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Letting Go and Showing Up

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If I say that there is something missing in Mainline churches today, I’m not expressing a new thought. I’m merely echoing church critics everywhere. If I say that I’m tired of the things that divide us – religion and politics – I’m just adding my voice to a lot of others whose exhaustion might be tipping into apathy. After some prayer and some reading (Kenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian and Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward), I’ve come to the conclusion that we are missing. We only show up half way and ambivalently expect God to fix what we have broken. In short, we focus on how God loves and values each and every human being without giving a thought to whether or not we love God and what that might mean.

We don’t so much love God in progressive Christian circles. We’re so worried about being politically correct and not offending anyone that it’s become uncool to love Jesus with our whole hearts. We want assurance of God’s love for ourselves (and maybe some of our neighbors), but we don’t want to think about loving God simply because God is. Because we don’t think about our love for God very deeply, we miss out on passion and mix up the Truths of scripture with the desires of society and end up with a very bland, watery version of the Gospel.

There is nothing wrong with leading with God’s love for all of humanity. It’s a positive, healing message. But why does it matter? Why do we care? It isn’t likely because we want to go to Heaven or avoid going to Hell. These are vague notions in progressive churches. Is it because we want saving from our own self-destructive tendencies? We want a better way? Or at least a way that is less troublesome and painful? What if we sought a relationship of mutual love, or at least as mutual as the limits of our humanity allow?

God loves me and God wants only goodness for me. If I love God, then I want only goodness for all of God’s creation. If I love God, then I trust that God’s ways are better than my ways, than human ways. I trust God enough to let go of everything I’ve held too close. If I love God, I want to be my very best self, I want to live into the vision God has of me. Loving God means allowing God’s love to define and guide me in all that I am and all that I do. That’s so scary! I have to let go of so much pain and accomplishments and possessions and everything I think defines me if it is not love…

In light of all that is happening in the United States and the world that is anything but love, loving God means listening and praying differently. James urges believers who are hurting or struggling to go before God in prayer and assures us that prayer leads to divine healing. If we are only focused on ourselves and having enough faith to earn God’s favor, then are prayers are not an opening but a small fissure in our egos. When prayers are uttered without being grounded in a mutual love, how are we to recognize when God answers? It becomes far too easy to blame the one who prays when our prayers are not answered exactly in the way we ask. Healing comes in many forms when we love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds.

It’s time to show up and be church more fully. Yes, God loves us. Do we love God? If the answer is yes, then why do we continuously worry so much about what others are doing or what others might be thinking about us? If we love God, then shouldn’t be motivated by love and not by fear, anger, or hatred? If we love God and seek to serve God by serving our neighbors then oughtn’t we be able to let go of a need to read scripture as if it were an inerrant book of history rather than the collection of sacred stories of mythic Truth?

Church, it’s time we show up with our whole selves and stop worrying about whether or not everyone who calls themselves a Christian shows up the same way. Love God. Trust God’s love for us. Stop supporting a culture of wealthy white male dominance and believe those who tell their stories of victimization and oppression. It’s time we stop talking so much about how God loves everyone and start demonstrating just how much we love this amazing God of ours.

We are the Body of Christ at this moment in history. Now is not the time for fear, hatred, or apathy. Now is the time to let go of some of the foolishness that we call Tradition and embody Christ in a way that transforms those who are vulnerable, victimized, or dismissed. The world does not need the watery ambivalence we sell as good news. The world needs sure and certain evidence of a Love that is steadfast and enduring, even when offered by human hands. Let’s stop paying lip service to faith and start living fully in mutual love with the One who has never let us go.

For sermon help you may want to try here or here.

RCL – Year B – Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 30, 2018
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Psalm 124
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Psalm 19:7-14
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

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For the Love of God

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Sometimes when I read scripture, I lose all hope for humanity in general and the church in particular. It’s easy to let myself believe that life now is so much better, easier, more enlightened than it was in biblical times. Humanity has come so far in the last two thousand years, haven’t we? We have figured out how to fly, how to share information instantly, how to cure many diseases, how to predict the weather, and so much more. We’re good, right?

