Saturday, October 24, 2020

Learning to Love Ourselves in Order to Love God and Neighbor

I don’t think we in the church are doing a good job of helping people learn to love themselves. Which makes me wonder if we really know how to love others, and especially love God.

Seriously.

I say that because of what Jesus reveals to us in this week’s Gospel lesson: He tells the Pharisees that the greatest commandment is this: “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Matthew 22:37-39)

The two most important commandments have to do with love, and they are connected to each other. If we love God with all of who we are, we will love our neighbor, who is made in the image of God. AND we will commit to loving our neighbor with the same care and fullness that we love ourselves.

One look at the world around us, particularly in the midst of a highly divisive election, and the first thing glaringly evident is that love is in short supply. But, even without the stark contrasts that election fever brings, one cannot help noting that love is not clearly evident in how we treat our neighbor through the choices we make and the words we speak.

Maybe, just maybe this is all due to the fact that we don’t really love ourselves and it is easier to take it out on others than allow the self-hatred to further corrode our souls.

I want our churches to be places where people see themselves as God sees them: as beautiful reflections of the Divine.

I want churches to be places where people discover what unconditional love and acceptance feels like, and that you receive it not based on some system of merit but simply because you are you, a one-of-a-kind gift of God to the world.

I want churches to be places where people discover that power is not the same thing as love.

I want churches to be the place where everyone learns that God loves them with a love that will never let them go.


I believe that when we lean into God’s love for us, we can learn to love ourselves. And when we love ourselves, we can truly love God and neighbor in ways that are revolutionary:

--We are unable to allow systems and institutions degrade those around us.
--We become uncomfortable with our own comforts when others are without.
--We make choices—including who we vote for—that demonstrate our love of neighbor, particularly those who are on the margins, who suffer, and who are far from centers of power.
--We shift the values that guide how we move in the world from “I/me” to “We/us”.

Imagine a world where love is the North Star that guides us home to right relationship with God, with neighbor, and with self.

So, friends, let’s help our churches become Love Centers!

Be well! Stay safe! Wear a mask!

Monday, October 19, 2020

A CITIZEN OF THE STATE AND A FOLLOWER OF JESUS

 I have been reflecting on this week’s Gospel lesson, Matthew 22:15-22. It is when the Pharisees, along with the Herodians, try to trap Jesus by first flattering him and then asking a question which was, for them, a lose/lose question for Jesus: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Jesus recognizes the trap and asks:

“Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:19-21)

I confess, I have mainly preached this text for Stewardship Sundays. But studying this scripture in light of a contentious election season has me asking more questions and, as a result, seeing new meaning in the scripture.

As I look at my ballot, I know it is a right and a duty as a citizen of the United States to vote. There is a responsibility to know the issues facing the nation and my community and the various ballot measures that seek to address them.


As a follower of Jesus, my vote is informed by his teaching. I am called to engage the State through my vote in a way that not only betters my life, but to consider how my vote can better the lives of others as well. I don’t vote only for my self-interests but for the larger body of which I am a part.

My first obedience is to God who made this world, all living things, and the human family. While I support a government with my taxes and with my engagement, there is a greater loyalty that guides me. It is what causes me to vote for those things that will protect the earth, care for the most vulnerable, provide health care for all, and insure that our young people have a quality education, no matter where they live. I pay my taxes faithfully so that these things can be a reality.

How about you? What does it mean to give to the government what is the government’s and give to God what is God’s? How will your loyalty as a follow of Jesus inform your vote and the world God desires for all of us?

Be well. Stay safe. Wear a mask.


Saturday, October 10, 2020

Rejoice?

It feels like every day offers us a new assault: another person we know diagnosed with COVID-19, word that someone we know has died, an experience of yet another instance of racism, seeing incivility take over the public square and public discourse, another quick change of plans because of the rise in COVID cases, another business closed, feeling the pang of separation from those we love not only because of distance but because of the political division of this historical moment…

We are all tired, depressed, angry and carrying individual and communal trauma of these past 7 months.

This morning I read the week’s lectionary (Philippians 4:1-13 ) and there was Paul admonishing me,


“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”


Oh, come on now.


Joy and rejoicing certainly feel in short supply these days. And it is hard to muster it at all sometimes. Then I remember a little bit more about what Paul was doing when he said these words. He was not in the middle of a hymn sing or a church potluck. He had not just returned from a reunion with followers of Jesus or a revival at which more people chose to follow the carpenter from Nazareth.


He wrote these words from prison. He wrote about rejoicing from a prison cell. He wrote these words from a prison cell wondering if his execution was near. In the midst of persecution and pain, what does he advise? “Rejoice.”


