My Sabbatical Reading List

While a sabbatical is a blessing, it’s also a personal challenge to figure out exactly what I’m going to do with this gift of renewal. I‘m planning to hear Andrew Root speak in Decatur later this month and attending The NEXT Church Conference in Chicago in March, but those events obviously don’t fill up the entirety of my time away. I will make opportunities along the way to exercise, encounter different worship experiences, participate in Lenten practices, work on keynotes for Montreat Youth Conferences, and hang out with the wife and kids. But I still need a daily practice that keeps me immersed in sabbath reflection, creativity and visioning of my ministry and my service to God and the Church Universal. So I’ve come up with a list of books that I’m hoping to devour and contemplate on this blog between now and April 2.

Here’s what’s on tap for February(The synopsis of each book comes from their description on Amazon.com):

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The Bible Tells Me So chronicles Enns’s spiritual odyssey, how he came to see beyond restrictive doctrine and learned to embrace God’s Word as it is actually written. As he explores questions progressive evangelical readers of Scripture commonly face yet fear voicing, Enns reveals that they are the very questions that God wants us to consider—the essence of our spiritual study.

49827The Bible is full of not-so-precious moments, from murder and mayhem, to sex and slavery. Now, an incredible cast of contributors tackles the parts of the Bible that most excite, frustrate, or comfort. Disquiet Time was written by and for Bible-loving Christians, agnostics, skeptics, none-of-the-aboves, and people who aren’t afraid to dig deep spiritually, ask hard questions, and have some fun along the way.

3979da2042813af312594b0ba83ff63aAnne Lamott writes about faith, family, and community in essays that are both wise and irreverent. It’s an approach that has become her trademark. Now in Small Victories, Lamott offers a new message of hope that celebrates the triumph of light over the darkness in our lives. Our victories over hardship and pain may seem small, she writes, but they change us—our perceptions, our perspectives, and our lives. Lamott writes of forgiveness, restoration, and transformation, how we can turn toward love even in the most hopeless situations, how we find the joy in getting lost and our amazement in finally being found.

9780310670766Even if you know you’re called to youth ministry and are passionate about the students in your group, you’ve probably had a few of those moments when you’ve wondered why you’re doing certain things in your ministry, or wondered why you’re even doing youth ministry in the first place. In Taking Theology to Youth Ministry, Andrew Root invites you along on a journey with Nadia—a fictional youth worker who is trying to understand the “why” behind her ministry. Her narrative, along with Root’s insights, help you uncover the action of God as it pertains to your own youth ministry, and encourage you to discover how you can participate in that action. As you join this theological journey, you’ll find yourself exploring how theology can and should influence the way you do youth ministry.

Worldchanging 102Q==1 examines how large-scale change happens and how it doesn t, and explores our possible roles within that change. By breaking large transformations into more manageable components, LaMotte demystifies positive change-making, then guides us through questions to reveal specific pathways toward real and sustainable engagement with problems that concern us. In Worldchanging 101, we re-think the importance of heroes and everyday people, including ourselves.

2Q==“This is LIFE, people! You’ve got air coming through your nose! You’ve got a heartbeat! That means it’s time to do something!” announces Kid President in his book, Kid President’s Guide to Being Awesome. From YouTube sensation (75 million views and counting!) to Hub Network summer series star, Kid President—ten-year-old Robby Novak—and his videos have inspired millions to dance more, to celebrate life, and to throw spontaneous parades.

In his Guide to Being Awesome, Kid President pulls together lists of awesome ideas to help the world, awesome interviews with his awesome celebrity friends (he has interviewed Beyoncé!), and a step-by-step guide to make pretty much everything a little bit awesomer. Grab a corn dog and settle in to your favorite comfy chair. Pretend it’s your birthday! (In fact, treat everyone like it’s THEIR birthday!) Kid President is here with a 240-page, full-color Guide to Being Awesome that’ll spread love and inspire the world.

4ec4a8441f6a2273abecd846c92c76d5Despite the divorce statistics, people are still committing to each other, instinctively believing and hoping that theirs is a sacred union that will last forever. Yet when these couples encounter problems, they often lack the resources that keep them connected to this greater mystery surrounding marriage.

Rob and Kristen Bell introduce a startling new way of looking at marriage, The Zimzum of Love. Zimzum is a Hebrew term where God, in order to have a relationship with the world, contracts, creating space for the creation to exist. In marriage, zimzum is the dynamic energy field between two partners, in which each person contracts to allow the other to flourish. Mastering this field, this give and take of energy, is the secret to what makes marriage flourish.

9k=With decision-making trees to help you decide when it’s the right time to wear Blackface (hint: probably never) and quizzes to determine whether you’ve become the Token Black Friend™, Dear White People is the ultimate silly-yet-authoritative handbook to help the curious and confused navigate racial microaggressions in their daily lives.

Based on the eponymous, award-winning film, which has been lauded as “a smart, hilarious satire,” this tongue-in-cheek guide is a must-have that anybody who is in semi-regular contact with black people can’t afford to miss!

march_book_two_72dpi_lgJohn Lewis, an American icon and one of the key figures of the civil rights movement, continues his award-winning graphic novel trilogy March, Book 2 with co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell, inspired by a 1950s comic book that helped prepare his own generation to join the struggle. Now, March brings the lessons of history to vivid life for a new generation, urgently relevant for today’s world. After the success of the Nashville sit-in campaign, John Lewis is more committed than ever to changing the world through nonviolence – but as he and his fellow Freedom Riders board a bus into the vicious heart of the deep south, they will be tested like never before. Faced with beatings, police brutality, imprisonment, arson, and even murder, the movement’s young activists place their lives on the line while internal conflicts threaten to tear them apart.

UnknownMany people have become angry and frustrated with organized religion and evangelical Christianity, in particular. Too often the church has proven to be a source of pain rather than a place of hope. Forgive Us acknowledges the legitimacy of much of the anger toward the church. In truth, Christianity in America has significant brokenness in its history that demands recognition and repentance. Only by this path can the church move forward with its message of forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace. Forgive Us is thus a call to confession. From Psalm 51 to the teachings of Jesus to the prayers of Nehemiah, confession is the proper biblical response when God’s people have injured others and turned their backs on God’s ways. In the book of Nehemiah, the author confesses not only his own sins, but also the sins of his ancestors. The history of the American church demands a Nehemiah-style confession both for our deeds and the deeds of those who came before us. In each chapter of Forgive Us two pastors who are also academically trained historians provide accurate and compelling histories of some of the American church’s greatest shortcomings. Theologian Soong-Chan Rah and justice leader Lisa Sharon Harper then share theological reflections along with appropriate words of confession and repentance.

