Gotta Keep Moving

A Sermon for Sunday, May 28, 2017. The Ascension of the Lord Sunday, Acts 1:6-12

The Ascension of the Lord—it’s a peculiar event, don’t you think?

Jesus, after being raised from the dead, spends 40 days hanging out with the disciples, teaching them about the kingdom of God. And then, whoosh! Up in the air he goes. Artists’ renderings of this scene are quite surreal and a bit ludicrous, as if aliens are beaming Jesus up. Whoowhoowhoop!

Jesus’ ascension is an episode that many preachers and churches avoid entirely during the church season because it is odd and difficult to grasp. It’s not grounded in the mud, spit and blood of life. It’s not as substantial as Jesus’ birth into poverty, his ministry among the sick and the poor and his brutal death. Even resurrection—the breath and heart beat returning to the body, the seemingly dead now come alive—is more palpable than ascension.

And yet as lofty and bizarre as Jesus’ ascension seems, it is what people of faith have sought to comprehend for thousands of years. Jesus’ ascension, his grand departure from the earth and his friends, is reflected in many of the stories we tell—stories that try to make sense of this epic moment:

Like Superman the man of steel, who often leaves the city of Metropolis and rises above to keep a watchful eye over humanity.

Like E.T. the extra terrestrial who tells the boy Elliott that he loves him and then boards his family’s space ship to return home to his planet in the stars.

Like Maui the charming demigod who embraces the young chieftain Moana with a hug and then leaves by transforming into a great hawk that soars off into the sky.

Like the zany Genie who, upon being freed from the lamp by Aladdin, zooms into the air and packs a suitcase for an adventure of his own choosing.

Like Mary Poppins the magical nanny who concludes that she has successfully brought a family back together and then, with a wink and a smile, flies away clutching her umbrella.

Ascension in those stories is about goodbyes, endings and beginnings, transition and change. And Christ’s ascension is all of those things and more—the shaping of Jesus’ glory as the one who conquered death and fear; the establishing of Christ’s rein above all worldly powers; and the fulfilling of God’s promise that human beings are in possession of and destined for a future brimming with hope in Christ’s mercy and love.

Naturally, it’s a lot to take for the disciples to take in and, understandably, they have anxiety about what is occurring before their eyes. With nervous excitement, they ask Jesus: “Is this when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

The disciples know God is triumphant and yet Jesus, their friend, teacher and savior, is leaving them. They want to know what is going to happen and they can’t bare the thought of Jesus not being among them.

The disciples are likely wondering:

  Is Jesus going up for a few minutes to recruit an angelic construction crew before coming back to rebuild Israel?

    Is he going up in the clouds for a few hours for a period of prayer, rest and renewal before returning to end all of the world’s problems with a word or the touch of his hand?

When Jesus tells them they don’t need to worry about the time in which the kingdom of God will be formed, the disciples realize deep in their hearts that the Jesus they knew—the Jesus who preached and taught as they traveled dusty roads from one town to the next; who shared meals with them and healed and fed the despised and downtrodden—wasn’t coming back.

Their hearts ache with a truth they don’t want to accept. So they stare up in the sky, hoping the Jesus they knew will make a quick U-turn and re-enter their lives as before. They know time is marching forward but they’re not ready to do the same.

Sound familiar?

We don’t like to part with someone we deeply love and cherish (and move forward without them) anymore than the disciples, even when we know in our heart of hearts that it’s usually what is meant to be.

It’s why we get choked up or melancholy at the end of a movie or TV episode, when a main character we’ve grown to appreciate, bids adieu. Those stories remind us that nothing stays the same, that the people closest to us will one day leave and that change is inevitable, whether we enjoy it or not.

Of the multitude of viewing options available these days, no show embraces the concept of goodbyes and change better than the long-running international sci-fi hit Doctor Who.

 

For the non-Whovians out there, Doctor Who follows the adventures of a Time Lord, a 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.

In 1966, after the show had been on air for three years, William Hartnell, the first actor to play Doctor Who, became very ill. So the show’s creators invented a plot device in which the character of The Doctor would regenerate or take on a new body and personality as a way of recovering from something that would kill an ordinary person. This allowed producers and writers to cast a new actor into the role without losing momentum in the breadth of the series.

Throughout the show’s run, 13 actors have played the role of the Doctor—all becoming beloved for the unique persona they brought to the character. But no matter how many times fans watch The Doctor regenerate and know that change is going to occur—that an actor you’ve come to enjoy will be replaced by one who is unfamilliar—they become a bit emotional.

That was certainly true for this fan and many others when Matt Smith exited the show as the 11th Doctor and Peter Capaldi took over as the 12th Doc in the final moments of the Dec 25, 2013 episode “The Time of the Doctor.” The 11th Doctor’s trusted companion Clara Oswald (played by Jenna Coleman) knows her friend and mentor is regenerating, but she can’t bear to see him go. And as he is transforming, The Doctor reminds Clara about the importance of change while also remembering his previous companion, the late Amy Pond:

            “We all change, when you think about. We are all different people, all through our lives. And that’s ok, that’s good, you gotta keep moving so long as you remember all the people that you used to be,” the Doctor reminds Clara and viewers. And Clara, speaking on the audience’s behalf, says, “Please, Don’t change.”

Don’t change. Don’t leave.

Those words are imprinted on the disciples’ faces as they look longingly into the sky as Jesus ascends into the heavens. And they’d probably remain stuck there, fixated on the clouds for hours and hours awaiting Jesus’ immediate return, if the two angels hadn’t appeared.

The angels tell the disciples they have work to do and they need to get busy. Christ has chosen them to be witnesses of love and grace to the ends of the earth. There’s no time to gaze at the sky. The disciples gotta keep moving to share and embody the story of God’s love in the entire world.

So often, I think, Christians get stuck when significant change is happening, especially in the life of the Church. Many congregations struggle with saying goodbye to their long-time beloved pastors who accept a new call or retire. They struggle with saying goodbye to programs that are no longer viable or sparking joy.

They grapple with welcoming new leaders and visions for ministry. They have difficulty letting go because, in the words of Marie Kondo (the author of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up) there is “an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”

Most of you in this congregation know that we are in the midst of a process of letting go. As a way of honoring Dave Fry’s legacy as the founding pastor of 32 years and his retirement in November, we’ve embarked on a capital campaign–Gifted Past, Bold Future. The campaign’s purpose is to give gratitude for years of faith-shaping ministry as we strive to pay off the mortgage debt and make room for new ideas that will shape people’s lives.

And while Pleasant Hill is embracing the change, particularly Dave’s farewell, in a healthy way, I imagine there is still some anxiety among us. While we realize that Dave’s retirement is unavoidable, we don’t want him to go. We don’t want things to change.

A Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church without Dave Fry seems strange after decades of service. We know deep in our hearts that this church won’t quite have the same relationship with Dave as it does at this moment. Eventually, Dave will not be in his office every day or preaching from Sunday to Sunday or teaching classes or making pastoral visits or doing baptisms, weddings and funerals. Dave’s not ascending into the clouds, of course, but he will no longer be present among the congregation as he is now and has been for so long.

Like Clara Oswald, we might be in bit of a shock to see someone else in the head of staff role. And the new pastor, like the new (12th) Doctor, might be a little bewildered about how to “fly this thing” or operate Pleasant Hill.

But if we love God and treasure Dave’s ministry, we won’t be stuck in the past or resistant to change or looking off in the distance or leave the new pastor on their own to figure things out. Instead, we’ll answer Christ’s call to be the Church, to be his followers, to be his witnesses for love and grace for all people in every time and place.

And although Dave won’t be roaming these halls one day, and although Jesus is not physically present, we won’t truly be alone in our endeavors.

