Thursday, December 22, 2011

"I like to pray like this"

An Advent Reflection.

When we prayed, she pressed her palms together tight.

"Comforting God," I begin.

"Is it okay if I pray like this?" she asks, holding her hands up to show me, fingers straight, pressed together. "I like to pray like this because then my palms feel warm."

I wanted to cry. Of course, I told her, it is ok to pray like that. Your body knows how you need to pray. And I could not think of any more beautiful reason to pray in any particular way than it makes your palms warm. In a place where there is so much cold isolation, seeking the warmth of your own body that comes as you pray to the One Who Loves You just seemed so absolutely essential to me in that moment. I unkinked my fingers and pressed my palms together too, feeling my palms get warm.

On the day of this conversation, my third with this woman, she was feeling some sunlight breaking through the fog, and she thought by speaking with a chaplain, she could continue to nurture that breaking through. She felt prayer was a tool that could help strengthen her, which is why she focused so intently on how to pray when we talked.

For myself, I could not get over how excited I was to see such a huge improvement in her. The last time I spoke with her she cried the entire time. Every interaction I had had with her made me anxious because it took so long for her to respond to me, as though my words to her got stuck in that fog around her, moving as though through molassas and so taking forever to get to her ears. But despite this anxiety, I feel very close to her. Part of the reason probably is our ages; we are only two years apart. But part of my connection to her too is I feel that deeply spiritual Spanish-speaking patients I had talked with before charged me with her spiritual care. For them, she was someone I was to actively seek out and be actively praying for. And so I was.

And yet, I learned far more from her than I provided for her. She was just so innocent but so knowledgeable at the same time. It reminded me of a poem I liked a lot in high school (printed below) that I still feel drawn to at the same time I find some of its language clumsy. This is what I want for this young woman. I want her to feel that God says yes to her, that God calls her sweetcakes. I want her to feel her belovedness. And I want to feel it too.
God Says Yes to Me 1
by Kaylin Haught

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don't paragraph
my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I'm telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

This poem is so joyous, which is again what I want for this patient, but the joy is also what I felt when I saw how much better she was doing. I felt that God was saying yes to her.

I talk about our belovedness a lot, and I talk about hope a lot, but too often the hope I am talking about is the sad hope in something like, to borrow my friend David's words from one of his Advent blog posts, "10-year old children somehow thinking they can oppose militarism and religious fundamentalism just by walking to school."2 There is a hardness to that kind of hope at times, I think. It is hope that if we keep running into the wall at top speeds, we will make a crack in the wall until evenutally it crumbles. And I am the kind of person who gets swept into focusing on that kind of hope, being content with being sad because I am working for change, for something better, never mind if I am miserable now.

Beautiful art by He Qi of Ruth and Naomi.*

This young woman's visible change, the way she so broke through the fog around her to teach me about prayer helped me to feel hope differently, to feel hope as impossibly happy, to feel God saying Yes Yes Yes.

This is what Advent is for me this year: a time of healing and listening for Christmas, a season when God says yes to us.


1 Kaylin Haught, "God Says Yes to Me," from Steve Kowit, In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet's Portable Workshop (Tilbury House Publishers, 2003).

2 David Hosey, "What is foolish in the world," City of..., 18 December 2011,

*This picture is of Ruth and Naomi (a romanticization of the story that I will be learning about in my January class on Ruth), but, more than that, to me it is about prayer. About finding that closeness, that warmth wrapped up in God. Also check out more of He Qi's work here. He came to visit Drew last semester and is amazing!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

To See Every Bush Afire

After a long and crazy semester, I will be posting a couple stories about my experience in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), a fancy way of saying I have been a student chaplain in a hospital near Drew Theological School, taking classes and working as a chaplain on a geriatric floor and the behavioral health unit, as well as everywhere else in the hospital when I am on-call. It has been a difficult experience for me, but also one in which I have seen God in so many beautiful ways. A reflection from the beginning of my experience is posted here, and in sermon form here.

There is something I find strangely comforting about sitting in the midst of people speaking a foreign language. The quick pace of it, the strange sounds, the occasional familiar word that grabs at your ears and forces you to again try to make sense of these sounds. Okay, maybe that description does not sound comforting at all, but it is to me. It takes me back to places like Bosnia and Herzegovina and Venezuela, where I was able to sit and be in community with others at the same time I could step back and let this foreignness wash over me. I was expected to do nothing but absorb the sounds, watch the way bodies moved to the music of their own words, and in that you find often that words are unnecessary tools of communication.

I found myself again relaxing into this game of uncovering what is said in a foreign language, but this time the setting was far different than smokey kitchens in Bosnia or greenhouses in the side of mountains in Venezuela. This time I sat in the behavioral health unit in the hospital in which I am a chaplain. The unit is really nice, lots of natural light coming in from the windows, more light wood than white walls, and cushy furniture. But for all its attempt at trying to be like home, it is still...not.

I was sitting with three women, one of whom was my roommate and fellow chaplain Lauren, and one man. I had noticed earlier that day that we had at least two people coming to spiritual events on the floor who spoke only Spanish, and I felt it terribly isolating for us not to try and care for their spiritual needs. So I grabbed my roommate, who speaks Spanish, and drug her up the stairs to a floor that generally makes her feel very uncomfortable with the promise that I would stay with her.

Lauren began by asking each person, one a beautiful dynamic mother of three, one a sweet older man who had been taken under the first woman's wing, and a woman who was also older and funny but who also hallucinated, what happened. Trying to get them to share a little of their stories. As I watched, I heard the first woman speak of her babies who were not in the USA yet and give their ages, I heard the man speak of a tumor and a great loneliness, and the third spoke of lost love. And so, they told their stories, but the first woman, the dynamic one who broke into the others' stories to explain something they said, turned the conversation away from their lives. Instead, what concerned them, was another young woman on the unit.

This young woman was one I had met before. She was in a lot of pain, and speaking to her was off-putting as it took her several seconds to respond to you, as though your words had a distance to travel before they got to her. She was certainly a sweet woman, but--- and I made Lauren ask them to double check--- she was not Spanish-speaking at all.

But it was a really beautiful moment for me, the way that these patients were so concerned about another patient. I guess it is even more beautiful because in Spirituality Group we talk about how depression (which is what two of the three were seeking treatment for) is such an inward-focusing disease. That it is so isolating. And here, people were breaking out of that isolation that had wrapped them up so tightly to love a young woman who could not even speak their language.

Throughout scripture there are continually stories of how God chooses to reveal Godself in the "least of these" (to use language from Matthew 25), and yet because I come from a culture that is so hierarchical and oppressive I am always surprised when I see God in these places so clearly. When I hear God in these strange sounds that I do not understand so clearly by looking at the concern on one of the women's faces, concern not for herself but for another young woman, one she saw as needing someone to talk to, someone who had something to say and was not getting the help she needed from doctors.

Burning Bush by Seth Weaver

Earlier last week, I prayed a prayer with some of my classmates:

"now, not next time, now is the occasion to take off my shoes, to see every bush afire"1

This prayer disarmed me when I prayed it, took away from me the to do list I was agonizing over in my head and forced me to see these bushes afire all around me. I sat listening, watching, even though I don't know Spanish, rather than letting my mind wander back to all the things I have to get done before Christmas. Instead I heard Christ in the music of a language I do not know, I saw Christ in the concern for a young woman struggling for healing in the midst of inward struggles for their own healing.

And so I was reminded to take off my shoes and let God in.


1 Ted Loder Guerrillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle (Innisfree Press, 1984).

Monday, November 14, 2011

Clothing Christ

This sermon was preached at Verona United Methodist Church in Verona, NJ, for a celebration of their knitting ministry. We dedicated 92 hand-made scarves, hats, and mittens that were knitted and sewn for the needy in Irvington, NJ. The items will be taken down to the community center on Saturday, November 19, when this church serves a home-cooked Thanksgiving feast. It is not my best sermon, and many of you will have read the story about my experience as a chaplain in the behavioral health unit before, but I wanted to post the sermon because it was just a great experience to be in that church! Hopefully once this semester is over, I will be posting more often and maybe not all sermons! We'll see, though...

