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Suicide Prevention: Embodying Love, Forgiveness, and Mercy

Image: square of sunlight shining through a dark tunnel

As I write, I am aware that September is National Suicide Prevention Month and September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day. It’s the prefect time to talk about God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy and how they save lives, or could if congregations could grasp hold of them in meaningful, transformative ways.

Let’s start with the story of the Israelites escaping Egypt. This is a familiar story. We know that God heard the people’s cry and sent Moses and Aaron to free them from Pharaoh’s oppressive rule, a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph. After a series of plagues, the Israelites follow Moses and cross the Red Sea. Pharaoh’s army is washed out. It’s a powerful story of God’s liberating love, without question. If we look closer, there are also some indications of how God continues to work in our lives.

The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them.It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

Exodus 14:19-20

Notice that the angel, the cloud, moves from the position of leading out of oppression to the position of protector from the persuers. It’s the next verse that I find particularly compelling. The cloud was there with the darkness. In the midst of the fleeing, the fear, the chaos, the literal dark of night, the cloud was there and it provided light, safety, guidance, protection, and hope. It kept the dark from being all there was. What a powerful metaphor for the Body of Christ today. If we could be the presence that is there with the darkness, the despair, the hopelessness, the depression, the chaos, then we, as church, could be the beacon that keeps the gaping maw of total despair at bay. If we could be the embodiment of the liberating God who offers love, forgiveness, and mercy without judgement or condition, we could save lives. Imagine the church as the cloud, the messenger of God, that can lead out of oppression and protect from the oppressive forces. There would be hope for all, especially those who struggle with suicidality.

If this story is not sufficient for how the church could be a powerful witness while in the midst of all that is life-destroying in this world, there are others. Think of the story of Joseph. He was thrown into a pit by his brothers and sold into slavery. When he could have become embittered and held onto anger, he offered forgiveness to his brothers. He recognized that while his brothers had intended harm, God transformed Joseph situation into something good and lifesaving. We can learn much from this story.

We can see that we should not look down on those caught in the “pits” of today’s world. It’s not like they fell into the depths on their own. While their literal siblings might not have been the ones to discard them, they were definitely discarded. Also, we never know whom God will pick to do great things, even those who have been sold out by others who ought to know better.

And then there is the forgiveness piece. Joseph modeled how God forgives us – without condition. It was enough for Joseph that his brothers came with humility seeking his help. God requires even less than that. Of course, we cannot find God’s forgiveness and live it out if we do not go seeking it with humility. So, too, for our congregations. We need to approach God like Joseph’s brothers, acknowledging that we are responsible for the pits of society; if we didn’t help dig them, we’ve not done all that we could to fill them in. While we are seeking God’s forgiveness, we also need to be offering it much more freely. If God forgives without condition, the church should be like Joseph was with his brothers and be profligate with forgiveness.

Just imagine how a forgiving community could change the life of someone who lives with tremendous guilt and shame over things that they have done or things that have been done to them. A word of forgiveness, an act of merciful acceptance, can save lives when offered with sincerity. For the person who lives with symptoms of mental illness, especially suicidality, a reminder of God’s forgiveness embodied by a community has more power than most of us recognize.

Jesus was clear on the power and importance of giving and receiving forgiveness. You know, “forgive seventy-seven times” meaning as many times as necessary. If we believe that we are loved without condition, then we must work toward accepting God’s unconditional forgiveness. It’s imperative that we do this. There are people in this world who are desperate for hope, desperate for the presence of God to be with them, illuminating a way through the hopelessness, promising liberation and protection. People who experience suicidality are unlikely to encounter God’s presence because depression lies and blocks out everything except one’s own utter lack of worth. If we want to save lives, then we must embody Divine Love, demonstrating unconditional forgiveness, and offering continuous mercy.

No one is exempt from suicidal thoughts, especially now in this time of pandemic. While we work toward living into God’s vision of love, forgiveness, and mercy, let’s take time to equip ourselves to save lives. Learn the risks for suicide, the warning signs, and the resources in your community and denomination. Hopelessness, depression, anxiety, and suicide are all on the rise. When we embody God’s love without conditions, we save lives. When we talk about mental illness and suicidality in our churches, we save lives. This is the work that God has set before us in 2020 – to do all that we can to save lives. We have work to do. Yet, we do not go alone. There is a Light that shines with us all and nothing can extinguish it. It is our guide and our protector. May we all live lives of love, forgiveness, and mercy so that our churches may be lifesaving.

Image: Text HOME to 741741 for crisis support in the U.S.
Image: Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255

For more about being a Lifesaving Church.

RCL – Year A – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 13, 2020
Exodus 14:19-31 with Psalm 114
or Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21
Genesis 50:15-21 with Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Top Photo: CC0image by Rúben Gál

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Musings Sermon Starter

Time to Work with God

Image of a large cast iron pot filled with water and surrounded by flowers

People are weird, impulsive, and messy. Reading the story of Sarah getting Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael reminds me just how foolish we all can be. Sarah was, after all, responsible for Hagar getting pregnant by Abraham to begin with. Then when Sarah finally gives birth to Isaac and Isaac and Ishmael get too close, Sarah’s own jealousy takes over. She doesn’t want anything to get in the way of God’s promise to Abraham. If Hagar and Ishmael continue to hang around, maybe God’s promise to make nations from Abraham’s descendants might not remain exclusively Isaac’s. Of course, God ended up giving Hagar the same promise so Sarah’s selfishness accomplished little, except maybe that she didn’t witness God’s promise to Hagar.