As Sirius Black tells young Harry Potter who laments never knowing his parents, murdered when he was a child: The ones who love us never really leave us, you can always find them in here.” (points to Harry’s heart)

Therefore, let your hearts not ache or be torn or anxious, for not too long at least. Dave will soon leave us with an amazing legacy to build on for many years to come. There is much to do and to experience as time goes onward. In the beautiful parting words of the hobbit Frodo to his best friend Sam in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King:

         “You have so much to enjoy and to be and to do. (Your) part in the story will go on.”

Jesus has gone ahead of us, preparing for a future full of hope. And he beckons us to follow and to continue the story that God began–a story with many twists and turns. And Christ assures us that something inspiring is coming—like a mighty rushing wind and tongues of flame—to guide us as Christians and the Church on the journey ahead.

Therefore, we gotta keep moving.

Amen.

Reflections on “Waking Up White”: Chapters Two and Three

1d5ef3ad5ebe5af59c70c4d5953df31f

Chapter 2: “Childhood In White”

In this chapter, Irving shares how her family valued the importance of being accomplished, staying busy, having a good attitude, being complaint free and restraining emotions (displays of anger, pride, sadness, anger, jealousy and fear) which conditioned her to become “deeply uncomfortable around people who exhibited any of the disapproved emotions, especially anger.” The emotional numbness, she writes, had “huge implications for racism” which she learned much later in life and will explore in an upcoming chapter.  She closes Chapter 2 with the question:

What values and admonitions did you learn in your family? Think about education, work, lifestyle, money, expression of emotions, and so forth. Try making a list of ten principles, values and unspoken beliefs. … Now consider what conclusions you drew about people who did not appear to follow your family’s belief system

  1. God is love and God wants us to love one another and be helpful, courteous, kind and merciful.
  2. Lying, cheating and stealing is wrong
  3. Save your money, don’t waste it like other people do
  4. It’s not like the good ole days where you can walk on downtown streets safely without getting robbed or shot
  5. Get a good education and job, follow the rules/behave and work hard to avoid laziness, poverty, digging ditches, drugs, crime, jail, being sent off to war
  6. Guns keep us safe and it’s our right to shoot someone in self defense if they break into our home or threatens us with violence
  7. The homeless aren’t interested in jobs because they refuse to do menial tasks like sweeping streets
  8. Democratic party and leaders on local, state and national level are crooked and not to be trusted
  9. There’s a difference between black people and the “n-word” (i.e. blacks who were poor and lazy, criminals, crooked politicians, political activists like the Black Panthers and foul-mouthed trouble makers like rappers and some comedians.)
  10. Gay is not normal and goes against God’s teachings in scripture

I didn’t draw any conclusions about people who didn’t appear to follow my family’s belief system because everyone around us held the same beliefs and values–relatives, neighbors, church members, and school teachers (all of whom were white). Spoken and unspoken.  I did, however, become quite paranoid and suspicious of anyone who was “other” unless they met the approval of the authority figures in my life. I also believed for a long while that certain places were more dangerous and violent because of the poor and people of color.

I never felt comfortable despising and hating people who were different than me and I always questioned the validity of several of the values and admonitions that were spoken, although I never dared to express them out loud.

Mostly, I was just scared and doubtful about the world and other people and surroundings that were foreign to me, and I sort of resigned to the notion that if I simply behaved and did what I was told, I would live a good and successful life and not have to experience any of the scary stuff of the world.

Chapter 3: “Race Versus Class”

Irving posits that both race and class are real issues that matter,and shouldn’t be pitted against another:

Trying to determine which one is the ‘real’ issue does a disservice to both. Concluding class is the real issue would give me permission to avoid thinking about race. Similarly, assuming race is the most significant issue overlooks the complications faced by white people caught in a vicious cycle of poverty. Both can trap people in a kind of second-class citizenship. If you can’t get the education you need to get a job to pay for healthy food, medical care, transportation, and a home in a neighborhood with good schools, then you can’t educate your children in a school that will prepare them for a job that will…and so on. Any cycle that traps someone in a state of perpetual disadvantage is the real issue for the people experiencing it. And yet race and class are inextricably linked….

Until I understood the impact skin color can have on one’s life, I wasn’t able to consider racism in combination with other factors that influence one’s culture. The culture that shapes people are breathtakingly complex when you consider all that goes into them. Era, geographical location, language, level of education, ethnic heritage, race, gender, sexual orientation, income, wealth, religion, health, family personalities and professions, birth order, hobbies and sports provide multiple variables that mix and match to create a unique culture in each and every family and each and every person. ..When it comes to culture, the only thing we all have in common is that we have one, and it shapes us….

Yet race stands apart from the variables listed above. Not only is race visible and permanent; it’s come to act as a social proxy for one’s value in American’ society. White has long stood for normal and better, while black and brown have been considered different and inferior. Social value isn’t just a matter of feeling as if one belongs or doesn’t; it affects one’s access to housing, education, and jobs, the building blocks necessary to access the great American promise–class mobility.

At the end of the chapter, Irving asks:

Class is determined by income, wealth (assets), education, and profession. Betsy Leondar-Wright, program director at Class Action, suggest these categories as a way of thinking about class: Poverty, Working Class, Lower-Middle Class, Professional Middle Class, Upper-Middle Class, Owning Class. How would you characterize your parents’ class? Your grandparents’ class? Your class as a child? Your class now? What messages did you get about race in each?

I would characterize my family as being Professional Middle Class–Like my parents, I grew up with a roof over my head in a suburban neighborhood (that was completely white), nice clothes, plenty of food, summer vacations to the beach, presents for birthdays, Christmas, Easter and even Valentine’s Day in addition to the occasional purchase of a toy or book during the year. We had access to public schools and could afford luxuries like dinner at a restaurant, a TV and cable (as well as the latest tech gadget), more than two cars, a swing set in our backyard, a yard and trees to play in, etc.

My paternal/maternal grandparents and maternal great-grandparents, having grown up during the Depression as Working Class, felt the desire to be more generous to their offspring as they moved into the Professional to Upper-Middle Class as adults. Both sets of grandparents regularly took us to the movies. Both grandfathers took us to UAB basketball games. My maternal grandparents took us to Atlanta Braves games and Six Flags less than a handful of times. They also owned a modest vacation house at The Still Waters Resort in Dadeville, Alabama where we would go for the weekend, usually for an Auburn Tigers football game 20 minutes away in Auburn. My paternal grandparents were in the Upper-Middle Class due to their business success in waste management services (and later other ventures) and thus were able to afford a condominium in Florida along with two charter fishing boats. We spent many summers on the beach and going deep sea fishing.

Granted, my younger brother and I never got everything we asked from our parents and grandparents. If we got a hole in our jeans, they got patched up. My brother got a lot of my clothes that I outgrew instead of new ones. We had to do chores and earn an allowance and save our money. Their was a strong belief in making purchases last until they went kaput, i.e. cars, appliances, furniture and so on.

Often we had to share our toys. Restaurant outings were special occasions, not a weekly or monthly splurge. (Although, we did have steak and potatoes almost every Saturday night growing up.) The only place we traveled to outside of Alabama was Florida with the exception of two trips my maternal grandparents planned:  A visit to Alberta, Canada for the Calgary Stampede and Wyoming for Yellowstone National Park when I was 11 and the California coast when I was 15 or 16.

We never lacked anything and we were taught to be appreciative of what we had and to not be greedy for more stuff. And yet, the message that members of my family relayed, directly and indirectly, was that people of color often couldn’t succeed because they weren’t willing to work hard, didn’t follow the rules, were greedy and unappreciative.  That notion always bugged me, even though I admit to believing it at times when I was a teen and young adult. I realized in college and beyond that this was a giant misconception.

Today, our family of me, my wife and our two children, 8-year-old daughter and nearly 3-year-old son, is Professional Middle Class. We have everything we need. We don’t have a second vacation home but we can afford to take trips every summer to the beach, go to the movies on occasion, have iPhones, iPads, laptop computers and maintain three cars. We’re privileged to have my mother-in-law live with us to help take care of our children, one of whom is on the autism spectrum and one who has some development delays. She helps cover costs for special needs therapy and provides for the family in other ways through retirement savings. Education and basic necessities are met every day and then some. We have a nice home in a suburban neighborhood that is tad more diverse than mine growing up.

