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.

A Pile of Good Things

 A Sermon for Sunday August 18, 2013, Galatians 6:6, 9-10 and Ephesians 2:10

Screen Shot 2013-08-18 at 3.34.32 PMLast month, I finished up a whirlwind of summer youth trips with the High School Mission Trip at Urban Mission Camp in Mobile, AL, and the Middle School Montreat Conference at Maryville College in Maryville, TN.

But in between these two incredible faith-shaping experiences, I managed to squeeze in just enough time to watch an hour-long episode of my new favorite TV series…Doctor Who!

Produced by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), Doctor Who is the longest-running sci-fi program in the world and considered to be the most successful sci-fi series of all time.

Doctor Who originally ran from 1963-1989 and then went on hiatus for more than a decade. But in 2005, the series was re-launched, resulting in high ratings and a huge cult following among new generations of viewers (known as Whovians). Even the legendary director Steven Spielberg has said, “The world would be a poorer place without Doctor Who.”[1]

If you’ve never watched the show, Doctor Who follows the adventures of a Time Lord, a mysterious humanoid alien known as The Doctor who explores the universe in his TARDIS—a sentient time-traveling space ship that appears as an ordinary blue British police box but is much bigger on the inside. The Doctor is a thin man with a whimsical grin who is intrigued by every aspect of life and who has a penchant for tweed jackets and bow ties because “they’re cool.”

With the aid of a human friend and his trusty sonic screwdriver, the Doctor faces a variety of foes while trying to save civilizations, right wrongs, and help various humans and aliens throughout the galaxy and at different periods in history—past, future and present.

In the episode of Doctor Who that I viewed amid the last two youth trips of the summer, the Doctor and his friend Amy Pond travel to the year 1890 to visit the post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh, weeks before the artist (known for his frequent bouts with mental illness) commits suicide.

They soon discover that an alien monster that only Van Gogh can see is killing villagers throughout the villages of southeast France.  And after defeating the creature, the Doctor and Amy decide to take Vincent to a modern day museum in Paris so that he can discover his legacy as an artist[2]:

 ……………………………….

[For those who were unable to see the scene shown today in worship, here are some pictures and synopsis, along with key dialogue]

Vincent-and-the-Doctor-doctor-who-12772213-800-675

Upon their arrival at the museum, the Doctor, Amy and Vincent make their way to the Van Gogh exhibit. Vincent’s eyes light up in astonishment as he realizes that the museum visitors are admiring his entire life’s work on the walls.

As Vincent gazes around the room, the Doctor pulls the museum curator aside (but within enough distance for Van Gogh to hear) and asks him:

“Where do you think Van Gogh rates in the history of art?”

 The curator responds passionately:

“To me, Van Gogh is the finest painter of them all. Certainly the most popular great painter of all time, the most beloved. His command of color, the most magnificent. He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world—no-one had ever done it before. Perhaps no-one ever will again. To my mind, that strange, wild man who roamed the fields of Provence was not only the world’s greatest artist, but also one of the greatest men who ever lived.”

A tear-filled Vincent turns toward the curator, gives him a warm embrace and thanks him for his kind words. Before the curator has time to process what has happened—that he has been embraced by the greatest painter of all time—Vincent has disappeared with the Doctor and Amy.

Upon their return to 19th century Provence, Vincent steps off the TARDIS and exclaims:

“This changes everything! I’ll step out tomorrow with my easel on my back a different man.”

The Doctor thanks the artists for a wonderful adventure, and Vincent replies enthusiastically:

“You’ve turned out to be the first doctor ever actually to make a different to my life.”

The Doctor and Amy say their goodbyes and then board the TARDIS where Amy suggests they immediately return to the museum in Paris.

3amyelevenhug

Amy is convinced that Vincent Van Gogh will not have taken his life and that his newfound hope will have inspired hundreds of new paintings for the world to treasure. But when she arrives at the museum, she realizes that Van Gogh never painted another canvas because the artist, overwrought with his mental illness, fatally shot himself not long after saying goodbye to Amy and the Doctor.

With tears running down her cheeks, Amy says to the Doctor:

“We didn’t make a difference at all.”

The kind Doctor embraces his friend and compassionately says to her:

“The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant…And we definitely added to his pile of good things.”

…………………………………

We didn’t make a difference at all—how often do we say to ourselves those exact words uttered by Amy Pond?

We fed the hungry and gave financial resources to the homeless…but they are still starving and sleeping on the streets.

We sent our youth to a conference to hear about God’s love…but at home, they still spend time with teens that have a bad influence on them.

We embody love and mercy in our lives… but there is still violence and bloodshed in our cities and world.

We make policies and establish laws and rules to protect people from harm…but there are still folks who find a way to destroy others’ lives.

“We didn’t make a difference,” it seems.

And that crushing feeling of failure makes us throw our hands in the air and say: Why bother?

Why should I even try doing the good thing when all of these bad things keep on happening in spite of what any of us do?

Why?

It’s the question I’m asked most often in ministry.

Why?

Why do church people go on mission trips in the U.S. and other countries to help the poor and oppressed?

Why do youth want to spend a week at a conference learning about Jesus, the Bible and their faith?

Why do we serve when it doesn’t appear to be effecting the way people treat one another?

Why do we pray for peace when war rages around us?

The poor are still poor.

The hungry are still hungry.

The violent are still killing the innocent.

The oppressors are still stepping on the oppressed.

The broken are still broken.

Nothing is changing, so …

Why?

I imagine the early Christian church of Jews and Gentiles were asking that same question of Why? as they hid from the Roman Empire that wanted them dead for choosing Jesus over the emperor Caesar:

Why do we keep following Christ’s teachings and keeping God’s commandments to love when our neighbors are being dragged from their homes and into the streets to die?

Why do we keep on with the faith of our ancestors when we are being persecuted for our beliefs?

Nothing has changed. We worship, serve and love in the name of God who is sovereign in our lives…but the Roman Empire still comes after us.

We live a life devoted to God but “we didn’t make a difference.”

Why keep on keeping on? Why?

The apostle Paul, who was redeemed by God for his vile acts of persecution toward Jews and Jesus followers, answers the early Church’s Why?  in letters to the Galatians and the Ephesians.

The way Paul sees it, we are what God has made us, “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

The reason why we are to do good and to keep on doing good is because that is how God has made us. It is in our design as human beings and beloved creations of the Divine. It is the way of life that God intends for us to have and embody every…single…day.

Paul is not being unrealistic or naïve in making such a statement. The apostle as much as much as anyone recognizes the difficulty of doing good in a world where badness and brokenness reside. So he encourages churches that even in the midst of pain, they must share in all good things:

 Let us not grow weary in doing what is right…So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.

The Doctor echoes this truth beautifully when he says to Amy Pond:

The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant…And we definitely added to his pile of good things.

Yes, Vincent Van Gogh couldn’t escape his demons.

Yes, the poor continue to look for their next meal or a roof over their heads.

