Friday, December 30, 2011

Let Jesus Occupy Your Heart

This Christmastide, now that Christ is here, I've transitioned from thinking about how to make room for the Christ child in my heart to thinking about what it is to have Jesus in my heart. My first thought was that if Jesus is in my heart, that is, occupying a space (the same space I created during Advent when I made room for him), does that not mean that Jesus is occupying my heart? It's a cute phrase, and it can be used in the sense that internet memes re-use the same material in creative ways for humor. But what if I was serious about using the word "occupy?" What if I wanted to use it in the same sense that the Occupy Together movement uses it? What would that really mean?

Well, when the Occupy Together movement began using the word "occupy," they meant "march aggressively into another's territory by military force for the purposes of occupation." In reality, what those in the camps were doing was more like "be present in; be inside of," "to inhabit," and "to engage... wholly" (definitions found here). By engaging the culture and one another, and by covenanting to live together and be present with one another, the participants of the movement took ordinary actions and made them political.

Likewise, allowing Christ to occupy my heart is also a political action. Now, when I use the word "political," I don't mean modern American partisanship. I'm using it in the classical sense of the word. Bryan P. Stone explains it well in his book, Evangelism After Christendom:
“To speak of the church as a polis or to talk about the politics of evangelism may sound strange at first. Most of us are familiar with the word politics in the context of the public life of a nation, where it refers to options such as Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. As with that usage, politics here refers to the processes, rules, and skills that help us as a people to understand, order and form our involvements and relations. It likewise has everything to do with power, conflict, change, and authority. Politics originally referred to the shape and organization of the polis and thus to the particular grammar of a people’s common story and life together. As [John Howard] Yoder says, “Anything is political which deals with how people live together in organized ways: how decisions are made and how they are implemented; how work is organized and how its products shared; who controls space, land, freedom of movement; how people are ranked; how offenses are handled”... The church then is not called merely to be political but to be a new and unprecedented politics; not merely in public but as a new and alternative public; not merely in society but as a new and distinct society, a new and extraordinary social existence where enemies are loved, sins are forgiven, the poor are valued, and violence is rejected." (pp. 178-179, emphasis mine)
Stone is suggesting that the politic of the Christian community is an alternative politic to the one employed in our modern American society. Rather than retributive justice, we value restorative justice. Rather than hate and retaliate against our enemies, we love and forgive them. In the Christian politic, the poor are cared for, not forgotten, and swords are beaten into plowshares. When we take the Christian politic seriously and strive to live it, we are bringing about the Kingdom of God on Earth.

What does that have to do with Jesus coming into our hearts? Well, A. P Jones wrote that "to occupy is to be concerned about, to pursue with vigor" something that is important to us, and to do so is our Christian duty. If Jesus is in our heart, then should we not be concerned about the things that concern Jesus himself? Should we not pursue the things that he pursued? If my heart is to be a fitting home for the Christ child, I must pursue the Kingdom of God; I must be concerned with the poor, the downtrodden, the grieving, and with becoming a peacemaker (c.f. Matthew 5, 25; Luke 6). When I concern myself with the kinds of people who concerned Jesus, and pursue the Kingdom of God as he did, I become the kind of person Jesus wants me to be.

Allowing Jesus to occupy my heart means I have to give up my agenda. I have to stop living for my own success, comfort, and convenience. It means I will go out of my way to love those who have been forgotten, ask God's forgiveness for my sins and forgive the sins of others, and become a peacemaker in these times of strife. These are all political actions because they are shaping my Christian community and they are shaping the way I live in that community. Ultimately, these actions shape the entire world around me, as Christ's transforming power radiates out from the Christian community into the world. By letting Jesus into my heart, I am participating in a new politic- a new way of doing things- the Christian way of doing things. I'm making a statement to the world: "I'm doing things God's way!"

As the New Year fast approaches, it's time to evaluate whether we have been doing things my way or God's way. What can we do to let God's Spirit transform us into the kinds of people Jesus wants me to be? How can we let Jesus Occupy our hearts this Christmastide, now, and forever?

Friday, December 23, 2011

Peace on Earth

This Advent, I have spent a lot more time and energy being joyful than being peaceful. Each weekend, I have had parties with friends, church events, and/or caroling with my beloved fellow choristers. I learned of a dear friend's pregnancy, shared chocolate with co-workers, and celebrated the presence of family in my life. But I must confess that all of this activity has left me little time for contemplating peace on earth.

My husband gave me a Christmas gift early- a DVD of Kung Fu Panda 2- and we watched it last night with his parents. In the movie, Po is troubled by his family origin while his master, Shifu, tries to teach him to find inner peace.

Master Shifu demonstrates inner peace.
Photo credit:

Even though an evil peacock is trying to conquer China and chaos is all around him, Po manages to find peace anyway, with the help of his friends and mentors. Unfortunately, I am usually a lot more like Po than Shifu when it comes to peace.

I realized last night that I have not been a peaceful person recently. While I have the "peace that passes all understanding," a gift of the Holy Spirit to all Christians, I have not really been acting like it. I have been stressed, and at times, troubled. I wonder if my friends' experience of my Christmas cheer has been tainted by this stress. I wonder how they might find Christ in Christmas better if I were a more peaceful person to be with. When they listen to my life, do they hear, "Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled"? Yet how do I let the peace of Christ shine through all of the other "stuff" in my heart?

For me, I don't think the answer is a special revelation from my past like Po had. It's a decision on my part to let go of the things that stress me out, don't let my problems bother me so much, and let these things roll of my shoulders rather than dwell on them.  My own mental focus becomes what I project to others, and my witness will improve if my attitude improves.

Peace on earth is God's promise to us, and it is also something in which we participate and which we bring about in in our own lives. Part of living the Christian life is learning to focus on God's blessings, and to let our worries and negative thoughts float away like leaves on a river.  This is a lot easier to write about than it is do, but with God's help, I know I can do it.

How have you experienced God's peace in your life this holiday season?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The End of Occupy Boston... Or Is It?

I know this post is really late, but from the time I heard last Wednesday that the judge had lifted the restraining order against evicting the Occupy Boston encampment, I knew I needed to wait. Good things come to those who wait, because I can now report to you the things I witnessed at Occupy Boston last week. Since the eviction of Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Boston has been the longest-running Occupy Together protest in the nation.

Following the lifting of the restraining order, Mayor Menino notified the OB community last Thursday morning that their deadline to leave would be midnight on Friday morning. Expecting a police raid at midnight, OB called an emergency General Assembly at 7 PM on Thursday to discuss their plan for how to defend the camp and learn more about non-violent resistance (e.g., what to do when pepper-sprayed, how not to appear to be resisting arrest, ect.). Realizing that it may be some folks' last hot meal before being carted off to jail, I decided to bake an apple pie and bring it down to Dewey Square. Get it? Occu-pie? Har.

Anyway, it's my mother's secret recipe which I made from scratch, so by the time I brought it downtown, it was about 9:30 PM. The General Assembly was still going and people were still hungry. They devoured my pie in a matter of minutes, and I prayed that my small act of mercy of giving warm pie "to the least of these" was giving pie to Christ as well. The GA decided not to pass anything, which really disappointed me, and then they started the non-violence training. The Protest Chaplains/ clergy gathered at the time decided to have their own meeting to decide what to do. Expecting violence on the part of police, they decided to stand in between the police and the OB participants and ask the police, "In the name of God, will you put down your weapon? Please will you consider not arresting these people?" They knew the police might not listen and decided to bless the police as they passed by, and they decided they would say a benediction for the whole camp after the police began arrests. As this plan was being made, a woman from Channel 5 News came to take a statement from the Protest Chaplains. They said, "We are the Protest Chaplains and we have been shepherding and encouraging all along." Now I know how to give statements to the press! Even though the chaplains had a designated area for those who were not able to be arrested that night (myself included), I decided this plan was not a good one for avoiding arrest, due to standing in the way of police, and went home to prepare for work on Friday.

 Somebody rigged up a projector and trained it on the building behind the GA meeting area. 
Photo from OB Facebook page.

