Sabbatical Reading Reflections: Small Victories by Anne Lamott

I don’t know of a single author who writes with such raw honesty and vulnerability than Anne Lamott. Her razor sharp wit, fantastic sense of humor, incredible humility and self awareness of her own short-comings and ability to find God’s presence in the midst of life’s worse messes is both convicting and inspiring.  Her latest collection Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace is Ann at her utmost best. Each essay shines with truth about humanity and God. And the truth is not a perfect fluffy sentiment wrapped up in a pretty bow, but instead something more real and tangible that readers can grasp and see in their own lives.  A truth about our own failures and struggles and God’s grace that rises out of the midst of the ugliness to move us toward hope, love and life–even if it’s one difficult, begrudging step at a time.

The passage in the book which grabbed me by shoulders and forced me to look in a mirror pertained to Lamott’s thoughts on forgiveness. Upon realizing that she needed to forgive her father for writing disparaging remarks about her in a journal she discovered years after his death, Lamott writes:

People like to say, ‘Forgiveness begins with forgiving yourself.’ Well, that’s nice. Thank you for sharing. It does and it doesn’t. To think you know is proof that you don’t. But forgiveness sure doesn’t begin with reason. The rational insists that it is right, that we are right. It is about attacking and defending, which means there can be no peace. It loves the bedtime story of how we’ve been injured. The rational is claustrophobic, too. The choice is whether you want to stay stuck in being right but being free or admit you’re pretty lost and possibly available for a long, deep breath, which is as big as the universe, stirs the air around, maybe opens a window. …

You can forgo the arithmetic of adding up the damage again, lay your Bartleby ledger in your lap, and look up. Looking up is the way out. …Rumi wrote, ‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and righting, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.’ In that field, you’re under a wide swath of sky, so the story becomes almost illimitable, instead of two small nutty people with grievances and popguns. You have to leave your crate, though; this will not happen inside your comfort zone. But if you can make a break for the field, you might forget all the whys, the nuance, details, and colors about the story that you’re sure you’ve gotten right, that doom you.

So you sacrifice the need to be right, because you have been wronged, and you put down the abacus that has always helped you keep track of things. This jiggles you free from clutch and quiver. You can unfurl your fingers, hold out your palm, openhanded…Forgiveness is release from me; somehow, finally, I am returned to my better, dopier self, so much lighter when I don’t have to drag the toxic chatter, wrangle and pinch around with me anymore.

For the last month, I’ve been dragging my toxic carcass of anger, sadness, irritability, self-righteousness and depression everywhere because I have felt wronged by a good friend. I’ve been quite a pitiful and sorry sight and not at all my more goofy, humorous, loving self.

And it’s not that I don’t have a right to feel angry and sad or share those feelings honestly and calmly. Those emotions are certainly justifiable. However, as my wife pointed out this evening, I haven’t moved (or worked) through those feelings in four weeks. I’ve let them imprison me in a terrible funk of inner rage, resentment, and doubt–consuming every breathing moment and preventing me from enjoying life, particularly my family and friends.

My hope, especially when I have a conversation with that friend this month, is that I can make a faithful attempt to set aside rationality and an insistence on being right, put the ledger away, look up and hold out my palm open handed.

May the unfurling begin.

Sabbatical Reading Reflections: The Bible Tells Me So and Disquiet Time

Product8677_Photo1Although I’m a 39-year-old progressive Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor serving a moderate to progressive church in a mostly progressive denomination, I’ve encountered–since I was a middle schooler–church folk (including Presbyterians) who have staunchly believed that the Bible is a infallible rule book that is not to be questioned…ever. And to question the Bible is to question God and to question God is to permanently seal your fate in hell or in the very least incur God’s disappointment and anger.  As Peter Enns, religious scholar and author of The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read Itputs it:

Many Christians have been taught that the Bible is Truth downloaded from heaven, God’s rulebook, a heavenly instruction manual–follow the directions and out pops a true believer; deviate from the script and God will come crashing down on you with full force. If anyone challenges this view, the faithful are taught to ‘defend the Bible’ against these anti-God attacks. Problems solved. That is, until you actually read the Bible. Then you see that this rulebook view of the Bible is like a knockoff Chanel handbag–fine as long as its kept at a distance, away from curious and probing eyes.

Youth advisers and pastors whom I respected during youth and young adulthood echoed this sentiment in their own teaching, preaching and nurturing of my faith and belief in God, especially when other Christians tried to use the Bible to scare people into believing (which is not what Jesus ever had in mind when he walked the earth), i.e. the popular televangelists preachers of the 1980s in which I grew up or the fundamentalist Christian college students who descended upon my friends and I at our church’s Presbyterian camp at the beach in an effort to convert us.

