Friday, November 18, 2016

Post-Election Sermon at Plymouth UCC 11/13/16

I can’t tell you how many times during the week someone asks me for legal advice. In just the last week, I was asked about a church’s potential liability for an injury that happened at church; the tax implications of renting out church property to a for profit organization; a church’s liability for having non-church related youth on a youth retreat; and, for some strange reason, a lot of questions about the separation of church and state. Every response to this question starts off pretty much the same way: “I am not a lawyer so, just to be clear, what I’m giving is not legal advice. If you want legal advice, you really need to talk to a lawyer. What I can share with you is this clergy person’s interpretation of the legal advice I’ve heard…” and then I proceed.


The theme for today’s worship is about grief and I almost feel as though a similar disclaimer is needed. There is a wide territory where spirituality and psychology overlap and this is one of them. I am a pastor who has learned a lot from those in the field of psychology but I am not a psychological professional. There are some of you here who have been working on grief within your own life with with psychological professionals and there is a chance that my words, today, won’t apply to you at all and that’s OK. There is no way, within the time of a sermon, that I can address all the ways to consider grief. This is the work of lifetimes and I’m going to share with you what I’ve learned, up this point, in this one.


Grief starts with trauma and trauma comes when some something our minds and/or souls experienced as a certainty, breaks, and is replaced with a new certainty. A loved one dies or begins the process of dying. We fall out of love or someone falls out of love with us. We fail at something. We’re fired or get laid off. A church we experienced as safe, kind and loving is no longer safe, kind and loving. Another black or brown person is killed through state sanctioned violence. The reality of our environmental decline and the fragility of our existence becomes glaringly clear. This week has been one in which the traumatic event for many was the elections. For many, the election of an autocratic president who built his campaign on white ideals of patriarchy and privilege abruptly changes our perspective of our country, your neighbors, your family. The quickest definition of trauma may simply be anything that makes you want to yell out in pain.


Grief is the process of our souls integrating that trauma; that revised reality. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross is one of the names most frequently connected to the study of grief. As a point of United Church of Christ trivia, Kübler-Ross began her work when four seminary students at Chicago Theological Seminary (a UCC seminary and my alma mater) approached her with the request that she help them study what people go through when they’re dying. She brought together her work in the 1969 book, Death and Dying and it was through that she presented what she described as the 5 stages of death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Although frequently presented as a progression, Kübler-Ross herself said that it was rarely that straight-forward. These are more elements of grief than a step by step progression through grief. Any of these can come up at anytime, in any order, if at all. She also wrote that it is rare for denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance to only emerge once.  These are elements of grief that come in waves.


I want to point out one stage that isn’t part of what she named. I know that part of the theme of today’s worship is “letting go.” Let me shade that idea just a bit. There is a significant difference between letting go “of” something and letting go “to” something.


Some of you may have heard me say this in other contexts but I used to think I was, more or less, made of teflon and that every difficult thing I experienced in life would just slide right off of me; that I could - very naturally - let go of anything. Somewhere along the way, I started to figure that, actually, I was made of velcro and that, no matter how much I might try to remove it, at least a little bit of everything sticks. Not only that, the bit that sticks is part of me.


Grief is the process of our souls integrating trauma or, using Kübler-Ross’ language, accepting the trauma that’s become a part of our life. It is letting go to that reality. Thinking we can let go of it is closer to denial. Now, I’m not saying denial is all bad. It can be a way our souls give us the time we need to integrate something new and difficult. It is not an unhealthy element of grieving, it just is.


There is, however, some point when denial can also become a form of spiritual addiction; we put an unsustainable and unhealthy amount of energy into doing everything we can to insist and reinforce the worldview we had before a trauma irrevocably changed our perception of the world. Now, let me say that even as I say this it is not as a value judgement about the addict. For many of us, our addictions are rooted in what we thought was the best possible behavior at the time. It’s the point at which that repeated behavior starts to take an unsustainable amount of energy from our own self-care, our relationships, our health, our safety and our communities that we need to ask for help and move in another direction in order to integrate the initial trauma into our lives.


Although healing is a part of dealing with trauma, working out ways to integrate that trauma is the goal. The stages of grief are not a problematic part of that journey. Since the experience of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are such common ways of grieving that it’s important to move from problematizing these behaviors and, instead, welcome them as gifts from God to us that help us integrate life’s traumas. We are created in God’s image but we are re-created and renewed in God’s image, too. The ongoing process of grieving is part of the ongoing process of the integration of trauma.


I have conversations with a lot of pastors and local church members near the moment in time when their heart breaks around something related to their church. A conflict emerges and anger within the church is transformed into anger with church leadership. A conflict between the pastor and a group or individual takes the outwardly focused energy the church needs to serve God and God’s people and inwardly focuses energy in a way that causes damage to people in the church and the church overall. The way the church portrays themselves has little to do with the church they are. The financial covenant a church made is not one the church is actually able to fulfill. The pastor or a church member discovers that they are not as skilled at one thing or another as they thought they were. Someone fails at something they did not expect to fail at. Someone accidentally or unintentionally causes another person harm. People slide into behavior that is unethical. People discover that the burden of care for the church or their community is more than they can bare. They experience the isolating nature of leadership. They experience the isolation that comes from disagreeing with the majority or a determined minority. For many pastors, the conversation is a vocational one and integrating this new information means they can no longer pastor a particular church. In some cases, integrating this information means that they discover they no longer have a call to ministry, at all. Members realize that they no longer have a call to ministry in that place or have no desire to be part of a church at all. Now, these are frequently the best possible response for the sake of those they are in relationship with, their churches and themselves. These are all appropriate ways to integrate the trauma of brokenheartedness.


