Archive for July, 2012

July 29, 2012

Redefining God as Parent

Our last in the series of “Sermons by Request” continued this morning. Finding out that this was the passage chosen made my head spin a little… I didn’t know what I’d make of such. But in the e d thankful for this week’s theological wrestlings.

Romans 1:18-25

One of the most important questions of faith that we all must answer, no matter where we are on our spiritual journey is, “What is my relationship to God? And God’s to me?”

As we begin to answer this question, it is important to start in the beginning.

It has been said in countless formal and informal studies of the spiritual beliefs and attitudes about God of adults has much to do with the relationship he or she had with their parents. After all, our parents and our immediate family members are our first introduction to navigating the world of human relationships. From our connection with our parents, we gather a lot of inferences about the evil or the good in the world, whom we are to fear, who we are to trust, what it means to love and what punishment feels like.

But even more so than this, this association is important to pay attention to because of how we talk about God in our faith communities. After all, how we speak about God in church each Sunday usually includes a lot of parental language. We say, “Our father who art in heaven” as we begin the Lord’s prayer together. We pray spontaneous prayers to our “heavenly father” or “father God” and sometimes even to “Mother and Father God.” We baptize in the name of the “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” And, I know if you’ve been listening closely to my sermons, you’ve heard me say once or twice something about God as our heavenly Parent.

Blogger Lisa Beklin, recently said in a New York Times post, “Motherlode” the following about the relationship between earthly parents and attitudes about God:

When parents are more supportive of a child’s autonomy – giving her a sense that she is control of her own life – a child is more likely to see God as a more forgiving God. God is an authority figure to be respected, but he is less fearsome.

On the other hand, if parents are extremely strict and punishing – dictating every moment of a child’s life – their children are more likely to believe that God is punishing, angry, and powerful. Girls are more affected by this dynamic than boys, and the way Mom disciplines has more of an effect in this direction than the way Dad does.

And for children who have extremely strained relationships with parents – or when a parent is absent from their lives – scholars have found that children in those relationships increasingly think of God as a surrogate parent. God as the ultimate father figure. They endow God with the traits of an idealized version of the missing parent – someone who is caring, attentive, and highly involved in their day-to-day lives. He’s an understanding, patient confidant, always there to offer encouragement and support.

I don’t know what gifts or challenges your parents gave you which have required potential reframing or growing from in the spiritual life of your adulthood, but I do know this, there isn’t a person in this congregation this morning who didn’t get at least some of your ideas about God from your family situation.

And so when we arrive at our epistle lesson from this morning– one of your favorite texts (and in this case of how hard I found myself working to make something of this passage, I really want to know who you are)– it might be very easy for us to read into this text what we think we know about God from our own earthly parental experiences, especially if the parents we had related to us like “the great judge” or “the angry one” or “we could never do anything right” type.

For upon first reading of this text, when it begins with the words, “for the wrath of God” our minds easily can go toward emotions of God as an overbearing, chastising, hateful parent. For the word “wrath” associated with any person’s name, doesn’t paint pictures of someone we really want to spent much time with. In fact, we want to spent as least amount of time with them as possible!

But, is this who God is? What does it mean for us to claim God as our parent?

The book of Romans– a letter to the church at Rome, that we know was written by the apostle Paul, is one of the richest books of theology in the entire New Testament. It’s a book that seeks to help the earliest converts to Christianity understand this Jesus whom they had put their faith in. It’s a book that seeks to lay out the relationship between Judaism and the new movement called Christianity. It’s a book that provides the growing communities of followers of Jesus the opportunity to think in detail about who it is that they are worshipping. And from best that we know, Paul wrote Romans to a community of both Jews and Gentiles alike– who were living in a secular culture of worship of many gods, so they could also say as he did in verse 16 of chapter 1, that “they were not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Upon first reading of Romans 1:18-25, it seems clear to me that Paul is telling us that God has standards. And these standards of relationship begin in righteousness.

We read, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.”

Or, in other words, God’s original intention for humanity seems that we were created, Genesis 1 tells us as “very good” but we made choices early on to begin to live as people outside of the bounds of how we were created to live, in complete goodness of our good God.

Ultimately there is a way that God wants to live– in a world of all love, of all peace and all joy of the best things, but we’ve made choices throughout the generations and even within our own life that have robbed us of this best living.

And, in God’s emphasis on righteousness, we, who as a people have fallen short of God’s best for us, are loved with boundaries. We are loved– not in a “we get everything we want” kind of way, but loved within the parameters that model for us what is better choices kind of living.

Again, here we might want to turn our noses up at God and say, “You are still talking about sin again, and am not sure I can believe a God who uses words like that.”

But consider this, when is the last time you were around a family with children or a group of children that you knew didn’t have parents that focused much of their time (or focused too much of their time) on their children?

Think toddler throwing food across the floor hitting other nearby customers at the restaurant with noodles or remains of chicken fingers after they’ve repeatively been asked nicely not to . . .

Consider early grade school child stopping crowds around them with their screams in the middle of the mall or in the parking lot of a grocery store when their mom told them they could not buy something . . .
Think smart mouth of young teen child talking back and then storming off from an adult conversation and slamming the door behind them . . .

Not that this is an occasion to single out children who like us adults, are just having a bad day and may be without the words yet to express their pain (you know, sometimes we all just need to have a good cry, even in public) but the larger point being: that without constantly reinforced consequences of poor choices– boundaries directed toward appropriate behavior, we are not going to find our way to a better, more healthy path.

And the same is true of God, I believe, as Romans 1 lays it out for us. God loves us enough to not always say “YES” to us. Just as author Anne Lamott once wrote, “No is a complete sentence,” so too God also tells us no sometimes. Saying no to us is just what God does from time to time. Look with me at verse 24, “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their own hearts.” Or in other words, God allows us to reap what we sow: not to be mean, but to love!

But this does not mean that we are eternally screwed– left out in the cold on our own, with grave consequences of our shortcomings forever damming us to a place of unpleasantness. Not, God is faithful. We are allowed to taste the bitterness of our own poor choices so that we can learn and come into deeper relationship with the Divine.

If you hear nothing else today, here this and bind these words of hope in your heart: God is a relentless pursuer of relationship with us. It doesn’t matter who we are. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done. It doesn’t matter how alone we feel. God will make a way for us to be in relationship.

God is like the parent who sends their child to time out for a while to think about the consequences and then later when time is up, crawls on the floor to sit beside them to talk through things. Holding them, hugging them close, then suggesting and going with the child to an activity or way of being in the world that is more appropriate for them. Loving through presence.

Ultimately, it is that God shows us through Jesus how much we are loved. Just as we talked about last week– through the incarnation of the holy in Jesus Christ, we are given opportunity to know and experience God as one of us. God became our Parent in Jesus Christ who came close.

Fredrick Buchner in his book, The Magnificent Defeat this about our relationship of children of Parent God:“We are children, perhaps, at the very moment when we know that it is as children that God loves us – not because we have deserved his love and not in spite of our undeserving; not because we try and not because we recognize the futility of our trying; but simply because he has chosen to love us. We are children because he is our father [and I’d add mother]; and all of our efforts, fruitful and fruitless, to do good, to speak truth, to understand, are the efforts of children who, for all their precocity, are children still in that before we loved him, he loved us, as children, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Jesus shows us the way of the love of the Father. Jesus shows us what God as Parent looks like.

But what about those, we might wander who have not heard of Jesus? What about those who have not been given exposure to the glorious grace of faith, as we have, all sitting in this room this morning? What about them?

