Monday, December 29, 2008

Inaugural Honors for Rev. Joseph Lowery

In recent weeks there has been much hub-bub over the announcement of President Elect Obama's choice of Pastor Rick Warren to lead the invocation at the January 20th inauguration. And while that controversy continues to rage, little has been said about Obama's choice of Rev. Joseph Lowery to offer the benediction.

Rev. Lowery is an esteemed United Methodist clergyperson who has spent his life struggling for the civil rights of all people. In 1957, Lowery co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Revs Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth and Ralph David Abernathy. Just a few years later he was appointed assistant to the Bishop in Nashville and led efforts to desegregate the local hotels and restaurants. In 1965, he was asked by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to deliver the demands of the Selma to Montgomery march to Governor Wallace and in 1968 as pastor of an Atlanta congregation he led efforts by faith communities to build affordable and low income housing. And, this is just a small sample of the long list of accomplishments on Rev. Lowery's resume!

Over his lifetime, Lowery has been a tireless advocate for the civil rights of all people...including gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons. In fact, Rev. Lowery was the first person at Coretta Scott King's funeral to mention her support for the LGBT community, reminding the congregation that King "frowned on homophobia." Although stopping short of advocating for same-sex marriage, Lowery himself has come out in support for the full civil rights of gay and lesbian folks. In a statement to the Southern Voice he said,
"I support civil rights for all citizens and this includes gay and lesbians citizens. I support civil unions and full benefits (visitation, insurance, etc) for partners in same sex relationships...I am strongly opposed to propositions or amendments that put into law any discrimination against citizens because of sexual orientation."
While the anger and disappointment at Warren's selection still stings, I have to wonder what would happen if instead of controversy, all Warren received was silence. Indeed, Lowery himself speculated in an article in the Washington Blade that "By the time Aretha sings, the poem is read, people may have already forgotten what Warren said.”

And that very well may be true.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Plausibility of the Possible

"Hope is believing in the Plausibility of the possible over the necessity of the probable." (Mimonides. 12th century)

The reading from Luke follows the young holy family from the birth we celebrated just a few days ago to the ritual infant dedication at the temple today. Everything seems to be going according to planned. According to Jewish custom, the infant was presented before the assembled crowd, a sacrifice of two turtledoves was made (sound familiar), and the family about to depart. The rite of dedication and purification seemed complete. But just as the young family was about to leave, something unexpected happened.

An elderly man, by the name of Simeon entered the temple and swept the infant Jesus into his arms. Holding Jesus high he recited a poetic, prophetic thanksgiving to the babe, saying, “My eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared of all peoples, a light to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

And as they stood in awe at this revelation, yet another prophet entered, Anna, a woman of great age and tremendous devotion. And she too, like Simeon took the child in arms and offered up a prophecy, naming the child not as Jesus, son of Joseph and Mary, but as the very redemption of Israel.

Now this passage should be familiar to us for we read it just a few months ago at the christening of Endelyn Jean. If you remember, we came to see that this event was not simply a mere cultural or ritual dedication. Rather what happened here was something much more significant…it was a naming and calling forth of Jesus as the person who he would grow to be, as the Messiah, the Chosen One, the Liberator, the Savior of all nations.

While Mary and Joseph had merely come as duty to offer a sacrifice in God’s honor for the birth and life of their firstborn child, now something more was happening. More than just bestowing a given name upon the child, more than being raised as a sacrifice and offering to God, more than an act of devotion or praise, now Jesus was being called into the future, named by strangers as the savior, the messiah. If you remember, we understood this action as was a prophetic calling into being.

This naming was a calling forth of Jesus’ identity, a calling into being of Jesus’ self, and a call into the future of what was to come. Rather than compel the child to do or be something the parents or society desired, the prophetic blessings was a lure into a future not completely known, yet bursting with possibility and potential. Naming Jesus in this way, both Simeon and Anna bestowed upon the child a living hope for the future. Full of expectation and promise, this dedication was more than just a static offering of praise to God, more than an act of reverence for the past, it was participation in the living hope that is God. It was the belief in something more than the tiny infant they saw. It was the hope beyond the frail limbs and the wrinkled skin. It was a dream beyond imagination.

It is ironic that the ones to predict the future are the ones of the past. Imagine for a moment, Simeon and Anna, standing with the tiny babe in their arms. The contrast must have seemed stark…the soft, tender skin of the child embraced by elderly, wrinkled hands, weary and worn by the ages. We are told that after merely holding the infant, Simeon declared that now he can die in peace, for he has seen the salvation that is to come. We might imagine that the old man is overcome so completely by the prophecy, so consumed by the joy that snatching an infant from its mother’s arms seems perfectly acceptable. Perhaps we envision him jumping and dancing, giddy and laughing, or perhaps we see him astonished and transfixed in wonder. Or perhaps the joy is so intense the most he can manage is to stare at the child with tears flowing as he takes in salvation for the first time in his life. Holding the child and believing in the possibility of redemption is all Simeon needs.

Both Simeon and Anna seem to find their greatest hopes and dreams fulfilled in this child, yet we must ask ourselves, what have they really seen, after all? We who read with the advantage of 2000 years of hindsight, understand immediately the significance of proclaiming this child the savior. But, how in the world would Simeon and Anna have had any knowledge of this? John Stendahl reminds us ,

“All they could see was a little child, a powerless, speechless newcomer to the world. Whatever salvation this baby might work is still only a promise and a hope; whatever teaching the child might offer will remain hidden for many years. Nothing has happened yet. Herod still sits on his throne and Caesar governs from afar. The world looks exactly as it did before.”

Simeon and Anna, both well advanced in age would not live to see the fulfillment of their prophecies in Jesus. They would never know if what they proclaimed that day ever came true, yet, they believed nonetheless. There they stood in grateful wonder at the future held so tenderly in their hands. The promise of this child was enough. Despite all signs to the contrary, Simeon and Anna believed. You see they for us today embody hope “as the plausibility of the possible as opposed to the necessity of the probable.”

Indeed what was the likelihood of a child from Nazareth being a light to the Gentiles and a savior to the Israelites? Wasn’t the Messiah to be a strong, powerful warrior, who would liberate the Israelites from the political captivity of the imperial powers, who would right the wrongs of the past and replace foreign rule with an unending reign of the House of David? And yet, Simeon and Anna see in this tiny, vulnerable babe, the one who will be both the savior of Israel and a light to the Gentiles, the ones who have oppressed the Israelites for so long. Come to think of it, it’s not a likely scenario at all and yet, Simeon and Anna believed, nonetheless. They believed in the plausibility of the possible and not the necessity of the probable.

Perhaps we might be tempted to take this as one more redaction from the later writers of the gospel, as evidence of their writing in the history they wished to be…and perhaps it is. Yet, the story remains powerful for us. For what more do we have now than Simeon and Anna had then? John Stendahl reminds us that,
“We too are people who have seen something, but not its full unfolding…What we have, in a sense, is hardly more than they had. We have the scriptures that school us in hope and attentiveness. We have stories and covenants and signs. We have moments, or the memory of moments, when the tender compassion of our God has come close enough to see and feel. We have something like the shepherds would have had, recalling all their lives a night of mysterious glory, or like what the magi brought back to their homelands, a vision of a different kind of king and kingdom. Their eyes had seen the glory of Israel, the light for the nations. We have that as well, though for us the world has resumed its accustomed form and, in the light of day, seems largely unsaved and unchanged.”

What does it mean for us to believe in something we have yet to see the fullness of? How can we like Simeon and Anna give ourselves to a promise not yet tangible, one that goes against all our expectations and past experience? What does it mean to let go of the shields and walls we have built to protect us from the pain of disillusionment and disappointment and believe in the goodness we proclaim at Christmas? To believe in the presence of God dwelling with us even in this world that seems at times so cruel, so broken, so bitter?

How can we learn like Anna and Simeon knew that the past does not determine our future…that what was, is never what must be? How do we free ourselves from the tyranny of the probable to embrace the promise of the possible?
Sometimes it takes a little child to teach us, doesn’t it?

James was a fifth grade student who had struggled his entire academic career. The neighborhood schools had labeled him as learning disabled and as a fifth grader who still could not read, that label might have seemed apt. And yet, James had bigger dreams for himself. He would tell his mother his dreams of going to college to study and learn, to become a doctor to help others. Most days his mother would just sigh and smile, “That’s nice, James.” But what chance could her child have of becoming a doctor when he could not yet read?

