Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Love For Our Enemies

I am angry.  I am very angry.  I've tried to calm down...and it's worked a little bit; but I am still very angry.  Let me explain:

Earlier today a member of our congregation at Commonwealth let me know that they had recieved some hate mail via email because they are a member of this congregation.  The reason for this outpouring of religious hate speech is the fact that we are an Open and Affirming congregation, meaning that we welcome Gay and Lesbian persons into membership in this congregation as brothers and sisters in Christ.  This expression of our Christian faith strikes the writer of the aforementioned email as an abomination which is going to send all of us to hell.

My anger is directed primary at the fact that this individual seems to have randomly picked this member of the congregation, a person for whom I have spiritual responsibility, and attacked them for simply being a member of this church.  It reminds me all too well of the days in my youth in South Carolina when one was vilified for simply 'keeping company' with persons who were black.  As I read the email shared with me, the bile rose in my throat and my thoughts turned to a pretty violent response (never claimed that I don't have anger issues).

The problem is that Jesus made no bones about my responsibility to love this individual.  To follow Jesus means to include him in the embrace of Christ's love just as I have been with all of my sins.  Theologian Miroslav Volf has given that commandment disturbing and clear expression in his writing.  So I don't have a lot of wiggle room here.

So let me utilize the next few paragraphs as an open letter to the writer of this bigoted, hate filled email:

Dear Sir,
As a Brother in Christ I call upon you to repent the hideous way in which you have portrayed these beloved children of our Heavenly Father.  I will not hesitate to call what you have done, and continue to do, what it is: sin.  To go further and attack a member of the congregation that I serve (with joy and pride I might add) for chosing to worship in this community of faith was an act of cowardice. 
Nor will I lie and tell you that I am not angry at your behavior. Your words feed a festering sore in our society and wound those I care about and have been called to minister to.  But we are called to let our anger motivate us to confront and engage evil behaviors-and your behavior is indeed evil, even as we offer hope of reconciliation.

When I look out at the congregation each Sunday I see persons that Jesus loves and for whom He died.  Gay and straight; male and female; a multitude of ethnic heritages....all beloved of God.  And when I look at those Gay and Lesbian couples who have made life long commitments to one another before God, I see people who, just like the straight couples in this congregation, have been given the priviledge to be vessels of Christ's love for one another and to reflect Christ's love for the Church within their relationship.

One day, in the Kingdom of God, you and I may meet.  We will be invited to sit down at Christ's table together.  We will both need to be willing to do that.  We both will need to be able to pass the loaf to the other and say, "the Body of Christ, broken for you."  To be unwilling to do so is to deny the truth of God's love for us all.  Would you take the bread from me?  Would you pass it to me? 
I hope that when the time comes I will be able to do that for you.  Right now, my ability to do so would rest soley and totally in the Grace of God.....I don't think I could do it any other way.  That is my sin, my shortcoming, and I ask that you pray for me as I will pray for you.

May Christ's love and mercy transform us both into His image.

Yours in Christ,
Stephen

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Jesus and PJs

Commonwealth Baptist has a tradition that I haven't encountered before; though I've heard of churches that do this.  On Christmas Eve, everyone who wishes (and many do) show up in their pajamas.  Now my guess is that this goes back to a day when there were lots of small children in the congregation (don't worry, there are plenty there now too, and we're growing) and Mom and Dad brought them to the service dressed ready for bed immediately upon getting home....sort of "Pre-Santa Prep."  Then some grown-ups got into the act, and voila.....we have pj's at Christmas Eve.

Now, to be honest, I've always had a strange relationship with pajamas.....(don't go there, it's Christmas, remember?).  I can remember having a favorite pair as a child....and getting my children into theirs in prep for bed when they were small.....I can remember (thanks to a kind wife and a good dryer) the feel of warm pajamas fresh out of the dryer when I've been down with the flu.  I've even had favorite pajamas that were worn threadbare until they disappeared one day to be replaced by new ones that my wife bought ("your old pj's? I haven't seen them.  Why don't you wear these?  Throw them out?  Would I do that?)