When I returned home and turned on the TV coverage, I found that the police were not making arrests. Instead of linking arms at the core of the encampment, people streamed into Atlantic Avenue and had a massive dance party! Folks on the ground estimated about 2,000 people were there that night. I could hear the makeshift band in the background playing- a tuba, trombone, and bass drum. The party dissipated at 2 AM and the camp remained on Friday.

On Saturday morning, I awoke to the news on Facebook: OB had been raided at 5 AM, a few hours earlier. According to eyewitness accounts, there was a spirit of joviality, laughing, and wisecracking in the camp that morning. The policemen who had patrolled the area regularly addressed the protesters by name when arresting them, and the protesters greeted the Chief of Police on a first name basis. The Boston Globe reported that this was the most peaceful police raid on any Occupy camp. But not all was well that morning. One of the Protest Chaplains reported on FB that those who were not arrested included the homeless (re-named "houseless" by OB participants) people who had been taken in by the the tent owners. She said that they were wandering around the empty square and crying, telling her, "What am I going to do now?" An account on the OB main FB page said they were even crying as they watched the police arrest those who linked arms and sat in the center of the camp. I tried to imagine what it must be like to be taken in by new friends, and accepted despite the problems developed while living on the street, only to have my new home and new friends suddenly taken away. Devastating. Their loss and despair must be profound.

As I reflect on this movement that has given hope and voice to so many, I rejoice at the peaceful dissolution of the camp but grieve for my "houseless" neighbors who are now tentless also. It's back to the shelters for them, and the shelters can be rough places to be. Last week in church, we read that "every valley shall be exalted, and the rough places made plain." Who will make these rough places plain for the houseless among us? Especially now that Occupy Boston the encampment is gone?

But OB continues in a less permanent physical form. Certainly it still exists online, and the working groups (such as the Faith and Spirituality Group, which includes the Protest Chaplains) are still working. General Assemblies take place on the Boston Common now, or in the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, an Episcopal cathedral across from the Common. Occupy Boston has not ceased to exist, and its voice for economic justice will continue to be heard locally and around the world.

And what does this have to do with God? Well, the Bible tells us clearly that when people are oppressed and treated with injustice, this angers God. Isaiah 10:1-4 says:
Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans  your prey! What will you do on the day of punishment, in the calamity that will come...? To who will you flee for help...? For all this [God's] anger has not turned away.
Amos 8:4, 9-10 says,
Hear this you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land... I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation.
Micah 2:1-3 is very relevant to those bankers who profit from selling mortgages on houses that have now been foreclosed:
Alas for those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in their power. They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance. Therefor thus says the Lord: Now, I am devising against [you] an evil from which you cannot remove your necks; and you shall not walk haughtily, for it will be an evil time.
Clearly, God is concerned for the poor, those who have lost their homes, and those ensnared in the usury of mortgage and credit card debt. To watch the rich people of our country do this to the rest of us makes God angry. The Occupy Boston participants, while they did not all agree on political philosophy and social issues, stood on Atlantic Avenue and decried foreclosures, usury, greed, inequality, and oppression. Every day, they did something to tell the world, "Hey, this isn't right! We need to make things right!"

Even if protesters are not all Christians, the Occupy Together movement is doing something very Christian: it is calling our nation to repentance for the sins named in Amos, Isaiah, and Micah.. As Christians, we ought to cheer them on, and— dare I say it?— join them in protest. While the Occupy Boston encampment is gone, OB is continuing to help bring about God's Kingdom of peace and justice in the world today. And we can too. 

I hope and pray that one day, through our efforts and the efforts of our children, all people will have homes, fairness can be restored in our lending practices, and no one will have to use food stamps or go hungry. God, give us the strength and wisdom to make it so. Amen and amen.

Friday, December 9, 2011

I'm Too Busy for Advent!

Hey folks, this is a little bit late, but there is a lot going on right now with Occupy Boston. They are facing eviction and I don't have enough time to write the full account of what I am seeing when I go and what I am reading in the Boston Globe, the OB blog, and other sites. In the meantime, I think I'll post a prayer that my pastor found this week. Up until the OB excitement, this is exactly how I have been feeling. Over at Unfolding Light, Pastor Steve wrote a prayer for what he calls the Advent Blahs:

Dear God,
I just don't feel like Advent today. I don't have time to sit in the velvet darkness and contemplate some wonderful silence. I don't feel Jesus coming. I'm not in touch with any promise or vision. I have absolutely no idea what Isaiah means by “preparing a way,” and even less idea about that crazy John the Baptist jumping around in the desert with grass in his hair. I don't know what it means to “make of my heart an open manger.” I'm just not there. I'm busy, tired and distracted. I haven't set up my stupid little Advent wreath; the candles lie in their stupid little box in the closet, under a lot of stuff. You're starting to bug me. All the spiritual hype about repentance and transformation sounds to me just like the crap from Macy's about how I need to buy their stuff. I've done Christmas before. I know what to expect. I bet I'm going to be just fine in January like I am now. So I'm just going to go right on with my ordinary little life here, OK? Whatever is in my soul, I'm not handing it over. It's nothing special, anyway, nothing devout and holy. It's clenched inside, plain and undeserving, and fine with that.  I'm fine. I just want nice presents and a good dinner with the kids. That's all. So if you're going to break in on my world, it's up to you. If you're going to do some wacky Gabriel thing with me, knock yourself out. Go ahead and make flesh turn into heaven, and a plain human life divine. If you're going to come into my life, don't wait for me. Just do what you do, you know, behind our backs and unasked for and all that.  Go right ahead. Just do your thing. OK? Please? Amen.

Do you ever feel this way about Advent? That you are just too busy to stop and prepare the way for the Christ child? And you have no time for any spiritual, even reading Barb's quick devotionals on the CUMC Facebook page? I feel that way many times this Advent- especially when I scroll past Barb's posts in my FB notifications. What does it mean to prepare a way for Jesus in my heart when I am on the bus going somewhere, or doing laundry?

For me, what helps with the Advent Blahs is singing Christmas carols (or if I'm on the bus, listening to them on my iPhone YouTube app). Perhaps I have a million things to do after I have pre-treated this load of laundry or put away these groceries. Yet as I do these small, mundane tasks, the act of singing about Christ's birth helps keep me in the Advent frame of mine. OK, so perhaps singing carols is liturgically incorrect, since technically the Christ child hasn't arrived yet. But it works for me, and that's what's important.

What might you do to help you prepare the way for Jesus in your heart, even in the midst of this hectic season?

Photo credit: Martin Stockley

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Advent is Waiting... For What?

Sunday marked the beginning of Advent, and I must admit that a was a little crabby about it. I didn't take Pastor Lisa's message very well. Stop and listen? Limit my stress? But I am too busy for that! Ah, yes. My attitude is precisely why I need a little Advent- right this very minute.

In case you haven't heard much about Advent yet, this blogger posted an awesome picture of a liturgical calendar and explains the part Advent plays in the liturgical year. (For more on the liturgical year, go here.) Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year and it is a season of anticipation. We are waiting for Christ to make a quiet, unassuming entrance into our lives.

For those of us who have been Christians for a long time, this can feel a bit strange. "But Jesus came into my life ____ years ago!" we object. And during this season of crazy schedules, holiday parties, and shopping for gifts, it can be hard to remember to be stop and be quiet. We become aware Christ's presence in our lives in the quiet moments and the small, unexpected changes in our routine that make us think twice. Just as Mary noticed the small, unexpected changes of pregnancy in the quiet moments of life, we are witness Jesus' birth into our world and our lives all over again.

In reality, Jesus is coming into our lives every day. The Holy Spirit is constantly beckoning to stop and notice our attitude and our surroundings. Every time we catch ourselves being grumpy toward a family member or treating a favor as a hassle, we are being transformed into the likeness of Christ. Our old selves are constantly rediscovering Jesus and his work in our lives. That is precisely the point of Advent. In what ways have you noticed God's work in your life this year? How are you anticipating Jesus' coming in these four weeks of Advent?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Giving Thanks

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and I don't know about you, but I am looking forward to lots of food, the Macy's parade, and two dinners with family and friends. This week and last week, I've been reflecting often on what it looks like to be thankful in the world in which I live.

