Saturday, December 22, 2012

The one I won't be preaching .

John 3:25-36  CEB
25 A debate started between John’s disciples and a certain Jew about cleansing rituals.26 They came to John and said, “Rabbi, look! The man who was with you across the Jordan, the one about whom you testified, is baptizing and everyone is flocking to him.”

27 John replied, “No one can receive anything unless it is given from heaven. 28 You yourselves can testify that I said that I’m not the Christ but that I’m the one sent before him. 29 The groom is the one who is getting married. The friend of the groom stands close by and, when he hears him, is overjoyed at the groom’s voice. Therefore, my joy is now complete. 30 He must increase and I must decrease. 31 The one who comes from above is above all things. The one who is from the earth belongs to the earth and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all things. 32 He testifies to what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony. 33 Whoever accepts his testimony confirms that God is true. 34 The one whom God sent speaks God’s words because God gives the Spirit generously. 35 The Father loves the Son and gives everything into his hands. 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life. Whoever doesn’t believe in the Son won’t see life, but the angry judgment of God remains on them.” 

We need to understand that John the Baptizer’s ministry and message was to Jews and that it was about the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Moses.  It never would have occurred to John that his message or the baptism of repentance or even Jesus’ messiahship was for anybody else except the Jews.  He was talking to those who had turned away from their God or who had made the Law into their God.   He was reminding them that every time they had turned away things had gone badly for them;  other nations overran them, oppressed them, enslaved them . . . until they repented, and then God always sent someone to lead them back.   John’s was not intended to be a world-wide message.  It was a message to remind the ones who had been liberated in the exodus, the ones who had been exiled and brought home again, that God had promised them a savior and that God always kept promises.   Later the message Jesus the Christ preached would expand to include the whole world, but for right now, at the moment that John is speaking, his is still a pretty exclusive message.  

But the thing is . . . even though John’s message was directed to the Jews of his time and place, it really does say something to us,  in the context of our Christian faith.  Those who don’t believe in Christ’s words, those who claim to follow the God Jesus preached about but don’t believe that Christ’s commandments need to be followed in every aspect of life, won’t know the life that John spoke of; not eternal life in heaven after they died, but joyous, loving, generous life in the Spirit, here and now, on this earth.  Those who worship the Law instead of God will know anger and judgement and surely, this is what we see in our world, in our Christianity today.  We see so many who claim the mantel of Christ speaking in anger, hatred, judgement against others.  We see so many who claim to love Jesus rejecting where he didn’t. . .

God's promise is still there for us.  And God always keeps promises.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The God I know today

I've never written poetry before, except a love poem I wrote to a boy in 2nd grade which my mother   kept for reasons known only to herself.  But I realized the other day that some of my writing, when spoken, has rhythm and all I needed to do was make it look like a poem.  :)  I offer here my firstborn.

God lives in my heart. 
God lives above, in the rays that poke through thick clouds.  
And God lives in hospital beds 
preschool playgrounds 
in the tears of a suffering parent
in the cuddliness of a bunny
in the homeless guy sleeping in the church doorway.

The God I know today, 
the one I described before,
is not the same god I grew up with. 
The God I know today 
isn't the same god I was taught about from the time I was little.
That god was a punishing, angry, jealous god. 
That god was a white-robed white-bearded throne-sitting Judge with a capital J.  

The God I know today doesn't really have form, 
Not old or young
Not  male or female,
although I often picture Whoopie Goldberg in the role.  
The God I know today holds me accountable 
Or maybe I should say,
the God I know today teaches me to hold myself accountable
The God i know today will always forgive, 
always comfort, 
always be present in times of joy and pain 

The God I know today loves.  
Even me
Even the young man who killed all those children.  
The God I know today really really really wants
To embrace us
To have us embrace each other
To be embraced back  
The god I know today not only doesn't care 
whether I am Catholic or Lutheran or Disciple or Quaker, 
but also doesn't care if I am Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist 
or even Atheist 
so long as my life is lived with love for my neighbor.