It was then that James and his mother met Maggie, a friend of mine who was starting a new charter school in the city. Maggie had been canvassing the neighborhood to invite students to enroll for the fall. Door by door, home by home, she talked with children and their families about the possibilities of this new school, a school where standards would be high, the learning rigorous and the results phenomenal. She told tales from other charter schools half way across the country and the success they achieved…95 % perfect attendance, 100% passing standardized tests, 90% of graduates going to college. She wove visions of dedicated teachers, rich resources, and diligent students. Yet the more she talked, the more it seemed the doors closed in her face. This type of school was just not possible. Not here. Not now. Parents and kids alike could not imagine such a place. Uh-uh. Not possible.

And then she knocked on James’ door. From the moment Maggie began speaking, James was entranced. Perhaps, like Simeon on that day long ago, James glimpsed his own future and he believed. James’ mother was not so sure. Why should this school succeed when the dozens of neighborhood schools around it had failed? What would be different this time? But Maggie promised… “It will be different. I promise you that with hard work and dedication, James will not only be able to read by the end of the year, he will be able to pass all the state tests.” Maggie didn’t know James, but she believed in his potential nonetheless. Only after weeks of pleading by James, did his mother finally relent. “You know,” she told Maggie, “I don’t expect any change whatsoever. But, if my boy wants to try this. Well, what can I do?”

And so that fall James enrolled. The child who could barely sit still long enough to eat his supper, the child who had been kicked out of more schools for discipline problems than anyone could imagine, the child who in the fifth grade could not read, became one of the best students Maggie had ever known. He came to school every day an hour early at 7 AM for special tutoring so he could stay in his grade level and stayed every night until 7 PM so he could get help with his homework. He came to school on Saturdays and spent extra time periods working with teachers to stay at grade level and when the standardized test results for the sixth grade came in that year, Maggie called in James and his mother to report the scores. “James, we have received your test scores and I am pleased to tell you that you passed every single section!” Before Maggie could get the words out of her mouth, James’ mother had jumped clear out of her seat and reached across the desk to grab and hug Maggie like she had never been hugged before. Literally, pulling Maggie from her chair, James’ mother exclaimed, “I never thought this was possible!” All the while James sat sill and smiled. He knew it was possible all along.

You see James saw something different in himself, no matter what teachers said, no matter what his past performance told him. And when Maggie came knocking at his door that day, James saw something amazing in her hope of a different type of school. James believed in the plausibility of the possible and not the necessity of the probable.

In James, we see our faith made real and our hope lived out.

This belief in the possible is not just something that we take for our faith lives…it is not a “shut up and believe” kind of message. This is not something we simply apply to how we read scripture or understand our faith tradition. This is about something much greater. It is about a way of being in the world engendered by our experience of the gospel that shapes and forms the whole of our lives. The message of the gospel itself is to believe in the plausibility of the possible over the necessity of the probable, isn’t it? In a world of violence, resentment, disappointment and grief it is no easy task to believe in a different world marked by peace, love, forgiveness, non-violence, and justice….isn’t it? And yet that is what we proclaim each and every week.

The question remains, how do we take our faith statements outside the walls of the church and begin to apply them to every aspect of our lives? How do we allow our optimism and hope, real hope, about the way the world can be to permeate our everyday actions in the world? How do we, like James, begin to see the plausibility of the possible in ourselves and the world, over the necessity of the probable?
This year, how will you live out the Christmas hope in your own lives? To what possibilities will you give yourself? In what dreams will you believe? What actions will you take to make the possible real in the world?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Change Is Afoot: A Sermon by Joy Perkett

Change is afoot. In the passage of Isaiah we heard today, valleys rise up, mountains lower, rough ground levels, grass withers, flowers fade and the breath of God blows by. In this passage, the breath of God blows through the grass to bring comfort to God’s people – in the midst of turmoil, in the midst of new life and old life, the passage assures us that the intimacy of God’s breath & spirit is eternally present. The word for breathe or spirit – they are the same Hebrew word - is also found in Genesis 1:2. In this verse, the breathe of God hovers over the face of the waters of an oceanic deep. In the article “Be This Fish”, Catherine Keller describes the Hebrew sense of the word ‘hovering’ as “a spirit rhythm as in the beating wings of a seabird, the oscilliation of breath, or the ebb and flow of the ocean”. In the beginning, creation was not empty, but rather the breathe God oscillated with the oceanic deep.

Let me share with you my own image of the breath of God:

We stand as sand in dunes and God’s breath the wind. We are caught up in a vital, active force of God’s breath, moved and shaped around. And yet, we do our own shaping. We etch our names on rocks, we dance in the whirlwind of creation and we call the other sand to come and join the dance with us.

We stand as sand in dunes, sometimes thinking we are sure in our formation. And yet the breath of God blows by and again we are caught up in the process of creation. We ask questions, questions upon question. It is our questions that make us more aware of the presence of God in our surroundings. God is here with us, in the process of creation.

The Christian year is similar to this whirlwind of creation. It ebbs and flows, each year catching us up and re-shaping us. Each year it is the breath of God that blows on and reinvigorates us, calling us to join the dance of creation.

Advent is typically thought of as a time of hope, of waiting, of creation not-yet-formed and yet it is intimately tied to the ebb and flow of the Christian calendar. What is Advent without Lent? These are two times of year not typically thought of as compliments. Advent is a time of pending joy, while Lent is a time of pending sadness. Yet can we have one with out the other? Advent calls us to a vision of hope, of the coming Savior and of the coming kin-dom of God that Jesus heralds. Lent, on the other hand, calls us to a time soberly anchored in the reality of the present and of self-critical-ness and self-awareness. Yet I dare to suggest that it is this self-critical-ness and self-awareness of Lent that makes a realistic vision of advent and the coming kin-dom of God possible. It is by being honest, painfully honest perhaps, with ourselves that we are able to carve out a space for God to work in our lives. God’s creative breathe blows by.

Let me share the ebb and flow of “Lent” and “Advent” in my own life. In my college years, I took a class called “Black and White in America” that caused me to be very self-reflective, in the spirit of Lent, on what it meant to have a White racial identity.

Originally, I had grown up “color-blind”, uncritical of race. This class forced me to realize that we do not live in a perfect world and racism still exists today. I realized, in fact, that racism is an institutional system that privileges me as a White person, whether I like it or not. In fact in the book White Like Me, the story of a White ally, the author Tim Wise argues that at some point in their lives all White people have been collaborators. Before this class, I would have argued that I have helped with this cause or that cause or that I have friends of color, so that I could not possibly be a collaborator. Reluctantly, I now must admit that that is not enough. White privilege is such a part of society – manifest in our churches (the most segregated time of the week), in educational opportunities and in growing income gaps – that I cannot claim to not be a part of it. In White Like Me, the author Tim Wise writes that by White people owning their collaboration, they can “regularly see [their] own shortcomings, place them within the larger context of … culture subsidizing those shortcomings, and then commit [themselves] to doing better next time.” Wise writes that “the most dangerous person is the one who refuses to admit that [the person] does in fact contribute to injustice at least as often, if not more so than [the person] truly rebels against it”. For that person, there is nothing that person needs to work on, no point at which the person too is part of the problem and no room for growth.

I was struck deeply when the Pilgrims for Peace came to our congregation and during fellowship we shared our vision of peace. Marla shared an incident of gender identity- based violence, and then asked, “What is it within ourselves that causes that to happen?” Marla did not ask what is it within other people, but within ourselves. Thus, we too must ask what is it within ourselves that allow systems of injustice and of violence to continue in our society. Perhaps even if we are part of the solution, we must also acknowledge we part of the problem – whether it is in our silence, our identifying with the dominant majority, or even because we are not cognizant of the problem.

Yes I have participated in systems of oppression that I haven’t even been aware of! I would dare to suggest so have we all! Yet I come before you, honest and humble, with a searching heart and I enjoin you to the same. Let us come to God and admit the structures of privilege we have in our own lives – whether they be of economics, race, ability, gender identity, etc. I know it is not easy process, but it is honest, it is authentic. Let us move through the self-reflection of Lent, and then let us be fully present in the radical vision of Advent. The Christian years ebb and flow as we continually move through the self reflection of Lent and celebrate the radical vision of Advent, of a baby who will one day challenge systems of oppression and bring hope of God’s kin-dom of love, compassion and equality. God’s breathe blows by.

