Saturday, November 10, 2018

What In God's Name Are You Doing?

Praying for the laity and clergy of the Mountain Sky Conference as we prepare for Sunday worship.

When I was young, the most dreaded seven words were, “What in God’s name are you doing?” Whenever I heard those words, I froze! Even if I didn’t think of it as I was doing it, as soon as I heard those words, I knew I was doing something very, very wrong.

I have been thinking a lot about that phrase lately. There is much talk about the role of faith in politics. Yet, looking at the great divisions in our nation, I am left to wonder, “What in God’s name are we doing?” How does our faith inform our public witness? How does it impact the way we move in the world? How does it shape our relationships, not only with those we call family and friends, but those whose names we may never know?

What in God’s name are we doing?

Jesus makes it very plain what those who are his disciples are to do:

“I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matthew 25)

Jesus makes it clear that to act in the name of Jesus means to look towards those who have been pushed down and pushed out to the margins. It means opening our eyes and hearts to those others are ignoring and acting in ways that bring healing, hope and justice. It means being disturbed by the mistreatment of others and doing something to challenge and change the systems that promote oppression and injustice.

Henri Nouwen said:

“Ministry is acting in the Name of Jesus. When all our actions are in the Name, they will bear fruit for eternal life. To act in the Name of Jesus, however, doesn’t mean to act as a representative of Jesus or his spokesperson. It means to act in an intimate communion with him. The Name is like a house, a tent, a dwelling. To act in the Name of Jesus, therefore, means to act from the place where we are united with Jesus in love. To the question “Where are you?” we should be able to answer, “I am in the Name.” Then, whatever we do cannot be other than ministry because it will always be Jesus himself who acts in and through us. The final question for all who minister is ‘Are you in the Name of Jesus?’ When we can say yes to that, all of our lives will be ministry.”

What in God’s name are you going? May your time in church strengthen you to live so fully connected to Jesus that everything you do will be grounded in God’s love, so that your whole life may be ministry.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

I sing a song of the saints of God…

Tomorrow in many churches, All Saints Day will be celebrated. We will sing “For All the Saints” and name those who died in the past year. There will most likely be some tears and perhaps even a laugh or two, remembering the life of a loved one.

For most of human history, death has been a close partner in life. Life expectancies were short. Medical knowledge was lacking. During the Roman empire, life expectancy was 28 years. In medieval Britain, it raised to 30. It has only been in the last 100 years, with the leaps made in medicine, that life expectancy has surged to nearly 80. These medical advances caused death to no longer be understood as a natural part of living, but a pathology to be avoided at all cost. Where once we were comfortable with both death and grief, making space for it in life, we now hide death and seek to curtail the grieving process.

Try as we might, we cannot keep death at arms length. As much as we might like to surround our loved ones and especially our heart in a hazmat protective suit, death will inevitably come to those we love, and to we ourselves.
Some of us saw death this year. Many of us had our lives profoundly impacted by the loss of a loved one. Grief clings to us as bitter soot on our souls, because life has been taken from us, wrenched from our grasp. The empty place beside us in bed, or at the dinner table, or in the office, or next door, or at the family gathering, is an ever present reminder that cannot be denied that death has paid a visit and left with one we love.

Even though death has taken some dear ones from us, my faith in the risen Christ tells me that they are in fact here, still amongst us, a part of the great cloud of witness and within the communion of saints. My faith helps me continue to experience the love we shared that not even death can take away. Faith teaches me that the dead are never very far from the living.

This weekend is a time when many cultures and religious traditions believe that the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest. It is a time to honor those who have passed, those saints of our lives who now rest in the arms of God. We in the Spanish Language/Liberation Theology Immersion group from our annual conference were in Mexico for El Dia de Los Muertos, and joined the people of a small town, going from home to home of those who had lost a loved one this year, to view the altars they had made for them and to be offered food and drink as a way to celebrate their lives.

Who are the saints in your life, those who from their labors rest, who today are sitting now at God’s side, watching over and caring for you, continuing to surround you in love that not even death can destroy?

Whose voice do you still hear? Who do you remember? Who showed you a bit of what God is like? Who loved you? Whose love was so big that not even death can put an end to it? I invite you to post their picture below, and offer a memory or two.

Thomas Lynch, an undertaker turned poet, reminds us to be gentle with ourselves and our grief. It is hard work. His advice is this:

“There's no easy way to do this. So do it right: weep, laugh, watch, pray, love, live, give thanks and praise; comfort, mend, honor, and remember.”

