Wednesday, December 28, 2011

We are on a spiritual journey. We are blessed by the journey, but often in ways that we weren't expecting and in ways that may cause a fuss among other people. Through all of that, we find God—not in the fuss, but in the surprising truth of our own story, the unexpected truth of our own experience, the mysterious truth of our own encounter with God's surprising love and grace."—Rev. Sandra K. Johnson, from "Much Ado About Something"

Have you ever read a Bible verse and then asked yourself the question, “where does my story meet this text”?  I appreciate Rev Johnson’s insightfulness and her way with words.  We ARE on a journey – all of us. Regardless of our faith traditions, experiences, backgrounds, flavors or colors – we are all on a journey.  We do have the gift, the ability, to find God in the truth of our own stories.  And our own story is unique to us – no one else shares exactly the same story, experience, or understanding of self.

Ezekiel was called to be a prophet.  He had no doubt he was called but I’m sure he probably didn’t want to at first.  Jonah was the one who, when called by God, did the only rational thing:  he ran.  But God caught up to Jonah and he also brought Ezekiel in to ministry in spite of themselves. Being called is not just restricted to those in full-time ministry.  You don’t need to wear a robe or a collar to realize that you have been called.  I believe that all of us are called in to something.  Every day YOU are being called to follow the great commandment to love one another.

There are so many homeless people in our own country.  There are close to 2 million homeless youth, ages 15-17, in this country.  In my own city, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, there are over 400 homeless youth who seek a place to rest every single night.  Health care is a long forgotten luxury.  Many turn to drugs or prostitution to turn a quick buck – a fast food burger to fill their empty stomachs.  “State of Youth Homelessness,” a study prepared by researchers at the Center for Urban Initiatives and Research at UW-Milwaukee determined that 25% of these youth identified with being gay or lesbian.  I read one story – echoed I’m sure by thousands of others – of a young man who came out to his parents his junior year in high school and was kicked out of the home based solely on the fact that he identified himself as being gay and shared it with his parents. 

Rev. Cody Sanders says, “The call to ministry and the call to coming out are always risky ventures filled with tension; tension between knowing one’s internal, deeply held identity as called of God, or created by God and knowing the risk of identifying this inner voice to others. Both the calling and the coming out puts one at odds with others within society and within the church.”   Another journey – another opportunity to find God in and through our own life experiences.  The “unexpected truth of our own experience” as Johnson states. 

Joseph was called by God.  I really have a difficult time trying to wrap my brain around this man, Joseph.  Why he didn’t run, like Jonah, is beyond me.  He would have been totally justified in my book.  The fact that he did not turn on his faith is somewhat of a miracle.  Rejection of God and/or church is typically a result of anger or rejection and Joseph must have felt both.  He did everything he was supposed to do and all of a sudden his future bride is pregnant.  Surely they would be shunned by the community, his friends and his family.  Would the family even recognize them as a couple and would they continue to offer their support of the marriage?  This experience would surely put him at odds with his society and religious elders.  Joseph knew, however, of his own identity as called by God – it was his role – his job – his calling – his purpose – his answer to “what is the meaning of life”.  He knew the risks associated with identifying his inner voice to others yet he did exactly that! 
Not much is known about Joseph.  In accordance with the custom of the day we can surmise that Joseph was probably significantly older than Mary.  It took a long time for a man to become financially secure enough to even consider marrying and then when they did, they typically chose younger wives who could bear many children.  A generation is defined as the span of time between a man’s birth and the birth of his first child.  In Biblical times an average generation was 40 years long so there is a good possibility that Joseph was around 40 while Mary is believed to have been a young teenager. Scandalous to today’s standards but the norm for those days. What was NOT the norm back then, and is often accepted now, is the pregnancy before marriage.  Talk about a scandal.  Yet both Mary and Joseph knew their calling. I’m positive they were scared – I’m sure they were full of anxiety and fear of others.  They probably considered, at first, a few options to hide this situation, like any human would instinctively do.  But they followed their calling. They knew who they were at the core of their being – they knew exactly what God created them to be and what God expected of them. 