Yes, the oppressed struggle to survive in a system where the powers try to silence their voice.

Yes, people are hurt and killed because of the cruelty and hate of others.

But not a single bad thing or act of brokenness can tarnish the good things or render them insignificant.

As the musician Christine Kane says in her 2004 song “The Good You Do” which will be played for today’s Offertory: “No lost hope, no violent point of view…no fast pace, no jaded attitude…no dark place, no debt and no abuse can erase all the good you do.”

Last week, I emailed Christine Kane to ask her what inspired her to write such a beautiful piece. Through a spokesperson she answered the email by saying:

The song came as I spoke with so many people who were doing good things in the world, but were becoming a little bitter as things did not seem to change. The song is a reminder to keep doing good no matter what. There is the light in every person—it is our choice to share the light and no bad thing can take that light away. You just keep sharing it.

Kane’s reply to me as well as her song reminded me of another message that Paul wrote to the early church in Rome, familiar words that remind us to keep faith and keep doing good:

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose…What then are we to say about these things? …Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Each and every one of you has done and is doing good in this church, this community and world…

You’ve gone on youth conferences and youth mission trips to stretch your faith and to nurture the faith of our young people. You’ve built relationships with those who are often ignored like the poor, the underprivileged, the developmentally challenged and the geeky pimple-faced teenager.

You’ve fed the hungry and housed the homeless by volunteering at the Duluth Co-Op, providing a meal through Rainbow Village and by helping out with Family Promise Host Week.

You’ve donated blood to save lives.

You’ve signed up to teach church school or be a youth adviser.

You’ve prepared communion, been an usher or acolyte, collected and counted the offering.

You’ve brought food to put on the Fellowship Table between worship services and you’ve participated in numerous Fellowship  events.

You’ve agreed to be a prayer partner for someone attending the Adult Mission Trip to Honduras.

You’ve comforted a friend who grieves over a broken relationship.

You’ve shown kindness to a neighbor, prepared your children for school, dropped off clothes at the Goodwill.

You’ve planted gardens and cared for your pets and other animals.

You’ve shared your gifts in song to help illumine God’s presence for someone who sits alone in the dark.

You’ve delivered a meal to someone who was ill.

You’ve been patient and respectful with a church member whose opinion was different from yours.

You’ve served as an elder on Session to discern how we are to be the body of Christ within and beyond these walls.

You’ve welcomed the stranger and loved those who are kept on the margins of society.

You’ve added to the pile of good things.

You’ve made a difference.

Well done, good and faithful servants.

Continue to add to the pile of good things.

And never stop doing what you were made to do.

Amen.

2jucZ


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_Who and http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006q2x0 Dr. Who celebrates its 50th year in the Fall and is awaiting its 8th season since the 2005 relaunch. If you are interested in watching Dr. Who but don’t have time to view all 7 seasons (currently available on Netflix streaming and DVD) you can start with Season 5 in which Matt Smith became the 11th Doctor and found new companions to explore the universe.

[2] Trailer for the Doctor Who episode, “Vincent and The Doctor” Season 5, 2010, BBC: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I8PkCEc1Fjo

Doctor and Amy, ‘Pile of Good Things’ quote-clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjUKGfBW74o

The song that plays during the scenes at the museum is “Chances” by the British indie-rock band Athlete, http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/athlete/chances.html and youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWayL5NBH80

“Here & Be Heard”

A Worship Service Reflecting on the HS Montreat Youth Conference, Sunday June 16, 2013

Call to Worship: John 1:1-18 (The Voice-A New Bible Translation)

Hymn: “Come and Find The Quiet Center”

Scripture:  Romans 10:15-11:2a, James 2:5-9 (The Voice-A New Bible Translation

High School Montreat Youth Conference Video

Sermon

As a long-time movie fanatic and comic book geek, I eagerly read nearly every review about the new Superman film Man of Steel. While there were varying opinions on whether the story was stupendous or stupid, the critics did mostly agree one aspect of the latest reincarnation of the 75-year-old hero: IT’S LOUD!

“Busy, bombastic,” said a reviewer.[1]

“Lots of noise and clutter,” claimed another.[2]

“When I came out,” wrote one columnist. “My ears were ringing as though I’d been beaten around the head with tin trays.”[3]

According to the critics, the movie might even be too loud for the red caped hero who is known for his super hearing among other abilities.

It’s not too surprising, I suppose, that a blockbuster summer film is noisy. On average, the big budget action-adventure films register at 100 decibels in a movie theater, which is like having a running chain saw sitting in the seat next to you!

And I guess it’s not too shocking that manufactured noise is such a common complaint…when we are surrounded by so much of it on a daily basis! Finding a quiet space to escape the cacophony of noises made by human hands seems near impossible in the early 21st century.

Bernie Krause, an author and musician who records nature sounds for film and TV, said that in 1968, in order to capture one hour of natural sound, it would take him 15 hours of recording time.

But today, to get the same hour of undisturbed sound, requires 2,000 hours of recording time![4]

Think about that for a moment. Less than 50 years ago, Krause would only need to record for a little more than half a day to get an hour’s worth of a blue jay singing because of the rare truck that passed by on the highway. noise2

And now that process would take him nearly 3 months due to the overwhelming noise from airplanes, cars, businesses, factories, gadgets and every beep, blip, bop, boop, crash, bang, zoom in between. That’s A LOT OF NOISE!

Scientists and health care professionals have determined that 183 million people are regularly exposed to noise levels labeled as excessive by the EPA.[5]

Studies by the World Health Organization reveal that North American children “may receive more noise at school than workers who spend eight hours in a factory.”[6]

 

Researchers also have concluded that 40-50 million Americans have a condition known as tinnitus, a constant ringing in the ear when no sound is actually present. And one-quarter of them experience tinnitus so severely they have to seek medical help.[7]

We live in a noisy world. And it’s getting louder and louder and louder every day.

With no long hours of sheer silence in sight, this leads many of us to wonder:

In the midst of this ever-increasing noise in our lives, when do we ever have the chance to be still and listen for God? When do we ever cease an opportunity to be fully present to what God is saying to us in the stillness? When do we ever carve out space in the here and now to speak to God and be heard?

255648_10151400578276517_106725758_nThese are the questions that I and a group of 27 High School youth and 5 adults from Pleasant Hill (along with hundreds of others) had to ponder and discern during the recent Montreat Youth Conference in North Carolina.

Through the Montreat experience, we learned that we have to first let go of a lot of the balls we are trying to juggle in the air— some of the busyness and responsibilities and distractions that keep our attention from God. And as we let go of those things that sidetrack us, we have to make space so we can hear God’s Word/Call/Voice. The Voice of God that has always been present in Creation…

In the beginning,

Before time itself was measured, the Voice was speaking.

The Voice was and is God.

This celestial Word remained ever present with the Creator;

His speech shaped the entire cosmos.

Immersed in the practice of creating,

all things that exist were birthed in Him.

His breath filled all things

with a living, breathing light—

A light that thrives in the depths of the darkness,

blazes through murky bottoms.

