It's Time to Start Over . . . a sermon planned for the Palisades Community Church on January 13, 2019 but unable to be given due to snow. 

Begin by reading Mark 1:9-11

Anyone here on the second Sunday of January already in need of a new start?

You thought you’d stop eating so many cookies when January 1 rolled around, and well. . .

You thought you’d begin walking more every afternoon or at least take the steps instead of the elevator if you had the choice and well . . .

You thought you’d start the new year off in a more spiritually grounded place, meditating each morning before you got out of bed or grabbed your phone and well. . .

Well, it not going as you planned at all.

We make a lot of fuss it seems in weeks like this of being better, doing better, living better. Because we not only believe we need to, but because everybody’s doing it.

Everybody it seems is starting over. Isn’t that what early January is all about?

As we begin to explore these questions, we need not look farther than our gospel reading for this morning taken from Mark chapter 1—a section of scripture that is a do-over, re-start, new beginning in the story of God if there ever was such a point.

Mark’s gospel opens in such a different way from the others tellings of Jesus’ story. Rather than hearing a genealogy or birth narrative or even beautiful prose like, “In the beginning was the Word” Mark simply gets to the point. And the point is this: the ministry of Jesus began after John the Baptist prepared the way for him.

Particularly we read, “In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”

Just as hundreds of people had followed the call John made . . . to come to the wilderness, to confess their sins and seek forgiveness . . . Here shows up Jesus and asks for the same from John.

Baptism.

I can remember the time in Sunday School in the Tennessee church I grew up in, when one of my classmates raised their hands (trying to outsmart the teacher) and asked, “Why did Jesus have to be baptized? Didn’t you say last week that he was perfect? What did he need to ask forgiveness for?”

After looking puzzled for a moment my teacher looked this little guy in the eyes and said: “For Jesus, baptism wasn’t about forgiveness. It was about showing us the way.”

I’m not sure any of us fully understood in the class what we heard that day, but the older I’ve got the more I’ve realized that that Jesus’ baptism was all about his humanity.

Jesus, as Emmanuel, God with Us for whom we celebrated the birth of only a few weeks ago on Christmas Eve—embraced his full humanity as baptism.

Jesus was not asking us to do anything that he wasn’t willing to first do himself. Jesus would begin his ministry with a ritual signifying a new start, a new path, a new calling. Jesus would say with his public baptism that his time on earth belonged to God. And even in his frail, complicated and pain producing human skin, he would be faithful to what God called him to do on earth.

And what came next? Scripture tells us that “Just as [Jesus] was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart.”

Can you pause with me a second and picture what that must have looked like?

What I find so interesting about this narration is the choice of verb that Mark uses “torn apart.”

Because couldn’t he have just used the word “open?” Did he really need to be so dramatic?

Yes, in fact he did. Mark told us the heavens “tore apart” because this was a water shed moment in the life of Jesus. It was a moment of clarity, of knowing, of believing!

Jesus was not just your average guy coming up in tattered sandals and a sweaty brow asking to enter the Jordan.

Jesus would no longer be known Joseph’s son in Nazareth working in the carpentry shop.

Jesus was called out by the heavens.

The verb “torn apart” as Mark uses it here in the first chapter is used only TWICE in the entire book. Once here. And once at the end of the book when the temple curtain is “torn apart” at the moment Jesus breathes his last and provokes a confession of Jesus’ true identity made by the Roman centurion “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

Which makes so much sense when we read what comes next in the post-baptism narration: “and the Spirit descended like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The heavens had to “tear apart” you see because a declaration or a naming was about to occur!

And here, too a confession was made over Jesus’ life but on this occasion by Jesus’ Father: “YOU are my Son, the Beloved; who you I am well pleased.”

Baptism, you see, became a moment for the truth about Jesus’ humanity to be spoken aloud. Not only is Jesus called Son, God’s Son. But, he’s also claimed as the Beloved one.

And then baptism came to play a central role in what it meant to share the good news of Jesus through the centuries as Jesus’ parting words to his followers were: “Go ye to into all the world and preach the gospel, baptizing them in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.”

But in our institutionalization of Christianity through the centuries and our debates over infant baptism verse adult believer’s baptism, has created a lot of rules.

One way is right. Another way is completely wrong.

I’ve even been privy to churches where a pastor will speak to a person whose considering becoming a member of their church and call this potential new church member’s baptism by another congregation invalid. (Deep sigh and know that you’ll never hear such foolishness from me).

And where this has gotten us is that we’ve forgotten the GIFT of baptism. The gift Jesus received that day in the waters of Jordan. And the gift that any of us also receive when we embrace baptism.

And that is what baptism offers us: a new start.

A couple months ago, I was asked by Max and Eliana to attend baby Max’s baptism at Holy Trinity Catholic Church.

It was an honor to be there and to represent PCC in my presence to say that Max didn’t just have one church tradition in his mother’s family’s Catholic roots, but that he had a home and a heritage with us going back generations in the Palisades.

I attended with tribulation as I do as a clergy person in a Catholic setting. As much as I’m so grateful for this church tradition and its rich history that shaped my becoming as a person of faith in the world, I also know that I’m not fully welcomed there.

I can’t take communion, even though the words of institution are words I lead you in regularly and know by heart.

And even though I am a minister called by God, women of my gender are not welcomed into the pulpit there. I tip toe in trying to guard my heart from hurt that I can know can come from this branch of the Christian church.

For these reasons, maybe it’s why I wore my clergy collar to the service. I wear it infrequently being a Baptist and all, but there’s just sometimes I’ve found when it I want to make a statement that indeed I am a pastor. It’s kind of fun to shock people.

So, sitting with Rev. Beth that day, we went through the order of the service watching several babies and toddlers like Max come forward and have the priest bless them with words and water poured over their heads.

It was a beautiful moment to witness baby Max being blessed by so many words and well-wishers.

And then came time for the service to conclude. Only some closing words of blessing were left. The chatter of the small children in the room was growing by the minute.

At this point, the priest leading the service, turned toward me saying how much he welcomed me, his colleague to this service. To my shock, he stepped aside, called me to the center of the room, handed me his gold-plated worship folder and said,

“She is going to lead our closing prayer.”

To tell you I was floored is the understatement of the year. Me, asked to pray in a Catholic church? The male priest stepping aside? Me given his holy book?

I thanked this man after the service the best I could saying, how much hope this simple act gave me for ecumenical relations with the Catholic church. I said that his allowing me to be seen as I was at that baptismal service—a minister with people to serve--- encouraged me to re-consider my bias. It encouraged me with hope to begin again when I might be tempted to judge.

I have to tell you I walked out of that church more confident with my head held high. I was seen as I was that day! And with the church I got a new start!

In the same way that this baptismal service was for me in reclaiming hope in an unexpected way, I think the same is true for any of us who might risk the experience of remembering our baptism today.

We get to remember who we really are too!

We are beloved sons and daughters of God, we’re made into a new creation in Christ.

And, we’re called good— as was the word said over us at the beginning of all creation.

We’re welcomed as we are, just as we are, with God handing us the holiest of books and saying, here read, your part of my story too.

It’s easy to stray way from the enormity of what this means, or not even to realize it in the first place.

Yet, if we believed it, if we claimed it and if we lived it, this identity would change everything about how we carry ourselves in this world.  Imagine it!

No more defeat.

No more low self-esteem.

No more woe is me, nobody loves me.

You are beloved!

Say with me: I am a beloved child of God.

In response to this word, this morning I want to give us a tangible reminder of our baptism.

Can you remember the day you were baptized? Some of us can.

But others of us might not intellectually remember ours.

It could have been done on your behalf by parents or loved ones who made the choice to raise you in the faith—a decision, Kevin and I made for Amelia over a two years ago now. And so today, you might be saying, Pastor, “How can I remember my baptism?”

You remember it by giving thanks for those who loved you and lead you to faith. And give thanks for the work of God that has been a part of life since then, leading you to this moment in your life—here in a worship space on this Sunday morning.

So, baptized church, in just a few moments, I would like to invite any of you to come forward to receive the sign of the cross from the basin of water on your forehead or on your hand to remember your baptism.

Maybe some of you are realizing today that baptism is something that you’ve never got around to YET, but something you’re interested in having a conversation with me or Pastor Beth about sometime. If that’s you, hang tight today. Let’s talk soon. May the next few moments be for you a witness of hope.

