Category Archives: Ponderings

Products of theological reflection and divine inspiration.

What Worship Really Means

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This past Sunday, during the 9:45 Emergent Worship service I lead, I was preaching on the Minor Prophet Zephaniah, whose prophecy emphasized the deterioration of worship by God’s people, and the ways in which the leaders had contributed to this decline.  There are other messages in the book, but worship kept jumping out at me each time I sat with the text.  Through the discernment process over the course of the week before, I kept thinking that I often hear people incorrectly interchange worship with private devotion.  I address this in my sermon, an educational moment if God ever presents one.

Worship is corporate in Christianity, and underscored by Jesus’ words: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20 NRS).  Christ tells is that when two or more gather in his name, as we do in communal worship, then he is present too.  Not only is Christ in our midst, but he is made manifest in a miraculous way: the transformation of a group of Christians into the Body of Christ.  This transformation and real presence of Christ is one of the things that cannot be duplicated by an individual Christian, and I suspect that Jesus thought it would be hubris for any one person to think they could fully manifest God the Son on their own.  As clergy, I cannot do it all by myself either.  My God appointed role is to lead others in worship, and whether that is just one other person or a thousand, my purpose is the same, but requires at least one other person to fulfill it.  Honestly, I enjoy being able to lead a large gathering in our worship, but mostly because it is powerful to hear many voices united in proclaiming the mighty acts of God, singing the praises of the Lord, and lifting up their prayers as one.  It is not about me, but us together.

Personal devotion is just as important, and bridges the gap that would exist between Sunday worship of one week and the next.  Acts of devotion include: reading Scripture, being part of small groups like Bible Studies and prayer meetings, family and personal prayer, spiritual disciplines like fasting and abstinence, and singing hymns and other sacred music.  While this list is by no means exhaustive, it does give some insight into the kinds of religious acts and activities that are important for individual Christians to grow their faith, deepen their wisdom, and sustain them over the course of time and during the midst of tribulations.  God gave us these means of grace knowing that worship once a week for an hour or so would not be enough.  A decade of ministry and a lifetime as a Christian confirms this.  Worship is crucial, but it also needs additional commitment and fuel of personal devotion.  Just as no personal devotion could ever fill the void that exists when we do not come before the Lord to worship together in community.

We worship together to give glory to God and praise for the blessings we have received.  We also benefit from God graciously granting us God’s presence during worship, offering us insight into God’s Word through its proclamation and expounding in sermons, and being in the midst of others like us.  As I said Sunday, we are not perfect or worthy to be in worship before God.  We are those who recognize our need for God and God’s grace, and come to give our gratitude for receiving it through Christ Jesus.  We come together with other imperfect and sinful vessels to be filled with hope, God’s love, and the limitless grace for those who repent, which we also do in worship.  It is in the context of worship that we take part in the sacraments, those tangible signs of God’s grace: baptism and holy communion.  During both sacraments, God cleanses us of the guilt we incur from our sin and discover justifying grace, which empowers us to go forth as renewed people freed from sin and death.  However, we will all sin again, even if it is only unintentional sin, so we can come back to worship, continuously take holy communion, and receive the grace that comes from confessing our sin and receiving forgiveness.

As clergy, I can see the vast difference between the time when I am clearly engaged with my personal devotion and when I am not.  My personal devotion fuels my passion and productivity in worship.  It strengthens my connection to God through the Holy Spirit and that bond bears fruit.  I come to exist in a framework of theological reflection, filtering everything I hear, see, and encounter through the lens of Christ.  It provides me with limitless material for sermons, lessons, worship series, and blog posts, not to mention prayers.  It becomes a means by which I provide current, contextual reflections for my congregation.  It makes me a better pastor while making me a better Christian.  When I am in a vibrant, healthy place in my personal devotion, then I am able to take the worship I lead to the next level also.  I believe this to be a reciprocal statement for lay persons as well.  I notice who sings with passion, singing the words as if they were your own.  I hear those who speak the creeds and affirmations of faith with conviction.  I can see the engagement on your face when I am preaching, and see the Holy Spirit moving through you as we worship.

So worship really isn’t about us.  It has always been about God, and the community within which God is calling us to take our rightful place.  We come as individuals to be melded into the Body of Christ, and we depart to carry that experience back into our lives, the spheres of influence that comprise our world.  While back in our daily lives, we partake in the various means by which God connects to us, and sustains us until we can all come back together again in worship, and share in the rejuvenation that it brings to those who yearn for God.  Worship and personal devotion are not the same, nor can one be a complete substitute for the other.  They complement one another, and bring us to a fuller faith, a more mature relationship with God.  The Church must respect the vital role of personal devotion and individual Christians must honor the place of worship in their faith.  Together we will all grow into the Body of Christ God has called us to from the moment of our creation.