It cannot and will not be quenched….

He entered our world, a world He made;

yet the world did not recognize Him.

Even though He came to His own people,

they refused to listen and receive him….

But Jesus the Anointed offered us gifts of grace and truth.

God, unseen until now, is revealed in the Voice,

God’s only Son,

straight from the Father’s heart.”

God is with us and God speaks to us,

and God hears us,

God listens to our hopes, our dreams, our joys,

our anger, our sorrow and our cries.

God listens even when we are angry at God and have hit the ground with our knees.

God listens despite the mess and brokenness and pain we find ourselves in.

God listens because God knows we are complex human beings for whom life is a daily struggle and never 100 percent easy all the time.

God listens actively, not passively. God engages us in the struggle and expects us to engage the Divine.

God listens to us with a deep, unconditional and abiding love, and God expects us to give the same attention to our Creator and to all whom have been created.

And the devotion we give to God and others through active listening is a ministry.

Listening is a ministry we are called to do. Therefore the Church has to always strive to be a place where people feel listened to.

Because God listens to the voices in our culture whom the majority tries to suppress—

the lonely

the lost

the abused

the addict

the prisoner

the slave

the sick

the homeless

the malnourished

the immigrant

the gay teen

the single parent waitress

the black school janitor

the foreign convenient store employee

 

turning-to-one-another-lIn her book, Turning to One Another, Margaret Wheatley says that listening moves us closer (to the other) and enables us to become more whole, more healthy and more holy:

Not listening creates fragmentation, and fragmentation always causes more suffering…This is a very noisy era. I believe the volume is directly related to our need to be listened to. In public places, in the media, we reward the loudest and most outrageous. People are literally clamoring for attention, and they’ll do whatever it takes to be noticed. Things will only get louder until we figure out how to sit down and listen.[8]

Once we have truly listened, we must then go out to speak …boldly, courageously and lovingly for those whose voices are quieted.

“It is good that we are here,” the Montreat conference keynoter reminded us the last day we spent on that sacred mountaintop, “but it is better when we take the experience out there.”[9]

We must share the message found throughout scripture—particularly in today’s readings from the letters of Paul and James—

that God is faithful 

God has not, and will not, abandon His covenant people

God has picked the poor of this world (and the down trodden)  

and we are to Remember God’s call to love others as you love yourself

It’s a message that our youth took seriously as they came down the mountains of Montreat to bring what they heard into the world.

One of them, Molly S., a recent high school graduate, said she feels more convicted than ever that she is called to speak to others about God:

I am being called to courageously speak to new people I meet in college. The ones that are starting over new from high school. I want to encourage them. I want to reach out to those who are on the outside.

Another youth, Courtney H./Lauren B., who just completed her freshman/sophomore year in high school, discovered that speaking courageously starts with one step, as she will share with you now:

………………………………………

(Courtney—8:30 am service)                    

At the beginning of the week, Claire Keyser, one of our adult advisers, told the group that Montreat was like a bubble. It was a bubble that you could come into and be loved and cared for and listened to no matter what. For me this was exciting! As a freshman I had dreamed of going to Montreat for as long as I could remember.  Now I had finally made it. The theme “be here and be heard” would play an important part in my week. From my past, I have been excluded and pushed around for a long time. Montreat gave me a place that I could be listened to and my own voice be heard.                    

In one sermon, Amos, the conference preacher, told us “to have the courage to speak up for others” now that is not the easiest thing to do but it what we are being called to do. The first night we were at Montreat, Colby Geil pushed me into a Montreat “tradition” of yelling out your small group numbers to find other members. To begin he called my number, “22! 22!” I soon caught on and my voice grew stronger and my call was answered with others yelling back “22!” Colby had the courage to speak up for me and help my voice to be heard.  From that night, I met people who I am now good friends with. I enjoyed getting to hear their beliefs and also their struggles; some of which many people in our group were going through.                

At the end of the week, Scott, the conference keynoter told us, “We all have to come down the mountain sometime” we cannot be protected by the Montreat bubble forever. We have to step outside of our comfort zone. For me that will be going up to those, who like me have been pushed around and becoming friends with them or simply lending a helping hand. It might just make a world of difference for that person. For others that risk could also be simply asking to talk to someone when you are feeling down or that risk could being going on a mission trip. It differs for each person. But by going up to those in need, we can be there and be heard.

……………………………………………….

(Lauren—11 am service)

I was a paranoid child. I checked to make sure the doors were locked at least five times before hesitantly falling into restless sleep each night. I went to school praying to God that I hadn’t left my straightener on and I washed my hands at least thirty times every day. I embraced my overactive imagination as a curse, creating all sorts of “worst case scenarios.”                  

Middle school taught me one thing: “look out for yourself, watch your back because trust is a weakness.” If I could adopt the “every man for himself” principle then maybe I would be okay. Life is only good for those on top. And I definitely did not want to know what it was like being crushed at the bottom. For me, the most terrifying thing in the world is letting go. To feel a vast nothing below me and trust that God will catch me.              

Trust is not a weakness but strength because it requires the greatest bravery I’ve ever encountered. Jesus calls us to leave our doors unlocked, our hearts open, and our souls free falling. God is not in the deadbolts, the germaphobia, the anxiety, and the need for control.             

Serving in the Dominican Republic with my family during Spring Break taught me one thing: “my life is a gift for others.” I found security in “the least of these.” While holding a Dominican child, I not did stop once to think about her lack hygiene or even shoes. I was set free from the ropes of trivial, earthly things that had been ho

011-CCCA1

lding me down, keeping me from God. Those who are “on the bottom” taught me more in a week then I had ever learned in my whole life. Yeah, it’s great that I was born in America where I have the ability to go to college and come home knowing that there is going to be plenty of food for me and my family.            

But the Dominican Republic taught me that I have an obligation to God and to myself to provide for those who have nothing. God is reckless, restless, and limitless. He lives in me; he lives in you; and he lives in a little Dominican girl.            

And he’s always on the move. I know when I tried to control my life, I almost broke it. Life is waiting for the ones who let go. And letting go has given me the courage to speak for impoverished, those deemed less fortunate. Who am I to doubt what the Holy Spirit can do through me? Jesus calls us to leave our doors unlocked, our hearts open, and our souls free falling. 

 

Like these youth and many more who have gone ahead on this journey of faith,

let us make time to listen to God,

let us make time to recognize God’s presence among us,

let us make time for our voices—which proclaim God’s love and grace for the least of these—to be heard!

Amen

Benediction:

“Revolution” by Kirck Franklin (Montreat Youth Conference Energizer)

“It is good to be here (in this sanctuary) but it is even better to share what we have heard and experienced out there. Do so in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit this day and forever more. Amen.”

