Open Hands, Take Your Cross, Love Another

A Sermon for Sunday August 31,  Exodus 3:1-8a, 10; Romans 12:9-10, 14-16, 21 and Matthew 16:21-24
believe-tattoo-design-inkedBelieve.

A small word with profound meaning: to have a firm religious faith, to accept something as true, genuine or real.

Believe.

A word used by people as a way of resisting oppressive and unjust systems or justifying oppression and injustice toward others.

Believe.

A word used to convey one’s religious and moral convictions and attitudes about God and life, which can birth goodness or create much harm.

Believe.

I believe. We believe.

I believe that, but you believe this.

We don’t believe what y’all believe.

Do you believe? Do you belieeeeve in the nameee of Jesussss?

Believing and claiming what you believe is an important part of religion. But believing is not the single most important component of religion.

I realize that might offend several of you and it’s understandable to think that what I’ve said is blasphemous.

For centuries human beings have been taught that it was our job, our sacred duty to believe and only believe and all would be ok.

That idea is at the heart of all our beloved stories and myths. There is a crisis and the hero (Superman, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter) rises up to save the day and fixes everything!

This hero narrative is good movie popcorn fun but it has not practical application. History tells us over and over that there isn’t one hero that swoops in to save us all.

Yet our expectation and belief that a hero will save the day and repair a broken world in mere minutes remains deeply ingrained in our minds and hearts. We as human beings often place this expectation on our leaders and authority figures—politicians, police, pastors, and so on. And many self-identifying Christians certainly place this expectation and belief at the feet of Jesus.

It is common to hear some fellow Christians say, “Jesus saved. I’m saved (if I believe). We’re all good. No need to worry about the other stuff going on in the world. God will sort it out in time or maybe not. Either way, I’m saved and others need to be saved by accepting Jesus and that’s what matters.”

But Jesus doesn’t charge onto the scene like the mythical heroes of our culture, and with the wave of a hand or a show of super strength, end evil and suffering instantaneously.

The scriptures tell us that while God in Christ has/is/will transform the entire world in unconditional love, Jesus commands each one of us to follow and be a part of what God is doing in the world.

follow-imageJesus says, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.”

Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.”

Jesus says, “Whenever you do for the least of these, you do also for me.”

Jesus says, “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Jesus calls us to humbly and selflessly follow, to live like he did. Jesus’ actions inspire others to join in a movement toward God’s kingdom of love, mercy, peace and justice.

This movement narrative (as opposed to the hero one) underlines these ancient stories of the Bible, our own history and the greater over-arching story of God and humanity. It’s not about one hero saving the day but one person or group of people inspiring others to make the world a better place, to make God’s kingdom a reality in the here and now.

In the words of Margaret Mead, the famous American anthropologist: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Theresa were champions of civil rights for blacks and the poor, respectively, and yet, they alone didn’t bring about complete change nor entirely fix the problem of racism and slavery. It was through the living out of Jesus’ command that they inspired others to take up the cause long after their deaths.

In today’s passage from Paul’s letter to the early church in Rome, the apostle gives instructions on how to live like Jesus, focusing not on what one must believe to be a disciple of Christ but on what one must do to be a Christian:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor…. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly, do not claim to be wiser than you are…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Notice that Paul uses active verbs—be genuine, hold fast, love, outdo, bless, rejoice, weep, live, associate, and overcome.

Paul emphasizes that it’s not enough to simply make a belief statement or passively believing. Being a Christian, says Paul, is about putting what you believe into action. It’s about living out the good God wants us to do.

This past week, a video of a gay intervention of a 20-year-old college student in Rome, Georgia went viral. In the beginning of the conversation, the family of Daniel Ashley Pierce, told the young man that although they loved him, they believed his sexual orientation went against God’s Word. They further explained that if he continued to be gay, they would no longer support his education or allow him to live at home or come to visit. As the young man, who recorded the incident on his cell phone, struggled to understand his family’s motives, the stepmother became enraged. She yelled obscenities at Daniel and beat him while the grandmother cheered her on. Eventually the father pulled his wife away and then looks at his son and says exasperatedly, “You are a disgrace.”[1]

The family states in the video that they believe in God’s Word, but their actions clearly don’t show it. They aren’t living out God’s goodness.

A friend once told a story about his son who was having trouble behaving at school. The father got into the habit of telling his son each morning as he dropped him off for class, “Be good today, buddy.” Sometime later, it dawned on him how important those words were in a culture that often tells people, particularly children and youth: “Don’t be bad.”

Many Christians, like Daniel Pierce Ashley’s family, have reduced the religion to a list of don’t-screw-ups. Don’t cuss, don’t drink, don’t dance, don’t do this, and don’t be that. Don’t say or do anything wrong if you want to be a true Christian, go to heaven and find favor with God.

Although we have to take responsibility for the times we hurt God and neighbor through selfish choices, fretting over a list of don’t-screw-ups doesn’t advance God’s kingdom.

Paul reminds those who desire to follow Jesus that even when you fail, keep following God’s command to be genuine, hold fast, love, outdo, bless, rejoice, weep, live, associate, and overcome. Paul tells us that when there are problems, get out there and love.

Getting out there and loving others is hard. It’s much easier to miserably dwell on a list of don’t-screw-ups.

Following Jesus can be costly. We have to choose whether we will set our minds completely on human things or on divine things. We have to choose whether we will acquire success through status and material goods or love successfully without giving any thought to prestige and wealth. We have to choose whether we are going to pick up our crosses and follow Jesus or leave them on the ground to collect dust.