God’s creative breathe blows by. We are part of the creative process! What a sense of power we should feel! We come with good news – we can all participate in the dance of the creation not-yet-formed. It is for us to etch justice, love and equality on the rocks in the sand dunes. We are a people empower by the Spirit and Breathe of God. As the lady at the Proposition 8 protest said, we will not give up, we will not shut up, we will never go away. God’s love is radical and change is afoot. In the creative process we are both the created and the co-creators and while we must be an active part of the process and we must also carve out space for God to work in our own lives. Only by admitting our faults and our privilege, can we move forward to etch the words of justice, love, inclusion and equality on the rocks. There is something about deeply living, deeply loving, deeply feeling and being present and honest with one’s self that makes us fully alive, swept up in the dance of creation. This sense of reality and authenticity brings us in a grounded way to the radical vision of advent. We are ready to construct new ways of living and of loving. We are ready to construct a new way of being that is radically equal and inclusive! We are ready to celebrate the awesome vision of advent! God’s breathe blows by. Change is a-coming!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Wild Promise of Advent

Each year, the sixth graders from my elementary school went on a “graduation trip “ of sorts. For two nights and three days the older, wiser ones of Clovernook Elementary went to a magical and mystical place called Camp Knickerbock.

My sixth grade year was filled with anticipation for this trip. From the first day of school we were already planning who would sit next to whom on the bus, which cabins we would stay in and what things we would do late at night. And while our imaginations ran wild with possibilities, one thing remained certain. The social hierarchy would follow us to camp.

The cool kids called the back of the bus and filled their cabin with the social elite from our elementary ranks. Those who did not meet the standards, myself included, quickly formed alternative bands to secure a cabin of our own. And then, of course, there were those who year after year found themselves isolated and alone at the bottom of the playground pyramid, those who simply did not dare make plans. For an overnight trip with bullies seemed like nothing but sheer torture.

When we finally left the confines of our urban elementary school for the wilds of Camp Knickerbock, we found that indeed our plans unfolded as we imagined. The lines of cool were drawn just as tightly at camp as they were on the playground every single day. That is except for one night.

Camp Knickerbock had a tradition of nighttime hikes reserved for the last night at camp. That evening, long after the supposed lights out curfew, the counselors came to our cabins and fetched us for an evening adventure in the dark. Although we started off with flashlights, the goal was to darken our lights as we traveled so that we might experience the wilderness as it is…dark, foreboding, promising, exciting. The counselors had split our cabins up so that we were now walking single file cool kids intermingled with nerds, mixed with jocks, and interspersed with preps. We were simultaneously thrilled and anxious. What would it be like in the pitch dark blackness of the forest?

As the lights went out one by one, we had to rely on the person in front and behind us to make our way. Increasingly we became more dependent on one another as we walked farther and farther into the wilderness. And as we journeyed, something magical and mystical did happen. Step by step, we found the social hierarchy began to crumble as our terror and excitement of being in the wilderness rendered us one. If we were to make it out safely, we had to rely on one another…hold each other’s hands, talk to one another: where to step, where to duck.

At long last the final light was extinguished as we circled up in a small clearing surrounded by tall, slender trees pointing us toward the starry sky. As we stood there, each of us in the circle realized something profound had happened. Each of us were a little different for the hike. Somehow, the wilderness had managed to break down our prejudices and preconceptions and allowed us for one brief hour to experience a community bound by common purpose and perhaps even a little admiration for one another. The walls of division had been rendered useless in our common quest to find our way.

The wilderness has a way of doing that, doesn’t it?

There is something about the wild that challenges and confronts all of our preconceptions and prejudices. Out in the vastness of the wild, we find our social conventions useless as we struggle to find our way. It is precisely for this reason that the wilderness has become a potent symbol and site for religious reflection for many different cultures and faith traditions. From the time of the prophets to the time of John through the age of the mystics and right up to our own modern era, the wilderness has always symbolized a place of miracle and divine revelation, of pain and complaint, of hope and visions. To those steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition, wilderness evokes stories of Exodus, of Sinai, of moving through the exile into hope. The wilderness is that place in our faith tradition where we are allowed to dream new possibilities that have been forbidden to us in our former city dwellings. In the wilderness we seek hope and find it.

You see, the wilderness presents us with a liminality…an in-between place of neither here nor there that offers us space to un-make and re-make our communities, norms and lives. The wilderness strips us of social pretense and confronts us with the challenge of being in a place without predetermined boundaries. The wildness of it all, allows us to dream and imagine things thought not possible within the confines of the tightly regulated social hierarchies of civilized space. It is as if the power of nature itself unlocks and unleashes our imaginations, summons different values, evokes new visions, and inspires creative solutions never dreamed before.

It is no coincidence that this week’s reading places John the Baptist in the remote Judean desert. The wilderness is the perfect space to find a prophet pointing to a new way of being, a new way of living and loving. In fact, the wilderness may be the only place where such prophecy becomes plausible. The liminality of the desert offers both John and the followers an opportunity to shed the cynical realism of daily life in exchange for the power of possibility.

Finding wild prophets like John in the wilderness was was nothing new to the ancient Israelites. Popular movements excited by the prospect of change throughout history moved to desert places, gathered armies, conducted retreats, readied themselves for revolution – all kinds of groups, military, religious, prophetic, visionary. The historian Josephus lists many such groups and individuals in the first century of the common era, including John who we read about today.

John’s movement for change though is not a military movement as many of the people expected, but rather is a revolution of the imagination.

John announces change, metanoia, traditionally, “repentance for the forgiveness of sins,”but also understood as a turning around and away from sin, a change of direction, a paradigm shift in mind and in action. Summoning the words of the Prophet Isaiah, John gives us a glimpse of the new vision towards which he demands we look, that vision of peace, justice, hope, love, a vision of shalom here on earth. By quoting Isaiah, which many of the people would have known well, John summons up for them this idea of God’s vision of Shalom on earth and brings new insight to old ideas.

Yet, what John was initiating was not just a new way to look at old ideas, but rather he was demanding new ideas for a new way. This was a drastic change, a paradigm shift. John invited us to see the world in a new way, turning the old order on its head, raising valleys and flattening mountains. It was not that John just wanted to create new paths, he wanted to evoke a new destination, a new hope, a new salvation.

Salvation for John was not otherworldly, remote or inaccessible, salvation was near, at hand, in the here and now as we envision and imagine new ways of being in the world that are governed by peace and justice and as we work toward their full realization on earth as it is in heaven.

John embodied this new way of being in concrete actions that communicated a new message of conversion, forgiveness, inclusivity and simplicity. By offering the people a moment of conversion…an opportunity for metanoia… John gave the people an opportunity to change the way they were living, right there, right then.. John also offered the people a new way of forgiving sins that was inclusive. Far from the ritual rites of the temple, this forgiveness of sins did not depend on one’s wealth, power or status…simply on one’s desire. It was this simplicity that also governed John’s way of being in the world. Donned in camel hair and a leather belt and subsisting on a diet of locusts and honey, John embodied for the people a new way of living that challenged and confronted the lifestyle of the rich and famous. John lived what according to Matthew and Luke Jesus later preached: live simply; consider the flowers, the birds, how they feed. John was pointing the people to a new way that was already incarnate in their midst.

Yet while John lived in the wilderness in which there was amble space and time to dream new visions such as these, we tend to find ourselves confined to the daily grind of our lives. Brimming with busy-ness we can lose sight of that vision to which Isaiah and John have called us. It seems too remote, too idealistic, too impractical, too impossible. Our lives are such that we can easily become worn down by trying to survive in the current order of things that we cannot see or even hope of a different way of being. What are things in your life that make it difficult for you to imagine a new way?

When we find ourselves so immersed and entangled in the busy-ness of our lives, we are called like John, to seek out the wildness of the wilderness where we might begin to imagine God’s new world order!

I would like to tell you that returning from Camp Knickerbocker the change we experienced on that dark night in the forest remained and a social shalom was ushered forth in our midst. But the reality is, that liminal space is hard to maintain amidst life’s pressures. Once back on the urban asphalt playground, the social lines of division appeared again. Yet, something was different. Although we could not bear to sit next to one another at lunch or dare to play together, the geeks and the cools kids, the jocks and the preps, we all looked differently at one another. Somehow, the magic and mystery of Camp Knickerbock remained, if only revealed in sly smiles and locked eyes across the classroom.