No. Not really. On the flip side of the advances are the horrors. We can fly but we can also shoot planes out of the sky. We can share news as quickly as we can share hatred. We can cure so many illnesses and we can weaponize disease or withhold treatment from those who need it. Yes, we can track storms, but we also deny or ignore the climate change that is melting polar icecaps. I think our capacity for self-centered thought and action remains the same, it’s just our technology that has advanced. This is why I lose hope when I read some scripture passages.

Some time in the late first century, a man named James wrote to Jewish Christians urging them to pay attention to who they claim to be and how they act in the world. It’s pretty clear that Christians haven’t changed all that much in the years since. The people to whom James wrote tended to favor rich people over poor people, especially when a rich person showed up for worship. James’ audience also seemed to pick pieces of the Law to follow while ignoring the rest. It’s also possible that these early Christians would offer words of prayer or blessing for those who were hungry, thirsty, and in need of shelter without doing anything to help. They might have believed faith-filled words were enough.

Unfortunately, the words James wrote nearly two thousand years ago, could be written today to many of us who call ourselves Christians. We’ve gotten very comfortable with a faith that has few close-up works. We can send money to organizations or feel good when we volunteer at a shelter or soup kitchen, but are these actions indicative of faith? Is it enough to pray for people with significant needs? Is it enough to say we believe God loves all human beings? Is it enough to gather for worship with those who are like-minded? Is it enough to say we are not like others who condemn people who are different from themselves? James would say no.

It’s likely Jesus would also say that words alone are not enough. Words will not end the fear mongering and divisive hatred perpetrated by the current administration if no action is taken. Words will not stop white supremacists (many of whom claim to be Christians) from boycotting Nike and others who take a clear stand against racism if we do nothing in support of what we say. Words will not end discrimination in our systems of education, law enforcement, healthcare, employment, justice if we don’t use our votes to support what we say. Words will not save the life a bullied child if we add no supportive action. Our words, no matter how sincerely they are spoken, without our actions will not change anything.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we did not need the words of James to wake us up? Wouldn’t it be great if after two thousand years we could finally get what Jesus was all about? Jesus came with a message of love, the kind of love that is revolutionary and liberating. It was so radical that it spread rapidly around the world, even though every community struggled with how to embrace and embody the message of life-saving love. The message continues to be radical, revolutionary, and liberating. We have diluted its power with too many words and not enough action.

God’s love for humanity has not diminished over the generations. The Holy Spirit still moves in the world and in our churches. If there is hope for humanity it lies in God’s steadfast love for us. Maybe one day (and may it be soon!), we will truly love our neighbors as ourselves and act accordingly.

RCL – Year B – Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 9, 2018
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 with
Psalm 125
or
Isaiah 35:4-7a with
Psalm 146
James 2:1-10 [11-13] 14-17

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Responding to Suicide with Faith

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Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Creator, is this:
to care for the vulnerable among us in their distress,
and to keep oneself apart from the fears of the world.
(James 1:27, paraphrased)

Suicide is headline news once again. This fact alone increases suicidality and the risk of suicide for many people. How we respond to suicide can contribute to the spread of contagion or our response can be lifesaving. This week as a church in California grieves the suicide death of their pastor and a family in Denver morns for their nine-year-old child who died by suicide, what the church has to say matters. With suicide rates climbing across the country, faith communities cannot afford to remain silent, nor can they afford to speak words that could end in more death. We must speak words of life and embody hope in our communities.

The child who died by suicide at the end of last week was nine. He was gay. He was bullied. His death is tragic and unnecessary. What messaging are we putting out in the world that makes it right for children to bully a child so much that they end up dead? There are many branches of the church (and other faith traditions) that contribute to this behavior with the view of LGBTQ+ individuals are sinners, people who “choose” to live outside of what they understand to be God’s prescribed norms. A  recent study has shown that such theological views can contribute to suicidality and suicide in young adults. Church has no business endorsing theology that contributes to death. Jesus was prettying clear on this. He wanted people to have life and have it abundantly (Jn 10:10).

Our default setting of biblical literalism is detrimental to the life of the church in general and to the life of many vulnerable people. The time has come to bring reason and scholarship to our reading of scripture. It is irresponsible and potentially deadly to take passages written thousands of years ago in a particular time and place and apply them to today without questioning why and how they were written, not to mention the complications of translating ancient languages into modern English. Nuances are often missed. And some big things, too. For example, we no longer believe the world is flat and that God resides in the sky above. We also know that not every skin disease is leprosy and that physical ailments and mental illness are not divine punishment for sin or the result of demon possession. Just because the people who wrote the Bible believed that all things happened because God was either pleased or displeased, doesn’t me we have to hold to the same belief. The lens through which we read scripture should not be the same as those who accompanied Moses out of the wilderness or even those who journeyed with Jesus or Paul.