The God I know today... 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Seminary Speak

Over the weekend I attended a conference/retreat with a group made up of mostly pastors with a few lay leaders and seminary students.  At one point one of the pastors said, "What we need to do is stop using words like ecclesiology and speak so that everyone can understand us."  I agree.  

I have always agreed, ever since I first got frustrated listening to sermons I could barely understand because the preacher was using all the words he learned in seminary including some in Hebrew.  He might as well have been speaking in tongues.  

Using un-understandable language is, perhaps, just as much an occupational hazard for preachers as it is for doctors.  It's not just doctors' handwriting that can't be understood, after all.  Their language is just as incomprehensible and they insist on using that language even when trying to help their patient undertand the answer to the most important question, "Just what the heck is wrong with me, anyway?"  I don't know about you, but I've been on the receiving end of that conversation way too many times.

At an interfaith event a couple of years ago which was titled something like, "An Introduction to the Basic Concepts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam," the participants were in small groups trying to wrap our minds around what the speakers had said. I was answering a question about the varying understandings and practices of the Lord's Supper one of the people in my group asked when a seminary student informed me that what I was describing was transubstantiation.   I knew that of course, but the Jewish lay person who had asked the question didn't and I was speaking to her, not to a group of theologically trained folks.  I chose to smile and continue, but I really wanted to explain to the student why using accessible language is just as important as having accessible bathrooms.   

Consider this:  When planning an event most of us stop to determine whether the location we are using is wheelchair accessible. We do our best to remember to offer vegetarian and even gluten free options in the meals we plan for the event.  If we know there will be people attending who speak a different language we arrange for interpeters.  The last thing we want to have happen is for a participant to go away - or worse, stay away - because they will not be comfortable at the event, because they can't use the toilet facilities or because there is nothing for them to eat or because they don't understand a word that is being said.   

And yet, when trying to present our faith to others we, the preachers and teachers of the Gospel, too often fall back on words that the vast majority of the people hearing us can't understand.  We might just as well be speaking in tongues.  

On Pentecost the disciples received the gift of speaking so that everyone could understand them.  They weren't speaking to the theologically trained ministers and seminary students in the crowd, but to everyone.  Everybody could understand them.  Thus they were able to go out into the world carrying the Good News of God's unconditional love and compassionate forgiveness to everybody, using words that everyone listening could understand.  

I can hear Jesus now, saying,  "Go and do likewise."

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Who knew church could be this way?

On Sunday our congregation played host to a choir from a Christian women's recovery home.   They have been coming to Delhaven for the past 5 years, to sing and give testimony and then join us for a picnic.  I'm really not sure which group gets most excited about this annual event - the women or the congregation.  We are excited because they sing praise songs and share amazing, horrendous, hope-filled stories of redemption.  They are excited because they get to spend time interacting with folks outside of their home for a couple of hours.

One young woman passed by me on her way to the coffee pot practically skipping and grinning from ear to ear.  She said, "I've already made a friend here!" and spent the next hour in close conversation with one of the church members.  Another, whose grey hair marked her as considerably older than the rest of her peers, spent the time with several retired ladies trading life stories.  Some were playing with the children, others were offering to help with serving the food.  All of them helped out by carrying tables and chairs outside and back in again at the end of the meal.

As the ladies were making their rounds to say good-bye one of them came up to me and said, "This has been an amazing experience.  I never knew church could be like a family before."  She went on to say, "They actually like being together.  They seem to really care about each other and about us.  They don't even know us and they care about us!  Who knew church could be this way?"

She hadn't been involved with any church in a long time.  Her understanding of "church" came from growing up in a large congregation where everyone just got in their cars and went home after the services ended.  Some of the folks were  involved in committees and things, but for the most part no one really seemed to know each other or spend time together.  Church was just a place she had to go on Sundays.   Even when the ladies from the Home visit other churches on Sundays, they usually leave pretty quickly afterwards. They don't often get the chance to sit and talk to folks in a casual setting like a picnic.  So her experience with us on Sunday was essentially her first experience of what church can be.