It’s tempting to do the latter, considering that the culture is opposed to the idea of selflessly loving and caring for everyone. The culture will immediately condemn those who carry their cross and follow the Divine Light who lifts up the suffering, binds the broken-hearted and blesses them with dignity.

Look at what happened to Jesus and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King Jr., and Oscar Romero and many others who, for God and God’s people, went against the culture of individualism, self-interests and preservation of the status quo, to claim love and grace for the poor, the stranger and oppressed.

Keep in mind that it is never noble to suffer or to strive for suffering, nevertheless we are sometimes called to suffer for God and to stand with those who are suffering, to “weep with those who weep,” and “associate with the lowly.” We are each called to deny ourselves and take up our crosses and follow Christ.

The question then becomes: What is our cross and what price are we willing to pay to ensure that all of God’s children are treated with the love poured out for them?

Another friend of mine who is studying to be a minister told me this weekend that our crosses to bear are the systematic injustices that occur all around us when we don’t place ourselves in communities unlike our own. She said

to work toward fighting the injustices of systemic racism, sexism, ageism, we have to listen to our brothers and sisters on the other end of those systemic issues. We must go into the communities like Ferguson and join hands, be in dialogue with our Jewish and Arab partners in faith to find commonality, create safe places for those among us dealing with prevalent but shamed mental health conditions.

More can certainly be added to the list. There is a world of hurt and God’s people, much like the Israelites who were enslaved to the Egyptians, are crying out. From cities in the U.S. to the Mexican border to Syria to Gaza to the Ukraine, the misery of God’s people are well known.

God hears their cries and then calls us to go and stand with the hurting—to bring them out of their suffering under oppressive systems. Are we ready, like Moses, to listen for the call of God, turn our heads and see where God lives in the gutters of the world?

Recently, a group of Presbyterian ministers in the state of Missouri, traveled to Ferguson to protest the institutionalized racism that became apparent to the nation following the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson.

Before leaving to join the protests, the Rev. Landon Whitsitt released a statement calling the PC(USA) to stand in solidarity with the people of Ferguson:

“We must as the possession of God…stand where the Lord stands, namely against the injustice of the wronged. … Sisters and Brothers, we must stand arm in arm with the people of Ferguson. Black bodies matter and our white bodies will signify that the killing of black bodies is unacceptable.”

As it was reported on the news and in people’s social media feeds, the most common way people protested in support of Brown was by raising their arms and chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” In response, a group of supporters for Officer Wilson responded with “Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!”[2]

keep-calm-and-carry-your-cross-8It is quite an image for the mind and hear to grasp. In an attempt to humbly and selflessly follow Jesus, I would like to offer a third way of protesting and an invitation to practice a much different chant and gesture as we go out to stand with the suffering and face the unjust systems:

Open Hands, Take Your Cross, Love Another.

This we must believe and practice.

Jesus calls us to do nothing less.

In the name of the One whom we follow,

Amen.

Many thanks to David LaMotte who talked me through an outline of the three lectionary readings and largely inspired the direction of the sermon. I am grateful for his thoughts and insight as well as the story he shared about a mutual friend/colleague who got into habit of saying “Do good today, buddy” to his son. I am also grateful to Addie Domske, an aspring seminary student who I quote toward the end of the sermon and for insights from friends Jennifer Larson, Omayra Gonzalez-Mendez, Rachel Pence, Josh Stewart, and Stacey Tarrant.

[1] http://www.ajc.com/news/news/georgians-video-of-gay-intervention-goes-viral/nhB26/

[2] http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/obama-orders-review-policy-enables-police-military-equipment-article-1.1914610 and http://www.reviewjournal.com/columns-blogs/sherman-frederick/truth-doesn-t-fit-templates

Wrestling With God

A Sermon for Sunday August 3, 2014, Genesis 32:22-30 and Matthew 14:13-21

We live in a fearful, violent and broken world:

The rising death toll of children killed in Gaza amid the war between Israel and Hamas.

An outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa that has claimed 729 lives and infected more than 1,300 people.

 War in the Ukraine that has already resulted in the killing of nearly 300 people aboard a commuter airplane.

Strife in Syria, Libya, Nigeria and China where numerous civilians have been attacked and slaughtered by terrorist groups.

The hundreds of thousands of children and youth who have fled to the U.S. border to escape atrocities in Central America only to be met by armed and angry protestors.

Drug addiction, domestic and child abuse, gun violence, murder, teen rape, racism, homophobia, sexism and political bickering runs amok in our towns and cities.

All of this turmoil around us (in addition to our own personal worries and struggles) is enough to make us lock our doors, shut our blinds and curl up in a ball underneath our beds.

There are many people who attempt to lead a safe, secure and insulated life where no harm can touch them or their loved ones.

Some believe that if it is not happening directly in their own back yard, there’s no point bothering with what’s going on anywhere else.

Others focus on wealth and an accumulation of things to distract them from the pain that is consuming their neighbors.

Most of them, however, are just plain scared as they tip toe through every moment of life, constantly wondering when the sky might literally begin to fall into pieces.

But tiptoeing is not a luxury for people of faith, especially ones who are called to follow Jesus.

Treading softly through life or retreating into a dark corner wasn’t an option for the people of the Book and neither is it an alternative for us, the ones responsible for sharing the Book and living out God’s story.

When birthrights have been stolen and you’re on the run for your very life from a brother who has sworn to kill you, there is no tiptoeing or hiding.

In the midst of conflict and chaos,

fear has to be confronted,

violence has to be transformed and

brokenness has to be healed.

Like Jacob, one must wrestle with God who draws people from the darkness of night into the dawn of a new day.

One must grapple with God’s call to practice reconciliation, compassion and love.

