On Monday, November 4th, I celebrated the 7th anniversary of my ordination.
Seven years ago this week, I stood at the front of a church-- Calvary Baptist Church in Washington DC and said to the congregation gathered of family, friends and congregation members that I would serve God in my vocational pursuits. I said I would set aside personal interests for the sake of the community of Christ. I said I would seek to embody, teach and share the gospel with my life. I said I would do all of this for as long as I lived.
After the service, we gathered in the church social hall and ate sausage balls and cheese dip among my other favorite snacks made by my future mother-in-law. There was a cake with a picture of me preaching with a huge, "Congratulations, Pastor Evans!" on it.
A big day all around.
The night before the service, I sat upright the in bed lounging with my closest girlfriends who came into town for the celebration (Baptist ordained pastors as well) trying not to be so anxious.
Over a bag of chips on top of the brand new white comforter I finally had the money to buy in my first post-seminary job, I recounted to them my deepest fear about the hours to come.
It wasn't about the music going awry.
It wasn't about the having to kneel for so long at the front of the church without my legs falling asleep as people prayed prayers of blessing over me.
It wasn't whether or not I'd be able to pray the benediction as I'd planned to say without being too emotional.
No, it was a cry of: "I don't want my life to be over."
I was having pre-ordination jitters; the kind where I really knew that this moment in my life was a really big deal.
And even as my pastoral support girlfriend team sought to calm me down saying that my life wasn't really over. They said things like, "You'll still have fun. . . We'll make sure of that. Being ordained doesn't make you any less human." There was part of me that felt the weight of the shift.
It was like I was getting married to God. I had one last night of freedom.
I ate more chips.
And though I had done everything I could to finally make it to this day-- the improbable feet as a Baptist woman in ministry getting a Reverend in front of her name-- when I stood in front of the altar on November 4, 2006, the relationship of God and I being in an more intense partnership was never exactly what I envisioned it to be.
This would be no easy marriage.
Though I'd grown up with a pastor for a father and knew all the social expectations that came with the title, to be the Rev myself was entirely new. Because all of the sudden the expectations didn't just come with my family name but it was what I'd chosen.
I'd chosen to be the one who would be asked to publicly pray more than the norm.
I'd chosen to be the one who would be asked to stand the gravesides of the grieving, the bedsides of the sick and on the doorsteps of the bewildered seekers.
I'd chosen to be "on call" 24-7 when pastoral emergencies arose in a congregation.
I'd chosen that when the day came that I was legally married to a man that he'd be the kind of man that also supported the marriage I'd been pursuing long before we'd ever met.
But as is with most marriages, as it was with my ordination, it was not a one-sided deal.
God long before had chosen me.
Not that I was more special or "called" than others with different kinds of work, but that this was my path to walk with God.
And in many ways my "fear" was indeed right on-- my life as it was before 11/4/06 was over.
In this new relationship that God and I would share together, greater discipline and sensitivity to the Spirit would be required.
No longer could I ever assume that my faith was for my own edification alone, but was for the blessing of my community.
No longer could I act as though I didn't need community, for as much as they needed me, I needed them.
No long could I live in such a way that forgot the day that God and I got married-- for if their ever came a time when I felt like a new vocational path was given to me-- I'd need to release this marriage in a public way just as it was given to me.
Being married is a long-term commitment.
Seven years ago it all began. Together God and I are still on this journey.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this series coming soon . . . Seven years later.
I was taught in seminary that the most virtuous thing you can do for your whole life is to serve the church with an undivided heart. "The church needs you!" my classmates and I were told over and over again.
Sometimes our instructions included more details like this: “Take care of the church like nothing else matters. Live in the community where you serve, join every local board you can, and know your neighbors. Those who give their whole life to the church will not be disappointed."
And I tried. I really tried to become the best local church pastor I could be. I attended neighborhood meetings. I sat at the bed of the sick. I climbed into the pulpit week after week. And for a while it was my calling.
I wanted to fit into the one-size fits all church box forever. I wanted to come back to my 30-year Duke Divinity School reunion and tell stories about the pastoral life just like I'd heard out of my beloved professor, Dr. William Quick.
But after six years in full-time church ministry I found that I could not-- even as much as my heart really wanted to. My time was up.
Walking away from what I once felt was my dream job (as a solo pastor in the Baptist tradition) last Christmas became one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make.
I heard recently that when newcomers ask the church I formerly pastored why I left they say that "She become a writer." While I’m flattered with being identified as a writer (and I love writing), this is not quite it.
Furthermore, the change had nothing to do with the lack of joy in little congregation as they were great people. Nor was it all about my husband’s job in another state. Or even about the grant I received from the Louisville Institute to write a book, though these reasons seemed like legitimate ones on the surface.
No, I left local church ministry last year because I was finally ready to say yes to a calling. I was ready to be a nobody (if that is what folks thought of me) in order to be the somebody that I really am.
Right now, I am following that calling (though the "what do you do?" questions at parties now are harder to answer).
In the world from which I came both as a child of a pastor and also of a local church pastor making seminary-- to leave the church for something else felt to me like treason.
But in the past several years, I come to believe that being a whole person is much more important than a respectable career even if you have to feel like an outcast upon leaving. I took some cues from Barbara Brown Taylor here.
And for me to be a whole person, this is what I know:
I am not made for a job or type of job that lasts me my entire career.
I am not made to immerse myself into a particular local church community for a long time.
I am not made to just do one thing all the time or even just one thing at once.
I am not made for denominational life or ministry that values institution building over freedom of the Spirit.
Yet, with all of this said, I am made however for bolts of energy into new projects that need a leader.
I am made for community building with the global church.
I am made to multi-task my way through a variety of vocational pursuits that often on the surface seem like they have nothing to do with each other, but actually do!