In just about every church I've ever heard of we talk about being a family in Christ.   Jesus even says it in Matthew 12:48-50:  " Jesus replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?”  He stretched out his hand toward his disciples and said, “Look, here are my mother and my brothers.  Whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven is my brother, sister, and mother.”  However, as much as we talk about being family we, the Church, somehow manage to be less than welcoming and familial to visitors and neighbors.   This must be true - I keep reading it in books and blogs and magazine articles.  

Imagine my gratitude upon hearing this young woman affirm that in this congregation the notion that  everyone who shows up is part of our family and should be welcomed as such comes through loud and clear to our visitors.  Imagine my relief to discover that in this little church on the corner we live up to our boast that we are welcoming and caring toward the stranger.  

Who knew church could be this way?  Jesus did.  In John's gospel, chapter 13 verse 35 Jesus says, "This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”  Jesus expected that, if we claimed to follow him and live by his teachings, then this is the way we would live.  He expected that, like him, we would sit down at the table with all comers, judging none and rejecting none.  Rather, we would welcome all who come in his name as our brothers and sisters in Christ.  

May we continue to strive toward living up to our Savior's expectations, as his brothers and sisters doing the will of God.  

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Looking forward and back

I’ve been reading with great interest articles articulating why young adults are staying away from the Church in droves. There are so many reasons . . .

There’s this war, y’see. We went there under false pretenses. We were only supposed to be there maybe a few months, but it’s been years and we’re still fighting, and the people who live there are pretending to be our friends then killing our soldiers. Sometimes some of our guys who have been there much too long get a little crazy, and kill some civilians, even children. When they come home they’re not the same. Many suffer from nightmares and flashbacks. They can’t get the medical help they need. So many of them are out on the streets. They just can’t seem to get it together anymore to work and take care of their families. Way too many don’t come home at all. And the church says nothing!

People in this country are being oppressed, big time. Sometimes it seems like a police state. When we get together to protest, no matter how peacefully we gather, the police put on their riot gear and come against us. It feels like nobody gives a damn about the poor. Women are kept down by this thing called a glass ceiling. Many people, especially poor women, aren’t able to get necessary medical care without jumping through a bunch of hoops - and even then they may be refused the care they need. There are people who love each other but can’t get married because there are laws against it except in just a few states. That’s not right! But the church preaches against them, using Scripture to prove they shouldn’t have the same rights as everyone else.

We are so completely ignored in church. Oh, they want us there when there’s a work day. And they definitely want us to be sitting in the pews every Sunday, doing mission work, singing in the choir. They even want us to serve on the boards and committees as long as we don’t rock the boat. But they don’t want our opinions on anything. They want everything to remain the way it’s been forever. Even the music. Most of the songs in the hymnal are from the last century, or the 1600s or at best from the 1930s. And yes, some churches do have an evening service with music that’s more up to date and has a (slightly) different format from the traditional service. It seems like they think that’s all that it takes to keep us docile and obedient. Wrong! We’re bored and frustrated and the church doesn’t understand or care what’s going on with us at all.

And we hurt. Don’t they realize that when they preach about that judgmental God it hurts? Don’t they know that when they reject others just because they are different it hurts? Don’t they know that when they reject us just because we are young than they do it hurts? Don’t they know that when they use scripture to justify unjust actions it hurts? We feel like we have to be silent about who we really are and what we really believe if we want to fit in. But y’know, it’s become abundantly clear that we can never be accepted as we really are, so we need to go somewhere else. We believe. Oh, we believe so deeply. But the Jesus we know doesn’t seem to have any relation to the God they talk about.

We simply don’t trust the institutional church anymore. We’d rather meet God in nature than indoors. We’d rather use our own music and have vital conversations about our beliefs in coffee shops and living rooms, not sitting in pews in a sanctuary doing the same thing Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. We’d rather be out in the streets helping the children of God who need us! Following Christ isn’t about organs and stained glass and committee meetings. It’s about loving each other. It’s about actively making the world a better place in Jesus’ name.