Like the biblical literalism that leads to condemnation, questioning how a nine-year-old can know they are gay is irrelevant and just deflects the real issue. We cannot afford to remain silent while children are dying by suicide. The church has no place in teaching a theology that leads to death or has nothing to say when a child is bullied to the point of suicide. Are we not taught to love one another and to care for the most vulnerable among us? Where is the Gospel for LGBTQ+ children and youth, and adults?

While we are contemplating where the Word of Life might be for LGBTQ+ folks, we can also ask where it is for those who suffer with depression and other forms of mental illness. If we remain stuck in biblical literalism, more people will die. The pastor who died by suicide in California is not the only person who cannot reconcile his faith with his lived reality of symptoms of mental illness. Clinical depression and other forms of mental illness are biological diseases, diseases of the brain, and need to be treated as such. For the best possible outcomes, symptoms of mental illness need to be treated with a combination of medicine, therapy, spiritual practices, and social supports. Demons do not cause mental illness. Mental illness is biological with biological causes. Faith and prayer will not protect us from mental illness nor will faith alone heal anyone. However, faith can be beneficial to those who live with symptoms of mental illness in general and suicidality in particular.

We also need to be careful with how we share messages of love and hope. Jumping immediately to the proclamation that one who has died by suicide is at peace, with Jesus, or in heaven increases the likelihood that others will engage in suicidal behavior or die by suicide. Nor should we endorse the old idea that the person who died by suicide is condemned. This is not safe messaging for those who struggle with thoughts of suicide. The truth is that we do not know how God responds to suicide. What we do know is that what God wants for anyone is a future filled with hope and good things, not suffering (Jer 29:11). What Word of hope can we offer those who live in despair and experience the bleakness of feeling unlovable and unwanted? Yes, we can pray for God to be merciful and loving with the one who died by suicide. We can also pray that God will shape us into the Body of Christ that shares Love and grace with all we meet in such a way that saves lives. This might mean that we are challenged to let go of some long-held beliefs in order to travel on the holy way, a way that embodies Love and has room for all, without exception.

Church, we can do better. An ever-increasing number of children, youth, adults, and elders are dying by suicide. We must ask ourselves how we can safely offer a message of love, value, and belonging to those we have historically left outside our doors, particularly LGBTQ+ individuals and those who live with symptoms of mental illness. If one person among us suffers, then the Body of Christ suffers. We are all members of one another (1 Cor 12:12ff). If one among us has a mental illness, then the Body of Christ has a mental illness. If one among us is queer, then the Body of Christ is queer. If one among us is suicidal, then the Body of Christ is suicidal. It’s time we accept this reality and love without condition. We are the embodiment of Christ and Christ was all about saving lives with the power of Divine Love. May we have the grace to do the same so that shame and stigma are no longer welcome in the Body of Christ.

NSPL_LogoIn the meantime, know the indicators that someone might be at greater risk for suicide. If you suspect someone you love is suicidal, talk to them and get help – 1-800-273-8255 or check here for more options. If you are suicidal, please tell someone or call the hotline; you are loved more than you know. If you are being bullied, please tell someone who can help or try here for support; your life is worth living. If you are not experiencing a mental health crisis and would like to share your thoughts or experiences, you are welcome to email me rachael@beachtheology.com.

Beloved, let us love one another.

For more information on responding to suicide or suicidality with faith, my latest book The Lifesaving Church:  Faith Communities and Suicide Prevention, Chalice Press (2018) is available at Chalice Press and Amazon.

If you are looking for more sermon help, try here.

RCL – Year B – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 2, 2018
Song of Solomon 2:8-13 with Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9 or
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 with Psalm 15
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Top Photo: CC0 image by StockSnap

Bottom Photo: CC0 image by NSPL

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Personal Reflections on Grief and Racism

I’m on vacation and, therefore, not preaching this week. Consequently, this will be a little more personal than usual. At the same time, I’m trying to avoid the “what I did on my summer vacation” theme that is obvious. Vacation brings a lot of time to relax and reflect on life. This has been a busy, intense year for me so far, so there’s a lot to think about.