Church, we remember our baptisms today not because there’s any magic in the water or that it does something do us, but because sometimes you and I need tangible symbols of remembrance.

We’re reminding ourselves of the beloved identity that was given to us a long time ago.

We are claimed by God. We are God’s child. And with us, God is very well pleased.

AMEN

bible-pulpit1Should preachers stay away from politics?

Welcome to this week's edition of "How do we live in these days?" If you missed the first post last week about justice, kindness and humility you can read it here. 

Unless a preacher finds themselves in a politically homogenous congregation (do these really exist?) OR in a congregation with their heads stuck in the sand, the pressure is intense to tow a fine political line.

If we thought the election cycle would be the end of our drama, it's not.

We all talk about politics.

We fight about politics especially on Facebook.

We bring our political convictions with us to church.

Our airports, our county courthouses or in the case of my town, Pennsylvania Ave is crowded with protests and will be for a long time.

So on Saturday nights across America, preachers are facing a new struggle. How do they both stay relevant to what everyone is talking about throughout the week? And if so, how do they not lose their jobs by Monday morning for sounding "too political" in the pulpit?

One of the major arguments that is used to stop preachers from mixing politics and religion practice is separation of church and state.

Just last week someone asked me: "Isn't it wrong for pulpits to speak endorsements for one person over another?"

Yes.

According to the Johnson Amendment (which our current President is trying to repeal): All  501(c)(3) non-profit organizations are opposed from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Most churches in America are considered 501(c)(3) either through tax status acquired directly or via their larger denominational body.

So, legally hear me say: it is wrong for pulpits to be used to endorse one candidate or political party over another (unless they want to be in danger of losing their non-profit status under current law).

And as a minister raised in the Baptist tradition, an American tradition built on the dissent of founders such as Roger Williams, I am a whole-hearted believer in the separation of church and state.

Separation of church and state is so important to our democracy because  it holds in check one of the basic tenants of our democracy: freedom of religion.

This freedom gives us the choice to be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and so on OR nothing at all if that's our wishes without fear of persecution.

And without separation of church and state our government could set up a state-run church and fund it with our tax dollars. And remember from history this is why many of the first colonists settled in America. They wanted to be free from the Church of England telling them how to worship.

But, separation of church and state doesn't mean that our churches and their pulpits need to live in vacuums. 

248520_10150195906298021_1893992_nOne of the great tasks of any preacher is to bring good news. And good news is not good news without a context. We need our preachers to talk about what our lawmakers and governing bodies are doing and how their actions fall in line (or not) with the teachings of Jesus.

No one political party gets a free pass or is always in the right or wrong.

And not only this, but it is the job of any preacher to speak truth to power.

Jesus had a lot to say about this. Sure, he spoke of "giving Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" teaching us to respect our government's rules. But he also wasn't afraid to challenge the powers when he felt like they implemented unjust laws, practices or actions. He told those trying to stone the woman caught in adultery, "Who here is without sin? Let him cast the first stone?" He overturned tables in the temple courts when he saw faith weighed down in consumerism. He spoke boldly of his Lordship even to the Roman ruler, Pilate even when it led to his execution.

So as a preacher ordained to live out and help others live out the teachings of Jesus . . .

Teachings like "loving my neighbor as myself" (Luke 10:28)

Teachings "going into all the world and preaching the gospel." (Mark 16:15)

Teachings like "welcoming the stranger." (Matthew 25)

I must speak out when our nation makes laws or our President makes statements that go against my faith.

I'm just doing my job. And my colleagues are too!

A Sermon Preached on Martin Luther King weekend at Laurel Presbyterian Church

"When Jesus Makes Us Uncomfortable" from John 2:13-25

I can remember the first-time church going to church troubled me. It was the Sunday before Thanksgiving, 2002. I was set to graduate college in a few short weeks. I was open to visiting a new church with a friend. So, on that morning I drove to the church, I came in, found a pew and sat down moments before the service started. I began turning the pages of the bulletin to see what was happening the service. Then I got to the back cover. I read about the upcoming activities and my eyes glanced to the staff contact section.

And what did I see? Something that felt so appalling, so outrageous, so against my belief system that my arms crossed and my mouth dropped open in utter disbelief.

MG_8815-EditA woman’s name- Sarah was listed as the Senior Minister.

What!?!

I mumbled under my breath toward my friend in the pews: “I’m not learning anything from this woman today.”

You should laugh with me at the irony of this moment now, but you need to understand that at the time, I’d never seen a woman lead a congregation. And it was a really big deal . . .

For I’d grown up in “women can’t even be ushers, that job was left to the men,” Southern Baptist congregation in Tennessee.

In my church if women wanted to be leaders, they had only a couple of options. They could teach other women or the children or marry pastors. Maybe they could lead the mission committee but not much more.

So, with all this true about my experience, you can just imagine the discomfort that exuded from every part of my body that day . . . the twitching, the rocking back and forth in the pews, the despairing looks that I came in the direction of my friend who brought me to this place! What was she thinking and the service hadn’t even started yet!

But somehow I stayed put and listened to Pastor Sarah’s wonderful sermon. A miracle!

In retrospect, I’m SO glad that church made me uncomfortable that day. It was the beginning of a beautiful new journey.

And likewise, in the John 2:13-25, we read a story that for generations has made readers uncomfortable too.

For it presents us with a view of Jesus that is not the warm and fuzzy. Jesus isn’t comforting some who’s lost a loved one. Or healing the sick. Or even holding children.

Nope, we find Jesus at the temple before Passover begins, making a whip out of cords, driving out the animals, pouring the coins out of the money changers bags and overturning their tables. He’s causing a major scene, challenging everything that was normal about how worship happened in his time.

And we find ourselves uncomfortable because it’s not the kind of behavior we teach to our children.

Jesus isn’t following any of the “you are in public” or “politically correct” rules. And shouldn’t he at least try . . .

But Jesus doesn’t.

And maybe just maybe that was exactly the point.

Here’s what we need to understand: this same story also appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but in each of these gospels we find it placed in the context of Jesus’ last week. And it’s an event portrayed as a catalyst leading to Jesus’ death.

Yet, in John’s telling of the Jesus story here we are in chapter 2 reading it already. And commentators help us understand that this is for a very particular reason.

For, John’s gospel is all about making a case for Jesus as the Word made flesh. Jesus is God. And most of all, Jesus is an authority to be taken seriously.

And not just an authority but the authority.

When I was growing up in that church in Tennessee that one where women couldn’t even serve as ushers, this passage was often brought up as an example of why I couldn’t sell wrapping paper for my school drive or Girl Scout cookies after church on Sundays. As much as I wanted to hit up all the church folks we knew, it was often quoted to me by someone Jesus' words in verse 16 of this passage:

“Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

But looking back on it now, I think this common interpretation and the debate in some churches about whether kids or adults can sell things to their church friends misses the point. In fact, I don’t think Jesus was upset, in John’s gospel about the buying and selling of sacrificial animals so that worshippers could fulfill the law. Nope.

He was upset about the hearts of the people. God was in their midst and they didn’t see!static1.squarespace

Commentator Karoline Lewis makes it plain:  Jesus “calls for a complete dismantling of the entire system.”

Worship was in fact, being done all wrong because they’d lost sight of who they were worshipping.

Such was a lot to claim, you know and to be serious about.

And Jesus even takes the conversation one step further when the crowd asked him for a sign (which is another way of saying prove yourself, Jesus).

Jesus replies: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”

It was a metaphor of course, a way to talk about the fact that one he, Jesus, God in the flesh would be killed on a cross. But on the third day would rise again. The living temple of God with Us in his body would not be held down by human actions.

The crowd gathered around Jesus replied saying “This temple has been under construction for 46 years, and will you raise it up in 3 days?”

Folks didn’t get it. And the discomfort level rose because:

No one had seen a teacher make such claims to be the Son of the Father before.

No one had seen a teacher make such bold declarations about the temple before.

No one had dared to question the human institution where God’s people gathered to worship.

But it was the embodiment of WHO Jesus WAS. And the work he came to do. To show us a new way to live even if it made us all uncomfortable.

