Saturday, May 26, 2012

Thinking About Pentecost-Then and Now

This is Pentecost Sunday; the day that we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit.  Sometimes this gets called the "Birthday of the Church."  In any event, it marks the day that the Christian church celebrates the account recorded in the 2nd chapter of Acts.

For Israel, this was the day, 50 days after Passover, that celebrated the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai, 50 days after the Exodus from Egypt.  Once again we have a case being made that Jesus is the "New Exodus," the new liberation for a people who were being called and set apart to be God's representatives in fixing what is broken in our world.  Just as Israel had been created out of that rag tag band of escaped slaves from Egypt and called to be a "Light to the Nations," the Church is now being called out and created for the same task.

While there are a whole bunch of things that can be said about this passage; and a whole bunch of places that studying it can take us; I'd like to focus on two that seem to me to be very important right now for those of us who are trying to live out our call to be Christ's people today:

The first has to do with language.  We're told that at Pentecost there were people gathered in Jerusalem from "every nation under heaven" and that they "were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language."  How often do we demand that people learn the Church's "language" before they can hear the Gospel?  It will be clear that I'm not talking here just about language in terms of English/French/Swahili/Farsi etc.-even though this is important, and many people have worked hard to ensure that the Gospel is available in the world's languages.  But I'm speaking of something even deeper. 

One of the great shames of the 'missionary age' was that it often insisted that those who were being evangelized by into cultural beliefs and practices that had nothing at all to do with the Gospel.  This opened the door for a variety of forms of exploitation.  All to often faith in Christ got sold as "The Gospel and Western Culture" as opposed to the Good News For All.

But I would also suggest that even in our own culture we miss some of the 'language' issues.  How many people do you know whose life is lived in the 'language of trauma' or the 'language of poverty' or the 'language of mental illness' or the 'language of marginalization'?  Are we letting the Holy Spirit work through us to speak the Gospel in their language?  Or do we (often unconsciously) demand that they learn our churchy 'language' our our middle class cultural 'language' first because that's the only language we know to speak the Gospel in?  I'm suggesting that just as many folks learned to speak Farsi so that they could share their faith in that language, perhaps we also need to be learning how to speak the language of those around us who aren't like us-even though they speak English.  Too often we have missed the need to 'speak their language.'

This gets expanded in my second thought-which is triggered by Acts 2:27 when Peter, quoting the prophet Joel, says, "God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh."  That "all" is a big deal.  No longer is the Spirit of God limited to a few chosen individuals; or a particular nation; or even to a particular faith group.  God's Spirit is loose in the world and it "blows where it wills."  This can be both exciting and frightening for us. 

In C.S. Lewis' series of children's books, The Chronicles of Narnia, the 'Christ figure,' is a lion named Aslan.  One of the phrases that keeps being repeated about Aslan is, "He's not a tame lion."  This is a profound truth for us to remember about the Spirit of God as it moves through our world.  We do not have a 'Tame Savior.'  God's action in the world, both in Jesus and the incarnation; and in the Spirit poured out and blowing through our world even's not tame.  It can't be packaged and predicted and controlled.  God doesn't come to us asking for our approval about how God's Spirit is going to move through our world or how God's will is going to get done.  We've invited to get on board as 'laborers together with God,' but not as 'controlling partners' in God's saving enterprise.

While this is a wonderfully freeing piece of good news; I also need to hear it as a word of judgement as well.  Too often I find myself thinking-or even insisting out loud-that people 'speak my language' if they're really part of God's work in the world.  I'm more judgemental of those from the conservative/right part of the spectrum for doing this than I am of myself.  The truth is that I often need to turn that same light on my own life, my own judgemental actions.

God does indeed speak to people through the work that I do and the stance I have toward the world.  But God also speaks through some folks that I don't like, don't agree with, and wouldn't want to take a long car ride with.  When I write them out of the Kingdom, I am guilty of the same sin as when they do this to me.  God is not limited to my theology, my style of ministry.  I need to have eyes open to see that wherever God's love is being expressed, there the Spirit is blowing.  Where ever love does not get every 'language' needed, the Spirit is being stifled.  Perhaps this Pentecost I need to focus on whether I'm letting the Spirit blow through me, rather than judging those around me.

The Spirit of God is loose in the world.  You and I are invited along for the ride.  It won't always be smooth; it will challenge much of what we believe; and it will take us places we never imagined. 