Unknown-1In this mind-bending exploration of traditional Christianity, firebrand Peter Rollins turns the tables on conventional wisdom, offering a fresh perspective focused on a life filled with love.

Peter Rollins knows one magic trick—now, make sure you watch closely. It has three parts: the Pledge, the Turn, and the Prestige. In Divine Magician, each part comes into play as he explores a radical view of interacting with the world in love.

Rollins argues that the Christian event, reenacted in the Eucharist, is indeed a type of magic trick, one that is echoed in the great vanishing acts performed by magicians throughout the ages. In this trick, a divine object is presented to us (the Pledge), disappears (the Turn), and then returns (the Prestige). But just as the returned object in a classic vanishing act is not really the same object—but another that looks the same—so this book argues that the return of God is not simply the return of what was initially presented, but rather a radical way of interacting with the world.

UnknownIt’s the end of Christianity as we know it. But it’s not a catastrophe-it’s an opportunity. Thousands are walking away from the church. Christians are grappling with their faith. And both believers and nonbelievers wondering-what’s coming next? Fearless and provocative, spiritual trailblazer Christian Piatt offers, in his book PostChristian, a roadmap to the future of faith with an unflinching examination of the church today.

What’s left? Pairing the best “virtues” and worst “scandals” of Christianity, Piatt invites us to abandon institutional religion for deeper, truer faith.  Can we fix it? Guided by the biggest historical, religious, and pop-cultural pioneers of the postChristian era, he demonstrates how to save the best of what Christianity has to offer-and how to rediscover and reinvent the rest.
Do we care?  There’s plenty of good left in Christianity-if we dare to be as scandalously graceful and loving as Jesus Himself.

UnknownOn Ash Wednesday, 2012, Sara Miles and her friends left their church buildings and carried ashes to the buzzing city streets: the crowded dollar stores, beauty shops, hospital waiting rooms, street corners and fast-food joints of her neighborhood. They marked the foreheads of neighbors and strangers, sharing blessings with waitresses and drunks, believers and doubters alike.

City of God: Faith In The Streets narrates the events of the day in vivid detail, exploring the profound implications of touching strangers with a reminder of common mortality. As the story unfolds, Sara Miles also reflects on life in her city over the last two decades, where the people of God suffer and rejoice, building community amid the grit and beauty of this urban landscape.

UnknownIn David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Malcolm Gladwell challenges how we think about obstacles and disadvantages, offering a new interpretation of what it means to be discriminated against, or cope with a disability, or lose a parent, or attend a mediocre school, or suffer from any number of other apparent setbacks.

Gladwell begins with the real story of what happened between the giant and the shepherd boy those many years ago. From there, David and Goliath examines Northern Ireland’s Troubles, the minds of cancer researchers and civil rights leaders, murder and the high costs of revenge, and the dynamics of successful and unsuccessful classrooms—all to demonstrate how much of what is beautiful and important in the world arises from what looks like suffering and adversity.

Sabbatical

Calvin & Hobbes, expert sabbatical takers

Calvin & Hobbes, expert sabbatical takers

(Blog Note: Letter I wrote in October 2014)

Dear Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church,

One of the greatest gifts this church gives to its pastoral staff is a “sabbatical” after they have served at Pleasant Hill for several years. With my 10th anniversary in ordained ministry and my 7th year of ministry at Pleasant Hill coming up next summer, the Session has approved my plans to take a sabbatical in late winter/early spring of 2015.

“Sabbatical” comes from the Hebrew word and the traditions around ‘sabat.’ You’re probably familiar that one of the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus is about keeping the Sabbath and in Leviticus we find two more references: one concerns letting the land lie fallow every seven years and another refers to the Jubilee Year in which debts are forgiven.

As the author Wayne Muller puts it:

Sabbath time can be a revolutionary challenge to the violence of overwork, mindless accumulation, and the endless multiplication of desires, responsibilities and accomplishments. Sabbath is a way of being in time where we remember who we are, remember what we know, and taste the gifts of spirit and eternity…Sabbath honors the necessary wisdom of dormancy. If certain plant species, for example, do not lie dormant for winter, they will not bear fruit in the spring. …We, too, must have a period in which we lie fallow, and restore our souls.

The church’s sabbatical policy allows for a pastor to take two months away from their ministry in the parish. Mine will begin on Monday February 2, a couple of weeks before the start of the Lenten season, and end Wednesday April 1 of Holy Week. I will not be around on Sundays or responding to emails, phone calls, social media messages during this time. (But know that youth, missions and other ministries I do at Pleasant Hill are in the good hands of many wonderful people in this faith community).

My hope for my sabbatical is to engage in Lenten practices which will fully immerse me into a time of Sabbath and quiet contemplation about who I am as a minister, husband, father and disciple. I plan to spend quality time with my family as well as find opportunities to worship, pray and reflect in different contexts around Greater Atlanta. I will attend the NEXT Church conference in mid-February in Chicago and also being preparing for my first time as a keynote speaker at Weeks V and VI of the Montreat Youth Conferences (which occur from late July to early August). I also have a nice stack of books to delve into that relate to the ministries I oversee at Pleasant Hill. Overall, I’m looking forward to just “being”—of “lying fallow” and allowing God in the Spirit to renew my heart, mind, soul and body so that I may continue to serve this congregation with energy, intelligence, creativity, imagination and love.

Thank you for this amazing gift of Sabbath. I look forward to seeing what God has in store for you and me during this sacred time.

In Christ,

The Rev. Andy Acton, Associate for Youth and Mission & Outreach

As God’s Chosen

A Sermon for Sunday January 18, Colossians 3:8-17, Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church (Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend)

Screen shot from the music video "Same As It Ever Was (Start Today) by Michael Franti, December 2014. From Google Images.

Screen shot from the music video “Same As It Ever Was (Start Today) by Michael Franti, December 2014. From Google Images.