While I knew this staunch defense of the Bible, God and faith was dangerous, I never felt I had the ability to express exactly why this way of thinking was harmful, bad theology that reduced God to a cruel and judgmental dictator.  Other than saying, “God is love,” I lacked the tools to full understand the larger context of the Bible: the ancient Israelites who lived in that ancient world thousands of years ago and their experience of God and of learning to live a life in faith to only one God, the creator of the universe and father of Abraham, Isaac, etc. I couldn’t counter the misconceptions (based on fear and a need to control) with deeper knowledge about the scripture passages, when they were written, why they were written and what they were intended to say to people of the time.  

This changed when I entered Columbia Theological Seminary at the age of 27 (way back in 2002). In the classrooms of Walter Brueggemann, Christine Yoder, Beth Johnson, Charlie Cousar, Stan Saunders, Mark Douglas, Shirley Guthrie, George Stroup, Bill Harkins, Chuck Campbell, Anna Carter Florence, Rodger Nishioka, Kathy Dawson and Erskine Clarke (just to name a few) I learned how to articulate what I always instinctively felt and believed about the Bible and God’s role in the text and human history:

The Bible is the messy and incredible story of God and humanity told by an ancient people whose message echoes throughout time and in our lives today. The Bible is the story of God’s love and grace that enters over and over and over again into human mess. God creates. Humans destroy. God calls people to create beautiful things (relationships, communities, lives). Humans reject the call. Contaminate and corrupt God’s gift of creation and misuse the gift to create by wielding hate and violence instead. God loves. Humans try to love and some succeed. But mostly they fail. God loves and loves some more. Humans fail. God keeps on loving and calling and encouraging humanity to trust in the Divine and live as people of the divine in their treatment of one another and the world they inhabit. Humans succeed in long moments and in spurts. God loves so much that God-self becomes flesh to show humanity that creativity, imagination, mercy and compassion is always the better way–better than desires to judge, control, manipulate, horde, and act recklessly with our own lives and the lives of others.  

The Bible is inspired by God and written by fallible human beings whom God loves unconditionally. God in Christ remains faithfully involved in people’s lives despite their mistakes, including the discrepancies and errors in their stories, experiences and interpretations of God. It is true for the ancients of the Bible and true for us crazy human beings today. 

Like my professors in seminary and my church mentors growing up, Enns’ book helped me once again to shape what I already knew to be true about the Bible but sometimes have difficulty expressing, particularly the violent, strange and contradictory texts.

End reminded me once again that the Bible’s purpose is not to provide safe and simple answers that solve all of life’s problems:

God did not design scripture to be a hushed afternoon in an oak-panel library. Instead, God has invited us to participate in a wrestling match, a forum for us to be stretched and to grow. Those are the kind of disciples God desires…When we open the Bible and read it, we are eavesdropping on an ancient spiritual journey. That journey was recorded over a thousand-year span of time, by different writers, with different personalities, at different times, under different circumstances, and for different reasons…

This Bible, which preserves ancient journeys of faith, models for us our own journeys. We recognize something of ourselves in the struggles, joys, triumphs, confusions and despairs expressed by the biblical writers. Rather than a rulebook…the Bible is more a land we get to know by hiking through it and exploring its many paths and terrains. This land is both inviting and inspiring, but also unfamiliar, odd, and at points unsettling–even risky and precarious. 

I believe God encourages us to explore this land–all of it–patiently, with discipline, in community, and above all with a  sense that we , joining the long line of those who have gone before, will come to know ourselves better and God more deeply by accepting the challenge. ..We respect the Bible most when we let it be what it is and learn from it rather than combing out the tangles to make it presentable.

And, I might add, to judge others, to use the Bible to determine who is in and out of the church, who is not allowed in heaven or who is not deserving of God’s love.

Enn delves further into how the Bible can be so much richer for cultivating authentic faith when we allow the Bible to be what it is instead of trying to make its most violent parts behave or adhere to our justifications for God’s wrath and why we think God would be ok with all sorts of violence today.  With great knowledge and respect for scriptures and wily sense of humor, Enns tackles the violent and strange and contradictory passages of the Bible head on. Instead of taming the Bible or locking it in a cage, Enns takes readers on an exploration of this wild living thing that breathes and moves across the landscape of the ancient and post-modern. 

49827In their collection of essays, Jennifer Grant and Cathleen Falsani, encourage “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,” to not shy way from having Disquiet Time with the Bible.

Essays written by the “skeptical, faithful and a few scoundrels” explore difficult, bizarre and (sometimes humorous) texts that stir up questions and cause discomfort and confusion for readers, like grotesque violence, plagues of frogs, the trippy vision of Revelation, the role and treatment of women, sexual innuendo, angelic body parts, and all the poop references.

Whereas Enns takes readers through a process of how to approach the Bible as a sacred object that doesn’t needed to be defended but to be wrestled with,  Grant and Falsani offer up voices of those who have stepped into the ring with the weird and formidable stories of the Bible.