Buckle up.


Thursday, May 17, 2012

Ascension Sunday? What's That?

This is Ascension Sunday.  Actually Thursday was the day assigned in the Lectionary to celebrate the day, but many of us, if we mark it at all, will do so on Sunday.  The day marks the story, recorded in Acts 1:1-11 in which Jesus is "taken up in a cloud" and leaves the earth in bodily form.  The disciples are told to go back to Jerusalem and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit; after which they will be "witnesses" "in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth."  They're also told that Jesus "will return in the same way you've seen him go."

Let me tell you; there are enough issue/questions/problems here to keep a preacher busy for a very, very long time.  Not the least of these is the little exchange in which the disciples ask whether Jesus is going to "restore the kingdom to Israel" and Jesus responds-basically-that it's none of their business when that's going to happen.

All of this takes place at the end of a period of a little over a month in which they've seen Jesus arrested, tortured, crucified, buried.  Heard that the tomb was empty. Met Him on the road and didn't recognize him.  Seen Himcome into locked rooms. Touched His scars.  Eaten meals with Him.  Been forgive (particularly Peter).  Now He's going to leave again.

In psychology we sometimes gauge the amount of 'life stressors' that a person has endured over a period of time (births, deaths, marriage, divorce, etc.)....this is HUGE pile of those all rolled into a very short period of time.

All of this being said, I want to try to tackle two things, briefly, in this writing...knowing that there really are a whole lot more.  And I believe that these two are interwoven with one another.

The first is the word "ascension."  Now you may say, "that's easy, He ascended into heaven...He went up (ascended) in a cloud."  But is that what it means?  Is that the focus of the word?  I would suggest to you that the focus of the word is that "ascended" is meant to be understood in the way we would say that a king or queen "ascended to the throne" of their country.  Scripture points to the idea that Jesus, having conquered death in the resurrection, is now 'King of Heaven and Earth.' 

This is a powerful moment that says that the "let your kingdom come and your will be done here on earth as it is in heaven" that we pray in the Lord's Prayer has begun.  Say WHAT?!?  Begun???

Most of us, looking around, would wonder just how that's working.  There is a boatload of stuff wrong with our world.  It doesn't appear that there's been a lot of headway made in the "setting it right" department.  It's much easier to believe (as many Christians do) that Jesus is going to come back and take care of the whole mess in one fell swoop.  The only problem is that (at least in my and many other theologians reading) that's not what the Bible says.  Yes, Jesus will come back (we don't know when), but the "putting it right" task is one that the disciples and we are called to be partners in. 

That's what this "be my witnesses" stuff is all about.  And it isn't in the narrow 'us and Jesus' way that was reflected in the disciples' question about restoring the kingdom to Israel.  Instead, it's a partnership that calls us to go waaaaayyyy out beyond our comfort zone.  Samaria, for example was an area that most good Jews wouldn't even walk through (that's part of why the story of the 'Good Samaritan' and the 'Woman at the Well' pack such a punch).

And we're called to "bear witness" to the way that Jesus put things right.  Think about that.  Jesus never asked anyone if they were "saved."  He never told anyone about the "4 Spiritual Laws."  If we're bearing honest "witness" to Jesus, we're talking about, imitating, and implimenting in how we live, the kind of mercy, embrace of outcast, hospitality to the marginalized that Jesus practiced.

Like the disciples, who had lived in intimate closeness with Jesus and were then sent out to live out His way of interacting with the help the Kingdom come on earth.....we are called to have a deeply personal, intimate relationship with Jesus-one in which Jesus has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves-and out of that relationship to bear witness to the healing we have recieved and which Jesus desires for the whole world.  That healing runs much deeper than just a shallow "me and Jesus got it all together" kind of faith.  It is a faith that puts roots down in that intimate relationship; but grows up and out into limbs that bear fruit for the healing of the world.

It's a lot easier to sit around and wait for the Second Coming....the one we're promised will happen, and told that the time table is none of our business.   But truly practicing Ascension means to acknowledge that we've been sent out as representatives of the New Creation....sent out by the King.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Remembering the Fallen By Caring For Their Families

Today I had one of those incredible experiences that makes me realize that being a pastor is an honor.  The Law Enforcement United bike ride ended today in D.C.  Folks from Commonwealth Baptist where I just finished up my Interim Pastorate were well represented.