Sarah’s behavior is consistent with our own on so many levels. She treated God’s promise to Abraham as though it were pie, as though there was a limited amount and she wanted Isaac to have it all. We do this with many aspects of faith and society. We somehow believe we can control who God loves with all of our rules and doctrines and traditions. We treat justice like it is a precious commodity that must be held by the privileged few. How many have we banished to thirst in the wilderness because of our own shortsightedness? It’s not like God withdraws God’s love from those we deem unworthy. Nor does God share our views of who deserves justice. I don’t know if Sarah ever acknowledged her foolishness. However, I wonder if the current situation in the world will awaken us to our own?

In Romans Paul tells us that we share in Christ’s baptism and, also, Christ’s resurrection. In baptism we acknowledge we belong to God and recognize the grace that washes over us. We need not wait until we die to participate in Christ’s resurrection. New life is possible for us in this moment, right now. Perhaps more importantly, there is enough new life to cover every person on the planet. There is no shortage of redemption and resurrection. Such is the nature of grace. As Luther says, grace abounds.

Consequently, we can stop hoarding it. We can admit that we have been mistaken about who is “saved” and who is not. We can repent from our racist and white supremacist ways and work toward equality for all people right now. We can stop trying to say that the Bible addresses every aspect of modern life and accept that God is still at work in the world revealing the fullness of God in the wonderful diversity of humanity. Cis gender, heterosexual, white, able-bodied, privileged maleness is not perfection nor a model for how to be Christian. Remember God’s love is not pie; there is plenty for everyone even those we think are flawed or sinful. Mental illness is not a punishment for sin. Neither is any kind of disability. Every person is made in God’s image and our understanding of God is incomplete without the amazingly beautiful diversity of humanity.

God is at work in the world in spite of our weirdness, our impulsiveness, and our messiness. It is okay to make mistakes and get things wrong. However, it is not okay to persist in these ways just because they are comfortable for us. When we learn better we are supposed to do better. Moreover, we are called to care for the vulnerable among us, not banish them to the margins of society. Jesus worked hard to wake people up to the need to speak truth to power and to reach out with healing hands to those cast out. We don’t need to keep making more Hagars and Ishamaels for God to rescue with living water. As the church, the body of Christ, we are supposed to be that living water.

Maybe it is time that we start working with God to fulfill God’s vision of unity in the world rather than maintaining our systems and traditions of judgement and division. Even in pandemic, even with uprisings continuing, we have all that we need to end our compliance with white supremacy and heteronormalcy. We have erred on the side of selfish foolishness that has sent too many people out into the desert for far too long. Grace, love, justice, mercy… these are all commodities that though precious exist in abundance, an abundance so great that we can’t possible use them up.

God is still working in the world to bring new life to those we have cast out. It is time we embrace the fullness of Creation and work with God rather than against God. May we step into the grace that flows like baptismal waters and live as people of resurrection and abundance.

RCL – Year A – Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 21, 2020
Genesis 21:8-21 with Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17 or
Jeremiah 20:7-13 with Psalm 69:7-10, (11-15), 16-18
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

Photo: CC0image by GGaby Stein

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Theological Math: We All Add Up to One (at least that’s what Jesus said… um… prayed)

We are connected, you and I, to every other person on the planet, and to the planet itself. If a global pandemic does not awaken us to this truth, nothing will. By the time this pandemic is over, everyone will be touched by it. Most will have lost a loved one to the virus. Many will have lived through having had it. All of our lives will be different from this time forward. Grief is now a universal and simultaneous experience. We are all grieving something. Perhaps the loss of freedom to come and go as we choose. Maybe the loss of employment. Maybe the loss of in-person socializing. Maybe the loss of a loved one. Maybe the heaviness of universal grief weighs on you. These are hard days for all of us. No one is exempt.

If it takes a pandemic to recognize the unity of humanity and creation, what will it take for us to sustain this awareness when we return to healthier days? We are united in sickness and grief. Can we ever be united in health and wholeness? Can we extend the small acts of kindness we offer to one another to those we do not know? If the pandemic has woken us up to the depth of injustice, will a return to health enable us to heal what is broken in systems of justice, education, healthcare, housing, and even religious institutions? I don’t know. I would like to think that the answer is yes, particularly when talking about churches.

Jesus’ prayer for his followers then is his prayer for his followers now – oneness. We are to be one with each other just as Jesus is one with God. That’s intense, isn’t it? However, our society loves kyriarchy. We are conditioned from an early age to believe certain things whether they are true or not. We are taught that some people are better than others even though there is no biblical evidence of this. We are taught that some jobs are more valuable than others simply because they pay more. We are conditioned to “lord it over” someone from the time we are very little. Men are better than women. Binary is better than diversity. White is better than Black. Gay is better than straight. Able is better than disabled. Healthy is better than sick. Perceived wholeness is better than visible brokenness. Skinny is better than fat. And on down the list. None of these things are true and, yet, we turn ourselves inside out and upside down trying to comply with these social norms. To what end?

