Monday, November 30, 2009

Advent, Day 2: Rick Warren, Pastors, and Politics

Why the big noise, nations? Why the mean plots, peoples? Earth-leaders push for position,
Demagogues and delegates meet for summit talks, The God-deniers, the Messiah-defiers:
"Let's get free of God! Cast loose from Messiah!"
Heaven-throned God breaks out laughing. At first God's amused at their presumption; then gets good and angry. Furiously, God shuts them up:
"Don't you know there's a King in Zion? A coronation banquet is spread for him on the holy summit."
Psalm 2: 1-6, from The Message

Rick Warren, who along with other evangelical leaders, has been courting African religious leaders with a strong anti-glbt message, has recently stated that he will not denounce a bill in Uganda that is getting world-wide attention.  The proposed bill makes gay sex a crime, with the minimum punishment being life imprisonment and the possibility of the death penalty if one has gay sex and is HIV+.  Warren, who has attempted to distance himself with Rev. Martin SSempa, a Ungandan pastor who has strongly endorsed the bill who has also appeared at Saddleback Church several times, has yet to speak publicly against the bill, stating that ""The fundamental dignity of every person, our right to be free, and the freedom to make moral choices are gifts endowed by God, our creator. However, it is not my personal calling as a pastor in America to comment or interfere in the political process of other nations."   Additionally, he added on Meet the Press, "As a pastor, my job is to encourage, to support. I never take sides."

I am sorry, but as a disciple of Jesus and as a representative of His Church, we are always called to take sides in the face of injustice and oppression.  When a country is contemplating genocide of a minority population, it is a sin for the Church (and that means you and me) to take a "hands off" approach and sit idly by. 

As one student said in my United Methodist History/Doctrine/Polity class today, to do/say nothing in the face of injustice is to already take a side.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Beginning the Advent Journey

Hallelujah! I give thanks to God with everything I've got—Wherever good people gather, and in the congregation. God's works are so great, worth a lifetime of study—endless enjoyment!
Splendor and beauty mark God's craft; whose generosity never gives out, whose miracles are God's memorial—this God of Grace, this God of Love.
(Psalm 111, from The Message)

It feels like the work of the Holy Spirit, that I am starting this Advent Journey, this walk to the Bethlehem manger, with a purple band encircling my right wrist. It was given to my colleagues and me when we attended a clergy retreat earlier this month.  The band is from A Complaint Free World.  The purpose is to help one stop complaining about things and instead act to change what one doesn't like.  We have been challenged to wear the band for 90 days. 90 days of no complaining! None!

This band has been very effective. Every time I have begun to complain about something, my left hand has instinctively reached for the band on my right wrist, and my mouth has closed shut! It has become a Pavlovian response! And my complaining quotient has drastically reduced.

Which feels like a good way to begin Advent, this four week journey of preparing ourselves and our world to welcome Christ into our world once again.  By reducing my complaining and increasing my praising, my heart feels like it is making room as I look for God's gift of love to be born in my heart once again.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Getting Gratitude

I love Thanksgiving because out of all the holidays, it is the least commercialized. Christmas has been turned into a shopping frenzy. Easter has become literally sugar-coated, with chocolate bunnies and jelly beans.

But then there’s Thanksgiving. Face it, marketing turkeys just isn’t very sexy. But it's more than that, you can’t manufacture and sell gratitude.

Gratitude is not forced optimism; it is not a denial of real pain and loss; it is not the power of positive thinking. it is not a focus on the good things on life.

It is a posture and a prayer.

Albert Einstein once said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Thanksgiving invites us to live our lives as if everything is a miracle:

The sky as dusk descends
The birth of a child
The community that comes together when there is a loss
The taste and texture of a perfectly ripened strawberry
People helping people
The abundance that is revealed when we share
The amount of light a single candle gives off in the darkness
The opening of one’s heart to love after it has been broken
A warm bed on a cold night

Thanksgiving invites us to remember the miracles that are waiting to be discovered in each and every day we are given, and to uncurl our fists and open our hearts to accept them.  That's how gratitude grows in our lives.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Whose Table Is It, Really?

It has been sobering to read about Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin banning Sen. Patrick Kennedy from receiving communion. Tobin has justified his action by stating that Kennedy's political positions--specifically around reproductive rights--go against the teachings of the Church and therefore he should not receive communion.