Admittedly, I haven’t read the entire collection. Only the first nine essays because I’ve been distracted by other books on my sabbatical reading list. I’m realizing now that Disquiet Time is the type of book that doesn’t need to be read orderly from front to back and is actually better enjoyed when you flip to any essay when your own soul is feeling disquieted by the Bible, faith, God or the world in general. (Take a moment to peruse the global, political and entertainment news and you’ll immediately find some disquieting things).

The essays are exposing me to voices I need to hear and I’m in awe of their vulnerability and honesty as they share how particular texts have befuddled, angered, surprised or given comfort to them. To metaphorically see them struggle with disquieting texts to find meaning gives me courage to grapple with glowering behemoths like Genesis 16, Ruth 3, Ecclesiastes 9, and Deuteronomy 23. 

And the most important lesson I’ve learned thus far is that the Bible is full of crap (Deuteronomy 23:12-13; 2 Kings 9:36-37; Exodus 29:12-14, Ezra 6:11, among others) and God is wading in the muck right along with us.

What’s Next For Christian Education?

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 10.50.56 PM(Note: A slightly different version of this post was published at 7 am on the new Christian Education resource blog HOPE4CE: A Place Where Innovative Ideas and Lesson Plans Can Be Shared For Christian Education)

I recently returned from the NEXT Church Conference, held  March 16-18, in Chicago, and once again it nourished my soul and heart for ministry. Worship services, presentations and workshops (regarding innovative ministry and discernment about what works and what doesn’t) as well as opportunities to connect with friends and colleagues filled me with hope for where the PC(USA) and its churches are headed in the foreseeable future.

While the conference didn’t explicitly talk about the best Christian Education models or ministries (which relate to me as an associate for youth at the church I serve in Georgia), the various leaders, teachers and presenters faithfully teach Christians about what it means to be the body of Christ and to do God’s work in the world—to (according to this year’s theme) go “beyond our walls, our fears and ourselves” to encounter God’s transforming grace.

Also, Christian Education is about being creative in the ways we tell the good news of God’s love, and the act of imagining and sharing ideas is the essence of the NEXT Church movement. Worship in particular is so moving, inspiring and thought-provoking (with liturgy, prayers, music, preaching and visual art) that it is impossible not to remove your shoes because you are standing on holy ground like Moses.

Photo taken by NEXT Church photographer, posted on NEXT Church Facebook page. Art done by NEXT Church worship team.

Photo taken by NEXT Church photographer, posted on NEXT Church Facebook page. Art created by NEXT Church the Rev. Shawna Bowman.

For the closing service on Wednesday, the representation of a bird was hung from the ceiling of the sanctuary. The piece is made mostly of strips of paper (taken from old hymnals) upon which we wrote our prayers earlier in the week and tied to a make-shift chain link fence that symbolized the things and fears that hold us back.  

The bird soaring high above exemplified how God knocks down our walls and sets us free. During the service, these words (written by the Rev. Shawna Bowman who also created the art piece) were offered to help us connect the meaning of the flying bird:

Grounded in the grace of God

Our love takes flight

Not beyond one another

But beyond ourselves

Beyond our fears

Beyond our own limitations

God’s blessing infuses us

God’s spirit blows us

God’s strength emboldens us

God’s beauty beckons us

Out into the day and the night

Out into the world beyond these walls

To be the people of God

In the world God created.

 This poetic and prophetic piece reflected a profound statement made the previous evening by writer/dreamer/theologian Diana Butler Bass who said during a presentation on Christianity’s “Great Awakening:

The best part about being human is that history is ours to make and we make that history with God.

Diana’s wisdom, closing worship and a workshop I attended earlier in the week–“Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast” by the Rev. Jan Edmiston–stirred up many questions about we might discern the role of Christian Education in a faith community of the 21st century world :

 –What kind of history are we making with Christian Education and what stories are we telling that feeds people’s hunger to know about their faith and beliefs?

 –What does Christian Education look like when it’s beyond ourselves, our fears and walls?

 –What does Christian Education look like out in the world God created as opposed to being in a church building or classroom?

–What is God’s strength and beauty moving us to do differently, unexpectedly, creatively, and imaginative with Christian Education?

– What cultural shifts are we willing to make to keep Christian Education relevant and viable ministry that nurtures and emboldens others to be the body of Christ? (This question and the subsequent ones are adapted from questions that Jan Edmiston posed concerning general ministry).

 o   What does Christian Education look like if we focus less on attendance at events, the building to house classes and the cash it takes to run programs? What does CE look like if we focus on doing the ministry in the surrounding culture and neighborhood of the church?

 o   What if we move a church school class or youth adviser training from the church parlor to a coffee shop?

o   What if we move from doing CE events at the church to attract people (like VBS or a Fall Festival) and send people out into neighborhoods to do VBS or host a Fall Festival in the town square or community center?

o   What if we ask more questions about our purpose for doing a certain CE program and event and whether people are passionate about participating or comfortable with failing or afraid of trying something new?

o   Who is being spiritually nourished and what relationships are being nurtured by CE? Who is being transformed to become more faithful? Who is being impacted?

 o   How can CE better nurture faith and discipleship that carries over into every aspect of our week and lives, beyond Sunday mornings and the Wednesday evening supper and Bible study?

