A Liturgy for the Festival of the Christian Home: A Blessing for All People and All Families

A Liturgy for the Festival of the Christian Home: A Blessing for All People and All Families

It has always been true - from Biblical times until today - that families have had a variety of ways in which they are expressed. Many of us have dear and close relationships with our families of origin, but so many of us do not. In light of that, we have found ways to create families of choice, form covenant relationships with spouses and partners, and become loving and caring people to children of all ages. 

Read More

Holy Week Meditations

Welcome to the Guided Meditation for Holy Week

This guide will help you navigate through nine stations throughout the church. This meditation will give you an intimate look at the last hours of Jesus’ life.

We are busy people, and these are busy times, and so we’re glad that you’re here and that you’ve taken the time to be in this sacred space.

We are going on a journey today, and at each station, you will encounter a text which describes what Jesus did during Holy Week. As you make your way along the path, we invite you to reflect on the texts. As you leave the tomb—the final place in our journey today—you will have opportunities to think about how the text might affect you in the here and now. What does the text mean for the Christian life today? What does it mean for your life?

Keep in mind that we live in a world where time is based on linear-thinking. We know of life as past, present and future. But, the God of all, who created us to live in this world, is not bound by time. So, the events of Holy Week are not bound by history. The events of Holy Week recur each year as if they are happening all over again.

There’s no need to rush. The goal is to think about the text as if for the first time and then to think about its meaning for your life today. It requires listening with new ears and seeing with new eyes. So, take as much time as you need, and give others the time and space they need as well.
Breathe deeply. Relax. It’s okay to go slowly and let your mind wander.

Our journey begins with Monday of Holy Week, on the day following Palm Sunday. In our first text, commonly referred to as the cleansing of the temple, Jesus enters the temple courtyard, and, seeing the business going on there, begins to drive out those who were buying and selling and he overturns the tables of the moneychangers. He interrupts the temple activity because it had become a substitute for the activity of justice and righteousness which
God commands.

What Jesus did in the cleansing of the Temple was an interruption. An interruption of the normal, day-to-day way of doing things. It might have been a Holy interruption, but it was an interruption nonetheless.

An interruption…

Keep that word in mind as you begin. It will be important. Interruption. When you feel ready, you may enter the courtyard, and, as you make your way to the first stop, remember that this is a Sacred Space and a Sacred Time.

Blessings on your journey.


Messages Image(481317695).jpeg

Station One:  Jesus Cleanses the Temple
 

Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through t he temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations?’ 
But you have made it a den of robbers!”

And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when the evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.  
- Mark 11:15-19


If you wish, close your eyes and imagine this scene:

 

        ...Business as usual… then t he violence of Jesus’ anger… the shock of the onlookers…Pause with the scene for a moment, and let it unfold in your imagination.
What in our world,
            The church,
                        Your own life
                                 Makes Christ this angry now?

Invite God into the place where you hold these thoughts, images and feelings in your heart. This is your chance to give these things over to God, and let God be angry with you, for you. Wherever you are, I invite you to “overturn” the tables of the things that have set up camp in your lives and hearts.  Smash them, break them, let them go. Watch as the good intentions that have turned into bad habits & misguided actions are turned on their heads.

When you are ready, continue reading. 


 Jesus Prays in Gethsemane, Bobby Strickland

Jesus Prays in Gethsemane, Bobby Strickland

Station Two: Jesus Prays in Gethsemane

 

They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” And, going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, “ Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

 

He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
And again, he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more, he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. He came a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”  - Mark 14:32-42

 

Jesus came to the garden to pray. Here, in this quiet space, we invite you to focus on the painting of Christ. Look at his expression. What do you see?
As you read the scripture, how does it make you feel to know that Jesus was distressed… agitated?
What is he asking of the disciples? Why can’t they seem to do it?
How does it make you feel, that Jesus prayed for the hour to pass from him?
Let this be your prayer, as you sit and contemplate:
“Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

When you are ready, continue reading.


Messages Image(120741998).jpeg

Station Three: To Mock Your Reign,

O Dearest Lord

 

Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace; and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to        
crucify him.—Mark 15:16-20

 

Here, you will find scraps of purple cloth, and a crown of thorns. I invite you to touch the thorns, to feel how sharp they are, and to run your hands over the soft fabric.

The actions of the soldiers were humiliating and scornful, and yet, during this Holy Week, the mocking and derision still pointed to the truth of the Gospel: that Jesus is the King of the Jews, the Lord of Life, the Son of God and the Son of Man.