COVID-19 has highlighted some shortfalls, some sins, some awful systemic flaws in our society that are built on kyriarchy. Even the church in some, if not all of its forms, will tell us that the wealthy are more blessed than the poor. So when those who live in poverty and those who experience homelessness are dying at a higher rate than others during this pandemic, we are inclined to blame the victims. We want to say that People of Color, particularly Black people, are dying from this virus because of the choices they have made. This, my friends, is kyriarchy in general and racism specifically. We have participated in a culture that preferences white over black (and all other POC), conservative Christian over all other religious identities, cis males over all other gender identities and expressions, perceived mental and physical wellness over visible illness or disability in body, mind, or spirit, and more culturally determined preferences as well. Where is the oneness Jesus desires for those who follow him? Where is the oneness with ourselves, our neighbors, and Creation, let alone with God?

If we learn anything from this pandemic, may it be that we are all connected. When we do not embrace this connectedness, people die and the planet is damaged. We have kept God waiting long enough, don’t you think? Now would be an excellent time to seek to strengthen our relationships, to built the unity God desires for us. Yes, it is possible to read scripture in a way that says, “unless you are like me, then you are outside of God’s saving love.” This reading is inconsistent with Jesus’ desire for oneness among his followers, oneness built on and consisting of Divine Love. Maybe the pandemic can remind us that anything that is not Love is not from God. And when we remember this, we are better equipped to reach out to those we have perceived to be lower than us on the ladder of privilege (and socially constructed preference) and endeavor to raise them up until there is no more “us and them.”

Now is a good time to put on your mask, even if you don’t think you need it, to show how much you value your neighbors. Then stay six feet from anyone you are not living with (unless your job requires something different) and greet all your neighbors with a friendly wave and “hello.” And while we are at it, keep worshiping online. It is more inclusive, more loving than any way we can worship right now. There’s no limit to the number who can come together, no prohibition on singing or communion or passing the Peace or collecting the offering, and no need for masks, gloves, or cleaning everything when service is over. Let’s take a moment to breathe deeply and contemplate how we as the Body of Christ can best foster oneness and build unity among all people. Perhaps we can bring God’s long wait for us to recognize the humanity and divinity in all our neighbors to and end.

RCL – Year A – Seventh Sunday of Easter – May 24, 2020
Acts 1:6-14
Ps 68:1-10, 32-35
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

Photo: CC0image by Pete Linforth

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How is it with Your Spirit?

On January 17, 1991 between 6:30 and 7:00pm I was in a friend’s dorm room writing a paper on their computer. I had the news on in the background and wasn’t paying too much attention, at least not until the clips of bombs being dropped on Bagdad. In those moments I felt as if everything I had ever depended on was gone. For the next several days I had a hard time focusing on school work or anything else and I was more emotionally vulnerable than usual. It was a very unsettling time for me and I didn’t quite understand why.

When I heard the news that the U.S. had bombed Iran a few days ago, I was brought right back to those days of 1991. The difference is that I now understand why news of war is so unsettling to me. I have a history of PTSD. In 1991 I was just beginning to learn how to manage symptoms and understand triggers. Twenty-nine years later I didn’t have to wonder what was happening. Bombing Iran, devastating fires in Australia, destructive earthquakes in Puerto Rico, and a fire here in Minneapolis that displaced more than 200 people mean that the world is chaotic, violent, and not to be trusted. On top of that, I can do very little to change the outcomes of these events. The threat of violence and the sense of powerlessness is triggering for those of us with PTSD, anxiety, depression, and a myriad of other mental health conditions.

How is it with your spirit? If you find yourself struggling to maintain health and balance in your life, know that you are not alone. Many of us are triggered by catastrophic events because the threat of destruction and feeling powerless are all too familiar. However, as adults in the world, we are not entirely powerless. No, we cannot prevent the leaders of this world from engaging in acts of war. Nor can we extinguish the wild fires that are consuming wildlife and threatening humans in Australia. Nor can we undo the ravages of earthquakes in Puerto Rico. Nor can we find stable, safe, affordable housing for all the victims of the Drake Hotel Fire in Minneapolis. We cannot undo what has been done. However, we do have choices to make.

First, we can decide what to do with our time and resources. What relief efforts can we support? What peace rallies or political protests can we participate in? What can we contribute that will bring a bit of hope into the world, even for just one person?

Epiphany is the perfect season to focus on what we do have and what we are able to do as individuals and as communities of faith. We can remind ourselves of Isaiah’s description of the Messiah as one who would “bring forth justice to the nations.” As Christians, we believe this describes Jesus. As the church, we are the body of Christ and must ask ourselves what we are doing in the world to bring justice to our neighbors near and far. We are not powerless. We can do something to bring peace into the world now. We can recognize that when bombs are dropped, they are dropped on human beings whom God loves. We can acknowledge that fires and earthquakes are not God’s judgment on humanity; they are more likely caused by climate change. We can stop blaming the survivors of tragedy and look for ways to empower them. God, though present in all situations, is not on the side of destruction. God is always on the side of life and resurrection. Moreover, God “shows no partiality” nor should we.