I am made to speak the truth about systems that are broken.
And in all of this, I still feel ordained. I've not stopped being Rev. Hagan. I still feel like I’m in ministry.
I’m a writer sometimes.
I find myself in pastoral care conversation sometimes.
I’m a preacher sometimes.
I’m a strategist for creating community both in person and online sometimes.
I’m an administrator sometimes.
I do the laundry all the time. And I make dinner most of the time.
I'm thankful for the chance to do all of this "outside the church" but never too far from its larger mission.
And it fits. It really fits. The restless whispers of my heart have stopped yelling at me. I'm finally at home.
I feel settled even as pace of our current travels and activities make my family’s head spin when I inform them what I'm up to.
In this non-traditional life, I am happy. Truly I am.
I love supporting the communications department of Feed The Children. I love writing in a variety of different venues. I love having quality time for friends. I love traveling alongside my husband. I love preaching in settings (like next week in Hawaii!) that a local church schedule would normally not allow. I love that I have the freedom to find God both in and outside the church walls on Sunday morning-- depending on the week.
Lesson learned: when the whispers come, listen. I’m so glad I did. I hope I have the courage listen sooner next time. It’s ok to be different. Actually it is really wonderful even if some of my friends in the church don't understand.
Who doesn't like to fast forward?
I think one of the greatest inventions in television is the DVR box that comes with most standard cable subscriptions for an extra $10 or so a month.
With it, no longer do you have to watch commercials you don't like, or any commercials for that matter.
You don't even have to be at home to watch your favorite shows, as long as they are set to record.
And best of all, the days of spousal fights over who controls the remote are over. With the gift of the record feature, both you and your partner can watch what you want-- just maybe not at the same time.
But before I sound too much like an ad for a cable company, hang with me-- a point is coming.
Not only do so many of us have DVR or other recording devices boxes in our homes, but I think there is something about the fast forward feature that has taken over more than just our television remote controls. We live in a world-- in our place of privilege in a country like America-- where we get the luxury to fast forward through parts of our lives that we don't like.
Some parts of life are easy to fast forward through if we just apply ourselves.
Calling ahead for seating at restaurants to avoid the wait at the door.
Filing our taxes online to avoid the wait on April 15th at the post office.
Earning miles or signing up for reward programs with airlines to avoid the wait in the security lines.
Other parts are more difficult.
Sir, we've found a spot of cancer in your lungs.
Miss, we think your child is going to have to repeat the 3rd grade.
No, dear, I just don't think we're ever going to get married.
But regardless of the circumstances rarely do we ever want to sit with annoyance, traffic jams, or life altering news longer than we have to. We have to get on to the next thing. We are ready to get on to the next thing. We want the fast forward button to help us. Sometimes we eat too much, drink too much or sleep too much in an attempt to get there faster.
I think this is the same way that most Christians feel about Holy Week. We want the fast forward feature. Where is it?
We've just experienced the highs of "Hosanna! Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!" from Palm Sunday. And if we go to worship on Easter we'll be asked to exclaim, "Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed! hallelujah!" Happy stuff, right?
But what about Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday in between?
Though I'd very much like to fast forward through the hard stuff of holy week: taunting, betrayal, hopelessness, pain, suffering and abandonment, I don't think as Christians that we can. Our story is as much about the hard stuff as it is the joy. And so, this week:
We are asked to sit with Jesus in the upper room when Judas betrays Jesus for some silver coins.
We are asked to stand with Jesus as Peter deigns that he knows Jesus three times.
We are asked with Jesus as he takes the cross to Calvary-- to die upon a trash heap for criminals.
We are asked to observe the pain in Jesus as he cries out to God, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
We are asked to wait with the sobbing women on Saturday as their Lord has died and they have no clue what to do next.
Intense, right? Yet, we can't just fast forward through this emotional journey. We must set aside holy time to live it. There's so much to take in as we go one step at a time.
I hear it from clergy all the time: it's hard to worship when you are leading others.
One of the joys of my Sabbatical time so far has been the opportunity to visit to other churches and consider again what church means to me as a participating worshipper.
But learning how to be a worshipper is harder than it might seem.
On this past Sunday morning I found myself at a big steeple church with a friend in my hometown in Tennessee. It was her home church and for this reason I was glad to go alongside.
But, when we pulled up to the congregation sometimes known in the community as "fortress," I was a little afraid.
And rightfully so. I was back in church compound land. Such a big model of doing ministry is not what I believe the church is nor is how I've I practiced it in years.
Was I going to have to make small church talk with strangers around the coffee pot before church? Was I going to have to sit in a classroom circle staring at other well-dressed folks who appeared to be more excited about study than they actually were? Was I going to want to pull my hair out at the fluffy theology coming forth from the lips of leaders? None of these are my favorite things, as you might imagine.
Furthermore, fear came up in me because I'm not a fan of churches without a lot of racial diversity. (We need our churches to LOOK like the Body of Christ.) I'm not a fan of churches that don't include voices of the poor (I mean, what is a good service without a distraction from a homeless person coming in?). And, I know a church is not for me if the American and Christian flag are proudly displayed in the sanctuary (Can I say idolatry of nationalism has no place in God's house?). Most of all, I want to know that when a church says, "We welcome all" they really mean it. I want to know that a church's doctrine doesn't hurt people.
But, then we arrived. Ready or not, I went.
Getting out of our car, I gazed up at a large dark stoned building that takes up several blocks in the neighborhood. It almost felt like something out of one of the Harry Potter movies as I walked through wood carved archways inside to get take a flight of stairs down to a well-kept Sunday School classroom. Asking questions on the way in, I learned that the membership is mostly made up of those who would be named as upper middle to upper class folks-- at least 2,000 in worship on Sunday. And most of it members are white-- even though some of the young families have adopted church from other countries. And there is one paid African-American soloist in the choir. Need I say more?