Hymn: “Here I Am, Lord”

Week Links: “Good Friday”

"Wit" starring Emma Thompson, 2001

“Wit” starring Emma Thompson, 2001

As Christians around the world observe Good Friday, it seemed appropriate to offer some links that offered some perspective on this darkest of holy days:

Good Friday/Easter Lessons on Dying and Death

In a column for the Huffington Post, Jaweed Kaleem turns to those who regularly deal with death and dying for wise and heartfelt reflections on the meaning of Good Friday and Easter:

If you are not clear in your head about your understanding about somebody dying tragically, if you cannot reconcile that with the higher power of God or force of nature, this will be tough work for you,” said Handzo, who teaches chaplains and palliative care specialists. “You will probably not do it well, and you will burn out. You have to go through death to get to resurrection.

It’s important for me to be reminded that this part of the of the Christian story. … It’s painful, but it’s also what can make things meaningful,” he said. “We can make a mistake a lot of times with people who are dying. We can take our beliefs and say ‘the resurrection is coming,’ or ‘things will get better.’ But some people are not ready for that, they are still hurting and mourning, and they don’t need that happy good news stuff. They need to be allowed to be where they are, to have that Good Friday time.

Emily and Ronan Rapp, courtesy of CNN and Parenting.com

Emily and Ronan Rapp, courtesy of CNN and Parenting.com

Parenting a Child With No Future

A moving interview with mother Emily Rapp who has just published a book on the experience of losing her 2-year-old child Ronan to a devastating and un-curable disease known as Tay-Sachs:

I went through what I think any parent who loses their child suddenly goes through. I was out of my mind. When he died, he was ready to die. Anyone who has witnessed a death or knows someone who died knows that in that final moment the body is unraveling. It will do its thing and you just have to witness it. It’s really wrenching but he was really, really sick when he died, and I wanted him to go because I didn’t want him to suffer any more. I miss him, but there was nothing for him here.

Shane Claiborne of The Simple Way, Philadelphia

Shane Claiborne of The Simple Way, Philadelphia

Taking Good Friday to the Streets

Renown author, activist and Jesus follower, Shane Claiborne, founder of The Simple Way in Philadelphia writes about the importance of taking the story of Jesus’ death, found in the scriptures, into the streets. He recalls courageous acts of worship and witnessing of Christ’s non-violent and loving way smack dab in the middle of grand symbols of violence and hate within the city:

As we approached the final station of the cross, about 20 of us crossed onto the property at Lockheed Martin. We bowed on our knees and began to pray the Lord’s prayer, interrupted by police officers who placed us under arrest. As we stepped into the police van, there was a solemn sense of peace. It was the right place to be. It was a magnificent thing to hear folks honk as they went by. We even had a police officer who had arrested us thank us for our witness and decry the evils of violence and war.

Pope Francis washing the feet of inmates at a juvenile detention center, Huffington Post.

Pope Francis washing the feet of inmates at a juvenile detention center, AP and Huffington Post.

Pope Francis Washes Feet of Young Inmates, Women

While Pope Francis may be deserving of criticism for refusing to take a stand on particular issues when he was an archbishop in Argentina or his antiquated views of homosexuality, it’s hard to deny that his affinity for the prisoner, the poor and the stranger is not genuine. Clearly, Francis is trying to break down barriers put up by the Catholic Church that has strayed away from Jesus’ command to proclaim good news and care for the least of these. Francis put his compassion on display on Maundy Thursday by washing the feet of 12 young inmates, two who were women. Although Francis has washed the feet of the people throughout his ministry, this marks the first time a Pope has ever washed the feet of those who were not bishops or priests:

The pope’s washing the feet of women is hugely significant because including women in this part of the Holy Thursday Mass has been frowned on – and even banned – in some dioceses,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of The Jesuit Guide. “It shows the all-embracing love of Christ, who ministered to all he met: man or woman, slave or free, Jew or Gentile.

Don’t lose hope,” Francis said. “Understand? With hope you can always go on.

 

"Crucifixion at Barton Creek Mall" by James Janknegt, 1985

“Crucifixion at Barton Creek Mall” by James Janknegt, 1985

Love One Another, Even Those Who Hate

What Pope Francis so beautifully practices, Rev. Ruth Hawley-Lowry brilliantly describes in words as she urges readers on this Good Friday and beyond to love one another, even our enemies:

Those of us in the Christian tradition are mandated to love one another. Period. But Jesus pushed the issue: “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbors and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5). (Excellent examples of such love exist in Bishop Oscar Romero and the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.) Archbishop Tutu, who endured the hate and injustice of Apartheid, insists: “God Love Your Enemies As Much As God Loves You” which brings shocking comfort. (“Shocking” because it’s so wrong — and “comfort” because it’s so right.)

Creating Lent

Drawing Hands by MC Escher, 1948

Drawing Hands by MC Escher, 1948

Over the past couple of days, seminary classmate and colleague in ministry, Teri Peterson, and I have been having a good discussion on Lenten practices. While I stick to this view on how Presbyterians can best observe the season, Terri makes an excellent point about how Reformed Christians get too caught up in the busyness of doing-doing-doing, thus ignoring the importance of rest and discernment.

It certainly makes sense from a theological standpoint to put more emphasis on how we ought to give of ourselves to follow Christ and build God’s kingdom, as opposed to giving up trivial things like chocolate and beer.  And yet, there is a real danger in making a commitment to do more during Lent when it’s abundantly clear (at least in the PC(USA)) that many church professionals and congregations are doing much in the ways of justice already.  Instead of being in the midst of Jesus’ ministry-filled journey to the cross, we are burned out and lying face down in the sandy road to Jerusalem after only taken a couple of steps. Even active ministry or the joy of serving others in the name of God’s love and mercy can be too much of a good thing.

So then what? I pondered this much of last evening before going to bed and this morning as I got into the shower. As the water cascaded over my head, I recalled how Teri said in our discussion that giving up things for Lent can be meaningful to one’s faith if it “makes space.”

“Makes space…That’s it!” The light bulb went off, it became much clearer as I thought about Terri’s words as well as a podcast I heard over the weekend on God Complex Radio.

The focus shouldn’t be on what we give up nor on what we give to, but on making or creating space–an act of being and receiving more so than doing and giving.

And when I say creating space, I specifically mean creating space for sabbath and sabbath practices.

If we create MORE space for rest and renewal, i.e. sleeping, making/looking at art, running, reading, praying, listening to/playing music, wood-working, playing with our kids on the playground, sitting on the front porch talking to a friend for a couple of hours, going to a movie, etc…then we automatically do LESS of the things that keep us busy-busy-busy-doing-doing-doing.

We tend to get lost in the sabbath practices and make time for things that truly matter–things that sustain us and give us life; tha refresh and reshape us; that remind us who we are and whose we are. Instantly, we do away with or fast from the things that weigh us down and cause burn out, i.e. over-working and the bad habits that can come with it like unhealthy eating, shorter tempers, worry, frustration, impatience, and so on.