Scripture: Matthew 25:31-46 1

I am reading from the Cotton Patch Gospel this morning, which is a modern paraphrase of the bible with a “Southern accent,” written by Clarence Jordan, a Greek scholar and organic farmer who helped inspire the creation of Habitat for Humanity. I figured many of us have heard this scripture many times before, so I thought it might be refreshing to read it in a new way.

"When the son of man starts his revolution with all his band around him, then he will assume authority. And all the nations will be assembled before him, and he will sort them out, like a farmer separating his cows from his hogs, penning the cows on the right and the hogs on the left. Then the Leader of the Movement will say to those on his right, 'Come you pride of my Father, share in the Movement that was set up for you since creation; for I was hungry and you shared your food with me, I was thirsty and you shared your water with me; I was a stranger and you welcomed me, ragged and you clothed me, sick and you nursed me; I was in jail, and you stood by me.' Then the people of justice will answer, 'Sir, when did we see you hungry and share our food, or thirsty and share our water? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or ragged and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in jail, and stand by you?' And the Leader of the Movement will reply, 'When you did it to one of these humblest brothers [and sisters] of mine, you did it to me.'

"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Get away from me, you fallen skunks, and into the flaming hell reserved for the Confuser and his crowd. For I was hungry and you shared nothing with me; I was thirsty and you gave me no water; I was a stranger and you didn't welcome me, ragged and you didn't clothe me, sick and in jail, and you didn't stand by me.' Then these too will ask, 'Sir, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or ragged or sick or in jail, and do nothing about your needs?' Then he'll answer, 'When you failed one of these humblest people you failed me.' These will take an awful beating, while the just ones will have the joy of living."

Sermon: Clothing Christ

I just want to let all of you know that I am honored to be here with you this morning in this absolutely gorgeous sanctuary and on such a special day in the life of your church. I am deeply appreciative of your welcome to me this morning.

So will you pray with me?

Patient Teacher,
you who have knit us together as one Body, grant that this morning we may see that connection between us, that you may speak to us through this scripture, the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, so we might better live out your teachings. Amen.

One of my best friends since high school, Laura, decided to take up knitting probably five years or so ago. Her first project was to knit me a scarf. To this day, it is my favorite scarf--- and I have a ton of scarves, let me tell you. But this one, this one that Laura made, is the warmest scarf I own, it is a beautiful color purple, it is soft--- and there is magic, I think, in something that a friend's hand makes for you. When I put on this scarf, I know that someone loves me enough to keep me warm; and when the sting of winter wind hits me so hard I can't breathe, I duck down my mouth under my scarf, tuck it tighter into my coat, and thank God for that reminder of love. And I'm sure Laura has no idea that that little scarf, the first one she knit for anybody, means that much to me. So when I heard about the work that your church does with its knitting ministry, I was touched. How beautiful, I thought, this is a tangible reminder of the warmth of God's love.

See, we live in a world today where that warmth is not easily accessible to so many of us. Our Gospel lesson this morning puts in stark contrast two world views, the way of justice and the way of injustice. Now I know I may have lost some of you here. We were just talking about warmth and love and then I start talking about justice? Some people might think it strange to talk about justice, when the word often conjures up images of the criminal justice system with scary courtrooms and stern-faced judges, hand in hand with the word love as rather strange. Even though we think about justice as a good thing, we certainly don't think about it as love. But as American philosopher and Civil Rights activist Cornell West points out, "Justice is what love looks like in public." And that is what this morning's gospel lesson is getting at. Jesus names those on his right, the sheep, or as Clarence Jordan paraphrases it, the cows, as people of justice.

See justice dictates that we are to share food with the hungry, drink with the thirsty, we are to welcome the stranger, clothe the ragged, care for the sick; and we are to support those in prison. Injustice obscures our connections to one another and focuses on greed and self-preservation, trying to keep the warmth of our love to ourselves as Rainbow Fish in our children's story this morning tried to keep his scales to himself.

So one important piece in this gospel lesson this morning is that desire to reach out with the warmth of God's love is what separates the sheep from the goats, or, as Clarence Jordan paraphrases it, the cows from the hogs. These specific acts of sharing, standing up with, welcoming, are acts of love towards our neighbor, warmth poured out of us. These public acts of love like knitting scarves and placing them over the necks of those without homes in Irvington is a public act that says, we care about you and God does too, and so we are going to do something to change your situation. There is a power in that similar to but way more powerful then the magic that I see in the scarf my friend knit for me.

I don't know if you noticed this morning, but Clarence Jordan instead of talking about a king as it is usually translated, refers to Jesus as the Leader of a Movement. Aaron, my partner, did not like this paraphrase, and maybe you don't either, but hear me out. The word Movement is Clarence Jordan's translation of the kingdom of heaven. I really like that because I think it reminds us that it is these little things like knitting scarves to clothe the ragged and serving at soup kitchens to feed the hungry are little actions that can build up this Movement that is the kingdom of God, moving us all towards a different way of living that God is calling us to live and that is described in the scripture we read this morning.

Christ in our gospel lesson today does not talk about love and warmth. He does not even talk about how when we act with love towards our neighbors we are in fact channeling God's love, being agents of God's love. I have read that into the scripture using my own experience to understand how the physicality of making scarves to clothe the ragged is such a powerful act of love. What Christ focuses on in the telling of this story is not the love, though; he focuses, rather on how when you clothe the ragged, you are clothing Christ. You may be acting with God's love, but what Christ wants to highlight in his story is not whose love you are acting with but that the person who you are loving is Christ. "When you did it to one of these humblest brothers [and sisters] of mine, you did it to me."

I work with Pastor Sharon in the student chaplaincy program at Overlook hospital in Summit, which is how I come to you now this morning, and it is there that I have learned a lot about seeing Christ in others. One of the floors where I serve as chaplain is the psyche ward, the behavioral health unit. This is an important ministry to me because even though all of our families are touched in some way by mental health issues, too often we look upon those people who are sick as weak, as scary, as worthless. To love them then becomes an important public statement that we see all people as beloved of God.

My first day in the behavioral health unit, though, I struggled with realizing this love because I was so nervous. I had stopped in, one of the nurses asked who wanted to speak with me, and everyone responded with resounding no's. So, instead of sitting with folks and being for a few moments, I escaped easily, promising half-heartedly to return later. When I did, I did not announce myself, I just said hi to folks watching the TV, wandered down the hallway, and just when I was about to leave again, decided to first go through the dining room/game room area. A young man was in there, and we greeted each other. He was collecting board game pieces, monopoly money, Life cards, and so I assumed he was manic, unable to sit still, and probably not capable of holding a conversation. I wrote him off.

But I smiled at him, said hello, and started to walk away, and then he asked me where I was from. I turned back and sat down next to him. He proceeded to tell me about himself, where he was from, what he studied, a little of what brought him to the behavioral health unit. He was, in fact, bipolar, and a recovering alcoholic, and he spoke plainly to me about the program and how much of its merit to him was that he saw examples of what he did not want to become. I was shamed for walking by him without seeing him as a valuable person--- even though this is my job, right?---, but apparently I was not shamed enough. When I was leaving I asked him if he would mind if I kept him in prayer. He said of course he wouldn't mind, and as I got up to leave and started to turn my back he said that he would be keeping me in prayer as well.

Here I was on the behavioral health unit surrounded by what Clarence Jordan calls one of these humblest brothers [and sisters] of Christ, and what many of you may know as “the least of these,” people struggling with mental health issues, often abandoned by family and friends and seen as bad people or even lepers in a way. I was trying so hard to bring the warmth of God's love to these people, but as is apparent from this story I missed the mark completely. Instead this young man in the behavioral health unit was Christ to me. He was witness to Christ's of healing, forgiveness, renewal, all wrapped into one stark sentence, "I'll be praying for you too."

This is why the justice work of sharing food and drink, welcoming the stranger, clothing the ragged, caring for the sick, and standing with those in prison is so important. It is more than just that we should show others the love of God through out justice work, it is that we are showing God our love and leaving ourselves vulnerable to learning from God through people society sees as worthless. I connected with that young man, gave him the opportunity to reflect aloud about how he was healing over his time in the behavioral health unit, reminded him of his own worth just by talking with him after I got over my initial culturally enforced response to ignore him, and I still pray for him. But all of that work I did did not come close to the gift he gave me of his prayers. I knew Christ in him.