So, this morning, I tell you with 100% clarity: the way of Jesus is the way of discomfort.  

For the picture of Jesus, we get in texts like this repeatedly is always a vision of man who shows us a new way to live that challenges us, pushes our buttons. It’s a vision of leaving behind the way that things have always been done. It’s a vision of taking up our cross and following, though the way may be difficult.

In the days since Jesus left the earth, even though we have the Holy Spirit as our guide we can easily get off track. When we do, God often sends us prophets to re-direct our course.

One of those prophets in modern times in America is Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King was a man who did not set out to be great, to be someone who was remembered with parks and streets and parades named after him. He was just a simple preacher. A married man with children. A trained theologian.

But a man who said yes when the Montgomery Bus Boycott needed a leader, needed someone to speak at its nightly meetings to inspire the protesters to remain strong.

And more and more opportunities came to lead and to serve and to stand up to institutionalized racism through non-violent protests, he listened and went to work.

As Dr. King preached, he pushed the church to be the church.

He pushed the church to live out the Great Commandment to love the Lord your God and to love your neighbor as yourself—meaning all of the neighbors not just the white ones.

He didn’t take no for an answer when it came to injustice in school systems, transportation systems, voting systems, or any systems really. He made a lot of people uncomfortable with the way he talked about Jesus. Especially the white church.

And Dr. King found himself in jail more times than he could have ever imagined.

On one such occasion, a night in Birmingham, AL we know he wrote a letter from prison. In this letter on April 16, 1963, he specifically addressed white clergy—fellow preachers claiming to be bearers of the good news, saying the good news they preached was only for people who looked like them. Dr. King told them it time was now to act, no more excuses.

He spoke the truth with these words: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Though this popular quote is all over the internet this weekend, and its words are so easy to repeat and make us feel good as we say them, I believe the heart of Dr. King’s message was this: a call to action.

And it wasn’t just for Dr. King’s lifetime. It’s our Jesus calling too.

Is there injustice in this world, church? If the answer is yes, then we’ve got work to do.

For my wellbeing is tied to your wellbeing. And your wellbeing is tied to mine.

The authority of Jesus, just as it was presented that day at the temple, leads us on to wake up the sleeping, lift up the silent, champion the forgotten.

The authority of Jesus leads us to speak truth to the powerful, not valuing one person over another because of the position they hold.

The authority of Jesus leads us to call our racism. Call our sexism. Call our homophobia. And discrimination of any kind the basis of creed, religion or ability.

The authority of Jesus asks us stir up discomfort.

Why? Because it is the GOOD NEWS for all of us!

So, are we going to get to work church—not just this weekend, but in all the days ahead? May prayer for all of us is that will be bearers of this good news, relinquishing comfort and allow Christ to be our teacher as we go.

AMEN

IMG_1176These are busy days around our household for as many of you know in addition to having a new baby around the house and putting the final touches on launching my book, Birthed, I've been serving a short-term pastorate at North Chevy Chase Christian Church in Chevy Chase, MD.

I began there in July and will serve as senior pastor on a part-time basis till October when this congregation's minister returns from her Sabbatical.

It's the first Disciples of Christ congregation I've served since becoming an officially endorsed minister within the Disciples of Christ earlier this year (while keeping my American Baptist credentials from my ordination as well).

If you aren't familiar with this denomination, read more about them here. It's a great fit for my progressive leaning, yet still Jesus loving self. And I'm so thankful for the Capital Area Disciples for welcoming me so warmly since I moved back to DC last year.

It has been fun getting to know North Chevy Chase folks and most of all to be designing and leading worship with them each Sunday.

At heart, I'm really a series preacher. I love taking a topic or theme and staying with it for 4-6 Sundays. It's a great way to LEAD through preaching, helping the congregation get their head around a big idea (and I love big ideas!) But when you're a guest minister (which is what I do a lot of these days) you don't have the opportunity to always carry a series out. So, I've cherished this special experience.

Over the past couple of weeks, we've gone off the lectionary texts and focused our attention in worship on the theme of "Excuses, Excuses." What are the excuses we offer God which keep us from living abundantly? Dollarphotoclub_75730115

Someone came up to me after church yesterday and said this series really surprised her. "I thought you'd just be guilting us as to why we aren't this or that, but instead what you've given an opportunity to look inward and find out what keeps us from close relationship with God. I've needed this time, pastor!"

Right on! (It's so fun when people get what I'm trying to do!) 

First we tackled the excuse of "I'm Afraid" taking our cues from the courage of Esther's story in the Old Testament.

Next we examined the excuse of "I'm a Defect" looking at the encounter Jesus had with the Syrophoenician woman-- championing her boldness to not let the challenges of her life define her. 

Then, this past Sunday we stuck close to the excuse of "I've Made the Unforgivable Mistake" by reading Psalm 51 and thinking about the tale of David and Bathsheba from the book of 2 Samuel.

And I have to say that this Sunday was one of my favorite experiences of worship in a long time! I realized once again that so many of us (if not all of us) hold things inside, believing the worst about ourselves, and rejecting God's sweet forgiveness.

It was so great to say: "There's nothing you (and I) can do to separate ourselves from God's love" over and over again. We all need to hear it.

In response to the sermon, I invited the congregation to write down on the post-it note in their bulletin something in their life that they felt like was "the unforgivable sin." Then, as we all sang together, one by one everyone came forward and placed the post-it note in a paper shredder as a sign of God's forgiveness.

I stayed at the pulpit watching this all play out until the line reached the end.

And I have to say, that I fought back tears as I heard the shredding sound over and over again.

It was some of the most beautiful spiritual music I'd heard in a long time. For with each post-it note going into, it was a sign of God's unconditional love and forgiveness for a person, and then another, and really for us all. What amazing grace! (And it's something you can try at home... go find your paper shredder too!).

A man came up to me after worship and said, "I'm not one to be writing sins on pieces of paper and bringing them to the front of the church, pastor, but today, reminded me of God's love again."

For this response and the others I will never know about-- I say thank you for the gift of preaching, of leading and of being a part of a particular community. It's the best stuff interim ministry is made of!

And in case you're curious . . . next week's excuse is "I'm Spiritual But Not Religious." Stay tuned . . .

This is the second part in a series. If you missed the first entry begin by reading here.

It all started on Easter Sunday morning-- the most joyous day of the Christian year and I was not excited about getting out of bed.

It took Kevin almost an hour to move me.

The problem was that I didn't want to go to church even though I knew we'd be attending the services of a dear pastor friend.

I didn't want to be around happy clappy Christians. I did not want to be forced to say "Christ is Risen Indeed!" with a smile on my face.

And though such sentiments went against what I wrote in my "If I were Preaching Easter" previous blog post. It just was where I was.  I am just not in a season of life of Easter. Good Friday or Holy Saturday might be more like it.

And I realized in that moment that I was not that kind of Christian (even if it is what my friends or husband or colleagues want me to be).

I can't pretend.

I'm not a "let the injustices of this world or of my own heart roll off my back" sort of Christian. And I am most certainly not an "everything happens for a reason" sort of Christian. And it really annoys me when others try to belittle my pain by offering such platitudes.

Though I have such amazing Jesus loving friends with lighthearted outlook on life, I'm simply not that kind of Christian.

I'm not a Christian that can be encouraged by, "God works all things together for the good" (because sometimes that good may not come in our lifetime and it really sucks).

I'm not a Christian that believes suffering happens because "God is testing us" (because suffering often comes hand in hand with what it means to be a living breathing and walking human being).

I'm not a Christian that can go to church and eat shortbread cookies afterwards with the church folks and let sexist or racist comments pass for small talk (because if I didn't call it out-- even if it meant I wouldn't be welcome there anymore-- who would?).

BUT, I am the kind of Christian who is not going to give up. I am going to keep seeking. I am going to keep wrestling with the mystery of the Divine.

Even when nothing makes sense and I don't want to go to church, I will keep on keeping on. I will go to church like I did on Easter.

Last Sunday, passed the peace. I sang, "He Lives, He Lives." And, I shared an Easter meal afterwards with friends.

All of these, I believe are signs of resurrection, even if I didn't feel them in the moment. A spiritual mentor reminded me afterwards that Easter is a fact. It's not a feeling. So at least I observed the fact which didn't need me to feel it to be true.