I could have easily spent the next two hours rolling my eyes and thinking "better than" thoughts in my head.
But, I have to confess-- I was wonderfully surprised.
Walking into Sunday School-- a room filled with well-dressed, well-to-do looking folks, about 20 of them in all, with a woman in a black sweater, red beaded necklace, pencil length grey skirt, and black boots standing behind a pulpit on a desk, I found an open mind. We sat in rows not a circle. And then, what came forth from this teacher's mouth was well-prepared, engaging truth from the Word.
I almost had tears well up in my eyes at several points as we discussed the passage from John 5 about the man whom Jesus asked, "Do you want to get well?" (Have there been spaces in my life the past six years when someone has taught me on a regular basis? No. Man, this has got to change, I thought. ) As I continued to listen, the teacher read commentaries from some of my favorite Biblical scholars, one in which I'd even known in seminary. The class members shared a richer theological discussed than I'd experienced in such a church in years. I found myself saying in the midst of the discussion, "I guess this is why people actually come to church-- they're hungry too to learn about their relationship with Christ." Because I did. I left refreshed.
Later in the service of worship, though the number of white faces were many and the flags hung beside the steps up to the altar, I tried again to not be so snobby. And, tears found me again. We sang robustly the great hymns of faith with the kind of full voices only a full sanctuary with pipe organ can. I found beauty in the liturgy of the prayers. The choir proclaimed a sacred piece that stilled any unsettling in me. The preacher, though an older white man, read and proclaimed the Word with jewels of encouragement. And, throughout the service, I felt the warmth of those around me-- many of whom I'd met before while visiting once before-- folks who remembered me, asked genuine questions, and talked to me about their prayer life.
I left with a conviction of my heart. One I'd been thinking about for a long while-- we've got to be less judgmental of each other in the Church. Pastors like me need to stop being church snobs. The Spirit of the Lord is not always in the places we expect. God's presence is in all black churches and all white churches and rich churches and poor churches. Church doesn't always have to be just the way we like it for worship to happen. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
I know this again full well.
Does the church still need prophets? Does the church need voiced raised that say, "Stop building altars to yourself and start serving?" Does the church need radical changes in its institutional life so that it can look more like the radical message of Jesus? Does the church need more integration and more theologically sound teachers? Sure it does. It really, really really it does.
But, in the meantime, can the church be the place where God's presence dwells, where lives are transformed and where individual faith can be nourished? To all of this, I say yes.
I confess, I've been judgmental a long time. This Sabbatical time is asking this ugliness in me to change. And, most of all this Sabbath is asking me to worship from the pews. And most of all to listen.
Dear Washington Plaza Church family-
I needed to write you one more letter. I love you. I don't just say that lightly. I really do love you.
It has become abundantly clear to me again this week that goodbyes are always hard. But they're especially hard when you're parting as we are, having loved each other well for several years now. I've believed in you (and still do) from the first moment I met your pastoral search committee in that office in Reston Interfaith. I knew that if the rest of the church was as awesome as the search comittee then we were going to have a lot of fun. And, fun we've had! Over these years, I have always wanted to brag about you to my friends-- telling them that in Washington Plaza I found the church I dreamed to be a part of as pastor in seminary.
I love how you blessed me over four years ago now when you saw a 28 year old female with no solo pastoring experience and called me with an unanimous vote to be your preacher on the plaza. I love that you saw in me what I most felt true about myself-- that I was a pastor and that God had made me for a time to be your pastor. I love how you've followed my lead, taken chances with me to try new things and asked really good questions when we've faced crucial decisions together. I love how you've never told me "no" to my growing passion for writing and ministering to folks outside the church. It is you, dear Washington Plaza, who has given me a chance to hear my own voice clearly-- the voice I believe will be what I need most in the chapter that lies ahead of me. I have you to thank for gracing me with this great gift!
I love how kindly you have welcomed me in your community, just as I was (church baggage and all) and most especially I love how you've welcomed Kevin. It's a hard road being married to a pastor, but just as you help me to grow up over the past several years, you've done the same for Kevin. You've given him opportunities to serve in the kitchen and cook for a crowd (his favorite!). You've ordained him as a deacon-- a milestone in his own journey. You've given him the spiritual community he needed to be at the point in his life to say "Yes!" to God's ministry for him at Feed The Children this year. You've loved him and cheered him on as much as you have me-- and I know you'll continue to do this in all that lies ahead for us.
I love how you welcome those in whom other churches simply would not. You welcome so lovingly folks who may not come to church dressed just so. You welcome folks who call themselves gay and Christian-- who just need to know that God loves them too. You welcome those who have been hurt by the church and just need to have a place to come and take deep breaths for awhile. You welcome those who have deep burdens on their hearts who just need a place in corporate worship to unload them in prayer. You welcome those who aren't sure they believe in Jesus-- but really want to-- and a safe place to ask their questions as they figure it all out. You welcome those who often take more than they give without grumbling or complaining about doing more of your share of the work.
I love how I've seen Jesus in you:
Times when you've showed up with hymnbooks at bedsides singing to those who are dying.
Times when you've gone with me to take communion to shut-ins who could no longer come to church.
Times when you've built community with each other outside of the confines of the building-- over glasses of wine, during breakfast meetings, at walks for the homeless in Reston, or in one another's homes.
Times when you've given your money or time to help the homeless or nearly homeless who show up at our doorsteps and are in need of a meal or a conversation.
Times when you've believed in second chances for those who have hurt you or those who have hurt our church.
Times when you've said to me, "My faith is growing to be more important to me all the time."
Times when you've shown up at a week night Bible study with eagerness to learn and listen to each other.
Times when you never said anything mean about my wet hair on Sunday mornings or continual search for my lost keys around the church or even why there were spelling errors in the bulletin.
