Saturday, December 26, 2009

They sang an Easter song after my Christmas sermon...

For most of my life, I have followed the liturgical calendar. Over the years, it has come to add an orientation and meaning to my life in deeper ways than the secular calendar.  I love the start of the Christian year (Advent), which is more than a full month sooner than New Year's Day.  In this four week time, I relearn the old story told by prophets and gospel writers, about the promise of a Savior.  This time period becomes a pilgrimage, as I once again take a spiritual journey to Bethlehem, remembering the birth of the Christ Child.

The church I currently serve doesn't follow the liturgical calendar.

This has made that inward trek to Bethlehem more difficult, especially when preparing to preach. During Advent, the preacher resembles a tour guide, telling the stories, introducing the cast of characters,  and pointing out the sites so that people can make their own journey to Bethlehem.  But this year there was no tour, no discussion of John the Baptism (or Joseph or Mary or Elizabeth or Zechariah), no angel visitations, no census requirement.

So I approached my sermon hoping to find that point of intersection between the old story and today's story, hoping that there, in the midst of it, we all could get a glimpse of where Christ was being born in our midst.  To help with that experience, I had asked that the song "O Holy Night" be sung after my sermon.

Imagine my surprise--and dismay--when I ended my sermon and "I Know that My Redeeemer Lives"--an Easter song!--was sung! I wanted a CHRISTMAS song, not an Easter song!!!

We have extremely gifted soloists at Glide, and even though I was upset over this unplanned song, I was drawn into music and felt my heart open to the words of the song:

Well I know my Redeemer lives
I know my Redeemer lives
All of creation testify
This life within me cries
I know my Redeemer lives                (lyrics by Nicole C. Mullen)

I was trying hard to bring people to the Bethlehem manger, but isn't the real message that Jesus still lives? You don't have to go to the manger, because eventually he'll come to you.  From the cradle to the cross and beyond, whenever we experience new life, new hope, new love, Christ comes to us. 

They sang an Easter song after my Christmas sermon, and it couldn't have been more perfect.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Dancing Our Way to the Manger

Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in God! Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you're on their side, working with them and not against them. Help them see that the Master is about to arrive. He could show up any minute!
Philippians 4:4-7 (The Message)

Sometimes, when our eyes and hearts are open and on the lookout, we see the Gospel take flesh before our eyes, and we know deep in our bones that the story isn't some made-up fairy tale offered as a placebo for a spiritually starved people, but the real-honest-to-God-Gospel-truth experienced by a spiritually starved people for other spiritually starved people. In this we learn that the Good News really is good news.

Last week I went to my favorite Christmas season activity: The Dancealong-Nutcracker, performed by the SF Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band.  This show, where young and old, the graceful and...well, the not-so-graceful, don tutus and dance our hearts out.  I never fail to be inspired by the show--each year it allows me to enter into the old story of Jesus' birth in new ways. One year, in particular, stands out in my mind.

 The show had all the exuberance of previous nutcrackers.  This year, however, during one of the numbers, the children, all donned in tutus, sat waiting expectantly for a ballet lesson. Out came a drag queen in tutu, ballet slippers and tiara.

Clearly, this prima donna wasn't quite what the children had expected.

As Miss Diva ran through the ballet positions, you could see the children trying to figure out who this one was. She didn't quite fit in any of their already carefully crafted social constructions. They sat and stared and furrowed their brows and squinted their eyes, trying to make sense of it all. Clearly, Miss Diva was no ordinary ballet teacher.

Miss Diva seemed oblivious to their confusions, or maybe she was keenly aware of the cognitive dissonance her presence had created, but she just kept calmly, gently, reassuringly laying out the dance moves. Then, she motioned for the children to stand. For the first time in the entire program, the children were shy, timid, and hesitant. They still weren't sure what this ballerina was all about.

The first notes of the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" sounded, and Miss Diva stretched out her arms and began to dance. The children slowly, cautiously, followed her. Glide, glide, dip, glide, glide, dip. Miss Diva did a spin, and the children followed. Miss Diva did another spin and once again the children followed. Then, Miss Diva smiled a most loving smile of apporval, and the children smiled back their own approval.

Miss Diva danced across the room, and the children followed behind her like a colorful cape, flowing together to the music. Then Miss Diva leapt in the air, and 50 tiny heads bobbed in response.

Sometimes, when our eyes and hearts are open and on the lookout, we see the Gospel take flesh before our eyes, and we know deep in our bones that the story isn't some made-up fairy tale offered as a placebo for a spiritually starved people, but the real-honest-to-God-Gospel-truth offered to a spiritually starved people. In this we learn that the Good News really is good news.

