Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Gospel Truth

Sometimes you have to leave church to find Church.

Last night my partner and I went to see folk artist, Susan Werner, who was debuting her latest project, The Gospel Truth. This compilation confronts the hypocrisy of the Church with a wonderfully rich bluegrass, gospel sound. Although she describes herself as a self-avowed "evangelical agnostic" her songs could (and probably ought to) be sung in churches all over. Werner blends just the right amount of honesty and camp to do the Church right.

Here's a sample of just some of the lyrics...

How do you love those
Who never will love you
Who are so frightened of you
They are calling for war
How do you not hate those
Who have loaded their bibles
And armed their disciples
'cause I don’t know anymore

Heaven So Small
excuse me sir, what did you say?
when you shout so loud, it's hard to tell
you say that i must change my ways
for i am surely bound to hell

well i know you'd damn me if you could
but my friend, that's simply not your call
if god is great and god is good
why is your heaven so small

Did Trouble Me
When I closed my eyes so I would not see
My Lord did trouble me
When I let things stand that should not be
My Lord did trouble me
When I held my head too high too proud
My Lord did trouble me
When I raised my voice too little too loud
My Lord did trouble me

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Doubting Thomas

“Don’t be such a doubting Thomas!” Growing up it seemed like every time I had a question about God, someone along the way would tell me to put aside my questions and just believe. Just believe…as if it were that easy to resolve my complicated inquiries into the nature of the Divine.

As I got older and became increasingly more interested in God and the church, I learned to hide my questions, to be ashamed of my uncertainties and to berate myself for the inevitable doubts and questions that I had as I encountered what it meant to be a Christian. I remember vividly one youth retreat in which I knelt at the altar for hours asking, no begging, God, to forgive me for doubting, beseeching God to strengthen my faith and disappear like magic my questions and doubts.

As much as I had tried I could not get those questions and doubts out of my head. If the Bible is the inerrant word of God, why does it say one thing in one place and something entirely different in the other? If, God is all-powerful and all-loving, why is there evil in the world? If God is a spirit, why do we call God “he?” If God is compassionate and good, why did Jesus suffer? If the Bible records history, did people really live to be hundreds of years old? If Christianity is the one way, what about people of other faith traditions? Are they wrong? Are they going to hell? If God created the world in six days, what about evolution? What does resurrection mean, really? Why do bad things happen to good people?

How could I be a faithful follower when I had so many questions? From everything I had been told, I knew I could not.

Many a sermon has been preached with Thomas as the quintessential bad guy. When the other disciples told him that Jesus was alive after his crucifixion, Thomas refused to believe. He could not take their word for it, he wanted to se for himself. The story we hear told and see played out on our Sunday School felt boards depicts Jesus returning for Thomas and rebuking him with harsh words, admonishing his doubt and calling him to believe. The moral of the story was clear -- Don’t be like Thomas! Believe! Don’t doubt!

I find more often than not people in churches don't like to talk about their fears or failures. What would people think of us? I’ve discovered all sorts of anxieties and resentments festering underneath the deceptively calm surface of many faith communities. Over the years working in a variety of ecclesial settings I have come to realize I’m not the only one who has struggled with questions. I’ve watched people struggling alone with deep questions because they were afraid of how others might react to their doubts. Doubts and uncertainty frighten us. That’s why we reject Thomas -- he dares to bring doubt into our lives of faith.

When the disciples tell Thomas they have seen Jesus, he answers, "Unless I see the mark of the nails -- in fact, until I touch those marks and put my hand in the wound in his side, I’m not going to believe." What if this is some mistake, a delusion born of desperate hope, an apparition? Thomas needs to find out for himself. Mary can’t experience the resurrected Jesus for the disciples, and the disciples can’t experience Jesus for Thomas. Thomas must know for himself. We, too, must know for ourselves.

I don't think Thomas is any more of a doubter than the other disciples or, perhaps, than most of us. But he is the only one to admit it.

Doubts are not the impious heresy of non-believers; rather doubts arise from those who seek to believe the most for they require a deep wrestling with the tough questions of life. Doubts and questions confront us with the meaning of our faith as we seek to understand what it means to be a faithful Christian.