And that wrestling with God and God’s call—the gut-wrenching, mind-bending, heart-aching discernment of the soul—changes a person and the world.

That deeply profound struggle dislocates the joints and marks a person’s body with pain, making it impossible to run away from or ignore the agony of others.

In the blood, sweat and tears that comes with….

tending a garden that provides fresh produce for low-income families;

spending time with homeless veterans;

cleaning a homeless shelter;

talking to the homeless on the streets,

learning about poverty issues, and

playing games with underprivileged kids in Asheville, NC;

and

digging the foundation of a Pentecostal church;

leading Vacation Bible School;

assisting with a medical clinic;

making friends with folks who’ve never been in relationship with white Americans;

worshipping in a different tradition in San Pedro, a province of the Dominican Republic

…one sees the face of God and recognizes that life is a blessing to behold.

It is not to be dreaded or taken for granted as senior and elder Lauren Borders (who spent a month in the DR before joining the mission trip team) explains:

Sometimes we like to glorify mission. We like to pose with children like Disney World characters and convince ourselves that happy people could never be as poor as they are. And it makes us feel a lot better about the need we stand in the midst of.

I spent six weeks in the Dominican Republic, which was just long enough to move past the “glory” stage. When you’ve been swinging a pick-axe and shoveling on a work site for two straight weeks or someone tells you that you cannot hold a crying child because she’s covered in scabies, you tend to wake up. Waking up saved my life. I have found that now that I’m back, I can’t live on the surface. It’s a lot harder to take blessings for granted.

Working for God is really hard, especially when it seems as if everything is caving in around you. But one of the most important things that I learned on this trip was that most people don’t really care. I met youth and adults, including our own, from all over the country who are up for the challenge. And I found out, to my surprise, so was I.

God has a habit of signing unsuspecting people up to do his will. And when I held a small boy whose stomach is severely distended in my arms, I realized that I was tricked into coming here. I was tricked into loving on a Dominican child who probably is in desperate need of affection. I was tricked into swinging a pick axe. Because when I take a step back from both of those situations, neither of them really sounds like they were originally on my summer to-do list. God has a habit of signing unsuspecting people up to do his will.

I am so thankful to have been called to spend my summer in the Dominican Republic. I am so grateful to have been woken up to the reality of the hurting and I am so grateful to have seen the determination of my church family. I am so grateful to have been tricked into experiencing a deeper love. And I look forward to being tricked in the future.

The fear and violence and brokenness of the world can be so overwhelming that it is tempting to dismiss the trouble all together and remain in our own protective little bubbles.

Like Jesus’ first disciples, we sometimes want to ignore the bedlam and dump the problem on someone else so we don’t have to take responsibility.

But there is no ignoring or tiptoeing or retreating.

When the hour is late and the world seems bleak, we can’t demand that the crowds of people in pain be sent away.

Even when there are hecklers—people who say it’s foolish to serve the poor or go to another state or country to serve alongside others—we can’t give up and walk away dejected. Nor can we expect someone else to fix things.

We can’t even put it all squarely on Jesus for him to do it all by himself either.

Not that Jesus can’t do it by himself; he most certainly can. It’s just that Jesus would prefer that we be a part of what he is doing.

That tricky Jesus says to us: “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

And we must give those in need something to eat, something to drink, something to wear, something to heal, something to protect, something to trust—something that acknowledges their worth as human beings created in the image of God.

We must provide love, mercy and hope that is always abundant, never scarce and eternally satisfying.

Once we do such challenging things, we see the presence of God among us and we are instantly and forever changed by the encounter.

There is no going back. There is only forward.

Jacob didn’t return to his outlaw ways. Jacob persevered through his hardships and helped bring forth the 12 tribes of Israel.

The disciples didn’t resume lives of apathy. They kept following Jesus and doing difficult ministry, inching ever so closer to Jerusalem and the cross.

Similarly, the youth and adults who attended this summer’s mission trips haven’t gone back to being the people they were before their experiences in Asheville and the Dominican Republic.

They have wrestled with God and God’s call. Their minds and bodies have been stretched. Their eyes and hearts have been open. They have been changed.

And they are determined to be the change for others, even if they have to tussle with that calling for the rest of their lives.

At the close of their eye-opening trip with Asheville Youth Mission, the Middle School Youth devised a mission action plan they would like to implement in this congregation and community very soon. Over the next year, they want to:

  • start a clothing drive competition between adults and children & youth to see who can collect the most clothes for the low-income and homeless
  • create a community garden on the church’s grounds to feed the poor and hungry in Duluth
  • clean up and take care of the church’s labyrinth
  • volunteer (more) with Family Promise, Rainbow Village and Duluth Co-Op, and
  • participate in the Atlanta Community Food Bank’s Hunger Walk/Run in spring 2015 

After spending 10 incredible life-changing days in the Dominican Republic, the High School Youth desire to continue helping the community they grew close to in San Pedro by

  • sharing their stories and raising $20,000 in funds to complete the church building project.
  • returning to the country next summer to work on the project with their Dominican brothers and sisters and build stronger and deeper relationships with them.

In the meantime, they plan to be more involved with mission work in their church and community and to practice more humility, compassion, love, tolerance and peace toward people who are vastly different from them.

And both the Middle and High School Youth want nothing more than for this congregation to join in the grueling but amazing work God has called them to do.

They want you to lift up your head and raise your hands, 

They want you to open up your eyes to the needy ones 

They want you to stand out…oh you know that’s how we gotta live

They want you to stand out…just like ones that came before us did

They want you to stand out from the rest

And wrestle with God’s call to make this world better.

The only question is: are you ready to rumble with them?

Amen.