I will forever cherish this time in my life as the time when I was YOUR pastor. Know that I'm cheering you on in all that lies ahead and will forever think of you with gratitude for how you've altered the direction of my life and Kevin's life too in so many lovely ways. I know you'll be just as good to the next person who leads you too. And, they'll be a lucky pastor just as I have been for these four years.
I love you!
November 18, 2012
Dear Washington Plaza Church family:
I come before you this morning with a heavy heart. It’s heavy because I have news to share with you that has caused me a great deal of sadness as I have thought and prayed and discerned. I need to tell you that I am sharing this resignation letter today, ending this chapter as your pastor effective on December 24, 2012.
This is sad news for all of us because we have loved each other well over these four years of life together as pastor and congregation. And, when you love someone, you don’t ever want to part ways. When you love someone, you don’t want to do anything to hurt them, to discourage them, or to cause them pain. The deep love I have for you has made this decision a particularly hard one.
But in spiritual community, which is what we’ve formed together as a church, there is something in addition to love for one another that binds us together, and that is calling. We believe that God ordains and guides all of our steps, even when what we are being asked to do is difficult. My change in status with you is a response to my changing sense of call.
It is not that I have been called to be a pastor of another church.
It is not that I haven’t enjoyed being your pastor or that there is some conflict going on in the church that you don’t know about.
It is not that I have lost my faith in anyway or am leaving the ministry. Rather, it is that I feel called into a different season of ministry beginning in 2013.
As you all know, Kevin’s new position as President of Feed The Children has caused a huge shift in our life rhythms in 2012. This new assignment came about as a result of God’s calling on Kevin’s life to lead and as he has settled into his responsibilities a shift has happened within me as well. I, too, now feel a call to use the voice God has given me to be a global advocate for children and families, for those most often ignored or in distress. I will begin to volunteer more of my time to FTC. And I look forward to spending more time with my husband in the coming months.
In addition, I believe God is leading me to grow into my writing vocation—completing a book for publication by the end of next year and pursuing new writing projects.
So, while my time as your pastor will come to an end this year know of my ongoing love and support for you as a church. I believe as strongly in the vision of who you are as a congregation as I did when I began in January 2009. You are unique in the best of ways. You are a needed witness in this community of God’s acceptance for all people. You are a collection of some of the kindest and most loving people that any pastor could hope to lead.
You have certainly moved mountains in my own life—you have made me into the woman, the pastor that I am today and will be in the future. You took a chance on hiring a 28 year old, who could have been your granddaughter, making her YOUR pastor.
By doing this for me four years ago, you gave me the biggest gifts and honors of my life—to be called your pastor. And our relationship, you have given me room to grow and explore and find my voice and for that I am and will forever be grateful.
It’s a time in our history with one another to be sad. It’s a time to walk through grief. But it is also a time to trust. You are so much bigger than who your pastor is. You are so much more than your leader. You are strong and capable of being all that God calls you to in the future.
I know this time of transition will have its own unique challenges, but believe you will face them with same grace and perseverance you have shown in facing challenges before. I will be cheering you on, treasuring the memories made in our four years together, and wishing you all of God’s most abundant blessings in your future.
Claiming Jesus: John 1:1-18
Ross Douthat titled his edgy piece, "Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?" He wonders about the future of the institutional church in particular the progressive among us, those of us who are willing to say more what we are for rather than we are against, those of us who champion God's love for all people, and don't claim as a Christian people we have a one track highway to God. We usually feel pretty good about ourselves for this, but he muses what is our future? Will we ever see the glory days of the 1960s and booming church growth again? Will the progressive church of today be the progressive church of the future?
Using the progressive branch of the Episcopal Church as an example, Mr. Douthat says:
As a result, today the Episcopal Church looks roughly how Roman Catholicism would look if Pope Benedict XVI suddenly adopted every reform ever urged on the Vatican by liberal pundits and theologians. It still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows. But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.
Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace. Last week, while the church’s House of Bishops was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.
We could use this opportunity to pick on our Episcopal friends and stick our self-righteous Baptist noses up and say that this is their particular problem and not ours, but such is far from true. We are just singing a different verse of the same song. Churches like ours might have steady growth in membership over the long haul, but in the short-term, we aren't. Where do the large flocks of remaining interested church goers attend on Sunday morning if they go to church at all? It's fundamentalism driven, we will hand you your faith in a box, type of mega churches with their own parking garages. But, he doesn't say that our more conservative church friends have ALL the answers either.
But what I find interesting about Mr. Douthat's comments are that they dis-spell the myth that many of us in this community have in our heads about why people don't attend church.
Rather than thinking that the church is just so out of tune with the culture and if we could just "hip" ourselves up with an attractive mailing or two, more people would come, he suggests we are asking the wrong questions altogether. If the stats of the Episcopal church are any indication, there is NO amount of liberalism or open-mindedness, that is going to attract newcomers to us. So, can the liberal church be saved?
I think a better question than the one asked in the article is, "Do we know we are as a Christian people?" or "What does it mean to follow Jesus?"
In our gospel text for this morning, we have the opportunity to examine a favorite scripture text that is speaks to the nature of this Jesus, for whom we say our faith is built upon. It's a passage rarely read in worship outside of the first Sunday after Christmas. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
It's a text paired with the Christmas celebration narrative often, because unlike the gospels of Luke and Matthew, the writer of John's gospel just starts things out this way. No Jesus in the manager. No shepherds. No wise men. No, rather we read of a light shinning in darkness and the darkness not overcoming it. It's one of most beautiful pieces of poetry in all of the gospels-- in fact is a sermon in itself (so I could just read it again and sit down . . . but I'm not).