I invite you, tomorrow, to turn to your pewmates as you remember the saints of your lives. Offer comfort. Offer affirmation. Offer life. Offer love as we live into and move through our grief, as we surround ourselves with saints.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Lean Into Love

I am in Cuernavaca, Mexico, with the Spanish Language/Liberation Theology Immersion group from the Mountain Sky Conference. As our day comes to a close, I am holding the clergy and laity of our annual conference in my prayers as we prepare ourselves for Sunday worship. My heart and prayers are also filled with so many others this night.

I am praying for those who gathered for their Sabbath today at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, only to have their worship cut short by violence: The Image of God shattered by bullets propelled by anti-semitism.

I am praying for Matthew Shepard, a young gay man murdered within our conference boundary twenty years ago, whose remains found their final resting place in the Washington, DC National Cathedral, and for LGBTQ persons around the world who face violence every day. I am praying for our Transgender siblings, whose very existence was threatened to be erased by the US government this week.

I am praying for those recovering from natural disasters, in the US and around the world.

I am praying for migrants around the world, who are fleeing the violence, persecution, and the threat of death in their own countries to find sanctuary in another.

I am praying for black and brown people, especially those who are young men, who, simply because of the pigmentation of their skin, are met with hostility and suspicion—and all too frequently violence and arrest--as they move within their communities.  

I am praying for those who have survived sexual assault and domestic violence and whose wounds still bleed even when we can’t see the scars.

I am praying for those whose lives are chained to addictions, and for the trauma these addictions have inflicted on those who love them.

I am praying for The United Methodist Church, as we continue to struggle with how to welcome every child of God into the life and ministry of the Church so that the Body of Christ can be whole.

I am praying.

I am praying and it makes my heart heavy as I encounter the brokenness of the world.

Earlier this week, we in the Immersion group were invited to join a celebration of the life and canonization of Oscar Romero. Romero was the archbishop of San Salvador who died a martyr while celebrating the Eucharist, felled by a single bullet by an assassin.

One of the readings during the celebration was from the Gospel of Luke:

“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,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4: 18-19)

When Jesus read these words from the prophet Isaiah, he declared to all the central focus of his ministry: the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the forgotten. Jesus lived a Love that kept him close to those society pushed down and pushed out. This Love kept him in solidarity with the oppressed, offering them liberation. Even when his commitment to the oppressed led him to the cross, Love could not be stopped--Love burst him free from the grave so that all could receive the power found in God's Love. Nothing, nothing in all of creation, can prevent liberation and new life from being born through Love's labors.

Romero increasingly claimed these words of Jesus. As he opened his heart to the poor and those who were being oppressed by government forces, he began to speak out from the pulpit about the injustices and gave the people new hope through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He spoke out against the lies of the government, denounced the killings of those who spoke out against the government's policies by death squads, set up legal aid for victims of violence, and when those rising up against the government began resorting to violence, he called for non-violent resistance.

Even though wealthy Catholics, government officials, and even colleagues began vilifying him, resulting in harassment and public opposition, he refused to break solidarity with the poor. As his life became increasingly threatened, Romero knew that being murdered was a possibility. He said literally days before his death:

“As a Christian I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will be reborn in the Salvadoran people."

At the Celebration for the Life and Canonization 
of Oscar Romero
And there we were, members of the Mountain Sky Spanish Language/Liberation Theology Immersion, learning the truth of his words: Romero lives on in the lives of the poor throughout Latin America, who know through scripture of a God who always sides with the oppressed, who seeks a world of justice and compassion, who will not let Love die.

As we carry the world’s brokenness in our hearts and prayers, may we too decide to lean more fully into Love’s demands, to care for those who have been told they are unworthy; to seek the healing of those who suffer; to side with the oppressed and seek justice; to respond with all that we have to those who are in need.

And when it seems as if hatred, oppression, and injustice seem to have the upper hand, may we step even closer into Love’s demands—as Jesus showed us--for God demands nothing less of us.

As you gather for worship tomorrow, I invite you to pray this prayer that we prayed with those who gathered to celebrate Oscar Romero:

Our Father, who are in the flowers, in the song of the birds, in the beating heart. You are present in love, compassion, patience, and the gesture of forgiveness.

Our Father, be in me, in my family, in my friends. Be in the one I love, in that which hurts me, in the one who seeks the truth.

