Out of Town

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(Image courtesy of experienceconference.com)

(Image courtesy of experienceconference.com)

I will be out of town until Friday evening of this week at a worship conference.

Designed to “transform the way we worship,” this conference is about getting clergy and professional church laity together to share experiences, bond over fellowship, join in worship, and convey breakthroughs in technology and worship modes.  As I am preparing to help my church launch a new Fully Emergent Worship service next month, I look forward to seeing my Christian colleges from many different denominations as well as what they have to share.  Maybe I will too will have something to add to the conversation.

I would love you prayers during my travels and journey.  I look forward to bringing back ponderings and experiences, and perhaps even some insights.  I hope to have new content up on Saturday, if not, then Sunday.

Until then, God bless you and bring us together again soon.

In Christ,

Sarah

Cries from the Streets: A Prayer

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(Image courtesy of snoron.com)

(Image courtesy of snoron.com)

O Lord, Master of all that is,

The streets are filled with violence;

They are paved with blood.

People gather there to rage against the same society that built the roads.

We cry out over the injustice of this world.

We mourn the loss of human life because of human sin.

We yearn for another way, a path of peace,

But that street is not paved.

It is difficult, and rough to traverse.

It is surrounded in darkness, and only the path itself is illuminated.

Help us be bold enough to walk in the light of Christ;

To tread by faith alone.

As the hatred in human hearts grows,

The ripple effects of the evil we birth in the world expand ever outward.

Only through your mercy and our faith,

Can we overcome, triumph over the darkness that consumes.

Let the lessons of love from Christ’s own lips be on ours,

And embedded in our hearts.

May our street be cleansed through grace,

And may we turn the tide of anger and wrath.

There is great injustice, and the victims’ cries rise to the heavens.

Send us as vessels of your comfort, and conduits of your change.

Until Christ comes again to complete the transformation of this world,

We, your people and children, shall labor for you.

Bless our work, that we may serve you as you will.

Amen.

Non-Judgmental Presence

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During my formal seminary education and subsequent clinical pastoral education, I was taught to be a non-anxious presence, a calm, peaceful state of being.  It requires putting aside one’s wants and desires in order to be fully present and responsive to another.  It is to cultivate a responsiveness that is neither threatening nor threatened.  This is not the natural tendency for most, and it requires self-awareness, patience, and intentionality.  My pastoral experience has given me another state of being which I strive to embody: the non-judgmental presence.

(Image courtesy of publicphoto.org)

(Image courtesy of publicphoto.org)

The non-judgmental presence is focused and consumed with not condemning another, but opening space for grace and conversation that is Christ-like, even if it is too subtle for most to notice.  It is to embody the presence of Christ in unexpected ways, offering love and mercy without requiring anything in return.  It a sacrificial state where the one who assumes this presence understands that it might not bear fruit in their presence or at all, but scatters seeds of potential future relationship with God.  We offer ourselves without expectation of repayment, or even gratitude.  I came to discover this kind of presence without seeking it.  I found myself drawn into relationships with those that many of my fellow Christians questioned, openly so.  “How can you be friends with an Atheist?”  “Why would a Christian, a pastor even, befriend a practicing homosexual?”  These are just some of the demanding questions I have been confronted with during the course of my ministry.  The answer is always the same: I do not care what identity someone claims for themselves or has thrust upon them by society, they are and shall always remain a beloved child of God, and I honor that.  I have had my moments of doubt, so why should I reject someone in that place?  I have sinned, so why would I condemn someone for something they do?  I strive to leave the final judgment to God, and instead offer grace, as Christ has offered it repeatedly to me.

I do not agree with everything my friends and family think, speak, or do, but I love them for who they are according to the Lord.  I pray for their embracing of this grace that is transforming me and my life, but what am I saying if I walk away from them simply because they are not at the same place in their spiritual journey as I am?  Some walk through the dark valleys longer than others.  Many wander off the path, even when their intentions are good.  Grace brings us back.  Grace offers us a second or umpteenth chance.  I am not their judge.  I am not the one who shall decide what their eternal status shall be.  I am the one who is loving them through whatever they are experiencing, good or bad.  I am the one who sets aside my personal thoughts in order to respond in ways so unexpected that the other cannot help but stop and reflect.  I am not perfect, and I have moments when I am guilty of doing exactly the opposite, but I know that I am called to model Christ who came to save not condemn.  So while others pile up rocks to obliterate, I dropped mine by the wayside so that my hands are free to embrace the very same lost sheep Christ calls back to himself.