Well, to this Paul, tells us something else about the relationship between our Parent God and all of us as God’s children. We, who are made in God’s image have all been given a seed of longing within us for what is greater than ourselves, for what is whole, for what, I dare say is even righteouss. In particular, our text for this morning, tells us about creation– about the splendor of the colors, of the textures, of the peaks and valleys, of the breeze, of the sounds, and of the night lights all around us. Creation is just one example, Paul writes of how we have been given post-it notes all around our lives. We’ve been given post-it notes all around the house call this world in which we all reside that lead our longing back toward what can ultimately fulfill it.

Didn’t the great hymn writer once say, ” O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made; I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed. Then sings my soul, My Savior God, to Thee, How great Thou art, How great Thou art?”

And, if not creation, something else. Unexpected relationships that just show up and redirect our paths to what is holy. Intersections with communities of faith seekers, like those found within a congregation like this one. Groups of people who are doing works of charity, not just for the sake of feeling good about themselves, but in the name of our Lord. And in all this things we are pointed on our way to God.

Bottom line– the longing for God is something that is in all of us. If we pay attention to its tugs, it’s going to put us on a search to find our truest home with God, our Parent.

Therefore, to claim God this day as our Parent, is not about what was or wasn’t done to us as a child. It’s not about the big man up on the throne looking down on us shaking his iron fist at us. It’s not even about our shortcomings dangled in front of our face as a way of the Divine saying to us, “You are awful. I hate you.”

No, rather, in spite of our sin– our missing the mark of God’s best for us, God is a loving parent who helps to draw us back to center, back to wholeness, back to healing, and back to peace through whatever means necessary. God shows us more of Jesus.

I don’t know about you, but I need a parent like this. A parent who lovingly pursues relationship with me. A parent who tells me the truth. A parent who teaches me how to grow more comfortable in my own skin each day. A parent who says no. A parent who teaches me how to love others in the same way too.

Let us give thanks this day to the Father and Mother of us all- our God who has called us God’s own.


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July 23, 2012

The Church Gets it Right

Yesterday, Washington Plaza Baptist hosted a memorial service for the brother and brother in-law of two of our devoted church leaders, Mark. The congregation was almost full of those who came to pay their respects. It wasn’t full because everyone in the room had a relationship with the deceased or even had met Mark, but many people came out of love for the family. Mark suffered much from his battle with Huntington’s disease, a genetic condition and died at age 42.

Through weekly updates during Sunday prayers, our church community watched Mark’s family members care for their brother with love, faithfulness and steadfastness, even in the face of ongoing frustrations with the health care system in our state that often wanted to make him someone else’s problem as his functions declined. The journey had been a long one and we had been by their side all the way.

As I led the service and gazed out on the congregation, I could help but think that this is what happens when the church gets it right. We love in community. We live in community. We die in community.  And when one of us is hurting, all of us hurt too. Together we sit with side by side as we encounter some of life’s most difficult life junctures.

When we came to the portion of the service when it was time to share personal tributes, my two church members got up to read this litany about their beloved brother. I can’t tell you how proud I was– not only was it a beautiful, theologically rich responsive prayer, but I know it came from the hearts of two folks I know and love much. As their pastor I’ve seen their spiritual journeys unfold over the past two years at a rapid pace (having recently baptized them both) and I knew this moment of being surrounded by their church family was a tangible sign of what I”ve been teaching all this time. The church is so important in our lives because when life hands us the worst we can imagine, we get to be reminded that we are NEVER alone. God meets us in the hands and feet of others.

Those who endure the greatest suffering can become our greatest teachers. This was certainly a lesson, I believe, we all gained out of the memorial service yesterday. Every life is of value. Every life has gifts to share. Every life deserves to be celebrated.  The church gets it right when we teach, and love and nurture the faith into others. I was just glad to witness it yesterday!

Our brother: A sufferer and a teacher

Mark had a challenging life filled with many struggles and much pain

He taught us how to find humor and laughter in everything


Mark suffered from a genetic disease called Huntington’s

He showed us how to endure and survive and never give up


Mark fought to numb life’s constant pain with alcohol

He showed us strength renewal by joining Alcoholics Anonymous


Mark never cared about material possessions or money

He taught us how to be humble and enjoy the simple things in life


Mark was hit by a car as a child and had life altering surgery

He taught us once again how to have strength and survive


Mark never had any money, but freely gave of it

He taught us the true meaning of generosity and compassion


Mark was easy to please and loved doing puzzles and playing cards

He taught us to enjoy the simple things in life


Mark had a debilitating motorcycle accident as an adult

He taught us once again to fight for life and never give up


People took advantage of Mark at times

Mark taught us forgiveness and to trust like a child


Mark had innocent eyes and a childlike stare

He taught us how to see truth and honesty and love


Mark had a very strong work ethic

Mark taught us the meaning of honor and character


Mark gave his last pack of cigarettes to a homeless person

He taught us how to always put other’s needs first


Mark had parents that hurt and disappointed him

Mark taught us to always respond with love and forgiveness no matter what


Mark lost everything when he went to jail

Mark taught us that if we trust God, HE will always provide… and God provided Effrain


Through Mark’s challenging life of struggle and suffering, Mark finally grew weary and tired.  THE LORD SAID “Mark shall suffer no more,”  SO GOD BROUGHT MARK HOME.  And still MARK REMAINS IN OUR HEART

Mark taught us the meaning of LOVE:

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous, it does not brag, and it is not proud. Love is not rude, it is not selfish, and does not get upset with others. Love does not count up wrongs that have been done. Love takes no pleasure in evil but rejoices over the truth.  Love patiently accepts all things.  It always trusts, always hopes, and always endures.   Love never ends.

Mark showed us how to talk like a child – think like a child – reason like a child – love like a child.   We can see Mark’s reflection, like looking onto the perfect mirror.   I pray that we can always see clearly. We must remember that of all things that continue forever:  faith, hope, and love, THE GREATEST of these is love.    Mark knew this better than anyone !

July 22, 2012

Even for the “Liberals” . . . Claiming Jesus

Claiming Jesus: John 1:1-18

On July 14, 2012– only more than a week ago– an op-ed article appeared in the New York Times that has been all the rage of debate online and in progressive circles ever since.

Ross Douthat titled his edgy piece, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” He wonders about the future of the institutional church in particular the progressive among us, those of us who are willing to say more what we are for rather than we are against, those of us who champion God’s love for all people, and don’t claim as a Christian people we have a one track highway to God.  We usually feel pretty good about ourselves for this, but he muses what is our future? Will we ever see the glory days of the 1960s and booming church growth again? Will the progressive church of today be the progressive church of the future?

Using the  progressive branch of the Episcopal Church as an example, Mr. Douthat says:

As a result, today the Episcopal Church looks roughly how Roman Catholicism would look if Pope Benedict XVI suddenly adopted every reform ever urged on the Vatican by liberal pundits and theologians. It still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows. But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.

Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace. Last week, while the church’s House of Bishops was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.

We could use this opportunity to pick on our Episcopal friends and stick our self-righteous Baptist noses up and say that this is their particular problem and not ours, but such is far from true. We are just singing a different verse of the same song. Churches like ours might have steady growth in membership over the long haul, but in the short-term, we aren’t. Where do the large flocks of remaining interested church goers attend on Sunday morning if they go to church at all? It’s fundamentalism driven, we will hand you your faith in a box, type of mega churches with their own parking garages. But, he doesn’t say that our more conservative church friends have ALL the answers either.

But what I find interesting about Mr. Douthat’s comments are that they dis-spell the myth that many of us in this community have in our heads about why people don’t attend church.