But there is still more. For many of us, surviving the broken hearted moments of ministry can also be the moments our ministry deepens and the reality of ministry blooms in us.  The way I’ve said it to many pastors is that you have a better chance to be the minister you’re called to be and the minister your church needs after your heart is broken by the church you serve. I’ve said something similar to members. The decision to leave a church and the decision to stay at a church are both decisions that, at their best, come from a genuine sense of call that is rooted in a steadily deepened understanding of what ministry is. Those heartbreaks in the life of church are when you really get to know who and what your church is and the idealism about what church life is fades away. Its when you have the opportunity to move from the fights with people you know into faithful struggle with people you love. The sense of call that emerges on the other end of this kind of heartbreak is where the most radical things happen; where the most radical things emerge. It is not the moment when grief is let go of and it goes away. It is the moment when trauma and grief are integrated into who we are and become a part of us. It does not go away. It just doesn’t. It becomes part of us. As denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance emerge at the different times they do, instead of digging our heels in and refusing their presence, we can get to a point where we can say, “Hello old friend. What have you come to teach me this time?” Grief is not our enemy.


What I want to say next may not apply to everyone in this sanctuary. I recognize that, for some, this may lean further into the realm of the political than some may be comfortable with but I need to say it. Sometime between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, many of us experienced what can best be described as trauma. A self-professed advocate for sexual assault; hate crimes; racism; and war was elected as President of the United States. These bags under my eyes come from the stomach tightening fear that has struck in me in the middle of the night as a try and figure out how to best raise and protect my four year old child who will now grow up under a Trump presidency. I know the feeling I have burning a hole in my gut still pales in comparison to the feelings of those of us who are people of color wake with every day. I know know the feeling I have must pale in comparison to what our Muslim siblings - and other folks who are part of the interfaith community - must feel as they face the presidential promise of deportation and internment camps. I know the feelings I have must pale in comparison to what those of us who are Spanish speaking refugees and immigrants have as they wonder how long they’ll be able to remain in the country that’s become their home. I know the feelings I have pale in comparison to those in the queer community who, for the past several years, have been told they are welcome and included but now feel the real danger of having everything we’ve fought for rolled back. For survivors of sexual assault who are trying to figure out how they are going to wake up every morning and see the face or hear the voice of this man as they catch up on the news these days have impacted the integration of the trauma’s within their own lives. The world watches our elections and there are people throughout the world who are trying to figure out how many of our already weak environmental promises will be weakened still further.


We are only at the beginning stages of grief. The trauma is still fresh. I don’t think that any of us are so naive to think that the opinions Trump espoused didn't exist but the fact that there are enough people who agree to elect him as president is soul shaking. In one way, everything in my head knew this was possible but it is my heart and soul that are shocked. Even though my head always knew something like this was possible, my soul and my heart held out hope - more hope than I realized - that it was not. When I am even more deeply honest about it, I realize how the perspectives and worldviews of those who were part of the pro-Trump coalition are ones that I was taught or heard at different points in my life and how that if I’d had some of the life experiences that some of them did, today I might be celebrating instead of grieving. I am deeply thankful for those who loved me onto another path and taught me to work hard, something I do some days better than others, to resist the temptation of another way. I want to resist it so fully. I have to be honest and say that those have rioted in the streets and those that will have expressed with their bodies the howl of rage and grief that I have. As I said before, the quickest definition of trauma may simply be anything that makes you want to yell out in pain and, sometimes, lash out in pain and, sometimes, even want others to meet you at your point of pain so much that you’re tempted to cause others pain. There is some part of us that seems to believe that the only way to work our way through our grief is to cause the same grieving to others or to rage with others. I understand this impulse and recognize that there are some ways in which Trump’s campaign was not a simple electoral process but that it was also the anger and violence of a riot focused through a vote.


I also understand that there is some part of this that is looking not to be alone. This is the place some of the integration happens. Although there are definitely times and ways people want their space and that is key to the integration of grief, what is it in us that also makes us want to come together? Why is it that we come together for funerals? Why is it that, at moments of trauma, people want to reach out? Why is it that, we worship together, protest together and sing together? Why is it that, on the other side of this election, the call for unity has come from so many? This is part of the mystery of life that we take for granted but I find sacred and holy. There is a reason that communion is such a central and unifying part of our faith. This tendency to emphasize recognition of a greater good is not simply good post-election etiquette, it is a sacramental tendency.


If we, as people of faith, believe that there is any need for unity there are some ideas we may have to address and re-emphasize in ways that may, at first, be frightening for some. Shame became so integrated into the theology of sin that we ended up rejecting the simple idea that was at its core; the idea that we all mess up and fall short of God’s hopes for us. We somehow made sin out to be the exceptional failure of faith life instead of a part of the daily reality of being human. We used the idea of sin as a weapon to try enforce social norms instead of a normal part of our lives and our living. The progressive church, in an effort to reject the weaponizing of sin, rejected the theology of sin. Sin is part of our lives and the systems we participate in. When we reject sin, we also end up rejecting redemption and, at its core, this is the idea, this is the hope that many are seeking. As the church has rejected the theology of sin we have also inadvertently rejected the possibility of redemption, of change, and of rebirth for individuals. We have come to suggest that the state of the world is “their” fault instead of ours and reinforced the systems and politics of division that are crushing us all.


Belief in redemption calls for something else. Walter Wink, in his book Engaging the Powers, summed it up this way, “The Powers are good. The Powers are fallen. The Powers need to be redeemed.” He was speaking to those systems that were set up to do good but have fallen far from that purpose. Now, we know it’s more complicated than that and that even some of those systems that were set up to do good were rooted in belief systems that did not regard all people as equally valuable but the message of redemption is still key.