I hesitate to call this a pastoral act, because there is nothing pastoral about refusing someone access to communion. The communion table does not belong to the Roman Catholic Church, it does not belong to Bishop Tobin. It is Christ's table.  Can Bishop Tobin be so presumptuous as to speak for Christ about who can come to the table?

Communion is a means of grace, meaning that God works through the sacrament to impart saving love that has the power to transform human lives.  To politicize the table and withold this means of grace from someone is a form of ecclesiological cruelty and spiritual violence. 

In 1996, I was a participant in a Reconciling Ministries Network worship service held at The United Methodist General Conference.  This service celebrated the ways that God works through all God's people, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity, and provided spiritual support for those who were working for the full inclusion of all people into the life and ministry of The United Methodist Church.  I was one of the communion servers.  Hundreds of people came to the worship service, and as I offered the bread and cup to one worshipper after another--many co-workers in the movement for justice as well as many I did not know--I found standing before me, with hands outstretched to receive the communion elements, Mark Tooley, the director of UM Action of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD).  The IRD is a right-wing thinktank based in Washington, DC that has stirred controversies in primarily three denomonations: Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and United Methodist. The IRD criticizes the churches' social witness, particularly around lgbt rights, women's reproductive rights, and environmental justice.  The IRD tactics seem like they have been written from a page of international espionage, and in fact, Mark Tooley is a former CIA analyst.

I had read many inflammatory articles by Mark Tooley about church leaders I have long admired.  I have also been attacked by Mark.  So imagine my feelings when Mark appeared before me, to join in the communion meal. Here was one who, like Bishop Tobin, seeks to limit God's grace to an "in" group.  As he stood before me, I passed the bread to him, and offered him the cup of salvation.

That meal has made a huge impact on me. There have been times when I have wanted to demonize Mark for the pain he has caused me and others who disagree with his understanding of church. But I can't forget that Sunday afternoon service, and the meal we shared together.  I am reminded that Christ's table is large enough to include both of us, and that it can even hold the tension of our differences.  God is so great. At Christ's table, our ideological and theological differences are stripped away as we recognize around the table our sisters and brothers--children of God who struggle to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. We often mis-step, but at the table we are welcomed and fed so that we can rise from our knees and resume the spiritual journey, nourished by the grace of God.

Why would we want to hold anyone back from this meal?

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Act of Friending as a Means to Be-Friending

The word “unfriend” has recently been named word of the year by the New Oxford American Dictionary. “Unfriend” has made its way to the dictionary by way of Facebook and other social networking sites, in which you are asked to “friend” someone, making them a part of your Friends list. One unfriends someone one wants removed from one’s Friends list.

I admit to being a Facebook fan. As someone who is 3000 miles from her place of birth, Facebook has reconnected me to my past. I may no longer reside in the village of my youth, but Facebook, through cyberspace, has created a virtual village where my childhood friends, college classmates, colleagues, family, and current friends “live”. I feel known and whole in a way I didn’t even realize I was missing. The many pieces of my life have been brought together in a way that would be if I had stayed in my hometown.

Secondly, Facebook has demonstrated that we as a species can return civility to cyberspace. The internet had become a place where rude, catty, snarky comments could be posted to blogs, articles, and other sites anonymously. This anonymity brought out a meanness in messages that bordered on violent bullying. On social networking sites, however, you determine who will be on your Friend list and, therefore, who you will interact with. And most friends, even when we get on each other’s last nerve, communicate in ways that do not run the risk of ruining the relationship. As our Friends list grows to include our friends’ friends, civil conversation in cyberspace rises exponentially.

While the verb “unfriend” might be the word of 2009, I find the verb “friend” to offer greater hope and possibilities. As we learn to friend beyond our circle of acquaintances, as we develop bonds with friends of friends, as we add more and more people to our Friends list, we discover the power of be-friending. Be-friending enlarges our circle of care and compassion and helps us learn from those with whom we may disagree. In a mobile world where many have migrated to towns far from their birth, be-friending helps make the world our home and cyberspace our village.

Monday, November 16, 2009

You Have Now Entered...The Church Zone

Five years ago, when I became Associate Dean at Pacific School of Religion, I had the most jarring experience: I went to the movies on a Saturday night. It may sound benign, but as one who has spent more than 25 years preaching every Sunday, I felt like I had entered a new country. Who were all these people, and what were they doing out on a Saturday night?