I’m pulling a comparison, albeit a dangerous one, between Mary and Joseph and the homeless teenagers in my own backyard.  I point out the glbt homeless youth because, frankly, my heart tends to bleed harder for them.  Two steps is all it took for them to find themselves sleeping in cardboard boxes under bridges or in homemade shelters of drift wood down by the river – in fact, if you come to Milwaukee I’ll personally take you to those locations and you can see for yourself that I’m not exaggerating.  They exist. It took two steps – self-identity/awareness, then self-proclamation – then homelessness.  These are stories that wrinkle the heart. They are stories that should never exist but must be told.  It is the story of Joseph and Mary and no-room-at-the-inn.  It is the story of the 400+ in my backyard.  How many are in your backyard?

Remember the “unexpected truth” of our own experience?  Joseph, Mary, the homeless, the homeless youth – all unexpected truths of personal experiences.  Embracing whose we are – embracing that which is a Holy creation – only to be tossed aside.

Jesus felt this, too, you remember.  Jesus was rejected, remember?  Imagine how it felt to hear the crowd yell “crucify him”. Imagine how it felt to hear the ones you walked with, talked with and grew up with, your child-hood buddies, your friends, your pals and your family – your entire community – turning its back on you.  Christ felt it – the homeless feel it – the homeless glbt youth feel it – perhaps you feel it as well.    Rest assured that Christ knows exactly how the homeless are feeling – how the rejected feel – he experienced it first-hand and He has not forgotten.

Our own blessings may very well cause a fuss among others.  Our own callings may and probably will cause a fuss among others including those with whom we are close.  But it should be in and through these callings and blessings that we come to a fuller understanding of God’s creation – God’s call on humanity.  God’s creating spirit has yielded such a diverse world that not one creature is exactly like the other and THAT is the mysterious truth found in God’s amazing and surprising love and grace.  Just as pain, sorrow, disappointment, depression, and negative circumstances knows no prejudice – neither does God’s love and grace.  For through these experiences and through each one of our unique and precious stories and journeys is found the very nature of the Holy – love and grace.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Filling The Gap

Hurting people are so needy, aren’t they?  The ideal is being with people who have been through some struggle and arrived on the other side already.  We love to hear their stories of overcoming obstacles and we listen intently.  But bring in someone who is needy – they drain all the joy, they take the energy away, and they ultimately remind us of our own weaknesses.  Who needs or wants them?
I heard of a church who was building an addition on to their current building. They were doubling the size and one of the projects was a kitchen. This kitchen would be state-of-the-art and would be run by a small group of professional cooks and chefs, most of whom donated a majority of the funds to outfit the kitchen with the latest gadgets and appliances.  The price tag was pretty steep. The kitchen and the adjoining hall were large spaces.  It was truly a unique ministry opportunity.  Or so one person thought.  He rejoiced one Sunday morning that once the kitchen and hall were finished they could open their doors to the homeless and hungry.  “Imagine how many hungry people we could feed!” he proclaimed.
The people who donated money were appalled.  One woman actually said, “This kitchen is ours - no bums allowed”.  The man later learned of the paperwork, procedures and approvals that a group in the church would be required to go through in order to use the kitchen with the clear understanding that it is to be used for the church family only.  No feeding of the homeless and hungry – no food pantry – no ministry to outsiders – just a perk for members only.
I do not believe that Christ would belong to anything that stated ‘for members only’.  I always had an appreciation for the United Methodist approach to the communion table.  Come, ALL who are in need of Christ’s love and grace.  The Methodist church practiced what is called an open table.  Everyone is welcome.  Christ embraced the needy and the weak and the celebration of the Christmas truth should embrace the same.  In Matthew 12:20 it says, “He (Christ) will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle.”  You see, the needy and the weak would love nothing more than to wake up one day with tons of energy and a renewed sense of hope for the future…but it’s just not going to happen like that.  They would love to suddenly make the decision to be well, no longer needy, no longer hungry, no longer plagued by the demons of their past.  But the truth is, that is a very hard place from which to escape. 
This Christmas season, like the ones of our past, we are called to enter into an attitude of celebration.  We celebrate the gift that God gave us – the gift of HIS Son and in the realization of everything that was wrapped up in those swaddling clothes – the gift for humanity.  But what if we just do not feel like celebrating? Sure it is a great time of year but all we see is waste and want and people are still pushing aside the hungry.  Feeding the hungry one or two times a year doesn’t feel like much of a sacrifice.  And Christ says that when you do feed the hungry it is akin to feeding Him.  You offer the hungry some food and you have just offered food to Christ.  You bring water to the thirsty man and you have answered the call of Christ when he says I am thirsty. 
Christmas time is one of the most depressing times of the year because among the running around, the shopping, the traffic, the trees, the spending of money, the building up of debt, the lights, plastic snowmen and even the light-up plastic Jesus in the front yard – none of that feeds the hungry, or gives water to the thirsty, or offers a warm blanket to the cold and dying.  None of that brings comfort to those who cry every day as they try to run from their demons.  As you turn the lights on for your tree the very light in a young man’s heart has all but extinguished.  As you gaze in wonder at the decorations the widow’s eyes only see darkness where there was once great light.  In all that is Christmas today the lost and lonely, scared, sad, and hurt people are forgotten.  Swept under the tree to be hidden from view.  There is no room for them at the inn because we are too busy having a party. The problem is – we do not know what it is we are celebrating. 
I dare you this season to stretch out from your comfort zone and do something crazy.  Reach across the table and offer someone food and drink.  Give the cold man a blanket and the homeless woman shelter.  Bring the reason for the partying to the feet of those for whom the Christ child came.  You need no proclamation – no Twitter or Facebook CheckIn – no announcement or smart phone photos uploaded in a flash to show everyone what you are doing.   Do it because it is the right thing to do.  As millions begin to celebrate the birth of a poor baby, may we commit to reaching out to the poor babies in our wealthy nation.  May they find a full table at which to sit.  When the gap between the rich and poor seems to be at its widest may we find opportunities to reach across, no matter what our status, and not only bridge the gap – but fill it. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Forgive Me, Lord, As I Forgave Whats-His-Name