Several weeks after my shameful weeping at the youth retreat, I was sitting out on the front porch of my of my friend’s house. We were staring up at the night sky, wondering at the beauty of the world around us and somewhere in our conversation we began to talk about God. Now, this friend, was considered both to be academically brilliant and spiritually “perfect,” a tried and true believer. In our conversation, I felt dishonest about my questions in the face of her belief and so finally confessed that I had questions. I had doubts. I expected to hear her admonish me for my lack of faith and urge me to just believe, but instead she looked at me with a look of pure compassion and told me that if I never doubted, I could never truly believe.

You see, she explained that summer night, doubt and faith are inextricably intertwined. Doubt moves us to belief by helping us to wrestle with the big questions of life. If we never doubt, if we never question, how can we ever expect to understand what it is our faith tradition really says and means? Doubters take seriously the inevitable questions that are part of human life and in that way take seriously the answers that arise from our faith traditions. If we “just believe” without thoughtful reflection, what type of faith is that in the end?

Doubts, questions and uncertainties scare us for they lead us into the unknown and threaten to expose what we fear to be the underlying meaningless of our experience. Yet, far from being our enemies, our doubts and questions carry us through this abyss of chaos to the other side in which we discover how deep our faith has really been all along. It is only through this process of deep questioning and wrestling with the Divine that we find we can ever honestly proclaim our faith.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Methodists in the News

The following article appeared across the nation in newspapers, journals and online zines. The story it depicts of the battles for authority and control in our mainline denominations rings true to our experience. Yet, there is, I believe, a danger in polarizing the debate by pitting one minority against the other. All too often the battle for control in our denominations is framed as either being a global church or being an inclusive church (and here, inclusive is code word for full acceptance of GLBT persons). While finding a solution will not be easy, I believe there is another way...a way to embody the true catholicity or radical inclusivity of the Gospel where folks from around the world can sit at Christ's table together and embrace one another as God's Beloved children, lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender, questioning and straight alike.

Boom in Christianity Reshapes Methodists

The United Methodist Church is the latest Protestant group caught in the shifting currents of world Christianity. While the American denomination is shrinking at home, its congregations in the developing world are growing explosively.

Over the last decade, the number of United Methodists outside the U.S. more than tripled. The denomination's largest district is now in the West African nation of Ivory Coast. At the next national church assembly, the 2008 General Conference in Texas, overseas delegates will have more say than ever in the church's future - as many as 30 percent could come from abroad.

"Trends suggest that Christianity is going to continue to grow as a global phenomenon, and denominations that have thought of themselves as being predominantly North American in character are going to have to get over that," said William Lawrence, dean of the Perkins School of Theology, a Methodist seminary in Dallas.

Nearly 8 million United Methodists are now in the U.S., with another 3.5 million church members overseas. The denomination is the third-largest in the nation behind Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists, and middle-class worshippers mostly fill the pews of its American churches.

But if current patterns continue, within decades the typical United Methodist will be from Africa. While international congregations expand, the denomination's U.S. ranks have decreased by 19 percent since the 1970s.

In a sign of the times, the United Methodist high court, called the Judicial Council, will hold a session in the Philippines on Wednesday. It will be the first gathering outside the U.S.

Many in the mission-minded church see the new overseas ties as a gift. Yet as the experience of other Protestant groups indicates, there also is conflict ahead. Christians overseas have been deeply influenced by the zeal of the missionaries who brought them the faith. In the developing world, traditional Bible teachings aren't questioned - they're accepted.

As United Methodists debate how they should interpret Scripture on issues from salvation to sexual orientation, delegates from overseas will be a steadfast conservative voice in the fight.

"You definitely see among the African delegations a much more conservative perspective on issues of homosexuality," said retired United Methodist Bishop C. Dale White, a liberal who oversaw publication of the book "United Methodism at Risk: A Wake-Up Call," which contends that conservative groups are trying to take control of the denomination.