Intro:  When news outlets reported in early December that a New York grand jury decided not to indict police in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, popular hip-hop-reggae artist Michael Franti immediately wrote the lyrics to Same As It Ever Was (Start Today). And in less than two weeks, he recorded the song and filmed a 4-minute music video. I would like to show you the video to open the sermon, but first I want to let you know that it contains some images of white police brutality toward blacks over the last five decades—including the death of Eric Garner—which may be difficult to watch.

Of course, the subject of race is never easy to talk about; it stirs up many emotions for people. People are at odds over the grand jury’s decision to not indict officers in both incidents. And not everyone agrees that Garner’s death or the incident between Officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown in Ferguson was racially motivated.

But matters of race can’t be ignored completely when it is clear that views regarding discrimination are almost evenly split between whites and blacks. In a predominantly white congregation such as ours, it’s important that we discern and pray about such issues of justice. Please know that neither the video nor the sermon is an attempt to disparage our brave men and women who have sworn to serve and protect our communities. It is merely an opportunity to “touch hearts, make people think and be moved to work for change” because we could all do better[1]:

Prayer:  Will you pray with me? ….May the words of my mouth and the meditation of each and every one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God the harbinger of justice, peace and love. Amen

……………………………….

Same as it ever was/There’s gotta be a better way/It’s the same as it ever was/But today is a different day/You and me could make that change/But it’s the same as it ever was/We better start today            

An activist for peace and social justice issues, Franti said in an interview[2]:

My intention for the song was to give voice to feelings that many of us are going through right now and to offer a starting place for friends, family, school classes, and workplaces to have dialog about the issues surrounding police killing of unarmed African American men, police/community relations, the justice system and where we all go in the future. The song is not an indictment against all police officers or departments. I have friends, fans and family members who are honest, fair, hardworking people who do a job everyday that’s much more difficult than mine, where quick decisions are made that affect people’s life, death and freedoms. But when police make mistakes, those individuals should be held accountable for their actions just like anyone else. This would be a first step in creating an opportunity for substantive change to occur.

Since the killing of Trayvon Martin in February 2012, there have been more than 25 incidents of unarmed black men and women (a few under the age of 18) being killed by whites—sometimes police and sometimes citizens. And there have been nearly 80 of these types of cases since the 1999 brutal New York police shooting of Amadou Diallo, a 23 year-old immigrant from Guinea. [3]

Despite the humongous strides that have been made since the times of segregation in the first half of the 20th century, the tumultuous 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and the breaking of color barriers in all arenas of life (entertainment, sports, academia, business and politics) over the last five decades, black-and-white racial tensions and issues surrounding race are still a thing of the present. Not something in our past. The notion that we are post-racial anytime we have the first African-American of something is a myth. We have never been post-racial. We are always presently immersed in matters of race.

And as Christians, we are always answering God’s call to understand the values of another’s race because of the love that unites us as the body of Christ—the love that identifies God’s people as being chosen ones, holy and beloved by our Creator. America’s a better place/than it was fifty years ago/There’s been a whole lotta change/But we gotta long way to go selma_ver2

On Friday, Elizabeth and I saw the Oscar nominated Selma—an inspiring and powerful film about the summer of 1965 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a non-violent campaign in Selma, Alabama to secure equal voting rights for blacks in the face of cruel and violent opposition from authorities. King and the marchers sought to be recognized by whites as God saw them: chosen ones, holy and beloved. It is one thing to read about the events from that time or listen to interviews, view old photographs or watch grainy documentaries.

And it is quite another to see, on a large screen, the brutality that many citizens and civil rights activists faced before, during, and after the courageous movement in Selma. Our eyes were streaming throughout the movie. One of the most tear-jerking scenes is of the incident known as Bloody Sunday, in which state troopers attacked 600 unarmed blacks that were attempting to march to the Montgomery state capital to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

As I watched the troopers, armed with billy clubs and tear gas, chasing and beating the marchers unmercifully, I was reminded of the standoff in Ferguson between military-armed white police officers and mostly peaceful protestors, many of who were black. While blood wasn’t shed in the wake of the grand jury’s decision in Ferguson, the conflict between the Ferguson police and the people of Ferguson was eerily similar to the tension in Selma. The “I Can’t Breathe” and “Black Lives Matter” protests held across the nation, including the campuses of Emory and Columbia Theological Seminary, in response to non-conviction in the Garner case also flashed in my head—affirming that we are not far removed from those 60s protests. It’s true, as Franti sings, that America is a lot better than it was 50 years ago.

The police brutality on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965 and the use of fire hoses and police dogs on black protestors by Birmingham Police in 1963 are non-existent. There are no more savage beatings, bombings or lynchings or burning crosses. Public places are no longer segregated with designated “white only” signs in restaurants, schools, parks, businesses and government buildings. And blacks are no longer vehemently denied opportunities to make their lives and the world better; they have the right to vote and be elected to public office, to make a living and influence the progress of industry, technology, the arts, and athletics.

There’s been a lot of change, but there is certainly a long way to go:

*The 114th Congress, which began its work this month, is the most diverse in our country’s history and yet it is still more than 80 percent white.[4]

* The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households. And the black-and-white income gap is about 40 percent greater today than it was in 1967.[5]

* In 2004, professors at the University of Chicago and MIT, conducted an experiment in which they sent out 5,000 identical fictitious resumes in response to 1,300 help wanted ads. Some of the resumes had traditional white names like Brendan and others had traditional black names like Jamal.  Applications with white names were 50 percent more likely to get calls for interviews.[6]

I share these examples not to make whites feel guilty or insinuate that all whites are racists. I mention them simply to raise consciousness that we still live in a system where the color of one’s skin has a great (and often unjust) impact.