Those Who Mourn Shall Be Comforted

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The prophet, Jeremiah laments, “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me” (Jeremiah 8:21 NRS).  Not just people, but animals are capable of mourning death and loss.  It is as if all of creation understands what it means to lose something which cannot be regained, and that loss is so profound and deeply felt that it is expressed externally.

(Image courtesy of strangeanswer.com)

(Image courtesy of strangeanswer.com)

In this image, one bird mourns the loss of another, possibly its mate, by standing vigil over the body and crying aloud.  We see similar behavior in all variety of animals, from lions to the great apes, to orcas to birds.  Perhaps loss is more universal than we often appreciate.  One of the greatest symbols of loss in the Bible is Rachel, a matriarch of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, who is portrayed in prophetic writings as mourning the loss of her children, the death of the people of Israel.  We see this readily in the Book of Jeremiah, which states, “Thus says the LORD: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping.  Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15 NRS).  God knows and understands mourning, for the Father mourned the death of the Son, and the Son mourned the loss of others during the course of his earthly ministry, including Lazarus and John the Baptist.  This may not feel like a well from which we can draw strength in our time of need, during our occasions of mourning, but it is.  God has great empathy for those who mourn, and mourns alongside of us.  God seeks to give us everlasting life, not revel in death and suffering it leaves in its wake.

To be understood is a great gift, a treasure in a world where we can feel lost, disconnected, and wholly misunderstood.  Yet even in those moments of overwhelming pain from loss, the Lord reaches out to us to swaddles us in the comforting presence of the Holy Spirit.  The people of God draw close to one another, to uphold and to mourn collectively, for the pain of one is amplified in Christ-like community.  We are not alone, even when a loved one dies and there is a vacancy in our lives and in our beings.  God is present in the movement of the Holy Spirit, and in those who bear the name of Christ to the world.  Whether we are the primary mourner or one of those united in Christ who are vessels of comfort and witness, we are children of the God who knows mourning, honors it, and seeks to fulfill the promise of the day when all mourning shall cease, because death and sorrow will be no more.  Our mournings of this world are temporary.  They may last until our final breath, but there will come the day when our lost loved ones shall be resurrected, restored to us.  May we live each day until that triumphant epiphany living lives that reveal God’s truth and grace, and embody God’s love, so that we may inherit the Kingdom Christ prepares for all those who love him.  In the promise is hope.  In the promise is our eternal comfort.

What is Required of You?

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A woman, who was a sinner, takes a form of supplication, weeps from mourning, and bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears, then dries them with her hair (Luke 7:37-38).  There is such an incredible intimacy about her actions, her response to him.  Confronted with the presence of the Christ, this woman known not by her name or face, but her actions, honors him in such a public way, that those around her cannot help but take notice.  They do not understand, and so they attack both her and Jesus: her for being a known sinner, and him for letting her impure self touch him.  Yet this is who Christ is: the God of All that drew close to sin sick humanity so that we might become intimately acquainted with God, thus discovering and accepting our salvation from the very same sin that required Christ to come to us.  Out of her humility, the woman serves God Incarnate.  Out of her sinfulness, she seeks to honor the one who alone can save her.  Are we any different?  Should we be?

(Image courtesy of churchoftheincarnation.org)

(Image courtesy of churchoftheincarnation.org)

While the earthly ministry of Jesus the Christ drew to a close upon his ascension to heaven, the Risen Christ’s ministry in and through us is here and now, provided we are willing to have such a profound reaction to the grace of God as the woman.  We are a stiff-necked people, who hold disdain for the notion of bowing down before anyone, much less the Son of Man.  We yearn for our honor and glory, recognition of our acts when we are those who taint the world with our sin, and pervert the blessings of God with our evil.  Despite all of this, we are offered grace, abundantly and repeatedly.  Like the woman, we must have an intimate response to Christ, one that is personal and poignant in how it reveals the gratitude and love we have for our Lord.  We are not better than her, nor called to anything less.  God requires a relationship, for this we were created, for this we have been offered redemption, and for this we are called by the one who repairs our brokenness by his own blood.  Her tears of pain and sorrow blessed Christ’s feet, like waters of baptism.  Out of our burdens comes the ultimate blessing: relief from our sufferings caused by our sin and the sins of others.  If we are keeping Christ at arms’ length, and denying this intimate proximity of Christ, then we are the ones who suffer even more.  For those in agony do not reject the salve for their pain.  But too often our pride becomes a barrier.  Must we bow?  Yes, in prayer and praise.  Must we offer our most personal means of service?  Yes, as tribute and because of our gratitude.  What is to be gained by haughtiness that refuses to respond to the intimacy first shown to use by Christ?  There is more work to be done in us; the Holy Spirit, in its perfecting love, is not through with us.  There will always be more work to be done by us; the Lord has love and grace to rain down upon others, and we are the chosen conduits of that incredible blessing, and will be until Christ’s second coming.  By paying homage to the King of kings, we take the first step in being transformed by our relationship with our Savior, and freely join with the Lord in transforming the world.

