Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The first time I really understood Christmas

I post this every year. Not because it's the most profound thing ever, but because it's the truest thing I've figured out how to say about Christmas:

The first time I really understood the Nativity was in Yanoun, in the northern West Bank. The shepherds we were with–Mohammad and his cousin, also named Mohammad–showed us where they keep their sheep. It was a low, dark, cave. Noisy, crowded with animals, and smelling like–well–sheep shit. The mangers were rusty, with sheep pushing at each other to find space to eat. Not the sort of place you’d want to have a kid. I remember thinking: “If God can be born here, I guess God can be born anywhere.”


(To support the folks like the people of Yanoun, who are sorely pressed by military occupation and settlement expansion, check out the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program of the World Council of Churches, which maintains a nonviolent accompaniment and human rights observation presence in the village.)

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve: Rejoice, Mary's Song, and "Why I Stay"

This Advent I've been blogging along with the themes we've been exploring at Crossroads. We started with "Look," then "Prepare," then "Proclaim," and this past Sunday the focus was "Rejoice."

Our text at Crossroads for this Sunday was Mary's song in Luke's gospel, when she meets her cousin Elizabeth, both of whom are pregnant. You might be used to hearing the song set to soaring music by Bach or Vivaldi, but it's actually pretty gritty stuff:


 "And Mary said,‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things,   and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’"


Did you catch all of that? That's a lot of subversive talk for a young pregnant woman in occupied territory. A lot of scattering of the proud and bringing down the powerful and sending the rich away. A lot of lifting up servants and the lowly and the hungry.

It's Christmas Eve, and soon I'll be off to church services with Leigh and her mom; and I'll be thinking of friends and family scattered all over the country, doing the same thing or maybe enjoying an evening at home. It's a night for rejoicing, and tomorrow the same (whether that means presents or prayers or Chinese food and a movie).

But I'll be thinking about Mary as I rejoice tonight. About joy not only "in the middle of" but actually "in the face of" the struggle and oppression and violence of the world. In the face of. As in, right up in the face of, staring it all down. Rejoicing, and making the brokenness blink first. 

---

Last week I wrote a bit of a rant about the UMC and church trials. And after I wrote that, the UMC once again got itself some national headlines for the final verdict in our latest inquisition. (I mean, it made headlines in little known newspapers, like, say, The New York Times, so I guess it's not so big a deal). 

I've seen friends and colleagues recently posting "Why I Stay" reflections, about staying in the UMC. And others have posted reflections about why they're not staying, why they're joining the ever-growing exodus out of a church that seems committed to judicial enforcement rather than, I don't know, grace or love or any of that baggage. (If only we had some sort of scriptural precedent to guide us in discussions of law and grace...)

For those who have left or are leaving the UMC: peace and love to you. I don't question your decision, nor do I question whether the Spirit continues to move in and through you and in all sorts of ways outside of the UMC. 

Here is why I stay: Mary's song. 

I am no Jesus, and no Mary. Far, far from it.

But I do try, in my own small way, to follow a paradoxical Savior who is born homeless, who constantly points our heads in the direction of strife, because that's where the message of Peace needs to be lived out. 

I do try to sing along with Mary, and to rejoice right up in the face of the madness. 

For some, that will mean leaving the UMC, because it has just become impossible to be honest and live out their calling in the context of this particular denominational construct. And it is that--a construct. Not an immortal or immutable truth. 

But for me, at least for now, it means staying. Not just because of all the things that I love about the UMC--things like our Wesleyan theological heritage and our tradition of commitment to social justice and our hymnody and our diversity and our global reach (and yes, I will also go to bat for the appointment system and the ordination process).

Not just all of that. But because of the stuff that drives me crazy. The division and the church trials and the politicking and the ladder climbing. The broken stuff. I want to try, to take a shot at, singing a song of joy right up in the face of all of that.

--

You reading this might not give a fig about the UMC, which is fine. But whatever it is that you do care about, here's my Christmas Eve offering for you: get up in the face of the broken stuff, and sing. To do that might mean leaving a broken system. Or it might mean staying in the thing and fighting the good fight. We are different people and are lives call us and pull us in different ways.

But wherever you are, whatever you are doing, whether you are staying or leaving:

Do it singing.

Do it singing. 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Proclaim (steve carell, tina fey, vulnerability, and getting saved)

I'm blogging for Advent, following along with the themes that we're focusing on at Crossroads. I talk more about why I'm doing this in an earlier post. This week's theme is "proclaim."

Last night Leigh and I watched Date Night with Tina Fey and Steve Carell. Great movie. Highly recommend.

Fey and Carell play a self-declared boring couple from New Jersey, whose attempt to make the doldrums of weekly date nights more exciting ends them up in the midst of a violent blackmail plot. Spoiler alert: the day is saved, and so is Fey and Carell's marriage.

One of my favorite parts of the movie is the scene in which the desperate couple shows up, once again, at the door of a shirtless-and-unrealistically-muscular Mark Wahlberg, to beg him for help. In the scene, we see for the first time the relationship between the couple being rekindled. As Carell talks, Fey looks over at him with new eyes and rests her head on his shoulder.

But what's great about the scene is that Carell isn't coming through to save the day in a sudden reassertion of masculine power that sweeps Fey off her feet. Instead, he's entering into a moment of vulnerability, admitting that he and his wife desperately need help, and admitting to his insecurity with the obviously hotter Wahlberg's perpetual lack of shirt.

I love that it's this scene, and not the climatic SWAT team intervention, in which we see Fey and Carell start to reconnect. It's vulnerability, not coercive strength, that begins to renew their relationship.

There's a lot of talk in Christianity--especially in a lot of USAmerican Christianity--about getting saved. The word comes with an expectation, which I think many of the biblical texts share, that salvation is an outside intervention of superior strength. The word that we know as "gospel" or "good news" is from the Greek word for an announcement of a military victory.



But this Jesus who we are waiting for in the season of Advent--the Jesus that John the Baptist has been pointing us to since the beginning of this week as he's been proclaiming the good news to the people--brings us an odd kind of gospel. It's a gospel that, to me, seems to have to do more with vulnerability than with coercive strength. It's a gospel of uncomfortable spaces and admissions of weakness.