Professional athletes have their training programs and plans to ensure readiness for a major event or meet. As a parish pastor, most Saturday nights of my adult life have been spent preparing for Sunday morning, preparing myself spiritually and emotionally to lead a congregation in worship. Friends knew not to ask me to a party (I would politely decline) and family never had high expectations of me (I was not the best Saturday dinner conversationalist). On the odd Saturday night that found me in a social setting, I was worse than Cinderella at the ball: if I wasn’t in bed by 9pm on Saturday night, surely my soul on Sunday would be as hollow as a carved-out pumpkin, lacking the spiritual substance to lead a congregation in praise of God. I usually left the party before most of the guests had even arrived.

So imagine my surprise when I went to a Saturday night movie shortly after beginning my position at PSR. People! Lots of people! People lingering over a late dinner! People going to the (gasp!) late showing of a film! There was a whole world happening of which I was unaware. Clearly, I had spent too many years as a cloistered clergywoman, so I did my best to get the most out of this “cross cultural” experience.

After four years of enjoying my Saturday nights unencumbered by the specter of Sunday worship duties, I have been surprised at how easily--almost instinctively--I have returned to this soulful activity upon my appointment to Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco. It feels like a behavioral trait that is imprinted in my soul as I face weekly worship duties once again.

Having had some time away from this weekly ritual has given me a keener recognition of the pull and sway it has on my life. Now, as I feel myself drawn to its power (at around 5pm on most Saturdays), I can name it. I can also alert others who may have greater social expectations for me on a Saturday than I can provide. I simply post a status update on Facebook: “Karen Oliveto is in the Church Zone.”

Some friends scratch their heads and type back, “What’s that?” But there are others who know exactly what I am talking about. It is the tug of the Spirit that begs for attention. It is the mindfulness of the broken body that will gather in the morning, with all the pain, grief, tears, joy, laughter, wounds, betrayals and love that a community holds in common. It is the consideration of those whose legacy of faithful witness brought us to this place while at the same time wondering what we will bequeath to those who will follow after us. It is the discipline of wrestling with sacred texts, hoping to provide a word that will break these ancient stories open into the lives of those who will gather in the morning. It solicits from me a prayerfully intense posture as I consider the awesome, audacious task of helping others engage their whole selves in an experience of God. The Church Zone is the spiritual discipline required to do this work of worship and, in the words of the 18th-century theologian Isaac Watts, it “demands my life, my soul, my all.”

(this first appeared in PSR Bulletin, Spring 2009, Volume 88, No. 1)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Why do the powerful always create a bridge of compromise on the backs of the vulnerable?

Why do the powerful always create a bridge of compromise on the backs of the vulnerable?

History is filled with examples of how those in power use the rights of the minority to create wedge issues, block progress, and derail justice.

The history of my own denomination is filled with instances when unity has come at the cost of those who are left out of backrooms, who don't have a voice or vote, whose numbers seem not really to matter.  Whether it has been the rights of African Americans--segregated into their own conference--or women--who lost ordination rights with nearly every merger--or gay men and lesbians--whose lives are deemed incompatible with Christian teaching, even when a study commissioned by the Church said that we cannot responsibly hold this position--unity has come at a high price. 

While I applaud the hard work on the part of many of our elected leaders to create health care reform, I am outraged that this reform comes at the expense of women's reproductive health care needs.  The Stupak/Pitts amendment, which restricts public funding of abortion, attacks a critical health concern of poor women who don't have the economic privilege of privately funded abortions.

Once again, the powerless must join together and confront the powerful, to name what is unacceptable and to seek justice.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Be Crazy...Good Crazy

Today, Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery preached at Glide as a part of the 45th anniversary celebration of Rev. Cecil Williams' ministry at Glide.  It was awesome to have a living legend of the civil rights movement provide us with the Word.  And what a word it was!  Of the many inspiring things he said, one thing I have been pondering was what he said about how those who pour themselves out as agents of God's love and justice--the saints--are pretty crazy people. But--as Joe reminded us--just as there is such a thing as good cholestorol and bad cholestorol--there is good crazy and bad crazy.  Saints are good crazy.  Rush Limbaugh is bad crazy.  And Willie Brown, according to Lowery, is bad and good crazy.