Last week's post about the Occupy movement got me thinking about so many in America, and in my own community, who struggle to pay for groceries with food stamps, have been unemployed for a long time, or whose homes were foreclosed. The Occupy protesters are standing up for these people. I wonder what their Thanksgivings will be like. Will they go to soup kitchens? Will they be getting help to have a dinner? Do they have a kitchen in which to cook? Harvard-Epworth UMC collects "turkey baskets" for the Salvation Army each year. We gather all the ingredients for a Thanksgiving dinner, place them in a baking pan for the turkey, and deliver them to the Salvation Army. They say demand is up again this year. Last year, our Young Adult group made three turkey baskets. I hope folks in other places can get turkey baskets or something similar.

this luscious turkey pic is from

Even though our budget is tight, we were still able to afford Thanksgiving on our own. I know we should be thankful for that, but penny-pinching is never fun. It can be hard to be thankful when one worries about money. I have realized that thankfulness is a spiritual discipline. Even though I don't feel thankful sometimes, I am called to be thankful. One way we can be thankful is to be in solidarity with those in need. We can do this by praying for them, helping them on Thanksgiving if we can, and showing that we care when we volunteer among them.

These moments of remembrance echo the remembrance of Jesus in which we engage during the Eucharist. We are all called to live that remembrance of Jesus every day-"what you do unto the least of these, you do unto me." When we love others as Jesus did, we become more like Jesus each day.

How do you become a more thankful person in your faith journey?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Sanctuary

This week Jim Wallis over at Sojourners reflected in his blog on the eviction of Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park. He suggests that if/ when there comes a time when the protesters have nowhere to go, local churches should step in. He suggests that this would promote intergenerational understanding and give protesters a rest from protesters' conflict with municipal authorities- and it would be an expression of the mission of the Church:

"Jesus is a popular guy among the thousands of Occupy sites around the world, and faith is a lively topic — even if religion is suspect as an institution of an unjust society. So as the young protesters are made to feel unwelcome by the municipal authorities in cities around the country, let us make them feel very genuinely welcomed in our faith communities. This could be a great opportunity for hospitality, for ministry, for solidarity, for faith conversation and, yes, for prophetic witness as churches and people of faith speak up for the economic justice that is at the heart of biblical faith and is an integral part of the gospel."
I think this is a bit of a tall order, but the mission of Jesus Christ is definitely a tall order! Going to Occupy Boston has really stretched me and required me to be more accepting of people who are very different than me. Most of them think differently than I do. But when I take the time to listen, I can usually find something in common with them. Local churches often show trepidation at taking in folks who are very different, even if it is just temporary, like the mobile homeless shelter in Ashland. While it can be uncomfortable at first, it is rewarding. Historically, the Church has been a place of rest and shelter, and that is a tradition we can proudly uphold, even if we are challenged. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that Jesus intended for us to be challenged when he called us to love our neighbors.

In a sense, we all need a rest from the injustices in our society. There are even those among us who are displaced, perhaps not in the sense of being refugees, but displaced in other ways by home foreclosure, job loss/ underemployment, or overwhelming debt. We need to care for one another and remember the heart of our faith, even if we live in areas far from any Occupies. I wonder what we can do to make our faith community a place of rest and shelter for all — for us and for those who are not (yet) part of our community.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Whistle Down the Wind

This past weekend, I was back in Ashland for my annual meeting with
the Mid-Ohio District Committee on Ordained Ministry. Serendipitously,
AU was staging a revival of Whistle Down the Wind at the same time.  
Whistle was my very first musical; I was part of the '97 cast. There was
a reunion for both casts on Saturday, which I very much enjoyed. It was
wonderful to hear the music again, most of which I still remember! :o)  
Whistle is about children who are discovering faith in Jesus, and taking part in it was part of my formation as a person of faith.

Hearing the songs all over again 15 years later really gave me a new perspective on the show. For example, in "Funny, It Doesn't Feel Strange" and "Spider," Cathy and Nan sing about how they "just know" that the man in their barn is Jesus. Cathy compares having faith to knowing that the sky is blue without knowing why, or that fish swim without knowing how. I was a little surprised at this characterization of having faith. My perspective is very different. Living in Cambridge, MA surrounded by MIT and Harvard-types, I have learned firsthand how scientific inquiry can help us to better understand the world God made, and thus, understand more about who God is. Whistle uses the cynical, overprotective attitudes of the adult characters to show how a lack of open-mindedness can prevent us from seeing Jesus for who he is, but still, I think Whistle leans a bit too heavily on that theme. One must be open minded to learn, however, faith is neither blindly trusting without really thinking nor disbelieving unless the evidence fits into our narrow definition of "fact." In fact, blindly trusting in either "religion" or "fact" without critically thinking isn't really faith at all in my opinion. It's just a belief. I think there is a difference between holding a belief and truly having faith.

The other thing that really struck me about Whistle was how it dealt with theodicy, that is, the existence of evil in a world made by a loving God. In one scene, the girls' brother, Charles, leaves his kitten, Spider, with The Man/ Jesus and Spider winds up dead. The Man/ Jesus didn't realize he was supposed to take care of Spider. Charles asks him why he let the kitten die. In a sense, in this scene, humanity is asking God why God allows our loved ones to suffer and die. Is God being negligent, as if God doesn't notice that our loved ones are in distress? Or does God not care? Charles genuinely asks that question. Unfortunately, Cathy's answer about the color of the sky and the fish doesn't answer his question at all. It is really too bad that this question of the ages- a serious theological question! - is glossed over this way in Whistle. There are many ways that theologians have answered this doozy of a question throughout the ages. I wish Whistle could have engaged at least one of them rather than avoiding the hard questions.

One of the main things I learned about faith in college was that faith is about engaging these difficult questions, even when it is painful to confront them. If we ignore them, give pithy answers, and don't fully engage them, those persistent people in our lives who need to think it through will be turned off by the Christian faith. Critical thinking and biblical reflection aren't just for professional theologians in ivory towers; they're tools for all of us to make meaning in our lives. We owe it to ourselves to "go there," even if it is sometimes painful, because when we do, the waters of our faith will be deep and wide.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Hope for the Church at Occupy Boston

This past weekend, my best friend, Joy, came to see me! It was a wonderful visit. :o) We played Just Dance 2 on our Wii, talked, cooked, ate, and went to Occupy Boston. On Saturday, a Nor'easter came to visit as well, for which I was not too pleased. Joy brought her car, so we loaded several things we had collected to donate into the car and made our way downtown. She is not a Boston driver, so the mayhem of downtown and multiple construction sites on the way made the trip a bit hectic.But once we had arrived and made our donations, we went to visit the Religion and Spirituality tent and met a new friend. 

Khepe-Ra is a community organizer and consultant who lives at OB four days per week. She was hosting in the tent when we arrived and struck up a conversation with us by asking us why we came. We explained that Jesus' command to love our neighbor and God's concern for those who are poor and suffering led us to participate. Khepe-Ra shared that she had done a lot of faith-based community organizing, and she felt frustrated with the Church. She was disappointed that church folk tend to only want to get involved when everyone in the movement believes the same things they do. She contrasted them with the folks she meets at OB, whom she says are genuinely trying to live out the kind of community they want America to be- even if they all hold different beliefs and come from different walks of life. Khepe-Ra said that OB is struggling with how to deal with the homeless members of the movement. They lived in Dewey Square first, so OB wants to include them and feed them, but they struggle with addictions, mental illness, and theft, which is hard on OB participants. We shared our experiences in the Church with her, and then we had a mini-Bible study and prayer time. By the time my alarm told me our meter had run out and it was time to go, Khepe-Ra declared that she had regained hope for the Church from our visit.

 the altar at the Faith and Spirituality Tent - image from the OB Wiki

As we dashed through the freezing rain to the car, I thought about what Khepe-Ra had said. Why is it that church folk are reticent to become involved in work in the community when the effort is interdenominational or interfaith? What is it about our mindset that fosters the need to have everyone agree with us? Shoot, half the time, United Methodists don't even agree with one another! Perhaps what holds us back is the notion that working with people who are different from us is an obstacle, and we perceive those who believe differently than we do as people who are different from us.