The trauma of this week is still fresh, the grieving is fresh, too. As we integrate this trauma through the process of grieving I am certain of just a few things: integration will come; we are called to do this work together; we will be transformed; and redemption is possible.


We in the church have yet another word that applies to the time yet to come. They didn’t use it on Good Friday when Jesus was executed by the State. They didn’t use it on Saturday when the grieving was real and painful and fresh. But sometimes after that, when they were all together; when they started to build a community of wholeness and mutuality; when they started to recognize that their power was in what they shared; they started to use another word more and more. They started to talk about about resurrection. I believe in resurrection. I believe. I believe. I believe.


We are always called to serve and serve God’s people. That is our call at every moment and for this particular moment. I believe in resurrection. I still believe in hope. I still believe in justice. I still believe in love. I believe. I believe. I believe. May our lives reflect the reality of our belief.


Amen.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

November Article for PNC News: Love and Struggle



Hi All:

This column was written the week before last week's elections and can also be found among several good article in this month's Pacific Northwest Conference News. I hope you find it helpful.

The audio and transcript of my first sermon after the elections will be coming out later today or early tomorrow.

Peace.
Mike

A few years ago, I was sitting with some friends having dinner and we were talking about a group we were part of that seemed to be in perpetual conflict. As sometimes happens, the group was one that ironically had as its focus on peace-making and conflict resolution. The three of us were just tired of the debates and the posturing and the fact that some people we really respected were acting in ways that were disappointing.

I don’t remember exactly what I said but it was something along the lines of “I’m so tired of all the fighting.” I do remember what was said back to me, though. My friend shook his head and said, “You fight when you want to win. You
with people you love.”

It's been one of those ideas that’s stuck with me and has become even more acutely clear in this political season. The stress and rancor between those running for office is both a reflection of our fractured country and, at the same time, amplifies the fractures that exist. Knute Berger, in a recent article for Crosscut, lifted up the suggestion that we’re in a Cold Civil War. Its an idea that I’ve found particularly haunting.

If we’re honest about it, the roots of these fractures are not new ones, at all. They are a reflection of injustices that were too long ignored; dissent that was quashed; discomfort that was avoided; and pain that was diminished. As the Church, we also have to confess that we’ve added fuel to this fire. We slip into Crusade Culture and instead of trying to welcome a change in people’s hearts and minds we try and win through the force of influence and an insistence on asserting our power in ways that don’t line up with Jesus. Sure, he critiqued some of those who were the leaders of his time pretty harshly. But he also shared meals with those same folks and other folks the religious systems of that time and place had determined were “unworthy.” The reason Jesus has so much power in our own hearts and minds more than 2000 years after his crucifixion is because his power was love.

Last month at the United Church of Christ Board (UCCB) meeting in Cleveland, we adopted new purpose, vision and mission statements:
  • Purpose statement from the Gospel of Matthew: To love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.
  • Vision statement: United in Christ’s love, a just world for all.
  • Mission statement: United in Spirit and inspired by God's grace, we welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all.
Love is at the core of each of these statements in a way that I think it clearer than many statements we have made as a church. Although love needs to be at the core of all justice work, we don’t always say it as explicitly as we need to in order to remind us that this is at the heart of our calling and what called so many of us the loving, liberating heart of Jesus. Those of you who have been around me in almost any church setting over the weeks since the UCCB board meeting know I’m pretty excited about the clarity and direction of these statements.


“You fight when you want to win. You struggle with people you love.” We’re all pretty tired of fighting. This Cold Civil War in our country has gone on too long and many of us who have been warriors in it have lost our lives, souls and minds trying to fight it. We all too often accepted as collateral damage the lives, souls and minds of those just trying to live through it. Violence, no matter its form, begets more violence which begets more violence which begets more violence… It is time for us all to live in to the call of love.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Pre-election Sermon at Dayton (WA) First Congregational Church 11/06/16



2 Thessalonians 2:1-5;13-17
2:1 As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, 2 not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here.

3 Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. 4 He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. 5 Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?
13 But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14 For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.

16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, 17 comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.

When I was a kid growing up in Ohio, there was a lot of “end times” talk in popular culture.  Although it had long been a part of the conversational and educational life of some churches, those were a minority in Ohio where simply trying to be nice was a religion in and of itself. In the 70’s and 80’s, it was actually mainstream movies like Damien Omen or even GhostBusters that suggested we were never all that far from the end of the world. Add to the mix the possibility of nuclear annihilation; environmental degradation or even the emergence of AIDS and it sometimes it sometimes seemed as though the news was reporting on the Apocalypse, LIVE.

These days, there still seems to be a lot of it but from a different angle. We don’t seem to be focusing on the arrival of the Apocalypse as much as trying to imagine what it might look like afterwards. Think about all the post-Apocalyptic movies, books and tv shows just this year. There was always some of this but the amount of attention being focused on how to get through an environmental disaster or a plague or zombies is everywhere and seemingly increasing.

I don’t know if any of you heard but there’s an election this coming Tuesday. I know that I know I can’t wait until it’s over and I’m guessing one or two of you might be in that same camp, too. However, there’s some that are planning on it being over in a different way and by “it” I mean the world as we know it. Stores are selling out of emergency preparedness kits. Gun and ammunition sales are experiencing a spike. Websites that help you learn how to prepare for a disaster are seeing their numbers go up, too.

When researching this article online, I found folks who, through their websites and sermons, quote one particular part of today’s scripture to refer to Clinton, Trump, Obama and Pope Francis among several others. It was the part that read:
“Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.”
Yep, folks are convinced that the end of the world is close and there’s an anti-christ ready to emerge and take over at any moment.