A Year Ago Interview With Rachel Held Evans

DSC_0090In honor of author Rachel Held Evans completion of her latest book on the Church (coming to bookstores and smart tablets this Fall) and the re-release of her best-seller Evolving in Monkey Town (Zondervan, 2010, now titled Faith Unraveled), here is my interview from June 2013 with one of the most important voices on matters of faith, belief, and justice.

The interview was first printed in the 4th and final issue of the ground-breaking independent Christian progressive magazine PLGRM, published by Landon Whitsitt and entitled “Woman of Valor: An Interview with Rachel Held Evans.”

It’s hands down one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve ever done (I used to do quite a bit of them as a newspaper reporter in Birmingham, Alabama from 1998-2001) and best conversations I’ve had about faith. It was also fun to chat with a favorite author, a heroine in the faith and another Southerner and SEC Football fan (albeit one who cheers for the Crimson Tide. War Eagle Rachel!)

I hope you enjoy her insights as much as I did talking to and learning from Rachel Held Evans:

A self-described “skeptic, creative and follower of Jesus, figuring out this journey of faith one shaky step at a time,” Rachel Held Evans is daily asking big questions, fostering dialogue and engaging people’s hearts and minds on her blog, http://rachelheldevans.com. …PLGRM got an opportunity to talk to Rachel about her two books, Evolving in Monkey Town and A Year of Biblical Womanhood (Thomas Nelson, 2012. Top 20 on NYT Bestseller List).

static.squarespaceLet’s start things off by talking about your first book, Evolving in Monkey Town. you write early on:

“Throughout history) Believers found a way to rethink and re-imagine their faith in the context of a new environment, one in which they no longer sat in the center of the universe.” (p. 19)

What are some of the current environmental shifts causing 21st century Christians to rethink  and reimagine their faith?

For Christians in the U.S., particularly evangelicals, there is a big shift from faith being centered in the Global West to the Global East and South. The movement is building elsewhere and that’s a big change to contend with. There are changes in what people of faith look like. The image of the White American Protestant at the forefront of faith is waning and evangelicals have to deal with that. We can go down screaming about it or say, ‘This is interesting and what can we learn from it and how can we connect with a servant heart like Christ.’

What are the ways in which believers are rethinking and reimagining faith?

I see this desire of evangelicals in America to move toward monastic communities, more rituals and connecting to the historical church. Evangelicals are asking, “What is my story and my past?” and are looking for ways to be more ecumenical and less self-centered and fractured. Families of faith are not the stereotypical nuclear family model anymore and we as evangelicals can either be freaked out by that or embrace it. We have to stop with the mentality of us v. the world and be more like agents of peace. We have to be less about power. We have to become less entangled in politics and patriarchy and become part of the change that is happening.

Evangelicals can infuse that fire in the belly, that emotion, that Spiritual fervor and passion for the Bible. They can bring an openness and progressiveness married with passion and excitement. They can be passionate about the gospel and social justice.

A couple of pages later in the book, you state:

“I’m an evolutionist because I believe that the best way to reclaim the gospel in times of change is not to cling more tightly to our convictions but to hold them with an open hand. I’m an evolutionist because I believe that sometimes God uses changes in the environment to pry idols from our grip and teach us something new. I’m an evolutionist because my own story is one of unlikely survival. If it hadn’t been for evolution, I might have lost my faith.”(page 21)

What are the convictions that the Church needs to hold with an open hand and heart?

When Jesus was asked what is the most important commandment or law, he said, “Love the Lord with all your heart, mind, body and soul.” We start our theology there with love. (The apostle) Paul reiterates this. For evangelical Christians, it’s about letting go of assumptions that our interpretation of scripture is inerrant or that our interpretation equals truth. At the end of the day, we all have to ask ourselves if our theology and interpretation of scripture makes us more loving and helps us to understand a more loving God. We have to be able to have different interpretations of scripture and still respect and love one another. We have to use the Bible or our view less as a weapon. Instead of our interpretations being a conversation ender, they should be a conversation starter.

You have shared in Monkey Town and on your blog that the catalyst which caused you to evolve more than a decade ago, and thus grab a deeper hold on your faith instead of clinging tightly to convictions was the story of Zarmina (a 35-year-old Muslim mother of five who was executed in Fall 2001 by the Taliban for allegedly killing her abusive husband.)

How does Zarmina’s story still impact your faith journey today?

(Learning about Zarmina) really was a moment when the worldview I constructed as a tower of cards fell apart. Zarmina was the card that got pulled ‘cause it stirred up these questions I long had about our circumstances in life and whether there was a hell. I asked myself, ‘Is it all about a cosmic lottery or luck of the draw?’ That’s when I started wrestling with faith.

Today, I see the questions that permeated around Zarmina’s story surface with recent events like the tornadoes in Oklahoma. I have a hard time saying God made that happen (and caused tragedy and death). I can’t imagine saying to a parent that there child died because God made the tornado. It makes sense on paper but if theology doesn’t work on the ground, it doesn’t work.

Zarmina’s story, particularly the image of her tennis shoes peeking out from underneath her burqa after she is executed, leads you to a reflection on the incarnation of Jesus in which you say:

“Being a Christian is about embodying a certain way…about living as an incarnation of Jesus, as Jesus lived as an incarnation of God. It is about being Jesus…in tennis shoes.”

What does “being Jesus in tennis shoes” look like in the world? Where have you seen Jesus in tennis shoes?