When you give your scarves to people in Irvington, do you know Christ in them? When I told my roommate, also a seminarian, about your ministry of clothing the ragged with beautiful, hand-knit scarves, she immediately began to think about what else cloths are used for in the bible and thought of the swaddling cloths that baby Jesus was wrapped in. I thought that was a beautiful image to think about as we come into Advent in a few weeks. Have you ever thought about how these scarves are dressing Christ as those swaddling cloths did in the manger on that first Christmas? It is a question that maybe we should consider as we dedicate these scarves later this morning.

Seeing ourselves as serving the Christ in all people may be a daunting prospect though. As a young person, I have often been taught to understand what the church values to be the boring, the chaste, the goody-two-shoes thing to do. That is unfortunately the way my generation characterizes Christian work. Many of you from other generations may more easily see the joy inherent in this work, but that is sadly not common among people my age. For me, though, I don't think you can read this mandate to share food and drink, welcome the stranger, clothe the ragged, care for the sick, and stand with those in prison and think of it as boring work. Instead, and many of you may agree with this even if we aren't from the same generation, this is scary work. Seeing Christ in everyone means getting dirty, it means owning up to your own prejudices as I had to after I tried to walk past the young man in the behavioral health unit. But ultimately, and Clarence Jordan catches this in his paraphrase of the last verse of our Gospel reading this morning: the just ones will have the joy of living. The work of seeing the Christ in everyone may be scary, but it will move us towards a better way of living, a more abundant way of living.

The kingdom of God, the Movement with a capital M that Clarence Jordan writes of, is not about giving us this checklist: yes, my church has a soup kitchen so we feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty; yes, my church is very friendly, we welcome new people; yes, we knit scarves so we clothe the ragged; yes, our own minister serves as a chaplain at the hospital so we care for the sick; and sure, there are some folks in prison we love and support. We can't just check those things off, say we followed the rules, and call it a day. No, this passage points to a way of living that is so abundant that we can't not knit scarves and think with love of those people who will receive them as Christ in our lives. It is about loving big and opening ourselves even bigger to the mystery that is God's love in our lives.

Let us pray,

Holy One,
We ask that you help us keep our eyes ever open for your presence among us. Especially today, we ask that we remember as we dedicate these scarves that we are a people who are clothing Christ among us. And help us to live into this Movement of abundant love to which you have called us. In the name of the Leader of that Movement, Amen.

1Clarence Jordan, The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John, (Koinonia Publication 1970), 84-85.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Melting Our Golden Calf

YHWH said to Moses, "Go down now! The people whom you led out of Egypt have corrupted themselves! In such a short time, they have turned away from the way that I have given them and made themselves a molten calf. Then they worshiped it and sacrificed to it saying, 'Israel, here is your God who brought you up from the land of Egypt.'" (Exodus 32:7-8, The Inclusive Bible Translation)

There is nothing quite like reading this scripture standing before the statue of the Charging Bull on Bowling Green. Since the beginning of Occupy Wall Street, the bull has been roped off, a sacred object protected from those animals, you know the ones, tattooed, leftie, unwashed. The Charging Bull is indeed a symbol of capitalism, charging in what is the center of the capitalist system: Wall Street. Hours after being there before the statue, I still cannot shake that eerie feeling of reading that scripture depicting the evil that was the creation of the Golden Calf while standing in front of, not a calf, but a full grown Bull. The people whom you led out of Egypt have corrupted themselves.

My excursion to Manhattan's Financial District on this day was through a field trip for my Christian Ethics class with Dr. Traci West. We went on a Poverty Scholar's Tour of Wall Street, led by John Wessel-McCoy from the Poverty Initiative. It is a tour designed to open our eyes to the current and historic realities of how the system of capitalism has so oppressed us. We asked the question, "Should people serve the economy, or should the economy serve the people?"

It is a historic moment to be asking such questions. We visited the Wall Street Occupation at Liberty Plaza, which was flanked by massive numbers of police officers, though folks on the plaza looked tired but impassioned, many resting, many talking, and many dancing and playing music. They are a people "gathered together in solidarity to express a feeling of mass injustice," as they explain in their first official statement. And who can deny that feeling of mass injustice? Please take the time to read some of those examples of injustice in their statement. I am sure that even good folks who are just working hard and don't want to cause any trouble cannot help but feel in their guts that something just isn't right: "They [the symbolic Wall Street] determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce." Yet that Golden Bull on Bowling Green has such a pull on us that to protest seems, well, blasphemous.

We walked down to the intersection of Water and Wall Streets where the Royal African Trading Company sold and rented slaves beginning 1711. New York did not outlaw slavery until 1827. This is one of the many dirty little secrets of the financial district--- this wealth is dirty money. It was accumulated through the blood of slaves then, it is accumulated on the backs of the poor and even middle class now. And, like so many of those dirty little secrets, there is no monument decrying this site where human beings were bought and sold as slaves. It would interfere with that myth that we tell ourselves of the sacredness of capitalism as embodied in the financial district. And so we sang "Amazing Grace," to honor those bodies that were dehumanized in that spot, and perhaps to remind ourselves of our work to rehumanize still today.

At one point, we were heckled by a man who yelled at us, "Don't listen to him [meaning John, our tour guide]! He is full of shit!" to which Dr. West shouted back, "We want to listen!" I thought that was a strange response until I realized that the lie of the holiness of capitalism has prevented us from listening, yet some of us were breaking through that lie to listen to the Truth.

The people at the Poverty Initiative here in New York, the folks sleeping in Liberty Square, those in solidarity in Boston and LA and Austin and DC and everywhere, are like Moses for us. They are coming down the mountain at God's direction to confront our corrupted selves and throw that Bull into the fire to melt it.

Friday, September 30, 2011

"I'll be praying for you too."

This is a journal entry that I wrote today. Though it could be a good idea to reflect a bit more on this experience and then write about it, I felt drawn to putting it up raw. Forgive the stylistic harsh edges.

I had no preference of where I wanted to work in the hospital during my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) experience. In our program, you are assigned to a general floor and a specialty floor to work as the chaplain. Somewhere towards the end of the summer I began to feel this still small voice drawing me towards behavioral health, a voice that had perhaps begun the year before when a friend told me they were looking for chaplains at his supervised ministry placement in a behavioral health facility. Certainly, the issue of mental health came into the picture for me because a friend has recently struggled and shared with me his experiences on the psych ward. Yet his openness about his experience dredged up memories of three close friends in high school being institutionalized, seeing family struggle with depression and substance abuse/misuse, and just seeing people in church denying needing help though they were obviously manic. Much of my motivation to participate in a CPE program was growing up seeing my mom spend most of her parish ministry visiting folks in hospitals and knowing that I too will be doing visitations as part of my ministry; so too, as in my own life I can see just how much we all all touched by mental illness, I thought it was my responsibility as a future pastor to be able to destigmatize mental illness in my church and learn how to minister to those in the struggle.

Once I had been assigned to the behavioral health unit (referred to often as 7E in the hospital) and shared it with seminary friends, I had one tell me of her own experience with adolescent depression and another tell me that her own father had spent time in a behavioral health unit. Mind you, I had not even begun working yet, all I had to do was mention it and my belief that it is important for ministers to destigmatize mental illness and stories came flowing out.

But I am writing this piece not to talk about the why, though I have spent so much space already on that it seems. I am writing this because I began my ministry in 7E today. I was nervous. When I had stopped in a few hours earlier, one of the nurses announced my presence, asked who wanted to speak with me and then left me to resounding no's. So, instead of sitting with folks and being for a few moments, I escaped easily, promising half-heartedly to return later. When I did, I did not announce myself, I just said hi to folks watching the TV, wandered down the hallway, and just when I was about to leave again, decided to first go through the dining room/game room. A young man was in there, and we greeted each other. He was collecting board game pieces, monopoly money, Life cards, and so I assumed he was manic, unable to sit still, and probably not capable of holding a conversation. I am an asshole.