But pajamas also make us-at least me-feel vulnerable.  When was the last time you answered the door in your pajamas?  Or had to take out the garbage you'd forgotten and hauled the trash to the curb in your pajamas?  Or had to run out to the car for something you'd forgotten to bring in...in your pajamas?  We don't feel inappropriate doing it exactly...but it can make us feel a little strange.

I remember my dad in the final years of his life.  I'd come home to visit, arriving past his bed time, and he'd shuffle out to say hello and hug me and the kids....in his pajamas.  I remember how frail they made him look-this man who my childhood eyes still remember as powerful, strong, forceful.  Now he moved with shuffled gait and thin limbs; shrunken in his pajamas.  And when he went to the nursing home, after the fall that let him know he couldn't live alone at home anymore, he wore them all the time....his pajamas.  They were like a flashing sign saying, "I will never leave here; I'm getting ready to die and I know it."  ......you can see why my relationship with pajamas is so mixed.

So maybe PJs are a nice symbol for Christmas after all.  God's love does wrap us in a warmth that we want to cling to.  Like swaddling clothes on a newborn this love gives us a sense that we are secure even when the world is a scary place.  But they may also remind us that God took on our fragile frailness when God clothed God's own self in the humanity of a tiny, vulnerable new born baby.  The human face of God came first to us crying and squinting against the light; squirming, pooping and wanting its mamma.  That God would do this is beyond amazing.

Hope maybe you can join us Christmas Eve.  5:30, and I'll keep the homily short.  PJ's are optional.

Shalom,
Stephen

Sunday, December 18, 2011

What If God Knocked?

I you happened to look over at my 'Tweets' on the right hand side of this site, you'll see the core of this particular blog.  The thoughts were jumpstarted this morning by the kids at Commonwealth Baptist.

They were putting on a play.  The plan was that we'd have the Prayers of the People, then there'd be a knock at the sanctuary door.  I'd go over and open it and the kids would come in to begin their drama.  Only that's not quite how it went.

We'd read the prayer list, invited folks to pray in silence, and bowed our heads in the stillness.....then, suddenly, KNOCK....KNOCK....KNOCK.....I smiled as I watched one of the grown-ups slip to the door to tell them they were a weeeee bit early....we prayed together.....and then the knock came again.  After this, the play went off without a hitch. 

But it got me thinking......I kept turning this over in my head as I waited with the cart while my wife made one least loop through BJ's (don't know that I'd recommend this as a prime location for theological reflection, but it worked today).....and the question came to me: "What if in the middle of our prayers, God knocked?  Would we answer? Or think that the timing was off cause we weren't through praying?"

We have pretty set ideas about prayer and about how God works through prayer.  We pray, pray again, then (maybe) God answers.  Maybe God says yes, maybe God says no, maybe God offers a third option.  But we tend to think of these things happening after we've done our bit....we've completed our prayers.  But what if God showed up and said something like, "I've been watching.  I know what's on your heart, what's causing your pain, and I just wanted to show up and let you know that I'm here and I'm going to take care of this."  What would our reaction be?  Would we be able to hear?  Or would we be so caught up in the way we expect things to be that we'd miss what was happening?

Some friends of mine have been in a group exploring different forms of prayer.  There are ways of praying that suggest that we learn to sit and wait and listen.  Such  a style of prayer might go a long way toward helping us hear the knock when it came.

But there's something else as well in this question.  And in that 'something else' lies one of the great truths about Christmas.  That is nothing happened the way anybody expected.  And a lot of folks missed it because it didn't come the way they thought.