Those that really want to apply scriptural proof for the end of the world scriptures have always been able to find ones like the one we read to day to back themselves up. They are just vague enough that those with an apocalyptic worldview are always able to find things that fit into that narrative.

Those of us in the mainline church have usually pushed back against those who use scripture in this way. There is always another historical story behind the texts that are lifted up. All these texts were current to that time and described challenges of that time and place.

The references to today’s text from Thessalonians are no exception. Although attributed to Paul, it’s unlikely it was actually written by Paul. It was a normal practice in this time to write under the name of a teacher as a way of saying what was being written was intended to be an extension of a teacher’s writing. When this was written, there was a clear expectation that The Day of the Lord - a day of terrible upheaval for some and of grace for others - was going to come at any moment. Jesus was coming to judge and to save.

However, as 2nd Thessalonians was written this coming of Jesus was, well, late. Early followers who believed in this had expected that it was going to happen earlier, They were trying to figure out what to do now. The idea had been that although there was some suffering and sacrifice, it wasn’t going to last forever and they would be relieved soon. They were going to be saved at any moment. But, there were some, the text suggests, who were suggesting that, well, maybe Christ had already come and those receiving this letter had just not been included.

The leader they refer to in this text was probably the Roman Emperor Caligula and he was doing some pretty awful things to people and saying some pretty awful things. His power was on the upswing but the writer of 2nd Thessalonians was just trying to help people chill out a bit. This emperor would fall. His lies would be exposed. “Don’t worry, God will still win,” the author was trying to say. This letter was meant to be words of hope to people whose hope was wavering.

This is what this text meant, then. However, the problem in talking about these texts is that sometimes we get so wrapped up in rejecting one interpretation of them that we miss another.  We miss real opportunities to talk about what it feels like when our world is falling apart. We miss the opportunity to talk about hopes that have been dashed. We miss the opportunity to talk about leaders who worry us or frighten us.

This election cycle has been one of the most disheartening one in, maybe, our lifetimes. No matter which candidate you may support, the statistical reality that there are such a large number of people who disagree with you about some central perspectives and issues is sobering. Knute Berger, a Pacific Northwest writer, takes the terms “Cold War”and “Civil War” and suggest that our country is in a Cold Civil War. The political and social rhetoric of the last several months has been heating that war up a bit to levels that are creating more and more anxiety. Anxiety creates more anxiety. Unresolved conflict only makes way for more unresolved conflict. It seeps into all levels of our relationships and interactions.

I can tell you that before the last few election cycles, those churches that call me looking for help related to church conflict go up and more and more of them mirror the patterns of social conflict. In too many churches, the call isn’t to try and figure out how to save the community. They ask my involvement from one side or another of the conflict to try and help them figure out how to “win.” In and of itself, this isn’t new. There have always been a few churches that reach this state of conflict but in the time before election seasons, more of them sound like this and I get more calls about church conflict than usual. Within these congregations, there are frequently those convinced that their fellow church member is lying and, as in the text for today, that the lies of one side or another will be - must be - exposed. At some point, they begin to anticipate the congregation falling apart; their own end times. We are in anxious times and anxiety sometimes breeds more anxiety.

I get why folks in the mainline church frequently try and reject an apocalyptic interpretation of biblical texts. However, there’s a problem in rejecting these texts as applying to now. By getting so wrapped up in rejecting one interpretation of the Apocalyptic texts, we miss real opportunities to talk about what it feels when our world is falling apart and miss the opportunity to talk about how awful that can feel. We miss the opportunity to, maybe most importantly, recognize that end times are a part of our collective human experience. Maybe, just maybe, by feeling the pre-election anxiety, we are also feeling a small portion of what those in Syria felt during the earliest days of their civil unrest. Maybe, just maybe, as we recognize more and more or our environmental realities, we are beginning to feel some of what those in Samoa, Micronesia and those living on the west coast of Washington have been feeling as they’ve had to seek higher ground further from the ocean’s edge. Maybe, just maybe, as we worry about the safety of our electronic infrastructure and consider cyberwar with Russia, we are feeling the anxiety of those who live their lives with constant monitoring. Maybe we’re just catching up with the kind of anxiety many other folks throughout the world feel daily.

By getting so wrapped up in rejecting one interpretation of Apocalyptic texts, we miss the opportunity to say just how close to the edge of end times we are because the power of this text is not in its prophesy... but in its witness.  This text’s application to all times puts our current season of anxiety in context. The reason this text has been used so often and for so long as part of Apocalyptic conversations is because something is always ending; there is always someone or some group of people in leadership who are corrupt and whose lies need to be exposed. There are always those who gather in fear and anxiety. There are always end times. Always. In times when we have the gift of being so quickly informed of ideas, events and tragedies all over the world, we have the challenge of constantly being exposed to the anxiety of the world. It is that exposure that leads towards being infected by the anxiety of it.

It is easy to look at that which is evil in the world and be convinced that evil is winning. It is easy to look at those natural, political and religious systems humanity has had a hand in corrupting and believe that only more disaster and corruption are inevitable. It is easy to focus all our time, energy, and power into the anxiety these ideas present. But the text for today ultimately suggests something different.

I invite you to close your eyes, take a deep breath and listen to this part of today’s text.

“But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.

Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.”

It is these words that may be the most radical in the text. They call us back to an amazing reality. The reality of our world being messed up may be a cause for anxiety but it is also proof of the importance of the faith and work what we are called to. We are not simply victims of this time and place. We are called to this time and place. We are not bystanders to life’s challenges. We are called to be witnesses of them. We are not passive consumers of media. We are called to proclaim good news. We are not called to be swept up in the anxiety of the world. We are called to “stand firm and hold fast.”  Yes, there are endings every day and most of them have, at least, some pain involved but God has made available to us an endless supply of “comfort and good hope.” Sure, there’s a lot to do but when we’re doing good work - the right work - our hearts are strengthened for it.