Before my eyes I saw the children's suspicions fade as they mirrored Miss Diva's every move. Smiling, laughing, giggling, sharing in the sheer joy of moving together to the music, they had been transformed by their encounter with this one who had at first seemed so strange. I found myself both laughing and crying, seeing once again Christ taking flesh and dwelling amongst us once again.

Two thousand years ago the Hebrew people were watching and waiting for signs of God's coming. But so few recognized those signs even when Jesus stared them right in the face. Jesus came and offered to teach those around him a new way of living--and even dying--but people kept scratching their heads in disbelief, "Who is this?"

How could a humble carpenter with such radical ideas be the Messiah, they wondered. And as they stared in disbelief, watching his every move, some were able to recognize both the signs and the possibilities, and began to move with him. Together, Jesus and his followers danced joyfully , passionately through the land, inviting others to join in the steps.

Thank God there have been followers throughout the ages who have kept that joyful dance going--unexpected ones who have risen up to lead in the steps when our lives and hearts have turned to stone and we've been unable to join in. Faithful ones who have risked it all to continue the dance even when it has been dangerous to do so. Foolish yet wise ones who keep poking us to join in.

Advent is the opportunity to prepare ourselves to join in the dance, to embrace the good news, to share in the sheer joy of faith. For as Christ was born 2000 years ago, Christ continues to be born in our lives. Watch and wait. Christ comes in the most unexpected ways and places, even as a drag queen at a dance-along nutcracker. Say yes to the invitation to join in the joyful dance.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Too Little, Too Late?

Rick Warren, noted evangelical and pastor of Saddleback Church, has finally denounced the anti-homosexuality bill pending in Uganda (the topic of Warren's refusal to denounce the bill has been discussed in an earlier blog).  I do believe that if this bill passes and lives are lost as a result, Rick Warren and other Christian Right leaders ought to be held accountable.

Their rhetoric, camouflaged with theological language, has spawned too many hate crimes against glbt persons.  While they are learning that their language of intolerance is growing increasingly unacceptable in the United States, they have discovered that they can export a stronger version to Africa. 

What amazes me is these leaders do not make the connection between their rhetoric and gay-bashing.  Doesn't Warren realize that when he says that homosexuality is "not the natural way" and therefore is not a human rights issue, he is providing moral fodder for the anti-gay sentiment that gave rise to the bill in Uganda?

Several years ago, the Reconciling Ministries Network was holding its convocation at one of United Methodisms holy sites: Lake Junaluska, in North Carolina.  The Institute on Religion and Democracy wrote to United Methodists, urging them to protest the meeting, using inflammatory language to rile people up. And it did. More and more conversative United Methodists, including Good News joined their battle cry, denouncing the presence of a meeting that would include glbt United Methodists and allies at Lake Junaluska.  But conservative United Methodists weren't the only ones to join in the protest. Guess who else heard the invitation to protest, and were only to happy to help?

The Ku Klux Klan.

KKK encouraged their membership to come to Lake Junaluska to protest the RMN conference, whose theme was "Hearts on Fire." The KKK changed the title to "Queers on Fire."

The IRD, Good News, and other right wing organizations should not be surprised when their hate-filled messages are taken to heart and used by extremists groups. Once you demonize a group and label them unnatural and devoid of rights, the next logical step is to rid the world of such rubbish. We have seen evidence of this cycle of dehumanization and genocide repeated throughout human history.

While Warren may have finally spoken out against the Uganda bill, I just wonder if it is too little, too late. Can he really have an impact? He has already sown the seeds of injustice--can his recent words tear up the roots he has planted?

What would be happening in now Uganda--and throughout Africa--if he had preached a Word of loving all God's children, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Advent 8: Growing the Family Tree

Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and shall call his name EMMANUEL, God with us.
Isaiah 7:14

This is the season when I am acutely aware of the geographical distance between me and my family of origin: both sisters live in the south now with their families, my Mum spends part of the year on Long Island (where I was raised) and in New Orleans with one of my sisters; Uncle Howie still lives in Nova Scotia, in the town where he and my Mum were raised; my dad and his family live in Washington state, and assorted cousins, cousins, and more cousins live throughout the northeast and Canada.
But at this time of year, I long to see them, to have a meal together, to share a game of cards (a nightly family activity), and most of all, to laugh with them.
A pastor’s life, however, requires that I stay put for the holidays. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I participate in a ministry decathlon of special services and events which, by the time I cross the finish line on December 26, leaves me filled spiritually but depleted physically and emotionally. As a result, even the lull between Christmas and New Years is not the greatest time to see family, unless they want to watch me nap!
This longing for family connecting is perhaps why I cherish putting up the many nativity sets I have collected over the years. Whenever I travel, I look for a set that reflects the culture of the country I am in. I have sets from Kenya, Mexico, Israel, and France, as well as sets from some of my favorite places in the US and Canada. I take my time setting them up, holding Mary and Joseph in my hands before setting them down on a shelf. I try to imagine them as they were 2000 years ago, wandering far from home, Mary beginning to enter labor with no loved ones present to assist, no familiar things around her to comfort her.
Once Mary and Joseph have been placed, out come the other pieces: shepherds, kings, peasants, and assorted animals all gather around them as the baby Jesus is laid in the midst of them. The nativity set becomes whole, all the characters connected, as the awe and love they share for this God-gift unites them in love.
This always becomes an object lesson for me, reminding me that no matter how far I am from my family of origin, in this season I remember once again how my family extends beyond my genealogical chart. New branches keep getting grafted on as the God-gift of love keeps helping me discover brothers and sisters I didn’t even knew I had. As we all pause in this season to make our way to the manger once again, may we all discover new family members who are made one with us through the one whose birth the angels sing.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Advent 4,5,6,and 7: Too Many Fires to Put Out?