When we used to have a problem/we would call the police/But who we gonna call when the police make a problem/I’m not saying that they’re all bad/I’m not saying that I’m any better/All I’m just trying to say is that we could all do a lot better

When a recent CNN poll asked “How many police officers in the area where you live … are prejudiced against blacks?” 17% of whites said “most or some,” but more than twice as many non-whites — 42% — felt there is prejudice. And when asked, “Does the U.S. criminal justice system treat whites and blacks equally?” 50% of whites said yes while nearly 80 percent of non-whites said no. [7]

Other studies reveal that African-Americans are incarcerated more often than whites, even if both races commit the same crime.[8] It’s also been reported that while white Americans use more illegal drugs than black Americans, blacks are far more likely to go to prison for the drug offenses than whites who break the same laws.[9]

None of this is to say that most or even half of the authorities (police, lawyers, judges, politicians) in a white dominated society are prejudiced or bigots. There are many good people, white and black, serving on our streets and in our courtrooms, government buildings and jails. I met many upstanding police officers when I was a newspaper reporter in the late 90s in Birmingham, Alabama. I observed many white and black cops performing risky and courageous deeds to better the community. I met honorable lawyers and judges who strived to make fair and just decisions.

However, despite the good of the U.S. criminal justice system, there is much that is corrupt about it. There are many who have not ridden themselves, as the apostle Paul writes, of “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language” from their mouths. And that holds true for everyday citizens like you and me.

We lie to one another. Deceive one another. Judge one another. Despise one another. Resent one another. Fear one another. Hate one another. We cling so tightly to those old clothes of deceit, trickery, judgment and harm instead of clothing ourselves with the new self that Paul describes— A new self, “which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its Creator.” A fresh identity, which is being bound in the unconditional and redemptive love of Christ Jesus.

I say it in my own house/and I say it on the street/I say it on a record and I say it on the beat/I paint it on the wall so everybody sees/when we all see justice/then we’ll all see peace. In my house growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, several family members uttered the n-word quite often. Distinctions were made between black people who were the n-word and those who weren’t. The distinction was based on a person’s criminal activity, education, or economic status:

“He’s not like other blacks.”

“She speaks very well for a black person.”

“That’s interesting, his voice sounded white on the phone.”

“Another (n-word) shot somebody.”

1973 James Bond in "Live and Let Die" with Roger Moore and Gloria Hendry. From Google Images

1973 James Bond in “Live and Let Die” with Roger Moore and Gloria Hendry. From Google Images

I remember in 1986, when I was 10 years old and visiting my grandparents in Florida, the 70s blockbuster movie Live and Let Die was airing on syndicated TV. Starring Roger Moore as British spy James Bond and Gloria Hendry as double agent Rosie Carver, the film marked the first time a black woman was ever sexually involved with the white 007. When the romantic scenes appeared, my grandfather and grandmother openly expressed their disgust over James Bond kissing that “n-word” woman.

Flash forward more than 20 years to 2008, a time in which I naively believed I had escaped the prejudices of my upbringing and entering the post-racial society of the 21st century. We had just come to the Duluth area, and our white real estate agent was driving us around various neighborhoods in Gwinnett County to look for a home. As we were coming out of a house that we sorta liked, we noticed a black family living next door. The real estate agent looked at us and said, “Well, you don’t want to live here anyway.”

About a year later at our current home in Lilburn, Elizabeth was outside chatting with a couple of neighbors, both white, when an African-American woman drove by in a fancy sports car. She was in the neighborhood to see a million-dollar home that was for sale—a house and piece of property much swankier than the rest of the neighborhood. One neighbor scoffed and said to the other: “Don’t worry. They can’t afford a house like that.”

Racism these days is subtle, institutionalized, and implicit. It is often disguised as white concerns about crime, property values, and schools. In public—at schools, restaurants, shopping malls and football stadiums—black and whites co-exist without any trouble. Things are much different than they were 50 years ago.

But sometimes in private, whether in our individual thoughts and attitudes or in one-on-one chats with other whites, subtle and implicit (and sometimes explicit) prejudice survives. I confess that for all the preaching I’ve done on race relations and issues of justice.

For all the admiration I’ve expressed in regards to the achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King, and other civil rights activists, I too have held (and still grip) many subtle prejudices toward blacks. I’ve anxiously clicked the lock button on my car when I’ve seen a black man in casual clothes walking down the street, something I’ve never done when a white person has walked by my car.

I’ve assumed that all black people in the projects are drug dealers, thieves and gang members, forgetting those decades of intense segregation, racism and white-flight to the suburbs that helped create slums and projects where its residents hardly have the means to escape.

I’ve thought of a black person who acts like a jerk on TV as an n-word, but consider the white person demonstrating the same behavior to just be a jerk. I’ve seen black people unknown to me sitting in the church’s coffee area and assumed they were poor and in need of financial assistance when actually they were professionals waiting for a meeting.

Essentially, I’ve forgotten at times that I am one of many members of the Body of Christ who has the privilege of being part of the white majority. And for all of the talking that a lot of us do about equality and God’s love for all, it’s time to admit that many of us here and many in our society still have some prejudices towards blacks.

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from Google Images

It’s time to start confessing our prejudice, and it’s time to start talking about prejudice and racism with other whites, and most certainly people of color.

It’s time to do so because, as Dr. King reminds us, we “can’t be silent about things that matter.” It’s time we start praying to God to forgive us our sins and show us a new way. It’s time today to shed those old clothes of sin and wear new clothes given to us by Christ.  

 

 

They can try to divide us/They can try to increase/all the pain and suffering/But this is everybody’s street/There is just one love y’all/and there is just one beat/And when we all see justice/then we’ll all see peace. The powers and principalities of this world can try to distract us from adhering to God’s call of us. Those loud and extreme voices in the media, the ones that come at us from the Left and the Right, can try to divide us. Try to tell us we are foolish for showing God’s love and working for God’s peace and justice. But we mustn’t let them. None of us must let them.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,” says the apostle Paul, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.”

I don’t have a 7-step plan for what white folks can do to be more loving and just toward people of color in our society. There’s no magic formula or ideal blue print.  As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, all that any of us in this world have is our hearts, enveloped by the clothes of Christ’s love.

We must simply follow the beat of our hearts, practicing what Paul teaches and trying to change the world for the better. For me, the best example of what it means to abide in love and peace might be the story of 12-year-old Devonte Hart and police Sgt. Bret Barnum of Portland, Oregon.[10]

A few days after Thanksgiving, Devonte and his mother went to a Ferguson rally in their hometown of Portland, Oregon “with the intentionality of spreading love and kindness, and to remind (ALL) people that they matter in this world.” Standing alone in front of a police barricade, Hart held up a “Free Hugs” sign. As the rally proceeded, the young boy began to cry and that’s when Sgt. Barnum noticed him. The interaction was awkward at first, with the officer trying to make general chitchat with a distraught kid.