By creating space, we just might allow room for God in the Spirit to dwell inside our minds, our hearts, our bodies and souls–freeing us from the trappings of busyness and burn-out so that we can fully experience a journey of…

pain and joy

sinfulness and sacredness

destruction and re-creation

brokenness and redemption

death and resurrection

Carrying The Load

A Sermon for Sunday July 1, 2012, Micah 7:18-20 and Mark 2:1-12

On a beautiful Saturday afternoon in April 2008, Sarah Tucholsky approached the plate in the top of the 2nd inning with two runners on base in a scoreless college softball conference game between Western Oregon and Central Washington.

Some Central Washington fans taunted the tiny part-time starter-outfielder and senior from Western Oregon who had only three hits in 34 at-bats during the season. She took a strike on the first pitch while trying to block out the jeers. But when the ball was thrown a second time, Tucholsky smacked the ball straight over center field and into the stands—her first-ever home run in four years of playing collegiate softball! And an overly excited Tucholsky started her home run trot around the bases.

However, as she headed toward second, she realized that she missed touching first base. Tucholsky reversed direction to tag the bag when suddenly her right knee gave out, causing her to crumble into a heap on the baseline. The two runners who had been on base already had crossed home plate, leaving Tucholsky as the only offensive player on the field, although she could hardly move. The physical pain was too excruciating for Sara to even crawl back to first base, much less get back up.

If Tucholsky received any assistance from coaches, trainers or teammates, the result would be an out and her home run wouldn’t count. Umpires confirmed that that the only option available under the rules was to replace Tucholsky at first base with a pinch runner and have the hit recorded as a two-run single instead of a three-run home run. Either way, it appeared that Tucholsky, who doctors later confirmed had torn her ACL, would lose the run and a memorable moment, a devastating end to her collegiate career.

As Western Oregon’s coach started to tell the umpires they would replace Tucholsky, another voice spoke up. “Excuse me, would it be OK if we carried her around and she touched each bag?” said first-basemen Mallory Holtman, a four-year starter who owns nearly every major offensive record in softball at Central Washington and who was expecting to have surgery on both her knees at the end of the season. Holtman explained her decision to help out her opponent in an interview with reporters after the game:

Honestly, it’s one of those things that I hope anyone would do it for me. She hit the ball over her fence. She’s a senior; it’s her last year. … I don’t know, it’s just one of those things I guess that maybe because compared to everyone on the field at the time, I had been playing longer and knew we could touch her, it was my idea first. But I think anyone who knew that we could touch her would have offered to do it, just because it’s the right thing to do. She was obviously in agony

Sara Tucholsky being carried by Central Washington’s Liz Wallace, left, and Mallory Holtman. Photo by Blake Wolf, ESPN.com

Holtman and shortstop Liz Wallace lifted Tucholsky off the ground and supported her weight between them as they began a slow trip around the bases, stopping at each one so Tucholsky’s left foot could touch the bag.

When they finally reached home plate, Holtman and Wallace passed the home run hitter into the arms of her teammates. They were all greeted with a standing ovation from the fans that had never seen anything like this! Holtman said of the moment:

We all started to laugh at one point, I think when we touched the first base. I don’t know what it looked like to observers, but it was kind of funny because Liz and I were carrying her on both sides and we’d get to a base and gently, barely tap her left foot, and we’d all of a sudden start to get the giggles a little bit.[1]

 

…………………………………..

 I like to imagine that the paralytic and his four friends were having a mighty fit of the giggles as they made their way through the crowds and up to the roof so they get their sick buddy inside the house where Jesus was teaching. 

“I can’t believe we’re doing this!” the first friend says, clutching his aching ribs with one hand while trying to steady his buddy’s cot with the other.

“Some of these folks might think we’re taking Bill up top to get a sun-bathin’!” the second friend suggests with a couple of loud cackles.

“I can’t wait to see the looks on their faces when a hole starts to appear in the roof,” the third friend bellows. “Somebody is going to get dirt in the eye!”

“Look at the twinkle in Bill’s eyes. I know he can’t move but I think he’s laughing on the inside fellas. Might even be thinking about how those scribes are going to get their parchment in a wad over this!” the fourth friend chortles while he slapping his knee.

It must’ve been quite an unexpected and peculiar sight (much like a softball game where two players carries an injured opponent around the bases to score a home-run) for the people in the house to see four grown men digging a hole in the roof several feet above Jesus’ head. Their jaws probably dropped as the men were lowering the paralytic through the opening and onto the floor.

 Even Jesus appears to be moved by this surprising interruption to his afternoon storytelling time with the folks from Capernaum. The gospel writer tells us: “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’”

When Jesus saw their faith.

When Jesus saw the faith of the four friends, he told the paralyzed man that his sins were pardoned.

The faith of the paralytic’s friends rid the paralytic of his sins. This is an amazing detail to note in the story. The paralytic did nothing on his own to receive mercy for his wrongdoings before God and the community. The paralytic didn’t confess his sins nor was he required to confess, whatever those sins may have been.  And yet, the paralytic was rewarded…because of the faith of his friends.

It’s kind of like a softball player who lays paralyzed on the field after hitting a home run and two friends pick her up and carry her around the bases.  The softball player did nothing on her own to deserve the help. The softball player didn’t ask anyone to carry her to home plate nor was she obligated to make the request. And yet, the softball player was rewarded…because of the faith of friends.

The faith of friends is what helps makes the merciful kingdom of God visible for all to see.

My theology professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, the late Shirley Guthrie, used to say that our responsibility as Christians is to tell outsiders about the good news of the God who is redeeming all of creation from sin and brokenness:

Why should we tell them? Not so that God may come to love if they believe and obey, but so that they may hear and believe that God does love them….so that they may receive the gift of freedom now. Not by words only, but by demonstrating as individuals and as a Christian community the freedom for God and for fellow human beings that is the gift of God’s grace. If there are some who never ‘enter in’ who will be responsible? Will God ask them accusingly, ‘Why did you not believe and obey and accept the gift of a free life?’ Or will God turn to us and say, ‘Why did they not believe? Why did you not tell them? …You who talk about the love of God for guilty, lost, helpless people, why were you so unloving toward them? You who talked about God’s justice, why were you so indifferent to injustice in the world around you?…Instead of worrying theoretically about what God thinks of unbelievers or those who follow other religious traditions, could it be that we as Christians ought to worry more about what God thinks of us when God sees people who are still outsiders because of what we have said and done, or not said and done?[2]

Jesus watches the paralyzed man being lowered through the roof. Courtesy of Google Images. Slavujac, artist. 2001

The scribes, and other religious leaders of the time, are more concerned with who fits in, who is perfectly worthy of God’s mercy and love (as I mentioned last week) than about their duty to teach people about the goodness of God.  The gospel writer recounts that the scribes are practically spittin’ nails about Jesus forgiving the paralytic.  They are too cowardly to say anything out loud but angry questions are stirring in their hearts. “Who does Jesus think he is? God? How dare he forgive this man of his sins, that’s something only God can do!”

It was a common belief in Jesus’ day that one’s suffering in life was a punishment from God for their sins or a sign that one lacked a certain amount of faith and belief in God.  But Jesus exposes this inaccuracy by declaring that it’s the faith of (the paralytic’s) friends—the way in which they embodied God’s steadfast love for another human being—which eliminates sin and also relieves pain and suffering.