In order to keep the dream of new ways alive, we must practice at it, not just one isolated evening in elementary school, but regularly and ritually.

That is exactly why we come together every week here at CWM, as the Church. It is in the Church, in the community of faith, as part of the Body of Christ, that we are empowered to begin not only to imagine new ways of being, but also to begin practicing them, through the forgiveness of sin, commitment to non-violence, acts of mercy and compassion, radical sharing of leadership, power and resources, and unconditional love. This is where we begin to imagine and create change. Unrestrained by the limiting structures of our lives and the oppressive systems in which we live, we become able to begin to participate in God’s vision of peace and justice. We begin to make real the kin-dom on earth. We begin to take part in God’s plan for salvation.

The Church is not about being practical, feasible, or even possible, the Church is about dreaming new visions of how things should be, regardless of whether or not they ever can be. The Church is the place of radical hope and new vision. If we cannot dare to dream of a new world order in the Church, the locus of hope for us as Christians, then where and when will we ever be able to move beyond the tension and strife of the world in which we live to dare to dream of new ways of being, new ways of living and loving??

The time is now! This Advent season, a ritual time of liminality in our Christian calendar when we are called to move to the wilderness places of our lives, to the desert, to the margins, to the edges, to the places where we have the opportunity to begin to think and act differently, where we have the time to contemplate our lives, our values, our choices, where we have the freedom to dream new dreams, and where we have the possibility of making them come true.

The question is how will you take the liminal, wilderness experience of our Church community out into the world this Advent season? How will you embody who we are in here out there? In the next week, look for opportunities, spaces and places where the community we have within these walls might break forth into the community through your actions. What will you do to bring the wildness back to the world?

Sunday, December 07, 2008

An Advent Litany

God of surprises you call us
from the narrowness of our traditions
to new ways of being church,
from the captivities of our culture
to creative witness for justice,
from the smallness of our horizons
to the bigness of your vision.

Clear the way in us, your people, that we
might call others to freedom and renewed faith.

Jesus, wounded healer, you call us
from preoccupation with our own histories
and hurts to daily tasks of peacemaking,
from privilege to pilgrimage,
from insularity to inclusive community.

Clear the way in us, your people, that we
might call others to wholeness and integrity.

Holy, transforming Spirit, you call us
from fear to faithfulness,
from clutter to clarity,
from a desire to control to deeper trust,
from the refusal to love to a readiness to risk.

Clear the way in us, your people, that we
might call others to freedom and renewed faith.

J. Puls, G. Cashmore/cw copied from Rex A E Hunt's liturgies online.

First Sunday of Advent: Hope in the Midst of Despair

On this first Sunday in Advent we begin to look forward to the coming of Christmas. For weeks now the world around us has told us it’s time. Holiday songs play from every intercom; tinsel, ornaments and lights flicker and shine in the aisles of each store. Even our local coffee houses have told us it’s time. Out with the pumpkin spice and in the peppermint! “It’s Christmas time,” shouts the world! And we confess, we too are lured by the glamour of the holidays.

Yet, this week’s readings bring anything but tidings of good news…at least on the surface. Far from images of a silent night, the texts for today are dominated by apocalyptic images of a dramatic coming with cosmic disturbance:

The heavens are torn asunder, mountains quake, fires rage and water boils. The sun darkens and the moon sheds no light, stars fall and the heavens quake.

Cheery and bright, the readings are not! Yet, these readings are essential to our understanding of Advent and yes, even Christmas. These readings help us re-orient our understanding of the reason for the season.

It is important that we understand these texts in their context. Both Isaiah and Mark were writing to beleaguered and oppressed communities: peoples who had experienced great suffering and despair, peoples who had been promised deliverance only to experience disappointment and despair. The reading from Isaiah comes decades after the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile. The author lives with the deep disappointment of all the failed prophecies of a triumphant return offered by those who went before. The people have left Babylon, but the legacy of captivity remains. The hope and optimism of the previous generations were never fully realized.

You see, the return did not go as expected. The journey from Babylon was long and difficult. And then, once they exiles arrived they faced even more daunting challenges of rebuilding their homes, their neighborhoods, their communities, their lives. And all of this was under the oppressive Persian regime who monitored and controlled their every move. Life was hard and the promises of prophets past seemed long gone.

The section which we read is a lament…a prayer offered in despair as people search in vain for the presence of God in their lives. The prophet speaks the longings of the community for the real presence of God among them. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known.”

Having returned home to Jersualem, the people expect for life to be as it was before, but generations have passed and life has moved on without them. The promises of second Isaiah loom empty and the people feel utterly abandoned by their God.

We, too, I think can empathize with the Israelites. We know what it is like to at times feel abandoned by God. We know what is like to feel exiled from the Divine presence…to feel alone, alienated and abandoned. There have been moments in each of lives when we yearn to see just a glimmer of God and are confronted with nothing but what seems like an endless void.

In the movie, The Devil’s Advocate, Satan calls God an absentee landlord, and the image, well at times rings true. What of the promises of comfort, success and triumph we read in scriptures? Do you see evidence of that in the world around us? What of this God who we proclaim to be good…all the time…yet apparently sits enthroned in heaven and watches as the world crumbles under the weight of despair, hopelessness, violence, war, poverty and hate? What of the assertion that all we have to do is pray and God will answer our prayers…has that always been your experience? Sometimes, it makes us wonder.

In high school, I had just begun to attend church. I was new to the idea of Christianity and a little cynical, but I wanted to believe. I really did. Every week our youth group would sing our theology… “The Banner Over Me Is Love,” “Jesus, I Adore You,” and “Seek Ye First.” Do any of you know “Seek Ye First?” The words are from Matthew 6:33 and proclaim that all we have to do is ask God and we will get what we pray for.

It was during this time that a close family friend was diagnosed with cancer. He was 40 years old with five children ranging in age from 2 years to 20 years old. He was like a second father to me as our families had practically grown up together. I was shocked by the news, but convinced that if I just prayed hard enough, he would be alright. “Ask and it shall be given unto you.” I prayed and prayed every night, yet just three short weeks later, Mr. Smith died and I was devastated. How could this have happened? I asked. I knocked. For God’s sake, I begged and pleaded and yet God seemingly did not care. I, like the Israelites, was quick to blame myself. Maybe I hadn’t prayed hard enough. Maybe, I didn’t believe enough. Maybe, God did not love me as I thought. Perhaps, had I known the text, I too would have cried the same words as Isaiah.

Theologian Dan Clendenin says in his article, Drinking Tears by the Bowlful, that this feeling of alienation from God is more common than we think. He writes,

“The disconnect between what we sometimes experience and what we pray for that results from God's apparent silence is a source of understandable anxiety and frustration. Praying to God for mighty acts of deliverance is an entirely human and genuinely Christian response to the pain and suffering of the world, of our neighbors, and of our own lives.”

And it is true. We all need hope in a God who listens and responds. But what Clendenin goes on to point out is that this Christian expectation is tempered by the message of Advent.

“The season of advent that we now enter ads an important qualification. God is not a Cosmic Concierge... Sometimes we must wait. We wait in patience knowing that not every act of God reverberates like a pounding sledge hammer. In Isaiah's metaphor, God does not always split open the heavens. Whereas even Jesus’closest disciples longed to call down fire from heaven and to brandish swords, Jesus compared his coming kingdom to tiny mustard seeds and to the imperceptible but certain fermentation of yeast.”

Of course we want the loud, unmistakable wildness of God’s presence that shakes the very foundation of the world. Of course, we long for real proof that God is as powerful as we hope the Divine to be. Of course, we yearn for a sign that the God we pray to actually cares.

Yet, the wildness for which we long, is not the wildness that Advent offers. Don’t be fooled by the cataclysmic, apocalyptic images of which we read. If we read them as literal signs, we miss the true wildness God has in store for us.

While many interpret this week’s lectionary as a literal depiction of the end times, Mark’s gospel and Isaiah’s lament are meant by the authors as calls to hope to a suffering, oppressed and despairing people. They are reminders of God’s power and presence in the world despite all signs to the contrary. Remember, Mark is also writing to a people disappointed and disillusioned by the failure of what they took to be God’s promise. Jesus was supposed to return in their lifetimes and yet they were growing old and time running short.