There are plenty of voices in this world that are telling us that we are powerless and that only they can save us. That is the big lie. The big truth is that we are actually more powerful than we can imagine and that, with God’s help and God’s love, we can find a better way, together.

A friend of mine is a strong Clinton supporter and her neighbor is a strong Trump supporter. This friend of mine had been doing a lot of thinking and praying about this and the overall division that this election has has exposed. It troubled her. So, after talking about this with a friend, she baked an excellent apple pie and nervously brought it to her neighbors. As she delivered it, she said something along the lines of “We may disagree, but I just want to make it clear I still care about you.” The neighbor smiled, received the pie and said - while pointing to the Trump sign in their yard- something along the lines of “These things shouldn’t matter between neighbors. I love you. Come on in.” She was welcomed in for more conversation and, I imagine, some coffee and excellent pie.


This, my siblings of Christ, is communion. This is the heart of our faith. This is the good news of this time and place. This is the time and place we are called to. Amen.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

What if?: A Case for UCC Alignment




I’ve confessed to many of you before that I’m a church geek. No huge surprise for someone in my position, really, but the thing that might be a little more surprising is that it's also one of the things that keeps me involved in church or invested in this whole UCC church movement. Juts like with any other position, some days are harder than others. There are days I look at the barista handing me my too frequent double espresso and wish I would have stayed on that side of the counter. There are days I meet a business person and admire their clarity of task. There are days I read something written by someone just right and wish I could spend more of my days thinking and writing. As local pastors share with me what is going on in their local churches - even when what is going on is difficult or hard - I miss being with a small community that struggles together, gets to know each other, prays for each other and worships together.

Like anyone, those days when what feels like my authentic heart overlaps with my job are my best days and I’m fortunate that happens as often as it does. There are days I pinch myself because I can’t quite believe it’s real; that this is something I get to do. Then, there are other days I pinch myself hoping that the pain will keep me awake through a moment that is more tedious than I could have possibly imagined and seems to have nothing to do with, well, anything. I mean, anything. At. All.

However, sometimes in what the middle of what seems to be tedium or potential tedium, my inner church geek suddenly wakes up and says, “Hold on a second. This is really interesting. Wow. This is might actually be kinda a big deal.” Talking about purpose, vision and mission statements are things I think are important but can all too often turn into word-smithing fests where, in the moment, people seem willing to lay down their life for one word or turn of phrase… and then vote for whatever was proposed unanimously. I confess I used to love these kinds of conversations. Now, I confess I start to twitch a bit whenever the topic comes up.

I’m on the United Church of Christ Board and we just met a week ago. When I saw on our agenda that our General Minister and President, Rev. John Dorhauer, was going to presenting the results of a process to help us come to our purpose, vision and mission my first reaction was not one of, um, joy. And then I read it:
Purpose statement from the Gospel of Matthew: To love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.
Vision statement: United in Christ’s love, a just world for all.
Mission statement: United in Spirit and inspired by God's grace, we welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all.
The first time I read it, I was just relieved it was decent and sighed a “That’s nice” but then my inner church geek woke up and said, “Wait a second…” Try reading these a few more times. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
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The more I’ve read these, the more possibilities I’ve seen in them. The larger an organization is, the broader and less specific statements like these can become. However, these strike a healthy balance between being specific enough that they are meaningful and broad enough to allow for creative, faithful and contextual expression. These are great guidelines for the work done on our behalf in the national church.

But the thing that got me most excited is the possibilities these contain beyond the work of the national church. During the time I’ve been your Conference Minister, these are themes that usually come up as we talk about our work in our churches, our camps, the institutions we relate to, and our communities. Those of us who work as Specialized Ministers have brought up these ideals as something that we bring to the role as chaplains or non-profit employees. These are the things I’ve heard all of us wanting our conference to support, when needed, and lead when necessary.

So, I’ve started to wonder… What if our conference adopted these statements as our own? What if our churches considered adopting these as their own, too?

In some ways I know that’s almost a radical suggestion in this denomination of independents. Part of the reason I’m UCC is because of the autonomy we commit to protecting. To me, at its best, it's a form of conscience held collectively. For me the idea that that settings of the church can best live into their calling by asking what God is calling them to in their context is something I think and believe.

I also think and believe we’re called to be in covenant with each other. We are called to be mutually accountable and supportive of each other. However, since our understanding of autonomy is more concrete and tangible than our understanding of covenant, it’s harder to talk about covenant sometimes. Although rules are important, the lowest form of covenant are the rules we make together or funding commitments we share instead of the hopes we have for each other or the mutual vocation we share. It sometimes seems as though we’ve been pitting the lowest form of autonomy (“You can’t tell us what to do!”) against the lowest form of covenant (“This is what we have to do.”).

These purpose, vision and mission statements give us the opportunity to live in to some of the highest forms of our commitment to covenant and autonomy. I think it's possible that these ideas may represent the unifying covenant that, frankly, we all kind of knew we were missing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been part of a conversation about covenant that asks the question, “What is our covenant anyway?” We’ve been looking for something like this and these statements give us the opportunity to celebrate the thousands of ways covenant might be lived out in our ministry settings. We’ve been in hard conversations about the structure of our denominational settings; the relationships between all the variety of churches; and all the other settings that claim the UCC as theirs. If we accept the statements listed above as a covenant, they give us a place to continue and focus these conversations. If we accept this as a covenant, these statements join one of our other key statements - our Statement of Faith - as a key part of our key identity and vocation. If we accept this as a covenant, we also pass on a tool to those who come after us “to make this faith their own” as they seek out the purpose, vision and mission of our denomination in their generation.