At a time when some of us are forgetting what joy looks like, I invite you to reflect on Paul’s words. What does it mean for you to rejoice? What might be a cause for rejoicing? How does rejoicing in God’s love and presence help us draw even closer to God?


One of the ways I am trying to do this is to find joy in the little things:


· The tinkling of a wind chime outside my window

· The feel of new bath towels (the first in almost two decades!) as they envelop me

· The warm sun on my face, and the way the wind, with a hint of coolness, caresses my arms

· The smell of something baking in the oven

· How seeing a friend in person—even masked and socially distanced—fills me up with energy I hadn’t realize I was missing

· The way the leaves are changing color each day, and watching some already release themselves and fall to the ground

· Taking a walk and hearing the giggles of children nearby


There is a passage from Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” that reminds me of how God is always placing in front of us small joys:


“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it.' 'What it do when it pissed off?' I ast. 'Oh, it make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.' 'Yeah?' I say. 'Yeah,' she say. 'It always making little surprises and springing them on us when us least expect.' 'You mean it want to be loved, just like the bible say.' 'Yes, Celie,' she say. 'Everything want to be loved.”


May you look, and find, those small joys God has put in your life today. May it be a source of rejoicing. May it cause you to fall more deeply in love with God and those around you.


Be well. Stay safe. Wear a mask.





Saturday, October 3, 2020

Sitting Beside the Still Waters

We have been living with tremendous anxiety, tension, and burdens over the past six months. This past week compounded all of that: the difficulties of moving from an in-person to an on-line life, the burden of being both a work-from-home parent and a virtual classroom assistant, the trauma of a lifetime of racist indignities and experiencing it again on the national stage, and hearing the President’s and First Lady’s COVID-19 diagnoses and wondering what it means for the country and for oneself.


I don’t know about you, but I am bone weary. Sleep eludes me. And there is an underlying anxiety that I can’t seem to shake.

How are YOU doing?

These are difficult days. I have seen so much public displays of anger this week as I grocery shopped, got gas, or drove through a parking lot. The faces of people I look at via Zoom look drawn and tired. The uncertainty of a nation in crisis is weighing heavily.

I worry about how we will get through the coming weeks and months when so many are already feeling so stressed and stretched.

Recently, I have turned to meditating on the Psalms as a way to ground myself for each day’s challenges. I invite you, right now, to take a deep breath. Really breathe. Slowly, deeply (Jeff Rainwater has shared with conference staff that there really is something called zoom apnea. Apparently, we unconsciously hold our breath or breathe shallowly when we are engaging a screen).

Remember the beginning of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. God makes me lie down in green pastures; God leads me beside still waters; God restores my soul.” Close your eyes and allow God’s Holy Spirit to guide you to that place that has always been a restorative balm for your weary soul. Imagine going to that place, and God helping you lie down. Now breathe in deeply again. Feel the stillness. Allow God to restore and renew you.


As the weather cools and the days shorten, we will need these spiritual resting places that we can visit, reconnect with God, and let God’s Spirit fill and empower us.

Always remember: you are not alone. These are unusual days, and while each of us experiences it differently, we are still traveling together through it.

Be well. Stay safe. Wear a mask.


Sunday, September 27, 2020

Stumbling Stones of Remembrance

 

I have been reading a very thoughtful book, “Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil” by Susan Neiman. Neiman reflects on how Germans have sought to atone for the evil acts of their past and she contrasts that with how the United States has dealt with the racist evil of our own history. It was a fascinating read in light of the arguments about confederate symbols and monuments that are occurring in the United States right now. In Germany, there are no state-sanctioned symbols or monuments honoring the Nazis. This was a conscious decision: why would the perpetrators of one of the most heinous crimes against humanity be remembered and revered in public places?

In fact, in many cities across Europe, there are memorials to the victims of the holocaust, as a way to honor those who were tortured and murdered and to never forget the atrocities. In 1992, artist Gunter Demnig began a project that has become the largest decentralized memorial in the world: the Stoplerstiene, or, the Stumbling Stone project. These stumbling stones are small square metal plaques, placed in the last place a Nazi victim voluntarily lived or worked. The stones list the person’s name, dates of birth, deportation, and death, if known. At the end of 2019, more than 75,000 stones had been laid. And it is not only Jews who are remembered: ALL the victims of Nazi persecution are remembered: people of different ethnicities and nationalities, LGBT persons, people with disabilities, and religious and political resisters.

The stones have not been without controversy: some people argue that there is nothing that honors the memory of a holocaust victim by stepping over their nameplate. But as one of the artist’s assistant’s said, “I can’t think of a better form of remembrance. If you want to read the stone, you must bow before the victim.”

I wonder what we in the United States can learn from this? We are still arguing about the place of Robert E. Lee and confederate monuments and commemorative places. Why do we honor those who sought to break apart the Union because of their belief that it was okay to own another human being? How does this continue to embed racism in our nation’s soul?