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It’s Alive!: Bringing Scripture to Life

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(Image by Sarah Wastella)

(Image by Sarah Wastella)

You may have heard someone refer to the Bible as the “Living Word of God,” or some variant of that.  At a time in human history when Mainstream Christianity is atrophying, I find myself wondering why Scripture seems so dead to an entire generate of young adults.  In a study completed by the Barna Group in 2013, it was reported that Americans between the ages of 18-28 read the Bible less than three times a year, if they read it at all.  That same study discovered that 88 percent of the households who completed the survey report owning a Bible.  I suspect there are a lot of neglected and dusty Bibles on shelves and in drawers all over the country.  Are we treating the Bible like a piece of memorabilia, a collector’s item?

God always intended for God’s Word to be internalized, becoming part of the very fabric of our beings.  We need to read it, so we can know it.  We need to know it, so we can live it.  At this point many people will immediately think of all the boring or often abused portions of the Bible.  I know the long, very long genealogies can seem over the top and filled with names no one wants to even attempt to pronounce, but they all make sense when you read the genealogies at the beginning of the Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke that trace Jesus all the back to Adam and Abraham.  I know the 613 commandments contained in the Torah/Pentateuch/first five books of the Old Testament, and mainly in Leviticus, seem antiquated to say the least, and abhorrent in certain cases, but Jesus illuminates much of that for us, as do the prophetic books crying out for social justice.  Do we really case off all 66 books that comprise the Bible because of some admittedly large chunks of difficult to digest portions?  Where is the justice to the less read and almost completely uncited texts that celebrate life, turn even our modern societal norms upside down, and expose the injustices we perpetuate?  There are a lot of wonderful things to be discovered within the pages of the Bible.

For me, the most crucial things to be gleaned from its pages is this: God loves first and foremost, and God’s love is the only thing that will last.  Even sin, evil, suffering, and death will pass away, but God’s love is the eternal constant in all the universe.  When we love, loving God and others, then we enliven the text of the Bible.  It lives in us, and lives on through us; our lives become the vehicles for that love entering into the world in new and relevant ways.  Otherwise the words of Biblical Hebrew and Ancient Greek are meaningless to the everyday lives of modern-day Americans.  The wisdom of God’s Word is not limited to the people who first received it and their several subsequent generations afterwards.  It has a core truth rooted in the omniscience of God, and the view of all the world from on high in heaven.  From there God can see all the way into the hearts of human beings not yet conceived and born.  God has never been one to only see the bad, the sinful inclinations that lie in wait there to be unleashed in our lives.

From the very beginning there was this faith in us, a confidence in we who are created in the divine image, that we could make decisions to walk in the ways of the Lord, to turn aside from sin, and embrace the grace God would continuously pour out.  That faith is cataloged in every page of the Bible, sometimes in bold text and sometimes whispered in the spaces in between.  When we read the Scriptures, and meditate on the divine wisdom therein, we begin to embody that trust God has in us.  Perhaps this is how we will once again regain the trust of the future generations, and bring revival to the Church Christ founded to be a means of grace, not gatekeepers of it.

Grace and Love, Not Shame and Hate: A Reflection on Legal Gay Marriage

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I had never been to a Pridefest before.  I knew it was a communal event to show support for the LGBT community, and I knew that the one being held last weekend in my city would be celebratory in the wake of the monumental Supreme Court decision to allow for legal gay marriage in every state.  When I was invited to attend, I thought to myself that I had never been to one, and so I wanted to experience it for myself.  Even getting dressed to go became a difficult endeavor, because I don’t have a lot of rainbow apparel.  I decided to focus on my jewelry: two cuffs that are precious to me.  The first is from India, made by women who used to be objectified and used in the sex trafficking industry through heterosexual sexual sin.  It is embossed with one simple word: LOVE.  We all need love, and no matter what anyone says, I think we all yearn for it.  The second cuff is a recent acquisition from Annual Conference, that statewide gathering of United Methodists from all over Virginia who descended upon Roanoke two weekends ago.  It is up-cycled from leather remnants and an old spoon.  It was hand stenciled with the phrase, “SAVED BY GRACE.”  The combined statement of those four words on my wrists made me feel ready.  I may not be gay, but I do have numerous family members and beloved friends who are.  As a heterosexual person, I wanted my only statement to be consistent with Christ: grace and love for all.