I love that, as part of our commitment to covenant and autonomy, I get to be one of those who helps
 this conversation as opposed to my word being the last word.  May God guide us as we seek to be good stewards of our autonomy and our covenant. May Christ love us a we discover, again, what it means to love and be loved. May the Spirit guide us as we learn not to fear the rushing of wind that comes before every Pentecost.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Sermon for 10/9/16: Borderlands

(NRSV) Luke 17:11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”


Election Day cannot come soon enough. Every time it seems a though it really can't get worse or more bizarre, it does. This last few days have been horrifying. I am so tired of it all but I’m also afraid it will never quite be behind us. Something has changed.

The general election has been bad enough but part of what makes it so awful is that our tolerance for vitriol was so tested and expanded by the primaries. Up until this weekend, the war of words and actions between the Republican and Democratic candidates is nothing compared to the battles of mud and blood that took place within the Republican and Democratic primaries. That was meaner and dirtier. Many Democrats who were sure what it meant to be a Democrat and many Republicans who were sure what to it meant to be a Republican could not believe who their fellow Republicans and Democrats were supporting. Friendships and family relationships were already torn apart and it’s become worse.

This has brought out the worst in us and set any commitments to an already eroded civility back years. I’m afraid we’ve established the new norm in the way we relate to each other for awhile.

At more than one moment this has felt like more than a simply an erosion of civility and the first stages of what could the precursor to civil war. There are lots of good reasons to be angry about the state of the world and our relationships and sometimes all it seems like it needs to turn into something even worse is the wrong lit match meeting the wrong gasoline at just the wrong time. When our self-interests don’t even match up with the self-interests of those we feel closest to, all hell can break loose.

We’ve seen this play out again and again in families, within communities, within countries and between countries. The battles between those we somehow see ourselves as completely different from are one thing but the battles and conflicts between those we share the most with tend to be the worst. The repercussions of our Civil War still aren’t over. The countries that were a part of the former Yugoslavia continue to be in a tense relationship. The Rwandan Genocide in which as many as one million were killed over the period of just 100 days. The hot war between North and South Korea may have ended but they are still countries at war. The voting public in Columbia just voted against a peace treaty in that country’s long running civil war. The list goes on.

In today’s scripture, it might be the themes of gratitude, healing that stand out or maybe the fact that there were 10 lepers that really stands out to you. The piece about the Samaritan might seem like a smaller piece of the story. The idea of the Good Samaritan is so common that we may only hear it as The Story of the Good Person. Those of us who might have been part of the church for awhile may also be familiar with other stories of other Samaritans. We might know that there was some tension there and that they Samaritans were considered to be unclean and disliked but we might not have a clear idea about the depth of enmity that was present in this relationship.

The Samaritans are Jewish. There are only a little less than 800 in the community right now but they are recognized as Jewish by the Israeli government. During Jesus’ time, they were in their golden years with about a million people. Hundreds of years previous to this time, during the rule of King Solomon, they were part of a united kingdom with those who came to be called the Samaritans in the northern part of the kingdom. There were clearly ways some of their beliefs differed and their claims of who were the “true Jews” never seems to have ended. After Solomon was no longer King, they broke into separate kingdoms and during future wars and attempted conquests frequently took differing sides from each other. On more than one occasion, violence even broke out.

Each side taught that the other side was unclean and they shouldn’t talk together, be together or visit each other. Systems of institutionalized ethnocentric hatred were developed, strengthened and supported. They weren’t just competing for land or treasurer they were competing to claim their beliefs, identities and realities were legitimate while simultaneously trying to delegitimize the other. At this point, this wasn’t a story of one group trying to oppress another group as much as two groups of people - close to equals - who just hated each other.

When, in today’s scripture, Jesus healed the 10 lepers it doesn’t seem as though he knew a Samaritan was among them. Sure, he was in the border lands but, but by what was said, he didn’t seem to know a Samaritan was among the lepers until the Samaritan turned back to thank him. At the moment he did, it was more than simply words of gratitude that was were being shared. It was highlighting the graciousness of “the enemy.” It was humanizing “the enemy.” It was celebrating “the enemy” in the borderlands some of the most dangerous ground to inhabit. The borderlands can always potentially be contested.

There is something about being about healing in the borderlands... Following Jesus means we go to the borderlands. Sometimes that might be the margins or sometimes those contested places but we go to the borderlands. Sometimes that may mean we seek out the wounded; sometimes the ostracized; and sometimes the warriors but we follow Jesus to the borderlands.

This is where the church needs to be present so that we can do the work of justice, alleviate suffering, and deepen our faith while sharing the Gospel. We live in a world that seems to be enamored with the destruction of the world and finding someone else to blame and punish for it. We are convinced of the irredeemable nature of some. We don’t always understand how what we do externally also turns back on us internally and we end up having to suppress that part of us that turns our self-blame into deep shame; that turns punishment of others into the diminishment of ourselves; that turns our certainty of others worthlessness into uncertainty or our own self-worth. It’s killing us all.

So, Jesus calls us to the borderlands where we can find each other and recognize our mutual sickness that causes us to shed our skin and become someone else we no longer recognize. This is where Jesus meets us and heals us, together, not a part. This is where we become community and, together, transform the borderlands in to a bond. This is where we risk being faithful. This is where we risk being compassionate. This is where we risk doing justice. This is where we risk opening ourselves up to One who through our own healing calls us to risk being part of the healing of others and the world.

These days are rough ones and, like many of you, I feel beat down by them, too. But the same God of miracles and resurrections is the same God who is just not done with us, yet. Some may tell us the borderlands are frightening and dangerous and full of risk but we have to be courageous enough to seek healing there and ask aloud if some of those who insist on these borders might be the same ones who are trying to benefit from them the most…

There is healing to be found in the borderlands...

