Monday, December 7, 2015

Advent with the VA

We have entered an "in sickness" time of our marriage and are working toward new health. Jamie went into the VA early the Monday morning after Christ the King Sunday. My Advent began with what has become my new regular routine, going to work, taking care of the animals, trying to keep the house in order, and visiting Jamie at the VA. He went in because his meds weren't working anymore and his depression and PTSD were getting too hard to handle.He has begun the process of rebirth as we wait for a new birth of the Messiah into our lives and the world.

Jamie has begun an 8 week inpatient program to help him with his struggle. Most nights you can find me at the VA with him, playing cards and talking with the guys. My Advent experience is changed by his journey. And as I sit at the VA, with veterans who are both brave and broken, strong and weak, working through those things which hold them back in the world, I find the call of the Prince of Peace. My soul becomes reckless with the call for peace. The words of the hymn, "Comfort, Comfort Ye My People" ring out in my soul:

"Comfort, comfort ye My people,
Speak ye peace, thus saith our God;
Comfort those who sit in darkness,
Mourning ’neath their sorrow’s load;
Speak ye to Jerusalem
Of the peace that waits for them;
Tell her that her sins I cover,
And her warfare now is over."

And I wonder when our warfare with each other will end. Because you can't leave the VA without feeling 
both profoundly honored to be with those who risked their lives for their country and profoundly 
saddened that many are still at war, not in another country, but in their very beings. Their life paths have 
been forever altered by the actions of our government. They carry new diagnoses and conditions because of 
where they were sent and what they did. And I wonder how we speak peace to the veteran's soul? What is the
best way to comfort these, God's people, mourning 'neath their sorrow's load? When is their warfare over?

The next time those in the government call for war, I invite you into the halls of the VA.
Watch, listen. Ask if we have to go to war or if there is another way.
And hear God's call, "Comfort, Comfort Ye My People."

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Spirit of Pentecost

Sermon Preached at Church of the Incarnation, Atlanta
Ezekiel 37:1-4
Acts 2:1-21
John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

In today’s world, I wonder if Pentecost needs a new interpretation.  It is easy to get swept up in the beautiful imagery, of tongues of fire landing on the disciples’ heads’, of people hearing the Gospel message in their own native language, but I think it gets harder when we try to interpret what it means for us today, how it can change our lives.
            The disciples’ experiences are such a holy mystery to me. They were all together, fifty days after the Passover, after the death and resurrection of Christ, celebrating a small religious festival when suddenly there was the sound of a great violent wind, like a tornado, and it filled their entire house. All of a sudden flames appeared above their heads. They were filled with the Holy Spirit and were speaking languages they had never spoken before in their lives.
            They went outside, and a large crowd gathered around them, Jews from all nations, and the Gospel was shared with them in their own language. I imagine that it was a chaotic scene, each disciple speaking at the same time, yet every person in the crowd heard their own language, and heard the message that was being shared. It was a prophetic moment. It was a moment when the Spirit broke into human existence, human life, and shared the truth of this world that is truer than our existence. It spoke of the existence of the mysterious triune God and the Christ who was both scandalously human and divine.
            Can you imagine if that were to happen today? Can you imagine if this entire building was suddenly filled with the sound of gale force winds, flames danced upon everyone’s heads, and everybody began speaking the multitude of languages found in Atlanta? What would you say? What would you think? I can’t fault the people who thought the disciples were drunk. There would be no earthly explanation for what was happening.
            This radical demonstration of the Holy Spirit would change the world as we knew it. It certainly changed the world in the disciples’ time. Yet we would be at fault if we did not think that displays of the Holy Spirit do not happen today. What once came with wind and flame to the apostles has been passed onto us as children of God. This is the Spirit of truth, of prophecy. It has the power to completely reconfigure our lives. When we feel like we are a pile of dry bones, it can speak sinews and flesh into our lives. It can call out “Live!” and bring us life. It is the Spirit that can take fishermen from Galilee and change the course of human history. It is the Spirit that took a persecutor and turned him into the greatest evangelist the world has ever known. It is the Spirit that called out to the saints, turning ordinary humans into extraordinary examples of faithful living.
            This is the Spirit that calls to us today. The Spirit that calls us to prophesy. It calls us to listen to what God is saying to our lives, listening in our hearts to the voice of the divine. It calls us to a relationship so deep that it completely changes who we are and transforms our community. It changes how we see the world, not as a world that can be explained solely through scientific fact, through economics and human nature, but as a world that is wholly God’s, something made by God to flourish and live. It calls us to declare that because God cared so much to send a Messiah, we must care so much that we dare to see the call of this Messiah in every living being. It invites us to see visions and dream dreams of a new and better world, a heavenly kingdom, a New Jerusalem. It challenges a world that sees others as less than, seeking rather to respect the dignity of every human being. We are called to come out of the selfish nature of our lives into the selfless nature of Christ, not by lowering self-esteem, but by building us up into holy people, people who can speak the truth of God’s love into the world. We are called not just to be good people, but to be holy people, people who live in deep relationship with the divine, who can feel the tongues of flame upon our own heads.
            So who are you called to speak to? What are you called to in your own life? What is this community called to be? These are the questions the Spirit leads us into. They are answered in visions and dreams and longings for something new. The desire for difference, for change and growth, is the beginning of what can become the rushing winds of our own lives. It can lead us into greater study, greater prayer, greater visions and dreams. Slowly our dry bones can grow flesh as we find our relationship linked to this amazing Spirit. We can find it within prayer and prophecy, silence and deep conversation. As we begin to dream and vision what we are called to do and be, we can feel the Spirit rush in, speaking life into our flesh and lives. We can go out in confidence knowing that the Spirit has called us and is leading the way. It is leading us to inhabit those things that have been our deepest longings.
This Spirit comes today to completely change the history of the world. It comes to us, not in wind and fire, but bread and wine. It comes in and radically alters simple food into something holy. It comes to nourish and sustain us, to lead us in the way that is truth and life. Let it come and bring a vision into your being. Let yourself be taken over, allowing yourself to be transformed week after week, Eucharist after Eucharist, by these Spirit infused elements into a person, into a community that is fully alive, in tune with the divine, living out your call in this world. Let us come to the table today seeking this Spirit given to us at Pentecost.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Searching for Easter in Baltimore and Nepal

