times when I fail to see, acknowledge, or wield the power that comes with being a prophet, even a small one.
Touch my mouth once again, Holy God, to lessen the doubt that silences your voice.

Cape Trip May 2010 028 (2)God who is unfathomable love,
You inspired Paul to call a community into embodying you.
He articulated your vision for your people so clearly.
I’m not sure that I pay enough attention to these words that are so familiar.
The love Paul describes is not the warm, comfortable kind that I want it to be.
Your love is more.
Your love asks me, calls me to be more.
Your love challenges me to let go of arbitrary distinctions and quick judgments
until I am able to see you in every face.
Forgive my desire to tame the wildness of your Spirit and limit you to my understanding.
Touch my heart once again, Holy God, to dampen the fear that limits your love.

God Incarnate,
You risked human fragility to show us the way of peace.
You revealed yourself in the presence of those who knew you from boyhood.
They turned from you.
How like them I can be!
I’ve known you for many years, or I think I have.
But when you show me something new or call me out of my comfort,
I respond with disbelief if not outright anger.
I don’t want to see my face in the crowd that eagerly wanted to throw you off a cliff,
but I’m there more often than I want to admit.
Forgive me.
Touch my feet once again, Holy God, to alleviate the reluctance that keeps me from readily following you.

God of steadfast love and incredible patience,2013-04-04 19.21.05
hear my words as I pray with the Psalmist,
“In your righteousness deliver and rescue me;
incline your ear to me and save me.
Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me,
for you are my rock and my fortress.”
These words have power even when I forget them.
These words can anchor me on the days when the cries and the needs and the despair of your people overwhelm me.
Forgive my moments of forgetfulness.
Touch my hands once again, Holy God, to lighten the burdens that prevent me from carrying hope out into the world.

Hear my prayers and the prayers of all in Christ’s name. Amen.

RCL – Year C – Fourth Sunday – January 31, 2016
Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:21-30

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Saving Lives

banner-949932On February 14, 1983 I woke up in the local emergency room and I was not happy. Apparently, I had woken up in my room at home and made it downstairs before passing out. My mother then called 911 because she could not wake me up. Sometime later, I woke up in the hospital. By then, it was no secret what I had done. The day before I had purposely overdosed because I did not want to live anymore.

I was fifteen and completely overwhelmed. A few months before I had lost a few pounds and received a lot of praise. By February I had a full-blown eating disorder that would soon be apparent to everyone. But on the day I overdosed, my slowed digestion might have prevented more serious consequences to what I had done. Even so, my memories of that day and the week that followed have never been more than hazy.

People came to visit. Some I remember and some I don’t. I have a few distinct memories. One is of the senior pastor of my childhood church in the emergency room holding a basin while my stomach forcefully ejected its contents. He was kind and caring. It was either that day or a later time when he said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know how much pain you were in. I would have tried to help.” He wasn’t alone; no one really knew what I was experiencing.

Another memory I have is less clear only because I know there are pieces missing.  It is of the associate pastor showing up in the emergency room and not leaving. Of course, he had to have left and returned several times during the week that followed. At some point I promised that I would not try to kill myself again. Over the weeks, months, and years  I learned to trust him enough to share some of the most painful parts of my life because he kept coming back. He continuously showed up and did not leave me alone in the utter darkness I felt.

These pastors weren’t the only ones who showed up. The congregation also demonstrated care and concern and support. By June of that year I was hospitalized for eating disorder treatment. During those two months, the congregation sent cards and gifts and welcomed me with genuine care on my weekend visits home. They truly embodied what it means to be church. I was one of the fragile, most vulnerable members and they cared for me without hesitation. They gave me a place of belonging, a place where I was loved and valued. Because of this 9 years later this same congregation would lay their hands on me, ordaining me to ministry in the United Church of Christ.