Photograph by John Nguyen, November 25, 2014

Photograph by John Nguyen, November 25, 2014

But then Sgt. Barnum asked Devonte why he was crying and the boy told him his concerns about the level of police brutality towards young black kids. The officer replied, “Yes. I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry…can I have one of those free hugs?” Barnum and Devonte’s example doesn’t solve all of our racial problems instantly.

 

But it’s a good start if we are to clothe ourselves in love and let peace dwell within us.     It’s the beginning of a new life for all people whom God has made, all whom are chosen, holy and beloved. Amen.

Hymn #543  “God Be The Love to Search and Keep Me” (Glory to God Hymnal)

A child in the congregation handed our head of staff this message after the worship service to give to me.

A child in the congregation handed our head of staff this message after the worship service to give to me.

Benediction (Benedictine Prayer, 1986): May God bless you with discomfort At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships So that you may live deep within your heart. May God bless you with anger At injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, So that you may work for justice, freedom and peace. May God bless you with tears To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, starvation and war So that you may reach out your hand to comfort them, and to turn their pain into joy. And may God bless you with enough foolishness To believe that you can make a difference in the world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done. Amen.

…………………………………….

[1] http://www.rollingstone.com/music/premieres/hear-michael-frantis-powerful-song-for-peace-between-police-and-communities-20141217 [2] http://www.relix.com/news/detail/same_as_it_ever_was_start_today_michael_franti_on_grief_anger_and_utter_bewilderment_following_eric_garner_chokehold_case [3] http://gawker.com/unarmed-people-of-color-killed-by-police-1999-2014-1666672349 [4] http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/new-congress-mostly-male-white [5] But I Don’t See You As Asian: Curating Conversations About Race by Bruce Reyes-Chow, 2013 [6] http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/26/us/ferguson-racism-or-racial-bias/index.html [7] http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/02/us/foreman-police-race/index.html [8] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/09/06/incarceration-gap-between-whites-and-blacks-widens/ and http://www.naacp.org/pages/criminal-justice-fact-sheet [9] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/17/racial-disparity-drug-use_n_3941346.html [10] http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/ferguson-hug-between-protester-and-police-office-goes-viral and http://www.cbsnews.com/news/devonte-hart-hug-at-ferguson-rally-goes-viral/ and http://papertrail.co.nz/meet-devonte-little-boy-big-heart/

Toy Story, Christmas and the Act of Surrender

MV5BOTc2OTA1MDM4M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjczMDk5MjE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_Since I was a kid, my all time favorite cartoon Christmas specials have been How The Grinch Stole Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas. Until this year. When I added a third one to the list.

At the beginning of the month, we DVRed the Disney Pixar animated short Toy Story That Time Forgot which features the characters from the beloved Toy Story franchise.

The show opens with Bonnie (the new owner of Sheriff Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the gang from Toy Story 3, Toy Story Toons and Toy Story of Terror) playing with her toys two days after Christmas (but still in the Christmas season, mind you).

After Bonnie leaves the room for a bit, Trixie the Triceratops expresses her disappointment over not being played with as a ferocious dinosaur. Instead Bonnie makes her a goblin fairy, a customer at an ice cream shop, and a baby reindeer while the part of the dinosaur is played only by Rex or another toy. In this particular moment, the toy Bonnie chooses to be a prehistoric beast (or Kittysaurus) is an adorable Christmas Tree Ornament named Angel Kitty.

Angel Kitty is a cute toy who only utters simple (but profound in retrospect) philosophical-theological sayings. After Trixie finishes her rant, Bonnie races back into the room to pack up Buzz, Woody, Rex, Trixie and Angel Kitty for a play-date with her friend Mason.

After being referred to again as a baby reindeer, Trixie lets out a loud sigh, prompting Angel Kitty to say “Greet the world with an open heart.” Trixie, of course, just rolls her eyes and the rest of the group gives the kitten puzzled stares because they don’t know what to make of the newcomer’s positive tone.

When Bonnie arrives at Mason’s house to find her friend playing a brand new virtual reality video game system in the upstairs den, the girl tosses her toys into Mason’s playroom and picks up a pair of googles and a game controller.

The gang is stoked about Mason’s video game system, especially Rex, the video game junkie, who while shaking his small T-rex hands, remarks “You’ve got to be kidding me! He got an Optimus X for Christmas!…Sadly, the controls are beyond my limitations.”

Angel Kitty responds matter-of-factually: “Limitations are the shackles we bind ourselves.” Again, her companions look at her puzzled.

Buzz, Woody, etc. then climb out of Bonnie’s backpack and soon discover that Mason has also received a brand new toy line of battling dinosaurs called Battlesaurs, which have been taken out of their boxes and set up in a corner of the room.

TSTTF-2-300x168The Battlesaurrs are led by Reptillus Maximus and the Cleric. Trixie is delighted that she has found her place in a toy set filled with dinosaurs. Reptillus takes an excited Trixie (and Rex) to get suited up in their own battle armor while unbeknownst to them, the Cleric kidnaps Woody, Buzz and Angel Kitty, to be used later in gladiatorial combat ring known as the “Arena of Woe.”  As Reptillus shows Trixie his home, the two become smitten with one another and the worlds they live in.

During a conversation atop Reptillus lair, Trixie says to the brave warrior: “You must have the most amazing play-times.” Reptillus, unfamiliar with the concept of play-time, asks Trixie to explain. She goes on: “You know, play. When you give yourself over to a kid.”  Trixie’s words startle Reptillus who replies: “Giving is surrender! A Battlesaur would never surrender!”

Later, the two are called into the “Arena of Woe” to battle. Initially Trixie believes it’s all pretend play until Reptillus starts tearing apart Mason’s old toys who have also entered the ring, a plastic penguin and an old Sock Monkey. Turns out that Reptillus and the other Battlesaurs, except for the Cleric, don’t know they are toys. Mason has never played with them since he’s been sucked in by his video games. And the wise but evil Cleric is determined to keep the others in the dark so he can remain their ruler.

When Buzz, Woody and Angel Kitty are thrust into the arena, Trixie stands up to Reptillus and makes him stop, only to reveal that she has the name of Bonnie on her foot (just like Woody and Buzz had “Andy” the name of their previous owner’s on their feet).