The angry scribes ignore their calling to embody God’s love and to be compassionate toward another person who is hurting. Jesus, sensing the contempt in the scribes’ hearts, says, Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and take your mat and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic— ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’”

The answer is that it’s easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven” because each and every one of us has the ability and choice to be merciful, loving and compassionate toward another as God has been toward us. None of us has been given the ability to miraculously heal someone’s physical pain with a few words.  But we can forgive them. That is the more extraordinary miracle of God’s goodness in our lives. We can reach out and pick them up and carry that person in the grace of God.

I know we can do this because… we have already done it! Over and over again, we have seen folks in this congregation reaching out, picking up and carrying others—fellow members and complete strangers—who for whatever reason were in stuck in pain and needing help.


PHPC Middle School Youth Mission Trip Group, June 2012

 A couple of weeks ago, I witnessed the act of carrying others while on a mission trip in Asheville, North Carolina with 8 youth and 2 adults from Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church. Over the course of four days, the group crossed barriers to carry a load of God’s love to others who are often deemed unworthy of such a gift.  The PHPC group, along with two other church youth groups (one from Boone, NC and one from Maryville, TN) did the equivalent of 667 service hours, more than 16 weeks of work (the amount it would take 1 person working 40 hours per week), for a living wage total of $7,559.10.

More importantly, they fed the homeless; laughed and played with low-income and developmentally challenged children; shared stories, served ice cream and played badminton and bean-bag toss with low income veterans; worked in thrift stores; helped several non-profit agencies with mulching, gardening and cleaning projects, built relationships, and as one youth said, “We changed people’s lives.”

Their faith helped make the merciful kingdom of God visible for all to see.

Their faith was (and still is being) shaped, molded, nurtured and carried in God’s love through the promises the congregation made in each youth and adult’s baptism.

Fountain in downtown Asheville, NC

It is in the baptism of every person, we are reminded who we are, whose we are, and from whom our faith flows.

Earlier in the service, during the baptism of William Charles Goorsky VI, the children of the church were asked if they would be a good friend to William and support him in all he does and share God’s love with him. Similarly, the parents, the family and the congregation were asked if they would promise to nurture William in the love of God in this church and beyond. By responding with “WE DO!” we essentially affirmed our calling to reach out and pick up and carry, not only William, but every child in the grace of God!

Our faith compels us to do no less. And when we carry the load, the merciful kingdom of God is made visible in ways we’ve never seen before…around the bases and all the way to home.

 Amen.


[1] “Central Washington offers the ultimate act of sportsmanship” by Graham Hays, ESPN, http://sports.espn.go.com/ncaa/columns/story?columnist=hays_graham&id=3372631; ESPN video story, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jocw-oD2pgo

[2] Christian Doctrine by Shirley C. Guthrie Jr. Westminster John Knox Press, 1994. Shirley Guthrie also shared this thought and others from his book in two theology classes I took from him at Columbia Theological Seminary, 2002-2005.

We Roll For Others


PHPC High School Youth Super Mario Racing Team: Alex “Luigi” Reinecke, Brad “King Boo” Kirch, Chandler “Princess Peach” Thurlow, Harry “Princess Daisy” Kirch and Philip “Mario” Sligar

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12:1, NIV)

A week ago, the High School Youth of Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church participated for the first time in The Family Promise of Gwinnett County Bed Race and…unexpectedly won FIRST PLACE in the Youth Category as “The Super Mario Brothers & Sisters.” The 3rd Annual Bed Race, whose motto was “We Roll For Others” was an awesome event that raised more than $12,000 for Family Promise which seeks to lift families out of homeless and poverty for a lifetime.  Check out the coverage from The Gwinnett Daily Post: storyphoto gallery and video.

Here is a video I took of the 5-member team coming down the stretch against the Lawrenceville Presbyterian High School Youth “Bed Bugs” in the exciting final heat …

Many thanks to the all of the HS youth and adult advisers who helped assemble the bed, the church members who financially sponsored the youth’s entry in the race (all proceeds of which went to Family Promise) and the members who came out to cheer on their team!  And kudos to all of the other churches and organizations who participated in the race and event. With this much energy, we might just roll homelessness right on out of town!

Sirius Faith: Music To Feed Your Life. Part Two: The Rock Cries Out

A Sermon For Sunday April 22, 2012, Psalm 18:1-3, Luke 4:16-19 and Luke 19:37-40

If you’ve ever had the privilege (or misfortune) of standing next to me in worship during the singing of a hymn or heard me sing along to tunes off an iPod during a summer youth trip, then you know I can’t sing a lick! As a former member of Pleasant Hill’s youth group once said quite pastorally (with a sweet smile, head tilted to the side and hands clasped together): “You have many gifts Andy Acton, but singing isn’t one of them.”

It’s quite true and unfortunate that I lack that particular talent because I LOVE MUSIC! I enjoy many kinds and could be considered a musical mutt like (senior pastor) Dave Fry. But actually deep down, I’m a pureblooded rock hound! AWOOOOO! (Albeit one that sounds like his tail got run over by a car.)

Of all the genres of music that I listen to on a daily basis, none of them truly move my heart, mind, body and soul more than rock n’ roll! Whether it’s classic, modern, alternative, indie, or folk rock, I savor every bit of those stirring guitar riffs, drum beats, keyboards and vocals.  Rock music gets my blood pumping and makes me feel alive!

I was introduced to rock n’ roll at the age of 10 when my parents purchased a brand new stereo system that was capable of transferring an album recording onto a cassette tape. We spent an entire weekend listening to one amazing record after another, my younger brother and I dancing and singing to the music of my parents’ youth—The Beatles, Elvis Presley, James Brown, CCR, the Kingsmen, the Troggs, Jefferson Airplane, The Beach Boys and many more.

In the years that followed, my love for rock music grew as my family would tune into radio stations that played the hits from the 60s and 70s.  For a while, I simply viewed rock music as a joyful form of entertainment, something that gave you a good feeling and made you want to tape your feet and nod your head.

Sinead O'Connor on Saturday Night Live, October 3, 1992, Wikipedia Images

It wasn’t until my junior year in high school that I started to realize how a rock artist and song could express such a powerful message on faith, God and the human condition. October 3, 1992: Saturday Night Live was on TV with a popular Irish-rock singer named Sinead O’Connor as the musical guest.  While performing an a cappella version of Bob Marley’s protest song “War” –which she intended to be an objection over the sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church (by changing the lyric “racism” to “child abuse,”)—she held up a picture of then Pope John Paul II. And as she sung the word “evil,” she tore the photo into pieces and then said loudly “Fight the real enemy!” before throwing the pieces toward the camera.[1]

A devout Roman Catholic and ardent champion of women and children’s rights, Sinead O’Connor received immediate backlash for her courage to speak out on an issue that has only grown worse in both the Catholic Church and mainline Protestant denominations 20 years since.