I’ve realized from all of this that while a lot of hard work is responsible for our status and comfortable living, we have been privileged as whites to have the access to be in the Professional Middle Class. My family now and then has opportunities many people of color don’t have. I’m much more aware of that reality and that one’s lack of status or designation in a respectable class doesn’t mean people aren’t working hard or being good citizens or living good values.  And I don’t feel more deserving of what I have earned and been given than someone else who struggles to gain opportunities and needs they deserve and should be given.  

I hope I’m teaching my own children how to be aware of their privilege and also not judge others who are denied opportunities because of their race and class. And as they grow older, I also hope that I’m able to show them how to knock down racial and class barriers and work toward equity for the poor, the oppressed and cultures that have been denied many benefits from a majority white system.

 

Reflections on “Waking Up White”: Chapter One

wuwcoverfinal

In an attempt to be more aware of my privilege as a white male and discern the ways in which I can start dismantling racism in my life and relationships, I’ve decided to write reflections that answer the questions posed at the close of each chapter of the compelling book Waking Up White by Debbie Irving. The book was recommended to me (and a multitude of folks) by co-moderators of the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) of which I serve as an ordained minister of the word and sacrament:

 

 

Waking Up White is composed of 46 chapters divided into nine sections.The first section is Childhood In White and Chapter 1 is titled “What Wasn’t Said.”

Debby shares how her mother, school and the media of the time presented a single perspective about race that didn’t ever encourage her to dig deep enough in the history of other cultures, like Native Americans to understand them as something more than stereotypes.  Then she asks the reader:

What stereotypes about people of another race do you remember hearing and believing as a child? Were you ever encouraged to question stereotypes?

I grew up with a lot of stereotypes as a child and youth about African-Americans, Middle-Easterners, Asians, Hispanics and LGBTQ–from the time I was 7 years old in 1983 till I turned 18 in 1994. 

I shared some of those stereotypes about African-Americans in a sermon I preached on racism in early 2015: “As God’s Chosen.”  Additionally, I was taught that most African-Americans were lazy, crooked, foul mouthed, violent troublemakers who didn’t care about cleanliness or speaking proper English. Middle-Easterners, particularly the people living in Iran, Libya, etc. were called “dune coons” and considered to be evil, murderous terrorists. And gays and lesbians were viewed as perverts who lived unnatural lives of debauchery or were just plain weird.

Now, Asians and Hispanics were appreciated for their cuisine and some cultural contributions to society like math, science and art, but were often mocked for speaking a different language, not speaking English well and for their appearance (eyes, facial hair, clothes). But like African-Americans, they were also mis-characterized as lazy, violent, etc. Asians were also believed to be extremely uptight and strange for their beliefs in Buddha instead of the Judeo-Christian God.

The stereotypes I learned were reinforced by some TV shows and movies of the 80s and the educational system. Most African-American were viewed as incompetent and unimportant unless they were talented entertainers, did menial labor (cafeteria work, trash collecting, maid services, etc) or excelled at sports.

I began questioning and challenging stereotypes when Bonkey McCain and his family joined our Presbyterian church in suburban Birmingham-becoming the first African-American members. And I was fortunate during my older teen years to have some church members, friends, High School youth group advisers and teachers  regularly encourage me to challenge stereotypes about race, culture, gender and sexual orientation. This education of open-mindedness and questioning continued during my college years and beyond.  My early career as a newspaper reporter in Birmingham, Alabama from 1998-2001 and a seminary education at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta from 2002-2005 deepened my understanding of social justice and the history of oppression and unjust systems.

By no means am I free of stereotypes. I still have painstaking moments where I entertain a prejudiced thought or change my behavior because my mind latches onto one of those terrible labels I was taught as a kid. And I certainly benefit (directly and indirectly) from a system of white privilege, supremacy and normalcy that continues to pervade our world. As such, I’m guilty for doing very little to say it’s wrong or work toward changing it.

Yes, I’ve spoken out against racism. I’ve preached about racism, justice and unity, invoking the words and lessons of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Congressman John Lewis. I’ve posted articles on Facebook from Sojourners Magazine and other sources that talk about the injustice perpetuated toward African-Americans and how it is counter to the gospel and God’s vision of the beloved community.

However, I don’t do much more or champion against racism often enough. It’s mostly due to fear of what other whites will say or think if I start a conversation about race much less preach about it. I become uneasy thinking about how I might be accused of falsely judging another white person for being racist or having privilege. Of how I might be accused of being a trouble maker, a race baiter or having a biased, destructive liberal agenda.

To be honest, I have been accused of those things, even when I’ve spoken from the heart. And while others have affirmed and praised me for speaking out, I tend to focus on the ones who had a negative reaction and thus become paralyzed and afraid of saying more. (As a side note, my struggles with anxiety and depression, while not excuses, contribute to me withdrawing into my own corner and staying silent at times.)

On the other hand, maybe I’m being too hard on myself. A friend, a gifted writer and pastor,  wrote the following blog post in September entitled “The Five Things I Need From White People Right Now” The intriguing part, after reading the essay, is I’ve discovered that mostly all I’ve ever done in the past decade or so is No. 3–I’ve used my privilege for good; I’ve used my platform to speak out against racism. Not as frequently and often as other folks, but would be unfair to say I haven’t said anything.

I’ve also abided by No. 1 and 2. I don’t silence or dismiss the voices of blacks like Colin Kaepernik. I try more than I ever have before to listen to the thoughts and views of African-Americans.

But again, that’s not enough because I also have to be committed to No. 4 and No. 5 and continue to strive to do all 5 better and more consistently–engrain them in my life. 

And practicing No. 4 and No. 5 (loosely) is what I’m in the midst of figuring out now. Over the last year, I’ve immersed myself in black culture, not as a source of mere entertainment, but to really destroy the stereotypes and understand (up to a point) what African-Americans go through on a daily basis in a country and world that continues to mistreat them because they have brown and black skin. I’ve also done so to gain a deeper appreciation for the incredible contributions that African-Americans have made and to whom we all should be indebted for having such a rich world and life–endeavors in medicine, science, sports, architecture, music, art, literature, pop culture. 

My life is being shaped by The Steve Harvey Morning Show and Ed Gordon; Ta-nehesi Coates Between the World and Me and Marvel’s The Black Panther series; Drew G. Hart’s Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing The Way The Church Views Racism; the work of James Baldwin; Beyone’s Lemonade, the TV shows Black-ish, Luke Cage, Atlanta and Speechless, the movies Dope, Dear White People and Selma and the (social media) voices of…

Rev. Denise Anderson, Rev. Margaret Aymer Oget, Charles Blow, Austin Channing, Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, Laura M. Cheitetz,  Carl Dukes, Ava DuVernay, Tre Easton, Omayra Gonzalez-Mendez, The Rev. Broderick Greer, Melissa Harris-Perry, Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, Rev. Mihee Kim-Kort, Rep. John Lewis, Rev. Jerrod Lowry, Deray McKesson, Rev. Otis Moss III, Brittany Packett, Hiram Perez-Cordero, Rev. Paul Roberts, Efram Smith, Jessica Vazquez Torres, Rev. Derrick Weston (and many, many more)

These incredible, creative people of God are encouraging me to question and smash the stereotypes.

My hope and prayer is that I can continue to be shaped by their voices; amplify their voices through the platforms that I have; and join mine with theirs to proclaim that their lives (and the lives of all people of color) matter too. 

Without their lives, without their fight for the freedom and right to live without fear of racism and intolerance, the rest of us are never truly free. We’re just bound up in the stereotypes and privilege that we as whites have created and pushed for centuries.