Rather than thinking that the church is just so out of tune with the culture and if we could just “hip” ourselves up with an attractive mailing or two, more people would come, he suggests we are asking the wrong questions altogether. If the stats of the Episcopal church are any indication, there is NO amount of liberalism or open-mindedness, that is going to attract newcomers to us. So, can the liberal church be saved?

I think a better question than the one asked in the article is, “Do we know we are as a Christian people?” or “What does it mean to follow Jesus?”

In our gospel text for this morning, we have the opportunity to examine a favorite scripture text that is speaks to the nature of this Jesus, for whom we say our faith is built upon. It’s a passage rarely read in worship outside of the first Sunday after Christmas. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

It’s a text paired with the Christmas celebration narrative often, because unlike the gospels of Luke and Matthew, the writer of John’s gospel just starts things out this way. No Jesus in the manager. No shepherds. No wise men. No, rather we read of a light shinning in darkness and the darkness not overcoming it.  It’s one of most beautiful pieces of poetry in all of the gospels– in fact is a sermon in itself (so I could just read it again and sit down . . . but I’m not).

So, as we begin to digest this word for us today, one thing is very clear and that is: John’s high Christology. In fact, if you wonder where the church got his Trinitarian Christology that has been our legacy since the 4th century all discussions must go back to John 1. In other words, this gospel does not imply that Jesus was just another person, rather that Jesus was and is divine and has been such from the beginning. Not just from the time of his baptism as Mark’s gospel presupposes, or from birth as explorations of Matthew and Luke might suggest– but before creation itself.

This connection is made even in the original Greek as the word for word– logos, is in fact the same word used in the very first sentence of the creation account in Genesis. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” When did Jesus become God, according to John’s gospel? Jesus was already God and has always been God.

Yet what is most astonishing about the Word that was with God and the Word that was God in the beginning is what we read in verse 14, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  Not only are we told who the Word is but we are told that the Word became flesh, a man, and lived among us.

Thus, God did not love us from afar, as the “big man upstairs” as many of us comically refer to God from time to time. No, God love us up close, flesh to flesh. God wanted us to know who the Divine was so much that we were given the most surprising: a visitation of the holy.  

And in the incarnation,  we were given a concrete, flesh and blood human being who walked on our earth, who drank from our rivers, who bathed in our streams, who felt our aches and pains, and who tasted the tears of our cheeks– so that we could get to know and SEE for ourselves (or in our modern case hear for ourselves) what God is really like. Martin Luther in fact said, ” The mystery of Christ, that He sunk Himself into our flesh, is beyond all human understanding.” It’s beyond human understand, I believe because we have not known a love like ever! And, most of all, God wanted us to experience love!

Recently, I was visiting with a family not affiliated with any religious community in our area, as I was preparing to lead the funeral service for their son, recently deceased in a car wreck. As I sought to get to know the family better, asking questions about the life of their son, I found it was hard to keep them on track of the conversation of the information I needed to get from them. Instead of answering my questions about planning the funeral service, they kept wanting to tell me about all the long time neighbors and friends who kept popping in their home to visit over the past couple of days.

It was like a broken record of kindness. They especially told me about all the family members, coming into DC from other parts of the country who hadn’t been to visit in ages who wanted to be with them during this difficult time of loss– not just through a card, or over the phone, but in person– through human to human contact. It meant the world to them, I could tell, to be surrounded by tangible signs of love at this difficult time. And the love in this community of folks, and thus of the legacy of the deceased became apparent in story form.

And, such I believe is true of the story of “Word became flesh” from John 1. God knew there would be no other way that we’d know how loved we were if God did not become one of us and initiate contact that could be for us the symbol of love.  God wanted to hit the “re-start” button the relationship– God wanted deep and abiding relationship with each of us. And so Jesus came and showed us how.  

This gets to the heart of the Christian message of what means to be a Christian, what it means to follow Jesus, and what it means a collective group of believers gathered at a church: we are to be in relationship with this one, Jesus, who came to earth to be in relationship with us.

However, it is at this juncture that I know I might lose some of you. I might lose those of you who have long given up the notion of having a “relationship with Jesus” or “inviting Jesus into your heart” because you feel such a sentiment is a part of a branch of the Christian church that asks you to check out your brain when you wake up or love only certain people or read scripture in a prescribed way. I hear you on this and am right there with you.

We, as the progressive wing of the Church of Jesus Christ, have often thrown out the baby with the bath water when it comes to talking about  relationship with Jesus. We’ve circumvented the conversation by loving Jesus with our minds, with our theology, but not with our hearts, not with our bodies, and not all that we are. And we wonder why people say they find God more in a yoga studio or a meditation class than in a church worship service?

But, I believe what John 1 is asking us to do is reconsider and possibly even redefine our spiritual language so that it always includes room for conversation, connection and communion with the Divine.  Conversation one on one with Jesus. Jesus, the word that became flesh and dwell among us, longs, who wants to be who we lean upon as w e live our lives, day in and day out. And  so as we do we keep asking ourselves and each other: who is Jesus? How can I talk to him? How can I love him? And how can I share Jesus’ love for me with others?

The embodiment of Jesus aspect of our faith, I believe is what we as “liberal” Christians are missing– even as we have our heart open wide to all kinds of folks in the world: all colors, all genders, all people, we miss out on the most important relationship and that is with Jesus. We’ve become so invested in the “box” of church looks like (stand up, sit down, listen, go home) and faith looks like (honor God through our right belief) that we’ve robbed ourselves of how incredibility mind-blowing and transformational our faith can be.

For we have been given through Jesus the gift of  a God who truly can say, “I was one of you. . . .”

The gift of a God whose real presence can come very close– closer than even the dearest friend to us. . . .

The gift of a God who says, no matter what I am going to find a way to be in relationship with you and love you in a way that touches your whole being.

This is what we need, my friends. This is what the church needs my friends. Who cares if “liberal Christianity can be saved?” or not. What should most keep us searching in the night is “Do we know Jesus?” And if we do, “How can we know him more?” For when our lives are connected to the life of the Divine, what will be will be in our churches, no matter how large or small they are.

So, today, will you join me in re-committing your life to a relationship with Jesus? Will you join me in worshipping God not just in the rote routine of words on a page, but words that speak of the Word who was God? Will you join me in love Jesus with your hearts, knowing that he dearly loved our hearts before even the creation of this world? Will you join me in claiming Jesus as we sing, “Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus, just to take him at his word and to rest upon his promise and to know thus saith the Lord?”

I love Jesus . . . even as a socially progressive Christian. What about you?


July 21, 2012

Prayer in Response to the Aurora, CO Shooting

For those who have journeyed to the life beyond after watching what would be their last film,

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For those who simply wanted a night out of enjoyment at a movie theater and find themselves in the most bewildering shock of their lives as memories of confusion continue to play in their minds,

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For those who will continue to support, treat, help and love on those now in physical, emotional and spiritual pain in Aurora and for the long days of pain to come,

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For those who have lost a daughter, a son, a brother, a sister, a friend, a teacher, a lover, a neighbor to this unexplainable event who are now planning funerals they never believed they’d attend,

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For all those around the globe who woke up this day with the people of Aurora on their minds, wondering how they could believe in a God anymore who could let this kind of death, injury and heartache happen.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For those who will use this moment in time to push their own political agendas that are rooted in ego rather than love,

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For those teens and young adults who feel lost, alone, and no mattering to anyone who are considering “copying” this horendous act in an effort to be seen on the evening news,

Lord, in your mercy hear our prayer.

For all people of faith who have been touch by this senseless event– as residents of Aurora, over the Internet, through their television screens, or through word of mouth– may you grow our compassion muscles so that we live less in isolation and more in abiding communion with You and one another.

Lord, in mercy hear our prayer.