So, as we begin to digest this word for us today, one thing is very clear and that is: John's high Christology. In fact, if you wonder where the church got his Trinitarian Christology that has been our legacy since the 4th century all discussions must go back to John 1. In other words, this gospel does not imply that Jesus was just another person, rather that Jesus was and is divine and has been such from the beginning. Not just from the time of his baptism as Mark's gospel presupposes, or from birth as explorations of Matthew and Luke might suggest-- but before creation itself.
This connection is made even in the original Greek as the word for word-- logos, is in fact the same word used in the very first sentence of the creation account in Genesis. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." When did Jesus become God, according to John's gospel? Jesus was already God and has always been God.
Yet what is most astonishing about the Word that was with God and the Word that was God in the beginning is what we read in verse 14, "And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father's only son, full of grace and truth." Not only are we told who the Word is but we are told that the Word became flesh, a man, and lived among us.
Thus, God did not love us from afar, as the "big man upstairs" as many of us comically refer to God from time to time. No, God love us up close, flesh to flesh. God wanted us to know who the Divine was so much that we were given the most surprising: a visitation of the holy.
And in the incarnation, we were given a concrete, flesh and blood human being who walked on our earth, who drank from our rivers, who bathed in our streams, who felt our aches and pains, and who tasted the tears of our cheeks-- so that we could get to know and SEE for ourselves (or in our modern case hear for ourselves) what God is really like. Martin Luther in fact said, " The mystery of Christ, that He sunk Himself into our flesh, is beyond all human understanding." It's beyond human understand, I believe because we have not known a love like ever! And, most of all, God wanted us to experience love!
Recently, I was visiting with a family not affiliated with any religious community in our area, as I was preparing to lead the funeral service for their son, recently deceased in a car wreck. As I sought to get to know the family better, asking questions about the life of their son, I found it was hard to keep them on track of the conversation of the information I needed to get from them. Instead of answering my questions about planning the funeral service, they kept wanting to tell me about all the long time neighbors and friends who kept popping in their home to visit over the past couple of days.
It was like a broken record of kindness. They especially told me about all the family members, coming into DC from other parts of the country who hadn't been to visit in ages who wanted to be with them during this difficult time of loss-- not just through a card, or over the phone, but in person-- through human to human contact. It meant the world to them, I could tell, to be surrounded by tangible signs of love at this difficult time. And the love in this community of folks, and thus of the legacy of the deceased became apparent in story form.
And, such I believe is true of the story of "Word became flesh" from John 1. God knew there would be no other way that we'd know how loved we were if God did not become one of us and initiate contact that could be for us the symbol of love. God wanted to hit the "re-start" button the relationship-- God wanted deep and abiding relationship with each of us. And so Jesus came and showed us how.
This gets to the heart of the Christian message of what means to be a Christian, what it means to follow Jesus, and what it means a collective group of believers gathered at a church: we are to be in relationship with this one, Jesus, who came to earth to be in relationship with us.
However, it is at this juncture that I know I might lose some of you. I might lose those of you who have long given up the notion of having a "relationship with Jesus" or "inviting Jesus into your heart" because you feel such a sentiment is a part of a branch of the Christian church that asks you to check out your brain when you wake up or love only certain people or read scripture in a prescribed way. I hear you on this and am right there with you.
We, as the progressive wing of the Church of Jesus Christ, have often thrown out the baby with the bath water when it comes to talking about relationship with Jesus. We've circumvented the conversation by loving Jesus with our minds, with our theology, but not with our hearts, not with our bodies, and not all that we are. And we wonder why people say they find God more in a yoga studio or a meditation class than in a church worship service?
But, I believe what John 1 is asking us to do is reconsider and possibly even redefine our spiritual language so that it always includes room for conversation, connection and communion with the Divine. Conversation one on one with Jesus. Jesus, the word that became flesh and dwell among us, longs, who wants to be who we lean upon as w e live our lives, day in and day out. And so as we do we keep asking ourselves and each other: who is Jesus? How can I talk to him? How can I love him? And how can I share Jesus' love for me with others?
The embodiment of Jesus aspect of our faith, I believe is what we as "liberal" Christians are missing-- even as we have our heart open wide to all kinds of folks in the world: all colors, all genders, all people, we miss out on the most important relationship and that is with Jesus. We've become so invested in the "box" of church looks like (stand up, sit down, listen, go home) and faith looks like (honor God through our right belief) that we've robbed ourselves of how incredibility mind-blowing and transformational our faith can be.
For we have been given through Jesus the gift of a God who truly can say, "I was one of you. . . ."
The gift of a God whose real presence can come very close-- closer than even the dearest friend to us. . . .
The gift of a God who says, no matter what I am going to find a way to be in relationship with you and love you in a way that touches your whole being.
This is what we need, my friends. This is what the church needs my friends. Who cares if "liberal Christianity can be saved?" or not. What should most keep us searching in the night is "Do we know Jesus?" And if we do, "How can we know him more?" For when our lives are connected to the life of the Divine, what will be will be in our churches, no matter how large or small they are.
So, today, will you join me in re-committing your life to a relationship with Jesus? Will you join me in worshipping God not just in the rote routine of words on a page, but words that speak of the Word who was God? Will you join me in love Jesus with your hearts, knowing that he dearly loved our hearts before even the creation of this world? Will you join me in claiming Jesus as we sing, "Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus, just to take him at his word and to rest upon his promise and to know thus saith the Lord?"
I love Jesus . . . even as a socially progressive Christian. What about you?
Friends in the United Methodist Church have struggled with this issues at General Conference with all kinds of scenes being created in session meetings. The state of North Carolina has wrestled with this over his vote about Amendment One. And, all of us in one way or another have responded to President Obama's declaration that the believes marriage should be between not just a man and a woman. Some have been happy with our President and others have not.