This is a truth that is still valid today.  When God acts, it is rarely (at least in my experience) done in the way I expect.  God is not predictable.  God does not run on my timetable or my expectations.  I can guarantee only a few things are true about how God will respond: 

When we cry out, God will come
  • God's response will be Love...it may be a stern love, a love that demands change, but it will be love
  • God will not let us go
This is the truth that gets lived out in the Christmas event.  God's love comes in a totally unexpected way; fragile, vulnerable, human.  That love demands from us great change.  God, who went so far as to become one of us, will not let us go.

What if we prayed and God knocked?  What would we do?

Oh, and a big thank you to whoever the Commonwealth kid was that knocked on the door this morning.

Shalom,
Stephen

P.S.  Hope you can join us on Christmas Eve.  Service is at 5:30

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Who's In Charge Here

There is a whole bunch of disturbing stuff going on in the lectionary scriptures for Sunday. 

In the first place there is the story in 2 Samuel 7:1-11.  In this passage King David has finally consolidated his political and military power.  Now he looks around and says, 'God needs a house as nice and mine, I think I'll build one.'  He tells the prophet Nathan this and Nathan says, 'Great.' But then God wakes Nathan up in the middle of the night and says, 'Go tell David I don't need him to build me a house (building); I'll build him one (dynasty).'  This is a nice little pun on the Hebrew word for "house" by the way...in case you're into that sort of thing.

But there's more than puns and banter going on here.  David has it all.  His power is beyond challenge....except with God.  God has always, since the time of the Exodus, lived in a tent...the Ark of the Covenant was housed in the tabernacle (tent).  It did not have a home, it was movable, it was not under anyone's control.  For the King to build the Temple that housed the Ark was for the king to take control over the religious processes that governed Israel.

When God tells David, thru Nathan, that God will build David a house, God is refusing to be tied down.  God is refusing to be restricted.  And David listens.  This is important: David, through Nathan, engages in a dialogue with God before he acts. And when God says, "no," David listens. No wonder David is referred to as a "man after God's own heart." David stayed in the conversation.  David stayed open to hearing things that he didn't particularly want to hear (Nathan will come to David later with some really 'not want to hear' news, and he'll listen then as well).

What God tells David though is that one of his offspring will have an eternal kingdom.  Now this was originally thought to mean that the Davidic dynasty would never end.  That proved to be false as later history would show.  But  what the passage does mean is that God said to David, 'look, I'm moving toward something really important....the time when all the things I have planned to do with creation since the foundation of the world are going to come true.  And when it happens, when I send someone to set this in motion and guide it toward the final Kingdom, the one that will make all other kingdoms seem paltry and small.....it will be one of your descendants that I send.'  This, by the way, is why the gospel writers go to such great lengths to demonstrate Jesus' being from the "house of David."

Which brings us to the story of Mary in Luke 1:26-38.  Gabriel is going to echo the promise to David in verses32-34.  He's going to say that this is the descendant that fullfills God's promise to David and 'builds a temple.'  Huh?  Where do you get 'build's a temple?'  Hang with me here....Jesus as an adult, in his conflicts with the religious leaders, is going to lay claim to doing everything that the Temple was supposed to do: mediate between folks and God, forgive sins, the list goes on.  Jesus is the Temple. (We'll get to more of this come Lent, trust me).

But there is something else going on here.  God is once again emphasizing that God is not going to be tied down.  God doesn't come to the holy city of Jerusalem-God sends Gabriel to Nazareth.  God doesn't come to some member of the current royal family, or even to the family of the High Priest.  God doesn't even come to an adult!  God comes to a young girl.  God comes to a young girl and promises to come as a baby.  God comes to a young girl who is socially nothing from nothing, living in a small town.  God announces that the world.....no, skip that....all of creation, is going to be turned upside down by a baby born to a young girl whose neighbors would be wondering soon what she and Joseph had been up to.  [I still want to know what that conversation with Mary's parents was like.]