I smiled at him, started to walk away, and then he asked me where I was from. I turned back and sat down next to him. He proceeded to tell me about himself, where he was from, what he studied, a little of what brought him to 7E. He was, in fact, bipolar, and a recovering alcoholic, and he spoke plainly to me about the program and how much of its merit to him was that he saw examples of what he did not want to become. I was shamed for walking by him, but apparently not enough. When I was leaving I asked him if he would mind if I kept him in prayer. He said of course he wouldn't mind, and as I got up to leave and started to turn my back he said that he would be keeping me in prayer as well.

On my first day serving as a chaplain, I escaped (I guess I do that a lot) to the chapel in the hospital to try to re-center myself and breathe. In the prayer book put together by the Pastoral Care department, I found a prayer ending with those words about presence:

Let me see the presence of God in others, let me be the presence of God in others.

I often try so hard to be the presence of God part of this prayer, but as is apparent from this story I miss the mark completely. But this young man in 7E was the presence of God to which I was witness today. God of healing, forgiveness, renewal, all wrapped into one stark sentence, "I'll be praying for you too."

Wednesday, August 31, 2011


This year I am a Jurisdictional Organizer for Reconciling Ministry Network, the Methodist Federation for Social Action, and Affirmation's coalitional campaign Love Your Neighbor (to read about last year's campaign, I have a reflection here). I organize United Methodists in the Greater New Jersey and Upper New York (RMN and MFSA sites) Annual Conferences for a more inclusive, more loving church. Our strategy to transform the church is through building relationships, which we do through stories. This is one of my public narratives (you can read another one here) that answers the question of why I am a Reconciling United Methodist and why I am committed to change the church.

My parents always taught me welcome and acceptance as the way Jesus was calling us to treat everyone. We weren't perfect of course, but I'm sure many of us learned about Jesus' love for even our enemies in Sunday school. Jesus is that guy who loves you no matter what you do. Except the church often acts the opposite of that. Though I love my home church, I still do not feel that I can always be authentic there in worship, sometimes because of the expectations placed on me as a preacher's kid and sometimes because churches are often just such judgmental places. Especially after I started college I heard over and over about how many people liked Jesus but just feared the church, perceiving it as this place where too many people are phony. I didn't know why I kept going back to church--- it felt dead. It was not a place where I saw the body of Christ at work.

I began to go to a church in Washington D.C. where I found a community that embraced Jesus' call to love everyone, to welcome everyone. It was a Reconciling United Methodist Church, so every Sunday people of all sexual orientations and gender identities were expressly welcomed, but more than that I felt welcomed because of the community prayer in worship. This was a place where anyone could lift up personal prayer concerns and joys in the same moment one could plead for prayers for far away war-torn countries. It was a church where people could open up their hearts and use their hands and feet to do the work of Christ in the world.

An ordained elder attending the church who was working at a faith-based, non-profit invited me to Student Forum's MOSAIC service, which in that year was held in DC. MOSAIC is the young adult extension ministry of Reconciling Ministries Network working for a fully inclusive church for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. It was there that I could no longer deny God's call on my life.

The lights were dim, the chapel small but filled with warm bodies swaying slightly to the music from the guitars. And my friend walked up to the altar where communion lay and she took the bread and broke it. It was rainbow challah bread. And at that moment I felt like I belonged, I felt that this was home. It was a feeling of completeness that I wish for everyone. And it is a feeling that is not accessible to everyone in the church. The woman who broke the bread that night is a lesbian. She has a wife and a beautiful baby boy. And yet the church polity tells us that she is incompatible with Christian teaching.

The Christian teaching I know in that moment of communion is that Christ's body was broken for me and for my friend. And as United Methodists, our open communion table reminds us of that. I worked at a church in Delta, PA, where an artist in the congregation drew a picture one Sunday of Jesus in which Jesus' body consisted of the faces of each person present in church that day. It is a picture that shows us that we are all the body of Christ, as we learn in communion. Yet our Church's exclusionary policies are erasing faces from the picture of Christ's body, choosing who and who is not worthy to live out God's call on their lives.

As a church we need to make a choice. And this isn't just a choice that will be made though polity changes we hope for in 2012. No, this is a choice that each of our churches makes every day. Are we going to be churches that live as the Body of Christ in all it's colorful splendor? Or are we going to continue to erase faces from that body?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Breaking through Fear

And yet again I have been remiss in writing. Apologies! But here is a sermon I preached today at St. Paul and Norrisville United Methodist Churches on the birth of Moses.

This sermon is significant to me for a number of reasons: 1. The book of Exodus is my favorite book in the bible, 2. I relied on my work in college on race as a social construction which was awesome, and 3. This sermon is the one I am using for my Provisional Membership Examination in February where the Board of Ordained Ministry of the Baltimore Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church will decide if I will be commissioned (in non-church speak it basically means that I need this sermon for a big interview that will determine whether or not I'll have a job when I graduate).

I thank both churches my family and my friends Amanda, Laura, Nancy, Kim, and Gavin and of course to my partner Aaron for their support and affirmation of my calling.

So, here's the sermon.

Scripture: Exodus 1:8-2:10 1

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, "Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land." Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
Jesus' baptism using imagery from this story

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, "When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live." But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, "Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?" The midwives said to Pharaoh, "Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them." So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, "Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live."

Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.

The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, "This must be one of the Hebrews' children," she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh's daughter, "Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?" Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Yes." So the girl went and called the child's mother. Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages." So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh's daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, "because," she said, "I drew him out of the water."

Sermon: Breaking through Fear

Good morning everyone! I am excited to be here today. The book of Exodus was the first book of the bible I read in its entirety as a child, probably because I really liked the cartoon version of the story The Prince of Egypt when it came out in 1998. Many of us are familiar with the story of Moses, or at least a version of that story, because every Easter evening The Ten Commandments is shown on TV. It is an epic story, so to preach on the birth story of Moses is challenging, but it is also an honor.

So will you pray with me?

Patient Teacher,
one who has delivered us through times of trial to see your presence among us
grant that this morning we may feel that presence, that you may speak to us
through this scripture, the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,
so that we might better live out your teachings. Amen.

The world that we begin with this morning is a dark one, beginning with the words, "Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph." At the end of Genesis, Joseph forgave his brothers and brought them to Egypt to escape famine and there they enjoyed Pharaoh's favor. For them, Egypt was a place of refuge. But many many years have passed, so many that the story of Joseph has been lost to the new Pharaoh. And so he begins to oppress the Israelites.

Dennis Olsen, a professor at Princeton seminary writes, "A tempting political strategy for new leaders, whether an Egyptian pharaoh or a Nazi Hitler, involves trying to solidify power by singling out a relatively weak minority or outsider group and calling them an enemy. Fear of others can be a powerful source of unity."2 Fear can bring people together, but ultimately it tears them apart. Fear is not a strategy that can be sustained, and it is a strategy contrary to the very life that God is calling us to live.

Living in the Norrisville area, most of us have not known this systemic fear. Many of us may have heard of it through stories of growing up black in the south before and during the Civil Rights Movement. Or stories of living under Nazis in Europe. These are stories where we can taste the darkness and the horror of what it may have been like to wake up as those Israelites, one day living normal lives and then beginning to see their dignity taken away. In these first and second chapters of Exodus, we see that first the Israelites are conscripted into forced labor, but they continued to multiply and so the Egyptians forced them into complete slavery. The fear here, then, does not just belong to exclusively to the Israelites. Maintaining a culture of fear in which to oppress one group means that the oppressors, the Egyptians here, must also be fearful. Fearful of revolt, of losing power, but mostly they are afraid because they have seen how easy it is to have your dignity taken away.

But some Egyptians and Israelites broke that cycle of fear, as we see in our scripture reading this morning. We're going to explore the Hebrew midwives and Pharaoh's daughter specifically. These women model for us our roles as the Church in the world today. We are to break through fear and move our communities to the abundant living that Jesus calls us to when he says in the Gospel of John, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."3 The story of Exodus is a story of moving into our calling to abundant living, though the way is difficult.

Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives, are the first we see to stand up to Pharaoh's reign of fear. It may seem strange that Pharaoh would summon these two women, these two lowly Hebrew midwives, and invite them to conspire such appalling and horrific genocide with him. Why not just jump straight to his order to all the Egyptian people in verse 22 to throw all the Hebrew boys into the Nile? The text does not tell us why he whispers his evil plans to these midwives, but we can imagine why. This story of the Egyptians forcing the Hebrews into slavery is not simply a story of finding a workforce, but it is the story of the construction, the creation, of a people who were once favored by another Pharaoh into a hated and feared people.

