Lent: Permission to be Human

Lent is my favorite church season, it allows our feelings of the darkness that is happening on this inside to be experienced outwardly. It is the season where we stop pretending that faith is easy and we walk a line of doubt and belief.

From dust we came, to dust we shall return. 40 days where we let our mortality show, and honestly, let God’s mortality show, through Jesus. During Christmas we emphasize how he was born of a woman and came to earth both fully human and fully God. We talk details about how fragile a baby he was, like any other. However, when you mix his birth story with the sensational story of his conception the human part of the story gets overshadowed (see what I did there…).

It’s the same thing with Easter. When we only focus on the sensational story of the resurrection, we miss the humanity of it all.

On the night of his arrest when the meal was over, Jesus walks into the garden, and he asks his companions to stay awake a while and pray with him. He goes a little farther in and prays to God. “Please don’t make me do this. Please.” He wails and gnashes his teeth, and pleads for his life. He does this three times and in between he finds his friends sleeping.

He is not whining, and I abhor the version where the “devil” is tempting him (in John’s gospel). Because it is this moment, here, why I am a follower of Jesus Christ today.

When I was in college I was a religious studies minor. I learned about God in all forms. I loved reading the sacred texts from different world religions and people’s experience of them. I liked to think through the implications of the belief that all things are sacred from different languages and different parts of the world.

After this, I asked myself, “Why do I want to be Christian when I see God in all these religions?”

I thought about where I had come from and what my history was, does it make sense for this Irish-German American to be a Buddhist? Then I didn’t care what it would look like. Then I cared again. Not so much the “look” from other people, but if I found the Sacred in many forms, why not go with the one my heritage taught? But I still needed one to “hook” me, I needed a passion for one religion over another and heritage wasn’t enough.

Finally, I got to the point where I asked, “What do I want most from God? What is the thing God can give me that the world cannot?”

The answer was fairly simple, it was the thing I had sought most in life: To be understood and accepted.

This wasn’t so much about church or community, I was seeking God, something more than humanity. I do not claim the yoke of Calvinism often, but I do when it comes to the sinfulness of humanity. I do believe in the human capacity for greatness, for goodness, but I also believe that it is we who create the bad in the world, not God.

As I sought acceptance and to be understood from humanity I found myself continually let down. Which is not those people’s fault as much as that gift can only come from God. We are all, if we know it or not, walking around trying to cope with being mortal.

In order to receive all my credits for the degree I had to take a class in Christianity. I had already received my call to seminary and was on my way. (I know it feels like I had done this backwards, but faith and life plans don’t always work together.) And so the only class available to me was Introduction to New Testament.

My faith had grown, I knew who I was, I knew who God was, and I was trying to reconcile the two. It was about this time of year when we were making our way through Matthew’s gospel. And there it was…

36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. 38 Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” 39 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” 40 Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? 41 Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial;[e] the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” 43 Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. 45 Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.” -Matthew 26:36-46

The world felt like it paused for a moment. I sat in awe. I wept.

Jesus, son of God, Word of God, the voice of God on earth, who came to earth so God may know us better, just did the thing I needed him to do the most. He grieved, he was scared, he was let down, he felt alone.

Now that’s a God I can get behind. That’s a God who gets me. That’s a God who will understand and accept me because in the end these moments are not weakness but strength, and this Christ knows it.

This story is read at the end of every Maundy Thursday service in my church, one of the last days of Lent and I weep every time I hear it.

It makes my experience of life and this world so fully understood and accepted. And I could not ask for more from my Savior.

I do not know what this Lenten season will hold. The world seems so dark. I do know that I will ask questions and explore my mortality through prayer that may include wailing and agitation and gnashing of teeth and that’s okay, after all, if it’s good enough for Jesus…

coxvsxgumaekd5a

A Reoccurring Theme

I have told the story before, of how I became a follower of Christ. I was studying world religions in college, I connected with all of them. The respect for life in Jainism, the compassion of Buddhism, and the connection to the earth in Native American Spirituality. I really wasn’t sure about this Christian thing.