I don’t write about her often but it would be my sister Amanda. Doesn’t matter where she’s planted, she loves the people around her like crazy. She lives in North Carolina and has a neighbor, a 98-year-old woman, whom she looks after. She washes her clothes for her and brings her meals. Amanda went to India once and she is still invested in families she met and the relationships she made there. She gets invitations to weddings of family members she stays in touch with. Amanda went to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and still stays in contact with the people she served. Amanda loves her neighbor no matter what. She’s my little sister but I took up to her.

My husband Dan and I were visiting Amanda and her husband in North Carolina recently and we weren’t the only ones there. There was this perpetual cycle of people in and out of their home, visiting and eating. There’s this idea out there that you have to go to a poor place to find Jesus or a suffering area to see how much Jesus is loved or to love others like Jesus. But that’s not true. You can love Jesus in the suburbs. (Being Jesus in tennis shoes) is about loving your neighbor wherever you are.

In our culture where it’s about being busy, it’s hard to stop what you are doing and love your neighbor. I struggle with that all the time.

At the end of Chapter 19 on “Adaptation” you write that “I’m convinced that what drives most people away from Christianity is not the cost of discipleship but rather the cost of false fundamentals. False fundamentals make it impossible for faith to adapt to change.” (page 207)

It would probably be fair to say that you challenge those false fundamentals in prophetic, though-provoking and heart-felt ways through your blog posts, i.e. women’s rights, sexual abuse in the church, gay rights, mixed gender and mixed faith marriages, etc.

Which of the false fundamentals do you think suffocates faith the most?

Inerrancy of scripture and holding tightly to the idea that you have to choose between faith and science. We as evangelical Christians set up a false dichotomy and it’s a shame, this idea that (the science of) evolution is contrary to faith. But I do see us moving past it and I do see some serious progress.

What is the best way for the Church to deal with false fundamentals so that it can be about “loving God and loving other people” instead of “being right or getting the facts straight.” (p. 209)

Be appreciative of diverse perspectives. I get angry sometimes when people perpetuate beliefs that are hurting others. Now, there is a place for (righteous anger) for people who are suffering. Jesus was angry about people’s suffering and we should be angry too. But what I struggle with and have to remind myself is that the purpose of my writing or speaking out is not to change the minds of the “gatekeepers”. I have to say ‘Rachel, you are writing to help people through the day, those who are doubting and have been laid with burdens,’ and that helps me do my work with grace.

It’s about seeking out the suffering and marginalized. The motivation for me is to help out folks who are hurt by things that are said and equip them with ways to respond.

A Year Biblical Womanhood-med-whiteLet’s move onto A Year of Living Biblical Womanhood…You confess right away that “I’m the sort of person who likes to identify the things that most terrify and intrigue me in this world and plunge headlong into them like Alice down the rabbit hole.”

Alice in Wonderland is a terrific metaphor for your journey of biblical womanhood because, like Alice, you learn that things are not always what they seem and often the opposite of what you believed was true.

What did you discover about yourself as a woman and about the relationship between the Bible and women? What were the most strange, whimsical, wondrous or astonishing parts?

I think when we put limits on ourselves or give ourselves boundaries or rules, it’s amazing how much creativity can come about. I was continually surprised by the practice of taking the Bible literally. Covering my head when praying added an extra layer of reverence. It was mystical even as I stopped to do something physical.

What do you hope the Church will discover from your journey and experience? In your travels talking about the book, have you seen the impact your year of biblical womanhood has had on religious communities, Christian and otherwise?

It’s been encouraging to hear from women who, because of the book or a conversation on the blog, decided that maybe going to seminary wasn’t a waste of time after all, that maybe this passion they have for teaching and leading is a gift, not a curse. It’s also been rewarding to see how respond so positively to Proverbs 31 as a blessing rather than a to-do list or prescription. My hope is that readers will see that the Bible does not prescribe just one right way to be a woman of faith, that this notion of “biblical womanhood” as a list of rules and roles is a myth.  A woman who loves the Lord with all her heart, soul, mind and strength and loves her neighbor as herself is practicing “biblical womanhood.” Really, at the end of the day, it’s more about biblical personhood than anything else.  

Early on in the book, you paint this beautiful picture of how cultivating a gentle and quite spirit through prayer and contemplation is like becoming a great tree. And the roots you planted helped you confront your uglier tendencies, i.e. reacting less, listening more, holding back, choosing words carefully, avoiding gossip. A year later, do you find that you’re still able to root yourself more firmly in gentleness and a quiet spirit when “storms of nasty comments and critiques” come through?

Nothing beats praying the hours, which I’ve been able to practice with more consistency now that I’m not travelling as much. There’s something about working through the Psalms and praying the same prayers that have been prayed by Christians for many centuries and continue to be prayed around world today that reminds me that this faith thing isn’t really about me or about being right; it’s about being in relationship, part of a very big, very old community.

In the chapter on Domesticity which clearly had a lot of challenges and offered valuable learning experiences, you focus on your mother’s philosophy “It has to get messy before it gets clean” and you say further that “sometimes you’ve just got to tear everything out, expose all the innards and start over again.”

 What does the Church have to get messy, what does it need to tear out? What innards need to be exposed to start over or become relevant or survive in the 21st century and beyond?

Sexuality. There are a lot of presuppositions and prejudices. The most radical thing we can do is become better listeners. As we deconstruct, we can start treating women and homosexuals as people and not an issue. We can have a conversation that is constructive and helpful. It’s why I do guest posts on my blog and a series called “Ask A…”

It’s easy to keep everything in place you encounter somebody whose story challenges what you believe. A lot has changed about how we think about sexuality and we need to toss out everything we thought we knew and start over from scratch to understand all the concepts. Those of us who are straight really don’t know anything about being gay. We need to step aside and let others share their story.