Meaningful Motivation

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I was at the drug store grabbing a few things, got in line, and waiting until it was my turn to check out.  A homeless man comes up to the woman in front of me and asks her something I could not quite make out.  She says sure, and he goes off down the food aisle.  She turns to me and asks, “Why not right?  It’s better than drugs or alcohol.”  I tell her that I didn’t hear what he wanted.  She told me he wanted cookies, and he comes back with a box of cookies, which she pays for and hands to him.  I smiled at her generosity.  Then she says to me and the cashier, “I need all the good karma I can get.”  Ahh, so her motivation was to sow good seeds for herself.  I get that.  We all want to be blessed, have good luck, experience positive vibes, or whatever the current colloquialism is this day.  Yet as Christians, we are supposed to have a very clear motivation: to serve and honor God.  We do what is right, because God has given us insight of what is right through Scripture, and we honor God by enacting God’s will.  If nothing good ever came back to us, then we would still do what is right according to the Lord.

(Image courtesy of george-christakis.com)

(Image courtesy of george-christakis.com)

No matter what that woman’s reason for doing what she did was, she did a good thing.  I applaud her for her compassion that manifested itself in an act of kindness and mercy.  That poor man was hungry and looked broken down, but kindness from a stranger can uplift the lowest spirit.  I just think we need to be careful and clear as to why we do what we do.  She threw around the word karma, a concept from Hinduism and Buddhism that gets overused and misunderstood.  Karma, in its original and purest sense, is cause and effect.  What we do causes an effect, not judged good or bad, just an effect.  The earliest Hindus and Buddhists believed that reincarnation (rebirth after death) occurred when our effects had not been worked out.  The intention was to cease causing effects so that reincarnation would cease, and the being liberated.  Western culture has taken karma to be cosmic vengeance, payback for your bad thoughts and actions.  But, as Job discovered, good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people.  The only difference is whether you are a good person or a bad person, and for Christians that determination is made according to God’s commandments and only by Christ’s judgment.

When we throw out karmic terms, then we have to follow it through.  So did that homeless man do something awful to be poor and homeless?  That’s a dangerous assumption, and one that lets society off the hook for the kind of institutional sins that make such states of being not only possible, but pervasive.  No one deserves the kind of pain and suffering that extreme poverty and homelessness bring.  Jesus said that those people will be blessed in the Kingdom to come, because they have suffered so in this life.  No matter where we find ourselves socially or economically, we need to do all that we can to enact the will of God.  It is more than being good for the sake of being good, or because “it’s the right thing to do.”  We do what God says, because God loves us first and we love God.  That is causality, and yet it involves free will, the choice to receive and respond to divine love.  We do not just return it to God above, but radiate it outwards to all people.  We cannot pick and choose who will receive, but shower it upon every person, because God offers grace, the ultimate gift of love, to everyone.  Christ was here in our midst doing the best possible good during his earthly ministry, and look what came back to him: hatred, betrayal, dismissal, mocking, suffering, and death.  But knowing that would come did not stop Christ, he did what he did because it was good and just, the will of God, and we are called to follow that example.  Don’t love because you want to be loved.  Don’t give because you want to receive.  Give freely of yourself because God gives freely to you, and your doing so brings honor and glory to the one who redeems you with grace and love. That’s what this Christian discipleship is all about.

A Prayer from the Midst of the Struggle

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(Image courtesy of george-christakis.com)

(Image courtesy of george-christakis.com)

Out of the raging storm, I cry out to you, O God.

Hear my fears, respond to my concerns.

All around me are obligations, conflicts and needs.

I struggle to stay grounded, keep my feet on the floor.

There is this up-welling of anxiety,

And then I remember your peace.

It comes from trust in you,

And the grace of the cross.

No matter what I do, nothing can separate me from you.

In the midst of my struggles, you are here.

On my darkest day, you are the light that illuminates in hope.

Help me to hold fast to you.

Let this assurance of your grace keep me buoyant when I feel I’m sinking.

No matter what comes, with you, I can overcome.

In deepest gratitude, I will sing your praises,

Even when I am afraid, even when I am concerned.

You are what keeps me going,

And because of you, I will go on.

Amen.