For Mark, Jesus’ words are not meant as a literal depiction of times to come, but rather a reminder to watch in expectation of the light to come. William Loader in his commentary on this text from Mark has said,

“The mandate is then not to ignore what is happening in the world, but to think about it, to watch, to live in the light of it and in the light of the hope which is beyond it....Watchful living has less to do with speculation about the end of the world and more to do with carrying out our trust in a way that finally makes the date of the end a matter of irrelevance.”

Watchful, patient living is what we are called to in the season of Advent. For the wildness that God promises comes not in literal cataclysmic acts of Divine power, but rather in the quiet contemplation of the very idea of the kin-dom of God. What is wild about Advent is not that the sun and moon and stars shall fall and the heavens quake, but rather that we proclaim in this season the coming and breaking in of the kin-dom itself. The idea that God is dwelling among us and the kin-dom come is a wild idea…for the Israelites, Greeks and Romans then, and no less for us today.

The wildness of Advent is our claim that peace will reign – in a world of violence? That healing will happen – in a world plagued by the HIV-AIDS epidemic? That the earth shall prosper – in a time of unprecedented environmental degradation? That love will conquer hate – in an era of seemingly increasing prejudice and discrimination? That the rich and the poor shall feast together – in a world of growing disparity? Yes, yes indeed!

Like our faith ancestors, we have a hard time believing God is present without the cataclysmic, cosmic signs. Yet, what is cataclysmic if not the wild promise of the coming kin-dom in a time when all evidence points to the contrary? The very fact that we continue to proclaim the coming kin-dom is wild!

After Mr. Smith died, I didn’t go back to church for a long time. When I finally did, I found that all the anger and sadness and guilt I had kept at bay came flooding over me. I knelt at the altar during communion and pleaded with God for forgiveness and acceptance. I had been bad (for what I did not know), but I desperately wanted to be back in God’s favor. And so I prayed again, long and hard and begged for a sign that God was still present, that I was still loved. And nothing came.

And then, a friend came to the rail and asked me what was wrong and if she could help. I brushed her aside because I was waiting for God. A second friend came, and told me how worried they were about me, how sorry they felt about my deep sadness, how they wished to make it better. And, I again brushed them away, because I was waiting for God. A third friend came, knelt beside me and embraced me. They whispered in my ear, “No matter what has happened, no matter what you think you have done, God loves you and so do I.” And in that moment, I knew God was present. It wasn’t the cataclysmic heaven shaking sign I wanted, but it was just the sign I needed.

What Advent teaches us is a patient waiting and a watchful living that helps us discern not just the coming of the kin-dom, but the kin-dom in our midst. When we learn to discern the signs of the times, we find that no longer are our eyes focused heavenward. Advent teaches us to look all around us for the presence of God, even if not especially, in the most unlikely of places: in a tiny mustard seed, in the embrace of a friend, in an infant lain in a manger. The fact is God is present, we just need to train ourselves to look in the right places.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

How do we welcome and minister to the young?

(from Joy Perkett)
In light of the recent Christening at CWM, I feel moved to write and reflect on the Children's Ministry. What does it mean to promise to raise up children in the CWM community and how can we as a congregation do that best? Children's Ministry brings up a lot of relevant questions for the church. How do adults minister to children? How do we convey a full sense of welcome and inclusion to our children? What kind of atmosphere do we want to provide for our children? Moreover, how do children minister to us as adults? I would encourage everyone who reads this post to reflect on the issue, and if they feel it is relevant, comment and respond with their own thoughts.

In my opinion, I think there is a lot to be gleaned from the questions that children ask. Elie Wiesel writes that "Every question [possesses] a power that [does] not lie in the answer." Children and adults both ask very different questions and both perspectives are crucial in learning about and understanding God. The questions children ask often encourage adults to see things afresh or to ponder questions they have not thought about in depth. As Elie Wiesel says (the following is his quote, but made inclusive), "Humans raise themselves toward God by the questions they ask God." Well if that is the case, perhaps the best way to raise ourselves towards God is through a communion of the inquisitive minds of adults and children together. Let us never cease to learn from each other and let us never cease to ask questions!

Weekly Inqueery

As a way to generate conversation outside the church walls, I will be presenting a question each week, offering a few thoughts, and inviting all readers to respond with their own perspectives.

With the election on the mind, I ask, “What is the role of religion in politics? Can and should religion and politics remain separate?”

My first reaction is to say that it is impossible to maintain a distinct divide between religion and politics. The notion from the feminist movement that the political is personal and the personal is political suggests to me that religion – something so very personal – is intrinsically tied up with politics.

However, if political decisions are based upon religious convictions, it is possible – indeed likely – that freedom of religious and non-religious expression will be violated. The line between religion and politics is a complicated one to walk, and as an attempt to define that line, we have invented the concept of separation of church and state.

But if religion creeps into politics no matter how hard we try to keep them separate, what should be the role of religion in politics?

Is not the idea behind religion’s presence in politics that religion can be a motivating force in striving toward perfection (even though the political manifestations of this vary)? What about the Wesleyan concept of social holiness? Is this a bad thing?

I am not sure that a distinct divide between religion and politics can (or necessarily should) ever be maintained. For me, recognizing religion’s role in politics should urge people of faith back to debate in the religious arena. If people are making political decisions based upon religious beliefs, we are not going to come to consensus at the political level. We must engage with one another on the religious level, grappling together as people of faith over matters of religious tradition that impact the broader world.

But what do you all think?

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Our Stories of Self

Moses' calling on Mt. Sinai is a miraculous theophany that illustrates the way in which an encounter with the Divine can utterly disrupt our lives, shaking us to the core and leading us into an unimaginable new directions.

When Moses encounters the Divine in the midst of swirling fire, the first question he asks, is “why me?” Like most prophets, Moses is more than a little shocked that God has chosen him and doubtful about his own ability to meet the challenges that lie ahead. “Why me?” Most of us at some point have asked ourselves this question, haven’t we? Why me?

For Moses, this was a particularly apt question. After all, Moses was the adopted son of Pharaoh. Why would he be chosen to lead the revolt, the exodus? Why would he be charged with the responsibility of the people he once oppressed? The story of oppressors turned liberators and outsiders made insiders is a familiar theme isn’t it? It is after all the story of our faith tradition.

In the text that follows, Moses asks God more questions. Why me is just the beginning. Moses wants to know why these people? The Israelites? Really? Why them? Why us? It is not enough for Moses to know why he has been called and why the Israelites have been chosen. So what? Moses wants to know why now? Our people have been enslaved for decades. Why now? What difference does my calling make, what difference does my community make, if not called to action now? Why me? Why us? Why now?

These three questions might sound familiar to you? Remember last week I closed the sermon with the three questions from Rabbi Hillel, “If I am not for me, then who will be? If I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” These questions arise out of the very fabric of the Jewish heritage and frame for the community an identity rooted in self, known in community and made real through action. Why me? Why us? Why now?

In today’s reading these questions arise in the context, not of indulgent self-examination, Freudian therapy or guided meditation, but rather are forced upon Moses through a radical experience of the Divine. Moses’ own self-examination is mandated by a divine disruption in his life as planned. Why me? Why us? Why now?

Theologian Paul Tillich, refers to this type of experience as ontological shock. Ontological refers to the very state of being, of existence. Shock refers to the state of being thrown out of balance, shaken down to its foundations. Ontological shock happens when one is confronted with the ultimate and one’s relationship to it. Moses had an ontological shock at the burning bush. Thrown out of balance, shaken to the core, Moses forced to make a choice in the face of God’s calling.

While both of these stories tell tales of external, tactile, engagements with the Divine, most of us experience ontological shock in more subtle ways. Although there may be no burning bush or booming voice from the heavens, each of us nonetheless has had a moment of epiphany. Of revelation. Each of us at some point has had a moment of a-ha, in which we understand or sense what is and what is not, when we realize or apprehend who we and what we are called to do. Sometimes we recognize these moments as they happen, but all too often we only see their significance in hindsight.

These encounters with the divine, these moments of ontological shock and divine nudging, are only part of the process of the construction of our stories of self. Moses could have chosen to walk away from the Divine, ignore God’s calling and do something quite different. When faced with a revelation whether it be about the world, or God, or ourselves, we always have a choice to make. It is in these discrete moments of choice, whether conscience or unconscious, that our values, hopes, dream and aspirations are revealed.

It is what we choose to do with these revelations that make all the difference.