When this work of changing attitudes and positions for the purpose of making room for justice gets overwhelming in its own right, we remember it is God who “gives breath to the people.” When we turn to God for strength, for renewal, for guidance, we remember that we are not alone in our efforts. Perhaps more importantly, we are not engaging in the work of hope, healing, and justice for our own glory as much as for God’s glory. Our spirits can find rest and renewal if we remember that we play a small part in the sacred work of building systems of peace, equity, and justice.

If this isn’t enough to help you be able to breathe more deeply amidst the chaos, then remember the waters of your baptism. When John baptized Jesus, God proclaimed Jesus as God’s own beloved with whom God was well pleased. When anyone is baptized, they come up from the waters dripping with this same proclamation. We are all God’s beloved and God is well pleased with us even when we are paralyzed by fear, anxiety, PTSD, or anything else. Claiming our status as God’s Beloved, may help us all to breathe more deeply and make room for hope and healing in our lives and in the world around us.

It is not too late for the body of Christ to join with faithful people around the world to live in the way of peace. Breathe. Pray. Engage in small acts of kindness. It really is that simple. May the joy of Epiphany guide us all to live in new ways, honoring and glorifying the One who claims us as Beloved.

RCL – Year A – First Sunday after Epiphany – January 12, 2020
Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

Photo: CC0image by Pablo Elices

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Sycamore Lessons

Have you ever climbed up, out on the proverbial limb, in the name of seeing Jesus more clearly? I’ve done it more times than I would like to admit. The trick is to climb down when Jesus calls you out of your foolishness. How else will we be able to dine with Jesus? Unfortunately, too many of us mistake our awkward position in our figurative trees for keeping company with Jesus. We can learn a lot from Zacchaeus if we care to pay attention.

Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector and wealthy. He was also “short in stature.” One might wonder why Zacchaeus became a tax collector. No Jewish man would have thought this was an excellent profession. The Romans would have treated a tax collector poorly and the Jewish folks would have avoided one who so boldly sinned. Of course, Zacchaeus had gotten rich as a tax collector so maybe he didn’t care so much about what others thought. My guess is that he wasn’t wealthy when he started working for Rome. Perhaps he became a tax collector because he was already an outcast. Perhaps Zacchaeus was a little person and thereby excluded from society. Whatever it was, Zacchaeus couldn’t have been overly comfortable with his position in the world. After all, something drove him up that sycamore, and just catching a glimpse of Jesus couldn’t have been the only reason to make a fool of himself.

Zacchaeus probably wanted to know why the whole town was talking about Jesus. Maybe he craved the inclusion that folks were attributing to Jesus. News of all those that Jesus healed had probably reached Zacchaeus’ ears. To be seen and named and healed by Jesus would be something for a twice over outcast. Seeing Jesus in action, trying to verify if any of what had been said was true, might have been motivation enough to send a wealthy man up a tree.

As the story goes, though, his climb out a limb was useless. While Zacchaeus was ridiculously clinging to the sycamore, swaying in the breeze over the heads of the crowds, Jesus stood at the foot of the tree. Imagine how shocking that must have been for Zacchaeus, and even more surprising for those who assumed they were righteous. Why would Jesus choose to spend time with a sinner like Zacchaeus, much less break bread with him? Why not choose one of them, those who followed the law, had no visible disabilities, and were active community members? Why this silly, sinning, tax collector who had to climb a tree just to see what was going on?

The jealousy and the need to be righteous has many of us up a tree looking, perhaps more foolish than Zacchaeus. Every time we cling to biblical literalism, unexamined (possibly archaic) theology, or self-righteousness we climb a little higher. When we fail to see our neighbors as the Christ who calls us to come and eat and be ourselves in relationship, in community, we become far worse than Zacchaeus. He, at least, climbed down and took Jesus home to dinner. Then he did his best to correct the wrongs he had done. Zacchaeus found new life in Jesus’ company. When we refuse to hear Jesus calling us out of our familiar branches, we become more foolish and possibly more sinful than Zacchaeus ever was.

As I write this, I am sitting in an airport on my way to the United Church of Christ Mental Health Network’s WISE Conference. This is an educational event to help congregations become Welcoming, Inclusive, Supportive, and Engaging of persons with mental health challenges. I can’t help but hear a challenge in this passage to churches of all kinds to climb down from our lofty limbs and dine with Jesus. The church has done enough harm to persons with mental illness and their loved ones over the years. It is time we change. Even the more progressive congregations who don’t necessarily believe that mental illness is punishment for sin, lack of willpower, character defect, or lack of faith, need to be active in proclaiming welcome and changing the narrative of sinfulness and rejection.

None of us will ever get a closer look at Jesus by clinging to the past and the nostalgic comfort it may bring. The firmer our grip on the past, the more precarious our position. If Zacchaeus didn’t catch a glimpse of Jesus from his sycamore perch, why do we persist with such foolishness? Jesus called Zacchaeus down from the branches and elevated him in the eyes of God, and perhaps his neighbors. Imagine how high we could rise if we actually started to treat the vulnerable among us with Christ’s love and compassion.

It’s not too late for any of us. We can admit our foolishness and our mistaken attempts at righteousness. We can stop blaming people for their mental illness or other disabilities. We can educate ourselves and let go of outdated theology. If we do so, we might discover that our feet are firmly planted on the ground and Jesus is in our midst.