The Cleric deems Trixie a “slave of obedience” and an enemy who should be disposed. Trixie narrowly escapes the arena to get Bonnie’s attention in the video game room. The Cleric commands Reptillus to go after her and while chasing Trixie, he runs into the box he came, shocked to realize he is actually an action-figure (much in the same way that Buzz learned he was not the real Buzz Lightyear in the first Toy Story film)

Back at the Battlesaur playset, the Cleric forces Rex (who is been outfitted with remote-controlled robotic arms) and the Battlesaurs to drop Woody, Buzz and Angel Kitty into a ventilation fan that would shred them apart.

136479165prejpg-e14e6b_960wWoody and Buzz scold the Cleric for doing such a dastardly deed during Christmas time. The Cleric is unfamiliar with the concept of Christmas which prompts Angel Kitty to explain with another nugget:

“The joy that you give to others is the joy that comes back to you.”

The Cleric, unfazed by the sentiment, orders Rex and the Battlesaurs to continue carrying the prisoners to their execution.  Angel Kitty then proceeds to play on her horn, a rendition of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

Meanwhile, Trixie reaches Mason’s video game power core, but Reptillus confronts her. Trixie attempt to convince Reptillus of the greatness and importance of being a toy:

Reptillus, your world is bigger than you know. Let me show you who you really are…You can be so much more! And you know it. Reptillus, it’s your kid who chooses what you’re going to be. It could be a dinosaur, a baby reindeer or something you’d never even think of. It’s about being there for your kid.

0Reptillus eyes grow wide and he replies, “(It’s about) Surrender”

And then he turns off the power switch to the video game console. As Mason reaches down to investigate, Reptillus does a trust-fall into the child’s hand. Mason stares in wonder at this awesome toy which Bonnie joyfully greets with a hello before playfully taking Reptillus from her friend and flying him around the room. Mason turns the power switch back on and prepares to play more video games, but Bonnie’s imaginative play inspires him to put down the goggles and controller to join her in the fun.

The two children race into the playroom, turn on the lights, causing all the toys to immediately freeze and thus saving Woody, Buzz and Angel Kitty from their impending doom.

An hour or so of play that involves a dance-off, the Battlesaurs, including the Cleric, are transformed by play-time and accept their role as toys who are there for their kid. They even go to bed later that night with Mason’s name written on their hands.

Trixie also is changed. Upon their return to Bonnie’s house, Trixie admits that she loves playing whatever role Bonnie assigns her.  “I’m Bonnie’s dinosaur and Bonnie’s dinosaur gets to be everything,” the triceratops says gleefully as she raises her foot with Bonnie’s name underneath.

toy-story-that-time-forgot-di-angel-kitty-1In response, Angel Kitty says sweetly: “Be grateful for your gifts, they are all around you.”

The gang looks at each other and give a collective “awwwwww.” But when they turn back to Angel Kitty, the toy ornament has disappeared.

 

I found myself moved by this entire special, much in the same way I get chill bumps when Linus tells Charlie Brown the meaning of Christmas by reciting the birth of Jesus from Luke’s gospel or when the Whos in Whoville celebrate Christmas by singing, despite the Grinch having stolen all of their decorations and presents.

The title, Toy Story That Time Forgot, is an obvious reference to the dinosaur characters but for me, the Christmas special also seemed to be a subtle nod to the story that we in modern times forget amid the hustle and bustle and commercialization of the season–the story of Emmanuel, God-with-us. The Christ child born in straw poverty in a manger.

41G-IhhPGPL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This simple half-hour animated short of imagination and wonder also reminded me of the words of the 20th century Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote:

If we want to be part of these events,

Advent and Christmas, we cannot just sit there like a theater audience

and enjoy all the lovely pictures.

Instead, we ourselves will be caught up

in this action,

this reversal of all things;

we must become actors on this stage.

For this is a play in which each spectator has

a part to play,

and we cannot hold back.

What will our role be?

Worshipful shepherds bending the knee,

or kings bringing gifts?

What is being enacted

when Mary becomes the mother of God,

when God enters the world

in a lowly manger?

We cannot come to this manger

in the same way that we would approach

the cradle of any other child.

Something will happen to each of us

who decides to come to Christ’s manger.

Each of us will have been judged or redeemed

before we go away.

Each of us will either break down,

or come to know that God’s mercy is turned

toward us…

What does it mean

to say such things about the Christ child?…

It is God, the Lord and Creator of all things,

who becomes so small here,

comes to us in a little corner of the world,

unremarkable and hidden away,

who wants to meet us and be among us as a helpless, defenseless child.

Middle Eastern "Mini-Nativity" by Kate Cosgrove

Middle Eastern “Mini-Nativity” by Kate Cosgrove

So what does it look like for us in this Christmas season if each of us greets the world with an open heart, frees ourselves from the shackle of limitations that bind us, gives joy to others, and are grateful for the gifts that are all around us?

What does it look like if we recognize that the world is bigger than we know and that the God to whom we forever belong chooses many wondrous roles for us to play in this life?

What does it look like if we set aside our personal agendas and desires for conquest to be there for the Christ-child who chooses to take on the role of humanity so that all might know unconditional love and mercy?

What does it look like if we are part of God’s story, God’s play and God’s imagination?

What does it look if we surrender?

 

 

A Grace Filled Love

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

 

Prayer of the People for Sunday October 26, 2014 (based on John 20:24-29)

Creator God,

our days are filled with fear,

but not of the make-believe Halloween variety.

Unlike a mask and costume that can be easily removed,

the tangible things that frighten us are hard to shed.

(The threats of) ebola, cancer, terrorism, war, school shootings, crime and economic hardships

paralyze us.  The tragedy and brokenness stirs our anxiety and fills us with doubt.

We desperately search for meaning in the midst of the chaos.

We yearn for salvation from the troubles that plague our lives.

Open our eyes to see your presence and receive your healing touch in Christ Jesus who

suffered, and

died, and

conquered death

so that unconditional love would be known to all.

A grace filled love that breaks through the locked doors of our

homes, and

minds, and

hearts.

A grace filled love that greets us in the dark corners where we cower

A grace filled love that draws us into the ligh of mercy and newness.

