My Sabbatical Reading List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sabbatical

Calvin & Hobbes, expert sabbatical takers

Calvin & Hobbes, expert sabbatical takers

(Blog Note: Letter I wrote in October 2014)

Dear Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church,

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

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

As the author Wayne Muller puts it:

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

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

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

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

In Christ,

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

As God’s Chosen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

……………………………….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s not like other blacks.”

“She speaks very well for a black person.”

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

“Another (n-word) shot somebody.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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from Google Images

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Photograph by John Nguyen, November 25, 2014

Photograph by John Nguyen, November 25, 2014

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

…………………………………….

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

Filled Up and Ready for What’s NEXT

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This summer I will have spent:

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

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

I’m hitting the wall.

I’m burning out.

I’m drying up.

I’m stagnating.

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

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

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

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

 
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What I received from the NEXT Church Conference was…

an invitation to consider an adaptive approach,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEXT Bulletin

 

NEXT river

 

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

 

NEXT Communion table 2

 

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

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

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

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

There are, of course, no guarantees.

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

NEXT Communion table

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

Be What We Were Made to Be

A Sermon for Sunday October 27 (Reformation Day & All Saints’ Day ) Romans 12 (Eugene Peterson’s The Message)

Shades Valley Presbyterian Church Youth Retreat, Camp Lee, Anniston, AL, 1991. Bonkey is wearing the green hat. Andy is pictured in center of photograph.

Shades Valley Presbyterian Church Youth Retreat, Camp Lee, Anniston, AL, 1991. Bonkey is wearing the green hat. Andy is pictured in center of photograph.

For more than 20 years, during the days that lead up to Halloween, the memory of a significant event in my life resurfaces like The Creature From The Black Lagoonthe death of my friend Bonkey Nezariah McCain, who at the age of 17 was gunned down in a drive-by shooting in the late evening of Friday, October 30, 1992 in Birmingham, Alabama, and pronounced dead at 12:01 am on Saturday October 31.

My tearful mom shook me from my blissful sleep later that Halloween morning to tell me the horrifying news. I staggered out of bed in utter disbelief. It was hard enough to comprehend that a beloved member of our church’s youth group at Shades Valley Presbyterian and a fellow classmate at Shades Valley High School had died, but more difficult to fathom that he was killed.

A member of SVHS’ football team, Bonkey and his teammates had been innocently celebrating their win over another school by eating at a local Pizza Hut. As the players walked out into the parking lot to head home, two guys in a car drove by and opened fire into the crowd. Although Bonkey wasn’t the intended target, he took three bullets to the chest. No one else was injured.

Bonkey’s death shook the community. Bonkey was a remarkable young man who had a deep love for God and people. He had that unique ability of making friends and connecting folks to one another regardless of their differences. And he had big dreams of getting a higher education, playing in the NFL and doing good for others with the gifts God gave him.

The day Bonkey died, I was awoken to the harsh reality of fear, pain and sadness. And yet, in the midst of the shock and grief, my instinct (like many of my church friends) was to not crawl back in bed and isolate myself from the world. My immediate desire was to shower, get dressed and be with my friends.

Within a few hours, our youth group had gathered in one of our friend’s homes. We sat there and held one another as we cried and lamented and expressed our anger over a senseless death. We made phone calls to share the news with friends who lived and attended Presbyterian churches in other parts of central Alabama. They immediately got in their cars and drove to Birmingham. By dinner that evening, there were close to 50-60 people, youth and adult advisers from eight separate high school youth groups, squeezed inside a friend’s living room. Holding onto one another, we cried some more and we told stories about Bonkey’s life and we prayed.

And our advisers reminded us that God grieves with us and yearns for us to live together in love and hope and peace.  They cautioned us to not become jaded by the brokenness and pain of the world. They encouraged us to push against the culture of selfishness, hate and violence by showing God’s goodness in all that we say and do…together.  They proclaimed to us that we—despite our momentary anger and loathing over Bonkey’s death—were called to continue to be the mercy-filled body of Christ in our daily lives.

Our advisers, our God-bearers of the faith, echoed the words of the apostle Paul in his letter to the early Christian church in Rome:


Don’t become so well adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without ever thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God…God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you….