Hallowed be your Name. May it be adored and glorified, by all that is beautiful, good, fair, honest, of good name and merciful. 

Bring to us your kingdom of peace and justice, faith, light, love. Be the center of my life, my home, my family, my word, my studies.

Thy will be done, though my prayers sometimes feed my pride and my ego more than my real needs.

Forgive me all my offenses, my mistakes, my faults. My sin and offenses against you, against myself and against those around me, forgive me when my heart becomes cold.

Forgive me, as I with your help, forgive those who offend me, even when my heart has been hurt.

Do not let me fall into the temptations of mistakes, of vices, of criticism, judgement, gossip, envy, pride, destruction, and selfishness.

And deliver me from all evil, from all violence, from all misfortune and from every disease. Free me from all pain, from all sadness, anguish and disappointment.

But, even if such difficulties may be necessary in my life, may I have the strength and courage to say, Thank you, Father, Lord King of the Universe for this lesson!

So be it!

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Breath of God

All week I have been up at the YMCA Camp in Estes Park, first for Clergy Orders, and then for a cabinet meeting. What an inspiring place to meet! We are surrounded by snow covered mountains, reminding us of the grandeur of God’s grandeur and power. For weary clergy, it’s been a welcomed balm.

Because being a pastor isn’t easy. While the joke is that we only work on Sundays, the fact is clergy work long hours: studying, praying, preparing for worship, growing disciples, being with those who are sick, helping people navigate the courts, celebrating marriages, holding someone’s hand as they take their final earthly journey, encouraging children and young people, catching the tears of the broken-hearted, doing strategic planning for their church’s future, empowering leaders, making sure the church’s administrative work is in order, tending to their own souls.

While clergy have a particular role to play in the Body of Christ, every Christian is to have a 24/7 focus on the ways of Jesus and to continually reflect on how we are living it out in our own life and in the life of community. Each of us has a visible witness to make in the world about what the spiritual life looks like.

Sister Joan Chittister puts it this way, “Everyone gets up in the morning and breathes. The question is, what breath are you breathing out and what breath are you breathing in? How does your best friend and your family know that what you breathe is the breath of God and that it is different than just running through the paces of life?”

All week long, we have been breathing deeply up here at 8000 feet. While the air is thin at this elevation and required deep gulps of air until we acclimated, we’ve also been breathing in and out the breath of God, conscious of our life of faith. May you, as you rise in the morning, be mindful as you draw your first waking breath that you are breathing in God. What might happen if you spend the whole day consciously breathing in the breath of God?
May you be able to affirm, as Job did “The spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” (Job 33:4)

Saturday, October 13, 2018

What Will Your, What Will Our, Legacy Be?

This month I’ve been spending a lot of time with our United Methodist history. I visited the United Methodist Archives one afternoon at the beginning of the month. Everywhere you looked, there were pictures, artifacts, and papers about who we’ve been. Tomorrow, I am preaching at John St. UMC in NYC, which is the oldest United Methodist congregation in the United States, begun in 1766, thanks to Barbara Heck, an immigrant who noticed that her fellow Methodist immigrants were
growing laxed in their spiritual disciplines. Upon coming into a room where some were playing cards, she seized the cards, threw them in the fire, and told one of them he better start preaching! The meetings commenced and Heck designed a simple chapel for them to meet in.

Besides the sanctuary, John St. has a small museum of Methodist memorabilia. They will be bringing into the sanctuary a chair used by the first bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Francis Asbury, for me to sit in. All of this makes me, being such a Metho-Geek, simply swoon!

But I’ve been thinking a lot about our local churches. Each one carries a rich history. Not just baptism and funeral records, but stories of turning points in the life of the congregation, when discipleship helped everyone grow more faithfully as followers of Jesus. There are also difficult stories, when disagreements and tensions caused the cord of fellowship to not just fray but break.

What stories does your community tell? What objects help communicate the power of the story?

Our churches, however, are not merely museums of the past. It is important to know the past, so that we can understand how we are impacted by it and learn from its lessons. But churches are a living, breathing organism known as the Body of Christ. You are making history together, one that will be told by generations to come. Will they speak of a group that was willing to take risks of faith, sharing the Gospel’s Good News to those who have never heard it before? Will they hear of a wide and generous hospitality, that spilled out into the surrounding neighborhood? Will there be some who, when they were children, will speak lovingly of a nurturing community that put its resources into the generations that were still in grade school and high school, because they knew that a healthy future for the church was dependent on how they cared for the children of their day?