2015-08-27 12.19.59As you may know, my mother died in April. I think about her often. I wanted to tell her what the north shore of Lake Superior was like and how it would have reminded her of Lake Ontario where she grew up. And then we would talk about the ocean and how much we both miss it. These were the kinds of things we would talk about – simple and safe. However, when it comes to the texts for this week I read them and I realize how much my mother would disapprove of my recent activities and how sad that makes me.

Like most people, my mother was a complicated individual. She was smart and talented in many ways. She also lived her life on a very narrow road that was more limited and shorter than it needed to be as far as I can tell. But she made her choices and lived her life and was rather disappointed I don’t live mine in a similar way.

In both the Proverbs and James texts, there is a stated duty to care for the poor. People of faith are not to make value judgements based on a person’s income level (or anything else, really). We are to feed and clothe people because we are all made by the same Creator. Words are insufficient; actions must follow. I believe this without qualifications. I’ve spent my life advocating for people who live on the margins. My mother wanted me to “get a real job” and stop ministry with youth, people with developmental disabilities, LGBT people, or people with mental illness. As much as she didn’t understand why I do what I do, she would really hate the fact that I whole-heartedly support Black Lives Matter.

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I’ve come to understand that my mother lived with a whole lot of fear. I started off that way, too. I had a lot of anxiety about not being good enough or not being worthy of anyone’s time or attention. Until more recent years, I harbored a secret fear of being broken beyond repair, of being unlovable. However, I was not willing to let fear have the final say in my life. I did not want to become the fearful, hateful person my mother had become. I was not willing to believe that some people were better than others or that some deserved grace and mercy while others did not. If I wanted to believe that my life has value, I had to believe that everyone’s life has value.

It took me a long time to recognize that I have privilege that others simply do not have by a fact of birth. I’ve also realized that my mother’s racist views are more normative than my much more open view of the world. My increased awareness of the prevalence of racism and the protection of white privilege is heartbreaking and strangely complicates my grieving. It also strengthens my desire to move beyond fear, judgement, and hate and encourage others to do the same. Real Christian values are those built on love, grace, and mercy. They do not exclude any people for any reason.

I’m appalled by the nastiness that is flung at Black Lives Matter organizers and supporters. Such violent and hateful words directed at people who challenge systemic racism and call for justice for People of Color don’t make sense. I try to think what would stir such fear and rage within me that I would spew such hateful, murderous words. There is nothing. I’ve met people who have committed atrocious crimes and even they do not bring out any bloodthirstiness in me. I wish people would take a breath and question their own responses. What makes a person respond like that?

We are back where I started. With my mother it was fear. The first time she saw a black person she was in her twenties and she’d already made her road pretty narrow. There was no room for other in her world. Not people of color, not religious people, not people from other countries, not people who didn’t like animals… She had a long list and like many people, I was on it. As her daughter she loved me as best she could. But she could not understand or accept who I am or what I do. Fear governed her life. And where there is fear, there is very little room for mercy, for love, for change, for justice.

Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity,
and the rod of anger will fail.
Those who are generous are blessed,
for they share their bread with the poor.

RCL – Year B – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 6, 2015
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 with
Psalm 125
or
Isaiah 35:4-7a with
Psalm 146
James 2:1-10 [11-13] 14-17
Mark 7:24-37

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Food, Finances, and Foolishness

RCL – Year B – Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost – September 23, 2012

Series 1:
Proverbs 31:10-31
Psalm 1
Series 2:
Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22 or Jeremiah 11:18-20
Psalm 54
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

Give me a lamp and call me Diogenes. The lectionary continues to focus on wisdom this week. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t seem inclined to follow. I’ve heard some pretty weird and kind of stupid things on the news this week – and I’m not just referring to the utterances of politicians. Today alone I heard about arsenic in rice, genetically modified corn causing cancer in laboratory animals, and financial astrology. And we all heard about the 47%. I also heard two separate stories of melting ice and disappearing penguins. One of these was followed by a reporter quoting someone who said that global warming was just a liberal scare tactic or some such thing as that. Let me also add in the brilliant statement that there may be no military solution to the civil war in Syria. Seriously, folks, don’t you wonder where wisdom is these days?