If your social media sites are anything like the ones that I am connected to, we've been bombarded with pro and con statements about these events. In response, hateful comments have been hurled. Madness. It has been madness!
Personally, when I expressed joy alongside my gay and lesbian friends about the President's endorsement of their marriages on my Facebook page this week, I even got a "I know you weren't raised like this" comment about my views by a family member. Not very nice.
I see so many of my pastoral colleagues being afraid to say anything at all out of fear of what their congregations might do to them. Jobs or appointments might be at sake depending on what you say.
In all of this, it is so easy for the debate to become personal real fast. Feelings can be hurt real quick. Most of us have strong opinions one way or another and it is hard to comprehend how someone on the other "side" could see things as they do.
Lord, have mercy on us all!
Is our church in all branches going to explode soon? Is this the state of cultural and religious affairs we've come to in this country? It seems so.
Doing some sermon prep this week, I found this commentary the John 15 lectionary reading for this Sunday by Dr. David Lose out of Luther Seminary. I couldn't help but think about all the debate this week as I read it. When we are faced with a theological divide on a topic like homosexuality, for example, what do with do? Lose has this to say:
So when faced with a challenge, dilemma, problem, or divisive moral issue, 1) search the Scriptures, looking not just for commandments but for how you honestly think Jesus would have responded, 2) trust your own experience and ask how you would want to be treated in similar circumstances, and 3) talk it over in your community, especially involving the folks the question-at-hand most directly affects.
I really appreciated this level-headed approach because I have to think so many of our strong opinions on those who are gay have more to do with tradition, culture from which we come than it does "what the Bible says." Yes, there are those passages of scriptures that say, homosexual relations are wrong, but then there are also lots of passages that say that women should cover their heads in church and not wear jewelry (and I don't know a lot of people who follow the Bible this literally). And, often we are quick to say, "Being gay is a sin" without actually knowing such a person and/or if we do, never asking a gay person how our interpretations of scripture make them feel, how they have been hurt by the church or by their families, etc. We are quick to elevate being gay (if we think being gay is a sin) to the level in which it is greater than ALL other sins. I just don't think such is really fair.
I know my heart breaks for my friends, colleagues and family members who are a part of the gay and lesbian community who love Jesus every bit as much as I do and are living in monogamous, committed relationships or are single and celibate and so many parts of our society continue to be so cruel to them.
I know my heart breaks for my friends and neighbors in other churches who have made Christianity into something that fits into a one-size fits all box and have no room in their souls for the Spirit to come and bring new understandings.
I know my heart breaks for our churches that are growing more divided by the day as more and more schisms keep occurring and occurring again. (How many times can the Christian church split? It seems we are on a course to find out!)
Because such conversation (as we've experienced its intensity this week) is not going away, what will we do when divide comes to us?
For me, I couldn't be silent. But, now that I have said my part, I must move on and keep finding ways to love. What about you?
Will you find a way to love the "other side?" Will you use words of hate? Will you defriend everyone you know on Facebook who doesn't believe as you do? How will you live in community?
We've got to figure out a better way to live together, all of us. This is what I know.
How many times has it be said about grief: "It's not a big deal. Why can't you just get over it?" Or, "Time heals all wounds."
It is easy for us to say or want to say these words because in doing so we separate the emotion from our participation in it. Grief, when let loose is confusing. It is consuming and can be all-consuming. Grief always has a life cycle of its own. To be a friend of grief, hard work is required. And, if we are honest, often we really don't want to work this hard, especially when we see others on what looks like much easier paths. It is a lot easier to throw up our hands and say, "Life is unfair" than to do the work grief lays out for us. Grief is a messy, very messy process, no matter how trained we are in its "stages."
For the past two Wednesday nights, a group of us from Washington Plaza began a study called, "Sowing Tears, Reaping Joy: The Bible and Brahm's Requiem." This study involves the study of scripture texts that appear and inform the words of the requiem as well as listening to sections of the music in a reflective posture. We've also taken moments throughout the sessions to pause and share with one another our experiences of grief. Together, as a small group, we are wading in the waters of deep community. It's not easy to talk about grief, you know!
Besides observing how real and deep and experienced many in this small group are with the study of and process of grief, I've also noticed how eager each of us in the class are to sit with the depths of grief together in new ways. (What an unusual gift!)
Part of this re-examining process includes revisiting some of the great mourning texts of the scriptures. We started with some words of Jesus.
When Jesus says in his great Sermon on the Mount, "blessed are they that mourn; for they will be comforted" it seems like a completely wacky paradox, we observed. How could Jesus say such a thing? Especially to our natural human tendency to want to explain away grief with simple answers that seem to make it better as soon as possible . . . so how could we believe such? How could mourning be good for us?
While many psychological experts might jump in and answer our questions quickly, from a spiritual perspective, we've talked about grieving because we have to. In fact, our willingness to embrace grief has a lot to do with what we feel about God. Grief teaches us to sit long with such questions as: "What is God's plans for this world? How is it that we know God? Who can ultimately be trusted in the midst of our dark moments? Why do good things happen to such bad people?"
Such grief questions do not even have morsels to offer us if we don't wait. And, wait some more.
Ellen Davis, a professor of mine from seminary said this in a sermon given in 1993 at Berkeley Divinity School, about grief: "From a Biblical perspective, living well with sorrow means dwelling on it, lamenting it before God, allowing-no, committing yourself to search the sorrow, to explore every corner of it, to ransack the emptiness until it yields its treasure, the hidden blessing on those who mourn."
I can't think of a more beautiful way to describe the process of "blessed are they that mourn." For if we refuse to make a friend of grief, both within us and our immediate community, we are also going to also miss out on its great gifts. Again placing the word "grief" and "gifts" in the same sentence sounds wrong to me, doesn't it to you? But, more and more I am learning that the pain of grief is not diminished if we have open hands to what only grief can bring us: joy. Joy, yes, even in grief and all its pain, there might be joy a coming . . .