Tuesday Prayer for 10/11/16: "Dear God..."

Inspired by Luke 18:1-8

Dear God:

Ugh.

Sometimes when I write a prayer, the
“Dear God:”
Emerges as a preparation for the prayer.
It sets the space for all that comes next
this common space you save between us
where we meet.
It may be full of struggle but it is also full of love.

Other times - this time - it is more of a
“Dear God…”

I struggle to find words.
The bottom falls out of the prayer.
Instead of setting a space
I fall
Into what feels like a chasm between You
And this world.
Dear God.
                   .
                     .
                     .


(My son, he hums now. He will be sitting on the floor and songs and hymns he knows vibrate his lips as he builds impossibly complicated train-trackscapes built of wooden tracks and foam blocks. He hums and it makes me smile.

As I fall, I hear a far off hymn…

“Faith and hope in love's compassion will survive though knowledge cease,
though the tongues of joy fall silent, dull the words of prophecies.

Faith shall see and trust its object; hope shall set its anchor sure;
love shall bloom in Love eternal. Faith and hope and love endure.”

And then I realize it is my lips, humming.)

Amen.


Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Inspired by Luke 17:11-19

Dear God:

Just in case I forgot, thank you.
Thank you for helping me get this far. I haven't lived a perfect life perfectly.
I've made mistakes and yet
life
goes
on.

I have known healing.
I have known peace.
I have known hope.
I have been comforted by you.

Life may be hard but it is not
impossible.

Thank you.

Amen.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Sermon for 10/2/16: When pain is left to fester...

This weeks sermon is published on a Saturday night because tomorrow morning, as most of you are in worship, I'll be on an airplane traveling back from meetings in our denominational offices in Cleveland. This sermon is based on Psalm 137. Although I quote it in full later in the sermon, you may want to take the time to read it, first.

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30 years ago, I was working at a group home back in Ohio sitting with a group of kids laughing and giggling. These were my favorite moments. The kids I was working with had either been abused; facing some sort of mental health challenge that made it difficult for them to be at home; or had runaway from a difficult family situation. This particular group home was where kids came as the social service system figured out where their next stop might be so they were only with us for a couple weeks at the most. This was a lighter moment and we were all laughing and giggling as the kids told some bad jokes and funny stories that ranged the gamut from misunderstood conversations to, um, unexpected bodily emissions at importune times; to practical jokes they played on others or had been pulled on them.


Into this last set of stories the youngest resident at 10 years old decided to add his story. In the same kind of mood, this 10 year old boy laughingly talked about how his father sprayed his pant leg with carburetor fluid, lit it on fire and then laughed as this child tried to dance around to put it out.


“Man, that’s not funny,” said one of the other kids.
“But it’s OK, I wasn’t burnt” said the 10 year old. “It was funny!”
“He shouldn’t have done that to you” said another kid. The circle fell silent.
The 10 year-old continued with his mood changed, “That’s what I told him when he did it. I was so scared and my hands did get a little burnt. I told him it wasn’t funny.”
The kids were all quiet, making room for this child to say what he needed to say.
“I wanted to light my Dad on fire.”
The other kids nodded until one of the other kids said, “I want to light your Dad on fire.”


After this moment, this kid’s anger bubbled out at all different sorts of ways during his stay with us; for awhile it was always anger followed by tears or tears followed by anger. We already knew this child’s Dad was in jail and wouldn’t likely be getting out until well after the 10-year old was into adulthood but filed the reports we knew we had to file, anyway. The staff therapist met with the kids in a group every few days and with each kid individually. He let us know that this story was something all the kids were talking about. Many of them had suffered many worse things but the fact that they heard the youngest kid among them tell a story that they all agreed was wrong brought them together and was giving space for them to tell their stories and express their own anger. The other kids made space for this kid’s anger and, in their own way, understood when that anger came boiling out here or there. It made sense. He should be angry. He had a right to be angry.


We never knew the long-term stories of the kids we worked with but this 10-year old was placed in foster home with some a great couple who had a reputation for being able to show and share love for kids who were sure they were unlovable.  With placements as short as ours, we never knew the long-term story but we all agreed that this kid was getting a really good chance to have a better life.


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I’ve just started watching the HBO miniseries about John Adams. I’m still in the beginning stages but, just as a reminder, John Adams was - among many other things - one of the United States’ “Founding Fathers,” the first Vice-President and 2nd President, a diplomat and many, many other things. As I said, I’m in the beginning stages, but the central rallying cry of “no taxation without representation” has already come up as a key reason for the conflict repeatedly. Without question, this was the philosophical rallying point for the Revolutionary War but there was also a more visceral one.


The philosophical rallying point was one thing but the way the oppression or expression of this idea emerged through violence and anger was another. The intractable disagreements moved from conversations to shouting to contests of political power to contests of political expression to violent expressions of political and social power. These expressions of violence started small at first through the oppression of individuals and reactions to the oppression of individuals and then escalated through greater and greater acts of violence and revenge; each side able to offer some rationalization for each escalation along the way.


And, I don’t know about you, but I never remember hearing or being taught that this anger and violence by the colonists was somehow unjustified. I never remember being taught that the colonists should have controlled their anger and gone about this another way. I never remember being taught that the Tea Party was actually a riot or that the colonists were somehow wrong in asserting that white, male, land owning colonists’ lives mattered.


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One of this Sunday’s lectionaries texts is Psalm 137.  It is beautiful, honest and troubling. Go ahead and read the whole thing:


(NRSV) 1 By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
7 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!”
8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!