And that is its strength. The good news that we proclaim this Advent is not a SWAT team. It is not temporal power, to be defeated by the next guy with a bigger gun. It is a rekindled relationship. It is a renewed identity of love. It is the overcoming of the jaded feeling that there is nowhere else to grow. And all of that is made possible by the experience of our own vulnerability, and--here's the thing--the vulnerability of God.

In other words...take it away, Dr. Brene Brown!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Proclaim (shame, protest theodicy, and the book of mormon)

I'm blogging for Advent, following along with the themes that we're focusing on at Crossroads. I talk more about why I'm doing this in an earlier post. This week's theme is "proclaim."

I just got back from this great musical written by Irish theologian Pete Rollins.

Oh wait, no. Sorry. It was written by the creators of South Park. It's called The Book of Mormon.

Anyway. It was hilarious. Truly hilarious. Worth seeing just for the creepy Mormon hell dream sequence.

The easy post here would be to compare the sort of proclamation of good news personified in the musical by Mormon missionaries trying to get everyone else to be Mormons--accompanied, of course, by plenty of racist and colonialist overtones--with a more holistic understanding of what it means to proclaim good news.

But I sort of preached about that on Sunday, sans Mormons, so I thought I'd try something different here.

The musical provides a contrast--a hilarious, entirely-inappropriate-for-grandma contrast--between the chipper optimism of the Mormon missionaries and the Ugandan villagers that they are supposed to save. While Elder Price dreams of a paradise that looks like Orlando--while everything is shiny and happy, and fake; while the missionaries melodiously remind each other that the proper response to any feelings of doubt or fear or, for that matter, same-gender attraction is to "turn it off, just like a light switch;" and while Elder Cunningham realizes that he's going to have to do what Jesus would do and "man up" (in a musical number that could probably also be an opening worship song for Mark Driscoll's church), the villagers sing a song called "Hasa Diga Eebowai." I'll let you look up what that means, but it involves flipping God off.

By the end of the play, though--dozens of genitalia jokes later--villagers and missionaries have discovered a new sort of faith together. It recognizes the real struggles of people instead of spiritualizing everything away. It empowers people to stand up against oppression. And it leaves room for doubt, including doubts about God.

At a conference last year, I was introduced to a  concept called protest theodicy. Theodicy basically means an explanation for why there is evil in the world, often phrased as "why do bad things happen to good people." Protest theodicy is basically the concept that when someone is suffering, rather than try to explain away their suffering by saying things like "God has a plan" or even "it's going to be ok," that the best thing to do might be to stand with the person in their lament and their protest. Jewish and Christian scripture is, as it turns out, filled with great examples of protest theodicy. It's a connectional move, not a distancing move. An empathetic move that leads us to sit with someone in their suffering, rather than to try to make everyone feel comfortable.

So I think The Book of Mormon teaches us, among other things, not to be so quick to shut down the folks who are singing "Hasa Diga Eebowai." Not to let our sensibilities be offended by an anger and lament.

As I watched and listened and laughed and laughed, I thought about this book I'm reading by Brene Brown (see my last post for a great video narrated by her). In it, she talks about vulnerability and shame. I started thinking about it because one song, "Man Up," is literally the words that Brown identifies as the primary shame message that men receive (women, according to Brown, receive shame messages predominantly around body image and motherhood).

And I think that there's a link between these two concepts. That protest theodicy is what Brown calls a shame resilience strategy, a way to challenge a "let's make it all ok" sort of discomfort with weakness and suffering.

Jesus, contra Mark Driscoll and Elder Cunnigham's solo, did not "man up." Jesus struggled, and so do we. To proclaim good news sometimes means to sit with bad news, to let discomfort and hurt be experienced, to create sacred space for mourning. Not to fix or to save but to embody. In a "man up" culture, it seems weak and unsatisfactory. But I think it's ultimately what saves us, after all.

--

When you're dealing with the heavy stuff, of course, it helps to have a soundtrack. I recommend The Book of Mormon.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Proclaim (Brene Brown on empathy)

I'm blogging for Advent, following along with the themes that we're focusing on at Crossroads. I talk more about why I'm doing this in an earlier post. This week's theme is "proclaim."

Brene Brown is my hero. I think this video, on empathy, has something to teach us before we go proclaiming anything:


Monday, December 16, 2013

Proclaim (popes and trials)

I'm blogging for Advent, following along with the themes that we're focusing on at Crossroads. I talk more about why I'm doing this in an earlier post. This week's theme is "proclaim."

Alright, here's what I've got, but really you should just go read this editorial from the WaPo by Elizabeth Tenety.

I was driving in to DC today, listening to a bit on NPR about Pope Francis.

And all these people were calling in, saying things like, "I'm an atheist, but I'm excited about this new pope!" or "I'm a Muslim, but this guy is doing good stuff!"

And all the panelists, including a Jesuit priest and the former U.S. rep to the Vatican See, were saying things like:

"Well, he's not saying anything that Jesus didn't say."

or

"Well, that's really what Catholic social teaching has always said."

Now, obviously, this new Pope is generating excitement for a reason--because he actually seems dedicated to living out some of what Jesus said and Catholic social teaching says.

But you literally had a Catholic priest preaching about the gospel of Jesus Christ on NPR because the Pope had the courage to move out of a palace and into an apartment and actually seems to care about people who are hurting.

So here's my message about proclamation for the day. My apologies. Generally I try to blog about universal themes, but this one is sort of narrow and parochial:

DEAR UNITED METHODIST CHURCH. HOW DO WE NOT GET THIS?!?!

A little while ago I wrote about how the Pope's statements about gay priests actually don't get to the heart of the matter. But I'm going to say something a bit different this time around. This time, I'm going to say that while the Pope is telling the Catholic Church that maybe they should stop yelling about gay people and abortion and start caring about the poor, the hierarchy of the United Methodist Church seems committed to a "Let's ramp up the bashing gay people thing!" strategy.

Now, look. I won't lie. I have pretty strong opinions about the way the church treats LGBTQ folks. But say you disagree with me. Say you think that sexuality is a choice, that homosexuality is a sin, etc.

Do you really think that the best way for the church to spend its time, money, and people power, is to bring people to trial because they disagree with the church's stance?

Do we not get that while the Pope makes national news, including (as Tenety points out) in bastions of secularism, for caring about the poor, the UMC is making national news for the 21st century equivalent of witch trials?

So look. Here's the deal, UMC. We say that we exist to "make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." But what we're getting attention for is "making examples out of people for presiding at their son's wedding."