The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him. …

In this way we are like the various parts of a human body. Each part gets its meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around. The body we’re talking about is Christ’s body of chosen people. Each of us finds our meaning and function as a part of his body. But as a chopped-off finger or cut-off toe we wouldn’t amount to much, would we? So since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ’s body, let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other…

Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply ….Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone…Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do…Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.

I realize that Paul’s letter may sound too idealistic and naïve to 21st century ears. Paul’s instructions don’t seem feasible during a time in which there is great upheaval divisiveness, and bitter contention in our nation and world.

To some, they are nice-feel-good words that you say to cheer people up. It’s not practical advice.

Except that Paul’s teaching about how Christians should live is actually possible to practice and not some pie-in-the sky idea. Paul’s message is firmly grounded in real-life experience. Paul, like many Jews and Gentile followers of Jesus in those days, lived under the oppression of the Roman Empire and its cruel emperor who decreed himself a god among mortals.

The apostle knew that the only way followers of God could survive the ruthless, conquering military machine of the Roman Empire, the great body politic, was by becoming a part of a body that is greater than any corporate entity, nation, kingdom or ruler—

The body of Christ.

 Made up of chosen people who each find their meaning and function from the body that has shaped them with exquisite design and awe-inspiring purpose.

Paul believed fervently that human beings were created by God to be together and live as one body in love and gratitude to the Creator. To detach one’s self from the whole body of Christ served no purpose.

A person could be alive and functioning but essentially that person was dead in their soul because of their detachment, as useless as a cut-off toe. The individual was like a re-animated corpse that aimlessly wanders the countryside looking for opportunities to rip off the parts of living bodies.

AMC's Walking Dead, Season 1 commercial poster, courtesy of Google Images

AMC’s Walking Dead, Season 1 commercial poster, courtesy of Google Images

Many of us can identity with that metaphor of zombies (which is all the rage these days)—an individual or an individualized culture that seeks to devour our uniqueness, turning us into mindless creatures that fit into societal norms regardless of the harm it does to fellow human beings.

That allegory is so relatable to our lives and world that 3-16 million people tune in every week in the Fall to watch a show about an apocalyptic world overrun with zombies called The Walking Dead, which is set in metro Atlanta and currently being filmed an hour away from here in the Peachtree City area.

The reason for the show’s popularity may surprise those who have never watched an episode and suspect its all for the sake of guts and gore or just get twitchy watching gruesome stuff. But The Walking Dead actually offers a much deeper over-arching message about humanity that is loaded with spiritual and societal themes—particularly individualism v. community.

At one point in the story, Rick Grimes, a sheriff’s deputy of the fictional King County, Georgia, gives a group of survivor’s the “from now on it’s my way or the highway speech” if they are planning to outlast the widespread zombie epidemic. The group is reluctant at first but quickly decide that Rick’s leadership is exemplary and his intentions are in the right place.

However, over the course of several episodes, Rick and his friends, who have sought refuge in an abandoned Georgia prison, encounter the residents of a nearby town called Woodbury and its leader, The Governor. A crazy narcissistic dictator, The Governor views himself as the savior of civilization and is willing to resort to the most deplorable measures to achieve that goal.

Courtesy of Google Images,  Photo Collage of still images from AMC's The Walking Dead, Episode 15 "This Sorrowful Life" March, 2013

Photo Collage of still images from AMC’s The Walking Dead, Episode 15 “This Sorrowful Life” March, 2013, Courtesy of Google Images

Because other survivors are always a threat to his quest for supremacy, the Governor threatens to attack Rick’s group at the prison unless they hand over a particular group member to be tortured and killed. Realizing that he has been losing his sanity and was wrong to ever assume sole leadership, Rick gathers his fellow survivors for a meeting. With sorrow in his eyes, a lump in his throat and guilt in his heart, he tells them: [1]

When I met with the Governor, he offered me a deal. He said he would leave us alone if I gave him Michonne. And I was gonna do that to keep us safe. I changed my mind. But now Merle took Michonne to fulfill the deal and Daryl went to stop him and I don’t know if it’s too late. I was wrong not to tell you. And I’m sorry.

What I said last year, that first night, after the farm, it can’t be like that. It can’t. What we do, what we’re willing to do, who we are, it’s not my call. It can’t be. I couldn’t sacrifice one of us for the greater good because we are the greater good. We’re the reason we’re still here, not me.

This is life and death. How you live…how you die, it isn’t up to me. I’m not your Governor. We choose to go. We choose to stay. We stick together.