To answer the time honored questions of why me, why us, why now, we must turn to moments of choice, to our own experiences of ontological shock. Some reverberate through our lives with a loud crashing cacophony, others leave us in the silence of simple questions and hidden answers.

By answering these questions we are able to articulate our values, identify our hope, and inspire our dreams. By answering these questions we discover a renewed sense of purpose and untapped reservoirs of energy for action in the world. It is hard to be part of a community of struggle if we cannot remember what brought us here in the first place.

Our stories are powerful for they not only help us articulate our own sense of self and passionate commitments, but they lead us to understand the connections between ourselves, community, world and ultimately God.

Part of our Sabbath journey at CWM is intentional effort to cultivate calm and gain insight so that we as a community might be renewed for action in the world. This insight, however, must begin with each one of us. For the church is not a building….the church is a people. Each of us sitting here today constitutes the Body of Christ. Indeed, the story of CWM itself arises from the individual stories of us…the hands and feet of Christ here in this place.

Why are you called to do what you are called to do?

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

A Call to Sabbath

This month marks my return to local church ministry after a 10 week sabbatical provided by the Sustaining Urban Pastoral Excellence Program at Boston University. This past July, I slipped off the radar and hid myself away for a time of intentional rest, reflection and concentration.

Life before sabbatical for me was hectic to say the least. I sped through life at full throttle, juggling responsibilities and scampering from meeting to meeting...pastoring, consulting, teaching, counseling, preaching….and oh, yeah, that dissertation thing. In the midst of it all, it seemed normal. Isn’t this how life is supposed to be? Yet, once the sabbatical began, I was forced to step back and be still.



Suddenly as, I sat alone at my desk that first sabbatical morning, I felt tired, really tired…no take that back…absolutely exhausted. The lyrics from one of my favorite Ani DiFranco songs came to mind as a perfect description of how I had been living: “Are you weary as water, like a faucet left dripping…”

These lyrics from Ani Difranco’s song Swing, resonated with me. I was as weary as water! While I had been looking forward to this sabbatical, I now realized how desperately I needed it. If I didn’t do something soon, this tap was going to run out of water.

I needed Sabbath.

Sabbatical is word mostly associated with the academy as a time for professors to concentrate on their own research and writing. And while it is true that I used this time to work on my dissertation, the Sabbath I found, the Sabbath I needed, meant something much more.

Shabbat—the Sabbath—appears first in the creation story. "And on the seventh day God finished the work and rested, blessing and hallowing the seventh day.” While God practiced Sabbath from the very beginning it took humanity a little longer to catch on. It is not until the middle of Exodus that Shabbat or sabbath is finally articulated in a way that the people understand. God gives the command in a form of operant conditioning of sorts.

After bringing the people out of Egyptian slavery into the wilderness, God sends the people manna, commanding them to gather enough each morning for that day alone. Anxious and mistrustful after wandering in the desert, they gather more than they need, but it rots. On the sixth day, however, they are told to gather enough to last for two days. Miraculously, the extra food does not rot, and those who still can't believe, those who go out on the seventh morning to get more find nothing. God is teaching them to keep the Sabbath, even before Moses receives the commandments on Sinai.

When those commandments come, the Sabbath commandment is the longest and in some ways the most complicated. Unlike the other commandments, the command for sabbath shows up in two different forms. Both versions demand the same action—work on six days, rest on one—but each gives a different reason.

In the first, God calls for rest as a way to help people live into God's own cosmic rest in the creation. In the second, God calls for rest as a means of liberation, freeing all workers native and foreign, laborer and boss, slave and master, human and animal. Here the command to "observe" the Sabbath day is intimately connected to the experience of a people newly released from bondage. Slaves cannot take a day off; free people can. The command to observe sabbath is a command to remember their own liberation and to seek the liberation of others. As they rest, so also do they insure that all others rest...even the animals in the field!

Together, these two explanations of the Sabbath commandment summarize the most fundamental stories and beliefs of the Hebrew scriptures: creation and exodus, made in God’s image and liberated from captivity. One story emphasizes holiness; the other, social justice.

Sabbath is not only rest, it is reflection for renewed action in the world. A time of holiness, of being set apart, and a time for justice, of creating shalom for the world. From the very beginning Sabbath is not just rest for rest’s sake, but an intentional time that both celebrates holiness and calls for justice.

In Buddhist thought there is a related truth expressed about the two fundamental directions of meditation: calm and insight. While not the same as our Judeo-Christian concept of sabbath, the Buddhist understanding of meditation has much to teach us. Buddhist teacher, Ayya Khema, distinguishes between calm and insight as dual parts of meditation. She writes,

“Both directions, calm and insight, need to be practiced in order to obtain the results meditation can bring. Most people want calm. But that is not what meditation is designed to do – it’s a means to an end, Calm is the means. Insight is the end. The means are essential and necessary, but they must never be confused with the end. Unless we know the direction we’re going, it’s highly unlikely we’ll get to our destination.” (Being Nobody, Going Nowhere)

For Khema, calm and insight must accompany one another…they are inextricably linked. Without calm, there is no insight and without true insight, there can be no real calm. This distinction helps us in our own consideration of Sabbath practice. Sabbath must express both of the Divine commandments….for rest or clam, and for justice or insight. By looking at Sabbath in this way, we begin to see that it is not merely one day set apart from the rest, but rather can be a rich new way of living and being in the world. Sabbath does not have to be time limited, but can become a way of life.

In the Gospel; reading for today, we see Jesus practicing and expanding this notion of Sabbath with the disciples. Although it is not the day of Sabbath itself, Jesus calls the disciples away. Their lives to date (particularly as recounted in the fast paced action of the Markan narrative) have been hectic to say the least….switching careers, leaving their families, healing, teaching, preaching, casting out demons…phew. Makes our lives seem like a breeze compared to this.

In this passage, the disciples have just returned from their first mission. Weary and worn, the disciples are led away to rest. “Come away and rest.” Jesus knows, these tired souls needed some rest. However, this calm does not last. The moment the disciples return, they are once again confronted with the endless needs of the world, here, embodied by the throngs of people waiting on the shore. A Sabbath thwarted? Perhaps, not. Remember that Sabbath integrates divine rest and divine justice.

This story in Mark can be interpreted as a parallel to the first instructions about Sabbath. The connection is made strikingly clear after the disciples return. Do you know the story that flows immediately? What happens? The feeding of the five thousand. Exactly. A miraculous feeding. Remind you of anything else?

You see the needs of the world will never go away. The list of things to do in our lives will never be complete. Yet, we can and must seek calm in the midst of the demands life brings us. This is the lesson of Sabbath. Without calm, without insight, we do nothing more than run through life without reflection, without mindfulness, without direction. Surely, life is about more than simply checking off a list of things to do, isn’t it?

In this passage, Mark is illustrating and highlighting Sabbath in a new way that breaks the time limited boundary of a weekly ritual. It is not just a legalistic or routine observance of one day each week. No, Mark points out the urgency and necessity of Sabbath that fuses the exodus commandments for holiness and justice, calm and insight.

It leads me to wonder how our own practices of Sabbath measure up. Think for a moment about our own schedules of rest. In my pre-sabbatical life, I would have told you I did rest. I did take Sabbath. I would have cited sleeping in, going to the movies, watching TV, playing with the dogs. And, while all of those things are fine and good (and I did continue to do them in post sabbatical life), they were for the most part mindless. Afterwards I was still as tired as before, only now I had wasted another perfectly good hour. I took Sabbath literally, legalistically. I sat down and removed myself from making or doing. Technically Sabbath. But not at all in the sabbatical Spirit. I may have had a moment of calm, but I did nothing to cultivate insight.

When we rest, are we really taking Sabbath?

So, here I am post-sabbatical and life, well life is still just as hectic…if not a little more so….the landscape of the shore has not changed since I left, but I have. The difference is learning to live Sabbath everyday…not just in those lazy moments of watching endless episodes of LOST or coveting the fashions on Project Runway. No, now after living and breathing a Sabbath for 10 weeks, life after sabbatical means integrating time for intentional clam (not just inactivity) and intentional insight (not just writing papers for papers’ sake).

It is this integration of calm and insight into the fabric of my days that will make all the difference as I strive toward my own goals at church, at home and in the work I do. Having focus enables me to move through the billion and one to-do list with less anxiety and more purpose. It allows me to concentrate and be less worried about the small stuff. I don’t have to do all the things on my check list today. With calm, insight and direction I can take them as they come and remain mindful of the Sabbath life in the middle of the chaotic busy-ness that has characterized my life for, well, longer than I want to admit.