Do what you can only do O God. Come close. Bring your Spirit. Teach us again how to be human beings that love each other.  AMEN

July 20, 2012

Hagans on the Hill

There are some days in life that simply amaze you. Yesterday was one of them for me.  I found myself on the floor of the Senate praying the opening prayer of the day as the guest chaplain via invitation from Chaplain Black after a nomination from Senator Jim Webb of Virginia.

It was a humbling honor, especially as I learned that this is only the second time in Senator Webb’s six-year tenure that a pastor he has nominated has been selected. But, why me? I am by no means a pastor of “large” church in Virginia. We are small but mighty at best. I am still young in my vocational career and by no means a seasoned pastor with 20 or more years of experience. I could have thought of dozens and dozens of other clergy leaders more qualified for such an opportunity. However, it seemed to me to be a case of being in the right place at the right time and God doing what God does best: surprising us all.

Almost a year ago now, I filled in as pastor of a wedding. It wasn’t just any wedding, but for my husband, Kevin’s former roommate, Trevor. Trevor was marrying Traci and we were scheduled to attend as guests at this out-of-town event. Trevor and Traci asked me to pray in the service. Senator Webb, Trevor’s boss, as he now works on the hill as the Senator’s Chief Counsel, was to lead the ceremony. However, due to the budget crisis of last summer and the potential government shut down, the Senator could not leave town. And so the week before, I became the minister solo. It was a fun day for all and great material for opening remarks that I did not look like the Senator (who was listed in the program).  I was glad to support our friends at this important life event as weddings are just a part of what pastors do.

A couple of months ago I got an email from our friend Trevor asking if I would like to offer a prayer on the Senator floor as a guest chaplain. “Sure,” I said, not knowing much about the process or even if it would come to be. There was concern from the Senator’s staff that my nomination, even if it was accepted would not make it through the process before Senator Webb’s term ended this year. I really didn’t think much of it at all, while thankful for the Senator and my friend’s kindness.

Then, a week ago, I got a call. The phone rang at the church and the caller ID on my phone said, “US SENATE.”  What? It was no joke, but was Chaplain Black’s Chief of Staff. Saying: “We have an opening for a guest chaplain next Thursday. Can you come?” Eagerly I said “Yes” and called Kevin right away hoping that he would be in town to come with me. And, he was! This would be something we would get to do together. How cool!

Then, yesterday, as we arrived, I learned that it has only been in the last 10 years that female clergy have been invited onto the floor to pray. And I got several jokes from the staffers how they knew they were getting old when “The guest chaplains look like teenagers.” But, nonetheless, I was there.

Though I am not the type that says things like, “Everything happens for a reason” (because life just isn’t this simple), I was truly tempted to say this yesterday. Because our visit to visit to Capitol Hill felt like a “such a time as this” sort of moment that we couldn’t have dreamed up if we tried!

As many of you know, Kevin is now working as the CEO of a large non-profit called, Feed the Children, a large international organization that feeds over 350,000 families in the US each year and 350,000 school aged children in 10 developing countries around the world. As you can imagine, there are natural connections to the great work Feed the Children does to what goes on Capitol Hill.

And so what an opportunity, Kevin had to say, “My wife is going to be the guest chaplain for the day” to enter into some get-to-know you meetings with some of the influential law makers that could potentially substantially increase the number of children and families that receive help from feeding programs around the world. We had some great conversations with senators and staff and I am thrilled about the future of Feed the Children’s work and some new supporters who will help them further their mission of “no child going to bed hungry.” Doors were opened yesterday for ongoing conversation and friendship which is never a bad thing.

In the end, I fully recognize yesterday was not about me. It was about being a vessel of the work that God has prepared for us to do: Kevin and I together. And, I just showed up and did my part, hoping that the outfit I picked out would have made my beloved fashionista Grandmother (God rest her soul) proud.

One of my favorite scripture verses in Ephesians 3 says, “With God’s power working in us, we can do more than we could ask for or imagine.” To this I say, amen, feeling as though our day of “Hagans on the Hill” was an amazing gift of scripture lived out in front of our eyes. It’s a happy place to be when you say with your life, “God, surprise me.” Because God will!

July 15, 2012

Praise the Lord!

Our sermons by request series continued this week with Psalm 150. I wondered what I was going to do with this text when I first read it (as I’ve never been very good at my attempts to preach on the Psalms), but in the end I was glad for the challenge. And what a FUN service we had. Everytime the word “praise” or “blessed” was spoken in worship, the congregation was asked to play one of the percussion instruments they were given when they came into worship. It was a joyful day of living this passage together! Thanks for reading.

Let’s Praise the Lord: Psalm 150

What we say or do last often has much to say about what is most important to us, doesn’t it?

 Since our congregation hosts the community “Seven Last Words of Jesus” Good Friday service every year with several other local churches, I have found myself in the position of needing to wrap up the service, being one of the last speakers wrapping the afternoon up before the audience starts to growl back at us long-winded preachers.  As I’ve prepared these sermons the past four years, one thing I’ve noticed about these last words of Jesus is their deep significance to the larger bulk of his teaching– teaching about loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves.  Jesus’ final words have a lot to say about who he was trying to show us to be all along, in surrender to the will of his Father in his words, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”

And the same is true for our lives, I believe too– not just in our dying moments but in our every day “last” moments. We usually wait till the end of a conversation, till the end of a night, till the end of a service to get to those moments which speak to the identity of who we ultimately are. For example:

When we are having a conversation with a friend or family member, what is the one phrase that we usually end the conversation with if our relationship with them is strong? We say, “I love you.” Three such words powerfully express what the foundation of our connection with the other is based upon.

When we are putting our young children to bed after turning out the lights and making sure they are tucked in, what is the thing we do before we leave the room to show our love? We give them a hug or a kiss. The sheer act of physical touch conveys to our young child– even if we are not able to communicate in words to one another yet how it s we feel about them.

When we end our worship service together each Sunday before we go share coffee hour together, what is the one thing we always do together? We hold hands, form a circle and sing what? “Make Us One.”  We sing with great gusto this contemporary chorus as a tangible symbol of the unifying community the church is in our lives.

In the same way, when we read our scripture lesson for today, the 150th Psalter– or the LAST of the hymns in this great hymn book of the Hebrew scriptures, what we find, I believe is a statement about life that this book of prayers has been trying to tell us about all along.

And this is what we are told– we are told that the highest activity we can offer in our life is that of praise.  Specifically in verses 1-5, there are countless ways suggested that we might offer our praise to God.

We may praise God in God’s house. We may praise God for the goodness that we see around our lives– simply lifting up our thanksgiving to God (as we just did in the service a few moments ago) with our words.

We may use our bodies in dance as an expression of praise.

We may gather around us instruments that help us express what words simply lack.

We may beat the tambourine or the cymbals– in fact loud clashing of cymbals to simply say back to God, “I acknowledge you. I revere you. I want to know you.”  

In the end, we are told that none of us is without excuse– not even those of us who can’t carry a tune or play the drums or move our body in worship without looking like we are doing the funky chicken.  “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”

Aimee Simple McPherson, a female pastor in the 1920s and founder of the Four Square Gospel Movement was known to say this, ” “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.” Why, according to the Psalmist, the only excuse you have for not praising the Lord is being out of breath!”

So take a minute and take a deep breath to remind yourself if you are still breathing . . . and as you breathe out say with me, “Praise the Lord.”

If you look closely with me at this Psalm, what you will notice is the ongoing use of a repetitive phrase at each stanza of this poem: “Praise the Lord!” In fact the word “praise” occurs 13 times in six verses which makes it important to pay attention to. . . Or better translated from Hebrew, “Hallelujah!”