RCL – Year C – Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost – November 3, 2019
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 with Psalm 119:137-144 or
Isaiah 1:10-18 with Psalm 32:1-7
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Luke 19:1-10

Photo: CC0image by brisch27

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On Healing and Gratitude

Gratitude is a part of true healing. One can regain wellness, but without gratitude healing remains incomplete, at least on a spiritual level. Think about the ten lepers Jesus healed as he traveled between Samaria and Galilee. Ten were healed and told to show themselves to the priest. Only one of them returned to give thanks. Perhaps the others were off doing as they had been told. They were no longer lepers and a priest could allow them back into community. Maybe they were grateful. Yet only one expressed gratitude to Jesus and received a pronouncement of wellness. His faith had made him well.

There is a link between gratitude and wellness that we don’t spend much time thinking about. Today is World Mental Health Day with an emphasis on suicide prevention. Maybe we should make a day next week that is World Gratitude Day to help combat the sense of hopelessness that contributes to the every-climbing suicide rates. What might happen in the world if we all to time to give thanks for moments of healing, however fleeting? What might shift in us all if we trusted that God views us as whole and desires healing for ever person? What might ignite in us if we thanked God for healing, large and small? Would we be able to join that one leper in faith making us well?

Over a decade ago I found redemption while working as a clinical chaplain at a state hospital. I had spent so much of my life hiding my struggles with depression, an eating disorder, and suicidality. By the fall of 2008 these struggles were mostly in the past, but I felt a lot of shame about them. I still wondered if my early mental health challenges were a reflection of my inadequacy as a Christian. Gratitude wasn’t absent from my life, but it wasn’t at the center. I was too busy trying to hide where I had been, that I never took time to be grateful for having made it through.

When I started working at the state hospital, I discovered that my past struggles were an asset. I knew what it was like to be a psychiatric in-patient. I knew what it felt like to feel hopeless and powerless. I knew the lies depression whispers in the bleakest moments. I also knew that these things were survivable. I could offer authentic hope. One day I found myself remarkably grateful for all that I had been through. I was not grateful for the suffering. I was grateful for the survival, survival that led to me embracing and enjoying life. Survival shifted to wholeness when gratitude entered in. God had placed people and opportunities in my path that all led to healing. I didn’t know how well I was until I could whole-heartedly give thanks to God for all things.

Maybe those other nine lepers took time to figure out that they, too, had been made well. They could see their healing, but maybe it took a while to experience their wholeness and give thanks. Gratitude doesn’t always come immediately. Some of us are slow healers and need time to realize just what has happened in our lives. Maybe gratitude would come quickly if we practiced it more freely and more intentionally.

What are you thankful for today? In this moment, I am grateful I have access to good healthcare. I’m also grateful for the dog curled up under my feet and the cat curled up behind my head. When I stop to look around, I’m thankful for season change and the beauty of autumn leaves. I can list a number of people I am grateful for, too. Mostly, though, I am thankful for my life, my work, my wife, and all that God calls me to be a part of.

Gratitude doesn’t depend on our wellness, though. We can be grateful for the simplest things when we are struggling in body, mind, or spirit. Being grateful for a hot cup of tea, a text from a friend, a smile from a stranger can shift our spirits. In those moments we step closer to the wholeness God sees in us. Perhaps in our moments of gratitude, we also bring a little healing into the world for someone else.

Gratitude won’t fix anything that is wrong in the world. It will, however, open us to the possibilities of a better future, a future that honors God, neighbor, self, and creation. If we stop taking our lives for granted and give thanks for this day (and every day), we might discover that we are bearers of divine love and hope that the world desperately needs. It doesn’t matter if gratitude comes quickly to you, like that one leper, or if it is slower to come to your lips, possibly like the other nine. What matters is that we cultivate gratitude always and everywhere. It’s not a contest or a means to show God’s favor. Gratitude is simply acknowledging all that God has done for us.

Thank you for reading. May you be filled with gratitude. And may you run and tell the others the glories of God.

RCL – Year C – Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 13, 2019
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 with Psalm 66:1-12 or
2 Kings 5:1-3,7-15c with Psalm 111 and
2 Timothy 2:8-15 and
Luke 17:11-19

Photo: CC0image by John Hain D

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Finding What We Lost

When Jesus told the parables about the lost sheep and the missing coin, he was trying to get his listeners to understand the magnitude of God’s love. No matter how many sheep are in the flock, the lost one is worth looking for. No matter how many precious coins in hand, the missing one is worth searching for. God does not give up on God’s people no matter what we do. If we go astray, God will search us out. This was good news to the original audience and it is good news for today’s audience. In the midst of National Suicide Prevention Week, these parables take on an even greater significance.

The core meaning of these parables does not change. However, they also contain a mandate that the church has generally overlooked. We like to think of ourselves as part of the 99 who remain, secure in our righteousness. While we remain safe within our rules about membership and what a “true” Christian believes, we assume that God will save the lost ones of today. We don’t want to take responsibility for what we have broken. We can be secure in our paddocks constructed by our “thoughts and prayers” while God searches out those who are lost. This way, we can keep our hands clean and pass judgement on those who struggle from the high vantage point of (self)righteousness.