The ride was to honor those law enforcement personnel who have fallen in the line of duty by raising money for Concerns of Police Survivors (C.O.P.S. sponsers a camp for survivor kids each year); and the Officer Down Memorial Page (ODMP).  Loren and Dustin Smith-West both rode in the 250 mile run.  Dustin finished; Loren, as part of the Board wound up having to come out of the run to deal with last minute glitches.  Padty Mayhew Davis was part of the Support Team that feed riders and kept things running smoothly. 

I learned that 166 officers died in the line of duty this past year.  I heard the story of a National Parks Police Officer who died of a heart attack while responding to someone who had jumped off of a bridge.  I watched families gather remember brothers and sisters, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, partners.....who gave their last full measure while keeping their oath to 'serve and protect.'  I met some of their families.

And their comrades, male and female, from everything from Secret Service to First Responders, rode and planned and raised money in their memory.  Oh yeah...they raised money.  Did they ever raise money.....

The Law Enforcement United Ride this afternoon gave $150,000 to C.O.P.S. and $80,000 to ODMP. 

These men and women could have been anywhere else today, and during the time it took to plan and train for this ride.  But they were here; remembering the ones who have fallen and their families.

If you find yourself wanting to donate to any of the causes mentioned above, they've all got a website; and I'm sure they'd be happy to here from you.

Today I had one of those incredible experineces that remind me of the courage and commitment and care of the folks who sit in the pew on Sunday mornings.  Loren and Dustin invited me to be there when the bikes came was an honor.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Family Fights and Naming the Powers

The recent vote in N.C. and conflicts over marriage rights for gay and lesbian persons have stirred up some old feelings for me. Some of this was due to a rather public disagreement with a cousin who is a Southern Baptist pastor in N.C. on facebook. 

But beyond that were memories of growing up in a Southern Baptist congregation in South Carolina during the civil rights movement.  And arguments with my father about integration....some of which were very heated.  An older sister of mine, when asked to speak during "Youth Week" in the mid 60's, took the risk of raising the question of whether our church 'withdrew the hand of love' when it came to the idea of integrating the church's youth program. 

Then, of course, many of us lived through the pain of Southern Baptist recanting Baptist beliefs about the Priesthood of All Believers by insisting that there is only one correct way to interprete scripture-theirs-and demanding that professors at denominational institutions either get on board or get out. 

And then there's the ordination of women. One of the brightest young women I grew up with is now an ordained clergyperson.....but our pastor, the one who preached to us in our adolescent spiritual grown...refused to be part of her ordination.  What must that have been like for her?

So you can see why, though perhaps I'm over reacting, this feels like a family fight.

And family fights are tough.  Exactly because they're family.  We're not dealing with strangers in brown shirts and cleated boots.  We're dealing with people we know and love who're supporting ideas and movements that we...okay, I....think are evil.

And there's that word...."evil."  How do we 'name the powers' when people we love are engaged in behavior that we believe is evil?  One person I've talked to won't discuss it with me any further unless I drop that word from my definition.  But how can I not call "evil" a law that would deny someone's partner the right to make end of life decisions like any other spouse?  Or that helps to deny survivor benefits?  My friend is not evil; but the result of the law he supports is....should I keep silent?

 Then I take a broader historical look.  I can imagine good German Lutherans keeping silent, or even supporting, the suppression of minority groups....until the resulting damage shocked even them.  I think of good Christian folks earnestly believing that freeing slaves; or granting civil rights; or allowing mixed marriages; or giving women the vote....just wasn't in keeping with scripture.
And in doing so, with the best of intentions, they poured gasoline on the fires of hatred and bigotry.

We would decry the lynchings that occurred in the south in my father and grandfather's time.  Hangings that went unchallenged all too often by people who would never have engaged in that behavior themselves.  Those times are past us now, we say.
In Washington, D.C., close to where I live, the number of attacks and deaths of gay and transgendered persons grows.....with little outcry and less real response from D.C.'s Chief of Police.
And while most would never engage in that behavior themselves....does the denial of equal rights to persons who are gay, lesbian, trangendered, and bi-sexual help make those assaults easier, more acceptable.....absolutely.

Am I surrounded by evil people?  No.  But does the silence, or support of limiting civil rights, help sustain the evils I'm describing?   Yes.

