Running down the path
snow swirls and twirls in the wind.
As we laugh and smile
broken pieces shift in me:
heart beats in time with my feet
“Celebration” and Sobriety
Our devotional points out hard words from Christ today. In the New Revised Standard Version, Luke 5:39-40 says: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
Throughout the season of Lent, Sundays are “mini-Easters.” Traditionally, Sundays are moments of celebration in the midst of a somber season. The #RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-A-Day prompt acknowledges this by having every Sunday until Easter be the same theme: “Celebrate.”
Even with that prompt for celebration, I feel called to celebrate out of a place of testimony today. My photo is of a flower that was blooming in the nearby Henry Smith Woods in the heart of Trumansburg. It was one of the first flowers of the season and I found it to be beautiful both in its vibrance and in the way it has a wonderful blossom that reminds me of the Trinity. What minister wouldn’t love a flower with three petals on one blossom? Well, one who doesn’t enjoy oversimplification, but it is still quite a flower!
So, what does the scripture bring to mind today? It reminds me of the fact that I am in recovery and that recovery has been a challenging road.
A few years ago I had the bright idea of running on an elliptical everyday as a fundraiser for the church. It was going wonderfully until one day I had the audacity of trying to pull up my pants after running too hard. A trip to Urgent Care, multiple visits to my doctor, and months of physical therapy followed.
I am the child of an alcoholic. I have had a gastric bypass surgery which means that once something goes down my throat it doesn’t come back out, Both of these are reasons I should never drink. I was so desperate to get rid of the pain that late one night I tried mixing alcohol with my medication to make the pain go away. It worked for a while, I got in a habit of soothing the pain until that soothing didn’t work anymore. Like many people who have been ensnared over the years, I drank to get rid of one problem and found a lot more waiting for me including the very thing that once “helped.”
The first step of Alcoholics Anonymous is to admit that life has become unmanageable and that you are powerless over alcohol. My goodness, things grew out of hand quickly. Things kept getting worse until the day that I, as a minister who had helped others to do this very thing, had to hit my knees in prayer. I came to a point where I had to tell God that I had not only made a stupid mistake but that I needed help to get out of my brokenness.
“Pastor Rob, didn’t you realize what was happening?” No. I just wanted the pain gone. “Pastor Rob, were you helping other people deal with literally the same issue while you were struggling?” Yes, but this physician couldn’t heal himself. “Pastor Rob, do you feel ashamed about the fact that you did something so stupid?” Yes, although I have come to realize that there were bigger things going on than just that one mistake. My life was unmanageable for a number of reasons, none of which are unique to me. There are ministers who become addicted and there are ministers with family problems. I’m not unique in either of those things.
The words of Jesus still strike me hard: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” For so long I believed in Jesus, sought through the scriptures, and even shared the testimony while refusing to come to Christ in this one area of my life. I chose secrecy instead of honesty, hiding brokenness instead of admitting struggles, and even offered hope while refusing to accept it for my own brokenness.
The flower I share is like me today. I am watching my petals spread every single day, have new growth reaching out after years of dormancy brought about by fear, and have even started making new friendships after a long period of feeling as if I did not deserve something as simple as friendship without my family’s approval. I used to feel as if my heart was locked in a cage like a silent bluebird but am increasingly feeling like I am rising on the wings of a phoenix.
Even if you have had moments when you have refused God’s love and help, it is not too late. Friends, trust me when I say that God loves you deeply and truly. If you need help, there’s help out there. There are places where you can walk through the door and they won’t judge you for needing help. A lot of them are filled with wonderful people who will bend over backwards to make you feel welcome and help you get your life back in order. Don’t hide in the shadows: the light is okay.
There is a way to freedom. It may not be easy, you may stumble, and you may want to give up sometimes. Don’t give up. You can find freedom with help. Don’t give up.
“Welcomes” Photo-A-Day Haiga
The word for the day for the #RethinkChurch Photo-A-Day challenge is “welcomes.” Being myself, I can’t leave well enough alone, so here’s a haiga!
My middle child is super energetic and has ADHD. Maine Federated Church has been an awesome appointment as they have never said a mean word about her energetic nature. They are super supportive of our family. I love serving here if only because my whole family is welcome. I hope they understand how much I love them for loving her (and us) despite the interruptions.
I picked this photo because it shows the love of my youngest for my middle child. Our toddler doesn’t see a problem–she sees a sister who is always ready to play!
Love is not easy
I wanted to post a post for Valentine’s Day that is a reminder that love has never been an easy thing to handle. Stalwart figures from church history faced challenges when it came to issues of love.
