Tuesday, March 26, 2019

To everything, turn

Luke 13: 1-13
Pleasant Hill Community Church UCC, Pleasant Hill, TN
March 24, 2019

When I read the lectionary for this week, this is what I heard:


“About that time some people came up and told him about the Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand that a white supremacist had killed while they were at worship in their mosque, mixing their blood with the blood of all those sacrificed on the altar of gun rights, white supremacy, racism, rage, and fear. Jesus responded, “Do you think those murdered Muslims, children of God, deserved to die more than anyone else? No, of course not! Yet unless you turn to God, you, too, will die.

And all those who lost their homes in the floods of Nebraska and Iowa and Wisconsin, and those crushed by wildfires in California, do you think they were worse citizens than all other Americans, like Pat Robertson would have us believe? No, of course not! Yet unless you turn to God, you, too, will die.”

“Then he told them a story: “A nation had a government, a city on a hill. The people came to it expecting to find justice and hope, but there wasn’t any. The people said to the government, ‘What’s going on here? For years now we’ve come to this government expecting justice and hope and laws to protect the innocent and not one federal law has been passed to prevent gun violence. Not one statement has been made denouncing white supremacy and nationalism and homegrown radical terrorists. Chop it down! Why waste good ground with it any longer?’ “The government said, ‘Give us another year. We’ll keep digging in and “fertilizing” and maybe we will produce next year; if we don’t, there’s always the ballot box and Election Day.’”

The lectionary ended right there, but these stories don’t have to be taken whole cloth or as they are parceled out to us. Jesus, the master physician, that physician being Love, would have us take what we need, and we need him to show us the way, even as the way leads to Jerusalem, to judgment, betrayal, abandonment and death. (Lent is so cheery.) Lent, indeed, the whole Christian life is about asking “What would Jesus do?” It’s not just a bumper sticker or fashion statement or even evangelically awkward like “Are you saved?” Fun fact—the phrase was coined by Charles Sheldon in 1897, a social activist and the pastor of Central Congregational Church in Topeka, KS. It’s no easy question to ask because what we’re really asking is what would Love do, which does not always come easily to us. Which is one of the reasons we need the season of Lent. So what does Jesus do next, after loss of innocent life, after suffering, fruitlessness and waste? What are we to do when face to face with our mortality? “Yet unless you turn to God, you too will die.”

“He was teaching in one of the meeting places on the Sabbath. There was a woman present, so twisted and bent over with arthritis that she couldn’t even look up. She had been afflicted with this for eighteen years. When Jesus saw her, he called her over. “Woman, you’re free!” He laid hands on her and suddenly she was standing straight and tall, giving glory to God.”

Jesus turns to those who need lifting, who need healing, who need raising, who need liberating, who need the justice he can give them. Puerto Rican author and pastor Carlos Rodríguez writes, “Jesus abandoned his privilege for the sake of the underprivileged. Our turn.” He goes on, “However the story starts for the marginalized, Jesus is here to amplify their voices and turn the tables.”

We who are white have been made aware of our white privilege and white fragility but when was the last time we attended a Black Lives Matter protest and listened? We’ve been made aware of the pervasiveness of rape culture and domestic violence and sexual assault but when was the last time you as a man called out another’s man’s misogyny or sexist joke? We’ve had the Americans with Disabilities Act since 1990 but how do we still assume an ableist attitude in public spaces? We know now that there are more than two genders but how ready are we to break the binary (friends and neighbors rather than sisters and brothers) and use someone’s affirming pronouns, regardless of our inner grammar nazi? We may understand the connection between systemic racism, poverty, and the effects of climate change, but do we understand how entrenched our culture is, the commitment of those in power to the enforcement of these systems, and how we benefit from them?

When we who are privileged feel hopeless and powerless, when we give hope and power to others, ours is restored. It seems to me that the more we know about our earthbound journey through an apparent random and capricious universe, the more we want to cling to certainty yet also beliefs that no longer serve us, that will not save us, that end up dividing us. What will it take for us to look to each other, cling to each other and to the earth for our salvation? It takes a village to save a village; a nation to save a nation; the whole world to save the world.

In January I went to India to visit some of the places my Methodist missionary aunt lived and worked. One of those places was a school for girls in Batala, a small rural town in the Punjab region, near the border of Pakistan. On the brick wall of one of the school buildings there is a sign that reads: “If you educate a girl, you have educated the whole nation.” However the story starts for the marginalized, we are here to amplify their voices and turn the tables. If it doesn’t directly impact us, then that’s what our job is. As Pastor Stan Mitchell, formerly of Franklin, TN, said, “If you claim to be an ally of a group of people, if you’re not getting hit by the stones that are thrown at them, you’re not standing close enough.”