What if we had plaques in communities, commemorating those who suffered under slavery? What if we had stumbling stones in places with black and brown skinned people were murdered? What if every community across the Mountain Sky Conference did the same research communities in German are doing:

“Stolpersteine remain a grassroots initiative. Local groups – often residents of a particular street, or schoolchildren working on a project – come together to research the biographies of local victims, and to raise the €120 it costs to install each stone.” (https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/feb/18/stumbling-stones-a-different-vision-of-holocaust-remembrance)

Imagine our churches doing this research, discovering a hidden history of racism and oppression and atoning by marking the place where a person of color was wrongfully treated, dehumanized, or murdered. How would it change how we walk down those streets? How would it change how we look at people who don’t look like us? How would it change the world for everyone?

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Baton Has Been Passed...to US

 

I confess, my heart is heavy.

This has been an intense season of loss, both in our conference and in our country, with the passing of our spiritual and moral giants. Three civil rights leaders—Rev. Gil Caldwell, John Lewis, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg—have fallen. These elders poured out their lives in pursuit of justice, right relationship, and equality. And they didn’t stop as they aged or became infirmed. They kept writing and witnessing for a better world.

Their work inspired us, taught us, and motivated us to keep on keeping on. Their life stories showed us that the only thing that makes something impossible is the lack of imagination and will. They showed us how faith is an undergirding force that can carry us through opposition, injustice, and oppression and help us achieve a God-preferred future for humankind.

It is easy, in the midst of grieving such loss, to fall into a hopeless despair—there is a void where once stood inspired leaders. But our faith teaches us that death is not an ending. God is more powerful than death and will break it open so that new life can emerge.

We are the heirs to the wisdom, courage, and commitment of these beloved ones. We are the ones who have been give the baton they once carried. We now possess so many possibilities: will we simply cry our tears and shirk from the responsibilities they have handed to us? Or will we, while eyes still moist, rise up to continue the work they left unfinished? Can we allow ourselves to let the Spirit empower us to carry on the creation of God’s Beloved Community?

And if not us…if not you and me…then who?

Be well. Stay safe. Wear a mask.

With love,

Bishop Karen

 

 

Monday, September 14, 2020

We Are the Somebodies Who Were Once the Nobodies

 

Recently, my thoughts have been with one of the congregations I served in San Francisco, Bethany UMC. There was a memorial for Dan Johnson, one of the members who left a profound mark on the life of the congregation. I have been thinking often of the people in that church and the ministries we shared.

One my favorite stoles was given to me by the women of the church. They had made a quilt for all the men in the congregation who had died of AIDS, and the pattern of the stole was the border of the quilt.  Whenever I wear this stole, I remember the men who died, and also the women who commemorated them, all of whom have passed themselves.

To be a pastor in San Francisco in the early 90’s, at the very epicenter of the AIDS epidemic, was to be in constant crisis and funeral mode. Yet one more positive diagnosis, one more death. It was a heart breaking experience, holding the hands of young men who looked decades older than their years as they lay dying. Often, parents had abandoned their dying sons. Others chose not to tell their parents they were ill, for fear of rejection. The song that often ran through my head during that time was the spiritual:

            Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows my sorrow. 

The men diagnosed in those first couple of decades knew most intimately the anguish found in this song. In those days, contracting HIV made one a social outcast by mainstream culture. Folks did everything they could to hide the signs of the disease. People lost jobs, lost housing, lost their families, if their diagnosis was discovered.

            Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows my sorrow.

As a country, as a community of faith, we were guilty back then of being the nobodies. We were the nobodies who averted our eyes from a disease that was ravaging an entire group of people. We were the nobodies who refused to look deep into the sorrow of those who tested positive. We were the nobodies who failed to offer a compassionate response to the sick. We were the nobodies who neglected to offer care. We were the nobodies who allowed the government to turn its back and ignore a disease that would soon spill into other segments of the population.

            Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows my sorrow

            But as people of faith, we know that through the grace of God nobodies become somebodies. We are called to be somebody who has empathy with another’s experience. We are called to be somebody who seeks relationship with those who are suffering. We are called to be somebody who is moved to action. We are called to be somebody who is not content with the status quo. We are called to be somebody who challenges not just institutional responses to injustice and oppression, but somebody who challenges the individuals around us to reach out, to serve, to make a difference.  We are called to be somebody who is willing to take risks and make sacrifices.  We are called to be somebody who is committed to removing the stigma of discrimination.  We are called to be somebody who is not content until together we have created a just world.

We are the somebodies who were once nobodies. As followers of Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, we will no longer avert our eyes from the troubles, we will no longer ignore the sorrow of any sibling who suffer.