- We don’t know the story behind this aspect of his life, but St. Paul clearly had opinions of marriage and love which may or may not have been the result of personal troubles. He believed the time in this life was short and wrote the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 7:25-28 (NRSV): “Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin. Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that.”
- The Desert Abbas and Ammas genuinely discouraged romantic entanglements. Some of them even refused to talk with folks that might lead to even the risk of their being attracted romantically.
- The monastic movement generally promoted and engaged in celibacy. There were exceptions and times when individual monks went astray from their vows, but most monastics certainly faced a challenging life.
- Martin Luther started a whole reformation movement without the support of a life partner until he married an escaped nun named Katherine von Bora. He literally snuck her out of a convent in a fish barrel.
- Generally every relationship with a woman in John Wesley’s life ended poorly.
Lots of people struggled with romance and romantic desires through the history of the church. If you are alone today, it is good to know that you are in good company. I would invite you to know that you have worth outside of a romantic relationship, that you are a beloved child of God, and that the fourteenth of February really is just another day.
On a less romantic note, I recently found this excellent recollection of the situation that arose between John Wesley and Mrs. Beta Hawkins. While they were certainly not in a romantic relationship, here’s a few of my favorite highlights of that interaction:
- “Sir, you have abused me! You have insulted me! And I am going to put this pistol ball through your brain!” Then she pulled out a pair of scissors and said, “And I’m going to cut that long hair!”
- Wesley grabbed both her hands and she fell on top of him on the bed. He called out to the maid, “Get her off! Get her off!” Beta called out to the maid, “You hold him still or I’ll shoot you, too!”
- Dr. Hawkins came in. “What is that scoundrel doing in my house?” he exclaimed. “Sir, what are you doing on top of my wife?” Wesley replied, “Sir, I am not. She is on top of me! Get her off!”
I pray that your day goes a lot more smoothly than John Wesley’s day once did. Also, if people really don’t like you and may shoot you, don’t go alone to their house. That’s always a bad choice.
Let us Ramble: Imperfect Hourglass
On my desk there are two hourglasses. One holds about enough sand to measure five minutes. The other holds a good ten minutes of sand. I collected them so that I could have a way to manage my time during my times of prayer. If we have two ears and one mouth, the purpose is clear. I might speak for five minutes and then listen for God in silence for ten minutes. In general, it works well both as a focus for my attention when I wander in silence and as an attention for my focus when I need to get to the point in what I am trying to communicate to God.
I know that for some of you, that level of intentional focus might seem a little bit excessive, but for a person whose brain wanders easily… The tools help. The name of my blog (Distractedpastor.blog) was not a mistake.
Still, there are days when my focus is not there. There are times when I want to say more or listen more, but there’s a knock at the door or a buzz on my phone. There are times when I just want to give more into those moments. There are times I want to slow the hourglass down and give more, but do not have the opportunity.
I was reminded of this reality as I was perusing Bernard of Clairvaux’s “On Loving God” this morning. On the nineteenth page of the 1973 translation released by Cistercian Publishing, Bernard writes:
“My God, my help. I shall love you as much as I am able for your gift. My love is less than is your due, yet not less than I am able, for even if I cannot love you as much as I should, still I cannot love you more than I can. I shall only be able to love you more when you give me more, although you can never find my love worthy of you. For, ‘Your eyes have seen my imperfections, and all shall be written down in your book,’ all who do what they can, even if they cannot do all they should.”
I love the phrasing although I’m still parsing my way through the details of the words. “…for even if I cannot love you as much as I should, still I cannot love you more than I can…” How are we able to love God? We love God because God gives us the ability. We shall love more when God gives us more.
On some days, I sit to listen in prayer just as the world turns upside down. In those moments, I am usually able to find the earth before I go flying off into space. The ability to find purchase when everything goes wild can be difficult. In those moments, my fidelity to God’s love and purpose is usually as a result of the blessing God gives me.
On other days, everything is absolutely peaceful and I have the time to dive more deeply into God’s love and grace. In those moments I find myself able to bring more of myself into my relationship with God. In some moments, it even seems like the hourglass slows.
In between these moments, I rest in the knowledge that I do my best to do what I am able to do, even if I am not capable of doing everything that I should. My flaws are known to God, my brokenness apparent, and I bring what I can bring to the table.
I am reminded of one of my favorite pieces of art. The one of a kind portrait is hung in a cheap poster frame on my office wall. It is really poorly mounted, but hangs in a place of prominence. It is the very first work of art my oldest child brought home from school.
Now, when this painting was painted, was it perfect? No. Did the then 3 year old Grace understand how many nights I spent caring for her as an infant? Did she know how I felt when she spit up on my shoulder and the picture capturing that splotch of milk is what made it in the newspaper? Of course not, but she loved me as she was able. Warts and all, I have seen my daughter. I love her, so I love this painting.