If you’ve been around church for any given period of time, hallelujah is a word that you probably know. But, you might not actually know what it means. One commentator helps us out here: “To be precise, hallelu is the plural imperative of the verb hallel (“to praise”). And jah (or yah) is shorthand for the personal name of God: Yahweh. So, to put it in a Southern idiom, hallelujah means “Y’all praise Yahweh!” It is a summons not primarily to the individual reader or hearer, but to a whole community.”

Praising Yahweh a big and bold and countercultural task. We are a lot better, aren’t we, at telling those around us what wrong with our lives than what is right? Extending the virtue of praise over our entire lives is not exactly our first instinct. And because of this, praise is something, I believe that we cannot do alone.

How many of you have ever had an experience of coming to church on Sunday morning and by time you sit down, feeling like “What am I doing here? I’m really not in a mood to be spiritual this morning? I’m really not in a mood to worship God this morning? I’m really not a place to get anything out of the service?” (I promise I won’t bite if you raise your hands in affirmation).

We’ve all be there, your pastor included. There are days when I wake up on Sunday morning and as excited as I was on Friday afternoon when I finished writing my sermon about what I have to say, I’m just not feeling it on Sunday morning. I just don’t know if I can do it, to climb these stairs into the pulpit and say to you, “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight and in this congregation . . .”

But, like me, I bet you’ve also had the experience of coming into the sanctuary, being surrounded by this loving community, being drawn into the rhythm of the music or the silence of the prayers and find yourself actually commuting with God, even when you didn’t think you had it in you. God has met you in community.

You could call it happenstance, but I believe that this is the power of Holy Spirit. This is the power of the Body of Christ that draws us in and helps us praise the Lord when we simply don’t have the strength to muster another word toward a God that we feel ambivalent towards. 

We end up, my friends in praise because we are not alone. We have brothers and sisters in Christ to help us, to stand with us, and to give our hearts reasons to sing when we simply do have any on our own.

Furthermore, we say “hallelujah” because we are we are asked in the imperative tense to simply do it.  And the purpose is simple: all of life is about praise. All of life will end in praise.

When I comprehend,  what I just shared with you: that all of life will end in praise, it’s a completely overwhelming statement. This seems to start to merge into the territory of the great scriptural heresy  those tv preachers land in when they tell us to:”just smile through the pain” or “everything is fine” or “don’t cry when bad things happen, don’t worry and be happy.”  And you know how I feel about tv preachers . . .

Yet, I don’t think this is a place in scripture where we have to worry that God is asking us to praise him with plastic happiness on our face.

For remember some your favorite Psalms that came before this last chapter: Psalms of lament, Psalms of frustration, Psalms of grief– places in scripture where ALL emotions are validated important to bring before God. In fact, it is the Psalms are is one of the deepest, darkest, most emotionally driven books of all scripture. Consider beloved Psalms like #13 which begins by saying, “How long oh Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” When God feels distant to us, according to the book of Psalms we are allowed to say how we feel.

Our God is not one who ever tells us not to cry or pout or wail if we need to from time to time. Our God never says hide your truest feelings from me. No, but we are told no matter what that all of life will end in praise.

Eugene Peterson, pastor, and author of the Bible paraphrase, The Message writes this about the purpose of Psalm 150:

 This is not a ‘word of praise’ slapped onto whatever mess we are in at the moment. This crafted  conclusion of the Psalms tells us that our prayers are going to end in praise, but that it is also going to take awhile. Don’t rush it. It may take years, decades even, before certain prayers arrive at the hallelujahs….Not every prayer is capped off with praise. In fact most prayers, if the Psalter     is a true guide, are not. But prayer, a praying life, finally becomes praise. Prayer is always reaching towards praise and will finally arrive there. If we persist in prayer, laugh and cry, doubt   and believe, struggle and dance and then  struggle again, we will surely end up at Psalm 150, on         our feet, applauding, “Encore! Encore!”[i]

Ultimately, in this way, I believe that Psalm 150 is a call for us remember the end of the story as we walk through whatever life brings us. It’s a call for us to struggle– through all the days of woe is me, and doubts and fears and questions– with confidence that the end of the story is taken care of. Death may be all around us but resurrection is coming. New life is coming. New possibilities are coming. New dreams are coming. God is coming.

It’s the assurance that no matter what heights we must climb and climb again and again, life’s greatest message is about hope. Hope that makes us get out of our seats and sound cymbals every now and then just as an expression of thanksgiving for the love of our God who watches over us. Hope that helps us keep walking putting one step in front of the other. Hope that helps us see the best in some of the bleak of bleak situations– resurrection always rises before our eyes. And,  all of life will end in praise of our Lord.

I don’t know where your life ends up as you begin this new week– in a place of pain, in a place of discouragement, or in joy– but no matter if you are able to shout from the rafters or you are hanging low just trying to survive to the next day, God offer you the gift of praise today and your whole life through. It’s good  news of grace.

So let’s just continue this hour to praise the Lord as we keep singing and ringing and playing and saying with our bodies, our words and our lives, “God we love you.”


[i] 1Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (Harper & Row, 1989), 127.

July 9, 2012

Like Running a Marathon . .. Writing a Book

As many of you have heard me muse about, one of the projects I am working on in my “spare” time is writing a book. It’s a memoir of sorts about experiences of grief and a look at the topic of grief from a pastoral perspective. When it will be done, who knows? But in the meantime, the project makes me smile just to think about it.  I am a writer as much as I am a pastor.

However, as excited as I am about the writing process and eventually the publication, I have an equal amount of fear. I can’t believe that I’m actually doing this. And I can’t believe that it will ever be done. And I also can’t believe that anyone will like it as much as it brings me personal pleasure to write down.

The best metaphor I have for this project is it is like running a marathon.  It’s one of those things that often people say they want to do or need to do, but rarely see to the finish line. It’s a discipline that requires constant attention– work that is often solitary that no one sees or affirms as you “train.” It’s a BHAG that seems impossible in the beginning, but gets a little easier the more you attend to it. It’s a task of building discipline muscles every time you engage in it– strength that gets you back on track in the writing direction sooner between drafts.

So, as far as I can tell right now, I’m about 1/3 of the way done of this marathon training. But, sadly, it seems I have little to show for it. Though I know what I have is more than those who haven’t yet decided to show up at the start gate. At the gym where I actually work out, there’s a sign on the front door which say’s, “Half the battle is just showing up.” I’m hoping this is true of writing too.  

Writing a book, like training for the mammoth of all races can be a lonely task. For hours at a time, you slave away at your computer not quite yet to share your prose with others until it is just right. You keep working and wait for the moment when you can present your offering of “this is my story.”  Some people are better at the waiting than others. I am not that kind of person.

I don’t love long solitary days, especially if they come back to back in a given week. I need more company than just words on a page. But commitment to completion of this project requires me to remember that sometimes I have to say no to what in the present could be a lovely invitation to a hang out with a friend for the sake of the project. If I’m doing this, I really need to do it. These moments of discernment are hard to adjust to.

For personal encouragement to keep going, I often print out rough drafts of the chapters I complete and place them into a stack with the rest of the finished but unfinished project. Somehow as the pile of papers gets thicker by the week, I feel like one day this just might be a book. A real book. My real book! 

Sometimes if I am desperate for some cheers, I’ll post on twitter my chapter count in hopes that other writing friends know what a big deal it is to move from completion of chapter 11 to chapter 12. While it may not seem like a big deal to those on the outside, for me, that one increase in chapter completion is a testament of hours of discipline, focus and resolve to just get it done. It’s much like a runner who goes from completing a 10 minute mile to a 9 minute mile. While, yes, it is just a minute, this one minute is a huge accomplishment.