I don’t know how Diogenes fared in his quest back in his day, but he’d drop from exhaustion if he took his search to the public sector today. Not much wisdom makes headlines these days. Between the politicians making senseless statements about their opponents and the human capacity for denial, Wisdom hasn’t got a chance. But the scripture readings this week, James in particular, continue to point us in her direction. I’m just not sure how popular it is to seek her out these days.

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

These are timeless words of truth. If people sought gentleness, peace, and mercy in word and deed, I think most of the headlines that I found startling this week wouldn’t exist. Maybe the FDA would worry less about creating guidelines for arsenic levels in rice and start looking for where the poison that the rice is absorbing is actually coming from. Then do something about that instead of suggesting the concerned consumer eat sweet potatoes instead of rice. Similar things can be said about the genetically modified corn situation. Instead of disputing the cause of the tumors in lab rats, why not stop messing with the corn for the sake of profit? And, well, the idea of consulting astrology before making financial decisions just eludes me. I doubt it hurts anyone, but I’m far from convinced that it helps and surely this is not Wisdom at work.

James has more to say on the matter of living a Christian life filled with wisdom from above that I wish more people would attend to. Maybe political opponents and countries at war could learn something from what follows:

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

I think James is really onto something quite profound. Our lives get muddled and cluttered. Countries falter and resort to violence. Melting arctic ice and crazy weather patterns bring out fear, denial, and other strange things in human beings. Without Wisdom we are left to our own devices and they are often short-sighted and selfish. It doesn’t end here, though.

In Christ, more is promised, more is possible. The Gospel lesson gives us a big clue on how to attain more than bickering and conflicts and jealousy and greed. Jesus takes the disciples away from the crowds. They seem to pay less attention to what Jesus tells them and more to which of them is greatest. Jesus turns greatness upside-down. He tells them the first is the one who is last and is servant to everyone else. Then he takes a child, innocence and weakness incarnate, and tells the disciples to practice welcome in a rather radical way – welcome a child and welcome God. These ways are not the ways of the rich and powerful. Not then and surely not now. But these ways are ways of wisdom – then and now.

I’m tired of living in a world that values wealth and power over innocence and mercy. I don’t want to hear that changing environmental regulations or finding alternative fuel is too costly. I don’t want to hear about more violence and war when there are other options in the world. I don’t want to hear about churches losing membership when the promises made in Christ are still alive and vital today.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.

This last line from James sounds a bit foolish by today’s standards. And there are many in the world today who would say that this is all foolishness. Maybe so. But it might be a whole lot wiser to submit ourselves to God than to the chaos of power and greed. Submission to God is no easy feat. It means that if we call ourselves Christians we should not accept the ridiculousness of the world. It should not be  okay to abuse people or the planet for monetary gain. It should not be acceptable for the hungry and poor and sick to remain so. The Gospel, God’s Wisdom, was never meant to make us comfortable in the world. It should challenge us and make us uncomfortable enough to seek ways of serving others in real and meaningful ways. It is long past time for Christian compassion and mercy to become much more active and present in this world than it has been.

I’m going to keep my lamp burning and hope that you do the same.

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In Search of Wisdom

RCL – Year B – Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost – September 16, 2012

Series 1:
Proverbs 1:20-33
Psalm 19 or Wisdom 7:26-8:1
Series 2:
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 116:1-9

James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer.

Many preachers over the centuries have uttered these words from Psalm 19 before beginning a sermon. For the first four or five years of my ministry, I know I used them as my pre-sermon prayer. I haven’t used this verse as a prayer for a number of years, but now I am thinking that maybe I should begin every day with these words with the addition of a line about the works of my hands and the direction of my feet to make sure I have all my bases covered. This has been a week of astonishing foolishness and I am not really sure how to respond. Starting with a simple, earnest  prayer is never a bad idea.

Given that this week’s lectionary highlights wisdom in most of the readings, I cannot help but notice a startling abundance of foolishness in the world around me. Everywhere I turn, people are discussing the US economy and, sometimes, acknowledging the fragility of the global economic situation. This is neither surprising nor foolish in and of itself. But there is something about these final months of the presidential election that seems to lead these conversations in the direction of absurdity. Too many people blame Barack Obama for a failure to restore this country to its former level of prosperity. How, exactly, is the painfully slow recovery from recession the fault of one man? I don’t know. I’m not an economist, but I’d have to say that it has more to do with the fact that we have been at war for 11 years than it does with President Obama’s inability to perform miracles. How can electing a new president be the solution to the nation’s problems? Where is the wisdom in this thought?