Joy in the companionship of friends who love us at our worst.
Joy in the ability to keep going when we have every reason to give up.
Joy in the knowledge that we are seen and known deeply by our Creator.
Blessed are they that mourn-- for those who cry, walling, lament, and angrily shout at God for as long as it takes to get it all out-- for in mourning space hope has a possiblity of breaking through.
Any are welcomed to join us on this grief journey for the next five Wednesday nights!
God Calls You to "Those" People: Jonah 3:1-5, 10
When I was in seminary, a peer of mine, who later became a dear friend, realized one important truth the first day of Old Testament class. Brad did not know the basic stories of the Bible. He knew little to nothing about Abraham, Moses, the 12 tribes of Israel, King Saul, David and the like. Brad was so lost in Bible class that on first pop quiz our professor gave us on the Torah-- otherwise known as the first five books the Hebrew scriptures, he got an F.
You may wonder what a guy like this was doing in seminary. We all wondered too. But then later learned that Brad's upbringing came in a open and accepting denomination like our flavor of Baptists. And, growing up in his home church, Brad said, youth group taught him how to plan service projects and how the gospel of Jesus was all about loving people, but never really learned much about the Bible.
As you can imagine, Brad desperately wanted to bring his grade average out of the failing zone. Brad informed our study group that he'd recently purchased, "Bible for Dummies." And, our group protested his use of such a book for a seminary student. We'd be glad to help, especially the lifelong Bible drill Baptists, my friend and I who probably knew more random facts than we really needed to.
So, operation Bible 101 for Brad began. As a group we gave Brad extra reading assignments every week and sometimes even make up our own quizzes to give him to track his progress. We also found another great teaching tool for our Bible novice-- and this was the series of children's DVDs called the Veggie Tales.
I don't know if you've ever viewed a Veggie Tale movie before but the premise is simple: to make the great stories of the Bible accessible to children through slight modification of the setting. Instead of the characters being played by human characters, the animated actors are all vegetables led by Bob the tomato and Larry the cucumber.
So, Brad began to watch Veggie Tale episodes faithfully as they corresponded with the lessons. One problem arose though when he watched the Jonah movie, which features our lectionary reading for today. However, Brad walked away with the understanding that Jonah, played by a disobedient asparagus, hated the Ninevehites because they constantly hit one another in the face with fish. Additionally, Brad also asked us why the members of the ship sailing to Tarshish instead of Nineveh (when Jonah was running away) played the card game of "go fish" to figure out whose live was not right with God and had to get off the ship.
We had to remind our eager and sometimes gullible friend to always actually READ the text.(Because such details in the movies were added simply to keep the young viewers entertained).
And though such details in the Veggie Tale version of Jonah's tale seem laughable, if we stick closely to the entire book of Jonah, they might as well be included. The entire narrative reads like one of Aesop's fables. We find very few details of Jonah's life or his previous prophetic activity. He just appears out of nowhere. Furthermore, as the story progresses, we are given no details about how in the world it would be possible for him to survive for three days in the mouth of a fish and miraculously be dumped on dry ground when his "punishment" is over to have a second chance at delivering the message.
While Jonah is often referred to as "Jonah and the whale" as a story meant for kids, I propose today that it is not a story for only for the kids, but an adult tale meant to grow our understanding of God and God's plans for us in the salvation stories of our lives. A story that invites each of us to take a second look at our feelings about the bounds of God's love for those we consider to be "those" people.
It is good to first consider the who and what of Nineveh and why God's message to go preach there was completely out of the question for Jonah.
Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. It was a city with a strong military base, the seat of all things powerful in the ancient world. If you were a small nation, you feared any contact with Assyria.
Furthermore, Assyria was more than an enemy. This nation was THE enemy to end all enemies to the nation of Israel that destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel (10 of the 12 tribes) and held the two remaining tribes of Israel, Judah and Benjamin in fear for over 100 years! Years and years of history included brutal treatment, occupation, and taking from Israel their human rights. Previous prophets were clear about God's judgment on this land which repeatedly mistreated God's beloved people.
But then, a new message came on the scene illuminating a compassionate God. A God who loved even the Assyrians. Yes, there was a time for judgment but there was also a time for love of all the nations, included the much despised.
In Jonah chapter 1, the Lord gets right to the point saying to Jonah in verse two: "Get up and go to that great city of Nineveh! Announce my judgment against it because I have seen how wicked its people are!"
So not only is Jonah going to be asked to go to a faraway place, but to the dreaded enemy! And, Jonah is told when he gets there to give a message of repentance. He doesn't even get to say something nice . . .
It would be like a solider crossing enemy lines not with the white flag of surrender, but saying to those on the other side: "God wants you to repent for you've done really bad things." (Not exactly the words that usher in hospitality from Assyria, wouldn't you agree?).
One commentator defines the situation presented to Jonah as the original mission impossible. And goes on to write about why this was such a hard thing for Jonah to do saying, "Jonah was from a strip of wilderness that the rest of the world passed through as a way station to somewhere else, kind like 1-95 running through New Jersey. Jonah had no credentials for such an act of international diplomacy. He would get less respect than Ambassador of Palau would get in [here in] Washington D.C. (You get extra credit [for listening to this sermon] if you actually know where Palau is!)." [i]
So, of course with all of this true, Jonah was afraid. Of course, Jonah doubted if this prophetic word was really the Lord who was speaking to him. Of course, Jonah thought it was time to change careers, take a vacation and find his way to the other side of the known world. Because if his previous vocation required speaking for God-- a God who would now send him to Nineveh, then it was time to get a new religion or no religion at all for that matter.