And so, we left. And when we left . . .

The war was in Vietnam, not Iraq or Afghanistan. The people who couldn’t legally marry weren’t gay, they were of different races. The riot police weren’t there for Occupiers but Civil Rights and anti-war protesters. The special services for younger folks featured acoustic guitars and folk music, not electric guitars and Starbucks. But the feelings were much the same. The frustration was much the same. The results were the same. In the period from the late 1960s into the 1970s everything was changing. The churches were hemorrhaging young people and the older folks just couldn’t figure it out. Some of us, like me, came back decades later, but most didn’t.

Please understand, I’m not making light of what’s going on today. I’m just kind of saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

We get it. We really do. (Well, OK. Some of us get it.) And we are as frustrated as the young adults. (My thanks to Whiskey Preacher and friends who listened with great patience and compassion while I vented this frustration at GA 2011.) We’ve just learned to tame our anger a bit. We’ve gained a little patience over the years. Because the fact is, the Church needs us all way more than we need it. It needs us to breathe life back into it, to perform a sort of CPR. It needs us to help guide it into change, to help move it into the 21st century. I know that sometimes, maybe even most of the time, making changes in the Church feels like sculpting Mount Rushmore by hand - a constant chip, chip, chip with hardly anything to show for the work. But when we stand back far enough to get perspective, we can see the signs that something is happening.

Over the last 21 centuries, the Church has undergone reformation and revitalization and re-whatever the next word is over and over again. Every century or so somebody decides that we need to go back to the way it was in Acts, with informal house churches and more time working in the streets among the people who really need us than in committee meetings and rigidly scripted worship services. Over all those centuries some parts of the Church chose to remain the same, some changed a little, and some become radically different from their roots. But in all that time and through all those changes the Church universal has never died. The Church continues to go forward, to change lives, to heal wounded hearts. Because at bottom, in all its manifestations, through all its changes, the Church continues to do the work that Jesus commanded his disciples (us) to do - casting out demons, healing the sick and preaching the Good News of God’s kingdom come to the earth.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

On followers and following

Recently I've had a number of new followers on Twitter. I'm not sure why those people chose to follow me. I haven't been especially active lately although I have posted links to a couple of my sermons and blog entries. Maybe they read those things and wanted to read more. Maybe they simply clicked on one of the suggestions Twitter loves to list on our pages. You know the ones "this person is like you so you should follow them."

In some of the cases, I suspect some of them follow me because my Twitter name is @revmariat and I describe myself as pastor of an open and affirming multicultural Disciples of Christ church. It seems to me, however, that the only similar point in our bios is a reference to Christ. And I am quite sure that many of them miss the meaning of "open and affirming" altogether.

My newest follower has a bio that includes phrases like "giver of hope" and "conduit of God's love." I don't quite get it. Mind you, I have nothing against giving hope or sharing God's love with the world. That is what I preach every Sunday and it is what I try to do. As far as I can tell, this is what Jesus calls all of us to do. I just wonder whether such a self-description might not be hubris.

I quickly checked the Twitter bios of my other followers. It didn't take long as I only have 423 right this minute. Many of the preacher/teacher folks describe themselves with words and phrases like follower of Jesus, loves God, reaching out to the untouchable, smart aleck, curmudgeon. A large number of them name their work - pastor, teacher, advisor, blogger, author. Some speak of being a seeker or a person on a journey to know themselves and God better. Those words and phrases are in the bios of most of the preacher/teacher folks I follow as well.

This newest of my followers is not the first whose bio reads this way. Most of those, however, have unfollowed me within a few days or weeks. Again, I don't know whether that's because I don't tweet a lot or because they have read my tweets, sermons and blog entries and finally figured out what open and affirming means. I understand them unfollowing however, because I have noticed that in most cases I did not follow them back.