Most of all I want you to know that I am the kind of Christian who is always going to tell you the truth.

And this year Easter was a lot like rotten eggs. Maybe next year will be better?

Every year when I was a preaching pastor, I felt the anxiety rise the closer we got to Easter Sunday morning.

The expectations. The crowds. The desire of the people to hear something new and meaningful.

Though I had a mentor once tell me don't sweat it, just tell the story. The problem is that everyone already knows the story: Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. The women came to the tomb. They were afraid. They go tell the male disciples. They don't believe them. Yet, everything changes for the world on this Sunday morning. Death has been beat. New life is possible. Jesus is alive!

The last time I preached Easter in 2012,  I was over the Easter hoopla. I found myself fixated on the idea that resurrection is much more complicated than super happy hymns and families coming together in a church pew. Resurrection is hard work, I said. I ended by encouraging the congregation to not choose a resurrection path unless they were ready for their lives to be turned upside down. Because we need to remember what got Jesus to Easter morning: death!

On the way home this particular Sunday, Kevin told me that my sermon was a real downer. He wanted to know: "Where was the lighthearted mood from the pulpit?" But, I stood by what I said. Sermons are always about proclamations for a moment in time and that is where I was.

This week, I've been wondering if I were preaching Easter this year, what would it be about?

I'd land a bit more on the side of pro-Easter celebratory joy this year.  Not because I am any less aware of how cruel and harsh the realities of life are. And most certainly not because I've come to believe that resurrection's moments in our lives are any less work.

Rather, I would preach in this way because life is so difficult. I have come to believe that life's problems make Easter's joy so important.

For we all need days in our year (and in our liturgical calendar at church) to remember what it looks and feels like when hope comes, when grace surprises us, and as the old hymn goes "when love's redeeming work is done."

If I were preaching Easter this year, I would do so with full voice and lots of exclamation points written into my sermon manuscript.

In many ways I would be forcing upon myself a joy that isn't all there, but I would do it anyway because to follow Jesus is to claim our status as Easter people.

I would preach that we have to cling to good when it comes.

I would preach that the greatest good that ever came to the world was Jesus.

I would preach that even when we are bearing our crosses, we serve a God who can make all things new.

Most of all I would preach that love never fails. It's what sustains us all our days-- the good and the bad alike.

I would ask the congregation to rejoice. For it is the day that the Lord has given us to especially rejoice.

But because I'm not preaching in a congregation this year, I leave my Easter musings with you.

Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed! Let us be glad-- even if it is just for today. AMEN

IMG_9703It's been over one year now since I left traditional ministry. And folks say to me all the time, "When are you going back to the church?"

I don't know how to answer other than to say that we need to think about the church in new ways.

Why do we always think about church in terms of buildings and ministers with retirement plans and pensions? Why do we always think of church in terms of who is the staff listed on the back of the Sunday morning bulletin?

And no I don't think I am not going back anytime soon to what you mean by church.

These are the facts: a year ago, I left a weekly pulpit, weekly pastoral care responsibilities and ties to one place, but what I gained in this transition myself.

I said it. I gained myself.  I still can't believe that I had the courage to make this leap into the unknown last year. I did have a retirement plan with a denominational board. As much as I've always had a rebellious streak, I've always liked following the rules too.

Yet, I know this past year has been a turning point for me. I think 10 or 20 years from now I'll look back on that year when I was 33 as a time when everything changed. Even with the mid-year moaning and groaning and "what am I doing with my life?" depression I went through  (for y'all who lived with me through all of this, thank you!), this move into the unknown was and is a great decision.

The longer I live in this new reality, the longer I know I am not alone and there's other ministers out there like me who want to make such a transition too. I'm gaining a new community.

I recently read Anne Lamott's new book, Stitches. And as I read, I was struck by Lamott's narration of how she quit what she called "her last real job" at the age of 21. She said when she stopped working as a writer at a magazine and called it "the moment when I lost my prestige on the fast track."

When I left the church a year ago, this happened to me too, I think. There were even emails that said: "What are you doing? Why don't you settle down and get a new church in Oklahoma?" (As an aside, I have yet been invited to preach anywhere yet in Oklahoma City-- so even if I wanted a new job in the town where my husband resides mostly, there aren't a lot of opportunities).  But who really needs a fast track? I'm still wondering.

Lamott goes on to say about her transition to a non-traditional writing life: "I started to get found, to discover who I had been born to be, instead of the impossibly small package, all tied up tightly in myself that I had agreed to be."

Spot on for me too! These days I am learning and re-learning and then learning some more about the minister, the writer and the human being that I am and was created to be.  It's wonderful freedom. I now get to dream without some box of what I think other people want me to be holding me back.

And so in all of this settling down to a new kind of life, I knew my blog-- a medium for so much of this kind of heart-felt communication and exchange needed a makeover. So here it is, and here's my stance. I'm not going back.  I am a preacher on a plaza.

As a preacher on the plaza, my new website can give you a tour about the ways in which I'd love to connect with you, your church or non-profit.

I think the conversations we've had and will continue to have are a part of creating what doesn't exist for other ministers, writers, dreamers, poets and businesswomen. This is it. We're on the edge of something beautiful. I just know it.

Who You Really Are:  a Baptism Selfie

Matthew 3:13-17

Preached January 12, 2013: Watonga Indian Baptist Mission Watonga, OK

BdpyZK3CYAAPEG3[1]It has been said the word of the year of 2013 was “selfie.” Do you know what a selfie is?

It’s a picture you take of yourself when there is no one else around to take your picture and then it is usually posted right away to Facebook or other social media sites (I took the one to the right when I was writing this sermon).

One of the responsibilities I have with Feed The Children is to volunteer with their social media department so I’ve watched the headlines closely on this growing trend. Teenagers in particular love it (Checked out Instagram lately?) And so do politicians. It made the headlines of the national news on Friday, June 14th  of last year when former first lady and secretary of state, Hillary Clinton posted her first “selfie” a photo of herself with her daughter Chelsea.  And then posted the photo to Twitter. Then, religious folks are into it too. Pope Francis is known to allow students—when they met him to pose for selfies.

We are a self-obsessed culture it seems. We like taking pictures of ourselves. We like taking pictures of important people.

But let’s continue the trend here this morning. Have a phone with a camera in it? I am doing something that a lot of pastors would not ask you to do in the middle of the sermon. I want you to get out your phone and if it I has a camera function I want you to position your screen on this page. Now, what I want you to do is get in groups with folks sitting in the pews beside you and take a picture of yourself with them.

(Later if you want you can share this with your friends/ family who aren’t with us in church this morning and show them through your smiling face what they are missing out on! Or you can post it to Facebook or the like).

But, now that we’ve taken these shots, pause with me and look at the picture of yourself. Who are the people in the picture? And then who are you? What is your full name? What is your story? Where did you come from? Who are your parents? What events in your life have led you to this moment right now when you are a part of this worship service? What does this picture you just took say about you?

In our gospel reading for this morning, we meet Jesus in what one Biblical commentator calls the “Jesus selfie.”[1]

Though we read the baptism stories in the three other gospels—Mark, Luke and John, only in Matthew does the narration focus our attention solely on Jesus. In Matthew’s story, there’s no indication of the heavens ripping dramatically open as there is in Mark’s gospel. And there’s no lengthy description about the Spirit coming down and descending among the scene as there is in John’s gospel. And furthermore, there’s no emphasis on the crowd gathered like in Luke’s gospel.

Nope—in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism what we get is the straightforward story. The author’s intent is clearly to focus our attention not only the main event at this juncture in time, but on the main person we need to get to know: Jesus.

Jesus came forth from Galilee to the Jordan River where a crowd had already been gathered for quite sometime and John comes to Jesus and says (look with me at verse 14): “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

But then Jesus answered John saying, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

And in these few words, I believe that Jesus is giving us revelation into what this “selfie” moment is all about. Jesus wants us to see him as Lord. Jesus wants us to see him as the ONE that John had been preaching and teaching about when he quoted the prophet Isaiah and said, “The voice of the one crying out in the wilderness; ‘Prepare the way for the Lord.’” Jesus wants us to see him the Messiah that Israel had been waiting for all these years—the one who would bring salvation to all.

But it’s interesting isn’t it that Jesus says “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness?”