I believe that the goal of the Christian walk is to be good crazy. After all, following Jesus is a pretty (good) crazy thing to do. It is a (good) crazy counter cultural activity which upsets the status quo as it makes the first, last and the last, first.  It is (good) crazy in the way we are called to love our enemies and offer forgiveness when we've been wronged.  It is (good) crazy to speak truth to power. It is (good) crazy to think of everyone, EVERY ONE, as our brother and sister.

So my new spiritual discipline is to be crazy...good crazy.

Friday, November 6, 2009

On Eagle's Wings

We humans have always tried to make sense of God. Philosphers and theologians help us with our God-talk and God-knowledge.  Anselm said that God "is that, than which nothing greater can be conceived."  Aristotle said that God was the prime mover. Gandhi said that all life comes from one universal source, and that Truth is God.  The Bible is a collection of written accounts of men and women and their life with God. 

We use all sorts of words to define who/what God is, so that we can enter into a relationship with this One: Rock of Ages, Breath, Fire, Burning Bush, Counselor, Bright and Morning Star, Bread of Heaven...what name helps you deepen your relationship with God?

For most of my adult life, the words I have used were "Cool, Rushing Stream".  During a time in my life when I felt most deconstructed (my first year of seminary, of course!), I ran to the mountains, for solitude and reflection, trying to figure out who I was now and who I was meant to be. As I hiked high in the Canadian Rockies, I came to a glacial stream, quickly flowing down the mountain. I sat by that stream for a long time, aware that if I were to return in a year, the stream bed would look different, due to the force of the water. The strong flow of the stream was picking up dirt and rocks and tree roots and plants from one stream bank and depositing them downstream. The stream was changing the landscape, right before my eyes.

I experienced an epiphany by that stream. This is exactly what God is doing to me! Moving the dead parts of me, reviving other parts, and giving birth to a new me! Instantly, I felt that "peace which passes all understanding" and I came down off the mountain a new woman.

This understanding of God has served me well, keeping me close to God through transitions and changes.  Recently, a new understanding of God has emerged for me.  I was on vacation in Mexico, and a man with a harness and a parachute (and a friend with a boat) asked if I wanted to parasail.  After much hemming and hawing, I strapped myself into the harness, and before I knew it, I was in the air. I vaguely remember digging my heels into the sand--this was all happening too fast!--but the parachute caught the wind and I was aloft!

There I was, suspended in the air, looking out at the water, the coast, the mountains.  Once again, I experienced that peace of God surrounding me.  I could have stayed up there forever...

All too soon, the ride ended, and I could see the spot where I was supposed to land. Slowly, I descended. Then quickly! But there was no fear as workers reached out to me. Strong arms eased my landing, and before I knew it, I was back on the beach, walking back to my beach chair.

This experience has helped me come to a new understandings of God: "One Who Lifts and Strong Arms that Hold".  For most of my life (and especially in my ministry) I have worked hard to make things happen. I have set goals and then made plans to meet those goals. I learned a new lesson, up there in the sky: it's time to let go and let the Spirit lead, and trust in those strong arms to reach out when things look bumpy.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Bridge to Community

The San Francisco Bay Bridge reopened this morning after being closed for six days due to a part of the span that collapsed.  The bridge created chaos for commuters who rely on the bridge to get from one community to another.  I have been thinking alot about bridges and their importance in connecting not only communities, but individuals and families.  Whether physical, emotional, or spiritual, bridges are necessary if we are to span the chasms that lie between us.  Too often, we pass by the people around us, seemingly unaware of the ways we are connected to one another. We tend to see the differences between us as unbridgable, and thereby choose to remain separate.  We have seen the result of this disconnect in families that are at war with each other and in communities that are crumbling.

Too many of us are living lives filled with bridges that are in disrepair or breaking down.  Misunderstandings, harbored grudges, and wounded egos result in failed and failing relationships. What are the bridges in your life that you need to repair?

There is a hymn that I remember singing at every communion service of my youth: Blest be the tie that binds.  In light of the past week, I like to think of it as Blest be the bridge that binds...

Blest be the bridge of love, that draws us, soul to soul.

Blest be the bridge of acceptance, that sees our differences as gifts to be cherised.

Blest be the bridge of mutuality, that honors and respects the other.

Blest be the bridge of forgiveness, that heals our wounds.

Blest be the bridge of hope, that keeps our faces turned to tomorrow.

Blest be the bridge...