What do you find that you mock or deride in your own life? A person? A relationship? A job? Consider why you have such deep feelings, and seek to discover why. Are you afraid, of love? Of success? Of failure?

We mock what we desire, and what we desire most is to be loved. Yet, to receive love is often the most challenging thing for us. So, we hurt Love. We hold it at a distance. We scorn it and question it and wait for Love to leave.

Jesus came that we may know the fullness of God’s love. Like the soldiers, we deny that Love because it is too powerful, too mysterious, too overwhelming. We flood our minds with doubt.  We place a thorny crown on the head of that which we most desire. But, for God, nothing that we do will separate us from God’s love. As you sit, open yourself to the possibility that God’s love does not have to be scorned or mocked, but can be accepted.

When you are ready, continue reading.


Messages Image(1665243408).jpeg

Station Four: Take up Thy Cross, and Follow Me

 

The soldiers compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross. It was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus .

—Mark 15:21

We know little of Simon of Cyrene, except that he was the one chosen to carry the cross for Jesus.

He was willing. Able. Weighted down.

Here, you will find the cross that we use on Sunday mornings. If you are able, I ask you to lift it up out of its stand. Feel the weight in your hands, watch how it pulls you forward, and the force of gravity makes you want to put it down.

As you feel the heaviness of this cross, consider the weight of the cross upon which Christ was crucified. It was massive, made of hewn logs that weren’t hollowed or sanded. Not only was it heavy, it was also rough and abrasive.

When you are called by Jesus to take up your cross, what do you imagine lifting? What, in your life, is so heavy and burdensome that you crave and desire help to carry it?

Who in your life might need help with their cross? Is there someone who is struggling that could use your strength and comfort?

Now: Consider what sort of “cross” Jesus is calling you to carry as you follow him. What makes being a Christian hard for you? What do you struggle with most? 

As you consider the cross, ask Jesus where you are being led. Consider picking up your burden and following where Christ is calling you to go.

 

When you are ready, continue reading.

 


Messages Image(1834715469).jpeg

Station Five:
Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?

A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. But Jesus turned to them and said, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.”

Then they will begin to say to the mountains, “Fall on us”; and to the hills, “Cover us.” For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?’ Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to Golgotha, the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus* there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’—Luke 23:27-34

 

 “And they crucified Jesus there with the criminals.”

It’s horrible. These eight words contain the greatest sin that humankind ever committed. We crucified Jesus, the Son of God, our Savior… the embodiment of love. 

Here, you will find a hammer and nails. You are invited to hammer a nail, carefully, into the wood that’s available. Hear the ring of the hammer. The echo of its force.

What have we done, O Lord?

And yet, Jesus’ first words are, “Father, forgive them;
for they know not what they are doing.”

Pray for forgiveness for the things in your life that you find most unforgiveable.

God is willing, if we but ask.

When you are ready, continue reading.



Messages Image(2217192147).jpeg

Station Six: Casting Lots

When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. So they said to one another, ‘Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.’ This was to fulfill what the scripture says,
‘They divided my clothes among themselves,
for my clothing they cast.’
And that is what the soldiers did.
                                                   —John 19:23-25a

Before Jesus died,
the soldiers took charge
and led him out,
“just politics,”
they said.

And suddenly they were there
the skull
the horrid mount
stripped,
naked,
he refused the anesthesia and was pounded into wood.

Gambling, laughing,
cursing, mocking,
weeping, hoping,
praying -

a casino at the cross.
-Brother Maria Anthony Serval

 

Here, you will find a set of dice. As you read the poem above, hold the dice in your hands.
Roll them around.

A Casino at the Cross…

What do we gamble on today?

We take things that are so trivial, and give them power and value when they have none. A tunic. A simple tunic, gambled away by the soldiers at the foot of the cross.

This is your chance to take away the power that you’ve given to arbitrary things. To set down the dice, and refuse to gamble for something that means nothing. We don’t have to take chances with God. We’ve done our worst, and we’re still loved and forgiven.

 

When you are ready, continue reading.


Messages Image(2647949227).jpeg

Station Seven: Woman, Behold your Son

 

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.        —John 19:25b-27

 

Jesus has always pushed us to reconsider everything we hold dear—institutions, possessions, now, our family systems.