That first audience might not have understood what Jesus was talking about. He was saying new things and talking about being the people of God in radical ways. However, Christians today have had generations of practice and we still aren’t living the way Jesus taught. We are to be the Body of Christ alive in the world today. This means we are to be living out the ways of love that Jesus taught. We are to be seeking the lost with more than just our prayers. People live on the margins and edges of society because we who live in the center have essentially let them go, if not actively pushed them out. We seldom recognize the value of what we have lost.

Life expectancy in the U.S. is declining for the first time since World War I. Climbing suicide rates and opioid-related deaths contribute to this decline in significant ways. I would venture to guess that the rising suicide rates and opioid deaths correlate to the decline in faith community membership. (Remember: Correlation does not imply causation.) The decline in membership suggests that organized religion does not meet the needs of people the way it once did, and religious institutions have not done a great job changing in order to meet those needs. The problem is that the spiritual needs for community, purpose, and identity are not being adequately addressed in the absence of church (or other faith community) membership and participation.

We, as human beings, need to be in community where we are known, valued, and have a sense of purpose. Without these spiritual needs being met, we tend to drift toward complacency, ambivalence, apathy, or, more often than not, a sense of hopelessness. This pervasive sense of hopelessness is at the core of declining life expectancy. In a world filled with violence and destruction, where do we find hope and strength outside of faith? In a country where it is no longer possible for each generation to be more “successful” than the previous one, where do we find purpose and value outside of faith?

Our faith communities are declining because we have failed to learn the lessons Jesus’ taught. We have failed to recognize the innate value, the Christ, in every person. The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin tell us of God’s active and abiding love for us, a love that will seek us out no matter how lost we are. In our desire to be “perfect” disciples, we have become too attached to our rules and traditions. We have failed to see those we have excluded as worthy of seeking after, other than to, perhaps, save their souls. I think Jesus had something else in mind.

God doesn’t need our help saving souls; God needs our help saving lives. People are literally living on the edge of life, falling over into death every day. Church can no longer afford to remain silent about mental illness, addiction, or suicidality. None of these things are a punishment for sin, lack of willpower, or signs of God’s disapproval; they are all as biological as diabetes or cardiac issues. People with mental health challenges, addictions, or suicidality often remain silent in church, if they attend at all. People with these struggles are lost to us because our theology is out of date. Jesus embodied a Love that had no limits. When will we?

As church it is our job to seek after the lost because we are not whole without those who are not present. Our wholeness as the Body of Christ depends on us including everyone in the love of God. People are dying because they have no hope, because they do not know their value, because they do not know they are beloved. If church does not share God’s unconditional, actively searching love with the most vulnerable among us, then we are not church; we are not the Body of Christ.

Embedded in these ancient parables is a call to love, a call to action. As the Body of Christ we have the power to save lives. Let’s commit ourselves to sharing a message of unconditional love, radical welcome, and steadfast hope. Isn’t it time we do something to prevent further decline in life expectancy and share a God’s vision of a future filled with hope and good things?

RCL – Year C – Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 8, 2019
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 with Psalm 14 or
Exodus 32:7-14 with Psalm 51:1-10 and
1 Timothy 1:12-17 and
Luke 15:1-10

Photo: CC0 image by Anja

Categories
Musings

No Turning Back

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Following Jesus, true discipleship, is not for the feint of heart. Jesus is not of a fan of the familiar, routine, or status quo. Jesus likes to challenge assumptions, rouse the rabble, and provoke the powerful with truth. Once you put your hand on this particular plough, there is no turning back. It just isn’t possible because Jesus is unconcerned with what the past holds and far more interested in liberating people from oppression right now.

In the last four weeks I’ve been in four different cities and three different states. I’ve spoken at two different suicide prevention conferences, participated in a workshop at the United Church of Christ General Synod, and attended the Minnesota Conference UCC Annual Meeting. I’ve been in four states (MN, NH, MA, and WI) and met up with friends I haven’t seen in decades, and friends I haven’t seen for a few weeks or months. Waves of nostalgia wash over me as I drive through the mountains and walk on the beach. I’m overwhelmed with a longing for what used to be when I encounter friends I haven’t seen since seminary (more than 25 years). This last month has given me plenty of prompts to think about the course of my life and the unexpected twists and turns of my ministry.

June began with a trip to Western Massachusetts where I spoke at a conference. I met up with a high school friend and talking with her took me right back to the days when we were inseparable. We talked about the weirdness of aging where the body feels the years, but the mind and spirit have no concept that time passes; we could easily have been out on a night when we would have to go to school in the morning (except for the multitude of years between then and now).

This experience was followed by the MN UCC Annual Meeting. While I have made friends in MN, I was momentarily consumed by a longing for folks I’ve known a whole lot longer in other states. In those moments, I would have turned back the clock to years gone by without hesitation. At least I would have until I realized what I would not have in my life if I turned back the years. No time machine for me.

Then I went to General Synod and stood at the intersection between now and yesterday. I was there on behalf of the UCC Mental Health Network doing good work. Then I encountered people from across my years in ministry. The longing for what was threatened to overwhelm me once more. Those close friendships from seminary that nothing else quite replicates… those conversations in the dining hall… the hopes and dreams for serving the church… Oh, to begin again! No, not really.