What does this mean? Often when you and I think of the word “baptism” we equate it with forgiveness of sins. Especially in the Baptist tradition where we don’t baptize infants but we wait for a person to get old enough to recognize their own faith and choose salvation found in Jesus for themselves—it is very easy to think baptism is about repentance.

And then this gets confusing when we see Jesus submitting himself to this act in the passage before us today because what did Jesus do to need forgiveness from? Wasn’t he perfect after all?

Yes. I believe he was perfect and lived a perfect life and this moment was not about making his life pure or right with God (for he WAS God). Rather Matthew is trying to show us Jesus’ moment of commissioning. It was his moment to stand before a gathered group of people and for as verse 16 tells us for the “heavens [to be] opened to him and [Jesus] to see the Spirit of God to descend like a dove aligning on him.”

This was no joke. Jesus was the real deal.

Jesus’ life would be forever changed from this moment on. He had a calling on his life. He had a life path full of places to go and people to see. He had a kingdom to bring to earth.

In baptism, this was the start of great things to come: the binding up the brokenhearted and bringing good news to the poor. It was the start of Jesus teaching, preaching and healing. It was the start of Jesus’ fulfilling the calling that he was born to fulfill.

And so it was a perfect day for a selfie.

If there was Facebook in ancient Palestine, I can only hope that this photo would have gotten lots of shares and likes if Jesus later posted it. Or at least lots of second looks—something was certainly changing by the Jordan River that day and the world would never be the same.

For those of you in this room who have been baptized, do you remember your baptism service? Who was the pastor? Do you remember who attended the service? Or even how you felt being touched by the cold water?

I was seven years old when I first touched the baptismal waters. It was in a Tennessee church. The baptismal pool was positioned in the sanctuary to the side of the pulpit—much like this one. I remember being excited about the big day. My grandparents had come for the service—both sets. I was getting a new Bible from the church with my name monogrammed on the outside cover. My father, the pastor, would be the one immersing me in the water.

I don’t recall much about the actual baptism service other than the waters being cold (it was a especially cool March morn). And being glad that it was all over. I never much like all the attention being focused all on me.

But how did I get there?  About out a month prior I’d told my parents I wanted to become a Christian. I felt sorry for the things I’d done that had made God sad. I wanted to be an official part of the congregation. In my church growing up only baptized Christians could take communion. I didn’t want to be left out of that anymore.

Looking back on my seven-year old self now, I am not sure quite I had any idea what I was getting into. And maybe I was too young to have making such a life decision but regardless it was a choice I made and waters I entered into and my life was never the same.

For me it would take a church camp experience as a 12 year old to begin to understand what happened to me when I made the choice to follow Jesus—and for me to begin to really claim Jesus for my life slowly but steadily of course with some major bumps in the road. And in those moments at camp as I tried to make sense of my life and what God wanted from me, the thing that came back to my mind was my baptism.

I remembered my baptism. And I knew that in remembering it my life’s direction was no longer just about what I wanted to do. Rather it was about connecting my life to a greater mission. And that mission was of Jesus—a Jesus who wanted to know me personally.

See because in that moment when my dad baptized me in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit—calling upon the names that were present at Jesus’ baptism, my life was affirmed as not my own.

And yours, oh baptized friends of mine is not yours either. Hear me say this: baptism is not about you. I dare say it is not about feeling guilty about sin. It’s not about making sure you’re on the rolls when you get to heaven. Rather it’s about you following in the footsteps of Jesus in such a way that you allow Jesus to have ownership over your life.

Though we often celebrate in our churches baptism as happy, celebratory times (we get cakes, we threw parties afterwards or we might even give the person being baptized a gift), I believe that baptism as Matthew’s gospel shows us today is about death as much as it is about life. It’s about dying to our self—our own desires, our own plans, and our own goals and saying to Jesus, “What do YOU want from my life?”

Before performing a baptism, the pastor approached the young father and said solemnly,' Baptism is a serious step. Are you prepared for it?'

'I think so,' the man replied.' My wife has made appetizers and we have a caterer coming to provide plenty of cookies and cakes for all of our guests.'

'I don't mean that,' the priest responded.' I mean, are you prepared spiritually?'

'Oh, sure,' came the reply.' I've got a keg of beer and a case of whiskey.'

We can laugh about it but also know that this father had missed the point altogether.

It’s about a moment of spotlight yes. It’s about a moment to take a picture. It’s about a moment to take a picture and share with others—as we do in 2014 called a selfie.

But it is also about what we DO when we get out of the waters.

In whom do our loyalties lie?

By whose life do we model our life after?

In Marcus Borg recent book: Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, describes the conversion experience of baptism in this way:  it’s “more than changing religions or joining a new church. It can also mean [and should mean] ‘a process, whether sudden or gradual, whereby religious impulses and energies become central to one’s life.”[2]

Baptism, thus is not something that we do, or is done to us, or gets us into membership at the church (as many might think), but the first step in our process of formed in a completely new way of thinking and being in the world than is natural to us.

Because no longer as a baptized follower of Jesus do we get to sit on the sidelines of life and pretend like being a Christian is someone else’s job or just the preacher’s responsibility. It is all our responsibilities because it all of our stories to tell.

You may have been baptized years ago, so long ago that you barely even remember the occasion or who was there or how you felt. But it doesn’t matter. You are still a baptized believer and because of this you have a calling on your life.

Take a minute and go back again to see who you were sitting next to as you took your selfie this morning—look at the picture again. And consider it your remembering your baptism photo. That on this day when you came to church, this picture can remind you of whose family you belong to and whose you are.

You are a beloved child of God for in whom God is very well pleased.

Say it with me: “I am a beloved child of God in whom God is very well pleased.”

For some of you in this room, baptism is something that you’ve thought about or maybe even considered but you’ve never chosen for yourself. You’ve never had a pastor place you under the water. Today, on behalf of this entire community that loves you and earnestly wants to know more talk to one of us about being baptized in the near future. It’s a big choice. It’s a scary choice. But I have to say that it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

And for you it will be too. For in giving up control of our lives and allowing God to do what God can only do, we actually become who we were really meant to be in the first place: first and foremost a child of God with purpose and mission for your life today and moving forward in the future.

Thanks be to God for the gift of baptism and for this day to remember it!

AMEN


[1] Nancy Rockwell:  “A Bite in the Apple” http://biteintheapple.com/the-selfie/

[2] i] Quoted in Kate Huey, “Weekly Sermon Seeds: Mark 1:4-11- New Beginnings”http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/january-8-2012-the-baptism.html

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With no thanksgiving holiday to wait to pass, Christmas came early this year in Nairobi among the FTC family. It was a delight to be able to share in a worship service with the entire Kenyan staff this week.

God Finding Us
Dagoretti Children’s Center, November 22, 2013
Nairobi, KENYA
Isaiah 1:2-4, Luke 2:1-20

When I was a child, staying close to adults who were in charge of carrying for me was never my forte. I was the oldest in my family so I often thought I knew how to do things all by myself—even if my caregivers directed me otherwise. I liked to wander out on my own. I was a nightmare to keep up with in a grocery store!

According to the many stories that my mom could tell you if she was here today, I loved to go by myself when we were shopping even as young as 3 years old. I very much liked to look at aisles of things that interested me. Then, I would often come back to the shopping cart with things I wanted— with little regard for how much money my mom had already told me that she had to spend. Needless to say I often got into trouble!

In fact, I got so good at wandering off (scaring my parents to death, I’m sure) that my mom had to create a signal of sorts to find me. It became her sign to me: her famous whistle. I would show you what it sounds like, but I was not blessed with the gift of whistling. Anybody out there can whistle? (From now on in the rest of my sermon, when I say the word whistle could you help me out—those of you who can whistle by whistling?)

The funny part about my mom’s whistle is that it became one of those cues in my mind that still is with me. Even today, if I’m out with my mom in a store and she wants me to find her, she whistles. Sad, though that it works, even at my age. I’m a grown up who comes when my mom whistles—kind of like when you might call a dog.

And today as we just heard a reading before the time when Jesus came—taken from the book of Isaiah, we see that the Israelites they weren’t very good at staying close to their caregiver, God, either as they waited. They were so ready for their waiting to be over that they TOO started going out on their own. They did what was right in their OWN eyes.