(Image by Sarah Wastella)

(Image by Sarah Wastella)

I do not believe that I have to agree with everything about you to love you.  Yet I do not like the implication of that old adage, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.”  I mourn sin, but I think hatred is a seed planted in the heart that is antithetical to the love Christ calls forth.  If God wants to hate sin, then that’s God’s business, as God cannot be corrupted by hate as humans can.  I’m focusing on loving and granting grace, leaving space for transformation, as I feel called in Christ’s name to do.  I have many people in my life whom I love with all that I am.  Some of them practice a lifestyle that can be harmful at times.  Some sin regularly and openly.  Some are trying to change their ways and their life.  They are all in different places, and I consider myself a vessel of God’s presence when I love in spite of sin.  I seek to be one who looks beyond the brokenness to search out the potential in each person to magnify the Lord.  I do this because I want someone to do it in me.  I want to forgive as I know I need to be forgiven, and I have been by God through the grace of God.

So it was that I walked into the park where Pridefest was being held.  It was a plethora of rainbows, and flamboyant apparel.  None of that bothered me, as I am rather colorful and flamboyant myself.  The rainbow is an ancient Biblical symbol for peace.  Genesis recounts how God, the Father, hung his bow, his weapon of war, in the sky after the flood that destroyed all the earth except the life preserved within the ark (Genesis 9:8-17).  It was to be a perpetual reminder of the loss that had occurred and the promise never to destroy the world with flood again.  The rainbow has been used by the LGBT community as they have struggled against constant threat of violence, both physical and verbal.  They long for the day when their heterosexual adversaries would hang up their weapons of violence, and let them live in peace.  Since we do not round-up other sinners and subject them to this kind of abuse and torture, I see their point.  I regret the suffering they have endured, and the deaths that have been for no other reason than a hatred unleashed.  This is not who God created humankind to be.  While people argue that God did not create us to be gay either, I believe that I can only control how I react to what is before me.  I reject violence.  I renounce the forces of wickedness that allows one group of human beings to dehumanize and seek to destroy another.

I am not without internal conflict about the practice of homosexuality.  I know the nine references to the act in the Bible, five in the Old Testament and four in the New.  I have read them over and over for a decade now, and I remain as confused and overwhelmed as ever.  I also consider that four of my top ten people in my life are gay.  They have done for me, when heterosexuals have not.  They have loved me in spite of my sinfulness, too.  I cannot hate them.  I will not hate them.  I wonder if we would treat them this way if their sins were struggles with addiction, stealing, or another form of sexual sin.  I think not, because I know we do not treat other sins this way.  We have singled out one sin and elevated it above others.  We have set ourselves against an entire group of people, and for what end?  Have we changed hearts to look like Christ’s through this?  Have we revealed the grace of God in transformative ways this way?  No, we have created enemies of the Church, and turned an entire generation sympathetic to their LGBT loved ones away.  We are losing our image of Christ embodied in our grace and love, and it is being replaced with one marked by judgment, hypocrisy, and hatred.  It makes my heart-break.  I suspect that God is not pleased with this course of events either.

I stayed quiet and did a lot of observing.  There was a lot of public displays of affection, but less than I observe in the heterosexual population on Valentine’s Day.  There were LGBT people of all ages, multiple races, and any other signifier I could conjure up.  They were human and expressed the same flaws and fabulousness any heterosexual might.  There was a lot of talk about the marriage equality ruling.  I think it was time.  As someone who is tasked with presiding at weddings, I think we made a linguistic error in the Church.  We allowed Holy Matrimony, a life-long covenant made before God and ratified in the Church, to be referred to in the terms of legal marriage.  I officiate Holy Matrimony.  It just so happens that the Commonwealth of Virginia accepts this Holy Matrimony as legal marriage.  But not all heterosexual marriage is Holy Matrimony.  We have untold numbers of heterosexual couples who have been wed legally outside of the Church, and many of those unions would not have been performed in the Church, at least not by me.  I refuse to perform a wedding for a couple when I know there is abuse going on.  I will not perform a wedding at a drive through for people I do not know.  I will not perform a wedding when people spent a wild night in Las Vegas and decide to get married to someone they just met on a whim.  Yet all of these happen and regularly so, and they are legal.  So those heterosexual couples have legal rights that unmarried couples, heterosexual and homosexual do not.  I don’t see the justice there, if we deny homosexual couples the right to marry legally.  People who have been dedicated and committed to one another should have the ability to share in healthcare insurance, property rights, and end of life decisions.