However, I was pulled and pulled back to Christianity, if felt inauthentic to be anything else. I was a  middle class, suburban white girl with an Irish/German heritage. Be Buddhist? yeah, I knew what I thought about those people. (judge me all you want for thinking this, but I did). Eastern Religious philosophy was at it’s height in making it’s way into American pop culture, and after spending some time with the sacred texts I got even more self-righteous about being authentic to my native religion. If only I could connect to it in some personal way. I found God in all the texts and none of the texts, so what made Christianity so special?

Then I found it.

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” … “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.” -Matthew 26:36-46 (excerpts)

If Jesus, the Savior, the Messiah, the Son of God, whom we worship and adore could, in his most vulnerable moment, doubt. Ask God to stop this terrible, terrible thing from happening to him. Be strong enough in his faith and his trust in God to ask, beg, and plead to be saved from the terrible betrayal human do to one another, then that is a God I understand.

God says no, of course, and Jesus begins the journey we call “The Passion” narrative. First, he is betrayed by Judas with a kiss on the cheek, then by Peter where he denies knowing Jesus, three times.

We all know what happens next, Jesus is crucified although committed no crime. His last words are ones where he asks forgiveness for his betrayers and killers. Then God breaks the cycle of sin and shame and gives a big middle finger to the betrayers of the world through resurrection. I love every bit of the story and it’s symbolism. However, as I grow older the stories of Jesus, the stories of my spiritual journey change.

When I was a teenager I needed to be understood, more than anything in the world. I sought to understand, I learned everything I could, I became an active listener, I taught, but I desperately wanted someone to understand me. The story of Jesus in the Garden echoed that need.

Yet, here we are 20 years later and my needs have changed, and thus, the story that draws me in to my faith.

This summer I’ve been working through some of the hundreds of questions Jesus asked in his ministry, some are familiar and others more obscure. As I wrote the liturgy for the summer one stuck out to me, surprised me, and reminded me of the longing I had years ago for a God who “got me.”

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.” -John 21:15-19

First, let me say, I feel like Jesus is Eliza Doolittle and Peter is Freddy Eynsford-Hill from My Fair Lady. Think about while you watch this…

Jesus teaches us forgiveness all throughout his ministry, but as much as the disciples are, at times, downright idiots and very frustrating companions, they don’t really do anything wrong. Person after person asks Jesus for “how to” and “WWJD” scenarios about forgiveness and he tells them to forgive an infinite number and tells the story of the Prodigal Son.

But again, I want to follow a God who isn’t just words, and I believe that God expects the same from me. This brings us to Peter. Jesus trusts Peter with everything, he is the rock on which the church will be built. Jesus hands Peter his baby and says, “raise it like your own”.

When he is resurrected he first seeks reconciliation with Peter. Peter, who made the ultimate betrayal. “Peter do you love me?” “Yes Lord, you know I do!!!” Peter is insistent and downright angry for being asked such a question. He knows he is in the wrong and is so frustrated with himself, how could he have messed up so badly? Stupid, stupid, stupid!

And, like Eliza, Jesus responds with, “then show me.”

Love as I have loved, nurture the poor in spirit, humble yourself. You have my grace, my mercy, and even forgiveness, now it’s your turn to show me I was not wrong about you. Have as much faith in yourself, as I have in you. Follow me.

Faith is a wonderful thing. I love God, I love Jesus, I love my neighbors, but if I neglect for one minute to feed and tend and nurture than I have betrayed Jesus all over again. I do not worry about his grace being extended, this is his promise, but faith demands action, Jesus demands action, not just words.

 

2014 Lenten Installation

I walked into a meeting last fall and we discussed our Lenten theme “Dynamics of Faith” loosely based on the Paul Tillich book of the same title.  There sermons are here. But what sort of symbol could we use for faith? Last year our theme was atonement and the sanctuary was filled with crosses.  Then we realized that the stained glass windows in the sanctuary, especially the front ones, displayed symbols of faith:

photoThen, somewhere in throwing out ideas we were talking about the outline of the series. What Faith Is, What Faith is Not, Faith and Doubt, Faith in Action, and Faith in Community.