During your exploration of the Proverbs 31 woman, you learn about “eshet chayil!” –women of valor and immediately your eyes are opened to the “acts of raw bravery” that occur daily in the lives of women.

It’s a poetic and prophetic reality that is lived out in small and large ways, which is particularly noteworthy when considering that human trafficking and the sex trade and violence toward women around the world is highly prevalent … and the back-sliding of women’s rights in this country i.e. over women’s health choices, right to have a voice, and the crude stereotypical portrayals of women in advertising/media

Can you speak more about the importance and power of “eshet chayil” in today’s divisive religious and socio-political climate? 

I like reclaiming Proverbs 31 from the fundamental way its been treated as a job description, making women feel bad how domestic they were or weren’t in life. It’s actually a poem celebrating what women accomplish in the everyday.

Proverbs 31 is also encouraging us as women to celebrate one another more. We don’t do that often because our culture says only a few are allowed to succeed. Competition (among women) is fostered. Once at a speaking engagement for women, I asked them to celebrate other important women in their lives. Their reaction was amazing. They immediately stood up and started sharing and crying and leaning on one another. We as women don’t do that enough.  I’m glad women are connecting to Proverbs 31 and that it’s being used to celebrate women instead of condemning them.

How can the Church be a better advocate for “women of valor?” How can the Church see and revere women as the solution instead of the problem? (page 242-246)

 I think we have to start by dropping all these notions of “ideal womanhood” or “real women.” We get it from the culture; we shouldn’t get it from the Church. Then it’s a matter of cultivating and celebrating the many gifts women bring to the world. In developing countries, it means partnering with women to ensure they receive the sort of education, job opportunities, and resources that enable them to live and work with dignity, provide for their families, and serve their communities. Everywhere it means treating women as human beings, not as some sort of sub-category. I love this quote from Dorothy Sayers:

“Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man—there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as ‘The women, God help us!’ or “The ladies, God bless them!’; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unselfconscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and Jesus that there was anything ‘funny’ about woman’s nature.

“But we might easily deduce it from His contemporaries, and from His prophets before Him, and from His Church to this day. Women are not human; nobody shall persuade that they are human; let them say what they like, we will not believe, though One rose from the dead.”

 

 

Rooted & Reaching

A Sermon for Sunday June 29, Matthew 13:31-32, Ephesians 3:16-19

SHOVEL2The most prized possession my younger brother Ben and I owned as kids was a plastic yellow shovel.

The toy was ideal for digging up dirt and sand at the playground, but it had other uses as well. The shovel was a sleek looking spaceship that carried our heroic action figures to distant planets or it was the legendary sword that slayed a fierce dragon. Ben and I hardly ventured outside without one of us holding onto that plastic yellow shovel. It was as if it was an integral part of us, an extra limb attached to our bodies.

One summer, while living for a brief time in a suburban cul-de-sac of Jacksonville, Florida, we discovered that our plastic yellow shovel could be used for other things than make-believe.

On a hot Saturday morning, my dad cranked up the chain saw to cut down a large tree in our front yard and I was curious and eager to help out. Gripping the yellow plastic shovel, I boldly marched out the door to survey the yard for other trees that might also need to be chopped down.

At the age of five, I determined that anything taller than my two foot self was a tree worthy of whacking and the “trees” that I noticed immediately were the three nestled in the front flowerbed of our house. Unbeknownst to me, they weren’t actually trees but split-leaf philodendrons, the kind you commonly find in tropical areas or see in jungle movies, about 4-5 feet in height and width with beautiful thick green branches and long curvy leaves.

They were my mother’s favorite plant, and with my yellow plastic shovel, I whacked and hacked all three philodendrons to the ground in mere minutes, a tangled mess of green at my feet. I was feeling quite proud of my task and preparing to go inside and tell my mother about my hard work when I heard a loud rap on the front window. I looked up and saw the face of my mother, her eyes bulging out of her head and her mouth agape. And then came the scream, a noise so loud that it penetrated the glass window, screeched across the yard and rang in the ears of my dad who was still operating a chain saw with headphones on:  “MIKE!!!!! LOOK AT WHAT HE’S DONE!!! HE’S CUT DOWN ALL OF THE PHILODENDRENS!!!!! NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!”

Before I could utter a word of explanation, they both scooped me inside to smack my backside and lecture me on the difference between trees and plants, shovels and saws.

Ben, who was 2 and a half at the time, missed this important discussion on proper shovel usage, which might have benefited him when he appropriated the shovel several weeks later.

A boy my age had recently moved in the house across the street and was hanging out in my driveway along with other pre-school kids from the neighborhood. The new kid was a loudmouth who liked to brag about being the fasted runner or insisted that he knew the right way to play every game. And if he liked the toy you had, he would snatch it out of your hand and threaten to punch you if you tried to reclaim it. 

His target on this particular day was Ben’s Big Wheel—a plastic tricycle with an over-sized front wheel that rides low to the ground. And the new kid didn’t waste anytime telling Ben to get off the toy and give it to him; he just pushed my brother off and took it!

But Ben didn’t say anything or tear up. He got up on his feet, walked into our open garage and returned with…the yellow plastic shovel which he then used to whack this 5-year-old bully (who was twice his size) several times upside the head until the kid fled home crying.

Despite my parent’s amazement at skills they were unaware my brother possessed, he got a spanking and a brief lecture on how you’re not supposed to hit people.

That plastic yellow shovel got us into some trouble.

It’s incredible what harm we cause when we whack and hack our away at the problems that tower over us.

Our minds, hearts, words and hands have many incredible uses in this world. We can imagine and create extraordinary things, whole worlds and realities, just as God intended in the beginning of time. 