For me, this is what Bernard is talking about in his passage. I may never be able to love God as perfectly as God deserves. I may never be able to do something worthy of God’s affection. I can do what I am able to do, despite the moments that I spit up on God’s shoulder. Invariably, we all do as we can do in this world. I simply pray God will see the same affection in my love as I see in my daughter’s love.
Let us Ramble: An Arresting Quote on Charity
Recently, a college classmate of mine from years ago asked a question on Facebook. If I could write a paper on any female spiritual figure in history, which person would I choose? I love open-ended questions and spent a couple of days perusing the answers until late Thursday morning. I had been working on collecting reports for our Annual Meeting and had just completed a report for a member who is in need of a bit of a hiatus. In other words, I was out of coffee, had been up worrying about my infant with a fever most of the night, and was a bit bleary eyed. I took a few moments to look at my bookshelf for something that I could peruse for a few minutes while my wits came back around to meet me and the next item on my agenda.
My eyes fell on one of my favorite books from a few years back. I came across “The Mirror of Simple Souls” by Marguerite Porete. My edition is from “The Classics of Western Spirituality” of Paulist Press in 1993 and was translated by Ellen L. Babinsky with a preface by Robert E. Lerner. I immediately thought of the post, remembered that nobody seemed to have mentioned this wonderful author, and jumped to share with my old college friend.
I picked up my copy, began to peruse, and then began to laugh. Did you ever wonder what would get a woman killed by the inquisition in France in 1310? Well, writing in vernacular French didn’t help. What made me laugh was the translation of a part of the trial where the inquisitor is shocked that not only did Marguerite not burn her copy of her book after a former bishop ruled it heretical, she kept thinking it was a good book, and dared to send it to another bishop as well as other simple folks “as if it were good!”
I do love a woman who believes in herself and her God! She spoke the language of the people, cared about the people, and kept on believing in God’s call on her life despite the challenges! Authority should be respected, but let’s be clear—Marguerite Porete saw authority abused and relied on her faith in the highest authority of all! Here was a woman who makes me smile!
I began to spend a few minutes browsing over the pages while working up the courage to go across the way to heat up a cup of coffee. I was reading along when something caught my eye worthy of a blog post and inspirational enough to get me to hold off on grabbing that cup of joe. Here’s what is translated from the fourth chapter of Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls:
“Charity is such a wise merchant that she earns profits everywhere where others lose, and she escapes the bonds that bind others and thus has great multiplicity of what pleases Love.”
I love this concept. As I pen this blog post for Monday morning, I am drawn to think about charity. Charity has many roots and I do not pretend to be an etymologist, but I noted with enthusiasm that the Online Etymology Dictionary stated that around the time of Marguerite Porete’s life, charity became connected with the concept of the affections we ought to feel for other people. In my own imaginary world, there is a distinct correlation between these facts!
I think about the ways we ought to feel for other people and how that inspires us a lot on Mondays. Recently, my primary visitation day for going to visit people in their homes or in care-facilities is on Mondays. As this is posted online (unless something goes askew) I am likely riding in my car down to visit one of our saints in the Triple Cities. Some of these visits are easy to accomplish as the saints in question are lively, ask deep questions, and appreciate a good visit. Some of these visits are heartbreaking at times when the saints are struggling.
When we consider how we ought to feel for others and then when we let those feelings affect who we are as people, we are entering into the purest form of charity. Charity is not meant as something begrudgingly given, something scowlingly given, or something unfortunate that has to happen in order for the charitable person to to be one of the good people. Charity is our opportunity to live into the same gracious love as our Lord and Savior first showed us. Charity is our opportunity to become the hands and feet of God and to enter into the dance of God’s love. Charity is an amazing thing!
Marguerite’s concept arrested my eyes because of the simple beauty of the idea. Charity finds profits where others lose. Charity finds freedom where others find fettering chains. Charity abounds in what pleases Love. These ideas are so simple and beautiful.
How can charity find profit where others lose? Perhaps it is because charity, when birthed by love, sees things through different eyes. The world says that you will never get rich by taking weekends off from work and volunteering to play basketball at the YMCA with kids. You will never get rich volunteering with the Boys and Girls Club or with your church. You also cannot buy the love those kids may come to have for you as a person. You cannot buy their affection, their love, their admiration, their imitation, or any of the other blessings that come being involved in a ministry of charity. You will never get rich with money—you may become rich with love.