The book of doctrine for my denomination, the United Methodist Book of Discipline prohibits clergy from officiating a homosexual union.  Regardless of how a clergy person feels about that personally, we vow to uphold the Book of Discipline professionally as part of the investiture of Apostolic power and authority in us.  If that is ever changed in the course of proper Church polity, then every clergy person will have to decide how they will live that out, but this is not the case today.  So while I cannot and will not perform a homosexual union of Holy Matrimony, I can still see where a secular, legal change to marriage outside of the Church can be a good and joyful thing.  I see people who have been together longer than I have been alive, and now they can enjoy legal rights denied to them solely because of their sexuality.  The day could come when the State no longer recognizes Holy Matrimony as legal marriage, but I would still perform them, because that is my charge as clergy.  Sometimes we need to recognize that the affairs of the Church are not synonymous with affairs of the world.  When people articulate a fear that this will destroy marriage, I tell them that I have yet in the past five years to perform a single marriage where the couple was not already cohabiting.  There is an all together different threat going on to Holy Matrimony, and it is the ease with which we are willing to cast off the vows for divorce or adultery, and forsake the biblical parameters of celibacy before being married.

In the end, I attended my first Pridefest, and tried to see a people who were not truly any different from me like I see myself.  We all sin.  We all fall short of the glory of God.  We all need grace, and we all want to be loved.  I am done shaming someone for one sin, when no one does so for a different sin.  I am done allowing hate, when we are a people born out of God’s redemptive love.  I choose to love.  I will love in spite of any and all sin, because I want God to do this for me in spite of mine.  I will grant grace that every person I know will grow in their love and deepen their relationship with God, who alone can transform us from the unrepentant sinners of our birth into the beloved saints of the Kingdom to Come.  There is no sexual identity requirement for Christ’s forgiveness, and if we keep acting like there is in the Church, then we will have sealed our fate.  It is time we let God do the interior work in the hearts of all humankind, regardless of their sexual status.  This is the purview of the Holy Spirit, and we are wholly unqualified to co-opt it.  The grace Jesus gave to sinners during his earthly ministry was not about judgment and condemnation, which was abundant in the Pharisees, but divine encounter and love.  I pray the Church will become more about the latter, and forsake the former.  May God work in all of our hearts, and change us to be more Christ-like.

Shaking It Up: First Starbucks, Then the World

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It’s not uncommon for me to stop by the local Starbucks and grab a coffee when I’m out and about in the morning.  Even though I’ve already had one cup of coffee at home, I enjoy the diversity of a tall Pike Place coffee from the flavored k-cups of my domicile.  So yesterday morning I had to run a few errands, and then I hit up the Starbucks which was on my way back to the church office.  I was driving a larger rental vehicle, a minivan no less, rather than my normal peppy mini-SUV.  It obviously wasn’t set up for my phone to bluetooth in my various music caches, so I was listening to the satellite radio Electronic/Techno station rather than my mix tape equivalent of eclectic music I set aside specifically for driving.  At least the minivan had some surprisingly good bass.  I felt slightly out of my element, slightly off kilter.  As I walked into the Starbucks, one of the regulars, Shawn, noticed that my five year old son wasn’t in tow, and asked where he was.  I told him that the Little Man was out and about with a friend.  Everything was not normal, and it was obvious.

As I waited in line, I made the decision to not get my regular order.  I cast aside the notion of getting the tall Pike, and embraced one of my former favs: the grande nonfat Misto.  When it was my turn and I placed my order, you could see the shock register on the barista’s face.  But she didn’t say anything to me.  I could not help but smile as she placed the order with the other barista at the helm of the espresso machine.  His head whipped up, “You mean she doesn’t want a tall Pike?”  She shook her head no, and he glanced at me, then cast a look her way as if to say, “Are you sure?!”  He shrugged and started on my steamed nonfat milk.  A third barista walked by and wished me “Good Morning.”  She noticed that I didn’t have my tall Pike and started to grab a tall cup to make it, when the first barista had to tell her that I had ordered something else.  The third barista actually asks if something is wrong.  Now I’m chuckling, “Nope, God is doing a new thing, and I decided to follow suit.”  They are all smiling, but it’s tinged with confusion and maybe even a little discomfort.  Maybe it was my decision to speak the name of God.  Maybe it was my breaking with tradition and established routine.  Either way, with my Misto in hand they all wished me a good day and I departed.

(Image by Sarah R. Wastella)

(Image by Sarah R. Wastella)

As I got into my massive human being hauling rental vehicle, I took the first sip of my Misto.  The creamy taste was alien to my palette, which has become accustomed to pure, black coffee.  The second sip was better, almost nostalgic.  I used to drink that beverage all the time several years ago.  It was a my “go to” at Starbucks, but that was before I gave up cream in my coffee and embraced the world of black coffee my parents always enjoyed.  Things had really changed in a couple of years.  Maybe the rest of the world wasn’t rocked when I shifted my crucial coffee routine, but going back was not as easy as I had imagined.  I had settled into a new norm, and had apparently taken others there with me.  Those baristas are used to people who constantly mix it up with their beverage orders, but those of us who are stalwarts, drinking the same thing with regularity make things easy, predictable, and comfortable.  I shook things up today, and for no other reason than I was shaken up by circumstances outside my control.  My mention of God had more to do with what God is doing in me and my life than my beverage.