Many of you have heard me talk extensively about my experience in Bosnia. In Bosnia, Muslims and Christians lived side by side before the war, as Hebrews and Egyptians did before the rise of this new Pharaoh who did not know Joseph. But after the fall of Yugoslavia, leaders like Slobodan Milosevic looking for power used propaganda to turn Christians from seeing Muslims as neighbors, coworkers, and friends to seeing them as monsters who needed to be eliminated. This also happened in Nazi Germany, and in places like Rwanda, and even in the USA in areas for instance where the KKK was prevalent. This culture of fear that functions to create a distinct "us" and "them" between people who used to be friends is common throughout history.

The difficulty I imagine Pharaoh had with his propaganda was the Hebrews' fertility. In most cultures and times, fertility is seen as a blessing from God. So too it was in this case, as the midwives are rewarded in this story with families. So Pharaoh wants to hide that evidence of blessing from the Egyptians, for surely it is more difficult to oppress a people you know are favored by God. He calls the midwives to make murder look like God's blessing is being taken back, so that the Hebrews will be known for their inability to keep their sons alive past birth.4

At very real risk to themselves, these women stand up to Pharaoh, rejecting a part in his evil plan. The text says that these women feared God, and that was their motivation for defying Pharaoh. There is that word fear again, and it seems to conflict with my understanding of Pharaoh's reign as one of fear and God's as a reign of abundant living. And certainly in my understanding of God, fearing God is not something I talk about much. For me, following God comes out of a love for God, not fear. But in this sense, fearing God does not mean being afraid of what punishment God will reign down for disobeying: in the tradition of the Old Testament fearing God is much more complicated. According to J. Cheryl Exum from Boston College, the center of this scriptural concept "to fear God" is a sense of God's mystery that affects our behavior, so that we are "guided by basic ethical principles and in harmony with God's will."5 These midwives have a sense of God's mystery that guides them in their daily walk. They ignore Pharaoh and continue to participate in God's blessing of the Hebrew women.

They are called before Pharaoh again, and Pharaoh asks why the boys are continuing to live. Should the midwives have spat in Pharaoh's face and denounced his evil, he would have them killed and found new midwives. This is typical of those in power even today--- if you hear something you don't like, silence them and find someone willing to tell you what you want to hear. So the midwives play on Pharaoh's own creation of the Hebrews as somehow not human. They say that Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women. They describe the Hebrew women as more like animals because they can just pop out babies without midwives, though more dignified Egyptian women need help.6 This is a lie, but it feeds into Pharaoh's own construction of Hebrews as more like animals than humans. So Shiphrah and Puah catch Pharaoh up in his own lies and go back to work among the Hebrew women, and the people multiplied and became very strong.

I read a book this summer called A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell about the end of World War II and Italian resistance to fascism. She focuses specifically on the actions of a few families living in valleys in Northern Italy at the end of the war. These were families who suffered under Mussolini, many of whom had lost sons to the war, and now they were being oppressed under the German Nazis who has moved in following the collapse of the Italian government. These were ordinary Catholic Italian peasants who hid Jewish refugees in their homes, made them part of their families. It is a story we know little about, but it is a powerful one. Mary Doria Russell ends the book talking about Hitler: "One hollow, hateful little man," she writes. "One last awful thought: all the harm he ever did was done for him by others."7 I always get chills reading that. Because the author of this novel is right. Hitler probably didn't even fire a gun--- all the atrocities he committed were done for him by other people. Pharaoh himself did not kill Hebrew babies. No, his genocidal plans were carried out for him by others. But Shiphrah and Puah stood up and refused to do harm for Pharaoh, and the people multiplied and became very strong.

Theirs is an example for us as the Church. The Church has a long and unfortunate history of being Pharaoh, but we also have a history of moments that we acted as those midwives, as those Catholic Italians did when they hid Jewish families during World War II. But when we choose to live abundantly, those relying on fear to maintain power become desperate.

Pharaoh in his desperation gives a new order to his people, "Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live."

In the film The Prince of Egypt, a young Moses learns of this order by looking at the drawings on the wall of the temple that depicted history. The drawing describing this order of Pharaoh is haunting: rows of soldiers hold babies by the leg preparing to throw them in the Nile, and more children are drawn falling through the water into the waiting mouths of crocodiles. And it is into this horror that Moses' mother gives birth.

She hides her son as long as she can, but ultimately she turns to the Nile, where so many have died already, and tries to subvert Pharaoh's orders. She does not throw her child into the Nile but places him in a basket onto the Nile.

And then we meet the daughter of Pharaoh, another example for the Church. She is a child of Pharaoh, so surely she knows her father's order to throw all the Hebrew babies into the Nile. Surely she knows this baby is a Hebrew. And yet, she opens the basket, sees the baby, hears its cry, and something stirs within her. Her own father Pharaoh has put so much effort into making a distinction between Hebrew and Egyptian that he believes himself that Hebrews are more animal than human. He raised his daughter to fear the Hebrews. But she sees through the fear and her heart is moved for the baby. She takes him as her son, thoroughly destroying the barrier that her own father was trying to construct between Hebrew and Egyptian.

As the Church, this breaking of barriers is also our work, despite history as the constructors of those barriers. Ephesians 2:14 reads, "For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us."8 We are supposed to open the basket, know the baby is a not one of us, know that society is telling us that we should shut the basket and leave it there among the reeds, and instead allow ourselves to be moved by compassion to make that baby our own.

The story of Pharaoh's daughter reminds me of the ministry of a church in Tucson, Arizona, a ministry called No More Deaths in which volunteers provide food, water, and medical care to save the lives of people crossing the treacherous border between the USA and Mexico.9 Earlier this summer, volunteers from this church found Gonzalo lying barely conscious on the side of a remote road. He was severely dehydrated from drinking contaminated water from a cattle tank, and he was going to die. But volunteers from this Tucson church found him and laid him in the back of their pick-up. He asked if he was dreaming, and then after being assured he wasn't, he asked, "Are you angels?"

Are you angels? Perhaps that would be what baby Moses would have asked if he had been old enough when he saw Pharaoh's daughter's face.

Now, No More Deaths volunteers have been arrested before while transporting immigrants like Gonzalo to receive medical aid, and some have been stopped by police and interrogated just for leaving water for weary travelers to find. After being treated, Gonzalo was deported--- but he was alive because of the love of these No More Deaths volunteers. They were like the Pharaoh's daughter--- these volunteers opened the basket floating down the river to find Gonzalo, a person they have been told they cannot help at the risk of arrest. But they have compassion. They saw that Gonzalo was a child of God and so they reached out to him.

And so we have seen who we are supposed to be in this story. But who are we now?10 No one here is really like Pharaoh, but almost all of us, myself included, can be like all those Egyptians who may not have come up with Pharaoh's horrible ideas but who still do his dirty work for him from time to time. Sometimes this is just because we afraid for ourselves or our families, sometimes it seems simpler to follow orders, but most of all it is that sometimes the fear we live in tells us that there is no other way to live.

But God pokes a hole in our fear. God strengthens us when we act as those midwives, choosing to honor God rather than fearing Pharaoh, or when we act as Pharaoh's daughter, moved by compassion to use our own place and power for justice and love instead of for fear.

May we all break our own cycles of fear to live more abundantly. Amen.

Monday, July 18, 2011

On Summer Thunderstorms

I wish I had been posting more this summer, like I did last summer with my Beatitudes Fellowship blogs. Unfortunately, though I have one reflection and a sermon up I have not even posted once a week! I have been working as an intern for the Communities of Shalom in York City and Delta, Cardiff, and Whiteford for five of six weeks now. I have been writing a lot, journaling way more than I normally do, but I have felt like posting little of it. And I don't know how much of my final reflection I will want to post either. But I do want to share my reflection from last Monday because last week was a powerful one for me, and I think this reflection captures some of what I have experienced.

11 July 2011

All I wanted today was a piece of pizza. Actually, I don't like paying for food if I can help it, but I need to go talk with folks about what they see as needed in the Delta community, yet instead I've been piddling around. As I did again today. See the two pizza places I was going to go to are closed today! But I walked a ways from Delta United Methodist Church to Delta Pizza, and what I learned then was worth the failed attempt to get some pizza.