Jesus says to his weeping mother, who birthed him, nursed him, fled with him, fed him, taught him, rejoiced with him, lost him and found him… “Woman, here is your son.”

He knows that she is looking at her own flesh and blood in its most vulnerable state. As an infant, she washed his feet, belly, chest and head. She knows him intimately. And here, for all the world to see, is her son, naked and dying. Bleeding and wounded. Broken.

It’s a heartbreaking scene. But, Jesus says to the disciple with her, “Here is your mother.” In this absurd moment, on the cross, Jesus shakes even the bond of family. Or so it seems.

Perhaps what Jesus is doing is restoring those bonds, so that when Mary weeps for her son, she will have another to comfort her. Jesus does not leave her alone or abandoned. He provides a new relationship, with the Disciple Whom He Loved.

How is it that Jesus has given you hope out of sorrow? Brought for life, where there was death? How is it that a heartbreaking death made a place for new relationship to begin?

 

When you are ready, continue reading.


Messages Image(2647949227).jpeg

Station Eight: The Death of Jesus

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice,

‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’

which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’  Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’ - Mark 15:33-39

 

On the ground at this station, you will find a Bible, open not to the scripture above, but to Psalm 22.

Read it through.

Do you see the echo of the words Jesus shouts from the cross?

Read the Psalm again. Listen and be attentive to the tone throughout this Psalm. How does it change? Do you see the Psalmist moving from one emotion to another?

What does Jesus’ invocation of these words, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” tell you about his final moments on the cross? How does it make you feel to think that Jesus felt forsaken… by God?

Remember that Jesus was wholly divine and wholly human. His death was not divine punishment, but truly God suffered and died, as well. If you choose, light the candle, and let it burn for a bit. Blow it out before you leave to signify the darkness of this moment.

When you are ready, continue reading.

 



Messages Image(301205840).jpeg

Station Nine: 
The Sealing of the Tomb


After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.

 

 

They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
                                                                                                                        —John 19:38-42

 

After death, all we can do is mourn. We go through the motions of grieving and preparing, and when Death makes itself welcome in our lives, we have to accommodate it. 

Before you, you will find some anointing oil and a linen cloth. You are invited to use the oil to anoint your head, as a reminder that we will meet death ourselves, one day. Our mortality is always with us, and the promise that we receive is that we are not alone, even in death.

Today, we prepare to bury the body of Jesus. He has been crucified and has died the same death that we will one day face. 

Give thanks that God loves us, even through our own sinfulness and brokenness. God refuses to be without us, even in death.

When you are ready, you may finish in silence.

My Lenten Discipline: Advocating for Meaningful Gun Violence Prevention

My Lenten Discipline: Advocating for Meaningful Gun Violence Prevention

I am dedicating my Lenten practice to learning more about how to make effective changes relating to gun control. It is time for me to get the statistics right and reconcile my values with my actions. It is up to all of us to remember what it means to be pro-life, and decide if the right to bear arms is greater than someone else’s right to life. 
Repent, and sin no more.

Read More

Do You Reject Evil?

d2ac9a9b-48c4-46be-91a7-8fdbab874180.jpeg

The very nature of evil is when we presume our own selves to have more value than anyone else’s.

It is this force that convinces us that we are more important than our neighbor, more important than God. It is this force which compels us to believe that our own desires trump love, peace, and justice. It is this force that tells us our value is negotiable, and it is up to us alone to protect and defend that value.

It is evil that nudges the insecure: “Your security will come from dominance.”

It is evil that nags at the weak: “The best thing for you to do is threaten another.”

It is evil that whispers into the ears of the lost: “The only way to fix this is to die.”

This is what we have witnessed with alarming severity in the last several months.

The events in Charlottesville, the church shooting in Antioch, TN, and the horrific news of the mass shooting in Las Vegas all leave us with the unanswerable question: Why?

There is no definitive answer to the “why” of white supremacy, racism, and death literally raining down upon the heads of innocent people.

There is no sufficient answer to “how long, O Lord?” as we watch the daily manifestation of evil, in all of its forms, threaten the safety of innocent people.

As artist and activist Judy Baca said, “The earth herself is literally protesting the evils we have done to her.” Mountains are crumbling, oceans are swirling, winds are destroying. Even the stones are crying out in protest to the ways in which we, all of humankind, have seen ourselves as more important than the Other – the earth, our neighbors, the next generations, God Almighty.