And so my journey of “waking up white” and continuing to find myself in the story of race moves onward…

Love and Peace or Else

A  Sermon for Sunday, May 1, 2016, The Sixth Sunday of Easter, John 13:34-35; 14:25-27; 16:33

       

Cerezo Barredo's Weekly Gospel Illustration, John: 25-27
Cerezo Barredo’s Weekly Gospel Illustration, John: 25-27

        The peace of Christ—it’s a familiar phrase that’s been heard and expressed by Christians throughout history.

             We know those four words well. We have said them frequently in the context of worship for many, many years:

                     “The peace of Christ be with you… and also with you.”

                      “Go in the peace of Christ.”

               But do we fully understand and appreciate the meaning of the peace of Christ?

              Do we know that it’s more than just a nice Hallmark card greeting that we say as an act of rote memorization every Sunday?

             Do we recognize the significance those four words have in our lives as people of faith

             Do we comprehend that the peace of Christ—which Jesus imparts to the disciples in the Gospel of John—is a holy, powerful, merciful and subversive gift from God for all humankind?

              In 2008, I asked several colleagues and friends to contribute essays on my Internet blog on what the peace of Christ meant in their life. My hope is that by revisiting their words and the wisdom of some notable heroes of the faith as well as the scripture, we all might gain deeper insight into the peace that God gives.

               In the first post on the blog series about the peace of Christ, David LaMotte, singer-songwriter and social justice activist, explains that God’s peace is routinely confused with placidity. It’s often misperceived as being chill and serene with no violence and conflict present—a state of numbing out where all you hear is the voice of Tommy Chung saying, “peace out man.” And thus many consider talk of God’s peace or the practice of peace as weak, lazy and apathetic—a leisure activity for hippies and stoners.

                David says that couldn’t be further from the truth about the function and role of peace. In his essay he wrote:

Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the product and process of doing conflict well. Conflict is not the enemy. In fact, it is a useful tool in the search for what is real and true. None of us has all of the answers, or at least all of the right answers, so our ideas necessarily conflict. That’s not a bad thing. The question is how we manage that conflict, how we listen and struggle together to seek better ways and ideas…[1]

            It’s no secret that we live in a world brimming with conflict due to angst, fear and hate:

            The economy is precarious and people lose jobs without any warning. Poverty and hunger exists in both urban and suburban settings. Bullying runs amok in schools. Terrorism consumes our thoughts. Presidential politics grows nastier and nastier by the minute. The abuse of children and youth by people in power continually make headlines. There is senseless gun violence on our streets and neighborhoods.

              Families grieve over the death of loved ones to cancer or numerous other illnesses. Other parts of the globe are plagued by war, disease, natural disasters and famine. Racism, sexism, gender discrimination, homophobia, xenophobia and Islamaphobia flourish mightily. Substance abuse, suicide and divorce rates are skyrocketing. And many people struggle daily with health challenges; insecurity about their bodies and self worth; broken-relationships; how to be a good parent, spouse and co-worker.

               With epic storms like these swirling around, it’s a wonder that any of us can get out of bed and get ready for the day; much less embody the love and peace of Christ in our encounters with other human beings. How can we possibly find the energy to daily receive and share God’s peace in the midst of the chaos?

                 The disciples, who lived amid the storm of an oppressive regime of the Roman Empire and who were labeled as insurrectionists for their association with Jesus, certainly had difficulty comprehending their rabbi’s command to love one another, to know God’s peace and to not let their hearts be troubled or afraid.

               As soon as the pandemonium of Jesus betrayal, arrest and death arrives, the disciples flee and lock themselves in a dark room—praying that the Empire won’t find them and give them the same fate.

         76b86e1a1aff99776d8ac69e120423e2     And Jesus, knowing the tempest is near, says calmly and confidently to his disciples, hours earlier:

               “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

               “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

               “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

                Of all people, Jesus should be freaking out. He should be packing a bag and saying, “See ya, I’m gone!” Instead Jesus, the eye of the storm coming toward him, holds his ground and expresses his love for his friends by giving them God’s peace—His peace. And Jesus does this again post-resurrection, appearing before the disciples in that locked room to say “Peace be with you!”[2]  In other words, Jesus is saying, “I am here among you. I am the Peace that is eternal and will not go away!”

             What an amazing gift the peace of Christ is to the disciples and to us. It is a gift that keeps on giving and surprising, usually in the midst of turmoil and when we least expect.

            In another essay for the blog series on the peace of Christ, Jan Edmiston, a Presbyterian, shared a story about how the Session of the congregation she was serving had to fire the pre-school director. Although it was done for good reasons (which were confidential for the sake of the pre-school director and the church), the pre-school director vowed to ruin Jan’s reputation and began spreading ugly rumors among the pre-school staff and parents.

             Several pre-school staffers quit. Subs were called in who didn’t have lesson plans or know the kids names. Jan and the Session held a meeting for parents after their kids got dropped off at the pre-school and things were tense. She said:

Children were crying. Parents were yelling. One parent spit on me…. Needless to say, I had asked God for help. I stood in the parlor, ready to offer explanatory words, and once everyone quieted down, I opened my mouth and spoke. And the words that came out sounded…kind of amazing. (“That was pretty good,” I said to myself. “Where the heck did that come from?”) The words were calm and mature and strong and uplifting. One parent said, “I don’t know what’s going on, but it’s obvious that you did what you had to do. Thank you.” It was a God thing. Christ’s peace happens when there is no reason why a situation or a soul or a moment would be peaceful and yet it is. … It is a real peace, authentic serenity rooted in the total confidence that—in spite of all evidence that we should be freaking out—God is with us, and everyone is going to be alright.[3]

               Writing for the same blog series, a seminary classmate, Alan Bancroft opened up about a break-up with his girlfriend of a year while he was serving as an associate pastor in Franklin, TN. The woman he was dating was not sure she wanted to be a pastor’s wife and still figuring out her own life. So they talked and cried and decided to part ways. Alan was devastated and he wondered where God would be in his “cloud of sorrow.” The next day was cloudy and drizzly and after work, he decided to go on a 6-mile run. He said:

As I was coming up on the fourth mile, I began to recite the following mantra: Take it away, God. Give me peace. Take it away, God. Give me peace. Then I added another line: Take hers away, God. Give her peace. Take hers away, God. Give her peace. As I called out to God to take way the pain… the warm drizzly day slowly turned into a warm rainy day. As I continued to recite the mantra, the rain intensified and before long, I was completely soaked. At some point, the combination of reciting the mantra, the purifying, soaking rain and the rhythm of placing one foot in front of the other, brought me a feeling of peace that I truly believe was the work of God. For those two remaining miles, my heart felt peaceful and void of the turmoil that had resided there since the previous evening. …For me, in this time and place, the peace of Christ represents feeling briefly restored and sustained as I wander through a valley of hurt, confusion and frustration.[4]

               The peace that Christ gives is not the absence of pain, loss, conflict, storms or chaos. The peace of Christ is in the midst of the mess. The peace of Christ is in the midst to love us, comfort us, and heal us.  And sometimes we have to push the disorder aside to make more room for Christ’s peace to do what it does best.

             The retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who helped bring an end to the atrocities of apartheid in South Africa decades ago, says that if people take the time to be more loving and peaceful, amazing things can happen. In his book God Has A Dream, he writes:[5]

One way to begin cultivating this ability to love is to see yourself internally as a center of love, as an oases of peace, as a pool of serenity with ripples going out to all those around you. You can begin by biting off the sharp retort that was almost certainly going to hurt the other. … Rather than intensifying the anger or the hatred, you say in your heart, “God bless you.” …Let’s say you are caught in a traffic jam and instead of getting angry and saying, “What a bunch of morons,” you bless them. … If more of us could serve as centers of love and oases of peace, we might just be able to turn around a great deal of the conflict, the hatred, the jealousies and the violence.

Once we allow Christ’s peace to dwell within us, we are then able to share the peace with others—inviting them to first look inside their own hearts before reaching out to more hearts.

          And it is God’s merciful heart that pours the peace of Christ upon us from the cross, and loosens the peace upon the world from the grave to restore human relationships and the Divine relationship.