We've grown so used to these stories that we can forget how truly disturbing they are.  We expect politicians, military leaders, even athletes to wave their religious experiences like a flag....and you'll notice that the ones who do that alway tell about religious experiences that reflect positively on them.  We forget too quickly that religious experiences (e.g. the call to civil rights or to end aparteid) often land people in prison, or worse.  We forget that Mary's song after Gabriel's announcement is about how God is going to set the world on it's ear and turn the whole kit and kaboodle upside down.

But that's good news.  Cause the truth is our world could stand to be set on its ear.  And we can't do it for ourselves.  This disturbing, tent dwelling God is still on the move; refusing to be owned by anyone, speaking to the most suprising and suprised, and breaking into our world and our lives in fresh, vulnerable, and explosive ways. 

Prepare The Way For The Lord........and then Look Out.

Shalom,
Stephen

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Of Preschools, Advent, and The Life of a Congregation

This Sunday is the 3rd Sunday of Advent.  At Commonwealth Baptist it is also the Sunday in which the kids from the Abracadabra Preschool put on their Christmas play for the congregation.  The Abracadabra Child Care and Development Center opened in 1983 as a way for the church to meet the need for quality childcare in the community.  The Abra kids performed their first Christmas play in 1992.  This program has been part of Commonwealth's 'extended family' for 28 years-and joining us for worship during the Christmas season for 19 of them. Our histories are interwoven, though many parents and current church members might not know just how much.

Now on this Sunday I don't preach; we let God speak to us through the children rather than through a sermon.  But I did find myself wondering what I would say to the Abra parents and friends who will come this Sunday if I had a more extended time to say something to them; and I found myself also thinking about Advent, individual lives, and the life of the Commonwealth congregation.  Below are some of my thoughts.

Advent and Christmas is the time that we remember and celebrate the fact that God broke into history in a new and specific way in the birth of Jesus.  In response to our need, God became one of us, human, in the most vulnerable form possible: that of a new-born baby.  It wasn't that God hadn't been operating in history before, or that God would not operate in history moving forward...but in this moment things 'turned a corner.'  Things would never be the same; God's people would move out in new directions and the promises made previously would begin to take on a particular shape.

We see this in our own families.  We fall in love.  We dream of what a life with a family might look like; envisioning and hoping as we look toward the future.  The history of our past helps to shape those visions and dreams (much as the history of the past life of Israel helped to shape theirs).  Then, through birth or adoption, a child enters our life and everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) changes.  It is not that the history or the dreams don't matter or that they are discarded....in fact, they may be what keeps us going when our 'little bundle of joy' is a 2 year old throwing their first major tantrum or a 16 year old who believes that a curfew is just a 'helpful suggestion' about when to be home.  At that moment of birth or adoption, the dreams, the hopes, the commitment become concrete...they take on a particular shape.

On Sunday morning we won't just see a Christmas play, we'll see the shapes that the dreams of the Abra parents have taken on.  And they will see a small piece of the shape that our dreams as a congregation are taking.  For Commonwealth is in a "birthing time" right now as well. 

Let me explain:

Commonwealth, since its earliest days (previously it was called Second Baptist, then Baptist Temple Church) has been a pretty fiesty bunch of folks.  Back in 1910 the church was moving their building-literally...moving it on wheels-to a new location.  A property owner near the new location objected and temporarily halted the movement of the building in the middle of Columbus St.  So what did the church folks do? They met for worship in the middle of the street!  Newspapers around the country carried pictures of "The Little Church on Wheels."

In 1996 the church called Rev. Nancy Foil as its pastor.  This made the church one of a select few Baptist churches in that time with a female pastor.  Their commitment to the ordination of women was one of the things that lead them in 2001 to disaffiliate with the Southern Baptist Convention.

Most recently, in the last four years, Commonwealth underwent a change of name and made a decision to become open and affirming.  The sign out front proclaims "All Are Welcome, No Exceptions." The church's openness to gay and lesbian persons and to support such issues as same sex marriage once again put this congregation into a select group of Baptist congregations.  But the "All Are Welcome" does not stop there as Commonwealth continues to engage with their call to imitate Jesus' welcome and openness to all people.