Beckon us to step out in faith to personally touch the lives of others with that same grace filled love.

Remove our fears so that we can comfort others, provide encouragement and loose them

from the terror that binds them.

Remove our fears so that we can leave our comfort zones and go into scary places

to shine your light and illuminate your glory.

We pray this to you in the name of Christ who taught his disciples to pray together saying,

“Our Father who art in heaven…”

Jesus and the disciples, post Resurrection. Artist Unknown

Jesus and the disciples, post Resurrection. Artist Unknown

 

 

A Shelter from the Storm

A Sermon for Sunday October 12, Domestic Violence Awareness Sunday in the PC(USA), Psalm 23 and Isaiah 25:1-9, (The Voice translation)

This summer, as I was looking at curriculum and choosing topics to present to the High School Youth Group, I decided on “ethics in college sports” for a Sunday night in mid-September. It seemed to be a timely and relatable subject:

Many youth are athletes and/or college sports fans.

We live in the South where college sports are king, especially football.

And there are always ethical issues about cheating, sportsmanship, etc.

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Ray and Janay Lewis. Google Images.

But in the week leading up to the lesson, news agencies reported on three separate incidents where NFL star running backs were caught in domestic abuse scandals. The incident that garnered the most attention revolved around Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens who is seen on video punching his then fiancé, now wife Janay Palmer, in the face and knocking her unconscious inside an elevator of an Atlantic City casino.

The NFL player scandals immediately stirred up dialogue about domestic violence on talk shows, social media and office break rooms, and I knew that I needed to bring that conversation to our High School youth.

Every few years, the High School Youth Group engages in a lesson on teen dating and how to spot the occurrence of abuse in a relationship.  Anna Brown led that lesson several times when she worked with the High School Youth Group for more than a decade, and I have picked up that practice during my six years at Pleasant Hill.

I remember talking about dating and abuse with the High School Youth Group in 2009 when one of our young women shared her experience with an ex-boyfriend who had verbally abused her. She spoke openly about the pain and shame that she felt being told that she was unworthy or useless. She talked about how hard it was to be in a relationship that was controlling and manipulative. And she explained that it was the help of family, friends and the church that allowed her to end the relationship and enabled her to see how much she was valued, appreciated and loved in the eyes of others and God.

So similarly, when the High School Youth Group gathered in September to talk about dating and abuse, some of the youth told stories of friends and relatives who were victims of domestic violence. Another youth expressed their bewilderment over seeing a male neighbor on their street get hauled away by the police for allegedly striking his wife.  And one of our advisers courageously shared her story of how a boyfriend verbally and physically abused her in college. The adviser expressed how the love of family and friends and the awareness of her self-worth, which helped her get out of the relationship and eventually heal and become whole.

Suffice it to say, it was a powerful evening in which we ultimately affirmed that God created us to embody love instead of indifference, hate and abuse.

index

Love Is Respect.org poster

I carried that experience into the following Monday as I began preparing for today’s sermon.  And while looking at the lectionary passages on the Presbyterian Church (USA) calendar and discerning what I should preach, I discovered the denomination had set aside this particular Sunday of October 12 to address the issues of domestic violence.

Feeling the Spirit stirring deep in my heart, I realized the conversation about domestic violence needed to continue in this sanctuary. And my hope is that the conversation and the stories will go beyond this place and me.

I understand this might not be the topic you expect or want to hear about in worship. Pondering the nature and effects of domestic violence are uncomfortable and unsettling …even if you’ve never personally experienced that type of abuse.

It would be much easier to sing lovely hymns and hear a nice word about Jesus and then go on with our day without a care in the world.  Of course, there’s nothing wrong with worshipping in that manner…some of the time.

But if we always enter and exit this place with rose-colored glasses, we miss out on seeing what an active, restorative God is doing in an actively broken world.  At Pleasant Hill, we are all about the motto “Connecting Faith With Everyday Life,” which means we wrestle daily, even in our worship, with how our faith and belief in God intersect with the details of our lives, i.e.

How my faith connects with my understanding of the pain that a loved one, friend, neighbor, stranger or I experience.

How my faith connects with my realizing that “worship, witness and service are inseparable” and that just “as God is concerned for the events in everyday life, so members of the community in worship appropriately express concern for one another and for their ministry in the world.”

How our faith connects with our being responsible as a church to routinely raise the issue of domestic violence to break the code of silence and help us as a congregation to focus on the violation of God’s will for families and to recommit ourselves to directing our ministry toward addressing the brokenness in families within and beyond the church.”

How our faith connects with our calling as the body of Christ to care for and nurture the parts of the body that have been broken, abused and deemed unworthy.

In other words, we can’t “connect faith with everyday life” and not discuss heart-wrenching issues like domestic violence, especially when there are people walking through the darkest of valleys—fearful of the evil that has or will be done to their hearts, minds, bodies and souls.

According to the Presbyterians Against Domestic Violence Network, the malevolent act domestic violence is defined as:

A recurrent pattern of assaultive and controlling behaviors directed toward an intimate partner. The violence can be actual or threatened and can cover a wide range of behaviors. Many people think of physical, sexual or verbal assaults, but subtle forms of abuse are also common: isolation, humiliation, ridicule, threats…These learned behaviors are used to control the victim and they cause physical and psychological damage. Anyone can be a victim of domestic violence; there are no specific categories of typical victim/survivor profiles. Likewise, abusers come from all contexts… Domestic violence has no boundaries. It cuts across all religious, economic, racial, cultural, educational and age lines.[1]

Many organizations devoted to domestic violence prevention also point out that many victims, most of whom are women, stay in an abusive relationship because they…

feel responsible or that they deserve the abuse

think that jealousy and possessiveness are signs of love

are threatened by their abuser if they try to leave or express any dissatisfaction in the relationship or marriage or mention the abuse to others.

 still love the abuser

 believe they are breaking the covenant of marriage by leaving

 believe that their faith requires them to forgive the abuser and save the marriage at all costs

want to prevent the abuser from harming their children and pets

 may not have the financial resources to care for themselves and their children apart from their partner

 may not have access to supportive services in her community or lack knowledge about those services

may have come from an abusive family and think that this is normal and expected behavior.

 may not have anywhere to go and no one to turn to for help[2]

When there are people—mothers, aunts, sisters, daughters, friends, co-workers, neighbors, our child’s schoolteacher or the postal carrier—suffering right under our very noses, we have to speak out against the abuse.

refuse-abuse-640_s640x427

Anti-Abuse advertisement. Google Images

We have to acknowledge that domestic violence happens everywhere (even to people of faith) and that abuse is always inexcusable. We have to be open to creating a safe and welcoming space where victims and survivors can share their stories of abuse without judgment. And we have to be willing to speak out so that the cries of others might be heard.