         And it is that Divinely heart-felt gift of peace that spurs us to seek justice for the oppressed and to care for all of our neighbors.

          Embodying the peace of Christ in word and deed is literally an act of witnessing God’s love in the other whom we meet. Seeing the immigrant not as “illegal” or the Muslim as a “terrorist” or the black man as a “thug” or the poor person as a “lazy bum” or the woman as a “sex object” or LGBQT as “abominations” —but as beloved children of God.

            Whenever we say “the peace of Christ be with you” or embody the peace through our actions, we are a conveying a message to others that says:  “No matter who you are, I recognize that you are one of God’s creations who is loved to death and beyond.”   

             There was once a Presbyterian minister in Pittsburgh, PA who delivered that message every day to millions of people for more than 30 years. His name was Fred Rogers:[6]

 

             There are many ways to say “I love you” and to tell someone they make everyday special just by being themselves, the person God created them to be.

            And so I say to everyone here:

            “The peace of Christ be with you”

Amen.

(Special Thanks to Alan Bancroft, Adam Copeland, Jan Edmiston, Carol Howard Merritt, Emily Miller, David LaMotte, and Derrick Weston for their incredible insights about the “peace of Christ.” God’s work through them was the inspiration for this sermon, even if they are not all directly quoted.)

[1] https://georgiapreach.wordpress.com/2008/08/29/david-lamotte-on-the-peace-of-christ/

[2] John 20:19-21

[3] https://georgiapreach.wordpress.com/2008/08/30/jan-edmiston-on-the-peace-of-christ/

[4] https://georgiapreach.wordpress.com/2008/09/05/alan-bancroft-on-the-peace-of-christ/

[5] God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope For Our Time by Desmond Tutu, 2004. Doubleday Publishing.

[6] The Officer of Make Believe: Being Black in ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ by Great Big Story (2:32)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ObHNWh3F5fQ

2015 Montreat Youth Conference “This Is Our Story” Week Five: Keynote 3 –Our Stories Are Intertwined

[Note: This is the third of five keynotes given at the Montreat Youth Conference Week Five, July 27-July 31. Below is a transcript and the photos/videos used in keynote that aren’t on the SoundCloud audio track]

Wednesday July 29, Keynote 3- “Our Stories Are Intertwined”

Our stories—even the ones that are silenced—are intertwined

Scripture

Luke 16:19-31 – “Rich Man and Lazarus” (What happens to the “other” matters to us and God)

As we discussed yesterday, our stories, our life, and our world are messy.

Yet God meets us in our mess with love. God reminds us that we are more than our messes and that our stories aren’t over.

God loves us all. God doesn’t prefer one group to the other.

And God also calls us to show compassion to others, particularly the poor and the oppressed.

We’re not meant to disregard others and their stories and simply live unto ourselves.

We’re not meant duck our heads, close our eyes and walk away from the messes.

We’re not meant to avoid opportunities to see the face of God in another.

To not recognize how we are connected and how our stories are intertwined is un-Godlike and inhuman.

ubuntu

In Africa, the people ascribe to a philosophy known as Ubuntu. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who helped bring an end to the oppressive system of apartheid in South Africa more than 20 years ago, says ubuntu means “you are human because you participate in relationships… A person is a person through other persons.” Or put another way: “I am because we are.”

This concept is reflected in the Bible, specifically Ephesians 4:15-16 in which the apostle Paul writes:

Ephesians 4 Quote

 

God created us to be together, and God wants us to maintain our connections with one another. And it is our connections that remind us we are bound to God.

Paul sees our connection with God in Christ and one another as a functioning body. Christ is the head and we are the various parts “joined and knit together” to ensure the body is working properly.

We are connected to other human beings, and we are connected to God who creates and fuels those connections. To disregard or even severe a connection is to go against God’s purpose for creation, God’s design for us to be in relationship.

This idea of Ubuntu, of connectedness, of intertwining is counter cultural in our world. There is much emphasis in society on individualism and fending for oneself.

And yet God’s command to love the mistreated and to seek justice for the downtrodden is essential to our faith and a common thread throughout the Bible. And it was one of Jesus’ main teachings.

Let’s take a look now at the parable Jesus tells in Luke 16:19-31 about “The Rich Man and Lazarus” This version comes from The Cotton Patch Gospels by Clarence Jordan who founded the Koinonia Partners, an interracial farming community in southwest Georgia. (Because it is written in the language and colloquialisms of the time, the passage must be read in a Southern accent and I’ve invited a youth, Catherine Jones, to read with me.)

Once there was a rich man, and he put on his tux and stiff shirt, and staged a big affair every day. And there was laid at his gate a poor guy by the name of Lazarus, full of sores, and so hungry he wanted to fill up on the rich man’s table scraps. On top of this, the dogs came and licked his sores.

 It so happened that the poor fellow died, and the angels seated him at the table with Abraham. The rich man died, too, and was buried. And in the hereafter, the rich man, in great agony, looked up and saw from afar Abraham, and Lazarus sitting beside him at the table. So he shouted to him, ‘Mr. Abraham, please take pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in some water and rub it over my tongue, because I’m scorching in this heat.’

 Abraham replied, ‘Boy, you remember that while you were alive you got the good stuff (the good jobs, schools, streets, houses, etc.) while at the same time Lazarus got the left-overs. But now, here he’s got it made, and you’re scorching. And on top of all this, somebody has dug a yawning chasm between us and you, so that people trying to get through from here to you can’t make it, neither can they get through from there to us.’

 The rich man said, ‘Well, then, Mr. Abraham, will you please send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers; let him thoroughly warn them so they won’t come to this hellish condition.’

Then Abraham said, ‘They’ve got the Bible and the preachers; let them listen to them.’

 But he said, ‘No, they won’t do that, Mr. Abraham. But if somebody will go to them from the dead, they’ll change their ways!’

 He replied, “Well if they won’t listen to the Bible and the preachers, they won’t be persuaded even if someone does get up from the dead.’

The wealthy man was familiar with the scriptures and God’s commands to be welcoming to the widow, the orphan, the stranger and the poor. Yet he still chose not to recognize someone suffering outside the gates of his home.

And that was the man’s sin—not that he had all the finest things one could dream of, but that he did not see Lazarus.

 Even when the man “sees” Lazarus later in the afterlife, he still views Lazarus as someone who is beneath him, a poor, lowly being who is meant to do his bidding.

We can’t ignore the connections with other people: people whom we know, people whom we pass by, and people whom we only know in the history books or in a news story.

 Ignoring the connections ignores God who is present in those ties that bind.

When we snub the connections and our need for them (like the rich man in Jesus’ parable) we tend to become more selfish, more bitter and more resentful.

We create our own living hell.

We become less and less human and more like monsters with sharp claws that slash out at those whom God means to be our brothers and sisters.

This was very much the case in the turbulent year of 1965 when, despite constitutional law, black people in the South were denied the right to vote by local governments as is depicted in the award-winning film Selma:

Cruel, unjust incidents like these prompted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights activists to come to Selma to champion for black residents’ legal right to vote.

King decided that the best way to push for federal legislation to prohibit racial discrimination in voting would be to conduct a non-violent march from Selma to Montgomery.

The first march took place on a rainy March 7, 1965 (50 years ago), however the Civil Rights activists barely made it across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.

la-na-spider-martin-photographer-selma-bloody-sunday-20150308

State troopers and a group of angry white citizens armed with billy clubs, tear gas and whips immediately confronted the peaceful marchers.

The marchers included a young John Lewis (now a long-time U.S. Congressman for Georgia who spoke on this stage for the 2010 Montreat College Conference). In the photo, Lewis is the man in the long trench coat.

The head of the state troopers gave an order for the marchers to disperse to their homes. The marchers kneeled on the ground to pray and that’s when the troopers and the mob began attacking them in what became known as Bloody Sunday.