Two major events have occurred almost simultaneously over the past week. Thousands have been injured or died in Nepal as the result of earthquakes and in Baltimore, thousands have risen in protest against a police force that can take a black man into custody and then mysteriously sever his spine and cause his death. In the midst of questions surrounding the senseless deaths of people of color, one can only wonder where Christ is in the midst of all this.

These events can only be seen as crucifixion events, Good Fridays, in my mind. This does not make the victims Christ, but rather is a recognition that Christ is in these events alongside those who suffer, suffering with them. When Freddie Gray died, when countless other individuals died under suspicious circumstances at the hands of the authorities that were supposed to protect them, Christ was alongside them, crucified. When natural disaster occur and death tolls rise, Christ is alongside them, crucified.

But we know that crucifixion does not have the last say. We know that after the destruction and the horror, after the senseless death and betrayal of trust, after the crucifixion and death of even a Savior, life can be reborn. Resurrection can come. Things can be made new.

But what does that look like? How can we find it in the events of this week? What does it mean to believe in the power of Easter today?

I believe it means learning how to mourn and grieve as a worldwide community. It means mourning humans who were lost when structures collapsed. These structures are both literal buildings and structures of government that were supposed to protect and serve. It means allowing a space for profound grieving, a space where we can feel the full weight of loss. We often want to leave Good Friday and dive directly into Easter, but we all need space for mourning and grief. Jesus didn't rise the next day, and we need not jump immediately to rebuilding and renewal. Sometimes we just need time to cry. Funerals and protests, burials and responses to loss are part of what it means to be an Easter people.

I believe it means looking through and beyond looting and riots. It means looking at the underlying reasons for protest and working for just resolution. It means rebuilding structures in a way that provides strength against the forces of nature and providing aid to those who feel the deepest loss.  Governments can change. Accountability can happen. Nations can be strengthened. Grief can be transformed into renewal of spirit. It is not easy. In fact, it's completely unnatural. Without God, without a Savior that has overcome death, we could never overcome these losses. But we have a force that is stronger than anything that the world could throw its way. It is the force of divine love working to transform all things, a force that can face death and resurrect life.

As we mourn, as we protest, let us also lift up our voices to the God who has resurrection power. For through God, our Good Fridays can become Easters.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

To those who say, "I don't really trust organized religion. It's done a lot of bad things"

Last night I heard this phrase again. "I don't really trust organized religion. It's done a lot of bad things." And I listened to a clergy person talk about fundamentalism, which while relevant to the issue, didn't really address it. Because it wasn't just fundamentalism that this person was critiquing.  This person was addressing religion as a universal concept. And the comment didn't come from someone who had a lot of personal experience with fundamentalist traditions, this came from somebody raised Episcopalian.