There have been numerous moments in my life and ministry where I thought I was solely in charge, the only person making the tough calls and decisions, which were always absolutely right.

I have become, at times, too well adjusted to a culture that thrives off personal success, self-importance and fierce individualism. I have gone from being self-reliant and independent to arrogant, pretentious, judgmental and hateful in seconds. I have been, as my 5-year-old daughter Katie says, a “butt-butt.”

I have been like the demented Governor who is hungry for power and his own needs to be met at the expense of others or I have been like a crazed zombie who rips into others without thinking about the pain and suffering it causes them.

And all that conceited desire to be absolutely right and satisfied all the time (which were my choices) has always separated me from God and the body of Christ.

That’s why I need others to keep me from being detached from the body of Christ. I need that community of faith—made up of people from every time and place—to keep me connected, to keep me in check, and to remind me of the Creator’s unconditional love and my worth as a member of Christ’s body, God’s kingdom.

Intuitively we know that we are the greater good, not because we are perfect and do everything right but because we are the people of God. We know that each of us is so much better when we are together and not alone. We are so much better when we are “marvelously functioning parts in Christ’s body.” We are so much better when we “just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other.”

The most well known saints of our time, the ones who seemingly look as if they did things all on their own, understood the importance of togetherness and community all too well.

Martin Luther King Jr. needed Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Bayard Rustin and John Lewis and thousands of other civil rights activists during the days of segregation. Never could he have fought the battle alone.

Mother Theresa needed the Missionaries of Charity to help her care for the poor, the sick and the dying in Calcutta, India and other impoverished countries for more than 50 years.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu needed the Rainbow Coalition and the support of Christians in the West to lead non-violent protests against apartheid in South Africa.

Even now, we need one another to do ministry in our country and across the ocean. Because Lord knows, not a single one of us can do it alone. Try to teach all the church school classes by yourself or single-handled lead both Middle and High School youth groups or do every part of Family Promise or the Red Cross Blood Drive or Rainbow Village ministries alone and you’ll witness disastrous results.

Foremost, an individual who chooses to go solo or walk away from the body of Christ will likely forget their meaning and their purpose in the first place. Without the body of Christ to remind that person who they are and whom they belong to, the individual could end up leading an unfulfilled life.

The gospel truth is that we need one another to live. We were wired to be nothing less than a community that does God’s work together—loving deeply, blessing our enemies, discovering beauty in others, avoiding revenge and overcoming evil with good.

This we know.

This we trust.

This we believe.

So “let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be.”

Amen.


[1] AMC’s The Walking Dead, Season 3, Episode 15: “This Sorrowful Life” March 2013

Dust

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.  Return to the Lord, your God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

(Words used during the Imposition of Ashes during  Ash Wednesday prayer services at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church)

Aimee and the Middle School Youth of Pleasant Hill Pres in Asheville City Park, June 2012

Aimee and the Middle School Youth of Pleasant Hill Pres in Asheville City Park, June 2012

On this Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, I can’t help but think about the sudden and shocking death of a beloved servant leader in the Presbyterian Church (USA), respected colleague, and friend, the The Rev. Aimee Wallis Buchanan.

Last summer, the middle school youth at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian in Duluth spent a week with the mission organization that Aimee and her husband Bill founded a few years ago, Asheville Youth Mission in Asheville, NC. On the last day, Aimee took our group on a morning spirituality walk through Asheville. Along the way, we stopped at various spots to read and discuss the story of the paralytic in Luke 5:17-26.  It was one of the most profound and sacred experiences that we’ve ever had, due greatly in part to the love of God that exuded from Aimee’s entire being.

I remember we were walking down one street when Aimee saw a friend, a homeless woman named Raven whom she had helped out on several previous occassions. “Raven!” Aimee shouted enthusiastically and with that trademark smile on her face. “How are you doing?”  Aimee stopped and gave Raven a hug and then listened for a few minutes as Raven told her about the troubles she was having.  Aimee hugged her, told her that she loved her and that she would be praying for her.  A few steps later, we came upon a man sitting on the sidewalk with his head in his hands.  Aimee explained that Ray, who was also homeless, often had severe migraines and health problems that made him despondent at times.  Again, she stopped and spoke to him, leaned down so Ray could hear her and to make sure he wasn’t in need of any emergency medical care and then led us onward. It was clear that Aimee had become immersed in the city of Asheville and the lives of the poor and downtrodden. She was, I thought at the time (and still believe) the Mother Theresa of Asheville.