It was actually pretty horrifying. I was walking up the street, watching the sidewalk because it is in really bad shape (apparently the borough got some money from the state to fix it but they declined as it would mean they would have to put some of their own money into it as well), and on one of the slate slabs of sidewalk was written in big chalked purple letters, “FAG,” right in front of a house. And then I noticed that again it was right in front of another house written on a telephone pole. And another place where blue chalk outlined something about someone fucking someone was being worn away. This normally would not have horrified me except that the word “fag” is so ugly and used so violently in this community. And it was coupled with a picture that Richard had painted for us today in bible study.

I started the day in bible study at the Senior Center. It was a beautiful group of folks, most of whom I met at church or the senior center already. We read Matthew 25, the parable of the bridesmaids, the parable of the talents, and the judgment of the sheep and the goats.But in the beginning we went around and talked about those blessings we have seen in our lives. Richard said that Sunday morning he woke up and went outside to go to church, only to see that his car was egged. This upset me--- it is different when kids egg each others' cars, or when kids egg someone's car who they don't like, but a stranger's car? Maybe Richard isn't a stranger, but I can't imagine how he would have contact with some kid and incur their wrath enough to have them egg his car! I just shiver to think about how people do certain things to one another, how they think it is okay to egg a complete stranger's car? This is what went through my mind. But Richard saw it as a blessing. He said on his drive to church he saw a car where someone had thrown rocks and not eggs and the windshield was broken. Still, I am left with the fact that there is so little to do around Delta that kids see their only outlet in such destruction, and in the violence of the act of labeling someone as a fag so publicly.

I spent the evening in York with kids who are being kept busy, given an entirely different task than those in Delta. Asbury United Methodist Church, in collaboration with First Presbyterian Church and Yorkshire United Methodist, was hosting 67 youth for the York Mission Week, a week of working on homes and community gardens and at soup kitchens, reaching out to do mission close to their own homes. The bishop and the cabinet were working at the York Mission Week, which is how I got involved. Each night after dinner, they have a time of sharing, a few group games, and then worship. I went today to the time of sharing, listening as the kids talked about what they had done that day. I am certainly not called to youth ministry because I have very little patience for 13 year old boys, but there were a few moments in this time of sharing where some of the kids did voice meaningful experiences and others tried to but couldn't really articulate what had happened. But such moments are still beautiful.

When we were sharing, one of the girls talked about working on a fence to keep a big dog in on Chestnut Street. I told them I had talked to that woman several weeks ago at Northeast Neighborhood Association. She had talked about submitting the application. She said she was glad she had the opportunity to get some help, but she hated to let her landlord get out of his responsibilities. She said she wanted to hold him accountable, but at the same time, she needed her fence fixed. I don't think this story really resonated with the kids at my table, but I think it is a story that is important to remember. We as the church can't just go around fixing stuff without holding the principalities and powers accountable. Otherwise, we are always about being bandaids, which means we aren't really living the kingdom of God!

The powerful part of the evening, though, was when we went out on a silent walk circling around the church, taking the time to really look at these neighborhoods they are working in, rather than narrowly focusing on our tasks which is so easy to do. And the kids really were silent, really were keeping their eyes open. But the sky was getting darker and darker and we heard thunder and began to see lightning. And yet, I couldn't turn back. So I continued to lead the kids until suddenly the sky poured water down on us and so we ran down a little back alley to get back to the church. But after the long hot day, our bodies welcomed the rain, I think. People ran smiling into the building.

When Kristin, one of those the mission week, had us all back and dried off in the sanctuary preparing for worship, she spoke of how when things like this happen, we just have to laugh in the devil's face and not let it get us down. Now, that is not my theology, and I think it would have been better to lead the kids in thinking about all those homes they were in today, how those roofs were holding up, or in thinking about all the people living without homes in this city. But even beyond that, I saw the storm to be of God. Here we were, eyes opening to the neighborhoods around us, and it was as though God sent this rain to wash us. To wash the dirt from our eyes so we could better see around us. To cleanse us from the old way of doing mission, to cleanse us of our savior complexes, and rather invite us to enter into a different attitude for the week. One in which we were open for transformation, open to the ways God would work in these young people's lives.

And that same rain fell in Delta, washing the glass out of the street, the chalk off the sidewalk, the egg off the cars...maybe even bringing those kids some relief from the heat, a smile to their faces.

I did not get to go back to the mission week, so I do not know how the rest of the week went or if such transformation took place. Too often in my own week, I was not open to transformation in my own life. But I can still feel that refreshing rain on my face. And I know God is still working within me to change me.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Seeking Shalom

This is a sermon I preached July 3 at the combined worship service for Delta and Bryansville United Methodist Churches. These churches are involved in the Tri-Village Shalom Community of Delta, Cardiff, and Whiteford, with whom I am interning along with the York City Communities of Shalom this summer, and so I preached on the concept of shalom and designed a kind of shalom service for them.

It was a difficult sermon to write first of all because I have preached rather infrequently from the Hebrew Scriptures. But more than that it was difficult because though I see the beauty in the text, it is a letter to a people being ethnically cleansed--- and Jeremiah is telling them that it is punishment but that they are to make the best of it and use it for good. It is like all those places in scripture where we read God has a plan for us, and we realize that such a thought is less a comforting thought than a time to question that if God really has these sorts of violent plans for us do we really want to worship that kind of God? And this is not an aspect of the text I confront in this sermon. I chose the text because we use it as the Communities of Shalom scripture. I just say all of that to let you in on the struggle and acknowledge that there is a dark side to this text that I shy away from. What made it easier was using a story I've used in sermons before, but I figured that I might as well reuse my favorite stories now since I won't be able to when I am preaching in the same church every Sunday!

Call to Worship: A Litany of Shalom by Ruth Duck
ONE: Two things we know about the vision of shalom. Shalom is a gift to us from God. And Shalom is our mission.
ALL: Shalom is a personal relationship between God and all God's earthly children.
ONE: Shalom is the home that we seek, the goal of our spiritual journeys, and the valley of our delight.
ALL: Shalom is our sense of security, of being cared for and loved.
ONE: Shalom is the source of our courage and strength for which we so earnestly yearn.
ALL: Shalom is the harmonious relationship with God, which then expresses itself in our thinking, feeling, and doing with ourselves, others, and God.
ONE: Shalom is reconciliation: a body and soul become whole, a house once divided becomes a home again, the lion lies down with the lamb.
ALL: Shalom is justice for all that we so easily forget when we are in control.
ONE: Shalom is our Christ, God's Hoy Child, whom we crucify and bury, but who will not die.
ALL: Shalom is a gift to us from God. Shalom is our mission.

Scripture: Jeremiah 29:4-7 1

(NRSV, adapted: This scripture comes from the prophet Jeremiah. I will be reading from the New Revised Standard Version, but I have adapted it by “untranslating” to include the original word shalom. As we read in the opening litany, the Hebrew word shalom is a rich rich word for which we have no good translation. So we translate it many different ways. The dean of Drew Theological School, Jeffery Kuan, says that shalom is one of those Hebrew words you should never translate because so much gets lost in translation. So look over your shalom litany again and recall those definitions here as I read our scripture this morning.)

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its shalom you will find your shalom.

Children's Sermon: Check out Enemy Pie by Derek Munson about a little boy who gets rid of his enemy by making him his friend. It fit in well with trying to figure out what it means to seek shalom in exile.

Sermon: Seeking Shalom

Will you pray with me?
Patient Teacher,
We give thanks this morning for this time to come together and worship.
And we ask for you to stand with us today, to let these words from my mouth
and the meditations of all our hearts show us what your shalom really means. Amen.

This is a beautiful scripture that we read from the prophet Jeremiah this morning, but it is a difficult one. Sometimes the Gospel stories are difficult because Jesus' time just seems so totally different from our own, so far from our own, but here we are reading something written over 500 years before Jesus' birth! Who was this Jeremiah guy and what was this exile he's talking about anyway? We don't really learn the very ancient history of Israel in one of our high school history classes, after all. So this seems as good a place as any to start to figure out what is going on here.