"In the past two General Conferences, we've seen a readiness of conservative American delegates to make common cause with the African delegates who very sincerely believe that in their context, if the United Methodist Church is open to ordaining gay and lesbian people, that it will hurt their outreach there," White said.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Let Us Weep Together

On Monday, our country sat mesmerized before our televisions and computer screens as we watched with sorrow and shock the events that unfolded on the campus of Virginia Tech. Seemingly surreal, we heard the tales of horror from a campus under attack. At the end of the day the death total reached 33, including the young man, Cho Seung-Hui, who carried out the violent attack.

This type of seemingly random violence is difficult to comprehend and impossible to make meaning from. There seems to be no reason, no explanation, no sense to make of such death. I cannot read the news accounts without weeping...for both those lost and those who survive. The grief that has gripped our nation seems overwhelming.

As I listen to reports in these days that follow, I cannot help but imagine what it must be like for those living in Baghdad. Today 160 people lost their lives in four separate bombings. Last week, the official death count of Iraqui civilans totalled over 500, not to mention the number of US casulaties and wounded. Hundreds of people, like those slain students in Virginia, awoke to go about their daily lives without any sense that this day would be their last. Violence is erupting across this war torn country infecting their markets, workplaces, schools, offices and homes. It makes me wonder if the violence we witnessed in Virginia is not in some way connected to the culture of violence in which we live where Iraq death tolls seem a normal part of daily news reports.

Perhaps, in these days as we in the United States seek to understand the events of this week, we might be mindful of our sisters and brothers who face this type of random violence on a daily basis. Perhaps, we might come to have compassion on those across the ocean and come to sense the deep urgency to end this war.

This week we weep together around the world and cry out for an end to this death and violence.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Easter Sunday

Christ is Risen!
Christ is Risen indeed!

John 20: 1-18

We pull out all the stops for Easter. We dress up in frilly frocks, don our Easter bonnets and dust off our best three piece suits. We process with proud trumpet preludes, sing hymns filled with triumphal alleluias, and announce with loud acclaim the arrival of new life. It is perhaps one of the most joyful and exciting worship services of the year…particularly since all pastors know this is their one shot to captivate the fleeting Easter crowds!

I love Easter and I bet that many of you do too…but the problem with our ecstatic Easter services arises when we leave the sanctuary and return to our quotidian lives. Despite the Easter promises of joy and hope, more often than not we return to less than perfect lives. In fact, many of our lives are marked by struggle, crisis, uncertainty, and grief. We only need read the paper, turn on the TV, or open our internet news to find a world seemingly distant from the new life we proclaim at Easter. Coming home the resurrection joy of our celebrations seems too much to bear in the midst of lives where new life is conspicuously absent.

What do we do with a message of hope and new life in the midst of a world that can be so painful?

We forget that despite the empty tomb, Rome still occupied the Holy Lands. Jesus’ followers continued to be persecuted. Lepers and prostitutes, tax collectors and foreigners all still sat at the margins. Suffering and illness continued to take people’s lives. War, violence, oppression, injustice all survived the resurrection. Sometimes the Church forgets all too easily that struggle did not end that early Sunday morn.

We live in a crucified world, yet somehow on Easter morning we want to reject the reality of our daily pain and struggle. The faith God has revealed to us of a powerful living practice of resurrection is often reduced to a mere hope for the next world as if death were nothing more than a fate that we meet at the end of life. But we know death is real. It shows up in times when the abundant life that God wishes for all of us is limited, truncated, or cut short, when our possibilities for living seem to dwindle and our hope is swept away. Death is not just a physical end of our material bodies, but death is also the spiritual end of our hope. This end of hope comes to us in many forms: it comes in the form of financial crisis, family strife, work, transition, addictions, loss, violence. We know that in all of our lives there are those trappings that bind us into tombs of our own; tombs that seek to keep us dead to ourselves and to God.

In celebrating a once for all victory of life over death in the raising of Jesus, we box in the reality of resurrection life, stifling its power to a one day orgiastic display of triumphalism that is without referent in the real world.

When resurrection is confined to the literal raising of Jesus from the dead, we are left with a faith so shallow and hollow that the discovery of a box of bones threatens to dismantle it. At the beginning of Lent this year controversy raged as an archeologist claimed to have found the remains of Jesus and his family. It was bad enough to have found the tomb of Jesus, but to suggest that he had a partner and procreated…well, that was too much for people to bear…or does it really matter at all?