Bloody Sunday 2

Law enforcement fractured Lewis’ skull before he and the other marchers were able to flee back across the bridge to safety at a chapel.

The events of Bloody Sunday spurred hundreds of more people (white and black) from all over the country to come to Selma to march. They believed they needed to stand with their black brothers and sisters who were being denied their right to vote and to be treated with dignity—brothers and sisters who were being mocked, beaten and killed.

All those who fought for civil rights for African-Americans believed as many do today that our stories are intertwined as the body of Christ, and that all parts are needed to help seek justice for and show compassion to the oppressed.

Five months after the marches in Selma, on August 21, 1965, Dr. King spoke at the Christian Action Conference of the Presbyterian Church held here in Anderson Auditorium. During his speech, King told the conferees:

MLK Quote at Montreat 
It’s vital to our existence as human beings that we live together in the mutuality of God’s love.

It’s crucial to our existence that we become aware of our connectedness and do what we can to let the world know that another person’s story matters to our own.

And that often means becoming more in tune to the ways in which we are disconnected.

For all the amazing ways it can link us, social media can also break our connections.

They  can quickly become petri dishes for cruel and abusive comments about another’s race, culture, religion, sexual orientation, gender, and economic status. And it even occurs while we are sitting here in this auditorium or hanging out at the Huck. Even in this sacred thin place, there are some who try to tear down someone else and make him or her feel worthless.

Mockery and ridicule is not limited to social media, of course. There are some who will make disparaging comments to a person’s face.

During Week I of the Youth Conference, the Pleasant Hill and Trinity Pres of Atlanta youth groups invited the youth from two immigrant congregations in the Atlanta area—newcomers to Montreat—to join us for an ice cream and game party in the parking lot of the Winnsborough one evening. One of the immigrant congregations was made up of people from various Latin American countries.

As some of the Latin American guys were walking past Lake Susan on the way to the Winnsborough they passed by a group of young white males who immediately hurled racist comments at them.

The Latin American guys didn’t respond to the insults and they kept on walking.

But upon their arrival to the ice cream party, it was clear that they were deeply hurt and saddened by the sudden encounter with racism.

And no matter how many youth and adults—including their own back home leader and pastor—offered them encouragement, love and support, the boys refused to go past the bottom steps that lead to the parking lot and join the party.

They were too hurt, and angry and filled with fear.

Their connection to other human beings was severely damaged in that moment. They were made to feel as if their lives and stories didn’t matter.

The wise Desmond Tutu reminds us that:

Desmond Tutu Quote

What you do—good or bad—affects the world, even the smallest corner of it.

Maybe not right away, and sometimes when you least expect it.  But trust me, it makes an impact.

 

So make sure that what you do affects the world in a loving, grace-filled way.

Stand up for what is right and show compassion to those who are suffering. Don’t overlook them.

Open your eyes and see them for the unique and beloved creations and stories God has created them to be. See them the way God sees them.

 When you do so, you will be amazed at how much it changes a person’s life and world for the better as the folks on Atlanta’s hit radio morning show “The Bert Show” learned a few months ago.

Davi, the show’s producer who is in her mid 20s, found her childhood journal. While perusing through it, she found “MULTIPLE entries spelling out this sad dislike for herself and how she looked.”

Davi remembered that when she was a teen, the girlfriend of her older brother had a “(huge) impact on her self-esteem and stuck up for her.” She then knew that she needed to find this woman and thank her.

After some searching, Davi found Kelly’s contact info and she wrote her a letter that was read on air and which Omayra (our conference theme assistant) will read to you now:

Hi, Kelly.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. You have only shown me respect in the short time we once knew each other and I want to do the same for you. I completely understand your wishes and am so grateful to have the opportunity to write you.

It was nearly 20 years ago when our paths crossed. I was somewhere around the age of ten. Perhaps you don’t remember me at all! Maybe you hate thinking back on this time in your life. I doubt you look back on the relationship you were in fondly. I get it. (Seriously. I’ve met the guy.) If that is the case, I truly apologize for stirring up any negative emotions. Personally, I have many bad memories of that time. But I remember you. And I remember your kindness.

I also remember that you were strong. You walked proudly with your shoulders back. You seemed like the type to not put up with any B.S. – hence why you got rid of my brother. You were nice. And so cool! A twenty-something body builder putting herself through college. Inspiring!

I need to explain myself a little bit more just to adequately express how much your presence in our home was needed at that time in my life.

When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you’re flawed. That’s the best part of being a kid! Kids don’t see the stress-inducing magazines of supermodels in the grocery. They only see the comic books. Kids don’t know that things about them are weird or disproportionate. They just want to play!

“As long as my sneakers light up- I’m happy.” Right? Kids don’t think “I’m odd” or “I’m ugly” until someone else plants that seed in their head. Then a few more people say it. I happened to hear it again and again.

Before long that’s all I saw in the mirror. A monster. Put together all wrong. I was subject to that kind of abuse at school from other children. Boys and girls. Kids that don’t really know any better. But the cut downs were worse within the walls of my home.

We weren’t an affectionate family. The only acceptable emotions to display are anger or disappointment. And instead of board games everyone collectively got their kicks from picking on each other. And when the abuse is happening, no one speaks up to defend for fear of becoming the target. And if I was present, I was always the target. I heard horrible names, everyday –

Ugly

Idiot

Crypt Keeper

Praying Mantis

Bug Eyes

Ratface

just to name a few.

So many insects and rodents, right? Those creatures you don’t want in your home. Why would family say these types of things to each other? I was always so sad and confused. I cried. A lot. My diaries are filled with pages of monstrous self-portraits and wishes. But not your average childhood wish.

“I wish I could hide my face,” or “I wish I didn’t exist.”

One day, we were all gathered in our living room to watch television. My father started the name calling. My brother joined in. You said that they should be ashamed. You stood up for me. You made me feel good about myself at a time when I never did. Yours was a strong female voice that I desperately needed to hear at that time. As an adult, I find we concentrate so hard on the negative comments that we don’t ever hear compliments. But long ago, you told me I was

“beautiful” and that has always stuck with me.

You made me realize that the ugliest thing in that room was not me, but the people firing shots. It always had been. Those words and that atmosphere was ugly. That attitude is ugly. I didn’t deserve it. And I didn’t have to put up with it forever.

After that, I stood up for myself. A lot. My parents even threatened to send me to juvenile boot camp a few times. I got teased more – but I fought back.

I’m not weird. I’m an individual! After awhile, I would see myself in pictures and not be totally repulsed. Because I valued myself. I studied hard. I worked even harder. I grew up. I got out of there.

This all sounds quite trivial as adults, right? Because we know now that being “pretty” is not the point.

We’re not on this earth to look nice.

We’re on this earth to BE NICE.

Stick up for one another.

Stand up for what is right.

And ultimately, that is why I want to write you so many years later. You may not remember this moment as well as I do – but you taught me a wonderful lesson that day.

I have always wanted to thank you for that lesson in humanity. From the bottom of my heart – Thank you.

Kindest Regards,

Davi

Kelly received the letter and a few days later responded with the following message to Davi which Marci (our conference preacher) will read now:

 Dear Davina,

I read your letter, and I must say it left me verklempt. 

Your spirit of triumph and courage surely compelled you to share a very personal experience—

a contribution that clearly touched many lives and not only with the young girls who are at the age of learning those mean girls tactics that evolve into grown women ruthlessly tearing one another apart.

Your story has also undoubtedly reached some young girls who suffer emotional trauma and abuse at home.

And even reaching just one is enough to change or save a life.

How amazing is that?

You’ve also unknowingly paid it forward by touching a little girl I know and love with all my heart, and I must personally thank you.

You see, my 11-year-old daughter was recently involve in a mean girl incident which actually rose to the level of a mom participating.

As you might imagine, I contacted the mother about the horrific behavior she was modeling for these young girls.

But still my heart aches for my baby who wants to eat lunch in the office every day at school because it feels safe.

I played your story for her from the Internet yesterday, and her beautiful little face lit up.