This comment is similar to many comments that I've heard recently, critiques of religion and more specifically of the Church, as many who I hear this from are nominal or former Christians or have mostly interacted with Christians. If you are one of these people, this letter is for you.

Dear Person who feels the pain of religious institutions,

I get it. I really do. People have hurt many in the name of religion. There were the crusades, holy wars, bickering, and battles all done over religious matters. And now today we have groups of terrorists claiming a form of Islam as their reason for destruction. In the United States, people are dying from religion in subtler ways. Children are being kicked out of religious homes for being LGBTQ. Several teenagers have recently committed suicide because their parents refused to believe that God makes some people transgender. People have died and are dying because of religious matters and organized religion.

I can't sugar coat what has happened or what is happening and I can't make it all feel okay. There is pain around the edges of every religious tradition, organization, and institution. I feel it, I see it. I know that not everything's okay.

But I have seen the power for good that comes from organized religion. I have seen groups mobilize to save lives, I have seen the hungry fed and the naked clothed. I have witnessed transformations that are remarkable. Most of them aren't big and flashy, they don't often make the headline news, though sometimes they do. But most importantly they happen. Look around you.  Look at what the institutions in your town or city are doing for those around them. It may not be much, but it's happening. When those small efforts are combined with other people's efforts, amazing things happen. Many religious people are absolutely committed to changing the world, one person, one social issue at a time. Sometimes they are Martin Luther King Jr. and sometimes they are Joy, who works at a clothing closet for the homeless. They work diligently, insisting on affirming the dignity of every human life.

With the ability to do great good comes the ability to do great evil. You see both in any organized religion. When evil things happen they can be incredibly painful. When good things happen, there is truly hope for the reformation of the world. People begin to be able to open their imaginations to all the possibilities of what the world could look like. There is inspiration that can only be divinely given. Lives are given over to divinity that is greater than anything imaginable and people begin to work to transform this world from the inside out.

Institutional and organized religion help people imagine and live out a divinely given communal identity. They are grand experiments, workshops for people to learn how to frame their lives around the identity the divine calls us to. Sometimes the people in these experimental communities falter. Sometimes these communities wrap around ideas that close them off from people they are called to care for. Sometimes they work.  Enough of these communities have transformed enough lives that they continue to flourish and crop up in new places and have done so for thousands of years. There is something in these traditions and organized religions that make them important and valuable for those who practice them. These things have not changed generation after generation.

The organized religion that I practice, Christianity, is a deep part of who I am as a person. I am learning how to live in a way that is community focused, self giving, and yet full of life. It shapes how I act and how I think. It is a deep part of my identity as a person. I know I do not need to be a Christian in order to be a good person, and I am not Christian because I think it will give me an advantage in the afterlife.  What Christianity offers that keeps me going week after week is a relationship with God, who is both relational and wholly other. This is a God who became human so that we might be closer to the divine.  This is a God who sees all the faults of the world, all our problems, all the pain, and yet still calls humanity good and seeks to help us become the people we are meant to be. This is a God who triumphs over death and seeks to love those who cause the deepest pains. I would be willing to die for God because God was willing to die for me.

I am a part of the experimental community called the Church. This has taught me about my identity, cultivated it within me, and communally comes together to support each other as we try to live out this identity. The Church is a community that not only seeks to learn about God, but to learn how we are to be in relationship with one another as Christians and with the rest of the world. We are learning how to shape our relational lives together in a way that mirrors how God relates to us. We ask God to help us not fail in our tasks to live as Christian communities. And some communities fail miserably. Sometimes communities wound. But some communities really do come closer to the heart of the Christian faith and the areas around them are transformed. The divine begins to touch all of the humanity in those regions and affirms that they are indeed God's own creation, beloved and good.

I affirm that a lot of bad has been done in the name of religion, but I also invite you to also look into all the good that has been done in the name of religion. I also invite you to be open to those whose lives have been transformed by their faith. You don't have to follow their religion, but allow yourself to be inspired by their faith journeys. Some of them are truly incredible. Organized religion has done a lot of bad things, but it has also done a lot of good. I hope you are able to open yourself up to see that balance.