The Christian faith is about much more than literal facts. It is about a transcendent message that embodies a truth not dependent on historical fact. Resurrection is true. It is the claim that death is not the end, that love and life can and do triumph despite the brokenness of the world in which we live. We don't need the physical evidence of an empty tomb to witness to this truth because we can see it in the world...when we look for it in the right places.

Rarely do we find it in the once for all triumph of good over evil, life over death. Rarely does life give us a happily ever after ending. Rather resurrection bubbles up through the cracks of despair in the midst of a suffering world. It does not come on the other side of death, but emerges in the midst of pain, sprouting right up into the middle of places of struggle. Like a young spring bud, slowly emerging up throw the April snow, resurrection does not arise with some grand fanfare, but rather gradually grows from a small seed of hope, poking its way through the coldness of despair and desolation. If we are not careful, like the early blossoms, resurrection can go unnoticed.

When I was in college my favorite trail was at the far end of campus up an increasingly steep path that led to a beautiful overlook where you could see the whole of the Mohawk Valley. I liked the climbing because it was invigorating. I could feel my body come alive as I climbed and it was just exhausting enough to make me wonder if I would ever make it to the summit.

But the best part of the trail was found about two thirds of the way to the top just at the moment when my body would give out. Panting and gasping for air, at the end of my endurance, when I felt I could go no further, it would appear before me, as if by magic. It was a tiny, fairy pool, nestled in the bottom of a tree that had grown in the middle of the path. The pool was formed where three nascent tree trunks grew together into one, creating a miniature lake not more than four inches wide in the crook of the three in one tree. I imagine most people hiked right on through without ever noticing it was there. I can’t explain why I loved it so, but I did. Each time I would stand and stare at it, catching my breath and resting in its wonder. I suppose it was a symbol of life in the midst of struggle for me…life that went unnoticed. It was a miniature world of life teeming in the middle of a busy path. Every time I saw it, it filled me with enough strength to make it to the top. When I left college I hiked the trail one more time and snapped a photo of my fairy pool. I keep it in my desk as a sign and symbol of hope, small yet powerful, that exists all around us…if we only take the time to look down once in a while.

I think that is what resurrection looks like for us most of the time…brief moments of hope that dot the landscapes of our lives, irrupting when we least expect it: glimpses and glimmers of new life that inspire us with enough energy and hope to continue on in our journey.

The bible records several resurrection appearances most of which do not even approximate the glorious, triumphal celebrations we enact on Easter. They go something like this: The disciples are lost in their own grief, trying to go back to the lives they knew before, trying to continue on when someone comes along and interrupts their despair…a menial gardener, a wayfaring stranger, a common fisherman. In all of these instances, the disciples hardly take notice at first. Sometimes they are annoyed at the disruption, other times they merely tolerate this added presence, but then, most often after the fact, the disciples notice something different, something strange, perhaps even queer, and in a fleeting moment they glimpse Jesus once again. In one of these appearances, the disciples are out fishing having no luck. And then a man from the shore yells out and tells them to try casting their nets on the other side. Skeptical, the disciples figure they have nothing to lose and do as the man suggests. Immediately their nets are full to overflowing and Peter, in glancing back at the man recognizes Jesus, jumps headlong into the water and swims toward him. When Peter reaches the shore, Jesus is just calming sitting there cooking breakfast for the group like nothing has happened.

Each time Jesus appears after the resurrection, he comes in the midst of the very ordinary as a humble, gentle presence. There are no healings, no grand spectacles, no proclamations of himself as either the son of humanity or anything else for that matter. Christ returns in the early streaks of dawn with a simple message: love one another, forgive one another, feed one other.

Nora Gallagher in commenting on this mild resurrected Christ writes, “Faith is only an approximation, as is memory – one never knows if one has the real thing in one’s grasp. It’s only a reaching toward. [The resurrected Christ] is much lower than I had thought before, much sweeter. [This Christ] is like the movement of a crane’s wing, or a brother’s habit of saying, ‘baby sister,’ or a woman suffering from clinical depression who is brave enough to want to live valorously. [Christ] was like all of these things, these movements, tied together, or [Christ] was the thing that tied them together…[Christ] is present, helping us along, calling to us from the shore. And we are meant to respond, to jump into the water, to swim toward him and toward each other.”