So, I’ll keep running (aka book writing) with my eyes on the finish line which I hope I’ll get to soon– at least sooner than never!

July 9, 2012

The Suffering of Jesus Means What?

As our series of “Sermons by Request” continues, I had an opportunity this week to explore Isaiah 53:1-6 and do some theological reflection of my own on theories of atonement. Thanks for reading. 

I can remember the last time that I sought to directly evangelize a person to Christianity– I was 20 years old and serving as a summer mission intern with Son Servants, a Presbyterian youth camp organization.  No one in this ministry organization told me to evangelize directly to the children with phrases like “If you died tonight do you know if you’d go to heaven?” but I was the evangelical Southern Baptist in the group– and witnessing was just what I thought I needed to do.  I was a perfectly pious leader sadly at the time. Sigh.

One week of this particular summer’s experience, after the team of youth volunteers and I led a group of children on the Indian reservation in South Dakota in a series of art and craft projects, we took them out to the playground near a lake.

One girl in particular, I’ll call her Ana, became very attached to me quickly. She wanted me to push her and push her on the swings on the playground and climb with her on the monkey bars. For the entire playtime, Ana would not leave my side. Maybe it was because I had given out the juice and cookies only minutes earlier and she looked like she hadn’t had a good meal in days. But, regardless, feeling good about the connection I’d made to this 9-year-old girl, I felt convicted about the next thing I should do– I needed to tell her about the great divide her sins had caused between her and God and that Jesus paid the price on the cross so that she could live forever with the Lord. I did not want to have her lack of opportunities to receive the gospel to be my fault. 

I don’t remember much about the rest of the conversation or even if she prayed the 1, 2, 3 step “I am a sinner, Jesus died for my sins, and I’m so thankful God that I can now go to heaven” prayer I offered her. But I do remember being stopped in my tracks internally as the group prepared to go back to the campsite where we were staying, wondering what in the world I had just done? Though such a practice wasn’t new to me (I’d been through the same routine countless times before with other kids in summer programs– trying to lead them to faith), this time I really began to think about the theology behind my words.

Was this, I wondered, what the gospel were really all about? Was the gospel something that can be melted down into a 5 step plan that makes children feel sorry for their sins knowing the Jesus replaced their punishment on the cross? All I knew in that moment was that I needed to think some more about what all of this evangelism I’d been so interested in was really all about before I tried it again.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been the instigator or recipient of a  “let me tell you about the atonement for sins that Jesus offers you” conversation (I’m sure you’ve at least seen one example like this on tv), but often our Old Testament lesson for today is among the most quoted scripture passages on this topic. It’s a passage that is often read at Good Friday services meant to explain what the crucifixion of Jesus means for those of us who seek to know and follow him today.  It’s a passage that centuries and centuries of Christians have claimed as among their favorite– and was among the favorite passages submitted among the congregation last month.

And, with all of this true, I’m going to stop at this juncture and give you a mini-commercial on how reading Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures are best read (which applies to our sermon for this morning and all other times when our focus text comes from this part of the Bible).

Always, always, always, do not interpret scripture out of its original context. And I repeat: always, always, always do not interpret scripture out of its original context.

It would be very easy for us at this juncture to read Isaiah 53:1-6 into story of Jesus– to say that the Isaiah writer was actually giving us a prophetic message for what would happen in the incarnation of Christ thousands of years later. And, while yes, we can’t help but understand our reading of anything from Isaiah (and the other prophetic books for that matter) in light of the WHOLE story of the Bible as we read it cover to cover which includes the formation of a new Christian community, we can’t forget the context of the original hearers.

We can’t forget those who first received these words: the people of Israel who would soon be asked to return home from exile in Babylon.  

We can’t forget what upheaval and change they would be asked to embrace as they returned home. We can’t forget the pain and suffering the leadership would face, in particular, for being obedient to God’s plans for their lives.

We can’t forget that a particular message to a particular people was being prescribed– a message that had a lot to say about suffering.  What was the point of suffering after all? Did participating in it actually have any redemptive value?

I think, though with all of this being true about the importance of paying attention to the context of the original Isaiah hearers, we can’t have a discussion about this passage without talking about Jesus. For tradition has dictated through the years that Isaiah 53 is indeed directly talking about Jesus. And if you look at the front cover of our bulletin for this morning, you’ll notice it’s a picture of person’s back tattoo with this verse of scripture on it. And it is in the shape of a cross.  You don’t have to go far until you realize for traditional Christians, Isaiah 53 has become a playbook for Christians seeking to explain atonement– what Jesus dying on the cross really meant and means.

But, to answer the question placed before us in the sermon for this morning: “The suffering of Jesus means what?” we must be stay with the crucifixion of Jesus more than just one day every year– if that at all (for in fact, the Good Friday service is one of the most poorly attended worship services globally in fact. . . But that’s a whole other sermon). We must learn to stick with the hard questions of faith– even if they make us squirm in our pews a little bit more this morning.  Hard words like “atonement.”

If I say the word atonement– a most basic theological definition of this word is Christ’s work of redemption on behalf of humanity.

I want to share with you two camps of atonement theory– not to just to help your theological education and understanding of the text before us today– but because so much of how we explain our faith to our neighbors (via evangelism or not) has a lot to do with how we describe atonement. And, it is so much a part of popular rhetoric about Christianity.

Realize this morning for sake of time and our brains not exploding, I’m painting with some broad strokes here. There are indeed more than two camps of atonement theories, but I believe in light of Isaiah 53, these are the two we should most understand. I don’t always say this, but feel free to take notes if this helps you follow me.

The first camp of the theories is that of substitutionary atonement or in more basic terms the phrase, “Jesus died for our sins.”

It’s the camp that says that what Jesus did on the cross was to right many wrongs committed by all humanity. And there is a wide spectrum to this belief of atonement. There are some who believe in substitutionary atonement who say that Jesus had to die as a payment for our sins; Christ suffered for us so that we didn’t have to.

And at then at the other end of the spectrum there are those who say that the substitution Jesus made was more because God demanded it. God took the life of Jesus as a payment for our sins.

But in either case, the phrase, “Jesus died for our sins” boils down to our being asked to simply believe in Jesus as Savior so that the substitution of our unrighteousness for Jesus’ righteousness can take place.

This camp is the most popular of the theories of atonement through Christ tradition. Just pick up any hymn book and turn to the “death of Jesus” section and what you will find are statements about how Jesus paid it all, how we’ve been washed clean in the blood of the lamb or Jesus took our place on the old rugged cross.

But problems with this theory arise when you take a step back and see the larger picture of what was going in the suffering of Jesus from this perspective. The largest problem is that if you say, “Jesus died for my sins” then you also profess that God set up the crucifixion of Jesus. God brought suffering on Jesus.

Or as Phyllis Tickle once said, “It’s a huge example of divine child abuse.” And for many of us stomaching following a God like this is too much to bear. In fact, Sojourners magazine just this week, published an article about how seeking to convert someone by starting the conversation with “Jesus died for your sins”[i] can be the scariest thing you could say– and should be avoided.

However, there is another camp of the atonement theories and this is the representory or exemplar perspective.

In this camp, Jesus was sent to earth to represent God to us. We who were living in sin, we who had fallen short of God’s best for us, we who had gone off course of God’s original intentions for humanity, were given Jesus so that through him,  we could find our way back home to the right path. Jesus showed us a different way to God– a perfect way.

 However, as this theory goes, Jesus did such a great job of showing us God that those with power in his world during his time did not like him. They didn’t like him so much that they had him killed.