How can charity find profit where others lose? Sometimes it is because love follows love. In the spring of 2013 I witnessed the worst community fire of my career in Boonville, NY. The church I was serving became a hub to help provide food, shelter, space for the American Red Cross, and information for the people who were displaced. Do you know what happened when we tried to buy lunch for the people who were displaced? We were matched by others and nobody went hungry. Do you know what happened when we started to collect clothes? The fellowship hall was filled with blessings. Every time we tried to give what we could, others joined in with us in charity. Perhaps you may find no personal profit in engaging in charity, but sometimes the love of God seen in you inspires others to bless those around us.
How does any of this promote freedom? I believe charity breaks the bonds that hold us in place. Often we get trapped within our own prisons by tradition, by circumstances, by our own limitations, and by our own imagination. There can be freedom when charity invites us to feel for others like we ought to feel, when charity motivates us to move past feeling to action, and when charity finally overwhelms our prisons.
The week of the fire in Boonville wasn’t just a holy week. The fire took place during THE Holy Week. We had to cancel our extra services on Thursday and Friday to care for people in need. We worshipped across church lines with Presbyterians and Baptists that week on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday respectively.
They welcomed us as guests and opened their hearts and church homes to us. What kept us from worshipping together before? Pride? Maybe. Tradition? Probably. Silliness? Definitely. I never enjoyed worship services so much as when we came into those churches, sat exhaustedly down, and we were welcomed and loved despite our tiredness and our Methodist personhoods. We United Methodists made space for others and through charity we found the freedom to look beyond our doors. We had the freedom to find our family and spend time with them. The family of Christ worshipped in a holy way that week.
When we engage in charity, we find ourselves in places where we can build up an abundance of love. I will likely be thinking of Marguerite’s call to charity was I walk through the doors of Bridgewater Rehabilitation or one of the United Methodist Homes this morning. I pray that you would find places to fall in love with God, to love your neighbor, and to connect with who you ought to be—someone filled with holy charity, freed by grace, and abounding in love.
Let us Ramble: Transients
I struggled to finish my sermon this weekend at the Maine Federated Church. The subject was challenging, but I was prepared. I struggled to finish my sermon because the cold of the previous week had beaten my voice to a pulp. We were preaching on baptism and how baptism was opened to people of all races. We shared that God loved all people. I publicly declared that God does not think of one race as superior to another. We spoke of deep things even as my voice started to crack.
Sunday night, I watched my Facebook feed explode with statements from pastors and committed Christians from across the spectrum. The vast majority of them were incredibly clear. “Racism is bad.” “God loves all people.” A few of the statements were provocative. A few statements seemed more concerned with politics than with what was actually happening. My public statement on Facebook was to reblog a “Litany against White Supremacy.” I will admit, I was still exhausted by my cold, so I was willing to let that stand for a day or two until I could get a good night’s rest.
Well, I am rested now. I have a cup of hot coffee to sooth my throat muscles, I have spent some time centering myself in my daily devotions, and I am prepared to enter into my pastoral role as one of the resident theologians in my community. So, let’s lay out the theological argument I wish to make. I will not be pulling punches today.
- It is a Christian’s duty to live with a sense of humility
- It is a Christian’s duty to love people like Jesus
- White Supremacy should be considered an abomination
I believe that it is a Christian’s duty to live with a sense of humility. I believe that is a belief that long predates Christianity, has been passed down from our Hebrew forebearers, and should be passed along from generation to generation. I believe that pride has been an issue for the church for nearly the entirety of our history and must be fought with all sincerity.
In my own studies I have been reading through “Penguin Classics: Early Christian Writings,” which is a translation by Maxwell Staniforth (revised by Andrew Louth) of some early letters of church leaders. One letter translated was from the church in Rome to the church in Corinth. It was written by one of the early church leaders in Rome named Clement and is generally considered to have been written during the last decade of the first century with a high probability of having been written around 96 CE. A passage from this letter from one church to another strikes me as fitting and applicable: (¶30)
“Since then we are the Holy One’s own special portion, let us omit no possible means of sanctification. We must bid farewell to all slandering, lewd and unclean coupling, drinking and rioting, vile lusting, odious fornicating, and the pride which is an abomination. God, it says, opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble; so let us attach ourselves firmly to men who have received this grace. Let us clothe ourselves in a mutual tolerance of one another’s views, cultivating humility and self-restraint, avoiding all gossiping and backbiting, and earning our justification by deeds and not by words… Self-assertion, self-assurance, and a bold manner are the marks of men accursed of God; it is those who show consideration for others, and are unassuming and quiet, who win His blessing.”
So, Clement was very opinionated. Clement uses several words and makes several claims that I am unwilling to make throughout his letter, especially on the role of women in their homes. I am very glad that this letter is not a part of our scriptures for several reasons, but there are some gems to be found in this old letter.