The journey during the years highlighted above hasn't been easy.  There have be scandals, firings, deaths, difficulties....all the things that mark the growth of churches (and families) toward their dreams.  Interestingly, the printed church history doesn't duck any of these.  It owns them and marks them as points along the journey.

Now, with its newly stated stance on openness, its new name, and a number of newer members...Commonwealth is in the process of seeking a new pastor.  This church is in a "birthing time" when God is preparing to do something new and wonderful.  We seek, like Mary when approached by the angel, to say "Yes" to what is coming-even when we're not sure what it is.

Advent, then, has something to teach both the Abra parents whose children we will watch on Sunday and the congregation that will worship with them.  We're all in the process of watching the dreams and promises of God unfold in our personal lives, our families, and our congregation.  That God saw fit to enter our world in such a vulnerable, intimate way gives us hope and trust that what God did then will also be fullfilled now in our varied lives.

What would I say to Abra parents if I had the time and opportunity?  I'd say that God is at work in us all this Advent.  That this congregation welcomes them and their dreams; and that we hope some of them will chose to join us in ours as well.  And finally, for all of us, I would say that the dreams we have are nothing compared to the ones that God has for us and that are unfolding in and through the dreams that we bring to this morning.

Shalom,
Stephen

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Comfort, Waiting, and the Silence of God

I need to first of all apologize for the fact that some of you have tried to post responses to the blog and found it difficult.  I'm looking into how to fix that. 

One of the folks who tried to post a reply and had difficulty is my friend Jeremy.  Jeremy is one of those folks whose questions push the envelope of my understanding and keep me honest (as well as being a great friend and a good fishing buddy).  Jeremy went so far as to post his response on the Commonwealth webpage under the sermon connected to the blog  (this is a great way to get around the posting trouble here for the time being, by the way).  Here's part of what he said:

"It's that timetable or set of conditions (so to speak) that troubles me.  What makes this anguished cry the time that God comes? Isn't it a kind of dodge (wh/isn't your intent, I know) to leave out the waiting aspect?  In between your sermons and Abby's [Abby is the pastor at Broadneck Baptist Church and a really great pastor and friend...you can find her sermons and blog at www.broadneckbaptistchurch.org] regarding Advent, I guess I'm left with wondering, what are we supposed to do with this waiting? How incomprehensible (to us) is the 400 year "silence" of God in the face of severe Roman oppression before John the Baptist's arrival?  How frightening is that?"

Jeremy raises a bunch of really important, interconnected issues.  I don't have a total, final, answer to them; but I'd like to try to address it as best I can, because these are questions that I believe many of us (myself included) ask as we're trying to make sense of our faith in light of both out expectation/hope inn regard to God's involvement in redeeming our lives and all creation and our experiences of pain and longing.

Scripture teaches us that God indwells creation (the Hebrew word Shekhinah, a feminine word by the way, speaks to this).  What this also means is that God suffers with creation...including with us.  It is not that God's silence is an expression of remoteness.  Then what is it?  This silence, this standing by; why doesn't God do something?

It seems to me that part of this silence, this waiting, is rooted in humanity's free will.  God created us to be partners with God in a good creation.  God called ancient Israel to be the nation that would demonstrate what life lived in relationship with God and neighbor looked like.  We (meaning humanity) didn't do a very good job of using our free will to express that relationship....we still don't.  Within the scope of history, it appears that we are allowed to thwart God's intentions...temporarily.  Still God moves and lives with and suffers with humanity-both collectively and individually.

In Jesus, God moved from "indwelling" to "incarnation."  God took on flesh and human form.  In Jesus God became even more vulnerable to the suffering with aspects of God's relationship with us.  Modeling in Jesus what you and I are created to be, God calls us again to be partners in Christ's work of reconciling the world to God's self.  God continues to trust us to join the Divine Task as friends and partners and what Paul called "laborers together with God." 