In the end, though, we're not so different from people of other denominations and faith traditions. We have the same needs. We all love our families. We all care deeply about our religion, and we try hard to follow it and so be made more holy. Despite our differences, we share similar values. Perhaps we need to move away from making sure everyone believes the same way to finding a core value or values that we share. That might help us collaborate with people in other denominations, in other faiths, and even in other parts of the United Methodist connection. I know, it's easier said than done. But I think it is worth a try. If OB can find a way to live with chronically homeless, addicted persons, I think we can find a way to live with one another.

Joy and I returned to my apartment, slipped into warm, dry clothes, and heated up some spiced apple cider. As I curled up under a blanket on the couch, I thought about all those who were Occupying through the cold rain and snow. While I enjoyed my comfortable home, they gave up their homes so that they can live out the kind of community they want America to become. How can I show the same dedication to my fellow Americans, even if I can't sleep in a tent or feed the homeless? How can we as the Church support our communities, even as our communities are different from us?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What Does "Evangelical" Mean?

Recently, the Sojourners blog has been doing a series on the topic "What is an Evangelical?" I was particularly struck by the response by Lynne Hybels. She talks about encountering a difficult time in her life, and how she responded by reading about Jesus over and over again. She connects the Jesus of the pietists- those who emphasize a personal relationship with God- and the Jesus of the activists- those who emphasize social holiness. She writes:
At that point in my life I desperately needed to be welcomed, valued, understood, seen and forgiven. I desperately needed to sit in that Presence of ultimate and unconditional love. I needed to know -- and I still need to know, every day -- that I am loved despite my failures, tha I am loved for the uniqueness of my true self, and that I am loved as I sit quietly doing absolutely nothing to earn, or buy, or chase that love... Whenever I lean fully into the reality of my loneliness, my insecurity, my fear, or my brokenness, I find Jesus there loving me. That has become a Mystery I cannot live without.

In Jesus I also found a radical call to compassionate action in the world. At Jesus' first public appearance he said, "I have come to set the captives free and to preach good news to the poor." Then, through his teaching and life of servanthood, he slowly and methodically turned the values of the powerful Roman Empire upside down. He threw the moneychangers out of the temple because they were exploiting the poor. He said that when we feed the hungry or clothe the naked it's like we're doing it to him. He said to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us. Jesus changed the rules and ushered in an upside-down Kingdom.
I couldn't have said it better myself. God is a God of love. As Jesus loves us, we are to love the world. We are to evangelize, literally to "be good newsing" in the world. What does it mean to "be good newsing?" Lynne showed us that it means to be aware of Jesus' love for us and to bring that love to the world. We are to bring about Christ's upside-down Kingdom. Amen, amen, and amen.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Jesus and the Moneychangers in the Temple

In case you haven't noticed, I love getting news from the General United Methodist Church. One of my favorite ways to spend my lunch hour is to read the GBCS emails, which I did yesterday. Jim Winkler, the GBCS General Secretary, wrote about the Occupy Together movement currently sweeping the nation. The title of his essay was "Occupying the Temple."  He writes,

"The dream of upward mobility based on hard work appears to be slipping away for many. The system is gamed in favor of those with money and connections. When money buys political power and corruption is the norm, young people lose faith in democracy. A whole generation is losing faith. Occupy Wall Street is an example of the response. Those involved are creating a participatory democracy. It’s old fashioned people power. Like Jesus, they are occupying the temple of the moneychangers. If a nation's leaders won’t address an intractable problem, the people will."

What Winkler means by "occupying the temple of the moneychangers" is that the Occupy movement is going directly to today's temples- the financial districts of our cities. One thing I learned in seminary is that the temple (Jewish and pagan) were essentially banks. They were where people's money was kept safe, and a mini-market was inside, where people could buy things they needed, including animals for sacrifice. And the religious officials- pharisees and sadducees- were in charge. When Jesus went into the temple and overturned the tables of the moneychangers (Matt 21), that was a political action. When he said, " ‘It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer'; but you are making it a den of robbers," he was saying, "Something is very wrong here!" That was an audacious thing to do when he was being watched by the religious officials!

a sign I saw recently at Occupy Boston
 photo is mine
That is what those who participate in Occupy movements around the country are doing. They are saying that something is very wrong. It's not fair that those at the top are hoarding all the resources while the rest of us suffer. It's not justice. And our God is a God of justice. If we are on the side of God, we are also on the side of those who are poor and suffering. When those who have power and authority are misusing that power, it's time to challenge the status quo. There is a time for everything, and even Jesus knew that there are appropriate times to challenge those in charge- when things aren't right. Jesus was being a rabble-rouser! And he did it because he cares about those in need.

Perhaps a little holy rabble rousing isn't beyond our purview as the people of God. Have you ever felt angry about something that wasn't right?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The UMC Then and Now

Today I stumbled across the blog of Deborah Coble Wise, a UMC pastor in Iowa. She found an article written in 1969 about the Church of the future. In it, Rev. Ronald W. Tapp is interviewed about what the future of the institutional Church would be like. The writer reports,

Recently on a three month research assignment for analysis and planning, Dr. Tapp said in an interview that indications are that the organizational structures of churches "are not going to make it" to the end of the century." "The long-range prospects are good for essential Judeo-Christianity, but not for the institutions." he said.

Wow, that really describes what is going on in the UMC today. This article speaks to this particular moment in UMC history, because the Call to Action Report has just been published. This document was written by United Methodists who are trying to cope with the changes our church has been facing, especially its declining membership, and it proposes radical changes- some of which were well-received and some of which were not. Some of what Rev. Trapp predicts especially rings true:
- A re-enactment of the fundamentalist-liberal fight of 60 years ago...It already has resulted in a marked polarization of the church at all levels...the split may become irreparable.

-With Protestants and Roman Catholics "no longer in real dispute" over major doctrines, they will move increasingly toward "merger at practical levels" - between fundamental Protestants and fundamental Catholics and between liberal Protestants and liberal Catholics.

- Most institutional members will be 45 years old, and up.  "There will be a steady decrease in total membership...fewer youths will join the church." On the other hand, there will be "increasing interest in religion and Christianity" among college students and young adults but "they will continue to avoid the institutional church."

-The main theological shift will be away from doctrine of divine transcendence toward a "doctrine of panentheism," which holds that "God is in everything," in contrast from pantheism, which says "God is everything."
Whoa. All of those things actually happened, and they constitute our everyday reality right now. It's hard to believe sometimes that folks back then could never have conceived of these things, but on the other hand, a lot of UMC local churches today still behave as if it's 1969. They are denying the reality around them, or at least, refusing to participate in it.

Could there be a better way to deal with these new spiritual realities in our world than to refuse to participate? I think so. There must be a way to engage them while standing firm in the faith. And that, my friends, is the delicate balance of living a life of faith in our day and age. What do you do to keep your balance in your faith journey?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Occupy Movement: A Call to Repentance

This Saturday, I went to visit Occupy Boston with my friend, Brother Anthony, who was in town for the weekend. I have been following the formation of Occupy Boston since the first General Assembly a couple of weeks ago, but I had been following it online. I arrived just as the march of the day converged at the Federal Reserve building in downtown Boston's financial district. The patch of ground that OB is occupying is Dewey Square, which is in between that building and the Bank of America building. As soon as I arrived, I was introduced to the "people's mic," which is a procedure by which people can make speeches even if they don't have a permit to use a bullhorn. The speaker says a phrase, and then all the people around her/him repeat it loudly so that the whole crowd can hear. I also immediately spotted these young ladies holding a handmade sign:

photo is mine

I realized then that it was Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement and a time of repentance and making amends for one's sins against others. I thought that their sign really demonstrated... well, why they're demonstrating. They are upset that Wall Street bankers are getting away with theft against the American people, and they haven't been held accountable for their actions- actions that have impoverished millions of Americans and forced them to leave their homes.

I only took a quick tour of the camp, but right away I got the sense that folks were there for the long haul. They were about the business of building a movement. I will definitely have to return frequently. While I don't agree with, say, the anarchists or the socialists, I do agree with the main message of the movement- fairness and accountability. Equality. Democracy. No one knows where this movement is going, but I am excited to find out!