So if we want to proclaim the gospel, I've got a good first step: Stop. The. Trials.

(The students at AU tell me that this is not a meme until it has been replicated with variations, so get on it.)

Today, a Jesuit priest talked about the gospel of Jesus Christ on NPR.

Dear UMC Bishops--who, by the way, could do a lot to end these ridiculous trials: What audience has heard your preaching lately?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Advent sermon: Proclaim

I'm blogging for Advent, following along with the themes that we're focusing on at Crossroads. I talk more about why I'm doing this in an earlier post. This week's theme is "proclaim."

This is the sermon that I preached tonight at Crossroads. The scripture was Luke 3:7-18, which is John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness and, among other things, calling everybody a "brood of vipers."


Grace and peace to you, you brood of vipers!

I love John the Baptist. Where does this guy come from? Who thinks that a good PR strategy for your new religious revival movement is to call everybody snakes and threaten them with an axe?

John the Baptist comes as a real shock to the system for people like me who grew up in the church—particularly the sort of middle-class, suburban, white kind of church where I grew up. Don’t get me wrong, I love the church where I grew up, deeply. But I think as a kid I understood the predominant message of Christianity as, “Be nice.” I can’t even remember how many children’s sermons I heard growing up that basically interpreted whatever the scripture lesson for the day as: “Listen to your parents and be nice to your sister.”

Now, “Be nice” isn’t a bad message, per se. Kindness is always something of an underrated virtue. In an era in which an article from the fake news source The Onion reporting that 42 million people were killed on Black Friday is mistaken for a true story because the reality of Black Friday is so awful, I think this country could probably use a healthy reminder to be nicer to each other (1).

But then there’s John the Baptist. This guy just does not sound very nice. I mean, there’s the “brood of vipers” thing, to begin with. And then there’s all the winnowing and the threshing and the unquenchable fire. So by the end of the passage, when we hear that “with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people,” I think we all feel a bit confused about what, exactly, is good about the news he’s proclaiming.

 John the Baptist’s aggressive demeanor seems particularly jarring in the midst of the season of Advent, which we tend to confuse with a sort of Christmas prequel: same aesthetic, same soundtrack, just laying the groundwork for the main event.


December for many of us is a time for nostalgia and tradition. Christmas is warm and fuzzy. For 29 years I’ve experienced Christmas in Christian religious contexts, and despite all the midnight singing of “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World,” the song that I still most strongly associate with Christmastime is “Keep Christmas With You,” from the Sesame Street Christmas album that my family used to listen to on vinyl:

 “Keep Christmas with you/All through the year
When Christmas is over/Save some Christmas cheer”


If I keep Christmas with me, all through the year—or so the song tells me—then I’ll be a bit more cheerful, a bit more joyful. A bit…nicer. I love that Sesame Street album.

I love childhood memories and my annual viewing of The Muppet Christmas Carol, which stands next to the original Die Hard as the best Christmas movie of all time (2). But Advent isn’t just a prequel to Christmas. Advent, as it turns out, shakes us up a bit. It startles us out of our cultural preconceptions. Rather than a chronological build up to the birth of Christ, the readings for Advent are a bit like traveling backwards in time: from Jesus’ end-of-life predictions, to John the Baptist’s adult preaching, to the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth when John and Jesus are still in the womb. We expect to hear stories about waiting for the baby Jesus. Instead, we hear apocalyptic predictions and the exhortations of wild-eyed prophets.

Of course, in a city that has become a symbol of political polarization, I think many of us have developed a healthy suspicion of apocalyptic predictions and the exhortations of wild-eyed prophets. I remember one week in which I literally participated in a protest at 7th and H St. NW one day and then got annoyed at protesters while getting out of the Metro then next day…in exactly the same spot. We’re used to people yelling in this city. Often with megaphones. We’re a bit tired of people trying to shove their beliefs down our throats. Of strident opinions and self-declared prophets.



I mean, let’s be honest—if most of us heard John the Baptist preaching today, say at 7th and H NW, we’d ignore him, not because our hearts are hardened but because the exact same spot is constantly the site of people yelling at us about everything from homosexuality to conspiracy theories to the evils of Halloween. So I think that if we’re going to get anything out of our Advent encounter with John the Baptist—if, in other words, we’re going to experience Advent as something other than Christmas sentimentalism or as just more partisan yelling—we’re going to need to ask: “What is the good news that John the Baptist is supposedly proclaiming? And what, if anything, does that have to do with us?”

John’s message is about repentance. He tells his listeners to “bear fruits worth of repentance.” In other words, he’s not interested in a nominal commitment or a change of labels. The word for repentance in Greek is metanoia. It’s similar to a word we’re familiar with in English: “metamorphosis,” which is a change in form. Only John doesn’t want a change of form. Metanoia means “a change of mind.” He wants a whole new way of thinking. A new way of being in the world.

A new identity.

John the Baptist is challenging the human tendency to create identity in ways that do not reflect who we are created and called to be. Some of his listeners rely on an ethnic and religious identity to distinguish themselves. To them, John cautions: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.” Others have formed their identities around systems of wealth and power. Roman soldiers who supplement their wages by accepting bribes and extorting money and Jewish tax collectors who not only collaborate with the occupying Romans but who unfairly collect more than they are charged, come to John seeking change.

So John throws them in a river.

Well, it’s deeper than that, no pun intended. John’s baptismal ritual is based on a Jewish tradition, the mikvah, or cleansing bath. And there’s similar rituals in many other traditions as well. The idea of a cleansing bath has an intuitive sort of symbolic meaning. What John is stressing, however, with his talk of fruits and changing minds, is that it’s not enough to just be ritually cleansed for a few days of purity before another cleansing is called for. A whole new identity is needed.

And that’s exactly what we affirm in the Christian sacrament of baptism. In the traditional United Methodist baptismal liturgy, we say that in baptism we are “initiated into Christ’s holy church,” “incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation,” and “given new birth through water and the Spirit.” Notice the language: “Initiated.” “Incorporated.” “Given.” The emphasis is on what God is doing in and through us.

That’s really important, because it’s easy to read John the Baptist’s words and think that repentance is basically about feeling sorry or about behavior modification. It’s not that. It’s the living-into a new identity that God is bringing into shape in our lives.