The nature of evil is what compels us towards death. Evil’s duty is to move away from light and truth, and marches those in its grasp firmly by the ear towards the ever-enveloping chasm of loss. It is powerful, convincing, and all too often… inarguable.

If we are promised that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, then Evil is the exact opposite of this. Evil, literally, is the Anti-Christ.

Evil is the wrong way, a bitter liar, and the manifestation of death.

My own cynicism in the face of evil’s rise is, itself, a form of evil’s power over me. I listen to the words of people saying, “God is with the brokenhearted,” and I feel anger churn in my belly as I doubt the sincerity of the speaker. My own cynicism leads me to feel unmoved by prayers or the use of scripture. These prayers may be heartfelt - who am I to know otherwise - but the omission of deep truth in the sentiments fuels my indignation. This is evil, manifesting itself in me. And, for this, I am sorry, and I confess how wrong it is.

So, what do we do? How do we respond in the face of evil?

I wish I had an easy answer for this. As a Christian minister, I will tell you that we believe something powerful about our baptism. In the United Methodist Church, we ask parents of tiny babies an absurd question when they present their beautifully coiffed children for baptism:

“On behalf of the whole church,
do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
reject the evil powers of this world,
and repent of your sins?”

Every set of parents I’ve ever encountered replies with a shy, “I do.”

There’s no better response, given that I have just told them that in order to proceed with the beautiful sacrament of baptism, which offers a beautiful encounter with God’s grace, we need to know that they defiantly renounce the forces of wickedness and evil in the world, and in their own lives.

What a radical thing baptism is.

This is no pleasant photo-op, with generations smiling around a squalling and confused infant.

This is a big, big deal.

I know that “remember your baptism” doesn’t initially feel like a sufficient response to mass shootings, natural disasters, or the rise in white supremacy.

But, my friends: what if it is?

What if, in remembering our own baptisms, we remember that we ourselves possess the power to reject evil in this world, in all the forms in which it presents itself? What if, in remembering our own baptisms, we remember that we have the power to fight each and every manifestation of wickedness?

Think of what we can do if we remember our baptisms and the day in which these promises were made on our behalf?

It means that God has granted us the power, dignity, and ability to stand up for what is good, to serve as good stewards to creation, to love our neighbors.

Friends, we can pray. We will pray. We are praying. God Almighty, have mercy on each of us. But, we can't wait any longer to DO something.

So, start with remembering your baptism – return to the beauty and grace of that moment, the good intentions that God has for the unfolding of your life, and work from there. Pray for what your next steps can be, as one empowered to tell even Death itself that it has no power.

Today is not a day to let evil win, and if we give up, it will. This is why God called us to be the church: because we can be the light which shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never, ever overcome it.

—Originally punished at Rethink Church, http://www.rethinkchurch.org/articles/questions/do-you-reject-evil

The Love That Reassembles Fragments

IMG_7034.JPG

Two and a half years ago, I moved 2,000 miles away from my beloved home in Atlanta to take a job on the West Coast. I settled in to my new home, with its view of the Pacific Ocean, and did my best to recreate the life that I’d left behind.

Early on, during one of my unpacking sprees, I found a coffee mug that dear friends had given to me before I left. It had a gorgeous sketch of the Atlanta skyline on it, dancing around the perimeter. I love coffee almost as much as I love Atlanta, and this was a treasured item to discover. In my sentimentality, I began using it almost exclusively each day.

Until one day, I dropped it in the sink.

A large piece broke off of the side, marring the beauty of the skyline. I held the sharp fragment in my palm, enormous tears welling up in my eyes. I hated the symbolism of what I was holding. I ached at the pain of losing so much of what I loved about life: my friends, my job, my home. I let the dangerously jagged edge rest on the softness of my hand and thought about how deep the wound of loss is. How mystifying grief can be, with its ebbing and flowing and refusal to ever be complete.

As I looked at the mug, the remaining part that had stayed intact, I noticed that its groove was clean and smooth. The place where it had broken was open, facing out.

I gently set the fragment back in the gap, looking to see if I was missing small pieces that had scattered beyond my knowing.

The piece seemed to nestle back in place, perfectly, even in its brokenness. I managed to find a mostly-used tube of Gorilla Glue (which had mysteriously made the trip) and carefully squeezed it around the edges of both pieces. I matched up the ceramic edges, watching as the amber glue both welcomed the union and got out of its way.