Don't get me wrong. I get a little thrill when I get a new follower even if it's a robo-follow because I said "massage" or "car." But I don't follow spas or car dealers or other commercial enterprises. Likewise, I don't see the point in following people with whom I disagree on the basics of Christ's message which was always one of radical inclusion, never one of rejection or exclusion. I don't see the point in following people who think their particular belief system makes them somehow superior to any other human in the world or that they have a right to try to impose that belief system on other people. I don't see the point in following anyone who thinks "loving" the other means trying to change the very fabric of that person's being.

On the other hand, I do choose to follow anyone who speaks of serving the other, loving the unlovely, unloved and unloveable, welcoming the outcaste, caring for the earth as if our lives depended on it, reminding others of God's unconditional love and forgiveness. In other words, people who speak as the gospels tell me Jesus did and try to act as Jesus directed us to act.

And, just in case you were wondering - Open and Affirming means that our congregation welcomes and affirms people of every age, race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical and mental ability, economic status, legal status and family structure into the full membership, leadership, ministry and sacramental life of the congregation.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

It just makes me happy!

One day last week I was making a pastoral call at a local private hospital. I didn't know the patient. I only knew that her name was Elizabeth and that her family had asked the hospital social worker to call a minister to pray with her. I get quite a few of those calls. Elizabeth was comatose, as they almost always are by the time I get called. She was alone, as they have always been when I get the call. Sometimes I don't get there in time. I've learned to ask whether or not I need to come immediately.

I nearly always walk through the front door slightly dreading what I will find when I get to the patient's room. I know I'm doing a good thing and I feel blessed by the opportunity to bring comfort to a person in their last days, hours, or minutes of life. But I still experience a bit of apprehension when I walk through the front door.

But this visit would prove to be different. As I approached the reception desk I was greeted by a young lady with bright orange hair and a bright red smile. She greeted me as if I was an expected, well known and beloved guest. She seemed genuinely happy to see me. She made me feel as though nothing she had to do was nearly as important as directing me to the patient's room. When I was on my way out a little while later I had to stop by the desk simply for the joy of interacting with that young lady again.

I suspect I stood a little straighter when I left the hospital than when I arrived. I know I left humming a praise song. My day had suddenly become filled with joy. Even the prospect of driving on the freeway for 30 minutes to another hospital visit couldn't dampen my spirits.

Experiences like this come to everyone. A greeting or a smile from a stranger can lift anyone's spirits, no matter how low. The strange thing about this experience is that it hasn't stopped yet. It's been exactly a week since I walked into that hospital lobby and I still experience joy every time I think about it. When I drive past the hospital (which is on my way to St. Arbucks), when I see a store display with brightly coiffed mannequins, even just randomly throughout the day for no good reason - whenever I think about it I straighten my back and makes me smile. Sometimes I even LOL as I relive the experience.

The joy I received from a young woman behaving exactly like herself has been so much a part of the past seven days that a few minutes ago I called the hospital to thank her. I asked the receptionist if a young lady with bright orange hair was working today. She wasn't in yet, so I told the receptionist who I was and when I was there. I told her that I was calling to thank the young lady with the bright orange hair for making me happy that day and every day since then. The receptionist said that it would give her great pleasure to pass on the message to her co-worker, Joanna.

Wow. I couldn't make up "coincidences" like this even if I wanted to. Joanna means God is gracious.

In my encounter with Joanna God's grace entered my life, lifted my spirits, and allowed me to be fully present at Elizabeth's bedside. Because of my encounter with Joanna, I have felt God's graciousness in my life every day since last Tuesday. For the past seven days I have felt the joy and awesomeness of God's unceasing, unconditional, steadfast love so strongly that it keeps moving me to shed tears of joy, randomly and for no apparent reason.

I hope that this feeling of joy-filled-ness lasts. I hope my memory of meeting Joanna maintains the power to fill my heart with love. But even if the feeling and the memory fade with time,as feelings and memories tend to do, in the meantime . . . it just makes me happy.

Cross-posted by Tuesday's Child on