It’s all connected. We’re all connected. We lift up girls; we must also lift up gay and trans kids and raise cisgender heterosexual boys who don’t feel threatened by any of this. We lift up trans kids, we lift up non-binary and gender queer kids. We lift up all those kids, all the kids; we also lift up those who live in poverty, especially the poverty of trans adults, the violence against trans adults, especially people of color. We lift up all these; we lift up all people of color, especially the immigrant, the refugee. We lift up the immigrant, the refugee; we must lift a living wage. We lift up a living wage, we lift up the incarcerated, the working poor. We lift up the incarcerated, the working poor, we lift up voting rights, affordable housing, mental health, food security. We lift up basic human needs, we lift up education. We lift up education; we lift up the earth and climate change and technology and finding non-violent solutions to our problems. We lift up science; we must also lift up art and music and beauty and poetry and athleticism and mysticism—all those qualities that feed our spirits and make us come alive. We lift justice, respect, courage, peace.

It’s what Brené Brown calls the “unbreakable, unshakeable human covenant”. It’s what we churchy types call the love and grace of God made flesh in Jesus, made flesh in all of us. To turn to each other, to turn to the other, is to turn toward God. 


Benediction - Howard Thurman

Give me the courage to live!
Really live– not merely exist.
Live dangerously,
Scorning risk!
Live honestly,
Daring the truth–
Particularly the truth of myself!
Live resiliently–
Ever changing, ever growing, ever adapting.
Enduring the pain of change
As though ’twere the travail of birth.
Give me the courage to live,
Give me the strength to be free
And endure the burden of freedom
And the loneliness of those without chains;
Let me not be trapped by success,
Nor by failure, nor pleasure, nor grief,
Nor malice, nor praise, nor remorse!

Give me the courage to go on!
Facing all that waits on the trail–
Going eagerly, joyously on,
And paying my way as I go,
Without anger or fear or regret
Taking what life gives,
Spending myself to the full,
Dead high, spirit winged, like a god–
On… on… till the shadows draw close.
Then even when darkness shuts down,
And I go out alone as I came,
Naked and blind as I came–
Even then, gracious God, hear my prayer:
Give me the courage to live!

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Now what are we supposed to do?

So, what now?  I've made a full confession of my heart, and to some it may feel like I've abandoned faith, religion, church, but hear me when I say, no I haven't.  I still feel called to pastor, to help others on their journey find their way.  I think it is up to each one of us to find our path, our truth, and to live it out as courageously, honestly, compassionately, and generously as we can, without denying but actually affirming the paths of others, at least the ones that do not cause harm.  And yet even they are on a path, broken, violent, and painful though it may be, and need even more help, sometimes more than we are able to give.  Still don't have an answer for that one.

In her book The Great Emergence, author Phyllis Tickle wrote that the ultimate task of our time, every time humanity goes through a major spiritual upheaval and transformation, is to answer the question, by what authority shall we live?  (Rather than provide a link to the book, I encourage you to get a copy and read it.  It was published in 2008.  Only 224 pages in paperback.)  Certainly religion, scripture, clergy, and faith institutions do not have the authority they once did.  Many people take some or all of those into account, but also reason, education, life experience, culture, society, family, friends, etc., with at least equal, if not more, weight and consideration.

Even so, like in the video above, it can be tempting to believe that someone other than ourselves and our communities can have the answers or the power to save us.  Our celebrity culture feeds this relentlessly.  Even the Church raises its own "rock stars" like William Barber, Diana Butler Bass, Molly Phinney Baskette, Tracy Blackmon, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Rachel Held Evans, Carol Howard Merritt (wonderful that most of the ones that first came to mind are women).  We need our prophets and yet who are the prophetic voices that need amplifying, that come from places we think nothing good ever comes from, give no credence to, or just plain flat out ignore?

What about you?  What about your voice?  By what authority do you live and who else knows about it?  With whom do you consult when you check your opinions, knowledge, ignorance, privilege?  If you had a name for your path, what would it be?  Have you ever stepped off your path, into the unknown, to see what was there?

I believe our source of authority is moving toward our own wisdom and knowledge in conversation with and responsibility to a wider community of some kind.  The challenge is for each of us to own our authority, to affirm the path we are on, and to live peaceably and justly with others.  Of course, this is an evolution and, like most historic transformations, it won't happen without pain, bad decisions, power grabs, and a hefty dose of self-serving motivation (see certain members of Congress).

And so we cannot give up hope.  We cannot give up the path of unconditional love, radical forgiveness, fearless compassion, and restorative justice for the sake of temporary security and safety.  We must keep on the journey, though we may not know the way.  As poet Antonio Machado wrote, "Wanderer, there is no road; the road is made by walking."  And by moving, any which way we can.  Peace to you, my companions on the way.