 You connected with her in a way that my offerings of support and affirmation has not.

It was a remarkable thing—a moment in a developing girl’s life that offered hope

(And by the way she says both of your picture on the website are pretty.)

It make me so sad to hear the thoughts and feelings that were thrust upon that beautiful little girl you were some years ago.

 What an injustice!

 I’ve been a guardian in the courts for abused and neglected children and fought for people who had their world turned upside down by other people with more power.

For as long as I can remember I have not walked away from a fight for the underdog.

That is who you are too, my friend.

I am proud to have been part of your life, and you’ve added indelible meaning to a time in my life that I previously tucked away.

You may not make a history book or maybe you will.

You are still young, but either way you’ve made a change in the world.

 Thanks you for that. Please call me any time. I would love to talk to you.

Kelly

………………………

Our stories affect one another in ways that we can’t even fathom.

But that’s how God made us.

We’re not meant to live alone; We are meant to live together.

Our stories are connected, and we are called time and time again to recognize those connections and to strengthen them.

Let’s continue to discover those connections throughout the conference experience this week. Those connections and stories are all around; you just have to be willing to see and cultivate them. We’ll even help you seize a special opportunity today to make and recognize your connectedness with another by setting up a rec station on Anderson Lawn called “Take A Seat, Make A Friend” Ball Pit

We invite two random people to come by, stand or sit in the ball pit, pick up a ball and ask questions one of another for a few minutes. We’re not asking you to become best friends or agree on everything. But we want to encourage you to take a risk by reaching out to someone else and seeing them with God’s eyes.

You will be amazed (maybe not right away or weeks or months from now), by the affect your actions have on the other person…and the world!

As you embark for the rest of your day, don’t take the connections in your life or the chance to be a part of someone’s story for granted…

More than 25 High School Youth members of the Jeremiah Project performed a “Pay It Forward” skit set to the music of Greg Holden’s “Hold On Tight.”

20450169652_a44dabfbd9_k

 

During Week Five, due to not having enough Jeremiah Project members, we showed the music video to “Hold On Tight” instead. 

And the body of Christ said Amen!

 

2015 Montreat Youth Conference “This Is Our Story” Week Five: Keynote 2–Our Stories Are Messy

[Note: This is the second of five keynotes given at the Montreat Youth Conference Week Five, July 27-July 31. Below is a transcript and the photos/videos used in keynote that aren’t on the SoundCloud audio track]

Tuesday July 28, Keynote 2 – “Our Stories Are Messy”

We can be assured that God enters into our lives and meets us where we are–even when our stories can get messy sometimes.

Scripture:

Genesis 25: 19-34 and Genesis 32:22-32 “The Saga of Jacob” (God works through the messiest of family systems. And in our struggles, we see God face to face.)

Within certain Christian circles, it’s often said: “The current generations are corrupt and messed up; our country and world is doomed! And the only way to fix it all is to get back to the good ole family values in the Bible!”

That viewpoint always makes me wonder if those particular Christians have actually read the Bible that closely—have they delved deeper into the context of the scriptures they present as examples of perfect families, relationships and living?

Because when you step into the stories of an ancient people in an ancient time and begin walking around, you soon find yourself ankle deep in the muck of their lives.

There’s so much dysfunction, pain, suffering, weirdness and plain ole crap within the pages of the Bible that TV reality shows and Shonda Rhimes primetime dramas look tame in comparison! Take the story of Jacob and Esau for example… (as told from The Brick Testament here and here.)

 The Bible is not a collection of tales about perfect people always getting things right. Nor is it a guidebook that offer step-by-step instructions on how live a flawless life. And it’s certainly not a rule book that if followed perfectly will guarantee you a first class ticket on Heaven Airlines.

 The Bible is full of messy stories about messy people doing messed up things and finding themselves in a whole heap of mess, right there in front of God and neighbor.

And we explore this scrappy book again and again, but not because the stories give us examples of how to live a perfect existence, but for the exact opposite reason.

 We return to these scriptures about messy, flawed people to be reminded that—regardless of how messy our life gets and how broken our world becomes—God is with us in the muck just as God has been with human beings throughout time.

We return to the Biblical stories to be reminded that—no matter how much we muddle things up—God meets us in our mess and loves us unconditionally.

The Bible is messy because life is messy and thus, our stories are messy.

And yet despite it all…

God keeps calling us to show love and mercy to the most messed up among us.

God keeps calling us imperfect people to heal a broken and chaotic world.

God keeps calling us to work with and through the imperfections instead of asking us to be perfect all the time.

While I had a mostly stable and grounded childhood, a loving family and church home, it wasn’t without its messes. I morphed from being a cute baby with chubby cheeks to becoming a dorky kid to a an awkward, skinny, zit-faced, nerdy, big-eared teen.

Childhood Andy 1

Childhood Andy 2

Childhood Andy 4

Childhood Andy 5

I wore large thick rimmed glasses for a few years, had a nice cow-lick in the back of my head and wore my pants near my armpits. I loved sports but I was uncoordinated and not very good at playing them.

I also was too naïve and nice for my own good, which meant I often didn’t get the locker room jokes & classroom sarcasm, and I was occasionally picked on my classmates.

The teasing left me feeling grossly inadequate and unsure of myself.

Home was a refuge from all of this but only part of the time.

My father was prone to losing his temper and yelling at me, my younger brother and mom over the tiniest of things. He would get mad about my lack of coordination and not doing my chores exactly right—accusing of me of not listening, being lazy and purposely trying to undermine him.

And if he wasn’t raging, then he was critical of me about the movies I liked, the music I listened to or the pictures of cartoon characters that I would draw. I continued to try my best to please him and stay out of trouble but usually without much success.

One evening (when I was 16-years old and in the 10th grade) I decided that I was tired of the mess. And I began wondering if it would be better for me to not exist at all.

Just to see what it might look like if I were to end it all, I took off my belt, wrapped it around my neck and looked into the mirror.

It scared the crap out of me!

 And I instantly flung the belt on the other side of the room, shuddering at the image of God that I saw staring back at me.

I was so shocked to think I could destroy what God created.

But even though I decided my life was worth living, I still chose to become a master at bottling all of my feelings, all of the mess—the insecurities and fears—down inside.

Over time, I became more anxious, more depressed and less self-confident about my gifts and capabilities.

I relied on a lot of affirmation, assurance, guidance and attention from others to get from one day to the next.

Although there were friends, mentors and pastors who helped me discard a bit of the mess away at a time, it wasn’t until I was 25 and met Elizabeth in seminary that I began to eliminate a lot of the mess I had collected over the years.

Elizabeth, who was experienced with counseling and depression, encouraged and loved me into getting help from both a counselor and psychiatrist.

I’ve been seeing professional therapists and taking medicine for depression and anxiety for a decade now, and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.

The therapy and medicine is not a cure-all, of course: I still have to make a conscious effort through prayer and meditation to step back, take deep breaths and decide not to let the messiness of life—the inner voices which tell me I’m unworthy or inadequate—consume me.

I continually carve away or eliminate the mess to become whom God calls me to be in this life.

In his film and book Drops Like Stars, (author and pastor) Rob Bell says:

Rob Bell Quote

Jacob causes quite a mess when he steals Esau’s birthright and then manipulates his father Isaac into giving him his brother’s blessing.

Many years later as Jacob is passing through a territory belonging to Esau, he realizes that he no longer likes the man he has become, and he struggles to make amends.

It took an all-night wrestling match of the soul and the cracking of a hip for God to get Jacob unstuck.

The struggle  made him wiser and more tuned in to God’s presence in his life.

It’s always the messy struggles of life that leaves us with a scar or a limp and shapes us forever:

But from the mess, we can emerge as stronger, open-minded and more aware individuals like 23-year-old Dezzie who ran away from an abusive situation at home to live on the streets of L.A…

Although Dezzie has suffered and is homeless (as the result of choices she and others made), she still aspires to greatness: to be a musician and to make better choices in her life.