The journey to my ordination day was not an easy one, though. In spite of the lessons of love I received from my childhood church, it took a long time for me to believe that God loved even me. I could tell myself that if they really knew me, they would not love me. That faulty reasoning allowed me to believe that God could not love me because God really knew me. It was with another pastor in another church while I was a seminary student that I finally realized God’s love and care for me.

lifesaver-242667.jpgIt was a typical Sunday night youth group meeting. The associate pastor and I were leading a discussion on peer pressure. It was all the stuff one might expect in the early ‘90s. Kids were struggling with alcohol, drugs, sex, grades, sports, etc. One of the girls finally burst out with, “You don’t know! You don’t know how much pressure there is to be perfect!” She went on to list her struggles with grades and sports. The pastor looked at me and I essentially told my story. The tone of the meeting shifted and became much more “real” after that.

When the meeting was over, the pastor and I were debriefing. And I lost it. I confessed that I didn’t think God loved me. Where was Christ during the traumatic times in my life? Where was Christ when I wanted to die? Where was Christ when I fought so hard for recovery? Where was Christ if he loved me so much? My friend kept quiet and let me come to the realization on my own. Christ was present in those bleakest moments. Christ surrounded me with a faithful community and people who embodied God’s unconditional love. Christ’s own heart broke when the pain was more than I could bear. Christ remained present, waiting for me to see, feel, and accept the love, forgiveness, and healing.

Emotional and spiritual healing are slow.  My journey has not been pain-free since those
early days. However, the way the church I grew up in embodied God’s love for me kept me anchored in church through all the pain and struggles that would follow. They lived out what Paul was describing to the church in Corinth. It was a lesson I learned early and one that has been foundational in my ministry. The church at its best is a church that cares for the most vulnerable. The greatest gift of the church is the power to save lives.

It is this power to  literally save lives that is what makes church the body of Christ. Like those early Corinthians, we forget this. We want our pews full. We want our budgets balanced and our buildings well-maintained. We want clear doctrine and guidelines for membership. We want the church to grow in numbers and be what it once was in our society. None of this matters if we are not a community that demonstrates Christ’s love in very real ways.

The world is full of people who are fragile, flawed, and lost. Why are we as Church not shouting out our message of faith loud enough to drown out the pain, violence, and hatred of this world? Who are you? You are God’s beloved and you belong in a community that loves you, values you, and wants you. We are in the business of saving lives. Let’s get to it!

The law of God is perfect,
   reviving the soul… 
More to be desired are they than gold,
   even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
   and drippings of the honeycomb.

RCL – Year C – Third Sunday after Epiphany
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Luke 4:14-21

 

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What Will the Neighbors Think?

2015-11-24 15.28.48

I grew up in a household where the unspoken motto was, “What will the neighbors think?” As a child, I found this rather confusing. The neighbors on one side had eleven kids; I don’t think they thought of us much at all. The neighbors on the other side were close enough that we joked about building a tunnel between our homes. The people across the street were older and kept to themselves. Really, what neighbors were going to care if my clothes matched or my hair wasn’t brushed, or I didn’t look perfect?

My mother had her own set of rules and lived by them religiously, even when they didn’t make much sense. One of those was that People of Color were not acceptable company with very few exceptions. From an early age, I knew she was wrong but I was powerless to do anything about it. Even in more recent years, I would remain silent whenever she went off on a racist rant or I would just point out that her beloved Tiger Woods is a Person of Color. I kept my increasing discomfort to myself.

Until I could not. I recognized racism early enough. However, it took me a long time to recognize my own privilege and the ways in which I benefited from racist systems. I grew up without much money, in a single parent home, with a whole lot of dysfunction. Later, I derailed my career for a decade by coming out as bisexual. I didn’t feel very privileged at all. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that privilege and economics are not necessarily linked. Doors open for me that will not open easily for People of Color. I have more education than most people and that is a mark of privilege. I now earn a fair wage and that is a mark of privilege. The anxiety I have when a police officer pulls me over has nothing to do with fear for my safety and this is a mark of privilege. There’s more but I will trust that you get the idea.

martin-luther-king-25271This week in the US we remember Martin Luther King, Jr. and his dream of creating a Beloved Community. I’ve been reading quite a bit about the early Civil Rights Movement and how similar things are today. Quite frankly, I don’t like what I’m reading at all. The way so many people denounce Black Lives Matter for the tactics they use in seeking justice angers me. Folks ought to read MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and hear how they sound like those who justified the systems of racism in days gone by.