This type of Sabbath life, however, is not merely an individual practice. It impacts, shapes and forms our life together as we gather each Sunday to take Sabbath together….to wed in worship holiness and justice, calm and insight. As a congregation, this September we will celebrate our sixth year of ministry and begin to move into our seventh year as mission dedicated to proclaiming God’s love with all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and straight persons.

Our seventh year.

Hmm….that sounds familiar. In the Sabbath laws divinely ordained at Sinai the seventh year is the year designated for Sabbath. Coincidence? I wonder.

As we enter this seventh year of ministry it is time for us as a congregation to take Sabbath to cultivate calm and seek insight so that we might be renewed for action in the world. And we need it, don’t we? As a mission we often ground our identity in the work we do on behalf of and for the church, but we seldom take time in our haste to change the world to seriously reflect about who we are, what we are called to do and why. These questions should provide the foundation of our ministry and provide the sustenance and strength for us to continue to be in ministry to the church and world. Without time to think, to step away, to reflect and revision, we as a congregation will find our taps too have run dry,

And so in the coming weeks and months through worship, I am going to invite you as a congregation and community into a process of Sabbath as a deep commitment to both calm and insight, holiness and justice so that at the end of our seventh year we as a congregation will be able to ask the three essential questions posed by another famous rabbi so long ago. Rabbi Hillel asked:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?"
"If I am only for myself, what am I?" and
"If not now -- when?"

The song, Swing, by Ani begins with this description of pre-sabbatical life, but the song itself expresses a hope to something more, something different, a new way of living and loving…Swing the groove round here the chorus implores….Swing the groove round. There is hope to break free from the monotonous circles of our routine and hectic lives to seek more, to cultivate calm and gain insight. Together let’s swing the groove round that we as a congregation might wed holiness and justice, calm and insight.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Bishop Robinson

How are you supporting Bishop Gene Robinson?

Are you praying for him daily?

Have you written him a letter of support?

Are you naming him in the "prayers of the people" at your church?

Are you starting conversations about his prophetic presence?

I was shocked again yesterday when he was asked in an interview on NPR to respond to the claim that he is distracting the world from more important needs and just drawing attention to his one issue.

How long will GLBT people be seen as a distracting issue?

What will it take to realize that we are people?

Is it that hard to believe that we are faithfully living out discipleship but are being oppressed by discrimination and fear and hate?

I thank God that I am living at the same time as Bishop Robinson and can learn from him and support him.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Frank Wulf is a true Saint!

Have you read that Frank Wulf was willing to serve our church as a bishop? Every candidate gave the church a gift by being willing to serve, but Frank's faithfulness was of a special kind. By identifying himself as someone called and ready to serve as a bishop and also a gay person, Frank is helping us all to continue to grow towards being a more honest and prophetic church.

The article on United Methodist News Service is definitely worth the read, you can also listen to Frank's statement. You'll be surprised to read there about the "FOX News/politics of fear" style of threats being made by Maxie Dunnam. Goes to show that even when God is doing a new thing, somethings never change. We can always count on God and... we can always count on some other things too.

As a delegate to Northeast Jurisdictional Conference, I was surprised to realize what a big impact some candidates for the episcopacy had even if they weren't elected or didn't get many votes. The power of the prophecy shared in simply the biographical statements and resumes shows a need for a new type of leadership. People are ready to serve AND they were elected.

In the Northeast, the majority of candidates for the episcopacy either served Reconciling Congregations at some point or were actively involved in supporting ministries to and with GLBT people. They represented a wide range of theological beliefs and visions for our church. That's because Reconciling is a grassroots movement that is inclusive of many people and points of view. Our church's leaders are being mentored in the Reconciling Ministries Network, RMN is strengthening the church in many ways. Adult Education, Liturgical Renewal, leadership training, congregation self-examination, encouraging small-group formation- this is what RMN is all about.

In the New England Annual Conference we've been reading "I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church" by Paul Nixon, and sure enough the journey to becoming a welcoming church is lifted up several times as a great tool for revitalizing a local church. The point in that book isn't simply that welcome to GLBT people makes for a better local church (though of course it does) the point is that conversation, learning and dedicating ourselves to specific ministry are essential to healthy churches.

Reconciling Ministries is strengthening the United Methodist Church.

Thanks be to God.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Nine more things...

I want to share a few beautiful moments that I know you will love but that my exhaustion before prevented me from sharing...
Some highlights!
1) After a very fun service recognizing the retirements of Bishops Fisher and Morrison, the Mark Miller Band broke out into a ten minute postlude... We Are Family, by Sister Sledge

2) The NEJ affirmed clergy in CA who perform same-sex weddings!

3) Heterosexual allies affirmed gay and lesbian people with prophetic words from the floor- clergy, lay, different genders and races and annual conferences- people are telling the story.

4) Gay and lesbian spoke up for ourselves, beautifully and bravely claiming our life in the church, at the center.

5) The NEJ is coming to terms with the poisonous racism that guides our actions. The crisis is clear and the need to change our behavior. Now it is time to walk the walk. (not really a highlight now that I type it, but God will help us.)

6) As the church moves to restructuring, new relationships and ministries at the "Jurisdictional" level are being born.

7) The NEW England Annual Conference will soon include Vermont!!!!!!!!!

8) God loves you.

9) There is a balm in Gilead.

Friday, July 18, 2008

So why am I crying?

I've had tears tonight.

But why?

When Peggy Johnson signed her acceptance speech after being elected Bishop she told us that she prayed she will be remembered as a Bishop who worked for social justice and
loved with the heart of Christ. And she will be. This is a beautiful day.

But our sisters are turned against each other. People are forced to stand with GLBT people or people of color. There are only crumbs left for the deaf. The center is guarded by those ravenous few who live by an unholy spirit. Those with the power are so deeply, deeply afraid of even the smallest risk.

I am so tired of waiting. I am so ready for God to act now.

I am so ready for God to act now.

There are some days where I think it is going to happen, when I think I know what that will be like. But then night comes and I have so many tears.

You know I believe.

My faith has never been stronger. But I have never acknowledged sins so clearly. I have never felt pain so stinging. I have never seen the road stretch out for so long.

I have never had such reason to be happy.

So why am I crying?

God bless this church.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

This is the day.

I am now really serious about getting the right thing done and I think it is going to happen.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Job Interviews

When the nominations committee met yesterday morning (which feels like two weeks ago), Bishop Grove shared with us how he believes that God's same guidance of discernment is at work whether a youth group is electing a treasurer, Jurisdiction Conference is electing a bishop or the nominations committee is filling it's slots on committees. At first I thought it was a little silly of him to compare a youth group selecting a treasurer to the process of choosing a bishop, but after an entire day of interviewing, I see the similarity very clearly. I was actually reminded of being at United Methodist Student Forum about ten years ago and voting for members of our National Steering Committee. There were even some of the same questions, e.g. "Will you uphold the Discipline?"
I must say, this is without doubt the stupidest question you could ask. Would anyone, ANYONE, ever say no to this? Is anyone who has allowed their name to go forward as a potential Bishop ever going to say that? THAT'S WHAT A BISHOP DOES! It's like asking, "If elected, will you be a Bishop?"

Anyway, I was in a group of about thirty people and it was great. I think it was one of the best processes of group interviewing and church conferencing I've had. I'm not saying it was fun or energizing, but after doing it for all day from 8:30-8:30 (with two meal breaks and two ten minute breaks) I feel just fine about it.
Every group (13 in total) asked two questions that were the same.
1) If you are elected Bishop, what sort of a legacy would you like to be remembered by after you retire?
2) What brings you to tears and what brings you laughter?
I was shocked by these questions personally and they weren't helpful for any of the interviews except for one small instance. One person explicitly made the connection between tears and righteous anger, which I appreciated. Other than that, it just left me feeling that these people must spend a lot of time laughing, crying and then thinking about their reputations.
It was weird.
Beyond that, each group could proceed as they wished. As I said before, my group was very loose and trusting so we could go with the flow. I learned that at least one group voted on what questions could be asked and then they just read the same ones over and over. That must have been terrible boring for everyone.