Those of us who are Christians believe that one day God's final desire will be accomplished and God's reign will be complete.  It's what we pray for when we say, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."  In that prayer we are also pledging ourselves to work to make this world look as much like that coming world as possible.  We trust that this culmination will take place.  Much like Martin Luther King's famous statement that "the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice" we believe that 'the arc of God's intention is long but it bends toward grace and redemption.'  That grace and redemption surely included Dr. King's work for justice as part of God's movement of creation toward grace and redemption; but it also included God's suffering with all those for whom slavery and oppression were the source of their personal and collective outcry.

This expectation about what is the ultimate point of creation is what strengthens us and gives us real hope in the face of the experiences of oppression, pain, and longing that we see and experience ourselves.  We cling to it even when we don't understand why things happen one way and not another.  We trust it because, finally, we believe that God's action in cross and resurrection demonstrate to us that this really is where God is headed with us.

I'm sure that for many this is not a satisfactory answer to Jeremy's questions.  In many ways I don't find it satisfactory either.  I want to know why suffering happens the way it does; why God waits so long to act; why we cry out in anguish and God is silent in response.  I don't have an answer that makes me completely happy.  What I have is a faith that God does come when we cry out; that God honors our lament; that God suffers with us; and that God is going to finally going to redeem all creation.  It is this faith that keeps me going even when I'm screaming my questions about all this at God. 

Shalom,
Stephen

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

After the Anguished Cry

We talked last blog about bringing our pain to speech.  The book of Lamentations is brutal poetry about the plight not only of "Zion" but of the particular people as individual persons who inhabited the city after the Babylonian destruction.  It broke through the numbness of the horror to scream out to God the agony of loss and the ravages of war.  It speaks out of the weariness of repeated trauma to say that Zion "has no one to comfort her"....that in addition to all the horror, all the wreckage, there is the loneliness of being without consulation.
Through it all God does not speak.....why?  I believe that God does not speak because God is busy honoring the pain of Zion by bearing witness to it through Holy Attention.  God is attentive to Zion's telling of her story.

Many scholars believer that the part of Isaiah beginning with Isaiah 40 (often called 'Second Isaiah') is a response to the challenges of Lamentations. After listening til Zion in thru speaking, how does God respond?  God opens with these words:

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
   and cry to her
that she has served her term,
   that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from teh Lord's
     hand
  double for all her sins.  (Isaiah 40:1-2)

God is moved by the lament to comfort grieving Zion.  What is more, God is going to admit that what has happened to her isn't fair!  God doesn't enter into an argument with the cultural belief that everything that happens is God's doing....intellectual discourse isn't what's called for here.....God just says, 'you're right, you got far more than you deserved; you were punished way beyond what you had coming.'

So far, nearly all of this could have been done by a reasonably good trauma therapist (listen, don't interrupt, don't run away, acknowledge that the trauma wasn't your fault)....but now God is going to do something really amazing.....God is going to commit to a level of deep, intimate, incarnational involvement.  The passage starts out pretty standard triumphant stuff:

See, the Lord God comes with might
  and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
   and his recompense before him.  (Isaiah 40:10)

But then listen to the shift:

He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
   he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
  and gently lead the mother sheep. (Isaiah 40:11)

God listens; acknowledges the pain and the unfairness of it all.....then God commits to personally gathering in the strayed ones-carrying those who can't walk and leading the others gently.

How different this picture is from the one many of us have been given about how God feels about us expressing our pain, our anger, our sadness.  We've been told that it's "all for a reason" that "God has a special plan" that we should "praise Jesus anyhow."

What scripture actually teaches us, here and elsewhere, is that God honors our pain by listening when we cry out, and that God has promised God's intimate involvement in making things right.

As christians, we believe that Christmas marks the moment of God coming in flesh to do just that.  The cry of longing that begins Advent will culminate in God becoming vulnerable, tiny, poor and fragile....just like us.