And yet the slightest amount of misunderstanding, fear, hate, greed and selfishness can cause us to use these amazing tools God has given us to whack and hack our way through the wonders of God’s creation. 

Within seconds, we can use our own yellow plastic shovels to tear down the people that God has planted in our lives.

 Disagree with another person’s political viewpoint; turn to the comment section of an online news story or Facebook and post cruel and angry rants that seeks to dehumanize that person. 

Whack. Hack. Whack.

Don’t like the way an athlete is playing their sport; boo, ridicule and curse them from your place in the stands or on Twitter.

Whack. Hack. Whack.

Can’t stand people of another race, culture, religion, sexual orientation, and gender, call them offensive names in public.

Whack. Hack. Whack.

Offended that the Presbyterian Church (USA) narrowly voted to divest from three American companies who are participating in questionable business practices in the Middle East; declare on national TV that all Presbyterians are anti-semitics who hate Israel.

Whack. Hack. Whack.

Appalled that more and more states are legalizing same sex marriage, and that Presbyterian churches are opening its doors to gay couples; write letters claiming that the denomination is officially dead and make public statements that gays and those who support them are going to hell.

Whack. Hack. Whack.

Angry over a misperceived slight or fearful of one person or an entire group of people who are vastly different from you; pick up a gun and start shooting, send in the drones or kidnap scores of teenage girls.

Whack. Hack. Whack.

Disgusted by the poor and homeless on the streets; support the passing of unjust ordinances and laws that make it harder to address the systemic issues of poverty and care for people in need.

Whack. Hack. Whack.

Disgruntled by those who are making your life miserable; let them know it in words and deeds:

You’re beneath me.

Whack.

You’re an idiot.

Hack.

You’re unworthy of God’s love.

Whack.

We as a society do so much whacking and hacking that it appears as if we don’t know any other way to live and interact with one another.

But Jesus and his earliest followers remind us that we were not made to whack and hack. And they suggest there is another way—an alternative to our senseless thrashings and foolish attempts to uproot and destroy what God has planted.

As the High School youth and adults learned during the Montreat Youth Conference “we are rooted in God’s love and acceptance for us, no matter what.” That is the good news we forever proclaim in the waters of baptism and celebrate at the Lord’s Table. We know who we are and whose we are. We are children of God who belong eternally to God.

And because God has rooted us always in love, God expects us to grow and reach out in that love, recognizing we are all connected and called to care for one another.

Jesus and the apostle Paul encourage us to continually sow seeds of love to help the kingdom of God spread and bear much fruit, especially in places where there is none—barren lands where human beings have tried to whack and hack away at God’s handiwork.

Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew:

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.

In Jesus’ day, farmers and peasants were quite familiar with the growth of mustard seeds, which like the South’s infamous kudzu, vigorously and unassumingly takes over gardens, roads, forests, mountainsides and even buildings. Since the people of that era valued order, they had very strict rules for keeping a tidy garden, and that meant no planting mustard.  At the same time, the people had high expectations that the kingdom of God would come in splendorous and towering triumph like the giant cedar trees described by the Hebrew prophets.[1]  

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Illustration by Ryan Sharp, “Jesus For President” by Shane Claiborne

Jesus counters all of this by describing the kingdom of God as a small and wily mustard seed bush.  As activist and author Shane Claiborne interprets it:

What Jesus had in mind was not a frontal attack on the empires of this world. His revolution is a subtle contagion—one little life, one little hospitality house at a time…His power was not in crushing but in being crushed, triumphing over the empire’s sword with his cross. Mustard must be crushed, ground, broken for its power to be released…Mustard was also known for healing and was rubbed on the chest to help with breathing, sort of like Vick’s vapor rub. Mustard, a wild contagion of a weed, a healing balm, a sign of upside down power—official sponsor of the Jesus revolution.[2]

 I wonder if the apostle Paul (once a whacker and hacker of Jesus’ followers) was thinking about the mustard seed parable when he wrote to the church in Ephesus:

I pray that…Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

My prayer and hope for the Church Universal, for followers of Christ and for this church is that we cease our whacking and hacking so that rooted in God’s love we can do….

a lot more sowing,

a lot more tending,

a lot more growing,

a lot more caring,

a lot more forgiving,

a lot more listening,

a lot more loving,

a lot more reaching, and

a lot more turning plastic yellow shovels into plastic yellow mustard bottles.

Amen

[1] Insight gleaned from Jesus For President: Politics For Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne, Zondervan Publishing, 2008.

[2] Jesus For President: Politics For Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne, Zondervan Publishing, 2008.

What’s So Good About Good Friday?

"Christ and the Thief" by Nikolai Ge, Russian painter, late 1800s

“Christ and the Thief” by Nikolai Ge, Russian painter, late 1800s

This is God’s new commandment, that we should look at him: how in death he creates life, on the cross, resurrection.

–Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I’ve always been curious about why Christians over the centuries have referred to Christ’s death as Good Friday. What’s so good about it? Jesus is mocked, beaten and nailed to a cross where he suffers hours in agony before breathing his final breath.

And yet Luke’s gospel account of Jesus’ suffering and death tells us that in the midst of Christ’s final moments, something else in happening in the midst of the horror–something mysterious, something better, something hopeful.

The thief who recognizes the injustice of Jesus being on the cross: He is longer a criminal. He is a forgiven and redeemed soul.

The soldier who stands adorned in body armor and carries a mighty spear in hand: He is no longer believes in the Roman gods of his childhood and culture or feels an allegiance to the self-proclaimed messiah known as Caesar. He is a new disciple of the one true God whose promises to nurture and care for all of creation are steadfast.