March 16 I leave Sedona and return to the road.  Albuquerque; Amarillo (my birthplace); Oklahoma City; Little Rock; Nashville; Pleasant Hill, TN (preaching at Pleasant Hill Community Church UCC); Hendersonville, NC (to visit Bakersville, NC to look up my dad's old house); Chapel Hill/Durham (to see Matt B. and Samantha O. and hopefully Hannah C.); Norfolk, VA and then up the coast of Maryland and Delaware to home.  I-95 is no way to end a road trip such as this.

I'll be posting videos and photos of the trip on Instagram.  You can find me here.

Sabbatical ends April 7.  I hope that the conversation continues when I return.  See you soon!

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Positively via negativa

"To come to the pleasure you have not,
you must go by a way in which you enjoy not.
To come to the knowledge you have not,
you must go by a way in which you know not.
To come to the possession you have not,
you must go by a way in which you possess not.
To come to be what you are not,
you must go by a way in which you are not."

St. John of the Cross

Put another way, to come to pleasure, you must go the way of sorrow and pain; to come to knowledge, you must go the way of not having the answers; to come to possession, you must go the way of loss and letting go; to come to life, you must go the way of death.

To come to resurrection, you must go the way of the cross.  Even though this is the center of the Christian faith, it is the part of the Christian narrative we avoid the most.  Of all the special worship services in the liturgical year, which ones are the most well-attended?  Christmas and Easter.  Birth and rebirth.  Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday are usually for the stalwart.  Perhaps the more we are privileged and protected from suffering and exclusion or the less we think about those things, the less those worship services have meaning for most of us.  We are pleasure-seeking, pain-avoidant creatures, which means so are our institutions, our corporate life.  And yet growth comes more from failure, pain, uncertainty, loss, like a seed that dies and bursts forth from its earthen grave.

The Church has had its share of birth and rebirth but it has avoided its own death like the plague.  We are the Body of Christ, we live out the life of Jesus in our life together except this one aspect.  If the Church is to be renewed, reborn, then first it must die. One of the devotionals from the United Church of Christ asked the question, why anyone would want to lead a dying church. And I could not believe the naiveté of the response: “I don’t believe that God will let the church die.”

Jesus died on the cross.  People, organizations, businesses, companies, friendships, relationships die every day.  Everything has a lifespan.  Everything dies, eventually.  Church as it currently exists has been coming to the end of its life for some time now. And just we treat our own death by using more resources at the end of our lives and forestalling the inevitable, we have been doing the same with the Church, the Body of Christ. We’ve reformed and split the Body into different versions of itself. We invest resources and time and energy to keep it viable. We institute programs and activities and attend workshops on how to do church so others will come and join us. We even have a church renewal organization with the acronym CPR. And much of our motivation has been fear and the survival of the Church rather than inviting people into a relationship that could change their lives and meaningful work that could change the world.

I think denominations are dinosaurs.  The population of the state of Delaware (961,939) is greater than the membership of the UCC (853,778). The United Church of Christ has been continually shrinking—conferences merging, national staff dwindling, people seeking life elsewherenot because people aren't interested in justice or raising the poor or living well with their neighbor but because the denominational model doesn't work anymore.  People have found other ways of doing this work that doesn't include a specific religious belief or require a hierarchy and uses resources more effectively.  Even with our congregational polity, it's still a hierarchy.  Which translates into inequality.

Many church buildings are an albatross in regard to time, resources, and volunteers, let alone accessible, a proverbial millstone around the neck of the Body of Christ.  We've been more about indoctrination and faith formation than transformation, how we live.  But Church has never really been about the four walls and what goes on inside them.  In the UCC we say "Be the Church":  be the Body of Christ, wherever we are, whoever we are.

But we also need to be willing to fail in order to do what is good and just, holy and true.  By no means am I saying we should just shutter the church and dissolve.  Like Philip Gulley, I don't want to be an "I" but an "us".  I love my church, the New Ark United Church of Christ.  Church reveals to me the way of compassion and forgiveness. Church teaches me how to be not just generous but open-hearted. Church informs me that I’m not the center of the universe. Church is where I begin to recognize that everything is sacred and that God—what is good, holy, and true,is present everywhere. Church is home, the place where they take you in, no matter what. Church is where justice begins, the workshop for the kin-dom of God. Church is how I learn to love and work with people who are different from me—which is everyone. Church is where I discover that I am a whole person—body, mind, and spirit—made in God’s image, and that God calls the whole person, the gifts and the flaws, to be God’s hands and feet in the world. Church is the place, the people where I don’t do all this perfectly but only with the help of others. Church introduced me to the vulnerable heart of Jesus and to resurrection, when my old life, the one that wasn’t working, died and a new life rose in its place.