First, there seems to be a strong opposition to pride in Clement’s worldview. In some places, such as Clement’s insistence on quiet obedience of women, the adoption of humility as a driving force of church life is less than ideal in a modern context, In other places, such as the passage above, there’s a real sense of force behind Clement’s words. Looking through the list of sins Clement lists, the one which is singled out for being especially onerous is pride. Pride is the thing which Clement nails over and over again throughout his letter.
- ¶16 “Christ belongs to the lowly of heart, and not to those who would exalt themselves over His flock. The coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Sceptre of God’s Majesty, was in no pomp of pride and haughtiness—as it could so well have been—but in self-abasement…
- ¶35 “Wickedness and wrongdoing of every kind must be utterly renounced; all greed, quarreling, malice and fraud, scandal-mongering and back-biting, enmity towards God, glorification of self, presumption, conceit, and want of hospitality; for men who do these things—and not only men who do them, but men who consent to them—are held in detestation by God”
- ¶39 “Men who have no intelligence or understanding, men who are without sense or instruction, make a mock of us and ridicule us, in their wish to raise themselves in their own esteem. But what is there that anyone who is mortal can really effect? What force is there in anyone born on this earth?”
Clement was very clear in his letter that pride was a serious issue. It can be inferred that Clement speaks out of the worldview of the early church. The conception of pride being an issue and the value of humility was nothing new to Clement or the church in which he lived. We can head back to the end of 1 Chronicles to see King David share similar sentiments. David says in 1 Chronicles 29:10-18: (NRSV)
“Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of our ancestor Israel, forever and ever. Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours’ yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might; and it is in your hand to make great and to give strength to all. And now, our God, we give thanks to you and praise your glorious name.
But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to make this freewill offering? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you. For we are aliens and transients before you, as were all our ancestors; our days on earth are like a shadow, and there is no hope. O Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a house for your holy name comes from your hand and is all your own. I know, my God, that you search the heart, and take pleasure in uprightness; in the uprightness of my heart I have freely offered all these things, and now I have seen your people, who are present here, offering freely and joyously to you. O Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, our ancestors, keep forever such purposes and thoughts in the hearts of your people, and direct their hearts towards you.”
At this moment in the story of scripture, David has prepared the way for his son Solomon to build a temple in Jerusalem. David has accomplished a great deal in his life and is approaching the end of his reign. David has led imperfectly but is completing his reign in peace, which is a blessing few of his descendents would know as the generations would pass. Here at the end David gives thanks to God through an honest lens that gives thanks to God and puts his life in perspective.
David sees himself as a transient in these words. He does not claim the right and power over all that he had done and all that he has gained. He seeks humility. He states that all of God’s blessings are from and ultimately are for God’s purposes. He lives out the humility that Clement claims we must seek. Clement is echoing David’s statement on human transience in this life when he asks what real effect the proud can have in this world. The people of God are here in this world for a moment. The people are being invited to live in humility by both Clement and David.
Going back further we see a real sense of a call to humility from the earlier tales of faith. When Abram was called in Genesis 12:2-3, the following words are shared (in the New Revised Standard Version) with the one who would become Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”
From the very beginning, the call of God comes with an understanding that the blessing that will come to Abraham is for the very purpose of Abraham becoming a blessing to all the families of the earth. His call is to head out into the world as a transigent. His call, the call to create a nation, will begin with him being an immigrant in a strange land. The call of Abraham is not into a castle or highly advantaged place in society, but to live as a stranger in a strange land.
Throughout the scriptures, God calls the humble time and time again. Even figures like Jacob, who was not humble, had to go through humbling circumstances before they were fully ready to take their place in the story of God’s life-bringing and grace. Being a Christian is a call into a tradition which has been marked by a strong need for humility. Jesus told a parable in Matthew 26 about an employer who hired servants throughout the day and paid each the same amount to each. The ones who began earliest in the day believed they deserved more, but it was the employer’s choice to be generous. All who follow Christ are called to understand that by God’s choice the first may become last just as the last may become first.
I also believe it is a Christian’s duty to love people like Jesus. When Jesus came across the other, Jesus acted with compassion. It is true that Jesus called people to repentance and expressed extreme disappointment and occasionally foretold woe for cities that refused to repent like those in Matthew 11:30-34 and the Samaritan village in Luke 9:51-56. Jesus also expressed hope for those of other races than those of Jewish descent when we shared the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37, shared a story of a faith-filled Roman Centurion in Matthew 8:5-12, and told the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4:1-42. Jesus seems less concerned with where people are from than how they react.