Photo: Joachim Wendler/shutterstock.com. Posted on the NEXT Church website, http://nextchurch.net

Photo: Joachim Wendler/shutterstock.com. Posted on the NEXT Church website, http://nextchurch.net

These questions must be wrestled with and answered so that the people of God can faithfully educate Christians on how to live fully in Christ, so that we can all take flight into the wildly creative imagination of what God has for us next.

Sabbatical Reading Reflections: The Zimzum of Love by Rob and Kristen Bell

One of my favorite Christian authors and pastors is Rob Bell. Whenever he publishes a book or releases a video, I consume it immediately.  His progressive evangelical view of God, faith and scripture capture my heart and imagination and help me look at my own ministry and spirituality in a new way.  Bell’s latest book The Zimzum of Love, co-written with his wife Kristen, goes one step farther by providing profound insights on my marriage and the deeper mysteries of this sacred relationship (and btw, is a great companion piece to Bell’s Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality).

 A Hebrew word used to “talk about the creation of the world–not in a scientific way but more like something somewhere between poetry and metaphysical speculation,” zimzum is the space which God creates between two people in a marriage for them to thrive in unconditional, sacrificial love.

Through back and forth dialogue, the Bells are honest about the ups and downs of marriage and offer practical advice for couples who wish to strengthen their marriages and live fully in relationship with their partner.

Rob and Kristin present the basis for their book (which divulges, thanks be to God, from the numerous syrupy step-by-step instruction manuals as well as misogynistic and theologically damaging views of marriage) in the following video:

This is one of those books where I found myself highlighting a paragraph or two and making notes on nearly every page. Two passages that stuck out in my reading were:

rob-kristen-bell-marqueeWhen you zimzum, you are consciously deciding to give your energies first and foremost to one person. That’s the power of the exclusive space-out of seven billion people on the planet, you first give yourself to just this one person in just this one way. You direct your love and will and energy to this one.

Like a laser beam, when you direct and focus your energies, they intensify. And when the two of you direct and focus your energies on each other, you create an extraordinary energy field between you. It’s the buzz, the crackle, the electricity that hums between you…

As you intentionally take action for the well-being of this person you love, strengthening and protecting the exclusive space between you, something unexpected happens. Your love overflows. Your love and devotion take you not just beyond yourself, but beyond the two of you. The energy that is generated between you transcends the two of you. By first committing to just each other, you naturally create something bigger than you both. This is why marriage is good for the world. Love that overflows makes the world a better place. It’s a gift–a beautiful, divine, sacred gift to the world.

……………………………

God is described as a relationship of one. Early theologians called this relational oneness of God trinity. God is movement, motion, energy, generosity–a trinitarian community of infinite love, endlessly moving beyond for the good of others. In this trinitarian understanding of God, love is the engine of the universe, the life force that surges through all of creation. The nature of love is that it can’t be contained; it spills over and naturally creates new space for others to thrive.

This love takes us back to the first impulse you had to zimzum for this person you love. When you zimzum, you are aligning yourself with the most foundational creative energies of the universe. You’re experiencing the same love that sustains the world. This space between you is sacred because when you live beyond yourself, orientating yourself around the thriving of another, you are reflecting the image of God. You are unleashing in this space between you the same divine energies that continue to create the universe.

Art Credit: Rob and Kristen Bell

Art Credit: Rob and Kristen Bell

These particular statements made me wonder about how the Church might engage in the zimzum of love.

What would churches look like or how could they thrive and be healthy/healthier if it’s leaders and members committed to creating an exclusive space between them and the ministry of the church?  What would it look like if distractions (like arguments over the color of the sanctuary carpet, signage, worship attendance, the style of the bulletin; and an over-filled busy work and social schedule) were eliminated so more energy was focused on creative and transforming ministry?

What would the life of a congregation look like if members were to align their faith with the Divine energy that creates and sustains the universe? What would it look like if followers of Christ  reflected the image of God in exclusive relationships with the poor and homeless, the oppressed, the victims of injustice, the people whose cultural, religious, racial, sexual and gender identity is different from our own?

What might the church and world look like if Love overflowed, if we unleashed the energies of God in the relationships God has called us to create and cultivate in ministry and service?

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. (The synopsis of each book comes from their description on Amazon.com):

Product8677_Photo1

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.

 

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.

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.

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

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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.

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[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/