I hope you'll stick around for what I hope will become regular installments about the movement. I think we can all agree that we are all accountable to God for our actions. And that a nation that purports to believe in equality and ethics should hold wrongdoers accountable too. Our justice should become more and more like God's justice. It's time to start thinking about where we went wrong and what we can do to make things right. In a sense, it's time for a Yom Kippur for the whole nation.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Anger: Righteous or Not?

One of my dear friends, Brother Anthony, is a postulant in a Capuchin Franciscan friary in NYC. Being a postulant means that he is in the process of becoming a friar (sort of like a monk), similar to my process of ordination. Part of his postulency requirement is that he do service with those in his neighborhood who are less fortunate, and Anthony chose to work in a soup kitchen for his homeless neighbors called Neighbors Together. Last week, he blogged about having to turn people away who wanted second helpings, because more people were expected to come in later. He wrote,
Yesterday I was angry with myself for being angry on the serving line at the men who were angry at me because I could not give them more food. I told one of the men that "we're all hungry," meaning that everybody who comes to Neighbors Together is hungry and needs a meal. This man said to me that not everybody is hungry, meaning that not everybody has to come to Neighbors Together.
Anthony also mentioned that he asked his neighbors to write letters on paper plates to their Representative in the House of Representatives. He intends to mail them to the Rep. so that he knows how many people the soup kitchen serves. After reading the letters, he says he feels angry and frustrated at the inequality that causes some to be so poor and while others flourish.

I have to admit, sometimes I get angry about the inequities that cause my own neighbors to live on the street in Central Square, Cambridge. Last Saturday, I distributed sandwiches with a new friend from church, Sophie. At first, we wondered why we didn't see anyone. Then right before it was time to go, folks came streaming into the square. The Korean Presbyterian church down the street had been serving meals on Saturday nights, but the head chef's laptop had been stolen and they blamed the homeless guests. They closed the soup kitchen until a new security system with video cameras could be installed. Thankfully, we had plenty of food- folks took every last morsel we carried. That was their dinner. They had counted on someone else to give them a warm meal. That someone had the prerogative to cancel that meal with no notice and for any reason at all. Our neighbor's stomachs do not have the prerogative to just stop being hungry.

As always, I'm glad I participate in H-EUMC's sandwich ministry, and I was blessed by our interactions this week. But sometimes, like Anthony, I get angry. Sometimes anger can be righteous, like Jesus when he overturned the moneychangers' tables in the temple, and sometimes it can be unproductive, resulting in "hardening our hearts," as Anthony put it. It can be hard to tell the difference. So it's important to remember to use our anger as motivation to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. When we do that, our anger is righteous and is not unproductive or futile.

Have you ever felt angry about something that just wasn't right and you couldn't do anything about it? How did you respond? How do you think Jesus would want us to respond to these things?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

An Interruption... Or an Invitation?

Vinita Hampton Wright over at the Sojourners blog caught my attention with her article "Life: Interrupted." It's short but profound. She writes:

I've come to believe that one aspect of maturity is the ability to see life's interruptions not as interruptions but as necessary events and journeys. If we think of the unexpected as an interruption, then our attitude will be to get rid of it as fast as we can-so that we can get on with our "real" or "ordinary" life... But most interruptions are not so easily dispatched.

Interruptions are life. The unexpected is simply the life you have but don't yet know about. The wise woman accepts that reality. What does she do with the unexpected, the disruption, the unwelcome call or caller? She engages with it, with everything she has. She looks for the layer of grace and God-ness that is always there, somewhere and somehow. She pays attention and looks for the wisdom waiting to be tapped in the day that has suddenly changed direction.

I am really stuck by the idea that interruptions are life, since I have always treated them as a bother. Recently, my life was seriously interrupted when we had to leave our apartment due to dangerous construction going on in our bathroom. I felt that I was displaced and have "lost" a week of productivity. In reality, the only thing I lost was my routine. That week was just as much a part of my life as every other week. Wright's article reminds me to adjust my attitude toward unexpected changes or interruptions. Difficult as it may be to change my attitude, doing so will make me a more mature person. Time to get to work- being interrupted!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

9/11 Remembrance

I remember where I was when 9/11 happened. I was a junior in high school. I was in Mr. Burnett's second period history class taking a current events quiz. Mr. Fortune burst into the room and said, "Mr. Burnett, what are you doing in here?" He said, "Current events." Mr. Fortune replied, "Well you'd better turn on the TV because there's a current event going on right now!" When he turned it on, I was bewildered by the sight of the World Trade Center towers with smoke coming out of one. Eventually, the bell rang. By the time I arrived at third period A Capella Choir, a second plane had crashed into the second tower. Mr. Guiliano led us in singing "America the Beautiful" and then told us to sit, talk, and pray. Mercifully, my other teachers that morning actually taught class. The TV monitors in every room and all over the school, that were used as clocks, were all tunes to the news. When I got to lunch, the footage had changed. People were throwing themselves out of the Towers and into the street. I threw my nachos away untouched.

That evening, after praise band practice, I was looking at the Times-Gazette and talking to my mom while she made dinner. I asked her, "What's the use of doing something like that? I mean, bombing people? I don't see the point." My mom said, "I don't see the point either." I said, "I don't see a point to guns or bombing or anything that kills people. I guess I don't believe in killing people." Mom agreed. That day, in our kitchen, I became a pacifist.

 photo credit: Denise Gould

9/11 was a life-changing experience for me, as it was for so many of us. Last Sunday, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of September 11th, Harvard-Epworth invited a special guest to come. Pastor Scott talked about the pain that Bostonians felt that day. I had forgotten until that day that the flights into JFK that crashed into the Towers came from Boston Logan. People in this area lost their loved ones who had been on those flights. The guest that Pastor Scott, and, I learned, my good friend Lane had invited to church was  Mr. Izhar Khazmi, a lay person from the largest mosque in Boston. I expected him to talk about something profound and spiritual, but he didn't. He just talked about what it was like for him and his family, who had come with him, on 9/11. He talked about how he works in Boston's financial district, and how the FBI had come to his office to interrogate him because he is Middle Eastern and Muslim. He said that was the only difficult thing he experienced at the time, and that his coworkers and friends were very supportive of him during that time. His son and wife talked about how grateful they are for the support of their neighbors, and how wonderful it is to be American. They said they were a little nervous about coming to a Christian church, but they were very glad they came and very glad to meet us. Mr. Khazmi's son is a BU student, like I was, and he was glad to meet me at coffee hour.

In a sense, it was a pretty extraordinary morning because it was a time of remembrance and interfaith learning and sharing. In another sense, it was pretty ordinary. We worshiped, sang, ate, asked questions, and met new friends. Just like any other Sunday. And then we all went back to our homes and took Sunday afternoon naps. I feel very fortunate that, 10 years after 9/11, we had such an "ordinary" Sunday. We have homes and places to nap. We have food and friends. 10 years later, we still have each other, we still have our safety, and we still have our country. It is still good to be American, as Mr. Khazmi reminded us. We have a lot for which to be thankful this week. It is time to remember, to love one another, and to forgive.

Where were you on September 11th, 2011? How have you remembered it this week?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Be-Attitudes

Next Sunday is the first Sunday of the regular school year for Harvard-Epworth UMC, and all the church's programs are gearing up for a new year. Unlike churches in the Midwest, New England churches tend to take a hiatus over the summer and many programs are temporarily suspended. It will be good to get back into the swing of things, see all my friends who have been away, and start fresh for the year.

This year, I am leading the Young Adult Bible Study during the Sunday School hour. I have never been a Bible Study leader before. I'm a little bit nervous, but more excited than nervous. Since I'm not sure what everyone would be interested in studying, we'll start with the Beatitudes, otherwise known as the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew chapter 5.

I think it will be a good starting place because they are immediately applicable to our everyday lives. I always think of the Beatitudes as Be-Attitudes. They show us the Christian way of being, thinking, and orienting ourselves to the world. They show us the upside-down Kingdom of God, in which those who are last- in life, in loss, in wealth- will be first in God's Kingdom. They challenge us to be peacemakers in a world full of war and conflict. The Beatitutes are an important part of the Gospels. In fact, my dad told me that in Jewish thought, the first thing mentioned is always the most important. And the Beatitudes are Jesus' first teaching in Matthew. It is pretty obvious that Jesus most wants us to know what God values and the kind of people God wants us to be.