But like any lifeform, let us live whatever life we have left to the fullest.  Which includes risk, daring, dancing our way fearlessly to the cross, coming to the inevitable grave breathless from singing and service.  In the words of author Hunter Thompson, “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a ride!”

They don't call it a blaze of glory for nothing.  As Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote, 

My candle burns at both ends;
   It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
   It gives a lovely light!

Thursday, March 7, 2019


I know I am not alone in my thinking.  I am not the first to say things like "God is part of our evolutionary development as human beings" or that we don't need to believe in God to be compassionate, kind, and loving.  Yet each one of us needs to say what is true for us, to heal that aching space between us and the world, that we may be authentic and experience wholeness.

The following is from Philip Gulley's book, The Evolution of Faith.  He is writing about the idea, one that I heard long ago, that a goal of both pastors and parents is to work themselves out of a job, to equip others with what they need to be compassionate and justice-minded so that the presence or role of a pastor or parent, though it may be most welcome, is not crucial or does not create a dependency.

"Perhaps this is also true for God.  When we perceive ourselves as sinners in need of salvation, then God will always be needed to rescue us.  We will always require a god to save us from our sin.  But if God is the universal and inward impulse that inspires us to seek the best for others and the growth of the beloved, then when we have learned to do that for ourselves, when we have evolved to that fuller awareness, then God might well have worked herself out of a job.  Perhaps when we are fully evolved, we will no longer require a deity's assistance, for we will embody the attributes and goals toward which God has called us.  We will be, in every sense of the word, grown-up."

I have been rethinking those times when I perceived God calling me to ministry, to marriage, to motherhood.  I recalled the dream that I interpreted as God's call to ministry.  What if that was all memy need to participate in my own healing and the healing of others, my inner sight, the mystic within me?  When I realized that the relationship that had broken my heart had set me free from my past to be able to meet the man who would become my husband, what if that was my own wisdom and growth?  When I had dreams about each of my children before they were conceived, what if that was my deep desire?  Would it make any of those less than meaningful because a deity was not the cause or inspiration of them?  What if my imagination is more powerful than I was aware of?  I realized that, with the help of a great cloud of living saints, I had been saving my life all along; that I had power I did not know I possessed.

That power is love.  I am capable of loving myself and others at a level I did not give myself credit for.  But don't get me wrong.  I'm no master, which is why I still need Jesus.  And all of you.  In the first letter of John (1 John 4: 19) it reads that we love because God first loved us.  What if we love because we learned about a God who is love and we internalized that love?  Today in uptown Sedona I saw a statue created by James Muir entitled "Caduceus":  an Angel of Healing, a powerful female form with wings, her body entwined with two snakes, her feet standing on a new earth emerging from the old earth.  The last line on the plaque below read "Love as the master physician".

Caduceus by James Muir

All of us are called to be pastors, ministers, priests, imams, rabbis, prophets, gurus, physicians, teachers, healers.  All of us have it within us, though often hidden beneath our pain and fear, to use our power which is Love: to bring wholeness, to parent and companion each other, to help everyone come to the awareness that holiness resides within each one of us and within all things.  

With or without God, we are not alone.  We have each other.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Choose wisely

So where did this identityChristian, Atheist, Humanistcome from?  Part of it stems from thoughts I've had about a psychological development theory called object relations.  About a year ago I used it in a sermon on Jeremiah 31: 31-34 entitled "The Next Right Thing".   Rather than quote most of it here, please click on the link and read the sermon before continuing.


In my view, the purpose of religious belief or adherence is not to believe but to grow and evolve, to internalize that which will help us become more loving, accepting, compassionate, forgiving, peace-filled, justice-minded.  

But I also believe that possessing a religious faith is not the only way to achieve this.  Love, acceptance, compassion, forgiveness, peace, and justice are all choices, as are hate, fear, violence, greed, selfishness.  When we feel threatened, unsafe, insecure, less-than, or stressed, it becomes less of a choice and more of a reflex from our survival instincts.  And this is where I believe our next evolutionary step needs to take place: to no longer be slaves to our lizard brains, to be hijacked by the amygdalaour fight or flight response, but to be able to choose how we will respond, not only for our good but for the good of all.  Our survival as a species depends on the survival of the generous, survival of the compassionate.

Our technology, the high-speed pace of our society, the immediacy of gratification, our desire for more have only heightened this reflexive response of fight or flight.  Technology and science cannot solve all our problems or help us make choices for the common, higher good but as history has proved so far, neither can religion.

Gus Speth, environmental lawyer and advocate

It would seem they need each other: science coupled with unconditional love, radical forgiveness, restorative justice, and fearless compassion, grounded in community, connected to the earth, to humanity.  

Perhaps I have been more influenced by Star Trek than I truly know.