Fast forward from John the Baptist about 1700 years, to the life of another John, an Anglican priest named John Wesley. Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement that we are the inheritors of here at Crossroads, had a bit of a conundrum when it came to baptism. On the one hand, he was firmly Anglican in his theology, which meant that he believed the sacraments of baptism and communion are signs not of human activity but of what God is doing for us. On the other hand, he was getting awfully tired of hearing his fellow English Christians say, “I’m baptized” as an excuse for not really doing anything to live out their faith. It was the 18th century English equivalent of saying, “We have Abraham as our ancestor” and figuring that was enough. Baptism had come to mean, “I’m off the hook.” Wesley realized that a revival was needed.



So the Wesleyan theology of baptism and communion tries to strike a balance, between God’s gracious activity in our lives and our need to respond. Here’s how the preface to the Baptismal Covenant in the United Methodist Hymnal puts it: “The Baptismal Covenant is God’s word to us, proclaiming our adoption by grace, and our word to God promising our response of faith and love.” In baptism, God’s grace is at work in us, transforming us so that we can live into the new creation that God is bringing about.

Our scripture reading today tells us that John the Baptist “proclaimed the good news to the people.” And I think that a big part of that good news is that God is at work, bringing about the kingdom, bringing about new identity and new community in our midst. John points his listeners to One who is more powerful, One who is coming. And this One will baptize as well, but with the Holy Spirit and with fire. This One will separate wheat from chaff, and burn the chaff. That seems like pretty violent imagery. It’s a bit off-putting. But I was struck, reading this passage in a different translation, that “chaff” means “husks.” The chaff is what’s left over when the fruit of the wheat has been extracted. It’s the shell. The exterior.

And the truth is that, if God is really bringing us into a new identity, that there’s going to have to be some burning away of old, exterior identities. This past week we’ve watched the world grieve the death of Nelson Mandela, and although he is now honored globally as a hero, it’s easy to forget that he was seen as a threat to “the way things were supposed to be.” He was accused of being a terrorist and a communist—in fact, it wasn’t until 2008 that he was officially removed from the U.S. Terrorist Watch List—and he was thrown in jail. For Mandela’s beloved South Africa to live into a vision of freedom, its old identity of apartheid oppression had to be burned away. And so, too, in our lives and in our community, the ways that we establish identity based on power and wealth and violence have to be burned away in order for God to change our hearts, change our minds, and change our identities. The things that divide us have to be challenged.

Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). And in case we think that this sort of challenge to our identity is easy, Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that baptism is like being buried with Christ (Rom 6:3-4). For something new to come into being, sometimes something old has to die. Has to be burned away.

Again, the Methodist baptismal covenant is instructive: in it, we commit, among other things, to “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness” to “accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves,” and to serve Jesus “in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races.” Not exactly light, easy tasks. Not exactly commitments that leave unchallenged the “way things are supposed to be.”

In this Advent season we, like John the Baptist, are called to proclaim good news and to point the way to a new identity in Jesus. This is a challenge, though, because—as I said before—I think we are all a bit tired of people “proclaiming” things in this city. So what I’d like to suggest is this: our proclamation is exactly the way that we—each of us individually, but also all of us, together, as a Christian community—live out our own new identity. It’s not trying to convince people to believe what we believe; it’s how we live and speak as if we are being transformed, as if we are really bearers of good news in a hurting world.

So I’d like to challenge us to reflect some on what it looks like for us to live out our identity as Crossroads, in this Glover Park community and in this incredibly diverse but incredibly divided city of DC. There are some ways that we already do that. Our shelters. Our hunger programs. Our “Stop the Trials” sign. But I wonder: what do the folks out in the park on a Sunday evening in the summer think about us? Have we ever met any of them? What do the people who dance at Good Guys think about us (3)? Do they know that there’s a church here that proclaims that God loves and calls us all, regardless of what society says about us? I want to ask us to recommit to something, during this season and on into the New Year. To be a community that lives out a new identity, of hope and of love and of radical hospitality, not in some disembodied way but right here, in this little chunk of Washington, DC.

I don’t think we know, yet, what that might mean. Maybe it means cancelling services one Sunday and just going out in the park to spend time with people. Maybe it means buying coffee for a random 10 strangers at Starbucks. Maybe it means inviting more people to make sandwiches or make flood buckets for the United Methodist Committee on Relief, to invite people to spend their night serving others instead of being served at the bar. And maybe it also means spending time in bars and coffee shops, talking to people and building new relationships.

But whatever it is, it’s going to embody and proclaim to people that there is something new going on. That there is more to who we are than where we come from or how much we earn. More to who we are than religious and political labels. More to who we are than educational pedigree and good resumes, or the lack thereof. And in this city of shouting and division, in this city of power and status, in this city where a lot of people are quick to declare themselves prophets, I think that news—that there is more to who we are—is some good news for us to proclaim.

--

(1) I shamelessly stole this insight from Rev. Mark Schaefer, the United Methodist chaplain at American University.
(2) This is a topic of hot debate among the AU students that I work with. Even as I post this, we are watching Children of Men, which is Mark's unlikely choice for the top spot.
(3) Good Guys is a local strip club, just down Wisconsin Ave from the church.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Prepare (books and guns)

I'm blogging for Advent, following along with the themes that we're focusing on at Crossroads. I talk more about why I'm doing this in an earlier post. This week's theme is "prepare."

I was a little bit torn about what to write about tonight. I mean, it hasn't been consuming my day or anything. If the analytics on this blog are at all accurate, I could probably write a post called "SEX SEX SEX" and post it on a Saturday evening and it wouldn't get much readership, so it probably doesn't matter much either way.

Anyway. I was going to connect a current and, I think, pretty fun and interesting Facebook trend to the Advent theme for the week. But yesterday another awful shooting happened in yet another school building and I thought maybe I should write about that instead.

But the problem is that I'm not sure I have much to say that hasn't already been said. Others have written very powerfully. And in the past, when things like this have happened, I've written on it. And I'm sort of out of words.

Does it bother you that I said "things like this," like this is a normal thing? Yeah. Bothers me too. Which is sort of what I wrote about when bombs went off in Boston. Which I then talked about in more depth in a sermon I had to preach that week. When the shootings at Sandy Hook happened, I wrote about my association with conversations about mental illness. I preached at Metropolitan back in September and talked about why the Trinity matters in the face of mass shootings. And I suppose I could write a blog about just not having any more words, but goddammit (and I mean that) I've already done that, back when Israel was once again bombing the shit out of Gaza in November 2012.