Somebody on the web made a Wordle of the Beatitudes.
Wordles are not subject to copyright.

I hope that this year, I can live up to the Beatitudes. I hope that I can do more than just talk about peacemaking and thirsting for righteousness- I hope that I can do it. And I hope that my attitude will reflect the kind of person I am Be-ing, and I hope that I am being the kind of person Jesus talked about in the Beatitudes.

Do you have a hope for the upcoming school year? What is the hardest Beatitude to live up to and why?

Friday, September 2, 2011

"I'm not religious, I'm spiritual."

This week, a UCC pastor made a splash in the blogosphere with her article, "Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me." She discusses how she dreads telling her seatmates on airplanes that she's a pastor. She writes,
On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is "spiritual but not religious." Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo. Next thing you know, he's telling me that he finds God in the sunsets...

Like people who go to church don't see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself. 
In many ways, I have had the same attitude as Rev. Daniel. As Christians, we are part of a spirituality that happens in community. We don't just go off by ourselves and be spiritual alone. We come together and learn and challenge each other. I have always been annoyed with my family members who refuse to talk about their spiritual lives because they aren't challenged, and as a result, don't grow spiritually. People who don't grow can become boring because they're so predictable.

Well, my friend posted this blog entry on Facebook, and I ended up getting into a long conversation with one of her friends who called out Rev. Daniels. She is spiritual but not religious, and she found the attitude of the post to be condescending. She pointed out that people who are spiritual but not religious struggle too. Maybe I just haven't met anyone who isn't religious and who still grows spiritually- perhaps my experiences have been limited. While Rev. Daniel's blog post was something that didn't challenge me, my interaction with a friend of a friend on Facebook did. Perhaps I can be challenged and encouraged to grow, even by someone who is not religious. Perhaps I can learn from everyone in my life. 

Have you ever learned something unexpected from someone who didn't initially take seriously? How has your attitude toward that person changed?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Storm is Coming

Everyone on the East Coast is talking about Hurricane Irene right now. It's supposed to be a category 5, which is very powerful. The last time a category 5 hurricane (Hurricane Bob) hit Massachusetts, it caused many millions of dollars in damage. My parents were going to come and visit for my birthday this weekend, but they are seriously thinking about canceling. A lot of people are very anxious and afraid. Even though I find it silly how afraid they are, I am still stocking up with lots of food, water and supplies.

 image from

Awhile ago, I read a blog post about so-called "Doubting" Thomas. Nadia Boltz-Weber writes,

Is it just me, or does anyone else think it's kind of weird how we've named Thomas, "Doubting" Thomas? We don't give the other characters in the New Testament little nicknames ... like needy Nicodemus or Co-dependant Martha. But poor Thomas is stuck with Doubting Thomas.Yet, the fact of the matter is this: When Jesus encountered Thomas, Jesus didn't label him Doubting Thomas. He didn't judge him. He came to Thomas just as he was, doubts and all, and offered him peace.

Nadia concludes that God's love is stronger than our doubt.  I think that, in the same way, God's love is stronger than our fear. 2 Timothy 1:7 says, "For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline." God takes away our fear and makes us loving people. Perhaps that would be helpful to know for the people who are knocking into each other at the grocery stores and hoarding supplies. They remind me of this song by Nickel Creek:

Have you ever reacted to a situation out of fear? How have you allowed God's perfect love to replace fear in your heart, and how did that change the way you think and act?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

What is a spiritual practice?

Hey folks, I am not feeling well this week, so I don't have many of my own thoughts to share. But I have read plenty of articles while planted on the couch, so I thought I'd share a blog that made me think. Christine over at GodSpace recently posted an article about spiritual practices that was made by a group that took a really innovative approach to spiritual practice. The video embedded in it says, "Spiritual practices are useful if they help us grow." That reminded me that spiritual practice does not always have to be sitting and reading the Bible. It can be a lot of things, as long as they help us mature spiritually.

I encourage you to check out this article. Have you ever tried a spiritual practice that seems unconventional? Did you feel it helped you grow spiritually? Have you ever wanted to try one of these things and not had the guts to do it?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Vacation in God's Creation

Finally, I'm back! I hope you have not been too bored with God Talk for the last three weeks. :o) I was not able to post much because I was on vacation in Ashland and in Michigan. It's good to be back home, but re-entry into the workweek after vacation is always rough. I've been looking forward to the weekend since Monday.

I am so glad I had the chance to visit with so many of you in Ashland. Of course, the highlight for me was being able to share a message with you in church and enjoy coffee hour afterward. It was also good to go to visiting hours for my confirmation mentor, Jan Barnes. When I was attending First UMC Ashland as a teen, she taught me all about the liturgy we used each Sunday, the hymns we sang, and the symbols in the sanctuary and the stained glass windows. Jan encouraged me to be involved in church, to make new friends, and to be aware of God's love for me every day. I remember when she took my best friend and me swimming one afternoon in one of FUMC church members' pool. The three of us ate pizza and had all kinds of goofy fun in the pool! It was hard after she got Alzheimer's, because she didn't remember my face, but my dad says she always asked after me when she saw him. I'm glad I visited with her family and told them about Jan's impact on my life when I first became a United Methodist. They seemed glad that I am carrying on Jan's passion for beautiful Christian worship.

For the second half of my vacation, I traveled with my husband and his family to Petoskey, Michigan for a wedding. Stephen and I don't have a car, so we really enjoyed using his mom's car to road trip our way up to Petoskey. Northern Michigan is one of the most beautiful places in all of God's creation, I think. The forests are old and majestic, and Little Traverse Bay has several very nice beaches. The sunsets over Lake Michigan are some of the most beautiful in the world! They reminded me of the sunsets we saw when we were on our honeymoon in Hawaii. At the rehearsal dinner, I was given a Petoskey stone as a favor. Petoskey stones are bits of rock that date from the era when Michigan was covered in ocean. There were lots of coral living in the sea, and when the sea dried up and the coral died, the reefs were compressed and the outlines of their skeletons were preserved. You can see their little coral mouths in the stone!

It reminded me that God's world is very old and has gone through many transformations in order to become what I see today.

I was also soberly reminded of why I am a United Methodist when I realized that the rehearsal dinner would be held in a casino. By Michigan law, all casinos outside Detroit must be tribally owned and operated. The casino to which we drove was on a reservation. The dinner was decadent: luscious appetizers, filet mignon, chocolate mousse with raspberries, and wine from a huge rotating cabinet in the center of the room that went all the way up to the ceiling! My parents in law took me in a separate door just for the restaurant so that I wouldn't have to walk through the casino, out of respect for my moral position on gambling. That was very nice of them. Still, the delicious tastes I enjoyed were juxtaposed with the knowledge that they exist as a lure to get people to stay longer at the casino, so the house can take more of their money. I looked around at the other people eating in the restaurant and wondered how many of them could actually afford to throw their money away at a casino. Were they harboring hopes of getting rich quick? I was glad to put my hope in God that night, and know that God will take care of me, as the hymn says, "come what may."

All in all, it was a good vacation. I'm so glad I could take some time off to reconnect with family and friends, enjoy God's creation outdoors, have some fun, and take a few moments to sharpen my social consciousness.

How do you experience your spirituality when you are on vacation? Do you feel that God meets you wherever you happen to be vacationing?

Friday, August 5, 2011

Second Helping: Forgiveness

I'm still on vacation, and this week I'm in Petoskey, MI attending a wedding in my husband's family. Until I get back home, I don't have much time to write, but in the meantime, here is a story I hope you'll like:

Doing the Right Thing by Saia Veikoso

If you were in church last week, you remember the story I told about a man who lost his eye when a shooter walked into his workplace. This is a story by a Togan United Methodist who also lost his eye, and he has another interesting perspective on forgiveness.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

New GBGM website!