What happens after the 'anguished cry'?  God shows up.  Then....and now.  The timetable may not be what we expect, or want.  But God does come: to listen, to bear witness, to comfort, to heal.  How might things be different if we really laid claim to that truth.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Advent Begins In A Cry Of Anguish

This coming Sunday marks the beginning of Advent.  Advent is the season of the Christian year (four Sundays and Christmas Eve) in which we look forward to and prepare for Christmas.  We hang wreaths and decorations in our sanctuaries and each week we light another Advent Candle to point out that we're getting closer to the day that we celebrate as Jesus' birthday, the coming of the Christ Child.

The greenery we hang up has for centuries been a reminder of hope in the middle of harsh winter...spring will come again.  We do children's moments about waiting and hoping and trusting.  For most (thankfully) of these children that hoping takes place in a cacoon of safety inside a loving family.  But the traditions from which we draw most of our scriptures for this season and many of our hymns are traditions forged in anguish and agony.

One of the primary Old Testament sources for scripture readings during Advent, and especially this year, is the prophet Isaiah-specifically the second half of the book of Isaiah.  Now Isaiah was writing in response to a horrible stuation.  In 597 B.C.E. the Babylonians seized Jerusalem.  During the next fifty years they carried off about 5000 adult males in forced deportations.  But the worst situation was for those left behind.  The city had been destroyed; the Babylonians, know for harshness and cruelty to enemies, engaged in their own form of ethnic cleansing; and people starved to death in the street.  Babies died at their mother's breast and there are indications that some resorted to cannibalism to survive.

Out of these situations come the cries of the wounded and abandoned:

"All her people groan
     as they search for bread;
they trade their treasures for food
    to revive their strength.
Look, O Lord, and see
    how worthless I have become." (Lamentations 1:11)

"O Lord God f hosts,
    how long will you be angry with your
            people's prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of
              tears,
and give them tears to drink in full
        measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
    our enemies laugh among themselves."  (Psalm 80:4-6)

"O that you would tear open the heavens and come down..."  (Isaiah 64:1)

You get the picture.  They're done...finished...over.  They feel like even God....no, especially God has forsaken them.

So what's this got to do with us?  With you and me?  With Christmas?

Read back through the prayer poems above.  Do any of them sound like ways that you've felt?  Have you ever struggled with a depression so deep that even crawling out of bed to brush your teeth was an effort?  Have you dealt with a wound or a trauma in your life so harsh that you felt like you'd become worthless?  Have you encountered a sadness in which being "fed with the bread of tears" sounds just right for where you've been?

Each of us knows (though hopefully not to this extreme-though I do not rule it out) something about exile and anguish.  The difference is that these writers and those they wrote for found a voice to cry out.  Our culture does not like for us to cry out.  It rocks the boat.  It points out things that people don't want to see.  Things about abuse and poverty; loneliness and isolation; homelessness, mental illness, addiction, and pain.  And there is not a single one of us who has not been touched by (personally or through someone we love) these moments of exile.

Scripture says that when we cry out.....God shows up.  Now, you may be saying, "sure takes God a long time!" and I would not argue with you.  But Advent is the season in which we start by crying out and end by celebrating that God showed up in Jesus.  It is a statement of faith that when we cry out now.....God still shows up.

I do not know what your cry is this Advent.  But I would invite....no urge....you to find a place where that cry can be heard this Advent.  Where you can begin to latch on to the hope that God has, and will continue to show up.  Don't let your cry be silenced.  For our cry breaks through the lies and the oppression to give us energy of new ways of seeing and acting and living.....and when we cry out, God WILL show up.

If you're in our neck of the woods, drop by Commonwealth Baptist in Alexandria, VA.  Introduce yourself.  I'd love to meet you.  Let's talk about this some more.

Shalom,
Stephen

Monday, November 21, 2011

Commonwealth Baptist-An Uncommon Place

Hi, I'm Stephen Price, Interim Pastor of Commonwealth Baptist Church and this is my first post.