I am not trying to brag with all of these self-references. I am just trying to say that I am really tired of writing about it, and I think you should be tired of reading about it.

We still need more sensible gun control laws.

We still need more comprehensive treatment and support and less stigma surrounding mental illness.

We still need to question our complicity in systems and structures of violence.

We still need to light candles in the gloom of alienation and isolation.

--

So then what the heck do I write about, since I committed to this Advent writing thing and I already missed a day this week?

And I thought about what I was going to write about at first, the trendy Facebook thing. I'm talking about the one where you name 10 books that have impacted your life, without thinking about it too much or obsessing over which are the "right" books to name.

And I thought about how I find this exercise fascinating because what we read helps us, in many ways, to fashion our understanding of the world. To prepare us--note clever tie-in with Advent theme!!--for the challenges and the joys and the confusion of life.

At first it seemed sort of petty to write about this, after the shooting news. But maybe not, really.

Because the books we read, the literature we immerse ourselves in, don't just prepare us to deal with silly things, but with real life. And as terrible as it is to think about, mass shootings are part of our real life, a point that was driven home when I spent an hour and a half sheltering in place in a church building with a few students and congregation members because of the report of a gunman across the street at American University.

(As an aside: It was a false alarm, someone spotted an off-duty police officers gun. Here's what I posted on fb after it was all over: "Grateful for everybody's safety (turns out it was an off duty police officer, someone saw his holster, got worried, and reported it), and very grateful for the way that the students I work with at the AU United Methodist-Protestant Community handled all of this and just care for each other in general. It's an honor to get to hang out with you.")

Because sharing with each other who we are and what forms us is one little step that we can take to beat back isolation and alienation. 

Because these shootings seem particularly terrifying when they happen in schools, where kids should be reading books, not worried about guns.

And because books train our imagination, and we need every last bit of that to be able to imagine a better world, in which shootings at school are fiction (and maybe elves are real). 

So that's what I've got, on this last day of writing about "prepare." Tomorrow I'll post my sermon on the theme of "proclaim."

Here's my list. Consider yourself "tagged," now, and write your own:
1) The Gospel of Matthew by ::lots of scholarly debate:: (first time I read a book of the Bible straight through--because Karen Thomas Smith told me to!--and it sank in that faith is a story, not a bunch of isolated verses)
2) The Butter Battle Book by Dr. Seuss (still deeply affects my understanding of war; also helped me get a scholarship for college)
3) Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (because high school)
4) Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer (helped me understand not only vocation but also depression)
5) The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon (not only about depression but also meaning and the difference between happiness and joy)
6) The Book of Psalms by ::more scholarly debate ensues:: (because as Athanasius wrote in the 4th century, it holds up a mirror to human experience, and because smack in the middle of our scriptures there is lament and celebration and anger and confusion and life)
7) Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller (I got handed this for free at a Christian event and thought it would be shallow propaganda. Boy was I wrong.)
8 ) The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (because imagination is a beautiful thing)
9) Deep is the Hunger by Howard Thurman (every word that he put to page was so carefully and mindfully chosen. It's breathtaking.)
10) The entire Nancy Drew series ghostwritten by various authors with the pseudonym Carolyn Keene (Anne Hosey always made me listen to Marion Hosey read us these books, and years later all that goofy make-believe has really paid off)

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Prepare (a sermon about waiting and visions)

I'm blogging for Advent, following along with the themes that we're focusing on at Crossroads. I talk more about why I'm doing this in an earlier post. This week's theme is "prepare."

This is a sermon I preached in class on Nov 19 and was supposed to preach at AU on Nov 21. I ended up scrapping it for the AU service because it felt a bit more put together than I was feeling at the time, but same general themes and ideas.

I'm posting it here because I think some of the ideas of waiting and the true meaning of patience connect well with this week's theme of preparing a way for God.\

The text is Habakkuk 1:1-4 and 2:1-4.