War is a destructive force. There is no way to deny this. It bleeds out resources along with the blood of innocents. Lives are lost on both sides. And lives are forever changed – on both sides. In this country we have an increase in wounded veterans who need medical and mental health care and there is no real increase in the funding to care for them. This is just a small part of the problem that seems to be forgotten when promises to fix the economy are made by politicians. Tax cuts or tax increases .for that matter aren’t going to repair what is currently broken. How can anyone think that changes in taxes or cuts in government spending repair the damage done by more than a decade of war?

Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:  “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?”

In a similar vein, how can continued cuts to healthcare, education, and mental health care improve the economy? Or how will marriage equity and continued or improved women’s rights destroy American values? I am so frustrated by the meaningless rhetoric that plays to people’s emotions without any basis in reality that I can uncover. How is it that anyone can believe that the United States is a Christian nation? It is not now nor was it ever. Unless I am not remembering my history lessons, this country was founded on principles of religious freedom not religious unity. Some of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Deists not Christians. I don’t think anyone can rightly define “American values” without offending numerous Americans. In my understanding, core American values include liberty and justice for all, not just for Christians.

In the Wisdom reading, we read that Wisdom is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God,
and an image of his goodness. It is time for this to happen in the world today. If each person sought to be the reflection of God’s goodness, perhaps the world would change a little bit. If this were sought after, then a certain insulting video would not have been made and some terrorist in Libya would have to have found in it another excuse for atrocious violence. If more people sought to reflect the wisdom, light and goodness of God, then Americans wouldn’t be fighting over theological issues in the guise of political differences.

Maybe looking at change on this scale is too big. Maybe it is too much in the face of all the scary stuff in the world. So why not start with ourselves, one person at a time? Where do you find Wisdom that calms your fears, leads you to act, and gives you hope? What can you do in your own life, in your work, in  your community, in your church to make a difference, to reflect the light of God? Whatever the answer is, it isn’t “nothing.”

Once again, I find myself yearning for change. I long for Wisdom. I wish I could comfort those who are fearful, feed those who are hungry, care for those who are sick, heal all that is broken in the world. I cannot and neither can you. But I can do something and you can do something. And we can encourage others not to give in to fear, apathy, hopelessness. In spite of evidence to the contrary, I do not believe that Wisdom has abandoned humanity. She is still crying out and waiting for a response.

Jesus gave fair warning about how difficult a challenge living a life of wisdom, faith, and love would be. In Mark’s gospel he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” 

My point is this: I am frustrated by people who claim that their Christian faith is essential in their lives, but who do not seem to take seriously the depth and challenge of Christ’s teachings. The people who know scripture verses and have quick answers to difficulties but don’t seem to recognize that the sin they are condemning is being committed by a real, human being that is also beloved by God. And I am equally frustrated by those who do nothing to show their faith in the world. The large number of people who claim to be Christian but do not worship, study scripture, or speak God’s name other than as an expletive. However, it is rather difficult to say these things without a dialogue that would reveal that I lose my spiritual balance as frequently as anyone else. I am more than capable of judging someone for all the wrong reasons while telling myself that I am right to do so. I’ve also failed to speak out against injustice on many occasions for no good reason. The challenge for me (and maybe you, too) is to live out my faith in a way that touches all aspects of my life, reaches the lives of those around me, and does not condemn those who come from other traditions.

May Wisdom take up residence here and never leave!

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Reflections from Vacation on Religion and Renewal

RCL – Year B – Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost – September 2, 2012

Song of Solomon 2:8-13 with Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9  or
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 with Psalm 15
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

This week I am writing while enjoying the last few days of my vacation. I haven’t paid too much attention to the happenings in the world during my time off. But what has filtered through to my relaxing brain, has not been entirely pleasant. The ongoing defining of rape and contraception disturb my peaceful thoughts. Racist remarks and actions coming out of the GOP convention are unsettling. Shootings in Maryland, California, and New York as well as violence in Syria and Pakistan cause ongoing distress. I also happened to catch a few Facebook posts advocating for social justice instead of vacations. None of these things make much sense from where I sit.