Jesus’ love was not bound to one race or one people. The very call of Acts 1:8 is to make disciples by witnessing to the ends of the earth. The very call of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20 is to go out and make disciples of all nations. The call of God is to reach out to all people because God called for all people. Jesus’ compassion was for every people of earth—that is why are were sent out to share the good news in the first place.
This should go without saying, but this love informs us. If we want to live a life with Jesus, we will be remade through and like Jesus. Paul wrote to the church of Romans in 8:9-12:
“But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”
Later on the effect of God’s Spirit and Christ’s love is further laid out by Paul in Romans 10:10-13:
“For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says. ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek—the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him, For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”
So, let’s be clear on these points. Our life, our eternal life, comes from God. Jesus’ Spirit comes into us and gives us life. The Spirit of Christ who loved faithful people of different backgrounds has opened salvation to all who call on the name of the Lord. The God of the Jewish people is the same God as those who are Greek, Roman, African, Asian, or any other form of human.
With all these things in mind, I have to say that I firmly believe that white supremacy is an abomination which must be resisted with all of our strength, all of our willpower, and all of our heart. White supremacy claims that one race is superior to other races, but God has called us to humility. To claim an inherent greatness for people of one skin color is to walk in the exact opposite direction of where Jesus walked. To claim an inherent inferiority for people of other ethnicities is abominable for many reasons, but especially because it stands in direct contradiction to the teachings of Jesus.
In Luke 14:7-14, the following is shared by Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith:
“When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host, and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’”
When teaching on humility, Jesus first told people to choose the worst places at the table. To be certain, there is a chance that this is a story about practically putting oneself in a place where someone could be honored by the host when they are asked to move up, but there’s also a real sense of Jesus noticing what is happening around him and inviting people to a place of honest humility. Jesus states that a person or people will be humbled when they seek to their own exaltation.
Is there any more clear description of self-exaltation than to say that your race is inherently superior to all of the others? Is there any more clear way of looking at this situation than as an invitation to being humbled for your actions? Is there really something so special about being white that leads people to believe that they alone are exempt from the call to humility? As a white male, I have to say that whites are no more exempt from this rule than men—any attempt, whether based on gender or race, to say that my people are superior to other people (either as men or as people of European descent) is foolhardy and an abomination.
Who should come to the banquet of celebration? The other is to be invited. We are called to humility and hospitality in life, Events like those in Charlottesville this past weekend are incompatible with Christian teaching. People who live out their faith through terrorism and violence do not exemplify the Christian life and they are certainly not acting on behalf of Christians who hear our call as a people to humility, repentance, and community.
Let us be Grateful: The Epiphany at Denny’s
Two words are circling through my mind this morning. I am thinking about connectedness and gratitude. I was (and still am) sitting in a Denny’s with a hot cup of coffee thinking about Annual Conference when my server came up to my table. She’s been the ideal server. She substituted a cup of yogurt for my fruit because I am allergic to melon, has made certain that my cup of coffee is full, and has not called me “Hon” once (pet-peeve of mine—I am my wife’s hon and her’s alone).
I was thinking about the people I saw yesterday and smiled at this nice server. She walked away but stopped. I looked up and I saw her rubbing the back of her neck with the look of someone who has worked too many hours in a row. I wondered how long she’d been standing in those black shoes and hoped they were comfortable. She was standing with that slight tilt related to back pain that my physical therapist has scolded me about in the past. I was moved to pray for this nice person.
She reminded me about the reading I was doing for the Academy for Spiritual Formation yesterday. I was reading through “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame.” It is a good book by Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au. I was telling Polly at the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School table that the spiritual density of this book caused me twice as many headaches as the books her faculty had assigned me to read in seminary. The density that led to distraction yesterday was the following quote about the story of the Bent-Over Woman in Luke 13:10-13: (pg. 103)
“This woman symbolizes all of us, both men and women, when we feel unable to stand tall and face life head-on. Some of us are crippled by shame, the dreadful feeling that we are defective and unworthy of love. Some are handicapped by emotional wounds from childhood. And some are diminished by the oppression of prejudice and discrimination, and unjustly denied equal access to educational and work opportunities. The burdens of life can at time be so heavy that it is not difficult to identify with this bent-over woman.
Jesus’ awareness of this crippled woman’s hardship and his care for her is a story of consolation. Made whole by Jesus, she becomes a symbol of hope, reminding us that the risen Jesus responds to our suffering in the same compassionate way.”
I can see where the authors are coming from when they think about this story. If you don’t remember the original story, Jesus was teaching in the synagogue when a woman who had been struggling with what the scriptures called a “crippling spirit” for 18 years came into view. He was busy teaching in that synagogue but compassion overrode his busyness. Jesus was pulled by his compassion into action. He spoke, he healed, and she was finally free.