I'm a bit busy today, as I will be traveling to the Midwest tomorrow- I will see many of you soon! :o)

So I thought I'd leave you with a great video from the General Board of Global Ministries from their new website devoted to ministry with the poor. The video plays automatically when you go to the homepage.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

First-World Problems

This week I'm crazy-busy getting a sermon ready to preach in two Sundays, so I'll make a proper blog post next week. For now, check out this video of the First World Problems rap. It's funny, but the reason why it's funny is that we all share in the little annoyances of life in a developed country. It really puts things in perspective.

Hat Tip: Jeremy over at Hacking Christianity

Thursday, July 14, 2011

God and Harry Potter: the Invisibility Cloak

OK, I'll admit it right off the bat: I am so excited about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2 coming out tonight! I've got Potter on the brain. :o)

A Catholic writer over at The World is My Cloister caught my attention this week with a post about an icon of Abraham and Sarai welcoming an angel. My minor in undergrad was in art history, so I loved her analysis of the shapes in the icon and how she talked about the Genesis text. What really caught my attention, though was her statement about Harry Potter's Invisibility Cloak:
Do you remember the invisibility cloak in Harry Potter? I think I know where she got the idea from. The blue of this figure can only be seen in snatches beneath his ethereal robe. Perhaps I found the reason that God is so elusive? He has an invisibility cloak? God the Father rests his hands on a staff, a symbol of authority. Behind him is a house, a dwelling place for God.
I find it interesting that she thinks that God is elusive. My experience has been that God is always to be found- in fact, God wants to be found by us.

Actually, when I think about it, when Harry dons the Invisibility Cloak, he is almost always found. Sometimes he is found by a friend and sometimes by an enemy. In Deathly Hallows Pt. 2, he uses the cloak to sneak into Gringotts, the wizard bank, an is almost caught by the bank guards. The cloak is really a temporary fix to the scrapes in which Harry finds himself. Harry is still detectable when he has to sneeze, bumps into something, or is around an animal that can smell him.

In a sense, God is like that too. Perhaps you can't always see God, but you can still detect God's presence. You know God is with you when you are touched by a song. you hug a longtime friend, or you are going through a hard time and still find the strength to go on. 

Perhaps it is not God who is elusive; perhaps it is our God-awareness that is elusive. It can be difficult to maintain the awareness of God in the everyday... it's a learned discipline. It would be nice to have a Marauder's Map to help us see where God is at all times. But if we did, we would always see God's footsteps moving along beside us. We don't need to build a house for God because God is here; God's home is with us. We just need to know how to be aware of that.

Have you ever had a hard time finding God in your everyday life? How did you find God again?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

JOSHUA team 2011 deaprts!

This week, members of our church departed for the JOSHUA mission in the Ohio Valley District of our conference. Steubenville is in the southeast part of Ohio, so it is located in the Appalachian foothills and it serves the people there. Appalachia is known for having the worst poverty rate in the US, and the people there are in deep need of education and public health assistance.

A significant amount of our annual JOSHUA team is made up of Youth Group members, but plenty of adults go too. I remember working for a few days at the JOSHUA mission when I was a youth. At that time, the kind of work I was doing was totally new to me, and I had a hard time getting my mind about why I was doing it. Unbeknownst to me, I was participating in social justice ministry.

At the time, I wondered, "If we really want to make a difference with these people, why aren't we sharing the Gospel with them?" This week I discovered an article that addresses this concern, "Social Justice vs. Evangelism." Maggie Canty-Shafer explains that they are really two sides of the same coin. They both contribute to what she says is "holistic ministry." She quotes Dr. Ron Sider, who wrote a book about this topic, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger:
Sider says that without social works, evangelism appears to be all talk. But without sharing the hope and good news of the Gospel, ministry lacks the Holy Spirit’s transformative power. Neither side of social justice ministry is complete without the other.  “People are both spiritual and material beings,” Sider says. “Addressing only half the problem only gives you half of the solution.”
Social justice ministry is the arm of evangelism through which we care for the physical and emotional needs of our neighbors. It isn't just a prelude to a carefully-prepared rendition of the Romans Road. In social justice ministry we become the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus Christ. We are Christ's presence with all who are suffering. Just as Jesus communicated God's saving grace in his gentle touch and kind words, we do the same here and now. While some Christians get the idea that God will judge them based on how many people were saved because of their witness, Matthew 25:31-40 tells us that God will also judge our lives based on how we treat those whom society casts aside:
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Jesus' ministry included proclaiming God's love with his mouth and showing it with his hands and feet. We are called to do the same. Our Christian walk with God is not only about our relationship with God; it's about how we relate to all God's children. Social justice ministry is one of many facets in our relationship with God.

JOSHUA is a great chance for our youth (and young at heart!) to learn about social justice ministry. Please join me in holding our team in prayer during their spiritual and physical journey.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Worship vs. Social Justice?

When I arrived at seminary and my classmates started to ask me about my interests, they were surprised when I mentioned both social justice and liturgical arts. I wondered why, until I attended a church with a very strong social justice emphasis. This church wrote its own liturgy to meet its unique needs, but it eschewed more formal elements of standard UMC services like processionals/ recessionals, always saying the same words during communion (it liked improvisation), and even the usual expectation that everyone stay quiet during worship. It was a church that reached out to people who were homeless, mentally ill, had developmental disabilities, were deaf/blind, and who had been assaulted. The church was proud to welcome others just as they are, including any distractions that might come along with these guests.

I enjoyed my time at the church, but I missed some of the elements of liturgy that this church left out. Surely, I thought, United Methodists can conduct a church service that is beautiful and meaningful while still warmly welcoming those who are different. But some of my classmates seemed to think that embracing formal liturgy means a church has a cold atmosphere and strict behavioral guidelines.

A church doesn't have to have a formal liturgical style to decide that "outsiders" are too much trouble to tolerate, as Rachel Held Evans remarks in a recent blog post. It makes me so sad to read her story of a young man asked to leave worship because he has Cerebral Palsy. Rachel acknowledges how hard it is to welcome others, especially because they don't only disturb the decorum of services- they disturb our sense of self:

We have one place for the un-cool people (our ministries) and another place for the cool people (our church services). When we actually bump into one another, things can get awkward, so we try to avoid it... The truth is we’re all guilty of thinking we’re too cool for the least of these. Our elitism shows up when we forbid others from contributing art and music because we deem it unworthy of glorifying God, or when we scoot our family an extra foot or two down the pew when the guy with Aspergers sits down. Having helped start a church, I remember hoping that our hip guests wouldn’t be turned off by our less-than-hip guests.  For a second I forgot that in church, of all places, those distinctions should disappear. Some of us wear our brokenness on the inside, others on the outside. But we’re all broken. We’re all un-cool. We’re all in need of a Savior.

I wonder if perhaps the sense of decorum projected in formal liturgical church services has come to signify more than "the work of the people" (leitourgia). Perhaps it represents the way we like to view ourselves: proper, put-together, acceptable to others. But as Rachel points out, even if we're put-together on the outside, we might be a complete mess on the inside. We need to remember that liturgy does not exist to make us look good, or to make us acceptable to God. God already accepts us just the way we are.

Liturgy, as "the work of the people," is our communal response to God. In a word, it's worship. We are not truly worshiping God when we try to put up an attractive front for others. We are freed for true worship when we stop trying to keep up appearances (including "decorum" in church) and come to God just as we are. When we are fully present in worship- in all that we are, good and bad- we are better able to experience God's love and show God's love to newcomers.

However we worship, we have the opportunity to shed our pretenses and be open to God and to others. Here in Boston, the Paulist Center is a Roman Catholic parish that does a great job of doing formal worship well, and also being a warm and welcoming community. Even though the words spoken and the symbols used are in "High" liturgical style, they are spoken with a warm tone of voice and signified with an open posture. I felt so welcome when I visited, even though as a Protestant I could not fully participate in the service. My experience at the Paulist Center helped me realize that social justice and hospitality do not need to be sacrificed for a beautiful worship service.

Both social justice work and well-executed liturgy are responses to God's love for us. God reaches out to us in so many ways in our everyday lives, and we can respond to God in many ways. The fluid, dignified movements of a pastor in worship and the simple movement of sharing a sandwich or a handshake are really the same movement on the inside: our hearts are moving toward God. And in turn, we are called to show God to others- through our actions in worship and through our service to the community.