We sympathize rightfully so with Jonah at this juncture, don't we? We could see ourselves in Jonah's shoes will all of the evidence of filing a complaint against God with just cause to do so. We'd run away too, wouldn't we if God sent us to a place in the world that we hated as much as Nineveh with news bad enough to get us killed?
But what happens if a call of God emerges in our life that no matter what we do to try to run from it, avoid it or pretend we never heart it-- what happens if it doesn't go away? What happens if we are called to be with "those" people and God just won't let us forget? What happens if we find ourselves in the shoes of Jonah?
Around this time last January, Kevin and I sat on a bus heading from West Jerusalem into East Jerusalem in the area of the country known as the "West Bank." We traveled alongside an American Imam, an American evangelical pastor, a Palestinian guide, an Israelite guide and an Jewish Rabbi-- from the United States too, but who had spent extensive time living and studying in and about Israel.
Though every day of this 10 day Interfaith adventure held new challenges, it was the sixth day of our journey which stretched each of our understandings of Jewish/ Muslim relations within this compact geographic region the most.
Rob, the Rabbi, with us, while having spent time on numerous trips all throughout the region, even some journeys into the West Bank, had never been to the tomb of Yasser Arafat. This sight sat in the Palestinian "capital" city of Ramallah. As we walked around the plaza area and viewed the memorial, our group was asked to take a picture beside the mosque on the property with couple of the guards. I was watching my friend Rob become increasingly more and more uncomfortable.
Years and years of politics, persecution and distasteful words shared between the people of Israel and those of the Palestinian territories and in particular by Arafat brought great caution to his presence here. It wasn't about this one man: it was about thousands of years of history.
Rob didn't want to be in the group picture with the rest of us. And, in retrospect, I understood why and respected my new friend's authenticity.
He later wrote on the group blog: "Yet somehow I must confess: as a Jew I am scared, not just of the possibility of what can happen to a Jew in Ramallah, but for what can happen inside this Jew in Ramallah. I feel a chill down my back. And I’m ready to board the bus as quickly as time will allow." Rob knew, you see, cost of either the hatred or the love-- whichever path he chose-- in this place. If this change of love sipped into him for this place, his faith he lived out in a community of other Jews like himself might have to shift. If he hated in this place, his heart might grow hard in the great cost of bitterness.
As we continued our journey in the West Bank, our schedule allowed a trip to the University of Berzit. I was still learning about all of the history, but to Rob, this stop was a place that continued to challenge him. I could see it all over his face. "Jews just don't come to Berzit, we learned," from one of our guides. "We are told that it is a breeding ground for terrorism education."
But Rob and our Israelite guide bravely, along with the rest of us, began our tour at the university regardless. And to all our surprise we found Muslim and Christian students eager to meet us and share experiences. Who knows what a terrorist looks like at school, but these kids looked as normal as they could be. Two of the girls we chatted with briefly on the steps of a lecture hall told us that "they'd never met a Jew before." To which Rob chimed in quickly and said, "Now you have." Rob was moved to reconsider again what he'd always thought about Berzit and the people of the West Bank.
Rabbi Rob, along with the rest of our group that day, received God's challenge to us there. Even if we think we know "those" people and centuries upon centuries of ill has been done-- God remains steadfast in love for all the nations. All people. All people we like. All the people we don't. And because this is true, God calls us to lay down the walls of "us" and "them" which inhibit us from relationship.
Rabbi Rob went on to write about his transformative experience that day saying, "I am humbled as I admit: I am praying for peace for Israel and all nations of the world. . . . Still I pray: may the maker of peace in the heavens cause peace to descend on us, on all Israel and all who dwell on the earth, Amen."[ii]
And, like the Rabbi if we are going to take our call seriously to see all people of all nations of the world, then we too are going to find ourselves in positions as unique as being a Jewish Rabbi at the tomb of Arafat.
Consider this: our public policy and our leadership in policy as a nation, has a long way to go in support of all of our neighbors of the world. What are we going to do about it? How are we going to use OUR voice?
We, as socially conscious people of faith, have a great calling to see those hated neighbors among us, just as God sees them, in the eyes of love and to just the power of our voice to bring our nation's leaders accountable to peace making . . .
To ask our President to think carefully about the new global policy inanities he makes and to consider all people in the nation of Israel.
To ask our Virginia governor and legislators to consider who our social service and social laws are leaving out-- and ask them to include all of God's children in key decisions when it comes to issues of marriage, healthcare, and opportunities for employment.
To ask the leadership in Fairfax County about our tax structure and why there is not more being done in one of the wealthiest counties in America, to deal with the systemic problems of homelessness and poverty. And this is only the tip of what could be asked of us.
But, even more personal than this-- I am sure that you like me have your fill in the blank when it comes to who "those" people are in your life. You have someone at work, someone in your neighborhood, or even someone in this community that really just pushes all of your buttons and you feel like if this person or persons simply opens their mouth, you'd explode. Whoever is on your list of "those people" I invite you to reconsider the journey of Jonah. To come and get to know this God you have chosen to follow all over again and realize that yes, those people are included in God's family too. And yes, you and I have a lot to learn from even them . . .
It's a hard edge to sit with this morning. It's a hard, hard edge that may make you and I question everything we thought we knew about what is true about justice, war, and foreign policy, but the way of relationship, the way of community building IS the way of our God.
Today God calls you. God calls you to all people. Let us get to loving in word and deed.
[i] Todd Weir. "Jonah and Mark 1:14-20 (Epiphany 3B) Give Jonah a Break" http://bloomingcactus.typepad.com/bloomingcactus/2006/01/jonah_3_mark_11.html#more
[ii] Robert Nosanchuk http://crdcgmu.wordpress.com/projects/peace-and-understanding-between-jews-christians-and-muslims-where-does-humanity-lie/ipji-blog/rabbi-robert-nosanchuk/