Water fountain in Asheville, NC

Water fountain in Asheville, NC

Later, toward the end of the walk, we stopped at a beautiful fountain overflowing with water that then drips down and forms a pool around the base.  It was here that Aimee reminded us of who we are (children of God) and to whom we belong (God). She spoke about how baptism is a sign of God’s love for us and how baptismal waters cleans, refreshes and sustains us on our journeys. As a way of joyfully remembering our baptisms and the life we have been given , Aimee then encouraged us to splash one another with the water from the fountain. And with a spark of mischief in her eye, she hinted that the youth might want to make sure they did a good job reminding me of how the waters feel. Needless to say, I was soaked. But also renewed at the same time.

You see, there had been some tension in the group that week, especially between me and some of the 6th grade girls (typical you’re not listening and acting immature v. you’re being over-bearing jerk with the rules). Aimee knew instinctively that frustrations and anger and tiredness and stress had dried us up and that we needed to play in the refreshing waters of life.

I find it more than ironic (quite providential actually) that Aimee’s legacy of AYM is having to begin without her during this Lenten season and beyond.  Although Asheville is named after an 18th century North Carolina governor, the homophone is significant.  Aimee lived and breathed the meaning of Ash Wednesday and Lent in a town of Ash (which is actually representative of all towns and places) where the broken are waiting to be mended and healed, to be treated with dignity and respect, to be marked with the unconditional mercy of Christ forever.

Thanks be to God for the mark of Christ and the saints like Aimee who came from dust and return to dust, having sprinkled love and grace on God’s people forever.

Like those who have gone before walking the road of Christ, on this day you also wear the mark of the cross. As you wear the mark this day, may you be mindful of ways in which the cross has already marked your life. At the end of the day, when you wash this mark of grit and ash from your body, may you remember the one whose love washes over us.

(Blessing used at end of Ash Wednesday prayer services at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church)

PLGRM’s Promise

PLGRM, Volume 1-Issue 1, Summer 2012, PLGRM Media LLC. Cover art “Reversal” by Ryan Kemp-Pappan

If you’re in full time paid ministry (or even if you are a volunteer, regular church goer, seeker”, member of another religious tradition or non-believer in spiritual matters) and you haven’t heard of PLGRM: Wake Up/Discern/Imagine/Do, then stop what you are doing and order the first issue today! This is a terrific seasonal magazine and resource for those working in the Church who desire fresh ideas and approaches to being a Jesus follower in the 21st century. Landon Whitsitt, the Publisher & Editor-In-Chief, explains it all here

If you’re not sure about plopping down $15 for the first issue, you can download a digital copy for free. I did that just to get a preview and was so taken aback, I had to throw some money in to support. Plus, I’m a sucker for holding something tangible like a new magazine in my hands…no matter how cool it is to read articles on an iPad/iPhone/Kindle, etc. 

I don’t want to give any spoilers except to say that the first issue fulfills the magazine’s mission statement and then some. It’s a bold, honest, and imaginative publication that stirs up a lot of conversation, discernment and ideas for blending old traditions with the new and in many cases, starting completely over or going back to the roots of scripture to grow something never before seen.  I’m only halfway through the inaugural issue, entitled “The Great Reversal,” and the questions are starting to swirl loudly in my heart and brain, like the excerpt from Diana Butler Bass’s recent book (which sparked the idea for this magazine) Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening ; the conversation the PLGRM editors have about DBB’s book and idea; “Say In Your Heart” an article about belief and doubt by Two Friars and a Fool, and “Trauma and Sovereignty” an essay written by Jenny Sue about the trauma caused by a loved one’s addiction. I look forward to reading the rest of the issue, especially an interview with friend and seminary classmate Rachel Parsons-Wells and an essay on urban ministry by a new acquaintance and preacher extraordinaire Theresa Cho. 

In addition to excellent content by a variety of voices and views, PLGRM is simply a beautiful magazine, both in its binding and design as well as it’s art and photos.  This is a mustard seed that has the potential to grow far and wide in the New Spiritual Awakening that is occurring in the 21st Century. And the cover is adorned with a colorful and mesmerizing picture of a Luche Libre wrestler in front of a church! How awesome is that?!?! 

So join the PLGRM journey. You’ll be glad you did. Promise.