I was lucky enough to spend part of my vacation in Puerto Rico with my spouse. We watched tropical storm Isaac blow across the island and marveled at the power of nature. We explored Old San Juan in the rain, sat in a cathedral that was built in 1521, and observed mass being celebrated. There is something almost mystical about sitting in a place that has been a house of worship for nearly 500 years.

I also had some more personal spiritual experiences while on the island. One afternoon I walked to a grocery store and was surprised when the cashier assumed I lived there; she spoke to me in Spanish. I cannot explain the sense of acceptance I felt in that moment even though she was just telling me that the store didn’t accept the credit card I had given her. It was much more welcoming for me than the English greetings and offers of assistance I received in the tourist shops. On my walk back to the hotel, I thought about what it would be like to live in Puerto Rico. It is a beautiful place, but it is not perfect. And while I was pleased by the assumption that I belonged (or at least spoke Spanish) in that grocery store moment, I realized that I am privileged to live in a country where women can be ordained and, in a growing number of states, marry other women if they so choose.

On our last day in Condado, I went for a morning swim. There were few people on the beach and the waves were relatively small. As I floated and pondered the power and beauty of the ocean, a pelican swooped down for breakfast a few feet away from me. I was awed by the grace of the big, awkward bird. It floated for a few minutes before taking off again. I doubt it noticed me much at all.

During that same swim, I found a sand dollar in about 10 feet of water. I dove down to retrieve it, only to discover that it was still alive. As it floated back to the bottom of the ocean, I thought of other times I’ve found sand dollars. I’m not much of a believer in signs, but when sand dollars have turned up in my life, there has almost always been some significance attached to them. I’m not sure about this one, except that it made me happy in a grateful, joyful kind of way. And just so I didn’t float off into a mystical realm of dreaminess, shortly after letting the sand dollar go, I was stung by what may or may not have been a small jellyfish. It was not serious in any way and, somehow, just served to deepen my sense of gratitude for life – mine and the abundant forms of life around me.

Without these more spiritual experiences, I’m not sure I could face the chaos of what goes on in the world on a daily basis. So much hatred and ignorance are proclaimed in the name of one God or another. Christians (Republicans and Democrats, conservative and progressive) spend a lot of time and energy judging others who do not believe as they believe. It’s heartbreaking, really. Many of us have missed the point of the Gospel and transformed our religion into an idol.

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Perhaps we should all write the words down and read them to ourselves before passing judgement in the name of Christ or claiming to know the mind of God. I don’t know about you, but if I did not have moments with my spouse, pelicans, and sand dollars every now and then, the stains of this world would wipe me out. Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said, “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”  There is a fine line between advocating for justice and overpowering those who think and feel differently.

I am horrified at some of the sound bites that have been repeated ad nauseum over the last several days. Ignorance is pretty scary when it is mistaken for righteousness in those with power. The racism displayed over the last few days is equally horrific. But so, too, is the needless violence happening throughout the world. These things are made worse when they are connected to people who are “religious.” Hatred for women, abuse of power, and racism are not among the teachings of Christ or any other God as far as I know. We have a long way to go to wash ourselves clean of the things that defile us. Maybe if we all spend a little more time with ourselves, with those in need, and with our God, we might worry less about what everyone else is doing.

I know that fixing what is wrong in the world isn’t that simple, of course. Consequently, many of us feel called to work against injustice in very active ways. The work is often exhausting and painful and, more often than not, rather sisyphean in nature. It does not mean that we can return hatred for hatred or violence for violence. Take a breath. Take a vacation. Be still. God is present in the face of suffering and oppression, but God is also present at the beach, in the flight of a pelican, in the simple complexity of a sand dollar.

And if this is not enough, read Psalm 15 and imagine what it would be like to live in God’s tent on God’s holy hill.

O God, who may abide in your tent?
   Who may dwell on your holy hill?

Those who walk blamelessly,
   and do what is right, 
  
who speak the truth from their heart,
   and do not slander with their tongue, 

and do no evil to their friends,
   nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;

in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
   but who honor those who fear God;

who stand by their oath
   even to their hurt;

who do not lend money at interest,
   and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

Those who do these things shall never be moved.

I don’t know about you, but I have a long way to go. In the meantime, there is forgiveness, grace, and gratitude.

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