Have you ever found it difficult to welcome someone in church who is somehow different? How do different worship styles help you feel close to God?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Methodist Connexion

Yes, you read that right: this post is about the Methodist connection, or as John Wesley used to say, the connexion. This is the time of year that seemingly normal Methodists around the world turn into nerds, take vacations from their jobs and travel to Annual Conference to legislate. Well, Annual Conference season isn't just about legislation. It's about Methodists gathering by regions (aka Conferences) to worship, greet old friends, share our favorite foods at table, and have Bible study.

In East Ohio (the Annual Conference in which Ashland is located), conference is held each year at LakeSide, OH, a chatauqua on Lake Erie. I have many fond memories of LakeSide from the time I was a young teen until I left for seminary in Boston. I remember long talks on our porch (and my friends' porches), passing bags of candy around when legislation got boring, daily trips to Cokesbury, putt-putt golf, and Bible study on the pier.

LakeSide's pier. Photo credit: Cheryl Duell, EOAC 2011
And of course, there's the food: Patio Ice, Sloopy's pizza, Moose Track ice cream, and freshly made donuts and orange juice at the Patio each morning. Even if it was cold cuts in a friend's kitchen, each meal at LakeSide was special because it was spent with friends. The highlight of every Annual Conference is the ordination service, when pastors and future pastors are ordained and commissioned for ministry. The bishop and their friends and mentors lay hands on them and pray. Then they are presented with new red stoles (for Pentecost!) and either a chalice and patten set (Elders) or a bowl and pitcher set (Deacons) to symbolize their new roles.

June is a poignant time for United Methodists everywhere, whether or not they can make it to conference. Whenever we gather for Annual Conference, we sing a classic Charles Wesley hymn, "And Are We Yet Alive?"
And are we yet alive,
And see each other’s face?
Glory and thanks to Jesus give
For His almighty grace!

Preserved by power divine
To full salvation here,
Again in Jesus’ praise we join
And in His sight appear.

What troubles have we seen,
What mighty conflicts past,
Fightings without, and fears within,
Since we assembled last!

Yet out of all the Lord
Hath brought us by His love;
And still He doth His help afford,
And hides our life above.

Then let us make our boast
Of His redeeming power,
Which saves us to the uttermost,
Till we can sin no more.

Let us take up the cross
Till we the crown obtain,
And gladly reckon all things loss
So we may Jesus gain.
 These are just six short verses, but  they tell our story as a people of God. Each year we look back on the hardships we have faced and remember those who have gone home to be with God (there's a hymn for that too, "For All the Saints"). Though we have come through "troubles, mighty conflicts, fightings, and fears," we are still "preserved by power Divine." We're still here, by the grace of God, and we meet again. God gives us strength to endure our trials and continues God's saving work in our lives "to the uttermost." We reaffirm our commitment to give our lives to Christ, forsaking the world, and strive toward Christian perfection.

Annual Conference reminds us that we are not alone in our walk with God. We are connected to a larger community of believers who support us in our faith in life, and in death, inspire us to deeper faith and holy living. They remind us of what is most important in life: our relationships with God and with others. In our special traditions as Methodists, both the sacred and mundane moments we share in community draw us closer to God and to one another.

Have you ever been to Annual Conference or another event in which you set apart some time to be in community with other Christians? What are the moments you remember and why are they important to you?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

It's Pentecost!

As you may or may not know, this Sunday will be a Church holiday unlike any other for the whole year: Pentecost. On this feast day, we tell the story of how the Christian Church began its mission in the world (see Acts 2). When I attended Christ UMC in years past, I remember Pentecost being explained to the children as "the birthday of the Church." Well, it's true that this day is the day we celebrate how the Church began, but it is not the whole point of celebrating Pentecost.

Pentecost is the day we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit into our lives with the transforming power of God's salvation. The Spirit dwells within us all the time and empowers us to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ to the whole world. This coming of the Spirit is the big news of the day of Pentecost!

This is my absolute favorite holiday of the year because I used to be a Charismatic Christian. Yes, that means I was one of those weird people who would speak in tongues in worship: I was the definition of a Jesus Freak. Even though I no longer speak in tongues, the times that I did it as a child made a strong impact on my spirituality. I experienced God in a physical way that most other Christians have never had. I believe in the Holy Spirit and her power because of the time I spent in prayer using a personal prayer language given by the Spirit. I learned in a very tangible way that the indwelling of the Spirit in our hearts is definitely something to celebrate.

Recently, I have seen "Happy Birthday Church" cakes and heard Pentecost sermons focusing on the gifts of the Holy Spirit... all except for speaking in tongues, of course. These things make me feel disappointed because the Spirit of Pentecost cannot be contained in the late-90's spiritual gifts fad or a brief historical lesson. The coming of the Spirit in our lives is the result of God's saving grace and the means by which God's sanctifying grace transforms our lives and beckons us toward greater personal holiness.

As Methodists, for whom sanctification after salvation is very important, we cannot afford to miss the most important part of Pentecost. After the departure of Jesus from this earth, the Holy Spirit is now God-With-Us. The Holy Spirit is the One who transforms us from Christian to Even-More-Christian. And the Holy Spirit sends us to do God's mission in the world, empowering us to do the hard work of ministering with those whom society casts aside.

By the way, I will be baking a cake for this Sunday's coffee hour. It will be a Pentecost cake, but it will not say, "Happy Birthday Church." It will say, "Come, Holy Spirit!"

UPDATE 6/11: I seriously did bake a cake! Here it is

What can I say? I love cake. :o)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Being a Friend

My good friend from seminary will be coming to visit this weekend! I am so excited that Joy will be here in just two days. We decided to read a book together and discuss it when she arrives. The book we chose was recommended by one of my Facebook friends: Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World by Lynne M. Baab.*

I have, in all honesty, had to cram this book in the last couple of weeks because I've been so busy. But I am so glad I took the time to read it. I'm almost finished and will certainly be done by the time Joy arrives.

In her book, Baab discusses what it means to be a friend in today's world, when friends are far-flung across states and even continents, and so many different forms of communication are available to us. She shares her wisdom out of a lifetime of experience being a friend across the miles. Baab discusses lots of elements of being a friend, like acceptance, forgiveness, taking initiative, giving, thanking, and praying. She also devotes one chapter to the image of Jesus as our friend.

When I was a youth in East Ohio, one of our CCYM presidents said during a Thursday night devotion, "Knowing that Jesus is my friend is what gets me out of bed in the morning." That's a powerful statement, and I'm not sure I can say the same thing for myself. I consider my relationship with God important, and I look forward to my morning devotions, but it is hard to consider Jesus my friend. All of Baab's excellent suggestions for keeping up earthly friendships don't quite translate to a relationship with the Divine.

Baab does a good job of describing the Godhead as relational in nature, and states that the relationships among the members of the Trinity serve as an example for human relationships. She then cites John 15:12-15 (NRSV):
‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.
This verse nicely illustrates Jesus' relationship with us. Christ is not over us, ordering us around, but is sharing his life with us and taking part in our lives.  I love this theology, and I understand her point that God's example teaches us how to be better friends.

But still, I have to ask: how are we to be Jesus' friend? There is no audible voice of God with whom to have a conversation. There is no tangible body of Christ to hug; the closest we come to that is during communion, when we experience Christ's presence among us in ritual. We can't friend Jesus on Facebook (well, OK, we can, but that's not really Jesus behind that Facebook account; it's a regular person).

So what does it mean to be a friend of Jesus? Well, I think Baab's elements of friendship can serve as a guide: acceptance, forgiveness, taking initiative, giving, and thanking. We can accept God's grace and thank God for the blessings in our lives when we pray. When we give to others and do the difficult work of accepting and forgiving them, we are forgiving Jesus too (Matt. 25:40). By making time to read the Bible, we are taking taking the initiative to get to know Jesus.

I've just come up with the ways in which we can befriend Jesus. Even so, I don't really think of my relationship with Jesus as a friendship. It just... is what it is. I don't really try to describe it to others.

How do you think about your relationship with Jesus? How do you maintain it?

* I was not given this book and I was not paid to write about it in this blog. This blog post contains my true opinions about the book.