Thank you for your critical eye, for not taking things at face value. Thank you for questioning motives and holding religious people accountable for their actions. I appreciate your sentiments and I respect them.


Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Wilderness: Sermon from the First Sunday of Lent 2/22/15

Delivered at Church of Our Saviour, Atlanta GA

First Sunday in Lent 2/22/15

Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-9
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15
The Great Litany BCP p.148

Jesus came down from his home in Nazareth to the banks of the Jordan River. He descended down toward the banks, searching for the man named John who was baptizing there. John had been waiting for the one who was greater than him. He baptized with water alone, a baptism of repentance, but he knew there was one who would come after him, and that person would baptize with the Holy Spirit.  Jesus came to John in the wilderness by the water’s edge. He waded into the water with John, and John quickly immersed Jesus in the water. There was a crowd of John’s followers watching him, waiting to greet the newly baptized and teach him about John’s ways.  But just as Jesus was coming out of the water the sky tore apart.  There was a bright vision of what appeared to be a dove, gliding down from the sky and resting on Jesus.  John and his followers knew that this was the Spirit.  Jesus was the one who was greater than John.  He had the Spirit, which he could give to others. But before John and his disciples could speak with Jesus, he went off into the wilderness. The Spirit had cast him into it.

Jesus wandered in the hot desert for forty days. There was little water and little shelter from the heat.  This was a dangerous place, and Jesus had to protect himself from the wild beasts that resided there. Venomous snakes and scorpions could attack his heels. Wild dogs and jackals could strike in the night. He was alone in the sandy terrain, exposed to all. Then Satan came and began to tempt him. All the things of the earth could be his.  He could be a king, a ruler of the earth, with power over all.  Satan could make him rich and popular. Wasn’t that all a man could dream of? But Jesus had a different dream, a different call; one that would make him poor and despised but was also the will of God.  It was a call to proclaim repentance and the kingdom of God.

As he resisted the urging of Satan, angels came down and watched over him. The wild beasts did not attack him, nor did he die of thirst.  He was protected. For while the wilderness was a place of danger, it was also a place where God had protected God’s children.  When the Israelites escaped the bondage of Egypt, God had led them in the wilderness in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.  When the Israelites were hungry in the wilderness, God had provided them manna from the clouds. When they were thirsty, the rocks were filled with water.  The wilderness was where God first came to dwell with the Israelites, asking them to build a tabernacle, a tent where God could dwell among them. God had never been closer to them than when they were in the wilderness. While the people of Israel struggled and fought with God, God remained steadfast beside them, leading them slowly and surely to the Promised Land.

And so, Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit, not just to be tempted, but to come closer to the one who had provided in the wilderness. Yes, Jesus was fully divine, but he was also fully human, and he searched for that thin spot where he could find the closest connection to the divinity while in his humanity. This was the wilderness, the place where despite the struggles and because of the struggles, God’s presence was near. And just as his ancestors had spent forty years in the wilderness, learning from God and learning about the struggle to follow God, Jesus spent forty days dwelling with God, learning to resist the tempter. It was a time of struggle and a time of growth.  

And after he had dwelt in the desert for forty days, Jesus came out of the desert and went back to Galilee. He was ready to begin his ministry, having communed with the divine and learned the ways to resist temptation and the forces of evil.  He spoke his message clearly and boldly, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."

And now we have come to our own time in the wilderness. For forty days we are called to resist those things that tempt us and look for God who is near in the wilderness. God is near to us today, as close as the very bread we eat and the very wine we drink.  But there are still dangers in going into the wilderness with God.  There are those that can attack us, harm us, or destroy us.  One needs to look no further than Syria to find those who have given their very lives for this faith.  In the wilderness, we may be called to places we don’t really want to go, or to things we would rather not do.  We are tempted to remain where we are comfortable. But God is calling us into the wilderness to resist temptation and to live anew. 

What is it that God is calling you to in this season in the wilderness? Where do you feel the stirring of the Spirit calling you to consider a new way of being? Do you need to repent of unhealthy patterns of living, of apathy, of broken relationships? Do you try to hold onto too much and do not give things over to God? What is it that you want the good Lord to deliver you from?

In this time in the wilderness, open yourself up to the struggle that comes from being in the wilderness. Allow yourself to be real and honest with God. Seek help if you need it. God is calling us into something new. There will be a new ministry and a new birth on Easter morning, but first we need to live into the wilderness and seek the thin spaces between God and us.