The book of Jeremiah is Jeremiah's witness to the destruction of Israel by Babylon and the beginning of the Babylonian exile. Jeremiah is a priest, not a bullfrog in case some of you were wondering. For forty years, Jeremiah was a priest and prophet who led Israel, who pastored them through this painful and terrifying period of Israel's history. What we read today is a part of a letter written by Jeremiah to the exiled community, an attempt to breathe a little hope into their despair.

But what Jeremiah tells them is not what they want to hear.
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.
Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.

Here the exiles are, waiting. They are waiting to see how God is going to liberate them from their Babylonian oppressors. I imagine them sitting alongside the dusty road, their bags still packed. They are watching, waiting, suspended in the moments since being dumped there in Babylon. But they aren't just waiting for something, anything to happen; no, they are waiting to return to Israel. So when Jeremiah's letter gets to them, when they hear God wants them to settle down, can you imagine their horror? They want to go home, but God is telling them to make this new, foreign place their home by building homes and growing food and getting married. But this is not just any new, foreign place: this is the place of their exile, the home of their oppressors, of their enemies.

Jeremiah's message is not a revolutionary one, folks. Jeremiah wasn't telling the Israelites to stand together and revolt against the tyrants who forced them into exile. That's really difficult for me, personally. I want stories where Moses is standing up to Pharaoh, saying "Let my people go!" I want Jesus in the Temple turning over tables and throwing out the money lenders. But in this particular place and time, God has given Jeremiah another message to share with the exiled community:
But seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its shalom you will find your shalom.

Shalom. We have already talked a little about this word this morning (see the litany above). Translators have used all of the following English words to describe shalom: welfare, completeness, to cause to be at peace, to make peace, peace offering, at rest, at ease, secure, safe, to prosper, to be whole.2 And it is this word heavy with meaning for holistic living, peaceful living that Jeremiah uses here in his letter to the exiles. He is not saying, just build houses and duck your heads down and plow on ahead through the exile: he is saying build houses and while you do, build God's beloved community right there in exile. Rather than longing for the past, rather than waiting for God to do something Exodus-style like send plagues upon the enemy until they throw in the towel and send the Israelite's back to their homes, Jeremiah called the exiles to live as God’s people where they find themselves, whether it is a time and a place and a circumstance of their own choosing or not.3

Not many of us today in this room this morning know the pain of exile the way these Israelite's did. Dr. Wil Gafney, translates verses two and three of this chapter, which we didn't read this morning because the names are unfamiliar and a little confusing, into our own terms: "Our national government has just collapsed as the result of an invading foreign power. There is no remnant of the military. There is no government. The President, First Lady, Cabinet, and Congress have all been exiled. All of the artists in New York and steel workers in Pittsburgh were separated from their families and exiled as well." We have not experienced such an upheaval here in Delta, though there are so many places around the world suffering such a fate. Many of us have roots deep in Harford County and South Central Pennsylvania and cannot imagine building house and planting gardens elsewhere.

But I think perhaps we know what it is like to feel isolated and alone, to feel that all of what we were certain of has been taken away whether through our own sin or someone else's, or just some catastrophe. Some of us know what its like to live in a hostile environment, as well, whether it be in our own home or in our neighborhood. Often, it is easy to just put our heads down and plug along. It is easy to keep isolating ourselves.

So when we read Jeremiah, it speaks to us even though we are outside of this context of exile. When we read Jeremiah's letter and see God calling us out to live in community, we want to be incredulous, check God's forehead to see if God's sick, you know? It is just a crazy thing to demand of us, to go out and build community among people we don't even know or even consider to be enemies. But here we are, sitting around miserably as those exiled Israelites were on the side of the road, bags still packed, and we realize that we have to make a change in the way we have been living or we will continue to be miserable.

As Christians, we are a people called to abundant living as Jesus said in John 10:10, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." God through Jeremiah was calling the Israelites to abundant living too. That's what shalom is about; shalom is abundant living. It is about looking at the circumstances around us and instead of retreating inside ourselves, shutting ourselves off from everyone around us, we live as God's people by building God's beloved community.

One of the stories I keep coming back to that really illustrates for me this call from Jeremiah to seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its shalom you will find your shalom, comes from Peter Storey, a Methodist Bishop from South Africa. Many of you may remember apartheid in South Africa, the racist system of white governance over the majority back Africans. It was a terrorist government, really, forcing all people, black and any whites who thought the system was wrong, to live in fear. Hear this story from Bishop Storey in his own words:

"I once received a phone call," Bishop Storey writes, "in the early hours of the morning telling me that one of my black clergy in a very racist town sixty miles from Johannesburg had been arrested by the secret police. I got up and drove out there, picked up another minister and then went looking for him. When we found the prison where he was and demanded to see him, we were accompanied by a large white Afrikaner guard to a little room where we found Ike Moloabi sitting on a bench wearing a sweatsuit and looking quite terrified. He had been pulled out of bed in the small hours of a freezing winter morning, and dragged off like that. I said to the guard, 'We are going to have Communion,' and I took out of my pocket a little chalice and a tiny little bottle of Communion wine and some bread in a plastic sachet. I spread my pocket handkerchief on the bench between us and made the table ready, and we began the Liturgy. When it was time to give the invitation, I said to the guard, 'This table is open to all, so if you would like to share with us, please feel free to do so.' This must have touched some place in his religious self, because he took the line of least resistance and nodded rather curtly. I consecrated the bread and the wine and noticed that Ike was beginning to come to life a little. He could see what was happening here. Then I handed the bread and the cup to Ike because one always gives the Sacrament first to the least of Christ’s brothers or sisters— the ones that are hurting the most— and Ike ate and drank. Next must surely be the stranger in your midst, so I offered bread and the cup to the guard. You don’t need to need to know too much about South Africa to understand what white Afrikaner racists felt about letting their lips touch a cup from which a black person had just drunk. The guard was in crisis: he would either have to overcome his prejudice or refuse the means of grace. After a long pause, he took the cup and sipped from it, and for the first time I saw a glimmer of a smile on Ike’s face. Then I took something of a liberty with the truth and said, 'In the Methodist liturgy, we always hold hands when we say the grace,' and very stiffly, the guard reached out his hand and took Ike’s, and there we were in a little circle, holding hands, while I said the ancient words of benediction, 'The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all.'"5

This story for me is evidence of what living shalom looks like in exile. It isn't about giving in, but it isn't about taking up arms either. It is about finding your shalom by praying for your enemies and by helping them find theirs. Here, the Bishop was a patient teacher of this white Afrikaner guard, seeking his own shalom and Ike's shalom through leading the guard to live more abundantly. Despite the horror of the apartheid system, the Bishop used such a little action, communion--- a simple life-giving action like building houses, planting gardens, and getting married--- to act our what it looks like to be part of God's people even in an ugly time. This is an example for us as we seek our shalom wherever we are. Again, we see how we are called to live as God’s people wherever we find ourselves, whether it is a time and a place and a circumstance of our own choosing or not.6

We see this morning in Jeremiah, in this example from Bishop Storey, our interconnectedness, which is where the revolutionary message is in this text. This is a new way of living for us, this way of shalom, and it is counter to the way we have been living. And those of you who have heard about Communities of Shalom, the grassroots, faith-based, community development network, know that this is what we are trying to do. We recognize that to live abundantly as Jesus called us, we can't just sit at home, or go to church, without reaching out to the community around us, without actively praying for them, building relationships with them, learning to love them until there isn't an us and them anymore, there is just one community.

Let us pray,
Gracious and loving God,
We give thanks for the opportunity to glimpse your message of love this morning.
Pour your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, enable us to live out that message,
to seek the shalom of the city wherever we are,
to be the people of God in all times and places. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Ants in My Pants

"Doubts," Pastor Judy Walker at Delta United Methodist Church announces Sunday morning, "are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving." She was quoting Frederick Buechner and preaching on a little piece of Matthew 28:17: "but some doubted." Matthew 28:16-20 is usually called the Great Commission, the story in which Jesus tells the Eleven to, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations." But before Jesus commissions the Eleven, we see that not everyone believed that he had resurrected from the dead. And Pastor Judy focused on that, knowing that so few of us have heard it admitted in church that some doubted. Some still doubt. I shivered a little when I realized that she was preaching on the merits of doubt for faithful people: my answer to the provisional membership question for United Methodists seeking ordination concerning my personal experience of God was about the importance of struggle in my faith journey, and I even compared myself to Doubting Thomas, wanting to place my hands in the wounds of the Resurrected One.