My two goals here are going to be: to (hopefully) reach out to folks who might not otherwise know about Commonwealth Baptist in Alexandria VA and help them get to know a little about us; and also to share some of the thoughts that I'm having each week as I move toward Sunday's worship service.

Commonwealth's webpage can be found at www.uncommon-church.com.  One of our guiding principles as a congregation can be found on the sign outside our building-All Are Welcome-No Exceptions.  This means EVERYBODY.  Gay or straight, believer or seeker, liberal or conservative, male or female....You Are Welcome Here.  Why?  Because we believe that Jesus welcomes all of us; no matter where we are on our journey.  Our job with each other is to share our journeys in a way that lets folks grow and stretch at their own pace.

What holds us together then?  I'd say that it's basically three things: 1) we're all honestly seeking to know what is true about the Christian faith through study, prayer, small groups and worship (and that doesn't rule out questions or doubts either-these are a respected part of many people's story); 2) we are committed to finding ways to care about the world around us-taking seriously what Jesus said about "if you've done it to the least of these, you've done it to me"; and finally, 3) in the course of our 'inward journeys' of study, prayer, and worship and our 'outward journeys' of caring for the world around us we've found that we really like and care about each other-warts and all. 

We're nowhere near perfect.  Far from it.  But we are a growing, deepening community of faith committed to engaging with what we hear God saying to us and trying to honestly live that out in our daily lives.

And....suprise!  We're BAPTISTS.  That's right....Baptists.  We are affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Alliance of Baptists.  Now Baptists have traditionally held a belief called the "Priesthood of All Believers."  This means that we believe that each of us has the responsibility to read and study and interprete scripture for themselves....there are no creeds, nobody tells you what you have to believe....coming to that is your responsibility.  You can see now why we might have such a broad collection of folks represented on a Sunday morning!  It also means that some Sundays there could be a lot of folks who don't agree with what I've just preached....and that's okay.  Some Sundays nearly everybody will agree...and that's okay too.  The important thing will be that folks think about what they heard and listen for what God might be trying to say to them through it.

So, you might ask, What DO you believe?  And that would be a Great Question.  For starters, I would say that those of us who have chosen to follow Jesus as Christians believe that Jesus was the unique expression of God's love and His life a living picture of what God is like and we want to accept that love and imitate that life.  Now different ones of us believe a lot of other things (and sometimes different things) as well....but I'd say that this is the basic starting place. 

For some who worship with us and are part of Commonwealth's life, what they would say is more like I want to know if Jesus was the unique expression of God's love and if His life really does show us what God is like.  Here they find friends, fellowship, and an openness that let's them be who they are and explore the Christian faith at their own pace.

A last thing that I think is important about this group of folks.  Sometimes we refer to ourselves as "The Church of the Misfit Toys."  What this means to me is that many of us have been hurt along the way....some of us hurt very badly....some of us hurt by people who called themselves Christians.  Church for many of us hasn't always been a place where we felt safe or welcome.  We want Commonwealth to be a place where people can come to heal their wounds.  In my other life I am a psychotherapist.  One of the primary things I work with is trauma.  One of the first things people need if they're going to heal from trauma or woundedness is a "safe place."  We want Commonwealth to be that kind of place.

So this is my first post on this blog and I've ranted on a bit about who I think we are at Commonwealth.  I've done this because I want you to know where I'm coming from.  I hope you'll come back and join me here on the blog...maybe even leave a comment now and then.  More than that I hope that maybe you'll drop in on us at Commonwealth Baptist Church in Alexandria, VA.  We'd love to meet you.

Next blog I'll share some of where I'm headed in thinking about this coming Sunday's sermon.  This Sunday is the first Sunday in Advent-the time when we get ready for Christmas by giving some thought to what this 'God in the flesh' stuff is all about.  Hope you check it out.

Til then.....
Shalom (oh yeah, that's a Hebrew word...means 'God's peace'....we'll talk about that sometime),
Stephen