"Still a Vision"
This past weekend, 10 of us hopped in the Metropolitan church van and headed to New Jersey to help in the continuing rebuilding efforts after last year’s devastating Superstorm Sandy. We had an incredible time. I could tell you stories about it all night, but here’s one quick one: We were working in the home of a man who lived right across the street from the wall separating Atlantic City from the bay. Our host was really encouraging, and completely hilarious. At one point, he had us all laughing, and he said: “You gotta laugh at this stuff. If you don’t laugh, you cry. And Lord knows I’m tired of crying.”
            Our host has had plenty of reason to cry. His house filled with four feet of water a little more than a year ago when Sandy made its landfall. Bay water, ground water, and sea water formed a toxic mix that rendered much of his house uninhabitable. More than a year later, he’s still rebuilding, and he’s not alone. This weekend we learned that 40,000 people in New Jersey still have been unable to return to their homes in the aftermath of Sandy. And that’s just in New Jersey.
            “O LORD! How long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” Our passage from Habakkuk starts with a cry—a shout! God—how long are you going to let this happen? How long are you going to wait before you act?
This semester that cry has been resonating with me. I mean, I’m exhausted. Here in DC we’ve had government shutdowns and shootings and healthcare snafus. This past few weeks we’ve seen a monstrous typhoon pound the Philippines and killer storms in the Midwest, and our New Jersey team was made aware of just how long it can take to rebuild after natural disasters. Not only that, but we heard how human-made systems exacerbate the effects of disasters—disasters that are, perhaps, not as “natural” as we think of them. It’s worth noting that, two days after the storm subsided, the Atlantic City casinos were open for business, while people crowded into shelters and hotel rooms or returned to survey devastated houses. The economy in Atlantic City relies on these casinos, but the jobs they promise are low wage, low benefit, and low security.
 In Atlantic City a year ago, you could gamble; but you couldn’t live.
“So the law becomes slack,” says Habakkuk, “and justice never prevails.”
            In the Philippines, the destruction of the typhoon itself intensifies the reality of systemic poverty, structural inequalities, and government corruption. And the massive resource extraction projects of transnational corporations have not only threatened the rights of indigenous peoples in the Philippines but have also contributed to global climate change, which in turn has its most disastrous consequences in poor coastal areas and small island nations already struggling with economic inequality.
“How long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you, ‘Violence!’, and you will not save?”
            Of course, maybe you came here tonight, thinking not about hurricanes or typhoons but about the personal storms battering your life. Perhaps you have your own reasons, not of national news interest but nevertheless of vital personal meaning. Depression. Anxiety. Sickness or death in your family. Your own storms that do not simply disappear because you have essays to write and articles to read. Your own reasons for yelling, “How long, God? How long?”
            If, tonight, you have some questions for God—if, tonight, you, too, want to yell “How long?”—if you have ever felt angry or confused or hurt—then you are not alone. Habakkuk, the prophet we heard from tonight, is just one in a whole line of biblical voices—including patriarchs, prophets, psalmists, letter writers, and Jesus Himself—whose faith is deeply connected with lament and complaint. In our worship together and in our prayers to God, anger and doubt are not only allowed—they are necessary. It is with lament and complaint that Habakkuk comes to God, and it is only by challenging God with difficult questions that Habakkuk is able to develop trust in God’s justice and faithfulness. “Why?” and “How long?” are not questions that we need to answer and “get out of the way” in order to go back to believing in God. They are foundational questions for our faith. Honest lament is, I believe, preferable to feigned piety.
            So we heard, tonight, from Habakkuk, who grapples with questions. Who challenges God, and who refuses to quit: “I will stand at my watchpost,” he tells us, “and keep watch to see what God will say to me.” I will stand here and wait.
            And God answers Habakkuk! But if you are anything like me, you don’t find his answer particularly satisfying. “There’s still a vision,” God says. “Wait for it. It will come.”
            All of the suffering that Habakkuk sees. All the violence. All the injustice. And God says:
Wait.
A year after Sandy and you still don’t have housing?
            Wait.
            Two weeks after Typhoon Haiyan and you still don’t have access to drinking water?
            Just wait.
            Centuries of race-based oppression? 
            Just wait.
It’s 2013 and a United Methodist pastor can still be brought up on church trial for presiding at his son’s marriage because his son is gay?
Just wait.
            I can’t help but think of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who wrote a letter while jailed in Birmingham for his campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience. Responding to a group of white clergymen who had criticized the timing of the Birmingham campaign, King wrote: “For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied.”[i]
---
            So is that all that tonight’s scripture has to offer us? Justice delayed? Is that all God has to offer Habakkuk? I think not. I think the text points to something much deeper than that.
            To understand the text, we need some sense of who this Habakkuk character is, and what is happening in his world. Scholars know very little about the person Habakkuk. He is a prophet in Jerusalem, probably associated closely with worship in the temple. His ministry of preaching occurs sometime in the late 7th or early 6th century BCE, when the rise of the Babylonian empire in the East has begun to threaten the safety of his homeland, the kingdom of Judah. It’s a time of great violence and anxiety, and yet many of the residents of Habakkuk’s beloved city of Jerusalem believed themselves to be immune to harm—after all, God was dwelling in their midst, in the great temple.
            But Habakkuk sees through the charade. He sees the injustice and structural violence perpetuated by the elite of his society. He sees the advancing Babylonian armies and knows that the myth of Jerusalem’s impregnability is a lie. In fact, in the section of the text that we skipped over reading tonight, we get a vivid description of the destruction that the Babylonian forces would bring to Jerusalem. And so Habakkuk cries out to God. Cries out in response to the corporate sin of his people. Cries out against God’s unsatisfactory answer:  that the catastrophe of invasion could somehow bring justice. Cries out, I think, in despair. “I will stand at my watchpost,” he says, perhaps evoking the doomed walls of the temple that he has served so faithfully. I will not give up, God. I will keep crying out until you answer.
            God’s response to Habakkuk’s lament seems cryptic. “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and it does not lie.”
God tells Habakkuk to write a vision.
            So what is this vision? What is Habakkuk supposed to write? And what are we to say, in the midst of a world that seems so broken, so wrought with violence and suffering? What is our vision?
---
            I do think we have a vision to hold up. A vision of a God who is still at work, in the midst of all the mess, to redeem a hurting world. And we need to be reminded of that vision, because I think when we walk around this city and we see cracks in the fa├žades of power, when we see our unhoused neighbors shivering on the streets, when we read the news of disasters and when we talk to our friends who are struggling with mental illness and depression and suicide, it is easy to feel despondent. It is hard to imagine a better world, a world in which mercy and justice and faith rule the day instead of cynicism and violence and despair. We have to hold on to a vision. We have to lay claim to a missional imagination that truly believes that God is at work, and that we have a role to play.
            We need a vision because justice and mercy and faith are long-term propositions. American University is often ranked as the most politically active campus in the country. That makes this a really exciting place to be in ministry. I love that there’s always people tabling outside of the Mary Graydon Center. The other day I scored free fair trade coffee and chocolate, learned about domestic violence and what groups on campus are doing to stop it, and bought ice cream to support a school in Honduras. You in the United Methodist Student Association[ii] host interfaith events, plan discussions on creation care, and organize service trips to New Jersey. There is so much important ministry going on here.
            But in the hectic world of Washington, DC—and you know as well as I do that American University often serves as a mirror for that hectic world—burnout is common and anxiety reigns supreme. And so I want to challenge our community to be, not solely standard banners for particular causes, but bearers of a vision. Not to fall victim to the temptations either of apathy or of a cynical sort of strident societal criticism, but ministers of reconciliation who lift up in our collective imagination the hope of a better world. Many of my colleagues complain of burnout, of what we call “compassion fatigue.” If we’re going to participate, in the long term, in God’s healing work in this world, than we need to have a vision, a dream, that can sustain us and keep us focused.
            Earlier I quoted Martin Luther King’s letter from prison: “Justice delayed is justice denied.” But King knew, better than anyone, the need for patient hope. One of King’s mentors, Howard Thurman, the dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University during King’s time there, writes eloquently of the need for patience: “Paradoxical as it seems, patience is an important technique for accomplishing difficult tasks, even in matters having to do with social change….Some things cannot be forced but they must unfold, sending their tendrils deep into the heart of life, gathering strength and power with the unfolding days.”[iii] Thurman continues: “Patience…is only partially concerned with time, with waiting; it includes also the quality of relentlessness, ceaselessness and constancy. It is a mood of deliberate calm that is the distilled result of confidence. One works at the task intensely even as one realizes that to become impatient is to yield the decision to the adversary.”
            For Thurman, in other words, the art of waiting is not passivity. It is active, steady engagement. To be patient, to be persistent, requires us to be grounded in the hope of the living God. It requires us to be alert to the vision of an appointed time, a time of peace and of justice. We need that hope and that vision because, in the words of author Paul Loeb, “the impossible will take a little while.”[iv] One doesn’t need to be theologically trained in order to get this at a gut level. Our New Jersey host, welcoming us into his home, making us meatball subs with his favorite local bread, and keeping us laughing, knew that to be in this for the long-term, you have to find ways of tapping into hope.
---
            Tonight’s passage ends with a verse that is, for congregations and denominations that are in one way or another daughters of the Protestant Reformation, very familiar. Chapter two, verse four, tells us “the righteous live by their faith.” Paul quotes this verse in his letter both to the Romans and to the Galatians, and the anonymous author of the letter to the Hebrews quotes it as well. It has become part of the collective Christian conscious as a reminder that nothing we do can earn us the love of God; that our faith in the grace of God made available to us in the person of Jesus Christ makes the difference in our lives. Yet in its original context, it appears to me that the faith to which God directs Habakkuk is not an individualized intellectual assent to a set of beliefs but is rather trust in a God who is at work, even and perhaps especially in the midst of violence and hopelessness, to bring about a reign of justice and peace.
            For Paul and the author of the Hebrews, “faith” meant faith in Jesus Christ. For Habakkuk, “the righteous live by their faith” would of course have had nothing to do with a man from Nazareth who would not walk the earth for another 600 years. And yet the God who Habakkuk grapples with, the God who he finds at work right smack in the middle of violence and chaos, is, I would argue, the God who Christians meet in Jesus Christ. Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber writes of God at work in the midst of suffering. She says, “God is not distant at the cross…but instead God is there in the messy mascara-streaked middle of it….We want to go to God for answers, but sometimes what we get is God’s presence.”[v] The vision that God wants Habakkuk to write is a vision of a world in which we get God’s presence, right smack in the middle of it. For Habbakuk, it was right smack in the middle of Judean corruption and Babylonian violence. For the early followers of Jesus, it was right smack in the middle of crucifixion and persecution. And we look for that presence, and we proclaim it today, right smack in the middle of hurricanes and typhoons and church trials. That’s the vision. That’s the dream.
            Now, this is a service of healing. I don’t know what struggles or concerns you bring to this place tonight. You might be hurting in mind, or body, or spirit. You might be struggling with depression, or with despair, or simply with stress. But I am lifting up Habakkuk tonight because I think that one thing that needs healing is our ability to vision. The scope and frequency of national and international disasters, the seemingly intractable disputes that paralyze our government, the specters of anxiety and cynicism and mental illness, all conspire to impede our vision, to make it difficult for us to dream. So as much as our bodies and minds are in need of healing, our dreams are in need of healing as well.
             As a community, I think that one of the ways we are called into ministry is as bearers of a vision that can sustain and uphold our life together. Bearers of an imagination of a different sort of world, made possible not because of our hectic efforts but because of the healing work of Christ.
Friends, take that vision with you. Make it plain in the tablets that are your lives. In your friendships. In your studies. Make it plain on the quad, in front of Mary Graydon Center, in TDR and the Tavern and the Berks and the dorms. Make it plain in the places of our collective life where people cry out, “How long?,” and where people are told, “Wait.” Because even in places of lament, even in the storm-shattered lives of the people of Atlantic City and the people of the Philippines and the people of Washington, D.C., there is still a vision. There is still a dream. And that is good news indeed.