Resurrection is more than a triumphal divine act of power. Jesus’ life from death shows us the possibilities that exist for our own lives. Like the cry of the infant babe, resurrection interrupts the inevitable struggle that is life, not in a great once for all victory over suffering, but in small, yet powerful disruptions that give us hope. Like the wonder of the miniature fairy pool in the midst of a challenging climb, resurrection moments inspire us with humble signs of hope that reawaken us to the possibilities of new life and invigorate us with courage to continue on.

In the quiet absence of the tomb, Easter Sunday reminds us to look for those small signs of new life in the world. They happen everyday, everywhere; tiny vulnerable buds that slowly grow to a brilliant blossom.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Holy Saturday

John 19: 38-42

In the most obscure and sordid place.
in the most hostile and harshest,
inthe most corrupt
and nauseating places,
there You do Your work.
That is why you delved into the fires of suffering
in order to transform what IS NOT
and to purify that which IS BECOMING.
This is our hope.

-Julia Esquival
Threatened With Resurrection: Prayers and Poems from an Exiled Guatemalan

Prayer of the Day

Comforting and Life-giving Spirit, brood among us this dark day and grant us solace that we might face the terrors and traumas of life with the full knowledge that you are with us. In the midst of our death vigil this day, we confess that you never abandon us. You are with us to the end as a small glimmer of hope, flickering in the shadows, waiting to be rekindled in our lives and in the world. Grant us the courage and strength to make it to the dawn. Amen.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Good Friday

John 18:1 - 19: 42

Jesus' death at the hands of the alliance of Judean and Roman rulers reveals several important things about this Roman-dominated imperial world. It reveals the extent to which the powerful will go to defend their social, political, economic and religious interests. This alliance between Rome and the Judean priestly rulers in Jerusalem was typical in the Roman Empire whereby Rome exercised control by forming alliances with local ruling elites. They ruled so as to benefit themselves at the expense of the rest. Jesus had challenged their way of doing societal business. In his miraculous actions of healing and feeding people, he began to reverse the damage that the imperial system had caused to many people. Noting how popular Jesus and his teaching and life-giving actions were, they decided that it was better for Jesus to die than to have Rome come and punish them militarily for losing control of this part of the empire (11:45-53). The narrative reveals the strength of self-interested power and intolerance for any threat to it or deviation from it. This narrative reminds those committed today to a society of just inclusion for all groups marginalized by sexual orientation, race, origin or any other factor that the empire always strikes back at those who challenge it.

Yet the gospel does not end at chapter 19 with Jesus dead and buried by the brave Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. His enemies do not have the final word. Chapter 20 waits with its narrative of new life and witness to God's more powerful, merciful, just, inclusive and life-giving purposes.

Prayer of the Day

O Holy One,
we ask you to be with all your people
who resist modern day crucifixions
of hatred and violence in your world.
We ask you to be with the LGBT community in particular
as it seeks to embody a new kind of humanness
in a world of narrow gender constructions and sexualities.
Let the lives of our LGBT sisters and brothers
be bold in the face of persecution,
and faithful to your grace and mercy,
in the midst of a world of relentless "Good Fridays."

Today's meditation and prayer come from Out in Scripture.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Maundy Thursday

John 13: 31-35

I sought my soul,
but my soul I could not see.
I sought my God,
but my God eluded me.
I sought my neighbor,
and I found all three.

- Author Unknown

Prayer of the Day

O God, our Creator, your love is our home and refuge, a sure defense against the storm, a strong tower where we can take shelter from the overwhelming wave of pain and hunger.

O God, our Redeemer, you love is our guardian and our guide; a staff on which we can lean in times of anxiety and over-work, a support when we are burdened by the weight of the world.

O God, our Life, your love is the energy which takes us into each new day, the faith which gives us the courage to love, the joy which renews us in hope.