Although I didn’t fully understand O’Connor’s actions, the motivation of her beliefs or the child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, I knew there was something more to rock music than dancing and head banging. I began to pay closer attention to particular artists, the references to faith and social messages in their songs and the meaning behind them.  I also discovered new artists, like U2, who would ultimately help shape my faith and beliefs as it related to God’s love for the poor, abused and oppressed.

Formed at a Protestant-run school in Dublin Ireland in 1976 when the members were teenagers, U2 has become one of the greatest rock bands of all time, selling more than 150 million records.  The band often uses Christian and spiritual imagery to comment on social, political and cultural issues of the past and present and to dream of a more hope-filled future. [2]

Consider these lyrics from their hit song “Pride” about the prophets like Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr., who were martyred for speaking in the name of love:

One man caught on a barbed wire fence
/One man he resist
/One man washed up on an empty beach
/One man betrayed with a kiss.
 Early morning, April four
/Shot rings out in the Memphis sky/Free at last, they took your life
/They could not take your pride.

/In the name of love
/What more in the name of love.[3]

Or how about the wonderful gospel anthem “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” in which lead singer Bono shares his belief for Christ in a world that is not yet healed entirely from brokenness:

I believe in the Kingdom Come
/Then all the colors will bleed into one
/Bleed into one./But yes, I’m still running.

/You broke the bonds/
And you loosed the chains
/Carried the cross of my shame
/Oh my shame, you know I believe it./

But I still haven’t found
/What I’m looking for.[4]

Bono of U2 visiting children in Africa, from Google Images

Bono once explained the vision of U2 this way:

I’d like to think that U2 is aggressive, loud and emotional. I think that’s good. I think that the people who I see parallels with are people like John the Baptist or Jeremiah. They were very loud, quite aggressive, yet joyful, and I believe they had an answer and a hope.[5]

 Over the band’s history, when one least expects it (especially from a rock star wearing a black leather jacket and sunglasses), Bono declares his love for God.  Like the 2002 Super Bowl halftime show in New Orleans when Bono—while the names of the victims of the 9-11 terrorist attacks were displayed over a huge backdrop—prayed Psalm 51:15: “O Lord, open my lips, so my mouth shows forth thy praise.” [6]Or the numerous times he leads 70,000 plus fans in a rendition of “Amazing Grace” during a U2 concert.

A longtime activist for those afflicted by extreme poverty, particularly in war and disease torn Africa, Bono never hesitates to talk of God’s presence in the world.  As he said in a speech in 2006:

God is with the vulnerable and the poor. God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house…God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.[7]

 Bono and U2—through their music and the ways they serve those in need from New Orleans to Zimbabwe—show that God and God’s love is on the move in people’s lives, including our own.  Their work is a testament to how rock music can remind us that God, according to Psalm 18, is the “rock in whom (we) take refuge.”

Lenny Kravitz (Cinna) with Jennifer Hudson (Katniss Everdeen) in the 2012 film The Hunger Games, Lionsgate Films

Another musician who wears God on his sleeve (or who more accurately has “My Heart Belongs to Jesus Christ” tattooed on his back) is Lenny Kravitz. Many of you may know him as the Cinna, the stylist and dear friend of Katniss Everdeen in the recent movie adaptation of The Hunger Games. 

For the older generations in the pews who are not familiar with Kravitz, you might recall his mother Roxie Roker. Roxie had a groundbreaking role in the mid-70s sitcom The Jeffersons, as Hellen Willis, the wife in the first interracial couple to be shown on regular prime time television.[8] Appropriately enough, Roxie Roker, a black Christian woman, was married to television news producer Sy Kravitz, a white Russian Jewish man. [9]From them came a multi-cultural son who would spend his entire adult life performing rock songs about his faith in God and the importance of love and racial equality. In the song “Are You Gonna Go My Way,” written from Jesus’s perspective, Kravitz says this:

I was born long ago/I am the chosen I’m the one/I have come to save the day/And I won’t leave until I’m done/So that’s why you’ve got to try/You got to breath and have some fun/

I don’t know why we always cry/This we must leave and get undone/We must engage and rearrange/And turn this planet back to one

So tell me why we got to die/And kill each other one by one/We’ve got to love and rub-a-dub/We’ve got to dance and be in love

But what I really want to know is /Are you gonna go my way ? /And I got to got to know /Are you gonna go my way?[10]

Another artist and contemporary of Lenny Kravitz offered a similar message, declaring that people need to stop fighting and come together as children of God.  Raised in a Presbyterian church in the small town of Kennett, Missouri, Sheryl Crow sings the following in her song “Out of Our Heads”:

If you feel you wanna fight me/There’s a chain around your mind

When something is holding you tightly/What is real is so hard to find

Losing babies to genocide/Oh where’s the meaning in that plight

Can’t you see that we’ve really bought into/Every word they proclaimed and every lie, oh

If we could only get out of our heads, out of our heads/And into our hearts/Children of Abraham lay down your fears, swallow your tears and look to your heart.[11]

In Luke’s Gospel, the Pharisees demand that Jesus order the disciples to stop praising God’s name. But Jesus replies, “‘I tell you, if these were silent, the rocks would shout out.’” As its been proven by several artists, rock music makes the best and most intimate connection with people and their faith when the songs are crying out to God…in praise, thanksgiving, lament, love and hope.  Even if rock musicians stopped recording songs, the music would still shout out forever. And no rock musician cries out to God for the poor and oppressed than Bruce Springsteen.

Last month at a concert in Tampa, Florida as part of the tour for his new album, the blue collared bard played a song first performed in Atlanta in June 2000: “American Skin (41 Shots). The song, originally written about the 1999 police shooting death of Amadou Diallo, has taken on a new resonance in light of the Trayvon Martin killing. [12]

Take a moment to watch the footage of “American Skin”[13] from the Tampa show and observe the artist’s facial expression and mannerisms as he prays the song from deep within himself.

Rock music cries out and in doing so, it can shatter the barriers we put up before God and others. Rock music demands that we release the pressure of prejudice, anger, hate and violence that daily consumes us by shouting it all out to God. And simultaneously, the music beckons us to instead breathe in a new way of being, the way of love. As Queen and David Bowie so eloquently put it in their 1981 masterpiece “Under Pressure”:

Pressure pushing down on me/Pressing down on you/no man ask for

Under pressure that burns a building down/Splits a family in two/Puts people on streets

It’s the terror of knowing/What this world is about/Watching some good friends/Screaming let me out/Tomorrow gets me higher/Pressure on people – people on streets

Chippin’ around, kick my brains across the floor/These are the days, when it rains it pours/People on streets – people on streets

Insanity laughs under pressure we’re cracking/Can’t we give ourselves one more chance?/Why can’t we give love that one more chance?/Why can’t we give love, give love, give love..?