We can no longer be silent knowing that 1 in every 4 women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, or that an estimated 1.3 million women in the U.S. are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year. [3]

We can’t be silent when 85 percent of the victims of domestic violence are women, or when females between the ages of 16 and 24 experience the highest rate of intimate partner violence.[4]

We can’t keep silent when nearly 1.5 million high school students nationwide experience physical abuse from a dating partner in a single year, or when one quarter of high school girls have been victims of physical or sexual abuse or when 3 million children have witnessed domestic violence in their homes annually.[5]

And we certainly can’t keep silent when there are victims and survivors of domestic abuse sitting in the pews, and more among us who will potentially suffer.

We have to be voices of hope for the hopeless, voices that attest to the reality of a living God who, in the words of Isaiah,

makes marvelous and beautiful wonders;

stands up for the poor and weak, giving them comfort and empowerment

provides protection from the relentless heat and torrential rain

silences the arrogant sounds of violence

swallows up oppression and death

gently wipes away all tears and deflects scorn and shame

and saves us so that we may rejoice and celebrate the gift of life

This God, whom the prophet describes, intends for creation to live in harmony—in trust, love and mutual respect—with one another.  This same God strongly opposes abuse and violence, violations of the Creator’s desire for us to live as beloved creatures. And this God stands mightily on the side of the abused and oppressed.

ruth-patzloff-psalm-23

The 23rd Psalm. Artist Unknown. Google Images.

Like a shepherd, this God, writes the psalmist, walks with the abused.

This God leads, restores and comforts those who have been threatened and mistreated.

This God walks through the darkest valley with a staff to ward off predators.

This God prepares a table for the abused, a feast overflowing with mercy and goodness, even as the abuser lurks nearby in the shadows.

This God brings blessings of peace and love.

This God brings hope.

And God’s hope can show up in some surprising ways.

For Lizzie Hampton, it arrived in the form of Rainbow Village, which has been dedicated to breaking the cycle of homelessness, poverty and domestic abuse in Gwinnett County for more than 20 years.  Here is Lizzie’s testimonial which was filmed in 2010:

Before I came to Rainbow Village, I was in denial. I was in a domestic violence relationship and I decided to leave my home. My name is Lizzie Hampton. I was in the Rainbow Village program from 2003-2004. The reason why I decided to leave was because of the things I experienced in my home, which was mostly verbal, emotional and mental abuse. And for so many years, I thought that wasn’t really abuse. I thought physical abuse was really the key to being abused. It can be a cycle in your children’s life if you don’t get free. I was in the program for one year. … The turning point for me was they gave us opportunities to be able to meet with a full-time counselor. And the caseworkers and the people who worked at Rainbow Village were mentors to me. When I met with my counselor, I was able to vent my feelings about what I went through. My children were able to be a part (of the program) and talk about their feelings and (participate) in the afterschool program. All of it was very important in all of us getting back to being healthy again. Rainbow Village had classes about being abused and the right way to be treated. And it woke up my eyes to realize that I deserved to be treated in a loving and kind way. And it taught me about myself, self-esteem and how to love myself. It taught me how to be a better mother. It taught me how to not look back on my experience and beat myself up. It taught me to go forward. I would like for women to learn from me to not be in denial of their situation and circumstances that they’re dealing with in their home; to get help because there’s so much help out there for them; and they’re not alone. And to go forth and reach the skies because the sky’s the limit to what God has called them to do and be on earth. Spiritually, I am loving God more, seeing who he has made me to be. I didn’t love myself before. I didn’t think of myself as being beautiful. Now I know who I am in Christ and I know he fearfully and wonderfully made me to be where I am.[6]

If you’ve been abused or are being abused by an intimate partner, know that you are a beautiful creation of God who is fearfully and wonderfully made, deeply loved and cherished.

Remember always that you didn’t do a thing to deserve the abuse. It is never your fault. Never. Your. Fault.

Tell someone your story and share your pain so that you can receive help and escape a situation that will only get worse. You are never alone. There are pastors and church members who will support you.

Heed the advice from Lizzie Hampton, currently a board member of Rainbow Village and an employee of a Gwinnett County elementary school, who says:

Go forth and reach the skies because the sky is the limit to what God has called (you) to do and be on earth.

images-67

Isaiah 25. Artist Unknown. Google Images

And finally, as one who grew up with domestic violence in his home as a child and survived and is standing before you now,

cling tightly to the truth that no matter how much the oppressive winds and rains threaten to weigh you down,

this living God, whom we worship and adore, and whom we put our hope in,

will always be a shelter from the storm.

Amen.

………………….

[1] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/phewa/presbyterians-against-domestic-violence/
[2] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/phewa/presbyterians-against-domestic-violence/
[3] http://www.ncadv.org/ and http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs239/en/
[4] http://www.ncadv.org/ and http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs239/en/
[5] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/phewa/presbyterians-against-domestic-violence/ ; http://www.ncadv.org/ and  http://www.loveisrespect.org/
[6] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcmNlpnOQno

………………………………….

Resources for Domestic Violence Awareness and Prevention

Ahimsa House: Helping People and Pets Escape Domestic Violence (71 % of victims entering domestic violence shelters report that their abusers threatened, injured or killed the family pets)

Love Is Respect

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

The National Domestic Abuse Hotline

Presbyterians Against Domestic Violence Network

Rainbow Village: Breaking the Cycle of Homeless, Poverty and Domestic Abuse

World Health Organization International Statistics on Domestic Violence

Open Hands, Take Your Cross, Love Another

believe-tattoo-design-inked

Believe tattoo. Google Images

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

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-image

“Follow” Artist Unknown. Google Images

Jesus 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]

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Keep Calm meme. Artist Unknown. Google Images

It 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