And as we ponder our denomination, what will we leave behind for archivists to sift through? Will there be testimonies of individuals and churches that boldly dreamed of a church that dared to live out the Gospel mandate to love God and neighbor so deeply that divisions melted away, releasing God’s love in tangible, transforming ways throughout the world? Will future scholars note how the Holy Spirit descended upon the denomination, and hearts were on fire as never before to share the Good News of Jesus Christ so that a broken world was made whole because the people called Methodist made this Good News visible? Will they speak of a time of tension in the life of the church over human sexuality that was overcome because people dared to see in one another the image of God, and chose love over division?

What will we leave behind? Each of us has a role to play in the future direction of our church, and the unfolding of Beloved Community. What is God asking of you?

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Come To The Table of Life!

It has always befuddled me when people would tell me that their least favorite Sunday was Communion Sunday. What would make someone dislike this sacred meal, a table set for us by a Holy Host? Some have said they didn’t like getting up out of their pew to stand in front of the congregation. Others have been deeply honest and said they didn’t feel worthy.

I love this meal for so many reasons: at this table, as I have knelt down and felt my forearms slide into grooves worn down by countless others who have knelt in the same place with arms outstretched, I become aware of how the meal connects me not only to those in church that day with me, but with generations of people who have come before me. I have been reminded that this meal is offered freely to me, that I am to come as I am. In spite of feelings of inadequacy, the ways I feel I have fallen short of following in the ways of Jesus, the things I am ashamed of, the wounds I carry, the flaws I cannot face in myself, there are arms outstretched, waiting to greet me at this table to remind me that I am loved even with all of these feelings. Through this meal, I find myself offered a holy wholeness. At this table, my deepest longing for a relationship with God, to know and be known by my Creator, is fulfilled.

Tomorrow is World Communion. Christians from around the world will be reminded of the vast cord of connection that unites us through communion. As we break the bread and pass the cup, we will enter into the holy mystery of this meal. Ordinary foodstuff will be infused with meaning and become extraordinary. Hands will be extended to receive this food, and more than a physical hunger pain will be assuaged. A spiritual hunger will be brought to the table, a hunger for relationship, hope, healing, forgiveness and wholeness. In the holiness of the moment, as we meet Christ who has been waiting for us at the table, all will be filled.

Don’t hold yourself back! Come to the table with all of who you are! There is a place meant only for you. Come, and be received by the One who seeks to offer you Life!

Saturday, September 29, 2018

To Repair The World

If there is one word that could sum up the week that we have collectively experienced, it is “brokenness”. Reading through my Facebook feed, the honest and raw posts by women and men of past sexual abuse experiences left me often in tears. The deep wounds—too often carried in a shroud of silence and secrecy by our family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and selves--together create a massive oozing scab on our societal psyche.

If places (like church) and people (those we call family and friends) are not safe enough so that we can grow and flourish without fear of harm, is it any wonder why our communities are places of so much turmoil and pain? When someone’s personhood is reduced to a “thing” to be used/abused/discarded, we have failed mightily to see the image of God that person possesses. And our harmful treatment causes them to begin to doubt that they are indeed a beloved child of God, worthy of care and compassion.

This breach spills out beyond our interpersonal relationships and into the world. The earth bears the scars of our failure to reverence the gift God has given us in nature, and the responsibility we have been bestowed by God to be careful stewards of it.

The world, our relationships, our souls are in need of repair.

Henri Nouwen reminds us: “Jesus didn't say, 'Blessed are those who care for the poor.' He said, 'Blessed are we where we are poor, where we are broken.' It is there that God loves us deeply and pulls us into deeper communion with [Godself].” If you are weighted down by brokenness, know that it is in the midst of your brokenness that God comes with a healing love to mend that which has been harmed. Open yourself up to that love and share it with the walking wounded around you.

My Jewish friends have taught me about the concept of “tikkun olam”, of “repairing the world”. It is each person’s responsibility to engage in loving acts of kindness not only for one’s own well-being, but for the well-being of the world.

We United Methodists talk about “personal piety and social holiness”. Our own salvation is connected to saving the world. Our vital faith and commitment to Christ ought to be made visible in our justice-making and seeking right relationship with each other and the earth.

Tomorrow, bring the brokenness of your life and of our world and lay it on the altar. Let God’s love wash over you. May you hear God’s voice saying, “You are my beloved child in whom I delight.” Then, hand in hand with those around you, may you seek to repair the world.