The women who grieve from afar, long after everyone else has left the foot of the cross: They are no longer just pieces of property and second-hand citizens in a patriarchal world. They are bearers of the story of God’s dwelling on earth.

Maybe the good of this Friday is that even during suffering and death, the mysterious God is still transforming hearts and the world in love.

Even death is changed. Death is no longer the ending, but is instead destroyed as Jesus breathes his last.

Good often occurs amid the bad. However it is good none the less.

 

Filled Up and Ready for What’s NEXT

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This summer I will have spent:

6 years serving one PC(USA) church as associate pastor for youth and mission.
9 years being an ordained minister of the word and sacrament in the PC(USA).
16 years working with youth in PC(USA) churches.

Many hours, days and months and yet at the age of 38, I still have my looks albeit with several
extra pounds. (Har, har, har). However as Indiana Jones tells Marian in Raiders of The Lost Ark, “It’s not the years honey, it’s the mileage.” When it comes to ministry these days…

I’m hitting the wall.

I’m burning out.

I’m drying up.

I’m stagnating.

(Perfect time to have a second child, born in November, right?)

Knowing that a significant part of my life–God’s call of me to serve–is broken, I flew out to Minneapolis, MN at the beginning of the week to get some repairs done.

But what I got from The PC(USA)s  2014 NEXT Church Annual Conference (held at Westminster Presbyterian Church) wasn’t a quick fix or an easy answer that would allow me to apply a technical change in my life, i.e. get 12 hours of sleep and you’ll be good as new or attend these workshops and worship services and your frustrations/apathy/pain will instantly disappear.

While technical solutions are applicable when the heat goes out or a pipe burst in the church building, they are useless when it comes to nurturing the holistic being of a church or inspiring a gifted church leader who is feeling spiritually empty.

 
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What I received from the NEXT Church Conference was…

an invitation to consider an adaptive approach,

an invitation to be still and listen for God (Psalm 46:10) who is actively speaking and moving in the world in God’s own way and time

an invitation to be moved by the Spirit to reflect, ask questions and imagine new ways to be whom God calls me to be and do what God calls me to do.

an invitation to discover the welfare God has for me by seeking the welfare of the city and its people (Jeremiah 29:7) who have been exiled into a concrete jungle of poverty, homelessness, addiction, abuse, and violence.

an invitation to be part of a present and future that God infuses with hope (Jeremiah 29:11)

an invitation, per the theme of NEXT, to Lead. Create. Discern.

Accepting that invitation to be and let God move me wherever I needed to go was invigorating and liberating. A beautiful gift…

Sermons by Alika Galloway, Daniel Vigilante, J. Herbert Nelson and Maryann McKibben Dana reminded me that I have to let go of my fears, worries and self-doubts (something I struggle with daily as I take medicine and go to counseling for depression and anxiety) and not allow myself to get stuck in the muck.  I have to let it go. (Or as my wife says, not let my frustrations make me the victim.)

Leader Testimonies, Ignite presentations and workshops like Not ChurchTheocademy and  90 Second Sermon and fellowship with friends (old and new) sparked my imagination and tapped into a yearning I’ve been having to smash clay pots and create something different from the shards.

Worship (which I don’t get to do much strictly as a participant) stirred up my passion for serving God and doing ministry. Listening to varieties of music styles and songs (African-American and Native-American and Taize) and hearing scripture retold in unique ways refreshed my weary soul. An afternoon of prayer, in particular, moved me greatly as our individual petitions to God regarding the heaviness of pain we carry inside were read out loud.

NEXT Bulletin

 

NEXT river

 

The centerpiece of worship as well as the conference and our lives and ministry was a communion table that NEXT artist in residence Shawna Bowman created during morning worship on the first day and which we decorated in the days following. As Shawna proclaimed: “Isn’t it amazing that when we build something new, it gets filled up.”

 

NEXT Communion table 2

 

I also have been filled beyond measure and beyond what I deserve from this conference.

The challenge, though–as I find myself re-entering the routines of everyday life, family and church–is not getting stuck in a particular way of being and doing that depletes my energy, intelligence and imagination.

I wish I knew exactly what I needed to do (a series of steps or a one-size-fits all solution) to ensure that I don’t lose this newfound sense of creativity, leadership and discernment that I want to share with others. The last thing I want is to dry up to the point where I have nothing life sustaining to give to God, my family & friends, and the church.

I wish I knew for sure that the ideas I’d like to try–in an effort to enrich ministry and life–are going to stick and flourish beyond my wildest dreams.

There are, of course, no guarantees.

All I can do is take a risk and trust in God who only knows what’s next.

NEXT Communion table

Photo Credits:  “Dry Land” courtesy of Google Images,  other photos from The NEXT Church Conference by Andy Acton, 2014.

40 Days For Food Justice

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Although we’re a couple of weeks into Lent, I wanted to share this wonderful devotional resource that explores the meaning of the season through issues of food justice: 40 Days for Food Justice

Created by Rev. MargaretAnne Overstreet and sponsored by the Minnesota Institute of Contemplation and Healing (MICAH) and the Presbytery of the Northern Plains, the project–each day throughout Lent–highlights “one individual offering their perspective on food justice: what food justice means to them and where they see people and communities at work to promote greater food justice.”

My perspective on food justice was posted today and I’m grateful to MargaretAnne (whom I didn’t know prior to her contacting me) for inviting me to be a part of this project. 

Be sure to check out the previous 12 days from gifted leaders in the Church universal and don’t miss any of the 28 posts to come. These  essays are ideal for personal devotions and conversation starters, and the various perspectives will open your eyes, heart, mind and soul this Lenten season and beyond.