I read the words of I Corinthians and wonder how it is that we fail to see the gifts of all people and the one Spirit who gives them. I read the words of Isaiah and wonder how anyone can think that we are God’s Delight when we dismiss anyone different from us. I read the words in John’s Gospel and I long for the sweet wine of God’s transforming presence. Mostly, I find myself asking how long it will be before we dismantle the oppressive systems that keep racism alive and well in this country. How long will it be before the people of God become truly free and leave behind being Desolate and Forsaken?

As long as any people are marginalized and dismissed, we cannot truly be God’s Delight. It is time to put an end to racial divisions in this country. The fear and ignorance that creates distance between neighbors and blames individuals and peoples for their circumstances has no place in the body of Christ. The Body of Christ is racist and it breaks my heart.

I’ve long since stopped worrying about “what the neighbors will think” and have endeavored to follow where God calls. I’ve lent my voice to those unable to speak for themselves for decades. Now I offer to hold open the doors I can walk through for those who are demanding justice. Simply adding my cries to those already rising is not enough. It is my responsibility to make sure the doors stay open so that their voices may be heard by those with the power to make changes. And, by the way, all of us have the power it takes to make systemic change if we choose to use it together.

I pray that we can stop being afraid and start being Church.

How precious is your steadfast love,hands-63743
   O God!
All people may take refuge
   in the shadow of your wings.

They feast on the abundance
   of your house,
and you give them drink
   from the river of your delights.

RCL – Year C – Second Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 36:5-10
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

Top photo by Rachael Keefe. Other photos from Pixabay. Used with permission.

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It is About You

system-591225_1920When thou passeth through the waters I will be with thee. When thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not burn. Neither shall the flames kindle upon thee for I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel and thou art mine.

I cannot tell you how many times I have sung these verses in my head. I learned them as a song when I was in college and they have become the background music for much of my life. Even before I understood the depth of their meaning, these words spoke to my soul.

I grew up in a church that didn’t say much about the saving power of Christ or the need to have a personal relationship with God. They did, however, show up in times of need. The reasons why were just never clearly identified. So when I got to college and heard a more conservative theology, I was convinced that I was not “good enough” to be included in the saving acts of Christ. If I was saved, then I would not experience the often overwhelming pain I carried around; I would be free and whole, right?

Not exactly. These words from Isaiah reached out and grabbed me again and again. These are the verses that got me through difficult pastorates, a decade of searching for a fulltime call, rejection from too many churches, painful personal times, and more. These verses make it clear that God cares about each one of us. The God who spoke these words to ancient Israel through the prophet Isaiah is the same God who spoke as baptismal waters dripped off of Jesus. “Beloved. You are mine.” There’s no question for God about who and whose we are. We are God’s beloved. God has given not just countries in ransom for God’s beloved. God has given God’s very own self to show just how deeply personal, particular, specific God’s love is for each and every one of us.

This passage in Isaiah is the Gospel in the proverbial nutshell. The promise of survival, the promise of wholeness, the promise of loving-kindness, and so much more is contained in these words. Are you drowning in a sea of stress? God will keep your head above water if you allow for it. Are you burning in the flames of anger? God will keep you from being destroyed if you allow it. God’s love is there. When we don’t feel it or experience, it’s because we have closed ourselves off by choice or by circumstances beyond our control. However, God does not withdraw love from us; we withdraw from God.

I wish the world could hear these words, breathe them in, and then live in them. God loved Israel when Israel was in captivity and when she was powerfully oppressing others. Jesus loved the Pharisee, the tax collector, the prostitute, and the leper. God pursued wayward Israel over and over again. God does the same for the church even now. God is on the side of the oppressed without question. God is the one who liberates. However, God also loves the powerful ones and would like to set us all free from our need to have power over others. It doesn’t matter if we are overwhelmed or burning up, love can save us as many times as we need saving. Giving up the notion that we are in control of our little corner of the world and our addictions to the illusions of power is the trick and the risk. On the other hand, drowning or burning is not a pleasant experience. What have we really got to lose?