Though they’d heard countless prophecies about the coming of a Messiah—about a man who would save them from their sins, in their heart they’d stopped really waiting or trusting in God to take care of them.

No longer did they see the need to listen for God. No longer did it matter to stay close.

No one was doing those daily practices like praying or reading scripture. No one was telling the truth anymore. Corruption was the name of the game in the land. Did you hear how Isaiah describes them? None other than a “a brood of evil doers!” Strong language, huh?

However, in Israel’s defense, though, by time we get to the beginning of our gospel reading for today, God had been silent for 400 years. From the end of the Old Testament to the start of the New Testament was give or take about 400 years. Can you imagine how long that was? A VERY LONG time. And if you think about it, what was there really to listen to anymore?

But then, their whistle came. And, it came loud and clear. Luke 2 verse 1 begins: “In those days Ceasar Augustus issued a degree that a census should be taken of the entire world.” God used the political situation in the land to start the whistling process.

As the story goes, Mary and Joseph each in their own way got the news that Jesus would be their son. Jesus would be born. God was about to show up in the flesh.

When you think of Christmas what do you think of? (RESPONSE)

Many people, when they think of Christmas they have in their minds images of lovely manger scenes, beautiful people smiling, and lots of pretty decorations.

But, what was going on with this whistle—of God coming to earth through this baby named Jesus—was a huge redemption plan: a plan that would one day touch the lives of you, and you and you and me.

Though the peoples of the earth had made many mistakes and though the peoples of the earth were corrupt as they could be and had each turned to their own way, God was about to whistle loud and clear a message of: “I have found you!”

Have you ever stopped to think how crazy God’s plan of redemption was as it began in that very first Christmas?
I mean, really, what was God thinking hanging all of the hopes of the world on one birth? Just ONE birth.

Yes, a birth, the middle of the ancient times when medical care was not at its peak—childbirth was very risky enterprise in fact.
Yes, a birth of one child, of only one child, given from heaven to the fragility of human hands and a teenage mother at that with little training on child-birth or raising!

Yes, a birth, of one to a world where anything, yes, anything could go wrong at anytime?

Yes, a birth, in horrific conditions that could have easily caused the most willing mother and the most support father and even the most eager shepherds to give up?

What was God thinking, I mean really whistling in this way?

If you are a logical person (which I like to think I am most of the time), hanging all your hopes in life on ONE THING as God did in this case was a crazy thing to do.

When I have a plan, I always like to have a back-up plan. If I have a plan A, I would like to have a Plan B. What about you?
Life is just too fragile, just too uncertain for the hope that only one plan would actually work perfectly, right?

How many times have you in your life set out to do something and it doesn’t go as planned? How many times have you hoped for something, prayed for something only to find out that it doesn’t come out exactly the way you wanted?

If I were to make a list of times in my life where ONE plan did not work out perfectly the list would be longer than could ever be written down in this room! Pages and pages and more pages in books could be filled with disappointments of plans not working out.
But, in our gospel reading for today, all of God’s hopes for the blessing of all the world were on one womb . . . one night . . . one mother . . . one willing partner . . . one band of shepherds . . . ONE chance to get it right or it would be a fail. For, there was not a back-up plan. There was only ONE plan.

And, in this one plan, God trusted Mary and Mary’s body . . . as there was no room for error.

God trusted Joseph to be there for Mary . . . as we are told no midwife attended to the birth.

God trusted the shepherds to respond . . . as there were no other visitors right away.

God trusted the angels to sing . . . . as they were the creators of the first carols. God trusted the star not to refuse to shine . . . as without the star, the shepherds did not know where to go.

The only ONE plan was built upon God’s trust in everything happening as it should.

Recently, Kevin and I traveled to the US state of Hawaii. It is a beautiful state with lots of palm trees and beaches right next to the mountains. I was to preach at a Christian School conference and Kevin was learning about programs there that helped children and families. While we were there, we met a lot of homeless people—though we thought was strange because it was a beautiful place. But as we walked the streets to go shopping (and I stayed close to Kevin this time—I didn’t get lost), I can’t tell you how many homeless people we met.

I asked one homeless man to tell me his story. He said, “I used to be homeless in the Mainland part of the United States. However, I lived in a very cold city, so I got a job and saved all his money to buy an airline ticket to fly to Hawaii—almost 10 hours in the airplane from where I lived.”

When I asked him what he expected to do when he got to Hawaii, he told me: “I trusted it would be ok. I didn’t even think I’d get a job here. I heard about a program where people live together on the beach. I figured if I just made it there—even though I was so far from home and without a home—I’d be ok.”

I could hardly believe what I heard. No backup plan. No concern for a real home. Just plans to be ok in a place so far from what was normal or familiar.

And, so, it was the posture of God that night. God had one plan and one hope! It’s wasn’t normal to us and most certainly was not what we expected. But it was God’s plan, nonetheless.

Though no studies have been written to qualify the odds of the whole Jesus being born in a manger thing working out, the fates of this world were all stacked against this plan working out too . . . who could believe that a teenaged mother and a lowly group of animal watchers in a borrowed stable could be a part of something magnificent?

But, yet we know on that Holy Night, the greatest gift of all times would be welcomed by just these folks—folks who weren’t anything special as far as the world was concerned but CHOSEN by God. It’s was God not normal, but wonderful plan.
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Though such a story can be hard to believe sometimes: that a child, who was called Christ, the Lord was born and was thriving from the first day of his day in the arms of a mother who treasured all these things in heart, this is our faith, my friends!
Our faith is about God showing up and doing only what God can do.

How often, though, our faith is questioned at this point? How can we believe something that doesn’t make perfect sense?
Yet, I am going to pause here and ask you to reflect with me, my friends, do we really want a story that makes perfect sense that is fully understandable?
Do we really want a God in our lives who is just like us?

I don’t know about you, but as this year comes to a close and I look at all that has gone wrong and all that is not right in this world, I know one thing: that is that I need my God not to be just like me that I can understand, explain away and come to life through Christmas decorations.

Life is just too messy. Life is just too painful. Life is just too busy. Life is just too unfair for it all to depend on someone with a mind like mine.

For, I want to testify today that I need a God who is faithful, even beyond my most faithful friend to bring about something beautiful in my life and in the deep corruption that seeks to destroy the GOOD that could be in this world.
I need a God who can work through the most impossible of circumstance to bring about something new, something that I cannot create on my own even when I get lost.

For, I need a God who can’t be explained through formulas or charts. I need a God who can create a new path so that in the midst of the darkness of this world, a great light is seen again.

For, I need a God to do the impossible . . . . to show up, to be present once again and to show me that life is not as it seems just as it is now.

If you are with me with any of this, then I tell you the good news today: Christmas, then, is just for you.

This is the season to rejoice with what was not yet. It is the season to imagine what we cannot see. It is the season to believe in the possibility of loving fully once again because Jesus first loved us.

As simple as the coming of Christ in the form a baby, years long ago, this is it! This gift is the gift that has the power to bring us this Christmas exactly what we are hoping for.

It’s THE gift of knowing in our darkest days we are not alone, in our most confusing journeys there is always more than we can see.
In our life situations that don’t make a bit of sense, there is big star out there, guiding us, guiding us home again.
Silent Night, Holy, Night. All is come, all is bright.

Calling all dreamers . . . calling all wonderers . . . calling all grieving friends . . . calling all those who want a life different than you see right in front of you right now.

God is whistling for you. God is signaling your NAME.

Come again this year and meet the babe Jesus the Christ, the most Holy One, the one who has never given up on us and will keep whistling for us until we follow.

Thanks be to God for this gift of Christmas.
AMEN

These days the life plan of our household never extends beyond two months ahead-- and this is if we are lucky.

Kevin and I take opportunities as they come. Kevin never knows when the next international crisis will hit that will need us to pick up and travel. I never know when an opportunity to help a friend or congregation out with preaching will come up either.

Though people often want to "know our schedule" I have to say we don't really have one! Kevin and I look at life with the most broad strokes of openness, strokes I could have never imagined embracing even a year ago.

So with this said, the last two weeks, our travels have taken us to Tennessee and Hawaii (with Kevin having a stop back at FTC headquarters in Oklahoma City in between).