This Lenten season, we will be praying the Great Litany to begin our time of worship together. This is a prayer that seeks to bring God into every corner of our lives. We ask God to spare us from all the sinful things that we do and all the fearful things we encounter. We then ask that God might forgive us, strengthen us, and have mercy upon us. In the petitions and requests, I encourage you to find yourself in that great prayer.  In the repetitions of our replies, I encourage you to lift your own petitions up to God.  And in the silence before the reception of communion, I encourage you to ask God into those situations and bring you new life. In your daily life, I encourage you to seek a richer and fuller prayer life. Try new ways of speaking with God. See how God is answering you.

I also encourage you to make a confession if you have not done so before.  It is scary to voice all that you have done to a priest, and you can go to another priest if you would feel more comfortable, but there is something in sharing your sins and receiving forgiveness that is invaluable. It is a time when you can truly be honest and humble before God and seek advice to address your greatest needs. Weights have come off shoulders in the rite of reconciliation. Wounds have been healed. Miracles happen in the confidential confines of confession.

In this season, seek the closeness of God in the wilderness, knowing that struggle does not mean that you have been abandoned, and temptation need not be fulfilled.  And in all things, seek Christ, the bringer of the kingdom of God. Repent, and believe in the good news.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Contemplative Silence or Contemplative Words?

We started our Church Administration and Leadership class by reading Henri Nouwen's book In the Name of Jesus.  In this work he reflects on his life of Christian leadership and talks about the temptations of Christian leadership.  The first temptation he points to is the temptation of relevance, of wanting to be seen as somebody special instead of being somebody after God's own heart. His suggestion for countering that temptation was contemplative prayer. I think he's right about that. I also think that means I have a lot of work to do.
I keep on thinking that I should be more into silent meditation.  I know several different contemplative prayer practices, but I keep coming back to the practice of sitting in silence and I get frustrated at how much I suck at it.  I am so heady and wordy.  I create dialogues in my head and had begun this blog post three times in my mind before it ever got onto paper. That is how I operate in the world. I create my own commentary.  So when I try to focus on one word, try to clear my mind of other thoughts, I struggle. I either fall asleep or just feel uncomfortable. But how can I wait on God when I can't release myself from inner commentary? This is what I struggle with.
I know other practices that work better for me. Repeating prayers and listening to familiar music are ways I can simply be. Journaling and blogging are ways for me to release the commentary and see if God might actually be leading me in my thoughts. But I worry about being heady.  I think we all worry about finding that line between what is God's will and what is my will.  What are God's thoughts and what are mine? Am I actually listening to God at all or am I just doing my own thing? And that is why I want to be able to sit in silence. I want to be able to clear my mind and just sit. While I know there are other methods of contemplative prayer that come more naturally, I guess I have a bias towards silent meditation. It feels more "authentic" than staring out the window on the bus purposely listening to music that is so familiar, I don't even really hear it anymore.
My professor kind of glossed over contemplative prayer, saying we need to do the kind of prayer where we just listen to God, but I wish he had said more. My husband has devoted his life to contemplative prayer, I've taken classes in it, and I still don't quite get it. I don't know what does or doesn't count.  I worry that I don't pray enough or I don't pray the right way. I wish that I could be confident in my prayer life.  But my prayer life looks an awful lot like a person listening to music on a bus. I fear this doesn't really count.
The other day as I was coming back from class, worrying about contemplative prayer, I realized I was sitting on the other side of the bus from where I usually sit. And through the window I could see businesses on the other street over, a street I had never been to before. I saw things I had never seen in nearly two years of taking the same bus to school. And my commentary began. I thought, "Maybe contemplative prayer is simply about being receptive. Maybe it is waiting and being open to glimpses of the unseen. A lot of the time nothing happens, but sometimes you get a glimpse of God, and maybe that is what it is all about."
For now, I am not sure sitting in silence would really work for me. I need stimuli that put me into a prayerful state, and right now, those things are all filled with words. Not just one word, but many words. Words about God and for God. Words that come from my heart and other people's hearts. Familiar words. In this sea of words, I find myself able to move in and out of inner dialogue, able to sit with God without feeling uncomfortable or intimidated by the process. And maybe that is enough for now. Later I can work on the silence, but maybe right now I really need the words.
I live with the same fears I had as a child. When I was young, I told my mother that I was bad at praying because I couldn't keep my eyes closed. She revealed to me that many people pray with their eyes open. I fear that I cannot pray in the silence. Maybe it is okay to pray with the words.