As much as I’ve been focused on community and communal responsibility these days, it is important to remember that God’s love is a love that covers the whole of creation and the specificity of every human being, including you and me. What we do, what we say, who we are matters. There is absolutely no reason to keep things as they have always been and there is every reason to participate in liberation and justice for every last one of God’s people. Because, you know, it really is personal with God.

RCL – Year C – First Sunday after Epiphany – January 10, 2016
Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

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Christmas, Epiphany, and a Whole New Road

epiphanyThis week is the second Sunday in Christmastide and the Sunday before Epiphany. I’ve been reading both sets of texts and will be preaching on Matthew’s account of the coming of the magi. These magi traveled from foreign lands to solve the mystery of a star. They likely knew nothing of the God of the Jews and there is no mention of their conversion. What the scriptures point out is that they returned home by another route. It’s this needing to travel differently after kneeling before the baby born in Bethlehem that has long captured my imagination.

This year, though, I didn’t need to imagine much. This Advent felt very different. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I was much more aware of the community around me as I made my way to Bethlehem. Gone were my solitary self-evaluations and inward commitments to change. What filled my ears and my heart were the cries of pain and demands for justice that echo through the world around me. These were my guides to the manger this year.

What will you do for Jamar Clark and the countless others like him? What will you do for Syrian women, men, and children desperate enough to escape that they risk their lives? What will you do for the homeless and hungry people you walk by? What will you do for those the world chooses not to see? What will you do for those who are legally oppressed? What will you do?

No matter how I tried to escape these questions, I could not. On Christmas Eve, I found myself in a candlelit sanctuary searching for hope, peace, joy, and love as much as the faces that looked back at me. And sometime shortly before mid-night as the quiet words of “Silent Night” gave way to the bright rejoicing of “Joy to the World,” it hit me – hard.

Back in September, at the Widening the Welcome I heard the sentence, “If one of us is disabled, then the body of Christ is disabled.” On Christmas Eve it struck me that if one of us is a murdered Black child, then the Body of Christ is also. If one of us is a Syrian refugee, then the body of Christ is a refugee. This applied to all those questions that pursued me through Advent. I also recognized the downside which said that if one of us is an oppressor, the body of Christ is an oppressor. This may not seem like a big deal as I write it all out, but it really was a very powerfully revelation, a personal epiphany.

The power in it is that I can no longer choose to let things go by. I cannot condone the body of Christ being an oppressor. I can’t sit back and shake my head when someone fails to see racism for the horrific sin that it is. It means that I have no choice but to advocate for justice and support those who demand justice for themselves and their loved ones. The way we treat one another matters, not just on a personal level but on a global level. I know this isn’t news, but hear it again. And take a lesson from the magi.

Once we have encountered the Word Become Flesh living among us, we cannot keep traveling the same well-worn route. We have no choice but to go home by another road. The voice of Herod is still quite loud. Herod would kill the fragile child who brings hope into the world. Herod would blame the victims of every crime and justify violence and oppression as being good for the people. Herod is a fear-mongering liar.

Did you spend time kneeling before the Babe in Bethlehem? Do you now see that Christ is in every fragile, frail, finite human being? How can you remain quiet while POC die? While refugees suffer? While any human being remains hidden under the veils of legalized oppression? Is it not time we stop justifying our power and position and act as Christ did? Is it not time we make the body of Christ a body that does not reach out a hand to oppress but only to bring justice and love?

My own epiphany at the manger, an epiphany that was years in the making, tells me that the identity of one is truly the identity of all who claim the name of Christ. I cannot return to my former path. I will seek the wisdom of God who led the magi home by another road and risk the discomfort and misplaced footing that occur when one walks a new path.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us…

RCL – Year C – Second Sunday after Christmas or Epiphany Sunday -January 3, 2016
Jeremiah 31:7-14 or Sirach 24:1-12
Psalm 147:12-20 or Wisdom 10:15-21
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:[1-9], 10-18
Epiphany readings:
Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7,10-14
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

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