Be still and know that I am God.
Psalm 46:10

I have always found Advent one of the richest times for spiritual growth. So much of the season has signs and symbols which beg us to stop and ponder. Unfortunately, this week I had a hard time responding to the begging and didn’t do much stopping, and even less pondering.

I have learned from experience that NOT stopping and pondering can be disastrous. In 1992, I was invited to take an appointment in a local church. The appointment came at a surprise. As much as I love parish ministry, I had moved into campus ministry in 1985, and assumed that my local parish phase of ministry was over. Imagine my surprise when a district superintendent of the Cal-Nevada Annual Conference asked me to take Bethany UMC, in San Francisco!

I was worried that I had forgotten how to “do” parish ministry and pushed myself very hard those first few months of the appointment. So hard, in fact, that I wound up skimming on my spiritual disciplines in order to “do” more ministry.

Advent came and I thought I would take up the spiritual practice of lighting the Advent wreath every morning and have a short devotional before diving headlong into my day. Even before the first week was barely over, I began to grow distracted with the practice, finding more and more things that begged my attention as I prepared to head to church.

One day, I cut too many corners trying to pack everything in I needed to get done. I flew out the door to do an early bit of grocery shopping before heading to church. When I returned, I opened the garage door and thought I smelled smoke. I immediately thought of my 92 year old neighbor whose house was connected to mine, and worried that she had left something burning on her stove. As I went up the steps, I saw smoke—her place must be on fire! I grabbed a phone and dialed 911. I was put on hold (!) and as I waited I heard crackling. I turned into my dining room and saw that the table was in flames. The fire was in MY house! And there, at the very center of the table, was the culprit: my Advent wreath, now with all the candles melted down into the table…

God is so funny. Just the week before I had bought fire extinguishers for the parsonage, so knew exactly where it was and quickly put out the flames (five minutes later the phone rang. It was the fire department asking why I had called).
I learned a lesson that day. When God puts a sign or symbol before you, you had better stop and ponder, before it becomes a burning bush/dining room table!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Advent Day 3--Speaking the Word

We couldn't be more sure of what we saw and heard—God's glory, God's voice. The prophetic Word was confirmed to us. You'll do well to keep focusing on it. It's the one light you have in a dark time as you wait for daybreak and the rising of the Morning Star in your hearts. The main thing to keep in mind here is that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of private opinion. And why? Because it's not something concocted in the human heart. Prophecy resulted when the Holy Spirit prompted men and women to speak God's Word.
2 Peter 1:19-21 from The Message

I will never forget when a seminary student visited Ecumenical House at San Francisco State University, where I was a campus minister. He took one look at our bulletin board, filled with announcements about all sorts of justice issues, protests, and symposiums, and proclaimed, "I want to be a campus minister so that I can say whatever I want!"

What he was implying was that he felt that pastoring a local church would muzzle the message he wanted to proclaim.  Campus ministry, at least through his eyes, offered him a free license to say what he wanted to.

I looked at him like he had two heads.

Preaching, offering the Good News, proclaiming the Word, is not saying what we want to say.  It is allowing the Holy Spirit to speak through us.  It is allowing sighs which are too deep for words to be filled with the breath of God and take shape as the Word.  It requires us to look at the world with open eyes and to have people in our lives who will challenge us to open our eyes further still.  With eyes wide open, we must allow our soul to be disquieted, to feel dis-ease, as we see this world, our communities, ourselves in all their flawed possibilities. It is then and only then that we can begin to bearers of God's prophetic Word.

It is never about saying what we want to say. It is about allowing the Spirit to birth the Word within us, and speaking it aloud. This can happen in a campus ministry, a local church, at your job, and in your family. Wherever we are in community with God's people, we can be bearers of this Word.