Then came the conversation about stumbling blocks, or barriers, or boxes…

We left it at that.  Something with boxes…

Rob Kelly, the amazingly talented Director of Contemporary Music and Creative Arts that I work with found this as an inspiration. The idea went from there.  I got a package that was the exact size, math was done (badly mind you) and 350 boxes were ordered, painted for dimension, and installed over the last 6 weeks. Here are the results:

photo 2 (2)

photo 3 (2)

photo 4 (3)

photo 5 (2)

Today as we prepare for the final Sunday before Easter we have blocked out the symbols, we have darkened the curtains, we have turned inward during this season. The walls are closing in, and the tomb is closing, on Easter morning the curtain will be torn and dazzling white will spread throughout the sanctuary.  Until then, we wait.

 

 

Even When I Saw It Coming

There are a few moments in life in which I am blindsided by an emotional reaction.  When I tell a story in a sermon in which I have an emotional reaction I actually read it or speak it over and over so I can get the “emotion” out. The story is still moving, but when I’m preaching I need composure to be able to move on. I don’t have the option of breaking down for a few minutes (although this has happened and it’s okay when it does, but it can’t happen EVERY time).

Yesterday I was having a conversation with a friend and I was telling him that I cry at the same moment in baptisms.  The “Thanksgiving over the water” as I touch the water for the first time with (most of the time) a baby in my arms, I cannot help but be moved. Is it the deep seeded promise of the baptism? Is it the beautiful baby? Is it the energy of the room and the overwhelming love that is felt? I don’t know, and can one really be separate from the other?

But even when I know it’s coming, I can feel it, I can see it ahead of time and try to stop it, the emotion still rushed forward.

Image

This happened to me yesterday.

A week or so ago a parishioner texted me and asked permission to quote part of the benediction I use (you can find it here, embedded in my statement of faith) in her Christmas/New Year’s Letter. Of course, I said. The words are not mine (and even if they were you could have them anyway), but are associated with me.

So when I took the mail out of the mailbox yesterday and saw the card with her return address I knew what was coming. I knew she was ending the letter with the quote.

So I read the letter in the kitchen while warming up dinner, knowing her family well, smiling at their successes and her pride and love for them. Yet when I reached those words, the words I say every week and knew were coming… when I read them, I began to cry.

“Those who you love, and even with those whom nobody loves”

Even when I saw it coming, I cried.

I thank God for these moments that remind me that my faith is not just in my head, some say we cannot always trust the emotional reactions, but I say, for me at least, they are a reminder that faith is more than words, faith is felt, held deep inside, a place that can be touched even when my head anticipates and tries to block it.

Today I Broke the Law

Okay, I really didn’t mean to! But while driving the kids to daycare, my 5 year old was talking nonstop.  As always.  I was paying attention to what she was saying as closely as I could having just gotten out of bed and no caffeine in my system.  We were trying to turn left and I had pulled out into the intersection while the light was green, but listening to lil pie I got distracted looked up and the light was red.  It had been red for a few seconds, and I had a split second, I had to turn, but the parallel traffic already had green arrows and I quickly turned right in front of a police car…

I waved and said sorry as obviously as I could, but as I drove on I looked in the rear view mirror to see if he was coming after me to give me a ticket.  After a few seconds he wasn’t coming, but I didn’t feel relief.  I almost wanted him to come back and give me a ticket.  Lil pie had, of course, noticed that I ran a red light and was asking 101 questions on why and how and why and how…

I deserved a ticket.  I was distracted I broke the law, it happens all the time.  Now I admit, if there are cameras that catch me I will be upset because I can rationalize it away, I was blocking traffic, what choice did I have? But I like rules and laws, I don’t always agree with them, but I usually follow them. And when they are broken I like to see justice done, even if it means a ticket for myself.

Justice is not only important to me when it comes to the laws of this country and state, but justice is a vital part of my beliefs.  This week, during the election I participated in what I considered an act of justice.  I voted, here in the state of Maryland to legalize “same sex marriage”.  This is not something I usually talk publicly about as a minister, but I do feel that it is important to do so.  For me “social issues” of a political nature revolve around justice for me.  Jesus was very clear, in my opinion, that the golden rule “Do unto others and you would have them do unto you” and “Love God with all that you are and your neighbor as yourself” is more important than whether or not we touch the skin of a dead pig or plant 2 different crops side by side, or get tattoos.