Dezzie even gives money to others whom are in worse shape than her.

Dezzie’s mess has affected her, and she has chosen to

become better instead of bitter, open instead of closed and more aware than ignorant.

She has become tuned in to the thousands of gifts we are surrounded with every single moment of every singe day.

Dezzie has wrestled with God, and she has seen God face to face.

God knows the messy parts of Dezzie’s story, and God meets her in the mess.

From the mess (whether it’s created by human choice or something beyond our control), we can emerge as stronger, open-minded and more aware individuals like the three Jeremiah Project youth (Nicole, Virginia and Jeff) who will share their messy stories with you now…(Listen to the Soundtrack Audio above to hear their courageous stories)

………………….

Thank you Nicole, Virginia and Jeff for sharing your messy stories…

God knows the messy parts of our stories, and God meets us in the mess.

There’s a great line in one of the most beautiful messiest books written in the last five years called The Fault In Our Stars about three teenagers who are struggling with their cancer diagnosis. And the line is:

“Pain demands to be felt.”

Pain demands to be felt.

Pain demands to be expressed.

Pain demands to be wrestled with in the long dark night of the soul…

In healthy, constructive ways.

Cutting, drinking, doing drugs, etc., may seem like a great idea at the time, but self-harm only masks the pain and keep the feelings inside.

They don’t bring healing or wholeness. They only make things messier.

A healthier way to express pain is by

breaking some plastic sports trophies,

making art out of junk

exercising,

going to the Spirituality Center at Montreat, or

turning up the music really loud and dancing like a wild person!

But honestly, the absolute best way to deal with your mess is to tell someone about what you are going through—someone you trust and who loves you unconditionally, i.e. a friend, a parent, a teacher, a youth leader, or a pastor.

Don’t keep the mess bottled up.

Don’t try to deal with it on your own.

Share it with someone. Get it out.

And for those of us who aren’t dealing with a mess in a particular moment, it’s our calling and responsibility to tell those who are in pain and in the muck that

they are worthy of a whole mess of God’s love and grace.

It’s up to each of us to say to the mistreated and outcasts: “You are not a mess.”

Even when we’re in the middle of chaos—whether it’s our own doing or another’s or something we can’t control—the mess can never completely define us.

We are much more than our messes because we are beloved, unique children of God.

We are beloved creations who have a unique story to tell, including all the messy parts.

But the messiness is never where the story ends.

There are still surprise twists to come and one of them is that

God will show, will clean us off and make us whole…

Co-music leader Jerry Chapman plays “You Are More” by 10th Avenue North while the three Jeremiah Project youth from earlier, Nicole, Virginia and Jeff paint on a white canvas and then peel back a middle portion to reveal a message for the conferees:

11800090_10153531657419510_5902767054255704337_n

 

 

Post-Sabbatical Reading Reflection: The Divine Magician by Peter Rollins & What Does the Church Do with His Message?

Unknown-1I desperately wanted to “love” this book or even like it a whole lot. The concept grabbed me right away when I read it on Amazon.com a few months ago:

In 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. In an effort to unearth the power of Christianity, Rollins uses this framework to explain the mystery of faith that has been lost on the church. In the same vein as Rob Bell’s bestseller Love Wins, this book pushes the boundaries of theology, presenting a stirring vision at the forefront of re-imagined modern Christianity.

But reading Rollin’s latest work was painstakingly hard to get my head around at times. Maybe it’s why it took me more than a week after my Sabbatical ended (during Holy Week at beginning of April) to finish reading and two more weeks to write this post.

This is not to say that the book is poorly written or horrible theology.  I just struggled (and still struggle) with the practical implications of his message for myself as a Jesus follower and for the Church Universal which is called to be the body of Christ in the world.

I suppose it bugs me because Rollins completely flips the whole centuries-accepted notion of discipleship, servant hood, and being a part of a faith community upside down. More accurately, he doesn’t simply turn over the empty magician’s hat. He blows the sucker to smithereens!

And that’s what’s so unnerving and uncomfortable about the book: like a swirling, mesmerizing magic show, there’s no satisfying conclusion or answer at the end. You are left stunned and bewildered; unsure of what happened and the seemingly impossible was achieved with the wave of a hand.

If I’m understanding Rollins correctly, he essentially implies that we as Christians and members of the Church are not living–as we have tricked ourselves into believing–the Jesus way that is meant to be separate from the ideologies of institutions.

Instead, says Rollins, we are living smack dab in the midst of ideology that keeps us from actually following Christ.  In other words, the Church’s mere presence and close ties with society and culture is not what Jesus intended when he sent out the apostles to serve the poor, oppressed and broken.

Jesus actually called/calls us to model a different way of living based on his teachings and actions (which, of course, ultimately led him to a cruel death on the cross). But from the early days of Constantine to now, we’ve turned Christianity into a commercialized endeavor and the Church into a vast enterprise or, dare I say, Empire that is concerned more about attracting members and having a building that offers comfort and luxury for joining than living a nomadic life of poverty that is constantly moving down the road helping others.

(This, again, is my summation of what Rollins demonstrates more intelligently and somewhat esoterically in the book. And I will be the first to admit that I don’t fully grasp every statement he makes concerning pyrotheology).

Now granted, there is a lot of good things happening in churches (Protestant and Catholic)–lots of authentic recognition and worship of the triune God in our lives; lots of humble acts of love and service toward the marginalized; lots of compassion and hospitality shown to people regardless of gender, sexual orientation, economic status, race and culture, etc.

However, it is also fair to say that we’ve created an institution or system of doing ministry that can hold us back from taking great leaps of faith from our comfort zones to follow Christ in the wilderness, never to return to them.

We’ve created a way that keeps us more grounded than ground breaking.

We’ve become settled in one spot when we should be unsettled as we move from one spot to the next, never completely satisfied that the work of God’s love is done.

We’ve become more about preserving the institution of the Church (the buildings, the names on the signs and the denominational structures and symbols) than being a fluid community of believers that helps out in one place before disappearing to another, never waiting to be thanked or recognized.

We’ve become prideful about cornering the market on God, absolutely certain that God resides within our particular church or denomination’s walls and no others.

And Rollins reveals that actually what we’ve kept in our holy boxes is an idol of God that serves our own interest. Not the God of the Bible and life experience that dwells in the world.

I agree with Rollins’ overall assessment even if my brain got tied up in knots at times to understand what he was communicating. However when I turn the last page and close the book shut, I’m still confounded by a single gnawing question:

So what do we do now?!!!???!!! (Again, like a true magician or illusionist, Rollins doesn’t offer any answers. He just leaves us to figure out the solution on our own.)

Do all ministers like myself sell our houses and our possessions and began a nomadic existence with our families? Do all Christians leave their churches, hand over their buildings and land to people in need of housing and move down the road from one town to the next preaching the gospel and living in people’s homes?

We know the disciples/apostles did. And there are some folks, ministers and congregants who, along with their families, travel all over the place with their families, staying in the homes of strangers and carrying only the most minimal of essentials on their backs and trusting in God that all needs will be provided for.

But is it reasonable to expect the majority, if not all, Christians to do the same in this day and age? Think about how hard and impractical that would be.

Is there a middle ground in all of this or is looking for something that falls in between the “living in the comfort zone” and the “constant journey on the road” just a cop-out?

If Rollins is to be believed, the Church will die and cease to exist and have any relevance if we don’t return to those ancient practices of Jesus and his first followers.

Returning to those practices held long before we got too focused on ourselves and the idea of Christendom means a lot of sacrifices have to be made to do that, right?

Or am I missing something?

I invite you to share what’s on your minds and hearts, especially if you’ve read Rollins’ book and find yourself wrestling with these questions and concepts.

And in our wrestling, I will pray this beloved Franciscan blessing for all of us:

May God bless you with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.

May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.

May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really CAN make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.”

For now, that gives me comfort in the midst of the wrestling and wondering and wandering.