I got engaged when just a month ago I was telling people I had no intention of getting remarried ever.  My son who had been adamant up to two months ago that I should not ever get married again much less date, is telling everyone he encounters that he is getting a new step dad, and he loves him.  My Emergent Worship service is bearing fruit, and touching lives.  I am preparing next month to begin the final phase of the ordination process, and hopefully culminate in my ordination next June, thus ending a journey that began seventeen years ago with a call from God.  Through all this change, this flux in my life, my faith is growing stronger.  I am praying more, and with greater gratitude than ever before.  I am writing again, and it feels like coming home, but moving into a different room than the one I left.  Maybe this one has more closet space and a better view.  God is always at work in the world, the question is whether we are willing to let God work in our lives.  I want even more than that.  I want God at work in me, so that one day God will be free to work through me in radical ways.

Life is change.  It is evolution, growing, stretching, and adapting.  It is about dealing, coping, and even embracing that change.  Change can be scary.  I choose to look at all these insane changes in my life as occasions for God to work, and bring me into the Promised Land where I am looking more and more like Christ everyday.  The Promised Land is more than a geographical place with GPS coordinates.  It is a state of being where we are in a profound relationship with God the Father, doing the work of discipleship in God the Son’s name, and allowing God the Holy Spirit to perfect us in God’s almighty and endless love.  It is not an easy journey, but worthwhile doesn’t being to convey it.  It will take everything we have, and give us more than we can imagine.  I suspect there will be a lot of tall Pikes along the way.  It starts with a sip and step.

Christ Redeeming Culture

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There was a Christian ethicist named H. Richard Niebuhr who lived during the first part of the twentieth century.  He is most well-known for his book, Christ & Culture (1951) in which he puts forth various theories about how Christ interacts with culture.  Sometimes it seems as though Christ is against the culture of society, offering a critique and exposing the institutionalized sin therein, but this is not the only possibility.  Niebuhr himself proposed alternatives such as Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ the transformer of culture.  I am discovering that Christ can also redeem our culture, that which was once pejoratively labeled secular.  There remains an unspoken belief that the secular things of this world are antithetical to the sacred things of God, and this is transmitted in many of the policies of the Church.  Many churches reject popular music being played in worship.  Others refuse to utilize trending digital technology and social media.  Some reject the modern standard of relaxed dress, and insist through peer pressure rather than an explicit dress code that all who enter into the church building conform or face condemnation in hushed whispered tones and unspoken looks of disdain.  It would appear that there is a long history of the Church setting itself up in opposition to secular culture, but what about our concept of redemption?

I believe that there is nothing beyond the transformational power of Christ.  The Psalms declare the mighty power of God unfolding in the action of redeeming: “O Israel, hope in the LORD!  For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem” (Psalm 130:7 NRS).  Leviticus provides for redemption of land: “Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land” (Leviticus 25:24 NRS).  Even Revelation is prophesy about the day when the whole earth shall be redeemed, when the old things shall pass away and new things emerge from heaven: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:1-2 NRS).  So why do we operate as though secular culture is the exception to God’s redemptive rule?  Why should the Church abjectly reject anything cultural that did not explicitly have its origins in the Church?  If that were the case, then Jesus should never have performed his first miracle at a wedding celebration, for no where in Scripture is a wedding reception or party commanded.  Parties are a cultural aspect that predates the Church of Christianity, and even Judaism.  Yet Christ redeemed it not only with his miracle, but first with his presence.

I did not grow up with secular culture in worship, but the compartmentalized existence of my childhood (i.e. this is church, this is school, this is work, and that is home) melted away as technology made it easier to be an integrated person.  I can work from home, go to school online while hanging out at Starbucks, live stream worship, and control my house lights from a mobile device.  Boundaries are blurred, and I can take my culture anywhere with me, accessing it with the touch of a screen.  But we in the Church seem to have sequestered Christ, locked him in a brick and mortar prison, refusing to let him touch the secular as if it were unholy evil.  Christ cannot be corrupted.  Touching the secular will not destroy his holiness.  During his earthly ministry Jesus did visit synagogues, the sacred learning centers in cities and towns.  He also visited the Temple in Jerusalem, the holiest site of offerings, sacrifices, and worship of God.  Yet the vast majority of his time was spent in the secular realm of people’s homes, the commercial districts, the shoreline where fishermen congregated, and along the landscape of hills and valleys.  It was there that Christ used parables of everyday events to communicate the Kingdom of God and the Gospel of salvation.  If his presence was not enough of an act of redemption, then his utilization of these cultural norms in his teaching and preaching is.  Jesus put a Godly spin on everyday things and cultural norms.  People could no longer look at a mustard seed and not recall the metaphor for faith.  Even the cross, a cultural means of enacting capital punishment, was redeemed into a symbol of faith and triumph over sin and death.  Somehow we have lost this truth, and most certainly is evangelical power.