The sense of grief is so palpable and so real and that is usually where we are asked to meet this text within most of our churches. There are beautiful songs written that include the mourning of the first half of this text. It is about the grief of a people who have been defeated and oppressed being asked to sing happy songs to those who are their oppressors. When we ignore the 2nd half of this text we can see this as only deep grief, pained mourning or helplessness.


When we read the whole Psalm we see something different. This Psalm is also about anger and the desire of revenge. War is an atrocity in and of itself but every war tends to have particularly terrible atrocities within it. The attack on Jerusalem was likely no exception. Verse 9 is always one of the hardest to read of Psalm 137; “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock.” However, because of the verse preceding it, I’m pretty sure this wasn’t some sort of violence they were thinking up themselves for the first time. I think it’s likely that this was something that happened to them and they were looking to do the same to their oppressor. Imagine it with the emphasis on the first, “your” in verse 9; “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock.”


The temptation for many of us within the church is to move from honoring the mourning but then distancing ourselves from the anger and violence. The temptation is to say the mourning is justified but then critique the method of expressing the anger that’s intermingled with that mourning. We can support the peaceful protest of those refusing to have their songs of joy misappropriated by an occupying force that tries to compel them to sing those songs. However, that violent anger scares us. It seems out of of control and even unfaithful to many of us.


Its taken me a long time to get there but I’m becoming more and more convinced that it’s not anger itself that’s unfaithful as much as the fear of anger that’s unfaithful for most of us. I confess that this has been a difficult lesson I’ve had to learn regardless of those who have so persistently tried to teach me differently. I recognize that, for some, there have been some encounters with angry people in their lives whose anger was an expression of violence poured out on those who were not, in any way, the cause. I can understand how some might have had their lifetime quota for being around anger filled. However, for most of us, avoiding anger is more about discomfort than danger and all too frequently we don't know the difference.


Anger doesn’t come out of nowhere. We humans are social animals and we depend on shared experiences. Its why we celebrate together and worship together and sing together and find reasons to be together. One person’s laughter makes other people smile and one person being hurt can make other people wince. When we see someone else in a scary position, our hearts beat faster, too. Whenever anyone feels immediate pain, people all over the world say some equivalent of “Ow.” I don’t think that reaction is for ourselves, alone. I think there is some deep part of us that fully expects that this response will be bring a response from others. Sometimes, the response is one of the things that helps keep us alive. Our outloud to reaction to pain carries that hope within it. We need each other.


Anger is an expression of pain. Think about stubbing your toe or hitting your thumb with a hammer. We sometimes express anger when we have pain that is too much for us to bear at that moment. We also express anger when our pain is ignored by others or express anger when our pain is delegitimized by others. Yes, we may walk around with various levels of defensiveness or awareness of danger but when we are in immediate pain there is something in us that expects others to help us and when they don’t, first we get fearful and then we get angry.


When our pain is overwhelming, ignored or delegitimized and we see person or person’s intentionally ignoring, delegitimizing or causing that pain, I don’t think we should be surprised by the fantasies of violence or the literal violence that comes next. When pain is overwhelming, ignored or delegitimized it can turn to anger. When anger is overwhelming, ignored or delegitimized it can turn to violence.


We frequently critique any expressions of anger as counterproductive or as an ineffective ways to make a point when others express it and then use it to justify our own angry reaction. We critique someone yelling as we yell back. We critique a loud protest as we try and overwhelm or silence the protesters’ voices.  We respond to rioting and uprisings with police violence or other means of suppression. We get stuck in cycles of actions and responses in which we quickly cycle through who is identified as a victim, villain or hero at any one moment.  


We talk about seeking to end the cycle of violence by calling on people to not respond to violence with violence. However, maybe what we need to address even more urgently is how to address the cycle of pain; how to make room for the reality of pain without a patina of shame or weakness; how to make room for the expression of pain recognizing that expression may make us uncomfortable; and how to best try to address the causes of pain, when possible; or help each other cope with the pains that just don’t go away. Pain is a part of life. It is unavoidable and yet we try and pretend it somehow is.


The reality that we will be the cause of pain for others is unavoidable, too. We have to figure out how to address that we may be at least part of the cause of pain for others regardless of of our intent. It’s hard to admit when we might have justified causing pain to someone else. It’s hard to acknowledge that we didn’t see how our actions might have have unintended consequences. I know it’s always hard to do this because acknowledging pain can be, in and of itself, painful. It makes it extra hard, in the case of historically and socially endorsed violence and oppression. We might not be the initiator of the pain but we may not be aware of the ways we are ignorantly benefitting from the current oppression that, in and of itself, may be causing harm to others.


As we read the text today from Psalm 137, the violence suggested within it may make us uncomfortable, but it’s understandable. It comes from a people who have experienced a deep pain that is being ignored and delegitimized by their captors. Reading it may make us uncomfortable and even disturbed but it makes us make room and respond to the pain that is at the root of their anger. It calls us to do what we were created to do. We must make make room and respond to the pain of our friends, our families, ourselves and our communities. We must make make room and respond to the pains spoken by those whom we share in the life of our faith community. We must make room and respond to the pain of those that the world seems to have left behind and those who are oppressed and treated unjustly. We must make room and respond to the pain of the earth itself and those who care for it. We must make room and respond to those who tell us that we are the cause of pain or are contributors to it. We must make room and respond to those who call us to confession without our suggesting that their goal needs to be offering forgiveness. We must make room and respond to the comfort God promises as we are called to reconcile and be willing to ask for help with the painful part of reconciliation.

Those who bear and express their pain are our prophets calling us to truth and action. We can’t ignore them or our own pain. If we in the church think that any part of our calling is to participate in the healing of the world, we have to know and acknowledge where the pain is, first.