Therefore, this leads us to recognize that if we follow Jesus and the path he set out for us to know God better, we should not be surprised if we are killed too. For in fact didn’t Jesus say to his followers, “whoever loses his life will find it?” 

It’s a theory in the end that takes the focus off Jesus as the recipient of divine punishment and instead directs us to the cost of discipleship. If we want to follow Jesus, this theory says, then, we must be prepared to suffer.

And it is here at this point that we arrive again at a great point to sit with our Isaiah passage yet again. A passage which speaks of a servant (though undefined who) which suffers.  We read of a servant who  in verse three “was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity . . . has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.”

It’s not a type of suffering that we read is just in vain. It’s not a suffering just for suffering’s sake– because the Divine is mean and trying to bully his subjects into submission. Rather, it is suffering that makes a difference because God is revealed in it.

For as the servant forged a new path of righteousness and integrity, even in the face of evil, the onlookers of the person going through the suffering saw God.

The onlookers saw God’s grace.

The onlookers saw God’s message to the world that even though we’ve all messed up, we’ve all made some not so good choices in our lives, the Divine says back to us, “You are ok. And I love you.”

When I think back to those days of seeking to convert the children on the playground in South Dakota (with some shame of course of my misguided approach), what I most wish I could go back and tell Ana, my young friend with mad skills on the monkey bars is: get to know Jesus.

Get to know this man who loved you even before you were able to love him. Get to know this man who wanted you to know your heavenly parents– your always loving parents, always forgiving, always providing parents more than anything, so badly that he gave up everything so that you could have this chance.

And come and learn of Jesus’ suffering too– how he was rejected for doing the right thing.  For you, Ana will suffer much in your life (if you haven’t already), and you’ll need to know that someone has been there too. Jesus suffered to the point of death so that in his life, he could show us the way to God.  And the God you’d learn more about through Jesus is the God who loves you already more than you could ever imagine!

Because atonement theories or not, isn’t this what all of us long to hear? That we are loved. That God sees us, especially in our moments of deep pain.

That Jesus not only offered us through his life (which included suffering) a way to be in deep relationship with God. 

And that as we suffer in this life,  our pain, as we give it back to God for God to use for divine purposes in this world can be redemptive too?



July 5, 2012

Marriage Vows

The following passage from Ruth chapter one was read at our wedding. And though I got slack from some of my preacher friends with the highest regard for lectionary readings appropriate for wedding (saying that this was not a passage about a marriage, rather a friendship between two women), I stuck with my strong desire to have it read. It seemed to me in planning the service (Kevin planned the party) the only way to truly articulate what I thought marriage was all about was this passage:

Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me.  . . . But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons— 13 would you wait until they grew up?Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!” 14 At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye,but Ruth clung to her.15 “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-lawis going back to her people and her gods.Go back with her.” 16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” 18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.

Now, almost five years later, I feel this passage is as important to my life than any other text.  It’s a story I keep coming back to find grounding for all of the transition around me. For in the past couple of months, I’ve been asking myself:”What does it really mean to be married?” over and over again. And I feel like as I am learning to answer, I’m simultaneously saying to Kevin my wedding vows again for the first time. Wherever you go Kevin I will go. I will support and love you no matter what.

As many of you know, earlier in this month, Kevin accepted a position as CEO/ President of Feed the Children— a very exciting vocational and ministry opportunity for him. But, it has been a change in careers which required him to primarily work in another state, Oklahoma (at least for a time). As one of my colleagues recently pointed out, the commute to OK is not one as if he just got a job in Richmond or Raleigh. No, it is a little bigger deal than that. In order for us to connect, it usually takes a full day of travel or one 3 hours and expensive non-stop plane adventure. Because for now, I am remaining at the church as pastor and maintaining our home in DC and thankful for Washington Plaza’s flexibility for me to commute to see Kevin when he can’t come home to see me. Though I know we are not alone in the “commuter marriage,” we hate the separation and can only seem to make it 2 weeks before we need to see each other face to face.

But, there is something larger at work in all of this. What is marriage? What does it mean when your spouse is given a once in a lifetime opportunity in another state in a place where you know no one? Do you continue to go your own path as if nothing has changed? Or, do you seek to uncover the jewels that such an experience might offer you– even as the supportive partner?

The process of discernment that has taken root in me over the last couple of months has been one where I’ve been reminded at every juncture that I said to Kevin on a sunny day in October in 2007 that “wherever he goes I will go.”  And so now we are here. We are here at the hard place of discernment. We are here at the place when the words on the page go from a beautiful reading for a wedding ceremony to real life. I am here seeking to figure out what supporting Kevin and our marriage AND not loosing my own identity and calling looks like.

But for now this is what I know:

1. God wants our marriage to be strong. God did not call Kevin to lead Feed the Children and say, “Ok now is the time to screw Elizabeth.” No, as much as God provided and led Kevin into this new calling for his life, God is equally going to do the same for me. I’m just waiting to see how the pieces of the puzzle shake out.

2. Communication, communication, communication. How often it is that expectations and important feelings aren’t expressed (especially when you live in different places) that cause trouble that neither partner meant toward the other. If you are serious about marriage, I’ve found I’ve got to make time for talking, talking and more talking to my partner– as much time as I would any of the other basic necessities in my life. And, “I’m sorry” is never a bad phrase to begin with either . . .

3. Marriages are meant to bless others. Kevin and I are a strong team of support for each other (which is why we got married in the first place!). As we find ways to move forward TOGETHER in all that is ahead, the result is not just about our own sanity or happiness (though these things are good). Rather, if Kevin and I stick together in all of this, the result will be more blessings for those around us. More hospitality for those without it . More friendship for those who need it. More clarity of mission and calling as to why we all are alive.  

Though our life journeys have taken an unexpected turn this year, I’m so happy to be on this adventure with Kevin. The best is just yet to be . . . I hope!

We’re still on this discernment journey of the logistics– so if you are the praying kind, I’d appreciate any support in this way as the story goes on. I’ll keep you posted.

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July 3, 2012

What Kind of Light Are We?

This Sunday, I began a month-long series in what congregation members have identified as their favorite scriptures. Anything was a possibility, really anything. Of course I was a little afraid as to what I might get as suggestions! But the responses I got were actually pretty tame (thank God!). First up, Matthew 5:13-16. Thanks for reading:

I don’t know about you, but if someone asked me to proclaim that I am the light of the world, my spirit might cringe a little.

“Who me? A light? Me, the light of the world? No way. Can it be so?”

We might say that we are good at this or nice in this way or even pretty or handsome in this way or that way, but a light almost sounds extreme doesn’t it?

And I don’t think it is about a sense of false humility. Being called out as a light–  a presence of being whose essence is to do nothing but shine– can be overwhelming to our sensibilities. For everything about most of our upbringings and the messages we’ve all received about ourselves since birth has NOT been about bright illumination or drawing attention to ourselves.

We’re told over and over again: be normal. Fit in. Don’t stand out of the crowd. Do what you are told. Pick out  your clothes based on trends of what is in.  And when in doubt, always color inside the lines whenever you are given a sheet in which to color.

Furthermore, we are prone as human beings to think (and be encouraged to think) the worse about ourselves, especially when it comes to what religion tells us to think about God. Professor David Lose in fact says this: Psychologists suggest that for every negative message elementary-aged children hear about themselves, they need to hear ten positive ones to restore their sense of self-esteem to where it had been previously. (Frankly, I don’t know if anyone has studied this in groups other than young children, but I suspect that number doubles during adolescence and then recedes to about 10-1 again by adulthood!)[i] We are a people who live in the negative.