Today, I stood at the ocean’s edge after speaking at another suicide prevention conference in New Hampshire. Nothing renews my spirit quite like the song of the sea and the feel of the sand on my bare feet. As I watched the tide (and the fog) roll in, I reflected on my ministry and where following Jesus had taken me. Never in the proverbial million years would I have ever guessed where Jesus would lead me. Once I figured out that I was called to ministry in the church and not in academia, I thought I had some idea of what that would be. Nope! Not even close.

The church I had prepared to serve no longer exists, and probably didn’t really exist even as I entered ministry. I had visions of youth group mission trips and adult spiritual formation retreats, with some preaching and Bible study in between. The intersection of mental health and faith, let alone suicide prevention, wasn’t in my wildest imaginings. The fact that I speak openly about my early struggles with mental health, being bi-sexual, wrestling with an archaic theology, and telling my story of suicidality and suicidal behavior, is not what I had envisioned. Yet, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

65116850_10157392583029375_1975425480005779456_oIn those moments when I think I would, when I think about going back when I kept all these things secret, it’s like watching the fog roll in on the beach. While the illusion of solitude is good, the temperature drop is a little chilling. Sure, I can tell myself that life was somewhat easier “back in the day,” it’s a lie that takes my attention away from the challenges of today. If I am distracted by the church of yesterday, I can miss the joys of today. If I think the past holds the answers, liberation of any kind may prove impossible.

Following Jesus has taken me all over the U.S. My journey of discipleship has made me go places I wouldn’t have the courage to go on my own. While the beach sings to my soul like no place else, I’ve also been restored by songs of the mountains, the woods, the lakes, and the desert, and the prairies. Without my hand on the plough I would never have come out as bisexual and wouldn’t have given a thought to LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church. I wouldn’t have marched with Black Lives Matter or protested with Latinx folx, or carried signs protesting the current administrations policies on refugees, or shared the journey with those struggling with symptoms of mental illness, or a thousand other things. Once I put my hand on the plough, I committed to leaving behind the shy, fearful days of my youth to become one who shows up and bears witness and tries to lend my voice to those who often go unheard.

It’s been a weird and wonderful journey. But looking back with yearning for what was takes me off-track. Jesus wants us to carry the lessons of where we have been not so we can recreate the past, but so that we can build the Realm of God here and now with the wisdom and compassion we’ve gathered on the way. And lest we forget, the plough creates the best furrows when many hands are on it. We do not and cannot follow Jesus, be healthy disciples, if we fool ourselves into thinking that we are alone. There’s Paul’s great cloud of witnesses and there is also the folx who are with us, hands next to ours making sure we plough a continuous row.

May we all stop looking back with yearning and celebrate all those whose hands guide the plough with courage and strength, wisdom and compassion.

RCL – Year C – Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 30, 2019
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 with Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20 or
1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21 with Psalm 16
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

Photos: CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

What are You Doing Here?

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What are you doing here? Are you running away? Are you exhausted? Are you without hope? Are you looking for God, hoping God will show up and fix all that is broken? Will you eat the bread that is offered? Will you withstand the truth of where God is? Will you get up and go out to the wilderness to continue working to bring Divine Love into the world?

I feel for Elijah, I really do. He’s worn out by the resistance to God’s ways he continuously encounters. He would gladly go to sleep and not wake up to face another day of threats to his life. He has fled, seeking rest for his weariness. Maybe he’s even hoping that God will tell him he doesn’t have to be a prophet anymore. Instead, he’s offered food and told to move on to a place where he will wait for God to show up.

There’s the wind, but God was not in the wind. There’s an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake. There’s fire, but God is not in the fire. Then there’s the sound of sheer silence that compels Elijah to come out of the cave and answer the question again: What are you doing here? He recounts his failures – covenant broken, altars torn down, and prophets killed. I can almost hear God saying yet again, “What are you doing here?” Seriously, there’s nothing to be done in a cave, hiding out. Sure, the people have turned their backs on God’s holy ways, but that is no reason to give up. Whatever it is you think you are doing here, go on your way. The wilderness waits for you.

Church, what are we doing here? We are still looking for God in the storms and chaos. We still want to flee when the weariness, fear, and hopelessness prevent us from experiencing those moments of sheer silence. We might even miss the nourishment that God places before us. I’m not sure what we are doing here. Are we hiding? Are we being prophetic? Are we taking in nourishment? Are we soaking up the silence? Probably not as much as we are hiding out, desperately hoping that God will show up and fix all that we have broken.

June is Pride month and I can’t help but think that the church is still hiding out in a cave. We want to blame the current stormy political environment for all that ails us and for obstructing the work of God. We can’t blame our disunity on the current administration, though. When it comes to LGBTQ+ folx, we have long been divided. Not only have we missed God’s presence among us by participating in the storms, we have also failed to hear Paul’s words that remind us of the unity we are find in the body of Christ. You know, in Christ there is no immigrant or resident, no refugee or naturalized citizen, no queer or straight, no Trans* or cis, no POC or white, no disabled or abled, no mentally ill or well, no rich or poor. We are to be one in Christ. We cannot continue to hide from that which divides us.