I am traveling more and more with Kevin because:

1) It is great to actually see my husband

2) Writing projects are something I can do anywhere

3) I've started working in the PR/ Communications department of FTC alongside the Director for Social Engagement (i.e. I help with social media posts like those you find on Facebook and even more exciting projects in the works).

So- Nashville was stop one on this two-week tour. In the course of four days on the ground, we visited with the staff at the NEW LaVergne, TN FTC distribution center, distributed books to inner city kids at a Nashville school, assisted with a food distribution to 800 needy families at a Nashville church and attended a FTC fundraiser in Franklin, TN with celebrity guest such as Evander Holifield and Naomi Judd.

I was tweeting up a storm and also had the chance to catch up with my Nashville family while I was in town as well.

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Then the following Saturday, we make the trek across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii. And no, it wasn't for a vacation and it wasn't a vacation.

I was invited to preach each day at the Hawaii Baptist Academy Christian Emphasis Week in the elementary school.

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The theme for the week was "Sticky Faith." Every day we look at Biblical characters who were known to have faith as described to us in Hebrews 11. Noah, Abraham and Moses were among the standouts. Each morning I lead in chapel and then had opportunities to roam around the campus and hang out with students participating in "sticky" activities that helped them make their faith their own.

By the end of the week I think most every student in the school could answer the question: "What is faith?" by saying, "Faith is believing in what we can't see."

I was delighted to work alongside such a great team including the Christian Minister of the school, Cindy Gaskins.

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On the last day of chapel, I was able to share more about our work with Feed The Children-- telling the Hawaiian children about other children in the world who are seeking to share God's love where they are as well.

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Meanwhile, Kevin spent time at this foundation-- learning more about their work with homeless children and sustainable agriculture. All experiences that could help him and his team strengthen the work of the domestic programs in the Mainland of the US.

After two weeks of travel, I was so glad to be home (the Oklahoma home that is) and have spent the last two days doing laundry.

It is a joy to me to see so many of the different plazas of the world and be able to still stand on them as a preacher and minister.

Continuing with my series of questions about the life of faith. Up today: why do you read the Bible?

When I was a child, I was told that the Bible was God's word, no errors in it at all. Moses, you know, wrote the first five books and Jesus said word for word everything we find in the red letters.

I was taught to read scripture regularly because this helped me to live a life pleasing to God. I was told to have a daily scripture readings in my routines, to memorize scripture, and to use scripture to help me figure out what it was that I was to do in my life, finding a life verse to guide all my days.

I was encouraged not to stray from the morals of the good book (no drinking, fornication, or wearing two piece bathing suits were among the favorites of my youth pastor)-- for if I did, then bad things might happen to me  the pastors said. And who wants that, right? I needed to follow orders!

In fact at my church, an extracurricular activity for us church kids in elementary school was Bible drill. "Study to show thyself approved unto God" we were told over and over again. The implied message was God would like us more if we knew this Word.

On Sunday afternoons before choir practice, we'd memorize the books of the Bible-- learn to say the book before, the book after (for example, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus). We'd memorize scripture passages-- 25 a year. And, after a school year of prep, we'd go to competitions-- local and statewide. In 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th grade in fact, I was a state champ in Bible drill in the state of Tennessee. Bible drill seemed to take well to me and I to it. I knew scripture well, at least the lections I was taught, verse by verse at a time.

When you are taught the Bible this way and encouraged to think of the Bible this way-- as something to be conquered as something to be read in chunks, you can easily begin to take scripture out of context. For example, verses like I Timothy 4:11: "A woman should learn in quietness and full submission" can be used destructively, destroying the self-confidence of an entire gender of the human race. As as I heard Brian McLaren say at a conference this year on children, youth, and a new kind of christianity: "Scripture can easily become loaded time bombs ready to explode."  Yet, when your faith begins to beckon you to ask the bigger picture questions where there are no easy answers, confusion, disillusionment, and apathy can easily set it.

I've been reading this week, Rachel Held Evans' book Evolving in Monkey Town and she speaks of her personal journey of just this. (A great read, I might say. Check it out). After growing up in a conservative home in the South, Evans finds herself  as a young adult wanting to love scripture, knowing it well, but being repulsed by it and the community she reads it with  for they have great distaste for her questions. My story is similar.

There came a point in my life when I stopped reading the Bible for devotional reasons. It was the second month after I was ordained as a pastor. What should have been the most joyous junture of my life was one of the lowest. I wondered what in the world I'd gotten myself into, being a "professional Christian" who now was not allowed to question her faith?

Regardless of any fears, cold turkey one morning I gave up devotions. My morning routine changed for years from what it had once been. Again, not something that you expect a preacher to admit but it's the truth. It was just so hard for me to reconcile the faith I was taught in small chunks of Bible drill with the God I wanted to love, the God I thought I knew, and the faith that I knew had the power to do something for good in the world.  I was upset that the church wanted to condemn all of my friends of other faiths without even the chance to know their hearts.

I could have very easily lost my faith. I could have easily lost my job if my supervisors knew it. It ate me up inside not to be a space where I could be honest. But, I knew I needed rest. I needed to find another way. And, soon I found myself into the loving arms of Washington Plaza Baptist Church.

Preaching every week has saved me.  By making it a point to preach in context with an eye for the "non-tradition" interpretation, with eyes open to apply to my own life-- step by step I've come back. For in having to wrestle with scripture every week no matter how I felt or didn't feel, God has spoken to me, guide me to center again. Preaching has helped me engage with texts that have just been what I needed to see God's presence in some difficult situations of my own life.

And though there are those colleagues of mine and naysayers who want to say, "Shame on you. How can you be a preacher if you only read your Bible in preparation for your sermon?"I say thank God I had at least sermons to preach regularly for the last several years! And, at least I'm being honest.

I'm now beginning to read scripture again, but never like I did in elementary school or even college when I used to spend hours doing Beth Moore expository studies on the back porch of my dorm room.

I read scripture to see God's story-- to see how God has faithfully guided humanity into relationship with the divine. I read scripture to know who God is-- to gain a countercultural view of the world where the first shall be last and the last shall be first. I read scripture to be reminded of God's inclusive love for all people-- to see how even in the passages I want to throw out for their harshness of cruelty, there's a message of hope, justice and concern for all. I read scripture to remember who I am and who I'm not-- I am a beloved child of the great mystery of the divine.

I'm glad for how the gift of weekly preaching has saved my faith over these past four years. I'm thankful for a congregation who has entrusted in me this privilege, having no idea what kind of gift they were giving me to grow alongside them. I'm glad that the memory verses I learned as a child were not wasted on state trophies long past, but have come to be a part of the larger picture of faith I keep finding a way to make my own.

For I believe, all of us are on a journey with scripture-- a journey that is unique as the fingerprints on our hands-- and who are we to judge the quality of one another's faith by the sheer number of times we pick up the book? Who are we to ever say 100% that we know what a passage means? Who are we to say that the revelation of God through scripture will not continue to find us, no matter what we do? Even preachers need to hear the good word too. Church everywhere: give us grace to grow-up too.

Guest blogger: Jayme Cloninger

On February 19, Washington Plaza Baptist participated in the Baptist Women in Ministry's Martha Stearns Marshall day of preaching by inviting Jayme Cloninger to preach, a recent college grad who is a friend of Pastor Elizabeth.

Jayme currently serves as a human rights advocate for the Enough Project on the Raise Hope for Congo Campaign in Washington DC. Jayme grew up as a small town girl in Denver, North Carolina, where her heart for global missions and social justice grew in her involvement with local community development work and her three trips to South Africa. After attending Samford University in Birmingham, AL (where Pastor Elizabeth also attended), Jayme followed her passion and vision for faith and human rights to help mobilize the faith community and grassroots efforts to influence US Foreign Policy towards the Democratic Republic of Congo. Jayme is thinking of going to seminary sometime in the near future.

I'm proud to share her sermon here! I know you will be blessed as you keep reading. We all think Jayme has a bright future in ministry ahead!

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Thank you for sharing your Sunday morning with me and for this opportunity to participate in a declaration of truth found in Isaiah 43. As Pastor Elizabeth mentioned, in honor of Martha Stearns, a pioneer for women in ministry from the second half of the eighteenth century, this month, Baptist Women in Ministry are inviting young women to preach a sermon at a local Baptist church. And so, here I am, a young female, giving my first sermon. A place I never thought I would ever be.