It is time we recall the tenacity of Jesus in redeeming all things.  How he took what people knew and felt comfortable with and made them conduits for entering into the spiritual realm.  Christ forgave sinners and told them to go and sin no more, but never told them to reject their culture and vilify it.  Instead he sent his followers back into the secular culture to engage the people there.  They took common meals aka. dinner parties and made them sites for worship in homes as the people reenacted the Last Supper in the midst of their meal together.  The Apostle Paul used his secular job as a means to meet new people and speak Christ’s truth in love, converting untold numbers of people, and planting churches all over the Roman empire.  New Testament authors used the secular mode of writing letters to outline the conduct of Christians, which has called us into that deep and profound communal love known as agape.  If we allow our creativity and our love of Christ to fuel us, then we can put a Christian spin on anything.  We will never eradicate secular culture, and I personally do not think we have to, because God has empowered us through the Holy Spirit to be vehicles of redemption.  Clergy do this when they preach and use antidotes and personal examples in our sermons.  When I hear the song “Lean On Me” by Bill Withers, I think of Paul’s emphatic plea that Christians “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2 NRS).  That song is considered secular, but more people know the lyrics to it than the hymn “Blest Be the Dear Uniting Love” by Charles Wesley, so teach them to think of what they know in a whole new way, a holier way.  Maybe we can show the generations that refuse to enter into our midst that we do not reject and hate what did not start in the Church, and model that we do not reject and hate them because they are not currently part of our fellowship, or born and raised in the Church.  Maybe we can surprise them and make them wonder if there is more to us than they thought.  And just maybe in that space we create through our unexpected response to secular culture, Christ will be brought closer and more readily received into the hearts of many.  Is this not our task, our duty, and our divine call?

Finding the Strength to Bear Fruit

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Over and over the Bible speaks of bearing fruit.  Even Jesus commands us to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8 NRS).  Yet I have been pregnant, and I have given birth; I know that it is not an easy task.  It involved incredible amounts of energy and devotion.  Whether we are bearing fruit or children, bringing forth something new is never easy.  As clergy, I am often told that I must bear fruit in my ministry.  Sometimes that fruit is readily tangible and can be objectively quantified, i.e. attendance in worship, professions of faith, active small groups, etc.  Other times it is more intuitive or hidden from view, and thus remains subjective, i.e. seeds planted, lives touched, grace granted, etc.  Both kinds of fruit are important, even vital for Christianity, and both have been a goal for me to strive towards personally and professionally.

There was a time when the Church Universal drifted from each Christian bearing fruit.  It focused the burden more squarely on the shoulders of clergy.  While we should be an example and set the bar for bearing fruit, we cannot be the only ones to do so.  Honestly, some of the most impactful and repeated bearing of fruit is done by lay persons.  If every one of us took seriously Christ’s command to bear fruit “thirty, sixty, and hundred fold” (Mark 4:20b), the Kingdom of God would be that much closer, emerge that much more.  But it is exhausting.  It will drain you, and can even overtake you.

A year ago I was blogging daily, posting ponderings, devotions, and prayers constantly.  It was a good thing, and most times a joyful one.  It pushed me to attend to my own spirituality, and produce fruit in my Bible reading, prayer, and theological reflection.  Then life got even more complicated personally as well as professionally.  I was locked in a legal battle born out of a sin that forever fractured my family.  I started a new worship service in a style that is rarely seen in United Methodism, and it required more creativity, innovation, and planning than anything I had ever done liturgically before.  Slowly I started to skip a day of posting to my blog here and there.  Eventually I started taking Saturdays off entirely.  Before long a day became a week without bearing fruit.  Next thing I knew my blog was suspended.  It would lie fallow for almost half a year, as I focused my time and energy on bearing fruit in the Emergent Worship service entrusted into my care and leadership.