How many times should we forgive someone and when we do forgive them, what’s next?  Peter came right out and asked Jesus this popular question.  We read about the recollection of the conversation in Matthew 18:21, 22.  Jesus says, “not seven times but seventy times seven”.  That’s a lot of grace for one person to dish out, don’t you think?  What’s the popular phrase?  Oh yeah – “Once burned, shame on me; twice burned shame on you”.  Doesn’t seem to match up with scripture but most of us are inclined to proclaim the popular secular decree rather than the scripture-based instruction.
First of all, let’s do the math. Seventy times seven is 490.  So we need to forgive people 490 times.  Is that for the same transgression or do we keep a tally for each transgression for which we grant forgiveness?  Let’s take a look at Israel…there is a chance that Jesus was actually referring to historical significance here.  The people of Israel transgressed a LOT.  It wasn’t necessarily the same transgression but wow they really racked up the points.  Lucky for them, and for us; God shows mercy and grace – unlike his creation who seldom show mercy and grace especially to repeat offenders.   
Do you think the act of forgiving is a choice or a feeling?  Is it a state of being or an actual physical action?  We have clear Biblical instruction:  Colossians 3:13, “bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”   You read that right – we are to forgive (just) as the Lord (has) forgiven us!  The prayer that Christ himself taught us to pray states, “..and forgive us our sins (or trespasses, depending on your faith tradition) as we forgive those who sin against us”.  Oh wait a minute – THAT was tricky.  He threw that last part in to trip us up, right?  Kinda like the time they were about to stone that poor woman and Christ picked up a rock and said, “He who is without sin must cast the first stone”.  We thought for a moment that, as Christ picked up a stone, he was affirming that we were actually right and justified in stoning that poor woman to death.  But at the last minute, when we least expected it, he throws in a “yeah, but”.  Kinda like Steve Jobs always did in his announcements, remember?  He would always say, “oh, and one more thing”…and that one more thing was always HUGE!
We know we should forgive but what happens when we just plain don’t feel like it?  Our grievance is valid, right?  Our anger justified.   Why should we forgive some of the uglier sins of others like lying, stealing, cheating…how about physical pain or even murder?  Why assume that God will have complete jurisdiction over them and will judge them according to His standards when our standards seem pretty fair, right?  Hmmmm…fair…
Corrie Ten Boom, a Nazi concentration camp survivor, says, “Forgiveness is to set a prisoner free, and to realize the prisoner was you.”  There is a wonderful clearing of the conscience when we forgive and then move on. That moving on may involve a lot of healing time, and grappling with our definition of justice versus God’s.  Relationships may falter during that time and friendships are re-defined.  We become a new sculpture, really, in the artists’ hands during this time.  For when we forgive, as the Lord’s Prayer says, and we forgive just as we want and hope that God will forgive us and that our fellow man will forgive us; there is a sweet release in the Spirit.  The prisoner is indeed set free.
Forgive the man who drove drunk and killed a mother and her children?  Forgive the man who, without notice or warning, takes his own life and leaves behind a path of destruction?  Forgive the one who cheated in mind, spirit AND body?  Forgive the one who sold us out, threw us under the bus, ratted us out, and turned against us?  Forgive the very ones who crucified you and left you on the road side to die?  Forgive the one who beat you?  I’ll have to think about that one for a while.
And while we think, we continue to utter those words all too easily; “…and forgive me of my wrong doings in the same manner in which  I have forgiven all people who have done wrong things to me”… and don’t be surprised if you don’t feel the release of that burden right away. After all, you just asked God to do something very specific – not simply forgive you, but use YOU as His guide to how to forgive.  You just asked God to use you as the standard by which he will shower you with mercy and patience.
We don’t forgive for the sake of the sinner – that’s God’s job.  We forgive for our own sake.  It doesn’t mean forgetting nor does it mean we are enabling the sinner even more.  It means we have let it go.  As long as you have un-forgiveness you have anger, or hatred, or maybe resentment towards that person.  Which means that person is still in control of YOU.
Is has been said that forgiveness “is me giving up my right to hurt you for hurting me”.  Mark Twain said that “forgiveness is the fragrance the rose sheds on the heel that has crushed it”.  Forgiveness is not about forgetting – it is about finding a new definition for that experience.  It’s about discovering a new ‘normal’.  It’s about creating a new way to remember that changes the bad memories of the past in to the hope for our future. 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Right Where You Are

One of the many arguments I hear from people as to why they do not attend church or why they are not ‘religious’ is that at one time or another they were turned off by feeling like someone was trying to cram religion down their throats. They were turned off by blatant, in-your-face, guilt-them-into-accepting-Christ; evangelism.  I will be the first to admit that perhaps in some cases there are people who desire and need this type of evangelism in order to encourage them to take a leap of faith.  But for many people it is one of the easiest ways to push them away from Christ.

I have never been known as a ‘Bible basher”, using scripture and evangelism to verbally beat people in to submission.  The only thing you get from that is a bunch of people who are tired of being beaten so they give you what you want just to shut you up. 

One of the points of the Christian religion is to allow you to be met by the living Christ.  There’s an old song from the 80’s called, “Right Where You Are” that spoke of this same idea. The image is of God, in the flesh of Jesus Christ, meeting us wherever we are in life.  He met the woman at the well, Simon while he was fishing, and He meets you wherever you are in life.  We don’t have to come up to meet Him, Christ steps down to be with us.

I believe that if Christ were walking here today, He wouldn’t walk on the side of the street where the church rummage sale was taking place.  I believe He would be walking on the side of the street where the homeless hung out, where the druggies scored, the prostitutes worked, and where the lonely and depressed go to end their lives.  He wouldn’t be knocking on the church door but He would be knocking and opening the proverbial closet door where thousands of young people are hiding, scared of who they are and how people will treat them. 

I like the tagline of the United Church of Christ:  Whoever you are, where ever you are on life's journey, you are welcome here!”  Wherever you are. That is a powerful image, isn’t it?  Just think about where YOU are right now on life’s journey. Think about where you have been and all the changes that have occurred – the colors of your journey have changed so many times during your journey yet Christ has been the one constant.

The First Congregational Church of Baraboo, Wisconsin invites anyone who has “…ever known exclusion…or questioned how dogma and doctrine can be so hurtful…” to visit them and experience a ministry that they believe is truly Christ-centered. 

The United Methodist Church still explicitly and categorically excludes gay and lesbian Christians from full participation in the life of the church yet more than 360 United Methodist congregations have voted unanimously to become a welcoming or reconciling congregation – welcoming people of all orientations in to full membership and participation.  Proof that the hearts of God’s people are earnestly seeking and listening for the voice of God.

The Episcopal Church calls for full civil equality for gay men and lesbians and the Church’s General Convention has passed resolutions that allow for gay and lesbian marriages in states where it is legal.  Gene Robinson is the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop. 

I list these (and I could list thousands of other short news briefs) to support a point:  God is simply not finished with us.  Did God simply create us and then let us to our own devices or is it possible that God continues to create us?  Is it possible that the kingdom of God is so diverse in its color, flavor, ethnicity, background, orientation, that those within the creation are unable to see it yet?  Did God create us from one cookie-cutter or is it possible that God’s creation contains countless imprints, colors, creeds, life-styles, etc. 

Some religious organizations still refuse to ordain women although as early as 2285 BC Sumerian and Akkadien were priestesses who held equal status of high priests.  In the Buddhist tradition Ani Pema Chodron became the first American woman to be ordained as a Buddhist nun (bhikkhuni).  In 1989 Barbara Harris was the first ordained bishop in the Anglican Communion for the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts and in 2006 Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected as the first female presiding Bishop.

In the Wesleyan tradition, those who come to be ordained are asked an important question.  “Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life time?”  The answer is tough but it is asking for a pretty specific response.  I expect only to be made perfect in love at the time of my death but I am working today as if it were possible to finally achieve it in this life. 

"As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit." (1 Cor. 12:12–13, NAB)  This is a powerful passage of scripture as the Apostle Paul talks about how each body part works together.  "The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you,' nor again the head to the feet, ‘I do not need you.' Indeed the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary . . ." (1 Cor. 12: 21-22) The wonderful thing about God is His generosity in creation.  Each part is so different from the other yet without one another, the whole cannot function, cannot be complete…in other words…fails.

We are all members of one body. Christ is the head and substance and everyone else has a job to do.  A role to play and responsibilities to attend to.  The hand cannot be a foot and the leg cannot be an ear no matter how hard they try.  It is wrong for the ear to say to the other parts, “you need to be more like us”.  It simply won’t happen.  Yet when the ear expects that and purposely shuts out the other parts the ear fails.  The ear cannot possibly complete its purpose.   

A church in Kentucky recently voted to not allow bi-racial couples in the church or to participate in the life of the church.   A friend of mine was denied the position of Director of Music because someone found out he was gay.  A family was denied access to the church school because, although they paid the annual fees, they didn’t meet the required annual pledge to the church.  A man and his wife hit hard financial times and enter foreclosure; and because of that they are asked to step down as elders. 

My heart aches for these people and for the countless others who have been ‘turned off’ to the Gospel of Jesus Christ because of people with blinders on their eyes.  But my heart aches, also, for the people who made the decision to remove someone from the church.  I believe they are missing a valuable point.  If our pews were meant for only the righteous we would be preaching to an empty room.  If our doors only opened to the Godly, they would always be closed.  If everyone could give as the church wants everyone to give, the offering plate would be empty.

The call to ministry is a personal, intimate calling.  If God only wanted the perfect – perhaps he should not have called me.  If God only wanted the righteous – perhaps he should not have called me.  If God only wanted those who never questioned faith or never struggled with spiritual matters – perhaps he should not have called me.  If God only wanted those who looked the part and dressed just like everyone else – perhaps he should not have called me.   But if God called me because of my heart and because my faith in Him is authentic and my love for humanity is wide – then His calling is perfect.

Were I to have a church, I would want people to know this:  if you are imperfect, come in.  If you have a dark past, come in.  If you believe no one who loves God should be excluded, come in.  If you are being true to how God created you, come in. If your mind is as wide as a clear night sky, come in.  If you have a genuine, authentic love for Christ, come in.  If you seek – come in.  If you have unbelief, come in.

God’s creating nature will not be mocked.