This is a family fight.....among Baptists; among real families......can we in love try to find ways to name the ways in which the powers of evil are at work....please God, grant us wisdom.


Monday, May 7, 2012

Trace Evidence: What We Leave Behind

I'm not sure whether it is the leave-taking yesterday from Commonwealth Baptist, my age, or recent conversations with friends....but lately I'm thinking a lot about what we leave behind us.

Each of us will do a multitude of "leave-takings" in our life.  Some will be natural; like changing jobs and leaving home.  Others will be more unexpected and abrupt; like divorces, being fired, the death of a loved one, or, finally, our own death.  At each of these we will leave some part of us behind.

Criminologists have built whole disciplines around the fact that material transfers from one person to another, or to objects at a scene, whether we're aware of it or not.  I believe it's like that with our lives.  We leave behind "trace evidence" of who we are.  It may be big things like a program we start or a major relationship; or it may be something small like smiling at the person who serves our coffee each morning at the coffee shop....or stopping to listen to a child tell us about something important to them.

I find myself wondering what my "trace evidence" says about me and my faith.  And what we do when the evidence we leave behind is not something we're proud of.  In the crime dramas the villain wipes down the scene with bleach, doing away with blood evidence and wipes away all fingerprints.  We can't do that.  There is no bleach that will remove the traces of our presence.  Long after we're gone and our names are forgotten, things we do may be passed from generation to generation (scary thought, but borne out in the research on inter-generational family traits).

If that was all I could say this would be very bad news indeed.  But it's not.  The "trace evidence" of our lives can be affected by two major things that our faith as Christians teaches us: forgiveness and reconciliation.  In 12 Step programs an entire Step is devoted to "made amends to such persons except when to do so would harm them or others." 

In the service yesterday at Commonwealth there was a place in the liturgy in which both the congregation and I asked for forgiveness for those times we had failed each other; and offered forgiveness for when we had been let down.  I don't know who wrote the liturgy, but this part (as well as the rest of it) was a wonderful gift to us all.  It left us free to truly celebrate our life together...not because there was some dramatic failure to apologize for, but because it spoke to the awareness of the reality that no relationship is one ever comes through 100% of the time....there are always things we look back on and say "I wish I'd done it different."

Those of us in recovery are often painfully aware of huge failures in our lives.  Those of us who are Christians are painfully aware of how our sins too often mar our best efforts.  The good news is that God's mercy has given us, not a bleach that washes the pain away, but the gifts of forgiveness and reconciliation that can transform those failures into places of God's presence and healing....not just now, but in generations to come.

My time at Commonwealth has given me the gift of being able to look back at this slice of my life's journey with joy and gratitude.  It's given me hope and courage for what God sends next in terms of ministry.  And it's made me reflect on what we leave behind, and our need to be mindful of what that will be.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Hard To Say Goodbye

This coming Sunday I will preach my final sermon as Interim Pastor at Commonwealth Baptist Church in Alexandria, VA.  Commonwealth has called Reverends Marty and Robin Anderson to serve as co-pastors and they will began their duties the following week.  They and the congregation of Commonwealth are in my prayers as they begin this new journey together.

My comments in this posting are my reflections, scattered as they may be, on ending this Interim and looking forward to the next thing that God has in store (even though God hasn't shared a lot of what that might be you can tell, patience is not my greatest virtue).

Commonwealth is a couragous congregation that is very out front about being Open and Affirming toward gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgendered persons.  It's also a congregation that doesn't stop there; exploring what its statement of "All Are Welcome-No Exceptions" means in terms of persons with special needs, persons from different cultures, and other marginalized folks.  Commonwealth is at the edge of great growth and ministry in these areas.  What will happen next should be a real adventure.

One of my most pleasurable memories at Commonwealth is one a lot of folks don't know about.  There's a group of young people who sit in the balcony on Sunday.  I refer to them as the "Balcony Brigade."  When the congregation is singing praise music in the early part of the service, this bunch can really rock out.  Their exuberance and their joy are contagious; and they've often revved me up to move into my sermon on a day when maybe my energy level was lower than needed.

There's the young 6th grade girl who makes a point to hug me each Sunday she's there.  The little girls who brought me pictures and beads one Sunday because I had said that "each time you give a give to someone else, you give a gift to God."  And there's Henry, who get's special mention because he let me use him as part of my children's moments on more than one occasion.