We asked some questions designed to specific candidates. For example, I asked a candidate who serves on the board of Good News what he thinks the role of UM Caucus groups that aren't a part of the official church structure should be and how his relationship and understanding would change were he elected Bishop. We also just had some out there good questions, "What's your best mistake?", "Where do you think the Conference Office for Baltimore-Washington should be located?", "Can you give a specific example of how you will use the office of Bishop to be in ministry with Hispanic people?"
We had one or two really silly questions (which I actually didn't mind) "Can you dance the Macarana?" "Do you play a musical instrument?"

I asked one person why I should vote for a white male. (yes, he was a white man)

We have several very good candidates. There are three I would be very happy with and a fourth who I think would be good as well. However, some of them were very, very weak. Maybe they had given up or rethought their call after a few hours of going through this. Some were clearly great pastors and cool people but they didn't offer any help to us on why they would be a good Bishop. A few were pretty boring. (perhaps our fault not theirs) I won't say anything negative about the people who I hope don't get elected. Besides that, I'm at a place right now where I really trust the process. Even if the outcome is bad, I know we are working in good faith.

Still lots of conversations and meetings happening about how groups, delegations and trusted friends think things should go.

I've been posting so late because I've been staying up talking with friends, basically getting my gay fix.

But regarding the heterosexuality issue, please remember: I think that they are still children of God and of sacred worth. God still loves them and so should we... Next question.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Setting the Table

After midnight at the Harrisburg Hilton the staff is busily preparing for the next day. Handrails are being polished, the seemingly countless water goblets are being replaced and carpets are being vacuumed. I think the delegates to Jurisdictional Conference have been doing similar work all day preparing for a smooth running process.
I spent about almost all day in session with the Nominating Committee. We scheduled to meet until lunch but had to go until just after 10:00pm. (with breaks for meals and Bible Study). All in all, I'm only counting us as being in session for about seven hours. You know you've reached a new level when seven hours of nominating people for church committees isn't that bad... In fact! I'm feeling like I'm all warmed up for tomorrow. We begin interviewing candidates for Bishop.

The nominating process was very difficult. Our representation on committees was literally shrinking throughout the day, thanks to a small miscalculation we were originally given. Basically New England had to fill five spots which then became six which then became four and which finally ended up being five (including one we didn't know we had filled until after lunch because they were appointed via another nominating body earlier this year). So... I'm sure that's clear to you.
I'm very glad that I can trust the people I was working with, it just made it easier. However, I hadn't prepared myself for the fact that immediately after we adjourned at 10:10, we met with our entire delegation, which had been arriving throughout the day and reported our results. It was basically all of the reactions and thoughts and emotions we'd been experienced since 8:30 condensed into a ten-minute conversation. Not easy. But then again, I think I can do this work.

We had a large group Bible Study, which I would really call more of a sermon. But for me one, the welcome from the Mayor of Harrisburg was actually very interesting. The Mayor basically preached! And it was good! I suppose I was surprised that this person who looked like... well... the Mayor of Harrisburg, was so challenging and spiritual and inspiring. It was really quite wonderful EXCEPT for the fact that he made a series of very uncomfortable jokes about the Bishop and delegation from West Virginia and their roots in the Confederate States of America. It was bizarre and highly questionable. Turns out that it is also incorrect, as Bishop Lyght of West Virginia pointed out.

We also met our small groups that will be interviewing candidates tomorrow. I've got a good group. We created some questions to ask and they seemed fair to me (but I did have to leave early because Nominating reconvened at 9:00 pm).

On the total silliness factor: there are chocolate candy bars being distributed that feature Bishop Middleton of Harrisburg on the wrapper in her purple episcopal clergy blouse. It's weird and I'm not sure if it's supposed to be funny or not. I'll have to ask her about them. It looks like the sort of gag gift you might make for someone on their fiftieth birthday or retirement party. I'll try to get my hands on one of these or snap a photo.

Well the table is set for our work. It's funny having the experience of working all day before things really begin. Even as I look around the lobby at this late hour, most of the staff seems to have finished their preparations. The only piece of trash is an empty can of TAB soda on the coffee table in front of me. I wonder who still drinks TAB?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Arrival in Harrisburg

I had to ask the members of St. Nicholas to keep the prayer concerns to a minimum this morning because I wanted to be on the road by 11:30 to make Harrisburg in time to meet with the other members of New England's Nominating Committee. The parishioners didn't hold back on the prayer concerns but they did add an extra request that I arrive safely and on time. And I did!
I met tonight with two other members of the delegation and the Bishop as we reviewed names for the Jurisdictional Nominating process. The meeting is scheduled to run from 8:30-12:30 tomorrow morning.
From what I can put together, we will have very VERY minimal opportunity to fill somewhere between three and six spots on the Boards of Directors of the General Boards, Agencies and Commissions of the church. In other words, this won't quite be as interesting as my work at General Conference where we talked about gay sex.
I'm headed to bed now a little after 2:00 am thanks to a rather problematic attempt at printing something. Apparently the Hilton (not sure why they booked us at the Hilton) isn't used to having guests who need to print things. (Is it that exotic?)
That's seventeen dollars and sixty-one cents to print 15 pages.
Why didn't I just put my printer in the car?

Sunday, July 13, 2008


The Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference of the United Methodist Church starts today!

"What is that?" you ask?

Well, it's simply, really - it didn't take much for me to figure it out.  Just-a-dictionary.

And a Book of Discipline.  And an entire course about the organization of the UMC.  And constant questions posed to my life-long-Methodist friends, who (sometimes) understand what really goes on at all these conferences we keep having.  

Anyway, since I know you're waiting with bated breath, anxious to discover what this just-a-dictionary post is about...  United Methodists from West Virginia on up through Maine are gathering in Harrisburg, PA today, to collaborate and make decisions on a regional level.  One of the sexiest things this Jurisdictional Conference will do is elect a new bishop!  (or maybe two...?  We'll know soon enough!)

There's biographical info about the candidates for bishop online ( - but keep in mind that new people can be nominated during the conference).  One of the candidates is Aida Irizarry-Fernandez, who's been our district superintendent for the last few years.  You may remember Aida from our 5th Anniversary Celebration, where she presented CWM with a check from the New England Annual Conference to help kick off our Mission Fund campaign.  Aida was endorsed by New England, as was Linda Campbell-Marshall, a pastor from Maine who - like Aida - was a delegate to General Conference this year.

Each week at Cambridge Welcoming, we gather to lift up & support one another, to proclaim god's love for ALL people, to celebrate and mourn and laugh - and eat dinner with some pretty awesome people!  Whether at church, at work, at home, in Massachusetts or beyond - I know we've all seen the wondrous things that can be accomplished when brave & compassionate leaders guide people through the sometimes scary process of doing great new things.

So along with a two-thumbs-up show of support for our friends converging on Harrisburg - including our own Will Green, and Rev. Scott Campbell, who preached at CWM two weeks ago - I offer up prayers that the holy spirit moves the delegates to elect a prophetic bishop who will unapologetically, unrelentingly place compassion before complacence, justice before "just-us," and GLBT inclusion before the generally inexcusable stance of current UMC policies that cut people off from the love of god and church. 

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Summer Sabbatical

Today begins my two month sabbatical as part of the Sustaining Urban Pastoral Excellence (SUPE) Program at Boston University School of Theology. Not only does this program offer me a time for renewal and concentrated work on my dissertation, it also initiates a three year program of congregational development in which CWM will act as a teaching site for area seminaries, partnering with the academy to nurture new leaders and grow our own faith community.

Although during my July 1st to September 4th sabbatical I will be staying in town, I will not be at work in the local church. During this time CWM has an exciting list of guest preachers who will lead us in worship. In addition, Rev. Marion Grant and Rev. Nizzi Digan have agrred to provide for the pastoral needs of the congregation as they may arise. You may also feel free to contact our lay leaders, Michele Naughton ( and Marla Marcum ( with any questions you may have. You can reach them via email.

Please keep me in your prayers as I embark on this summer sabbatical! I look forward to returning to be with you in the fall!



Sabbatical Calendar

July 6th Rev. Marion Grant

July 13th Rev. Judy Kohatsu

July 20th Rev. Marion Grant

July 27th Rev. Jeremy Smith

August 3rd Annie Britton

August 10th Sean Delmore

August 17th Marla Marcum

August 24th Rev. Nizzi Digan

August 31st Michele Naughton

September 7th Lisa Fagerstrom

Contact Information

Pastoral Coverage


Rev. Marion Grant 617-387-2515


Rev. Nizzi Digan 781-233-9277