I am reminded of the fact that not everyone is bent over, but we’re all in the same boat when it comes to needing to know a compassionate and loving Jesus. The authors state this clearly when they say that we are all in need of a consoling and compassionate Christ.
I was reminded of this strongly by yesterday’s Annual Conference session. I was reminded of this in my life while sitting alone at lunch missing my own family who stayed home to be in school this year and the best friend who never let me sit alone in all of our years together at Annual Conference. I was reminded of this as I sat with my friend’s widow and our mutual friend Harold at the Memorial Dinner. I was reminded of this when the Bishop unexpectedly sat down at our table for dinner but was so busy running in and out with Conference business that I asked a District Superintendent if he knew any way that we could guilt him into sitting still and eating dinner as an act of self-care. I was reminded of this when I saw old friends from across the connection who were excited to reconnect with me as a part of their past and as a part of their future. I was reminded of this when I talked with someone who was a new minister last year and was wondering about the challenges of the ordination process ahead of him. There are so many places where I saw people in need of this compassionate love of Jesus. I see the reasons that this story of a consoling Jesus gives hope because we are a people continually in need of hope.
I am reminded of this compassion as Annual Conference begins today. I am reminded how everyone we stand across from on any issue or debate is still a sister or brother in God. I am reminded of the connectedness that we all share in our need to know a compassionate God and to share that compassion with both each other and with all of our neighbors. We are all interconnected in our love and in our need to be a people following the compassionate Christ. This is good news and I am grateful to be connected with my sisters and brothers as we begin another day together.
Worship begins in an hour, my coffee cup is empty, and I have a good tip to leave for my server. See you all in session!
Today’s post is dedicated to my sisters and brothers at Annual Conference and to one awesome server who is currently waiting on 60 Amish folks from a tour bus. God bless her…
Let us Reflect: The Inertia of Love
Why do we do all of this church business? I was sitting with a friend at a local restaurant discussing the challenges of the church earlier. We talked about the people that we loved and the challenges they had faced. Our mutual affection for various individuals was very obvious. It made me wonder about how those friends and loved ones have been doing in recent years.
Why do we do all of this church business? I was standing in the kitchen at church talking with a parishioner about the challenges of denominational life. One wrong set of directions from MapQuest and suddenly there’s no chance of making it to a meeting. One wrong set of directions and suddenly there are thoughts of letting people down. We were talking about how colleagues and friends gently rib us when we miss meetings. We smiled at the fact that there is not only room at the table, but the chair is often pulled out and waiting for us.
Why do we do all of this church business? I have a theory that I would like to propose. I believe one of the many reasons that we engage in the act of church business is that we are victims of a strange set of relational physics. I believe the church is a place where we see the effects of the inertia of love.
An object in motion stays in motion. A person in love stays in love. Think for a moment about the people you grew up with in your church. Very rarely are they perfect people. Some of them might have a bad reputation in your memory because they were a bit cross or a bit temperamental. I would imagine others have a fond place in your memory after teaching you in Sunday School, teaching you songs, or even going camping with you on a church retreat. They did wonderful things and you came to love them.
I remember Rev. Lange. He wasn’t my pastor but a retired pastor who went to our church. Every Sunday he’d come up to me and shake my hand. I remember it fondly because the first time I went to shake his hand I learned that he had lost his thumb. He laughed really hard at that point and then smiled at me every time we shook hands after that first Sunday.
Rev. Lange wasn’t perfect in the least, but the way he smiled, the humor with which he approached the world, and the content of his good character made a deep impression. To this very day, I would not hesitate to stand up for this man. There is an inertia to the love and respect I have for him that has lasted years after his passing.
Many of us who are in church leadership have the same love for the church. As a Campus Minister why their ministry is important and I would bet most of them will come to the point where they say “When I was a student…” Ask a camp ministry worker about their love of camp and I’d bet they’d regale you with a tale about a great camping ministry. Ask a minister… Ask a church planter… I believe that we all have our own love and affection for the places that we have seen Christ in the church.
I believe that love is also why it can be hard to see that inertia at work in times of challenge. We all have our own inertia and while they often run parallel there are often moments when they go on a different course. There’ll be conflict if there are only so many dollars for ministry with people under the age of 35. Camping ministries, campus ministries, and youth groups can love each other, but there will be tension. Speak about the power of funding for electronic ministries and you will find someone passionate for the printed word of their youth. I think there’s a place where the inertia of love can be challenging.