Yes, there are parts of scripture I lift up more than others, everyone does, but I believe in the movement of the Holy Spirit, I believe that every piece of scripture should be read with the golden thread of loving God and neighbor as oneself.  So there are texts where I disagree, but who said we were supposed to follow everything exactly how it is written in the Bible? Aren’t there some lessons we need to hear about so we can learn what NOT to do?

So if we love God and neighbor as ourselves, then I believe my faith brings me to a place that says “yes” to same sex marriage.  It is a matter of justice and love of my neighbor. Just as pay equality and affordable healthcare, and yes, even a woman’s right to choose. This is not to say I agree with every choice every person makes in their life. But I do not believe that loving someone of the same sex is a sin, 1 John says that all love is from God, and those who abide in love, abide in God.

You may disagree, and many of my parishioners and colleagues do disagree with me, and they have the right to speak that in their own way and vote how they choose.  After all, there is freedom of religion and freedom of choice in our country and free will in my faith.

But as much as my state and part of my country has affirmed my beliefs in my social values, I have to say my denomination has not.  Same sex marriage is legal in the state of Maryland, but my hands are tied and it remains “illegal” in my church.  This saddens me.  My church has made me an agent of the state (or vice versa) when it linked my ordination vows to the county clerks office and I can sign marriage licenses.  However, I abide by the laws and rules, and I have not yet performed a marriage that bond two people in love that were of the same sex…yet.

But the saddest part for me, as an GLBTQ advocate is that I have not been asked, I’m not talking about from friends, but no one is calling the church asking us to marry them.  No one is beating down our door (to be fair this is probably not the case for More Light Churches), because the church has abandoned this community by continuing to see them as “other”.  By creating a lower class out of them and refusing to live into the belief that all love comes from God. This is not justice, and this is not loving God and neighbor.  I was privileged to have the right to marry my husband in a church with an ordained minister, why should my neighbor not have that same privilege?

So today I broke the law by running a red light, and there was a pang in my stomach, wanting, pleading for justice from a simple act.  But it really just reminded me that there is a larger justice in the world to fight for, and I might even be called some day soon to break the law. Not the laws of my state, but the laws of my church, and then too, if the call comes, I will face justice.

Proper Greeting

O Lord, how shall I greet you?

Shall I crawl on hands and knees over gravel? Allowing the rock to tear my flesh, allowing the physical pain to match the unworthiness I feel to approach you?

Shall I greet you like the monks of old who pray repetitiously as they flog themselves?

Would that satisfy you? Would that show you my humility in approaching you?

Shall I approach you as a well seasoned Christian? With my Bible in hand, speaking the words of the Lord’s Prayer? Praying Psalm 23 (in the King James Version of course) until my death?

Shall I sell all my possessions? Will this satisfy you? Will this show you I’m ready to know you more fully?

Tell me, show me, teach me!

Shall I learn to sing like an angel? Shall I learn the 12 steps of prayer? Shall I stand on a street corner and scream hate to passerby’s?

Maybe if I could heal the blind? Maybe if I turned from my family, my children? Maybe if I left my job to follow you?

Maybe if I prayer every morning at 8am, maybe if I lived in a house in the woods away from everyone else.  Maybe then I could greet you properly?

 

If I could only become perfect…

Be perfect.

A perfect Christian, a perfect wife, a perfect mother and friend.

 

But you don’t need any of this do you?

If I open my heart.  If I open my soul to you. If I give into my deepest desires for you.

No one can take your place and no things can fill the void in my life that is there when I turn away from your face.

So I come to you, the way you made me, wholly yours, struggling to balance, sometimes crawling because I’m not ready, sometimes running frantic because I lost you in a busy crowd.

 

How shall I greet you?

With who I am, the one you made me to be. Hopelessly full of hope. Perfectly imperfect. Struggling to let go of the right way to do things and simply greet you.

Amen.