I grew up in a traditional home, where I was homeschooled for all 12 years, and attended a pretty conservative Southern-Baptist church. Jokingly, I often refer to myself as a recovering home school evangelical.

For my parents, homeschooling was an opportunity for them to raise their children with a “godly education.” As a result, my faith is very much interwoven with my love for academia. Education and faith were seen as two tools for breaking generational sins. Both my parents come from broken homes with alcoholic parents, sexual abuse, poverty and so much more. Higher education was not an option when the reality of life called them to care for their younger siblings. And so, when the time came for them to raise their own children, they looked to faith and education as the gateway to redeeming the generational sins that have for too long tainted our family history.

Reconciliation for a broken past and hope for a better future are two things both my parents eagerly seek after from the Lord. In telling my mom that I would be speaking from Isaiah 43, it shouldn’t have surprised me when she  immediately began to recite the verse from memory, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Following the promise recited, my mother asked, “Jayme, did you not know that Isaiah 43 is my favorite chapter in the Bible? Did you not know that I pray those words for our family everyday and have done so for thirty years?” I couldn’t hold back my tears. In that moment, chills ran down my spine, for I could truly sense the Lord’s renewing spirit in not only my life, but also in the life and story of my family.

As with each of you, my story will continually evolve, a fluid journey of past, present and future. When we look at our past circumstances, we often get caught up in over-analyzing what was, in the hope of creating a solution for the present that will allow us to avoid the same bad situation in the future. In doing so, we allow our past circumstances to define our current situation.

Now, let me pause here and ask a question: Do we really want to be a people who orient our lives according to the past? Is that the hope that we have?

This is where we find the people of Israel in Isaiah 43. A people who allow their former transgressions to determine their lack of present hope, blinding them to the faithfulness of God.  Here Yahweh calls out the promise of deliverance in saying, “I am about to do a new thing.”

The Lord declares that “now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” In the present moment of despair and exile, God reminds His people of his continual faithfulness. For the presence of God never left, it was continually in the midst of exile and despair.  

If the truth of God’s faithfulness and redemption was true for the people of Israel in their dark season of defeat and captivity under Babylon, how much truer are those words for you and I in our present season in life?

God calls on Israel to adopt a new way of life. A way of life that is not bound by their sins or their transgressions. As the Lord moves through history, from the story of Israel, we witness hope come to fruition in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ. Thankfully, with the life of Christ we can actually experience the new. For as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 5:17, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, all things have become new.” This new creation, this new way of life is a life redeemed. A life bound no longer by death, but by a resurrection.

This morning, I would like to spend the rest of our time together discussing what it truly means to live in the new, to live a life bound by the resurrection of Christ.

Such a conversation is timely with the transition from the season of Epiphany into Lent, and for those who has participated in the sermon series God Calls, and the study on spiritual gifts. As you have walked through Epiphany, you have wrestled with its practical implications for your individual lives. This season of Epiphany has been a time for us to celebrate the revelation of the mystery of Christ.

Pastor Elizabeth has walked with you through a large discussion on how God calls each one of us to live out the gifts God has given us. I to have been on this journey with you. Reading and following Pastor Elizabeth’s blog and having numerous follow-up conversations with her and other friends. In the initial sermon on God Calls, we reflected on what it means to care for oneself, and how to glorify God with our bodies as agents of service and love.

From the story of Jonah, we learn that God Calls you and I to “those people.” God commissions you in love and deed to care for all people.

In the study of the Spiritual Gifts and the sermon on God Calls you to Listen when No One Is, we see the life of Samuel and how the Lord developed in his heart the ability to listen keenly to the Spirit and to use his spiritual gifts for the Kingdom. Here we are challenged to use our Spiritual gifts, as did Samuel, to bless others.

In the previous two sermons, there has been an underlying theme of renewal. As Pastor Elizabeth pointed out, with both Israel and our present lives, “because God was God-- the ruler of all, the Lord of all, the Creator of all things, even in exile, even in these undesirable circumstances--- there is a call for renewal. A call to begin to consider anew the most troubling circumstances in light of who God was and is.”

So what does it actually look like for each of us to live in the new, even in the midst of our own moments of exile?

We may be surprised by the answer.

As God parted the Red Sea and brought Israel out of Egypt into the wilderness, in their second exodus, God promises to “give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.” The water in the wilderness is God’s faithfullness to continually redeem and make all things new. God is not bound by the previous exodus to usher in a new act of salvation. As God did for Israel, God will surprise us with his ways for redeeming our past and present.

As did Israel, we often fall victim to our own works to live out the new. Our problem solving skills not only burn us out, but as we read in Isaiah 43, we end up burdening God with our self-attempts at righteousness. We often miss the core of experiencing the new, connecting with the eternal.

As Paul Tillich put it,There is something that does not age, something that is always old and always new at the same time, because it is eternal. That which creates the new is that which is beyond old and beyond new, the Eternal.”

In The Shaking of the Foundations, Tillich continues to explain that with the life of Christ, we now have the opportunity to live a life that represents the very thing that transcends the old and the new. Love.

Through the mystery of Christ we are revealed a new kind of love, a love brought through self-expenditure. A love that took on our human nature to overcome our transgressions.

In living out this new, we have each been equipped to carry out this love for the edification of the body of Christ and the service of the Kingdom. With your study of the spiritual gifts, you may now realize that you are a perceiver, server, teacher, encourager, giver, ruler or been given the gift of mercy. May this love become the revelation of the new in our lives.

It is easy for us to talk about using our gifts as we sit in a church and have room to reflect on their meaning. But what happens when we are back in our moment of exile? Our moment of defeat?

As someone who is an advocate for justice and human rights, I daily seek solutions to broken situations within our society. I serve as a community organizer for the Enough Project, an anti-genocide and crimes against humanity organization. Specifically, I focus on the conflict in eastern Congo, a place known to be the home of worst war since World War 2, claiming over 6 million lives. It’s a conflict perpetuated by a corrupt government, struggle over natural resources, where rebel group control and battle the different mines and in attacking other local mining communities, use rape as a weapon of war.

For me, as someone who is far removed from the conflict and who works inside the beltway to make Congo a priority for US Federal Government, I daily battle with the cynicism that there is no hope for Congo.

I started this job in June of 2011, and in the first half of my time at Enough, I was overwhelmed by the history and situation of Congo. When you think you have a solution to a problem, you usually will cause another.

After about six months, I began to finally meet a lot of the Congolese diaspora community here in the United States, opening the door for new friendships to be cultivated. These relationships give me hope.

The Congolese community mobilize themselves around practical solutions for the crisis in their own country. Despite not being able to directly care for their friends and family in Congo, they are using their time here in the US to raise awareness and pressure the US Government to take stronger action on Congo. The diaspora model for us what it means to live in the new, advocating for hope and peace, in the midst of the worst trials and moments of exile.

Just as the Triune God advocated for the freedom of Israel in exile, and his deliverance through Christ, so too are we to advocate for hope and justice in the midst of our community’s darkest season in life. In our new creation, we are to model the same love Christ has lavished us with. For Paul continues to write in 1 Corinthians 5, “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

As ambassadors of Christ, we have been given the tools to live out the new and to advocate for God’s continual redemption in and through the world. Adam Taylor, the director of advocacy for World Vision, writes in his book, Mobilizing Hope, “God has made us for a profound purpose. When we sit on our gifts or make a litany of excuses for why we aren’t prepared or able, we block the manifest glory of God that is within us. Trying to tackle injustice based on our limited abilities means playing small. Instead we must tap into the renewing power of faith to overcome the barriers that get in the way of transformed nonconformism.”

And so, I pray that as you transition from the season of Epiphany into Lent, that the eyes of your hearts will be opened to the power of the spirit in your life to equip you to live in the New. To live a life bound by the resurrection of Christ. For as Tillich eloquently said, “Love is the power of the new in every man and in all history. It cannot age; it removes guilt and curse. It is working even today toward new creation. It is hidden in the darkness of our souls and of our history. But it is not completely hidden to those who are grasped by its reality. "Do you not perceive it?" asks the prophet. Do we not perceive it?