There's Omari, who's since moved to Connecticut, whose drumming was the heartbeat of our worship; and whose smile could light the room.  And Michelle, who never failed to pray for me by name when she opened the service with prayer.

Then there are those who I will not name, or spell out our connection, because they've shared deep and intimate parts of their lives with me as their pastor.

Finally, there are those whose faces I saw each Sunday as I looked out and tried to say a word about what God might be trying to tell us.

The vocal group BoyzIIMen became famous with a song called "Hard To Say Goodbye."  Corny as it may sound, I've had that song running through my head all week long.  It captures, for me, many of the feelings that I have about being at Commonwealth, memories that will be part of who I am for the remainder of my life in ministry and beyond. It is, indeed, hard to say goodbye.

The second thing that's rolled around in my head this week is a scene from the movie Shenandoah. In this 1965 film, Charlie Anderson (played by Jimmy Stewart) is talking to the young soldier who is courting his daughter and who has come to ask to marry her.  Stewart asks, "do you like her?" to which the young man replies, "I love her."  Stewart's response goes something like this: 'When I married her mother, I liked her, I liked her a lot.  I grew to love her.'  His point was that love was something that grows over time as we do the work of living together.

When I came to Commonwealth, I liked it....I liked it a lot.  As we've lived together over the past 6 or so months, sharing struggles and pain, joy and humor; as folks have opened their lives and hearts to me and shared their journey.....I've come to love them.  I'm grateful for that.

So to my friends at Commonwealth:  Thank you.  You've shared your lives with me; you've allowed me to share this part of the congregation's journey; you've made me a better pastor and helped me grow personally and professionally.  I love you.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

What Shall We Say To Sean Harris

The recent homophobic sermon by Sean Harris of the Berean Baptist Church in Fayetteville, N.C. has draw a LOT of reaction.....very angry reaction.  Everyone from other clergy to Lawrence O'Donnell has chimed in to express their outrage.  And with good reason.  The warping of scripture and the use of the pulpit to promote violence against children and hatred against is a cause for outrage.

But the problem will be if we stop there.  Let me say it again: The problem will be if we stop there.

Let's start with Rev. Harris' apology in which he said that he "to those in the greater Body of Christ...I seek your forgiveness if I have offended or hurt the cause of Christ."  Well, Sean, you have indeed offended me as a Christian and a pastor and have hurt the cause of Christ.  But I take your apology seriously.  Seriously enough that I now offer to meet with you to discuss just how badly you have hurt the cause of Christ.  I would welcome the opportunity to facilitate your being able to sit down with a group of gay, lesbian, and transgendered persons to talk about how such language lead their parents to abuse them.  I would like for you to have the chance to hear how this type of language alienated them from the Jesus we both claim to serve.  I wonder if you have ever had the opportunity to listen to anguish of a committed gay, lesbian or transgendered Christian as they talk about their struggle to overcome the history of hatred that words like yours has engendered.  If your apology and your search for forgiveness is sincere, then I would hope to hear from you.  You can contact me through the comment section below or at

But let's not stop there.  Let's take a look at us.

As many of you know, in my private practice as a therapist I treat sexual offenders.  One of the most difficult tasks in doing this work is to listen not only to the stories of their offenses; but to listen to the stories of their childhoods.  To stand with one hand on what they've done...with confrontation and outrage; and to stand with the other hand on what was done to them.....with pain and sadness at their woundedness.  Grieving their wounds in no way excuses their behavior; but it does give more understanding to the process though which violence and rage and offending move from generation to generation. 

With this in mind, ask yourself: what must life have been like for the little boy that once was Sean Harris.  What kind of abusive, angry, "do it this way or I'll punch you" atmosphere must he have been surrounded by.  Can we grieve that little boy even as we hold the man accountable?

This is why I say that when we stop at outrage we simply allow the fires of hatred to continue burning.  Homophobia is a part of our country's "apartheid" (there are other parts that we could discuss as well)...perhaps we can learn something about healing it from our South African brothers and sisters in Christ.

"What does the Lord require of you? but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God." Perhaps we do that when we can put a confronting hand on the behavior and a compassionate hand on the wounds that cause the behavior.  When we do, we will realize that it forms a gesture we've seen is an embrace....and a cross.