For me, I think what’s most important is to recognize the love we hold for our ministry and each other. Keeping my eyes open and seeing that love in other people is especially important to me as I prepare to head out to Annual Conference. I pray that we all keep our eyes open and recognize God’s love shared in each other.
Let us Seek: Broken Images
Yesterday afternoon at the Annual Meeting of the New York Conference of the United Church of Christ we had a break between our afternoon session and our evening meal. I spent the time preparing for the upcoming session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I was distracted from my inevitable comparisons between the Annual Meetings of the two denominations I serve. I was distracted by reading through my favorite (and technically only) book on shame, orthodoxy, and orthopraxy called “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame.” Here’s what authors Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au write on internalized images of God and perfectionism: (pg. 85)
“As in Jesus’ time, much of the inner suffering that people struggle with today is abetted by an impoverished religious imagination that is unable to envision a God of unfailing love-a love that embraces all of us unconditionally just as we are. Instead, our projections of a harsh and demanding God leave us with feelings of shame and a sense that we have disappointed God. Many of us are burdened by a strict conscience that demands perfection, thinking this what God wants. We have an image of holiness that is out of reach for the simple reason that perfection is beyond our grasp. When we inevitably fail, we feel guilty and ashamed and are confirmed in our belief that we are unworthy of God’s love.”
The honest truth is that I could spend this blogpost talking about the idea of a frustrating and badly-considered image of God from a personal perspective, but I believe this may be a case where personal ministry experience might be helpful. I have walked with many folks who have struggled with understanding a God that accepts them unconditionally with their “warts and all.” A lot of people have difficulty seeing God lovingly walking with them during challenging moments of life. The situation is like trying to see clearly through a broken window.
I remember walking with a brother in Christ who did not understand how God could love him. The man was lonely, sad, and isolated. He wanted to be in a relationship badly, but every relationship ended up in disaster. While he would love to believe God loved him unconditionally, it was hard to believe. God loved him and understood that he was lonely. God loved him even as he felt lonely. I believe God was compassionately and completely in love with this man. That man could neither see nor believe in that love easily.
I remember walking with many people over the years that were absolutely furious over the death of a loved one. Some people were angry with God because their loved one had passed away. Other people were resolutely angry that their loved one had done the things that led to their death. How could God love them when they still feel anger towards someone that they love? How could God love them when they are angry with God? Faith in God’s unconditional love can be difficult to obtain when anger is involved. It can become very difficult to understand that God loves a person despite the anger that they harbor in their souls.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking situations are those that involve abuse. While God is neither male nor female, it can be difficult to trust in the love of God when someone is abused by another person. It can be difficult to believe that God is like a loving and caring mother hen when a woman in your life has engaged in abuse. It can be difficult to believe that God is like a loving and protective father when a man in your life has engaged in abuse. Moving beyond parental images, trust can be difficult to carry into new life with Christ as your brother when a brother has been abusive.
Walking through the challenges of life can make it very difficult to trust in God’s love and grace. The images of God that a lot of people carry around in their lives are often powerful and unjustly harsh. These images do reinforce a lot of challenges that people normally face in their lives. Praying with sincerity after a heartbreaking crisis can be almost impossible if God seems to be stern and foreboding. Seeking forgiveness for situations where everything has gone downhill can become impossible when God seems hard, cruel, and unrelenting. The weight of shame can be overwhelming when you believe that God could never forgive you for what you have done in your life.
So, what do we do with this? Well, I do not want to hamstring a future blogpost, but I will say that my family and I listened to the new NPR podcast “Wow in the World” this afternoon. The very first episode spoke about an article that was recently published by researchers from the University of Montana on the benefits of gratitude. A quick synopsis of the research is that there is a strong correlation between expressing gratitude and a person’s well being.
If a person can make their life better through regular expressions of gratitude then I believe a similar theory can be proposed. I would suggest that there may be a correlation between the health of a person’s image of God and what opportunities that person engages in to experience a loving God. Regular spiritual practices like prayer, Bible reading, and worship might help to reinforce a loving experience of God. The authors of the “God’s Unconditional Love” argue persuasively about the use of imagination to go deeper into the scripture and consequently into God’s love.
I would also suggest that engaging in compassionate acts alongside God might assist in retraining one’s heart to see a loving God more clearly. Volunteering with the hungry, assisting with rehabilitation programs, working to build and repair homes after disasters, and thousands of other opportunities exist to engage in ministry alongside a God who is neither hard nor callous to people’s pain. Partnering in ministry with others to seek God through compassionate acts might allow someone to understand God’s compassion for their own lives and souls more clearly.
In the meantime, my hope and prayer is that God might be gracious to you. May you see the love of God in your life.