O God our Creator, Redeemer, Life, your love is a refuge which holds us, the fire which warms us, the light we keep for the sake of travellers in a wild land. You are as steadfast as rock beneath our feet, and your word is a secure foundation of our service and prayer.

We give you thanks and praise and pray that we might share this love with all we meet. Amen.

- Geoffrey Duncan in The Courage To Love

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Holy Wednesday

Isaiah 50: 4-9

The following is an excerpt from Practicing Resurrection by Nora Gallagher. Here she describes faith in the midst of her brother's death.

"People say their faith is tested during such times, but I am not sure I had much faith to test. I knew what I did not believe: that God was holding Kit in the palm of [God's] hand (and the whole world, etc.), or that Kit was going on to eternal life or that Kit's suffering and mine were for some greater good. Those statements seemed like so many platitudes to me or at least non of them helped me, none of them gave me a shred of solace. None of them carried any weight. This was beyond anything I I had had to endure, beyond anything I could or will imagine...One thing I knew: other people were praying for Kit and me...I could not pray myself, or at least I could not formulate words or wishes. If I sat still long enough to pray, I found the room filled with a long scream. I finally began to see I was living on other people's prayers, as if they were bread and water. Prayers were what I came to believe in; they were the glue that bound me to the living and made it possible for me to remain upright and walk."

Prayer of the Day

Merciful Holy One, in days of sorrow and affliction bear us up through the love of others. Shelter us in a community of grace and compassion. Grant us comfort, solace and rest in the arms of our friends that we might know your deep and abiding presence with us reflected in the eyes and words and embraces of each other. Amen.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Holy Tuesday

Psalm 71

" You look out through your eyes and you see yourself wherever you go -
you see all these people who are escalating their suffering just like you do.
You also notice people catching themselves just like you do,
and they give you the gift of their fearlessness."

From Practicing Peace In Times Of War
by Pema Chodron

Prayer of the Day

Compassionate Spirit, breathe life into my soul that I might move through the suffering of the world to the abundant life you have promised. Inspire my being with your fearless love. Amen.

Holy Monday

John 12: 1-8

"If perhaps not its original setting, now the story belongs in the last days of Jesus. The woman’s response stands in contrast to that of Judas, but also of Peter and the disciples. Both in Mark and in John, as in the common tradition which feeds them directly and indirectly, Jesus is pictured as abandoned by his inner circle of disciples. In the end it will be a few women who are left standing near Golgotha and who will venture to the tomb. The unlikely ones in Mark and John’s world, the women, become the models. This is deliberately subversive and reflects so much of the experience of Jesus’ ministry. Others were so good, so devout, and so busy being so, that they missed the point. This is grindingly obvious, when a woman like this inarticulately breaks the perfume container open and spreads the contents over Jesus’ feet. Mark even suggests that Jesus predicted how memorable her act would be. Let the memory live!"

- William Loader

Prayer for the Day

Gracious God, we give you thanks for the witness of Mary who is remembered throughout the generations for her faithfulness, love and courage. Embolden us with the presence of your comforting and empowering Spirit that we might follow in her daring and devoted ways. Fill us with such extravagant love and audacious conviction that we might learn to lavish the world with compassion even in the midst of opposition, sorrow and pain. Amen.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Thoughts on Palm Sunday from Out In Scripture

"For lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people this moment when Jesus rides headlong into Jerusalem to confront the unjust powers of his day challenge us as well to consider the price any one of us will pay to transform our larger world of gender and sexual injustice."

- Christine Smith

"All people who suffer oppression must be in soli- darity with each other in our struggles. We have to make sure that our identification with the lynching of Jesus doesn't keep us from con- necting with all who suffer or think that we are the only ones who claim the story."

- Randall Bailey

"Many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and others marginalized in churches and society know the reality at the center of this crucifixion story. Suf- fering and rejection accom- pany faithfulness especially when it expresses alternative identities and practices."

Warren Carter

Most compassionate and just God,
give us the courage to march
into the sites of danger
and to struggle with the faith and conviction of Jesus.
Give us hope
for the vindications of our sacrifices.
Give us signs
of your abiding presence of justice and truth.

* All materials come from Out In Scripture, a resource of the Human Rights Campaign.