Then God started to speak to me through others.  Every now and then someone would ask me what happened with my blog.  Or they might ask when I would start doing it again.  I would say that I needed time to rest and that I felt like I would do it again, I just never said when.  More and more I was making the excuse with regularity.  Several people told me how much they missed what I had been doing, that it had been part of their daily devotion with God.  That is a humbling thing to hear.  As clergy I understand that I have a duty to the laity entrusted into my care and the church to which I am appointed, but suddenly I felt this responsibility from God to speak beyond the geographical boundaries of my appointment.  Perhaps my blog was also ministry to which I am being called.  I heard the testimonies of the fruit it had borne for others.  Could I do that again?

The Holy Spirit often speaks most loudly through the vessels we know and love.  My parents started telling me I needed to start again.  Then my fiance did the same thing.  “But it was so exhausting,” I would whine.  They did not care.  The answer was always the same, even while worded differently: “You are called to this.  It matters, because it makes a difference.”  Who am I?  There are more capable, better qualified, and more faithful disciples than I.  Then the voice of God spoke back against my objections: “Your struggles resonate.  Your authenticity is your gift.  I am your strength.”  One of the best things about being pregnant was knowing that it would be over in nine months.  I made a lousy pregnant woman.  Yet here was God asking me to jump back into a practice that require faithfulness and discipline for much longer than nine months.  I am one to constantly argue with God, but I didn’t have much to say back this time.  God was right, and those that allowed themselves to be vessels of God’s truth to me were also.

So when you wonder if your encouraging words matter, they do.  Not just to me, but to every person.  Sometimes you are doing more than offering a compliment.  Sometimes you are fertilizing the ground that God desires to bear fruit.  Sometimes your support gives courage to those whose heart is weakened with doubt.  Sometimes your words are as holy as those within the Bible, calling the wayward disciple back to the path of Christ.  We take strength from God first and foremost, but sometimes that strength comes through human vessels, conduits of Christ in our image.  Take the time to speak words of comfort and hope.  Be intentional about your acts of kindness and mercy.  You just might be the means through which fruit comes into this world.  You just may be the way in which Christ expands the fruitfulness of a Church that has lain fallow for far too long.

Making Space for All

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They crowd around the table, clamoring for a little more.  They cannot get enough, and who can blame them?  Grace tastes amazing.  I smile as the children run and youth coolly walk down the aisle as soon as the Postlude begins.  Worship is over and the leftover consecrated Communion elements are free to an open stomach.  Some of the youth stand with a hunk of Hawaiian bread, breaking off pieces and dunking them into the chalice.  The younger children devour their over-sized piece, smiling with a mouthful of a tangible sign of God’s grace for them.  I think to myself, “This is what the Kingdom of God looks like: joy in gathering at the Lord’s table and enjoying what God has richly given to us as a family.”  Sometimes I can hardly get to the table, and I am glad that there will always be sufficient space at the table for all who desire to join in the Kingdom to Come.

So what do we, who are called to service in Christ’s name, do about making space at the table here and now?  We exclude, and for this I and countless others mourn.  We allow our sinfulness to build gates through which some will never have the key to enter.  We set up passwords that require people to hide themselves and create false images in order to be acceptable, but not accepted for the imperfect people God loves in spite of ourselves.  There should always be an open seat at the table.  There should always be Christians willing to scoot down and crowd together so someone new can fit in.  Church should be a place where we serve up grace in an endless buffet, but how many find this resonating in their personal experience?  It is the sinfulness of humankind that wants to hold others back, keep them out, and refuse to see Christ in them.  It is our corporate sinfulness that prevents us from setting aside everything that we consider a reason for denying someone the grace of the Lord’s Table and his transformational Supper.  Lord, forgive us.

Yesterday, I and hundreds of other United Methodists gathered together to do the work of the Church in holy conferencing at the Annual Conference of the Virginia United Methodist Church.  Clergy and laity from all over the Commonwealth of Virginia descended upon the city of Roanoke, and set about prayerfully considering what God would have us do.  Some discussed, some stayed silent, but I choose to believe that we in our own ways discerned.  Three resolutions were being considered and voted upon for submission to the General Conference, that world wide gathering of United Methodists which takes place once every four years.  It is the forum for doctrinal change, and homosexuality is the hot topic.  One resolution sought to remove a single line from our Social Principles, statements on controversial issues, but not church law, not doctrinally binding.  It says, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”  This one line has been used as a chain to lock doors, a velvet rope to deny access to the sacraments of God, and whip to beat those who are no more sinful than anyone else.  There is no hierarchy of sin; it is all equally harmful, against the will of God, and able to be overcome by the selfless offering of God in Jesus Christ upon the cross.  God boldly proclaims that the blood of Christ is sufficient to cleanse all sin, and save every sinner: “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NRS).  Who are we to place an asterix there?