‘Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word/and love dares you to care for/The people on the edge of the night/And love dares you to change our way of/Caring about ourselves/This is our last dance/This is our last dance/This is ourselves/Under pressure/Under pressure[14]

“Under Pressure” continues to remain relevant more than 20 years after it was written. In 2005, the band My Chemical Romance recorded a cover of “Under Pressure” to raise money for the victims of the tsunami that hit Indonesia. [15]

            My Chemical Romance’s co-founder and lead singer Gerard Way is by all appearances the last person you’d think would sing about God. But beneath his alternative rock persona is a man (raised as a Roman Catholic) with a deep and abiding faith.

Recalling a time when he was 15-years-old and held at gunpoint with a .357 Magnum gun pointed to his head, Gerard Way told Rolling Stone Magazine that “no matter how ugly the world gets or how stupid it shows me it is, I always have faith.”[16]

Gerard’s belief that God calls each of us to make a difference in a broken world that attempts to muffle the voices of the oppressed is echoed magnificently in the March 2011 hit tune called “SING.”[17]  The song—re-recorded a month later with a symphony and vocals from Japanese musicians to raise support of those affected by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami[18]—is a beautiful reflection of Jesus’ prophetic declaration in Luke 4 where he says,  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me
 to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives 
and recovery of sight to the blind,
 to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

 

 

            Rock music can strips away all pretensions and falsehoods and reveals us for the flawed human beings we are. And rock music can communicate a prophetic message of hope for a world in which all are redeemed and made whole by the love of God.

And that my friends…truly rocks! Amen.


[4] Ibid.

[5] Spiritual Journeys: How Faith Has Influenced Twelve Music Icons by Steve Beard, Chad Bonham, Jason Boyett, Scott Marshall and Denise Washington. Relevant Books, 2003

[6] Ibid.

[7] On The Move by Bono, speech from the 2006 National Prayer Breakfast, W. Publishing Group, 2006.

[8] Spiritual Journeys: How Faith Has Influenced Twelve Music Icons by Steve Beard, Chad Bonham, Jason Boyett, Scott Marshall and Denise Washington. Relevant Books, 2003

[9] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Bruce Springsteen leads an anthemic celebration, honors ‘the Big Man’ at Tampa Bay Times Forum,” by Sean Bay of The Tampa Bay Times, March 24, 2012. http://www2.tbo.com/news/music/2012/mar/24/10/springsteen-honors-clemons-in-emotional-tampa-conc-ar-384588/

An Empty Tomb Changes Everything

Rick McKee, The Augusta Chronicle, April 5, 2012 http://www.cagle.com/news/easter-2012/page/4/

“In the fullest sense, Easter is a new way of life — in which we are ‘dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 6:11),” called to do justice, love mercy and give selflessly.

Celebrating the Season of Easter (50 days from Resurrection Sunday to Pentecost Sunday) and participating in resurrection living doesn’t mean life is going to be any easier.

Pain, suffering, brokenness, evil and death still exist and will continue for some time, but not forever.  In resurrection, we are assured that even in the worst of times “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39)”

Or put another way, dear friends and readers…

Easter is coming, it is here.

Death has lost its sting, love has cast out fear

An empty tomb changes everything, the way toward hope for a better day (and tomorrow) is clear…

Warning: “Toxic Charity” In Your Community

What Americans avoid facing is that while we are very generous in charitable giving, much of that money is either wasted or actually harms the people it is targeted to help.

Giving to those in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may well be the kindest way to destroy people. We mean well, our motives are good, but we have neglected to conduct care-full due diligence to determine emotional, economic, and cultural outcomes on the receiving end of charity. Why do we miss the crucial aspect in evaluating our charitable work? Because, as compassionate people, we have been evaluating our charity by the rewards we receive through service, rather than the benefits received by the served. We have failed to adequately calculate the effects of our service on the lives of those reduced to objects of our pity and patronage.

This is the premise that underlies  Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help by Robert D. Lupton, community strategies expert and founder/president of Focused Community Strategies (FCS) Urban Ministries based in Atlanta.  With numerous first-hand accounts as well as solid facts and figures about the unintended affects charity has on the poor or system of poverty, Lupton champions a better and more faithful way to care for “the least of these” (Matthew 25:31). It’s a revolutionary book that shifts the paradigm on how many of us have viewed our relationship with the poor and the vision of our call to serve those in need.

Through the lens of the church where I serve as associate pastor for Mission & Outreach (and Youth Ministry) I was pleased to discover that there were many things we are doing that are healthy. But I also encountered passages that were convicting of some of the toxic charity we do practice, albeit unintentional of course. That’s the point of the book. We, especially those in the Church, don’t realize how much harm our good intentions cause.  Even when we’ve served in good faith and with a solid scriptural and theological understanding of Jesus’ command to care for the poor, we still can and do make huge mistakes!  A synopsis of the book on the FCS website puts it this way:

The poor end up feeling judged, looked down upon, only worthy of charity and handouts that end up making them more dependent instead of learning skills to help themselves…a better system would be to treat the poor as business partners, empowering them to start businesses, build houses, plan communities, etc. He offers specific organizations as examples of this healthier model of charity and gives practical ideas for how to get involved in service projects that truly help.

I won’t go into the examples Lupton shares to support his point but once you read them, it’s hard to ignore that Lupton is on to something here about the toxicity of our mission work and givingBut more revealing is the idea that we can turn our toxic charity into transformative charity, according to Lupton.  There is, the author says, hope for doing mission work in such a way that the poor are truly empowered to rise above their poverty and contribute their own gifts to the betterment of the world and God’s kingdom. Lupton suggests that true change begins by adopting what he calls “The Oath For Compassionate Service”:

* Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.

* Limit one-way giving to emergency situations.

* Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.

*Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.

* Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said–unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.

* Above all, do no harm.

In addition to explaining each of these points in detail, Lupton also proposes that we also need to evaluate our mission ministries and ways of giving (to determine their toxicity) by asking the following questions:

* Does the proposed activity strengthen the capacity of neighborhood residents to prioritize and address their own issues?

* Will the proposed activity be wealth-generating or at least self-sustaining for the community?

* Do the moneys generated for and/or by local residents remain at work in the community?

* Does the proposed activity have a timetable for training and transferring ownership to indigenous leadership?

If the answer to some or most of these is “no,” then there is a lot of work to be done. The solutions Lupton offers are definitely daunting and challenging but also practical and doable.  This is a book that is worth picking up for yourself if you are a church leader and recommending to your church’s staff and mission committee or members actively involved in mission work in the community.  I recently grabbed a few copies for our church’s staff, the three elders on the Mission & Outreach Committee and a long-time member who helps coordinate the church’s Adult International Mission Trip.

Already we’re finding God changing our hearts and minds through Lupton’s wisdom and experience and are beginning to enter into some thoughtful and caring conversations. I look forward to sharing more of what we end up doing different in our mission work as a church. So what about you, dear reader…

If you or members of your church or non-profit have read Toxic Charity, how has your perspective on “giving” changed?

In what ways have you unintentionally contributed to “toxic charity” as an individual or as a church or non-profit?