But such sentiment stands in contradiction to the words of our gospel text for this morning, words of Jesus that were chosen among some of you as your favorite scripture passages you all submitted last month. 

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.”

What was Jesus up to as he laid these very direct words on the crowds gathered? What was he trying to say to this gathered community of disciples– those in his context and those communities he knew would gather together in the future in his name?

In most interpretations I’ve heard of this beloved passage– dear to the hearts of many Christians and part of popular cultural rhetoric in productions such as Godspell, for example– have usually directed my attention to the potential negative aspects of Jesus’ words here.  When Jesus says, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house.” And the interpretation goes in this direction: “Yeah, you are a light, but it is your job to keep it going. You could mess up your job of being a light. So, God is warning you– don’t mess up. Don’t put your light under a bushel basket. So it will go out and you’ll lose it forever. And you wouldn’t want that would you?”

But, such harsh, self-condemning words are not what I think Jesus is up to here. This is not another time in scripture when we are reminded by Jesus to feel bad about ourselves. Notice with me the direct nature of this declaration. Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.”  

It not something, we are told, that we have to work up to. It is not something that we have to learn to create. It’s not even something that only the select chosen ones get to claim. No, rather, it is simply what we are. We are told by Jesus that we are the light of the world, not just some of us. All of us.

We all have the light of God within us. It was the ultimate Jesus pep talk to his disciples. Remember who you are my friends. You are light and there is not a thing you can do about it. These are words of sheer blessing from the Divine to us.

Sure, a case could be made that there are times in life that each of us could hide our light (hide it under a bushel if you will), but it doesn’t change the fact that the light in us– given to us by God and shown to us by Jesus– is there.  All we have to do is just stand and let it shine!

Look at someone sitting close to you this morning and say to them, “You are the light of the world” and then have them say it back to you.

How did that feel? Strange? Comforting? Calming?

If this is where you are today– in need of some self-confidence after coming out of a life damaging situation or relationship, then I say stop with me here and receive this bountiful blessing from our Lord. You are called a light, just as your neighbor has shared with you. And Jesus calls you very good. Can I get an amen out there about this?

But, if you are able to hang with me for more– hear this, all you light bearing friends of mine. Being light comes with a responsibility (not burden) but joyous responsibility.  When Jesus says to us, we are the light of the world, we are asked not to just keep it to ourselves. We are asked to share it. Again, not something that my raise flags in our heads from our more conservative traditions of door to door bang people over the head evangelism.  And, not something that we have to work at or achieve, but simply and courageously being willing bear in vulnerability our light to others.  

Light that comes in speaking aloud the name of Jesus as our Lord.

Light that comes in sharing kindness, even when we are tired, because we feel God has asked of us to go the extra mile of compassion.

Light that comes not in just “being a good person” for the sake of being good or avoiding punishment, but for the sake of the name of Jesus who is our teacher of all things that are good.

This week, I graciously had the opportunity to spend some time learning about the practice of spiritual direction in interfaith setting– from those who very much cared about being attentive to the light of God within them, but not explicitly from an Christo-centric tradition. Though interfaith work is nothing new for me, when I showed up in Berkeley on Monday ready to learn, the experience I received was not exactly what I expected.

My first shock came when we were asked to break up into partners and share in two minutes to our partner what the practice of spiritual direction meant to us.

I went first sharing something to the effect of “I feel spiritual direction is in my experience the practice of sitting with another person who serves as the deep listener to my stories, who helps me pay attention to the presence of God in my life, sensing movements, patterns, feelings of God’s working all around me.”

Then, my partner shared. Moments later when the teacher call us back together as a group in attention to what we noticed in the exercise, my partner was the first to speak. She mentioned how strange it was that I wanted to used the word “God” — not a word that she uses anymore. Saying that she much prefers the word “divine” alone for all things God.

I went home the first night and sounded off to a friend or two on the phone, “I am in a program to learn about God and I can’t even say the word God?”

As an act of resistance the next morning, I was careful to use the word God and Jesus when I came to describe my own faith. (Who knew saying God’s name could make you such a rebel?) Though I could have easily done otherwise. I didn’t have to say I was a Christian pastor. I didn’t have to say that I actually believed in Jesus.  I am a Baptist after all where we believe in the priesthood of all believers, nothing in my dress (or your dress either) says anything about the nature of faith. It would have been much easier to become what was most acceptable to the group.

Yet, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.”

As an aside, I am happy to say that I continued to be in dialogue with this colleague and our understanding of one another got better. We were not as far from one another as I first might have thought– just with different baggage around language.

But this one encounter reminded me that showing the light that God has asked us requires courage to speak up from time to time– to show with our words and our deeds that our light comes from Christ. And, yes, calling God by God’s name is a non-negotiable for us. We worship the God who says, “I AM who I AM.”

But what does this look like in our daily lives– when we aren’t at Interfaith training or spiritually focused dialogue groups? I believe we must be ready to stand out.

Not blending in– showing what we believe.

Not going with the flow of acceptance of everyone and everything– saying what we believe.

Not being politically correct all the time– when truth needs to be spoken.

Not just doing the same old things the same old ways– open to the new.

Instead, remembering that because we are the light of the world, we’ve got FIRE within us. Fire from God that is constantly molding us, reshaping us, growing us and asking us to give voice to the fact that the light of God comes from within.

One my Baptist colleagues and I were having a conversation about this passage this week– my colleague a former pastor of a church much like ours– of the liberal Baptist flavor. And, we were talking about how most churches like ours aren’t so comfortable in our practice of being light. For after all we’ve come from places in our journeys as individuals who make up this larger body which that are often of abuse, frustration with the institutional church and it is just now that many of us have wandered back into a faith community. We’ve got enough of our own stuff to deal with than to CHOOSE to stand out.

But, when we consciously or unconsciously make this decision to leave the “being the light of the world” business to someone else, we my friends– are robbing God of the process of using some of the only hands God has (ours) to be the people God created us to be.

For after all, wasn’t the mission statement of this congregation, when it was visioned out several years ago to be “The Light of the World.” Weren’t there leaders and faithful members including some of you still around today who took seriously Jesus’ words here and said, “Yes, we have purpose to be a different kind of church. To welcome the un-welcomed. To not judge the stranger. To always make room for one more to feel the love of God in this place.”

So where are we today? I fear sometimes that we are somewhere between the great fervor of the congregation of the past, “We want to be a light in our community” and those who have forgotten that the light of God is within us as individuals and as a body at all.

It has been said that the greatest sin against God of all is forgetfulness.

So today as we soon will approach the table. I invite you to remember again your light and dream with me for a moment what it might mean to have this light brilliantly shinning in our midst. I invite you to remember.

If we were Christ’s light here in the Northern VA area, in our Lake Anne home, what would be the fruits?

Might there be more AA classes offered during the week? A place for unconditional acceptance and love for those working through their own recovery journeys.

Might there be more hours when our sanctuary was open for prayer and meditation? So that our building was truly God’s house– not just for us Sunday worshippers, but for everyone who needed a place of peace.

Might there be more of us writing about our experience of God in this congregation– spreading the world of the good news of a welcoming and loving church– to ALL those, in every nook and cranny of Reston, Herndon, Manassas, Sterling, and the list could keep going on and on– that there is a church for them, a Baptist church where that can worship Christ and grow in their faith in him?

I hope that as I’ve been sharing with you my “might” list, in your head you are making a list of your own– of your own dreams for where our light will shine, how it growing brightness will touch exactly the folks that God wants to use us to reach.

And that as we together come to the table, we remember the source of our light– our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

This little light of mine. I’m going let shine. This little light of mine. I’m going to let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine.


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