As clergy, I was asked to cast my vote, and thus take a stand.  I have struggled with this issue since I was fourteen and my first, but certainly not my last, beloved friend told me they were gay.  I know what Scripture says about homosexual sex, the act not the personal identification and identity.  I know that many things are prohibited there as well.  Things I have done.  Things I continue to do.  Things that I struggle with every day.  Why do we single out this one thing?  Why do we villainize one group so voraciously and vocally, and remain sinfully silent about other acts that cause irreparable damage, suffering, and brokenness?  As someone whose life has been irreparably damaged by sinful heterosexual sex, I lament that the Church is all too quiet about the sin that destroyed my family, stole the future promised in a covenant before God, and will forever cause suffering for my son, but is all too eager to pounce upon homosexuals.  Even to the point that just admitting you are homosexual, whether you practice that sexually or not, can be cause for persecution, exclusion, and disdain that borders on unholy hatred.  Lord, forgive us.

I found myself, in a moment of movement in my heart of the Holy Spirit, that same Holy Spirit that has resided within me since the day of my baptism as an infant, recalling that the Law of the Old Testament came from God, the Father.  It was good, as it was holy, but we sinful people took it to a dark, sinful place.  We perverted it to hurt people and make them suffer for their sins, rather than find grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation with God.  This culminated and was embodied in the people of the Pharisees in Scripture.  They took the Law to such a dark place that healing those that had suffered a lifetime was evil in their eyes, even if the healer was God God’s self.  So it was that Christ came to us to help us see another way of understanding what God was doing in the Law, as Jesus said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17 NRS).

I pondered if we had become modern-day Pharisees, if we had lost sight of the people of grace we had always understood ourselves to be as United Methodists.  If our core theology is that God is a God of grace, limitless and overflowing for all people who desire it, then is that reflected in what we say, what we do, and how we conduct ourselves as servants in the Houses of God we keep in our communities?  I thought to myself, “No, it is not.  We have singled out one group of people.  We have enlarged the speck in their eye, and denied the log in our own.”  For that passage in the Social Principles never explicitly mentions much less condemns adultery.  We all sin.  Every human being whether heterosexual, homosexual, pansexual, or asexual, sins: “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23 NRS).  However the text goes on: “They are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (Romans 3:24-25 NRS).  By faith we are healed, receiving the grace God has promised, and faith is not limited to our sexual expression or lack thereof.

And so it was that I found myself voting in a way I had not anticipated.  I want to make space.  Space is for relationship with others and their relationship with God.  Space is for giving the Holy Spirit room to move, speak into our hearts from which come evil intentions (Matthew 15:19).  Space is allowing time for God to work in and through people to transform us, all of us, even those who already bear the name of Christ and the carry the Holy Spirit.  Space is for helping all people lost or wandering to find their place at the table.  I know what Scripture says.  I know that there are places where I could and have been denied fulfilling God’s call to preach the Word.  I know there are places where my beloved bacon and shrimp are off limits.  I know there are places where a multitude of actions are condemned.  But I also know there are places where there is no division in Christ.  I also know there are places where what pollutes this temple, my body, is what I allow to come forth, not enter in.  I also know there are places where all the actions are forgiven through Christ.  I was being challenged, would I stand so another could sit at the table?  Would I release my grip a little, and allow for more space?  God help me, so I did.

Maybe I did the wrong thing.  I do that a lot, even when I am trying to do right.  Maybe God will not be pleased.  I know I have displeased God innumerable times and I’m only thirty-four.  But I cling to the cross, the promise of grace.  I recall the smell of honey on that Hawaiian bread transformed through holy mystery into the body of Christ.  I remember the taste of fruit of the vine that is the blood of the new and everlasting covenant in Jesus Christ.  I shrink before the recollection of being one of those who pours out water on the heads of those who seek to be baptized, as God simultaneously pours out the Holy Spirit and grace prepared upon a cross two millennia ago.  God help me, I tried to embody that grace.  I tried to let the Holy Spirit work through me.  I don’t have any idea if it will make a difference.  I do not know if I will succeed at making space for all people to gather in Christ’s name, experience his salvific touch, and taste the grace of God.  I just have this hope: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6 NRS).  I did what I did out of love: love of God, love in Christ, and love of all people without distinction.  The vote is taken, the motion passes.  It goes on to General Conference for consideration in 2016.  I can only sit back and wait to see what will unfold.  I, this sinful, imperfect person who wants to be a faithful disciple of Christ, continue to pray and seek to love…

“And now, O Lord, what do I wait for?  My hope is in you.  Deliver me from all my transgressions.  Do not make me the scorn of the fool.  I am silent; I do not open my mouth, for it is you who have done it” (Psalm 39:7-9 NRS).