Jesus himself went out to the wild places and called people to himself. He offered healing and wholeness without exception. Even the Gerasene demoniac was restored to wholeness and told to proclaim all that God had done for him. If any of us have survived the winds of rejection that shatter our sense of self, the earthquakes of division that drive us to the edges of society, or the fires of ridicule that diminish us, and then experienced the sheer silence, the still, small voice of God, we must share this healing. We must do has Elijah did, as the healed demoniac did. We must continue on the journey, proclaiming all that God has done for us. How else will others find their way, find their place, within this wounded body we call church?

What are we doing here? Are we huddled in fear and protecting ourselves or are we cleaning up after the storms, strengthened by the moments of sacred silence? We can continue to yearn for the church of years past or we can expand our understanding of what the body of Christ looks like and be a vital presence in the world today. It’s time we continued the journey and proclaim all that God has done for us. In Christ we are one. In Christ we are whole.

RCL – Year C – Second Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 19:1-4,(5-7),8-15a with Psalm 42 and 43 or
Isaiah 65:1-9 with Psalm 22:19-28 and
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39

Photo: CC0 image by Sharon McCutcheaon

Categories
Musings Sermon Starter

From Death to Life

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Those little purple faces poking up next to the sidewalk on my way out of church on Sunday were nearly my undoing. Not exactly the color purple in a field, but I noticed. I saw them innocently reaching for the sun, the first of spring flowers I’ve seen this year. And, yes, I thanked God for them even as tears flooded my eyes. My grief, my heartbreak, has me desperately searching for new life, signs that God has not yet given up on humanity.

Thank God for violets. And thank God for good friends who call to check in after seeing the sorrow, sadness, and anger on social media. A young man, so full of promise and love, murdered by another young man with an AK-47 for reasons yet unknown, maybe never to be known. My friend, sister in Spirit, crying out for her beloved son who is no longer here. I’m at a loss for words, grasping for hope, knowing this grief will be hers to carry forever; mine to share just a fragment, maybe not even enough to ease the burden.

Then my friend who called to check in. We’ve been friends for decades, and we’ve been through so much together, bearing one another’s burdens as only long-time friends can. After checking in, offering condolences, he said it. He didn’t know how pastors do what we do in times like these. Louisiana churches set on fire. Notre Dame burning. Churches bombed on Easter. Another Synagogue shooting. Rachel Held Evans dying. Oceans choking on plastic. Hunger and thirst killing people. AK-47s in the hands of the young, angry, and hopeless. Where is God? Where is hope? Humanity is lost and does not want to be found.

Truth.

And, yet… I often say that as long as there is breath there is hope. We can repent and seek God’s holy ways. It is not too late for those of us who live and breathe to turn toward Love. We can stop giving in to the lies of the Empire that feed the fear that divides us and dehumanizes our neighbors. We can continue to live in the deceitful myth that feeds our egos and tells us that we don’t need anything but willpower and determination. We can continue to tell ourselves that any success we have is because of our own hard work and not because others helped us along the way. We can uphold the pretense that our worship is the only right and true worship and that the lip service we spew out pleases God. We can continue as we are and call it life, life that contributes to rising suicide rates, the opioid crisis, and a decline in life-expectancy. There’s no immediate risk in preserving the status quo of fear, anger, hatred, and hopelessness, right?

We are destroying God’s creation because we’d rather let politicians and lobbyists get rich and believe their lies that tell us we can’t change anything because it costs too much. Our children are dying on the streets because white supremacy says black lives don’t matter and we accept it as fact. More and more people are engaging in suicidal behavior because we remain silent and judgmental when it comes to mental illness and keep the source of hope a secret meant only for the righteous. We have created, actively or passively, a world that accepts violence, thrives on fear, and feeds the vulnerable a steady diet of despair.

Enough. Peter walked into a death room and prayed for life. You know what happened? New life filled Tabitha. I wish I had that ability to breathe life into a dead body. I don’t. But we do have the power to breathe life into a dying church. Our thoughts and our actions are our true prayers. Rachel Held Evans was a voice of hope for the more evangelical, conservative church; her untimely death is a tragedy for her family, friends, and the church. I am confident her light will shine on as others continue her work. For the moderate to progressive church who claims to understand inclusion and welcome, who will shake us up? Who will come like Peter into the death room and call us to new life? Who will speak to us powerfully enough that the Spirit fills our lungs? Who will ask us to step away from our traditional sanctuaries and carefully scripted worship? Who will call us away from the safety of our practices and into the unpredictable flow of the Spirit?

We know how to heal Creation, where hope lies, and how to stop the bleeding. We do. We know the truth. Yet, we do not believe it, and it is killing us. The message of God’s love, lived out in Jesus, is the Truth we need. It is still the balm that can heal a sin-sick world. We are called to Love God, our neighbors, ourselves, and the whole of Creation. Jesus showed us the way from death to life, from human ways to holy ways. It’s love – with thought and action. Love that leaves no one behind. Love that speaks truth to fear, to anger, to violence, to hopelessness, to death.

I don’t know about you, but I cannot remain in this death room any longer. Pray with me. Come, Holy Spirit, come. Come now and lead us into life. Life that values everyone, that does not cower in fear, and will not let anyone slide into hopelessness. Let your church be as early spring violets. Undo us with the power of your Love right now.

If not now, then when? If not you and me, then who?

RCL – Year C – Fourth Sunday of Easter – May 12, 2019
Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

Photos CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe