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Monday, December 31, 2012

A Snuggle with Jesus

Madonna and Child by
Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato

Advent is over and we sit solidly in the midst of Christmas. The above painting by Sassoferrato seems to sum it all up doesn't it? The peace on the faces of mother and child...the joy of this moment snuggled together...the hope of what will be...the love between mother and son. It is one of my favorite images of Mary and her precious son.

As all new mothers know, those serene mother-child images last about as long as it take to capture it in a photograph. All too soon it will be diaper changing, feeding time, unexplained crying fits and more. Peace is shattered by necessity...but it doesn't diminish the love, the joy and the hope between mother and child.

Yesterday, during our Children's Sermon, the gentleman teaching the kids said, "What holiday did we just celebrate?" The kids responded, "Christmas." Then he asked the next question that made me almost swoon with anxiety...."So what is the next holiday we will celebrate?"  What?? Seriously?? I haven't recovered from Christmas yet and already you want to talk about what is next? What happened to Christmas peace? 

Shattered by necessity I suppose....the necessity to move along with the calendar. As I calmed my weary body, I was reminded of the image of Madonna and Child - the call of necessity doesn't diminish the love, joy, hope...and yes, even the peace of life. 

2013 is knocking at our door. Lent is fast approaching, Easter is on the way, bible studies must be started, leadership development is vital to new committees and leaders; the 'to-do" list is endless. Your list may be different but it is no less demanding. So today, I take time to sit - as Madonna with child - and just settle in with Jesus for a moment of comfortable snuggling. Necessity is all around me but for this moment - I choose peace and that settles my anxiousness for the obligations that are coming as quickly as this new year. 

In those moments where I feel overwhelmed with necessity, I must remind myself that necessity doesn't diminish the peace, hope, love and joy of my life in Christ. Rather, as a servant to Christ, it is within the necessity that I find peace, hope, love and joy - for it is in the "doing" of my faith that I experience the peace, hope, love and joy of my faith. 

As we journey into a new year with new obligations and new expectations, let us remember to carry our peace, hope, love and joy of Christmas with us. Don't pack them away with the Christmas decorations but carry them with you into the work of 2013. Embrace the new year in such a way that the "necessities" are not burdens but instead are expressions of a iife lived peacefully, lovingly, joyfully and hopefully in Christ Jesus.

...And don't forget to take time each day for a comforting snuggle with Jesus! Take a moment from the call of necessity and sit with him, converse with him, be at peace with him...it just might make that "to-do" list a lot more appealing. 

So long 2012 and Hello 2013....may you blossom forth in God's blessing upon all the world.


Thursday, December 27, 2012

Light is Coming

From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the Lord is to be praised.
Psalm 113:3

I have never in my life been a morning person. I have always preferred to experience the sunset and enjoy the calm of evening rather than the expectant hustle of morning preparation. Perhaps it is an issue of aging, or perhaps I just have too much on my mind these days but I suddenly find sleep elusive and as a result, I am forced  to witness the birth of each new day. What a glorious gift it is...even if I am sometimes witnessing it through eyes that are blurry and sleep deprived.

I sit and stare out my window at darkness. I pray. I think. I sometimes write. I enjoy the sounds of my sleeping household. Ever so patiently and serenely the world begins to take shape around me. It begins with the first shadowy outlines of the trees outside my window. The sky begins to turn a lighter shade of black and the world stands in dark contrast. Light is coming. 

Another glance out the window and suddenly the trees are visible and the first splash of color spreads across the sky. Light is coming.

Hues of blue begin to deepen...clouds of red, purple, pink dot the horizon. Light is coming.

I have not yet seen the light. The sun has yet to peak above the edge of the earth but all of creation is now proclaiming its imminent arrival. Birds are singing, the colors deepen and signs of life appear...because light is coming.

From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the Lord is to be praised. The earth is in full praise mode today. I think I shall be also...because light is coming.

The Advent season is over but the Christmas season is at hand. On Christmas Eve we lit the Christ Candle and proclaimed that into the world has come a great light...Christ, our King. It is a bold proclamation to make given the deep darkness of the world around us. However, in the flames of that candle something else becomes visible: the outline of hope, the first shadows of peace, the initial colors of joy...all made possible because light is coming.

Come, Lord Jesus, Come.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Jesus Wept

Jesus Wept: Statue located at Oklahoma City National Memorial

Jesus wept. It may be the shortest sentence in the bible, but I also find it one of the most powerful. What does it take to bring the Son of God to such emotion? How can it be that a Savior, who in just a few moments will bring a dead man back to life, would be in such a grievous state of sorrow?

We may not fully understand the meaning of Jesus’ tears as he stood, outside the grave of his friend Lazarus, weeping, but we can fully understand his emotional pain. The nation finds itself in mourning this week after the brutal and evil murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The question on everyone's lips - why? The debates rage over the cause and the cure. We argue over gun control, mental illness treatments, government restrictions, and the list goes on. Everyone has an opinion and an accusation. The argument that I am having the most trouble with, however, is that the government is to blame because it has kept God out of schools. The most reprehensible of comments came from the American Family Association's Bryan Fischer...

“Here’s the bottom line — God is not going to go where he is not wanted, We kicked God out of our public school system. I think God would say to us, hey, I would be glad to protect your children but you gotta invite me back into your world first. I’m not going to go where I’m not wanted. I am a gentleman…. Back when we had prayer, the Bible, and the Ten Commandments in schools, we did not need guns.”

Mr. Fischer is not the only one to make this argument to me; others are just as adamant that if prayer and the bible were taught in public schools then these horrific events would not be happening to our children. I am troubled by this argument for many reasons. 

First, "God is not going to go where he is not wanted, We kicked God out of our public school system." This argument requires us to believe that the government has the power to control the very presence of God. Let me assure you, there is no government on earth with that kind of power. 

Second, "I would be glad to protect your children but..." This argument requires us to believe in a God that punishes innocent babies by withdrawing from their presence. This stands in stark contrast to a risen Christ that assures us he will always be with us. It also indicates a God that is petty and vengeful and immature. This would be the kind of God that said,  “If you aren’t going to play my way I will take my toys and go home” rather than the God who says, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deut. 31:6) 

Third, "you gotta invite me back into your world first." This argument removes all concept of Grace from God's character. The greatest tenet of grace is that it is unmerited and undeserved. As a United Methodist, I believe in what John Wesley described as "Prevenient Grace" - the grace that "comes before." Our belief is that God first loves us, before we even have any concept of that love or even the ability to return that love. When we are still sinners, still lost, still unbelievers, God loves us and is at work in and around us to draw us closer and bring us to a place of recognition and acceptance. To argue that God will protect our children only when God is "invited" into our lives is not fitting with the God of such grace.

Fourth, "Back when we had prayer, the Bible, and the Ten Commandments in schools, we did not need guns.” I'm not even sure I understand the "need for guns" statement but as for the context of the statement - It is just flat out not true that when we had prayer, the Bible and the Ten Commandments in school that we were any more protected from harm. There have always been bad things happening in the world and in our schools and those bad things did not all center around a need for guns.

Fifth, this argument that the schools are responsible for the religious instruction of our children is greatly problematic. Public schools are institutions meant for academic instruction. Religious instruction should be carried out by families and by churches. I personally am not offended by the removal of teacher led prayer in school. My daughter was once forced by a teacher to read a bible in class because the teacher was trying to convince her to reject our faith and embrace the faith of the teacher, a Jehovah's Witness. I don't want my child's teacher having that kind of religious influence. I am completely in agreement that our children are not learning what they need to learn about God, about faith and about morality, but the fault and failure doesn't lie in our teachers, our schools and our government - it lies in our family priorities and in our churches. It is not my government’s job to instill values in my children; it is mine. It is not the schools job to teach the bible to my children; it is mine and church's.

The events at Sandy Hook and other similar atrocities are indeed a wake up call for all of us as Christians. We have a responsibility in how the world knows and understands God. We are God’s witnesses and proclaimers in this world and we must be very careful of that responsibility. The world (and our children) needs to know that God is with us – it is the very proclamation of Christmas – Emmanuel (God with us). We cannot let them believe that God’s presence is fickle and unsure. We cannot leave them to understand that if they don’t please God that they will be subjected to a murder’s bullet. We must do better than that.

In the face of evil, Jesus weeps. Evil happens in this world and it comes in many forms but it does not come with enough power to block out the presence of God. God was in Sandy Hook Elementary school to comfort and welcome those babies into a new life where such pain and terror need not be known. To deny God's presence there is to deny they were loved and accepted by him…and that I will never do.

Our Christmas proclamation is that the birth of Jesus brought God into the world as never before. Our Easter proclamation is that God's presence is inseparable from ours - not even death can tear us apart. That is the lesson our children need to know - the lesson the world needs to know - especially as we weep.

If we want to make the world a safer place for our children then make religious instruction in your home a priority. Find a church that takes the religious instruction of children seriously. Make church and faith a vital part of your life and your family's life and invite their friends to join you. Mentor in the schools - go ask a guidance counselor or social worker who the loners are and volunteer to mentor them. We can sit and play blame all day but only with love and commitment will we turn the tide of evil and heal the wounds of brokenness. 

Matthew 28:19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Expecting Something?

 After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, 
and for five months she remained in seclusion. 
She said, "This is what the Lord has done for me 
when he looked favorably on me and took away
 the disgrace I have endured among my people." 
Luke 1:24-25

My husband always says, "Beware of angels appearing and proclaiming 'Do not be afraid,' because when that happens someone ends up pregnant." While he certainly exaggerates, he does have a point when it comes to the birth narratives. Mary, Joseph, Zechariah all received that angelic "Do not be afraid" message to prepare them for the births of their sons but I can't help but notice someone is missing from that list...where was Elizabeth's angel?

Elizabeth and Zechariah were "getting on in years" according to the text. She had no doubt prayed and waited for the arrival of a child of her own and year after year was met with bitter disappointment. I have no doubt that Zechariah felt the same, it was a bitter reality in that day to be without an heir. They had anticipated a baby so long and yet none had come and years had trickled by. 

Mary and Joseph had no such expectation for a child, not yet anyway. So an angel visits each to break the news - a baby is on the way! Not just any baby, mind you, but God's son and they have been chosen to become his parents...no pressure there right? Without the angel's visit Mary would have been in grave danger. There would have been no doubt in anyone's mind that she had been unfaithful to Joseph and the penalty could have been death. However, the angel prepares Mary to understand what is happening to her body and it prepares Joseph to understand what is happening to his future wife. They are chosen - they are blessed. This is the message the angel must bring so that they would understand God breaking into their lives in such an incredible, and unexpected, way.

Zechariah receives his angel visit while alone in the temple, serving his priestly duties. He is then rendered mute so he cannot tell anyone what he heard or witnessed - not even his beloved Elizabeth. Where is her angel visit? Why is it that Mary, Joseph and Zechariah all get a warning, all get a preview of the exciting news while Elizabeth is left in the dark?

I smile every time I read her response, "This is what the Lord has done for me..." I hear it as a statement full of years of expectation. Mary and Joseph had no expectation of a baby to come so soon, they needed to be told so they could understand and manage the situation. Zechariah? I can't help but wonder if Zechariah had lost hope over the years. Perhaps he had stopped expecting joyful news as each month passed and Elizabeth's body reveled the disappointing truth - no baby - not yet. When the angel declares the coming birth Zechariah responds - how can this be? we are old. Yes, I think he had given up the expectation of a child and so the angel had to come and prepare him for the acceptance of the unexpected.

Elizabeth, however, gets no such heads up - no angelic warning - no preparation for such an incredible event. Why? "This is what the Lord has done for me..." she says. In that statement I hear her smile - you know the smile - the kind that comes only when what you knew would happen finally happens and you get to say, "I told you so." I can't help but wonder if the reason Elizabeth is the only one that doesn't get an angelic visit is because Elizabeth is the only one that was expecting God to do this very kind of thing. I don't think Elizabeth had ever stopped believing that God would give her a child...I think she expected it...she anticipated it. She didn't need an angel to say, "Surprise! You are with child" because every single month she watched her body for the signs of what she trusted would some day be...a baby. Patiently, expectantly, faithfully...Elizabeth watched and waiting for what she knew God would some day bring her.

In this season of Advent we are encouraged to watch and wait expectantly for what God is about to do. We re-live and remember the birth stories and how God broke into this world in such an amazing fashion and yet at the same time we are called to watch and wait for re-entry...the day when Jesus returns and God's Kingdom is fulfilled. Everyone wants to look for signs of this next big event - just the other day a woman stopped me to ask me if I had noticed the sun was burning more intensely than every before. No, I replied I had not noticed and so she warned me it was a sign of the Lord's returning. People are looking for signs - 12/12/12  or 12/21/12 or national conflicts or river's running red or you name it - folks are surveying the world around them and wondering - when will it come and what will be the sign that warns us so we will know to prepare?

I picture Elizabeth, standing in her doorway, holding her swollen belly with that knowing smile on her face...she didn't need a sign. She didn't need a warning. She didn't need a messenger. She had expected all along for God to show up - she had never once stopped expecting it she just stood ready to receive it.

Stand ready to receive the gift that was promised: Hope, Joy, Peace and Love. Live each moment as if you expect these gifts to already be within you and around you. Then you won't need to worry about the coming of Jesus - for he will already be present.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Anticipation Is Making Me Wait

Perhaps I'm dating myself but just maybe you too can remember this commercial....Anticipation is making me wait. It occurs to me that this marketing ploy would never work in today's society. Back in the day there was still a belief that good things were worth waiting for. It was not uncommon for people to save their money to make a big purchase - taking those months and years to anticipate the day when the amount would be enough to buy that new car, new house, new boat. Our society today is one driven by immediacy - we want it all and we want it now! Why agonize to save money when we have credit cards? Why wait for anything for that matter? I find myself irritated with my computer if the website I want doesn't load in the blink of an eye. I'm ready to throw my T.V. away because it takes approximately 2.9 seconds to change the channel and I find that infuriatingly too long.

Perhaps that is why we have such a hard time wrapping our brains around the concept of Advent. In the four weeks leading up to Christmas we are being called to anticipate...to wait...to do nothing but watch and prepare our hearts for what is to come. That is a difficult task for a society that hates waiting for anything. In stores we are decorating for Christmas in October. In churches we jump right into Christmas songs and skip the Advent songs. We don't want to wait - we want baby Jesus NOW.

I believe the Advent season is meant to force us to slow down - to anticipate what is on the way...to stop and smell the Poinsettias if you will. If we rush headlong into Christmas we have missed the great story of anticipation. We will not have thought about the work God did to prepare the world for the birth of this child Jesus. We will not have taken a moment to look up on a starry night and wonder - if a new star appeared would I have even noticed? We will not have taken the time to ask ourselves if we would have obeyed God as willingly and completely as Joseph and Mary? Would we have been supportive of the couple or gossiped about them around the village? We will not have taken the time to think about what God went though to choose, wrap, and deliver this precious gift that is coming our way.

Anticipation is making me wait. Let us spend Advent savoring the wait of Christ's coming. Yes, he has arrived once but the retelling of the story, the remembrance of it, the reliving of it, is vitally important to us today because it reminds us that we are, in a sense, still waiting for Jesus. We are still waiting for his return in which time we believe all will be made right. We wait for the time of complete and sure peace when we can beat our swords into plowshares for war will be no more. We wait for the time when God's love is made complete and expressed through every life, in every place. We wait for the time when joy will be the theme of every day and all our hopes for God to reign will be realized.

Advent welcomes us into the waiting place of anticipation where we can get giddy with the thoughts of what great things are to come. It reminds me of a beautiful Advent song: People Look East.  The first verse says, 
"People, look east. 
The time is near of the crowning of the year.  
Make your house fair as you are able, trim the hearth and set the table. 
People, look east and sing today: Love, the Guest, is on the way."

Let us pray: "Holy Anticipation, that breathtaking space in-between what has been, what is, what is-to-come. Where winter dreams reveal secret longings and winded angels announce the coming of Love. You draw us to the edge of Advent possibility like the song of angels drawing shepherds - eyes wide and breath held - waiting, watching. Come, settle into our living for awhile and do not let us settle for too little. Amen."

(Prayer by Pamela Dawkins in Simply Wait: Cultivating Stillness in the Season of Advent)


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Now Playing: Sunrise


Almost shyly, she makes her grand entrance. Although once she peeks above the horizon she rushes in with a flourish of gold and pink. It is easy to see, as I watch her, why some in ancient times chose to worship her. It is hard enough to comprehend the fullness of her magnificence, let alone contemplate the glory of the one who must have created her. I watch others as they watch her and notice that at just the moment before she peeks into view many stand still in anticipation. We stand together and wait for what we know will happen, what should be so commonplace that we hardly notice, and yet we don't want to take for granted and miss it - sunrise.

I peek behind me and notice the darkness is fleeing from her arrival and I smile. I look back at her and see her rainbow of colors streak across the sky and I think of the promises of the one who created her. Those promises are as sure as the sunrise every day. New and fresh each morning is God's promise that the light will defeat the darkness - that beauty will overcome the blackness of despair.

Yes, it is easy to see why some would worship her for one cannot help but feel hopeful in her presence and healed by her arrival. I want to applaud the performance but I figure others will think I'm strange if I stand on the beach clapping my hands at the sun. Instead I say a prayer of gratitude and praise to the one who puts on this show every single day without fail. Some days I don't take the time to stop and observe the show. Other days there are clouds and obstructions that keep me from seeing it and yet I know it is happening - it always happens.

God happens! Every day God's glory streaks through the word without fail. Every day there is hope to be found in the presence of a steadfast God...even on those days when we can't see it or feel it doesn't mean that God isn't there providing it. As sure as the sunrise so is the faithfulness of God.

Rejoice in this new day and in all God has in store for it.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Becoming a "Home Depot" Church

Words...phrases...campaigns...mission statements...they look great on paper don't they? Words meant to inspire us with a common goal. Phrases and campaigns to rally us around a unifying theme. Mission statements to make clear the belief we have in our purpose. Words are important, but what good are they if they stay words on a page?

I have been preaching a sermon series from the book of James in which he implores his readers to be more than hearers of the word but instead to be doers of the word. When it comes to Scripture, those words are mean to come alive into activity. This past Sunday, Bishop Larry Goodpaster delivered a sermon to the newly formed Yadkin Valley District of the Western North Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church. He used words from Luke - who used words from Jesus - who used words from Isaiah...

Luke 4:18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." 

Bishop G went on to explain that Jesus took apart this old scripture and put it back together again in a new way - creating a new kind of mission and mandate for those that would become His followers. Our mandate is to Follow Jesus - Love God - and Love our neighbors in the way that Isaiah describes. Do we see who those neighbors are? The Poor - The Captives - The Blind - The Oppressed. We could spend all day unpacking who those folks are in our neighborhoods: the working, single parent that cannot earn a decent wage that will put enough food on the table for the family; the young adult captivated by a world of addiction; the person who cannot yet see that their actions are creating terrible consequences and hurting themselves and others; the one who is not allowed a chance to become more and earn more because they live in a society that says they are not worth our effort.

Words matter - Jesus' words matter - Isaiah's words matter - so do those of us who hear those words and those for which those words were meant to inspire love and assistance. We must notice, however, that Isaiah's words were action words - bring...proclaim...release...recover...go. Isaiah's plea is not an idealogical one - it is mean to be lived out, not simply thought out.

Bishop G compelled us to remember the words of scripture are meant to be lived out in action but they are also meant to be proclaimed. As we do the good in the world we are called to do, we must SPEAK the good news of Jesus Christ to those we encounter. Our help of the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed is material and temporary if we do not take the step to introduce them to our Jesus who is the only lasting solution to their real need: salvation. With that, he invited us all to become "Home Depot" churches.

At first I thought he meant offering a wide variety of tools to fix a wide variety of problems - but then he pointed us toward Home Depot's advertising catch phrase, "More Saving - More Doing." (I wonder if James is in heaven saying, "Why didn't I think of that?"). Bishop G went on to say the church doesn't have a mission, it IS a mission. Our mission lies in DOING the words of our faith - and in SAVING the souls of the lost by inviting them to hear about Jesus.

Words matter...not just speaking them but doing them. In Luke's Gospel Jesus tells the story of The Good Samaritan - a story inspired by the question "Who is my neighbor?" In the story an injured man is passed by two people who most would expect to offer aid, but they had not. Instead, it was someone from outside the social barriers of the day - a Samaritan. It was the Samaritan that acted in mercy and treated a complete stranger, and potential enemy, as a neighbor. "Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise." 

Go and do....More Saving - More Doing. Let's get started shall we?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

All You Need Is Love

In my reading last night I came across a memorable quote by General Eric Shinseki. The quote was, "If you dislike change, you're going to dislike irrelevance even more." This was a fitting quote considering a conversation I had earlier in the evening with someone frustrated over the Church's failure to be relevant for today's generation.

Thanks to a 2:30 am phone call (a hang up, grrr) I have been wide awake and trying to find ways to amuse myself...namely surfing the web. My random queries soon focused in on General Eric Shinseki as I wondered who he was and what the story was behind that great quote. I learned that General Shinseki is from Hawaii, his family immigrating there from Hiroshima in 1901. He serves in the Army, was wounded in combat in Vietnam and he is the highest ranking Asian American in the history of the United States. He currently is serving as the US Secretary of Veteran Affairs.

My query did not, however, lead me to the circumstances behind the quote that had caught my attention earlier. Instead, I found myself captivated by another of his quotes.

"You must love those you lead before you can be an effective leader. 
You can certainly command without that sense of commitment, 
but you cannot lead without it."


I have no idea if General Shinseki is a man of faith but it would appear from this quote that he knows something about the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Is this not the way of Christ? Was his ministry not based upon building relationships born out of and nurtured in love? My mind is flooded by images: Jesus calling Matthew from his tax collector's booth - Jesus allowing a sinful woman to wash his feet - Jesus at the well offering new life to a woman who had ruined her own - Jesus with the Centurion - Jesus writing in the sand to save a condemned woman - Jesus with the poor - Jesus with the mentally ill - Jesus with the sick - Jesus touching the "untouchables" - Jesus in love...with everyone.

Why do I follow Jesus? Why do I profess faith in a man who, 2000 years ago, proclaimed himself Messiah, savior of the world? I guess we could say, in part, due to his leadership. I am not drawn to Christ by commandments and laws - I am drawn to Christ out of love...a love only realized by understanding that first he loved me. he loved me before I deserved it - he loved me before I loved him back - he loved me when I rebelled - he loved me when I came home - he loved me when I celebrated and he loved me when I wept. It is due to his love that I want to follow where he leads. It is due to his love for me that I now find the desire for his commands and laws. Were it not for love, I would not have followed.

Through my calling to lead a local congregation, as well as my volunteering to mentor local pastor's and serve on Church Transition teams - I find the word "leadership" comes up a lot. We seem to talk endlessly about what leadership looks like in the church. Phrases like "cast a vision" - "create a team" - "establish a mission statement" - "set measurable goals"come up often. I've attended seminar after seminar in how to be a better leader, and don't get me wrong, I'm thankful for the training - I've learned so much. However, none of those things have made me a better follower of Christ.

I went to a conference once on preaching. Our goal was to learn how to be inspiring and relevant in the spoken word. I sat through terrific sermons and lectures on how to do so but I found myself captivated most by one speaker with a simple message...the only inspiration you need is found in loving your God and loving God's people. His premise being modeled after Christ who ate with folks, walked with folks, cried with folks, lived with folks...and listened to folks. This lecturer proclaimed that in hearing the stories of the people, we learn to love them and in loving them as Christ loved - we learn to lead them.

I believe this message translates to all of us as Christians - not just to ministers. General Shinseki's quote seems to be the proof. No matter whether our leadership role is as head of the family or head of a department or head of a corporation or head of a government agency - we can do none of it well without first loving.

1 Corinthians 13:13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Empty Nest...Full Faith

Well, the day finally arrived...and I survived it with only one brief meltdown. I wasn't quite prepared for the deafening silence that follows. One day the house is teeming with noise as three young adults and a forty pound puppy go about the life of summer break and then the next, they pile into their cars and drive away to a new home, a new life, a new journey. Exciting isn't it?

Yes, it is very exciting. However, I'm discovering it comes with a new form of stress. Have I taught them all they need to know to live on their own in an apartment? Have I encouraged them enough on what wonderful people they are so that they will be confident and true to themselves and not give in to peer pressure. Have I instilled in them the ability to make wise decisions...to maintain their faith in a world that will tell them its wrong...to keep God in their lives instead of the worldly things that will be vying for that space?

I took one final look at them as I hugged each one goodbye and walked out the door. There is nothing left to do but let them go. It is only in letting them go that I will find the answers to those questions. It is only in standing on their own that they will be forced to make the decision of what form their faith will take. It is scary for me. I still want to guide and convince...but that time is over, they must stand on their own. When the fear begins to overtake me I find myself comforted by one thought. God is with them just as God is with me. God holds them as tightly, as mercifully, as compassionately, and wonderfully as God did me when I went to college and chose another path from what I was taught by my parents. Through it all, God never left me, although I left God. Out of steadfast and faithful love, God ultimately welcomed me back where I belonged. Thanks be to God.

Now it is time to trust God will be the same for my children: faithfully, closely, mercifully, compassionately, wonderfully present...no matter where they are.

Thanks be to God.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

My Night with the Sikh Community

In our white middle class houses of worship we share a certain sense of security. Yes, there is the occasional act of vandalism or theft, the rare encounter with violence, but overall we gather on our Sunday mornings and the thought of someone hating who we are enough to enter our house of worship and perpetrate a hate crime against us is the furtherest thing from our minds. Last Sunday, August 5th, I gathered with my family of faith and we celebrated our normal worship routine without one thought of potential harm.  In Wisconsin a similar gathering was occurring. Families were arriving for worship, food was being prepared, children were laughing, men and women were carrying out their various duties of preparation. They should have been allowed the same freedom from fear that me and my congregation enjoyed that morning...but a 40 year old neo-nazi full of hate destroyed that illusion for all of us as he opened fire on the unsuspecting worshippers of the Sikh community.

Tonight, my husband and I drove to Charlotte to attend an interfaith prayer vigil at the Sikh Gurdwara. I wanted to take a few minutes to try to describe to you what I experienced there. My first reaction upon arrival was one of amazement. In a world that tends to function on knee jerk reactions (and often over-reactions) I would have expected the Gurdwara to be on heightened security. However we arrived to find gates thrown wide open and no security in sight. I had already seen an announcement that in response to the tragedy, the Gurdwara was actually having open houses to invite all people in to experience their culture and worship. They needed the world to know they weren't scared of us as much as we desired to let them know we weren't scared of them.

I will admit I was a little nervous. There were not many cars in the parking lot and I began to fear that we would be two of only a handful of visitors. I wondered what to expect, would it be awkward for us? Would it be awkward for them? I worried that I had forgotten my scarf at home and I knew my head was supposed to be covered...would they let me in? With a bit of anxiety we finally ventured out of the car and entered the temple. As we entered there were perhaps 6 men standing inside, heavily bearded, wearing turbans and standing bare foot. My first worry - was it ok for a woman to enter this way? Should I step back behind Tim and let him lead the way? But before I could move all the men broke into a warm and welcoming smile and greeted us. One gentleman approached and introduced himself by shaking first my hand and then Tim's. He had a brochure for us on what a Sikh was and he explained what needed to happen before we went further into the Gurdwara. There was a women's room to the right and a men's room to the left. We were to go into those rooms and remove our shoes and put on head covers. It was a sign of respect that they enter the temple barefoot and with hair covered. No fear on forgetting the head covers, they provide those for guests.

When we came back out properly attired, we were passed along to another gentleman who explained where they were in the worship process. They were currently reading from their holy book the nightly prayer. We were invited to enter and worship with them. Upon entering the worship area there is a main aisle that leads to the altar, the Sikh's first go down this aisle and kneel at the altar in humility before taking their seat. We were not expected to do this. We were simply asked to take a seat on the floor (all worshippers sit on the floor) - men on the left and women on the right.

The Sikh worship leaders (men and women) were doing an incredible job of interrupting their own flow of worship to explain everything as they went along. Since we didn't know the language they would not only read the words in English first but then put them on powerpoint on the two flat screen TV's at the front of the worship area. We were told the proper way to sit was cross legged or on our knees but that it was disrespectful to sit with our feet pointed toward the altar. They then treated us to presentations on what it meant to be Sikh, what beliefs they hold, and how their regular worship unfolds. I was awed by the beauty and simplicity of it all. I was thrilled with the multitude of ways that our faiths intersect. The Sikh women around me were at ease in my presence and took me under their wing. They explained what to do and let me know that it was fine that I was there to worship with them, even if I were a Christian. They sang a beautiful hymn about God as our creator and they explained that their faith was born out of the belief that all humanity is created equal and should be valued as such.

I found myself caught up in their prayers and even though I couldn't speak the language and had no idea what they were saying, I felt very strongly the presence of God in that place and I prayed my own prayers with them. We were told that after the final prayer we were to stay seated to receive the "prashad" which was described as a type of sweet pudding. It is prepared in a large pot to the side of the altar and kept hot there. It is a mixture of flour, butter and sugar to create a thick pudding. Out of this one pot, all are served. First the children come forward to take napkins to all the worshippers, then prashad is dished out into smaller bowls where men and women servers use their hands to remove a portion of prashad, roll it into a ball and give it to each worshipper. A sweet treat to end the worship experience.

When this is complete everyone is invited to the dining room for langar. This is a free meal for the entire community to enjoy. We entered the dining room, still barefoot and with heads covered. Again, we sit on the floor, this time men and women sit together. When you enter, the children hand out plates, napkins and eating utensils. You then find your seat on the floor and wait. Soon, servers come by and fill your plate with wonderful (and spicy) Indian food. The lady sitting next to me took great joy in explaining to me how the dishes were made. She told me that they do this every Sunday, for breakfast and lunch. She explained again that it was about equality - the same as the sweet pudding. It was very important that they all sit on the floor together - that they all eat the same food from the same pot - no one was better than anyone else. She introduced me to her family and explained that really, they were all family. Whether they were blood related or not, they did not call one another by name - they simply said, "Brother," "Sister," "Aunt," or "Uncle" when referring to elders. She told me of their upcoming celebration of their first Guru and how they will worship around the clock from early Friday morning until Sunday. She told me about her daughter in college and laughed at me trying to eat the spicy stew that made my eyes water. It was a beautiful fellowship together.

After the meal we all went back to the entry and put our shoes back on and went outside for candlelight prayer vigil. Afterward, many of the Sikh's came to thank us for coming and invited us back any time. We had some wonderful conversations and exchanged contact information so we can continue our fellowship in other ways.

I have fumbled through my description of the night with as many details as I can remember, but I cannot as easily convey the feelings and emotions of the night. I was moved by the devotion to equality and peace the Sikh religion is founded upon. I was overjoyed to be able to worship and celebrate our belief in the same God and feel that they were not insulted that I carried my love and commitment to Christ along with me. I loved how the children were free to be children and yet equally important to the elements of worship and fellowship. I was in awe of how this community opened their doors and hearts to strangers just a few days after another stranger had taken 6 lives. Most of all, I came away with a heart full of love and blessing for these new-found brothers and sisters in faith. Yes we have some fundamental differences - but we have far more in common that most would belief.

I am so thankful for my experience tonight and I pray that our Sikh friends will be allowed the same blessing that me and my congregation do - the ability to gather in worship without fear of hatred and violence.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Dying to Live

The view from my office window is changing, ever so slightly, each day. Just prior to my moving in, the wind blew down a rather large pine tree. At first, I thought that the root system must have remained intact as it fell because it still appeared as green as ever. However in the last few days I have noted the signs of the inevitable - entire branches turning brown and drying up while others are losing their vibrant green and fading to a dusty gray.  The old giant is finally dying...slowly...as if she is fighting it with all she has - refusing to acknowledge that indeed, she cannot possible live in this state. It makes me sad to watch, and yet, even I (a closet tree hugging hippy) must acknowledge it is a cycle of life, a rhythm of nature to be respected.

This morning I met with a group of pastors and as so often happens when pastors meet, the topic ultimately turns to death, specifically the death of churches. As I came home I found myself pondering Revelation 3:1-2 "And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: 'I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God."

I am left to wonder: How many of our churches are like this fallen tree outside my window. They know they have fallen away from the root system that nourishes (in my metaphor it would be the Holy Spirit) and yet they have just enough strength to maintain the image of life for a while. Is that what John is talking about in his revelation? I know of many churches who do good things, who work hard to worship and fellowship with one another, who participate in missions when they can...but who haven't felt the fresh breath of God's Holy Spirit blow through their doors in years...decades.

This past Sunday we celebrated Jesus as the Bread of Life - we were reminded that Christ came to bring life to the world, not death. Shouldn't then it make sense that Christ's body, the church, is meant for life, not death? If we would but embrace the life that Christ came to offer and open ourselves to the movement and power of the Holy Spirit, would we not all be fully alive and growing?

I find good news in this Revelation text - the call to WAKE UP and strengthen what remains. Our hope is that we have time to wake up before it is too late and the last of the green is faded away. Our hope is that we will see the first brittle, dried up signs of approaching decay and be motivated to remember that our main objective is to worship a LIVING God - and allow God to infuse into us once again the breath that only God can give...the breath of life.

It all sounds beautiful on the page doesn't it? But the truth is, to live in Christ is to die to self. To give ourselves (and "our" churches) over to the Holy Spirit means we sometimes have to let go of the things "we" want and give in to the call of what God wants. It means learning to stop using phrases like "I think..." and instead say "Let us pray and listen for God's will."

The last few years have been a personal exercise in patience for me ( a normally impatient person) as I have had to learn that as a pastor, sometimes the bulk of my job is sitting and waiting on God to show me the next move. I learned the hard way that while I am perfectly capable of moving on my own - it is rarely a good result when I do. My finest work turns out not to be my work at all - but instead God's work passed through my patient and yielding hands. I am still not great at waiting but God is a patient teacher.

And thanks be to God for being patient with "us" (the church), as we learn that our greatest work is not our work at all - but our yielding to let God work through us to bring life to the world.

Merciful God, may your church wake up and see once again the beauty of her strength - Life in Christ - Breath in Spirit - Love in you. Amen.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Strength For Service

Since moving into our new home I have been waiting on one thing...a cool morning so that I might have coffee and morning devotions on the magnificent front porch. Finally, that day has arrived. Although I might be stretching it to use the word "cool" as it is 74 degrees and 84% humidity - but for the south in July, I will call that cool.

My morning devotion took me to Romans 15 and the call to contemplate what it means to serve others. We all know it is part of the Christian way to serve but isn't there something that often holds us back from doing so with complete abandon? After all, we wonder, do we really have the strength to step into the "mess" of another person's troubles when we have troubles of our own?

Thank God, Jesus had the strength to do that - but I'm not Jesus - so how do I find the strength to do so? How do any of us? As I contemplate this question I find myself staring out at the landscaped beds in front of the porch - Hostas and Ferns adorn the front of my porch and I notice then how they grow. They are tucked away in the shade of the large trees, sheltered by the beautiful house - yet they yearn for something more. I notice they are all growing toward the left - which so happens to be the direction of the sunrise. These simple little plants know something we all need to be reminded of - and that is to seek the Son.

The plants know they need the sun to not only survive but to thrive fully as a well nourished and productive being. To fulfill their purpose as a plant they need sun and so they grow in such a way to get all of it they can get. What a great lesson for us who are called to serve and who worry that it might be a drain on us, or too difficult for us. For strength to live into our purpose to serve one another we simply need to grow in such a way that we get all of the Son we need. We must remember to keep our face and eyes on Him always and then we will have the strength for service for which we are called.

With eyes toward the Son,
Karen