But then Pastor Judy asked us to write down on a note card we had in our bulletin our answer to the question: What are the ants in your pants? There are times when naming holds a crushing kind of power, and naming through written word holds even more of that power for me. So here I am, preparing to be ordained in the Church, doing community organizing for a summer internship out of churches, thoroughly enjoying seminary, attributing my radical politics to my faith, and yet the first question that comes to my mind, the question that I have really been struggling with since first recognizing my call to ministry, is

What difference does Christianity make?

Notice that my question is not about if God's really there or who this Jesus guy is. It's not "What difference does Christ make?" I was thinking about why this was the other day while I was listening to mewithoutYou, and in "The Sun and the Moon," Aaron Weiss sings, "I used to wonder where you are. These days I can't find where you're not." That is how I feel. I have not always felt that way, certainly, and probably will not always feel that way, but now I can usually close my eyes and breathe in deeply, and then when I open my eyes again I see God in the laughter of a baby or the purring of a cat or in the mountains or even in the eyes of my sisters. Finding God is not the problem. I see God all the time, whenever I open my eyes even half-way--- the problem, for me, is that I often have difficulty seeing God in the Church.

In the sermon "Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity" on Jeremiah 8:22, a heartbreaking sermon written later in his life, John Wesley asks, "Why has Christianity done so little good in the world?" He saw, as so many of us have seen and continue to see, that despite the teachings of Jesus that show us a new way of living together, a way of wholeness and love, our world is just as unjust, as oppressive (if not worse) today as it was over two thousand years ago as Palestinians struggled under the yoke of the Roman Empire. But I think we have to expand the question out even more: not only why has Christianity done so little good in the world, but why has Christianity done so much evil in the world? People who call themselves Christians can often be such ugly people. I can often be such an ugly person, you know? So what's the point? What's the point of this whole organized Christianity thing if it is often the author of the ugliness in the world?

This is not a question I want to be asking myself as I seek to become a pastor.

And I can't end this blog post with an answer. I did not have some magical revelation that made Christianity, that made the Church, make more sense to me this week. I still hurt when I am rummaging through my bag and find that folded up piece of paper. I don't even read the question, but I see it in my mind, staring at me, asking me, What difference does Christianity make? But, though I still doubt, my heart was touched this week, soothed just a little bit so I don't hurt quite so much when my thoughts return to that question. And this story might not soothe you, but here it is.

On Wednesdays, I volunteer to work with the elementary school kids at York City Day Camp. I am super awkward with kids, though I love them, because I have always just let Kate and Suzanne work their magic on kids and considered myself not gifted in that department. Also, I am not even a little bit cool. So I usually let the kids make the first move, let them decide if they like me before I try and just get disappointed. Luckily for me younger elementary school kids are much more gracious to the uncool, and so I found myself sitting at breakfast with a bunch of six year olds who decided that we were friends. They just kept talking and laughing and being cute until one little girl started to sing. And then the rest of them joined in. It took me a moment to register what she was singing. It wasn't a silly song, it wasn't a camp song, it wasn't an upbeat praise song either. No, she was singing "Sanctuary."

Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary,
pure and holy, tried and true,
with thanksgiving, I'll be a living sanctuary,
for you.

Thank God I did not cry because then I would have really given away how uncool I really am, but I did choke up. See, I learned the song "Sanctuary" when I was in Bosnia and Herzegovina the first time in 2004. I always associate that song with my first intense spiritual experience, when I was assured of God's love for me (which I have written about here and here). And here were these children singing this song out of the blue in their slightly off-key fairy voices. I usually don't have as strong a reaction to the song when I hear it in church, but I had never heard it coming from just children before--- it's not one I've usually heard taught to kids, though they had learned it last year at the Day Camp.

And I don't know what it means, but now every time my fingertips brush against that folded-up index card, I hear those little fairy voices singing about being living sanctuaries. And maybe that's enough for me in this moment.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Reviving the Stones

Every time I land at the airport in Sarajevo, the same thing jumps out at me when we land. The buildings there are filled with holes, silent witnesses to a war that happened fifteen years ago. You drive along the road south from Sarajevo to Mostar and you still see damage from the shelling in town after town.

But the difference between Bosnia as I know it today in 2011 and back when I first visited in 2004 is huge. While there is still a heavy police presence in places like Sarajevo, gone are the SFOR and EUFOR troops that were around every corner in 2004. There are more roadsigns, better roadsigns. And there has been rebuilding. Though the bank remains as it did then, a skeleton, the old Turkish bath house has been rebuilt, though what it is now I don't know. And 2004 itself marked an important milestone in the rebuilding when the Mostar Bridge, a bridge that stood as a symbolic link between the Croatian and Muslim sides of the river, was rebuilt. I had thought for some strange reason when it reopened that they had fished the old stones from the river and used them to rebuild the bridge when in actuality they used stones from the same quarry, but I still like to think of those stones as bathed clean by the river. Indeed, the rebuilding of the bridge reminds me of how Nehemiah organized the people to rebuild the wall in Jerusalem, restoring Jerusalem: they have revived the stones out of the heaps of rubbish--- and the burned ones at that (Nehemiah 4:2).

But in the process of rebuilding, stones are not the only things to be revived but it is people who must pick up the burned and ravaged pieces of themselves and their homes to rebuild their lives. One of the ways communities are rebuilt comes through weddings. Coming from a culture of Say Yes to the Dress and Bridezillas, seeing a wedding as rebuilding is not a natural way to see a wedding. Weddings are usually productions to entertain (though sometimes also to celebrate). But Đana and Enis' wedding was different. It was a coming together of families and the community.

Now I don't want to completely idealize this wedding. The culture is patriarchal (as ours is) and one of the places in which that plays out most is in weddings. Women move to live with their husband's families the majority of the time, and the ritual reflects that. But all in all, the focus on coming together in this wedding, traditional though it was, really overpowered those more patriarchal elements. The party starts at her house. She waits in a room, visited by neighbors and family all congratulating her, but she stays in the room until family members from his side come to bring her out of the room (where they also give money to her family) and out to the front porch of her house where they have a banquet for her family and friends. Then, she leaves with her witness and her fiancé and his witness and the rest of his family who came to get her and they begin the journey to his home, where they will have the religious and civil ceremonies followed by the reception.

And it is a long day of eating and more eating. But it was such a cool drink of water as I think about Aaron and I getting married soon. Despite the fact that Suzanne got a little snippy because she didn't eat all morning and then we didn't know who was driving us to the wedding, this day seemed more stress-free, more community oriented than ours (as portrayed in the media) are. Đana didn't have to make any food (which was good because the week leading up to the wedding was filled with people coming to visit her until almost eleven in the evening!) or decorate, friends and family chipped in. It was a real coming together, which was important to everyone since Đana is such a presence there in their village near Mostar. She will be missed so much, and she will miss them so much, though she will probably be back often.

The whole day just felt as though we were all coming together to build something. Taking pieces of ourselves and offering it forward to the community. All night Suzanne and I laughed, sitting with Đana's cousins, taking funny pictures and drinking juice and eating cheese. It might sound weird to say it, but it was a spiritual experience for me. That laughter was an indicator of how different life could be, about how even when life may be sad, joy breaks through. Always. And I guess why this metaphor from Nehemiah of reviving the stones was so important to me was because I really felt run down after a year of taking too many classes, being too far away from Aaron, and having a challenging supervised ministry assignment. This wedding felt like not only a creation of Đana and Enis's new family, but it felt like Suzanne and I were drawn in too. I already had seen all of these people as my family, but the wedding felt as much a joining of my family with theirs with the way Suzanne was welcomed as a joining of Enis and Đana's families. And I needed that.

When the wall around Jerusalem was rededicated, the book of Nehemiah tells us that, "The joy of Jerusalem was heard far away" (Nehemiah 12:43). Đana and Enis' wedding was a day in which our joy was heard far away, I think. And many people around the world, from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Norway to Chicago to Maryland to South Carolina entered into that joy as well.