[i] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” 16 April 1963. Originally published as “The Negro Is Your Brother, The Atlantic, Vol 212 No 2, 78-88. Available online: http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html
[ii] For more information about the United Methodist Student Association and the American University Methodist-Protestant Community, visit http://www.aumethodists.org/
[iii] Howard Thurman, Deep is the Hunger (Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press, 2000; originally New York: Harper, 1951), 53-54.
[iv] Paul Rogat Loeb, The Impossible Will Take a Little While (New York: Basic Books, 2004).
[v]  Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix (New York: Jericho Books, 2013), 86.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Prepare (busy)

I'm blogging for Advent, following along with the themes that we're focusing on at Crossroads. I talk more about why I'm doing this in an earlier post. This week's theme is "prepare." 

The other day I got to talk to Rev. Karen Thomas Smith, who's the chaplain at the university in Morocco where I studied abroad. I shared with her something that I don't think I've posted about. Recently, I've been making a really conscious effort not to respond with "Busy" when someone asks how I'm doing. I came to the realization that this was my go-to answer. And the thing is that (a) I'm actually not that busy, compared to other people and other times in my life, and (b) I think I was giving that answer because I'm a student and I live in DC and that's what you're supposed to say in order to seem relevant and interesting.

It's not that we aren't busy. It's that we all are pretty busy, and I think sometimes we feel like we all have to prove to each other how busy we are because it somehow justifies us.

And of course, one of the key insights of this Paul guy that we read a lot of in churches is that we can't really do anything to justify ourselves. Not even be really really busy.

Karen shared with me that when she was getting her doctorate, the dean told her she was taking too many classes. "We want our students to have time to pray and play," he said.

How awesome would it be if that were a seminary requirement? Take less classes. Take time to pray and play.

What's this got to do with Advent? Rev. Dottie Yunger, the pastor at Crossroads, was talking Sunday about the text from Isaiah that's quoted in the gospels in reference to John the Baptist: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low." And Dottie shared that, as an environmentalist, her immediate association with that verse is mountaintop removal.



So, not exactly a positive association.

She went on to say that what the passage is speaking about is making a way for God. Not making a way for industrial capitalism or profits for the Koch brothers. Not making highways for earthly kings. And so the way that we prepare a way for God is going to look different than this.

And I guess I just think that if we're always busy and always saying how busy we are, we'll probably be too busy to do any of that preparing. We'll be too busy preparing resumes and to-do lists to do the preparation work required.

The prayer.

The sharing.

The hearing.

The breathing.

I'm addicted to this busy thing as much of any of us. During finals especially, this is all kind of tough to talk about. But I think it's at least a start, to stop saying "busy" and "tired" so automatically, and to occasionally say:

"Today, I am grateful."

"Today, I am sad."

"Praise God from whom all blessings flow."

Alhamdullilah. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Prepare (a psalm for finals)

I'm blogging for Advent, following along with the themes that we're focusing on at Crossroads. I talk more about why I'm doing this in an earlier post. This week's theme is "prepare." 

This week we're focusing on how we prepare a way for God, in our lives and in community. What most people in my immediate vicinity are preparing to do right now, though, is to take finals, so I thought I'd  share an adaptation of Psalm 69 that I passed out to the college students I work with (with apologies to all my wonderful and not-in-the-least-bit sadistic professors. It's a solidarity thing.):

Save me, God, because my finals have reached my neck!
I have sunk into papers up to my waist. My feet can’t touch the bottom!
I have entered deep water;
    and not in the “whoa, man, that’s deep,” sort of way,
    but more like the “I’m totally done with this crap” sort of way.
I am tired of crying. And tired of studying.
My throat is hoarse. My eyes are exhausted.
I’m pretty sure my hands have been shaking for days.

I need to stop drinking coffee.

I can’t stop drinking coffee.

LORD God of heavenly forces!
Don’t let those who hope in you be put to shame just to satisfy our professors’ sadistic tendencies.
God of those who struggle!
Don’t let those who seek you be disgraced by this season of stress.
Let heaven and earth praise God, the quad too, and all that moves within it!
God will most certainly save us,
and will rebuild our bruised psyches,
so that we can live on as God’s servants (and also finally get some sleep).

 --

 Remember: Jesus loves you, not your GPA. Take deep breaths! You can do it!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Look (surprises)

I'm blogging for Advent, following along with the themes that we're focusing on at Crossroads. I talk more about why I'm doing this in an earlier post. This past week's theme was "look." This coming week I'll be writing about "prepare."

So here's how I thought my night last night was going to go:

1) Work on a paper
2) Slip down to a church in Dupont Circle to make a few extra bucks playing Christmas songs with a few emergent-y type folks (Yes. Christmas songs in Advent. I'm a sellout. But they only meet once a month so I grant them absolution.)
3) Return to school to work on a paper

Here's how my night actually went:

1) Work on a paper
2) Slip down to Dupont Circle
3) Meet Enuma Okoro
4) Crack bad joke to her about Methodists not knowing we could drink mulled wine in church
5) Listen to her read from her book of Advent reflections
6) Play a few Christmas songs
7) Return to school and spend quality time sitting with Leigh and Rachel

So...that was cool.

If you don't know Enuma, her writing is beautiful and truthful and certainly worth your time. In person she is, unsurprisingly, genuine and thoughtful and funny. And it was amazing to listen to her talk about Advent surprises while I experienced my own Advent surprise--meeting a favorite author and singing songs and then going to share time with friends.

Earlier in the day, I'd talked on the phone with Karen, my friend and the wonderful interfaith chaplain at the university where I studied in Morocco. And she talked about how important it is to take time to play and pray in the midst of stressful seasons.

I've been writing this past week about looking for signs of God. But sometimes, God sneaks up on me when I'm not looking, and I find myself playing and praying when I thought I'd be making a couple of dollars and then writing a film analysis.

And for that, I am so very, very grateful.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Look (singing)

I'm blogging for Advent, following along with the themes that we're focusing on at Crossroads. I talk more about why I'm doing this in an earlier post. This week's theme is "look."

The students helped pack brown paper lunch bags full of snacks to pass out after worship on Sunday. And we laughed, and they sang.

It's the middle of finals, and we were laughing and singing.

The kingdom of God is among us. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Look (Mandela)

I'm blogging for Advent, following along with the themes that we're focusing on at Crossroads. I talk more about why I'm doing this in an earlier post. This week's theme is "look."

So this week I'm blogging on looking for signs of Christ, for signs of the kingdom, in the midst of strife and tribulation.

Nelson Mandela died today at the age of 95.

Let's not forget that the man whose life is being celebrated around the world today, the man we rightly hail as a hero, was condemned by the powers-that-be as a terrorist and a Communist. Mandela, and the ANC that he lead, were only removed from the U.S. terrorist watch list in 2008.

May his life serve as a reminder that resisting oppression will never be popular with those benefiting from the structures of power.

May we look closely at those who are labeled terrorists, radicals, and disturbers-of-the-peace, and ask ourselves if some of them, in fact, have things to say that we need to hear.

May we look closely at the characters associated with this Advent season--John the Baptist, Mary, and Jesus--and see that they, too, are disturbers-of-the-peace.

And may a good and faithful servant find rest.

Nelson Mandela. Presente.

Read Mandela's statement before his trial for sabotage. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Look (Star Wars crawl)

I'm blogging for Advent, following along with the themes that we're focusing on at Crossroads. I talk more about why I'm doing this in an earlier post.

Today's blog is multi-media and interactive. Press play.

Now, press edit, and learn to love your life again.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Look (outside the church)

I'm blogging for Advent, following along with the themes that we're focusing on at Crossroads. I talk more about why I'm doing this in my last post.

This morning, I went through a psychological evaluation as part of my ordination process in the United Methodist Church.

Then, I drove to Metropolitan Memorial UMC for a staff meeting and a worship planning meeting.

Then, I went to preaching class at Wesley Theological Seminary.

Which means that, for 12 hours of my day, in one way or another, I was absorbed in the work of institutionalized religion.

I find that a bit ironic. Because although the whole institutionalized religion thing is and will continue to be a big part of my life, the gospel texts of the first Sunday of Advent--for all three years of the lectionary cycle--are about God showing up in places decidedly outside of the boundaries of organized religion.

The first Sunday of Advent, churches that use the lectionary texts--from Matthew this year, Mark next year, and Luke the next--don't hear what we expect to talk about this time of year. We don't hear about baby Jesus and a manger. We hear apocalyptic texts, ominous texts, about the "day of the Lord" and the "coming of the Son of Man" and earthquakes and storms.

There are books and books written about interpreting these texts--some insightful, some horrifying--and I could go on and on about them. If you're interested, let me know and we'll chat.

But all I want to say tonight is that in none of these texts does it say, "Go to church and you'll find Jesus." They all say, "Look for Jesus in the storms and the crises and the tumult of the world."

So, while I go about my work and my school, while I go about the work of much-maligned organized religion, I need the reminder of this first week of Advent: that God is at work, not "even" outside of the walls of the church, but "especially" outside of the walls of the church.

Which means I better pick my head up from my work sometimes--from my sermons and meetings and applications--and look.

--

Speaking of storms--folks in the Philippines are still in dire need of assistance. If you want to support good, sustainable relief work, give through the United Methodist Committee on Relief. Since their administrative costs are paid for by Methodist churches all over the world, every dollar you donate goes directly to aid.