My beloved coffee mug was no longer broken, but it also wasn’t restored. When I tried to put water in it, to test the strength of the reinforcement, I was dismayed when it leaked out the side.

I kept the mug. I couldn’t bear to throw it out, even though it couldn’t be used for coffee drinking any longer. This broken vessel was forever changed, even though it appeared whole from the outside.

In some ways, that mug became more precious to me. I guarded and protected it. Soon, I realized that I could use it for other things. It has become the container for my daughter’s paintbrushes, beads, colored pencils. It has held rocks that needed keeping, receipts that couldn’t be lost. It became something new to me, with a revived purpose and wider use.

The late Derek Walcott, a Nobel Prize-winning writer, offered this wisdom:

“Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole."

This is true for our lives, as well. The risk of loss chases us through our lives, and every time we dare to love or dream or hope, we risk the possibility of failure. All of us have lost something — a job, a relationship, a dream. When we lose something, the echo of its absence seems louder than anything. It feels as though we’ll never get over it.

But slowly, over time, we can open ourselves up to the awareness of the new thing that’s happening in the space that was created. I believe that God works to lovingly bring us to new life, even in the wake of our loss. This is what holds me up on my worst days: the idea of God relentlessly working to bring good into the world. This is the sort of love that reassembles our fragments, and makes us into more than what we could ask or imagine.

We believe in resurrection, which is a weird thing. It seems irrational and mysterious, this idea of life triumphing over death. But in reflecting on my own experiences, I can see how God has worked to bring me back to life, if in a new, but recognizable form.

The love that reassembles our fragments when we have been broken is the truth of resurrection. It takes more work to love the brokenness, to piece it all back together, to behold the reclaimed image of who we are — scars and all — and say, “This is my beloved.”

***************
This article was originally written for and published by Rethink Church. The link to the post can be found here:

http://www.rethinkchurch.org/articles/spirituality/the-love-that-reassembles-fragments

Listening for God in Times of Fear

IMG_8291.jpeg

If there is one thing to say about the season of my life in which my marriage failed, it's that two things kept me afloat: my children and my ability to serve in ministry.

As I began to get a grip on my emotional response to losing my spouse, I turned to God with some fist-shaking urgency. I could not figure out why God would have brought me here, just to watch my family dissolve. It wasn't enough that I got to watch breathtaking sunsets into the Pacific Ocean each night. I was homesick, lonely, scared and depressed. More than anything, I wanted to pack up my children and a select few boxes and drive back home to Atlanta.

But, I knew I couldn't do that. I knew I didn't want to live without my children for months during the summer or over every break or holiday. I didn't want them to have a bi-coastal existence. It wasn't good for them, or for me, or their father.

About six months after I'd moved to Laguna Beach, I went back to visit Atlanta. I tried to see as many people as I could, to gather up the strength and courage I needed to return. In that visit, I saw my friend, Cheryl. Everyone needs a Cheryl. She is relentlessly supportive, loyal and positive. On my worst days, she would offer something that brightened all of it. I met her for dinner, and I really hoped she'd say to me, "We love and miss you so much. We cannot carry on without you. Return to us, please!" There would be weeping, hasty phone calls and a team of hundreds to help us unpack as we returned. But, instead, Cheryl read me something she'd written. I sat, listening, with a mixture of deep gratitude and abundant sorrow. I sat, sucking my bottom lip, as she said:

Remember that we of Saint Mark will always be with you. We will always have a space for you and yours here with us, where it’s comfortable and familiar.

But you can’t stay here. 

You have much to do in your life.

My wish for you is that you stay in love with God, support your spouse and raise your children well. But I also dream that you show many more people what it means to be loved by God - sort of like a smoother, warmer, (less-tattooed) version of Nadia Bolz-Weber – by showing them who YOU are - our own “Reverend Mama”!

The UMC, and truly, the greater church, has to change. We have talked for a while about “Re-THINK Church”, and even envisioning a new “church”.

You’ve so many gifts – you are smart and beautifully photogenic. You are already a singer and now a songwriter. Because of your empathy, your warmth and your caring personality, people are naturally drawn to you.

You could be a face and a voice of the UMC.

It’s a win for everyone – the Church, the people, and yes, dare I say it, even God! 

You, living in California where you have greater access to media, could be instrumental in making this new church happen. 

So, go back to the other side of the continent with our love and our blessings and the knowledge that you’re destined to share your gifts with many more than us.

We will always support you and pray for you and love you.

And welcome you home.

It was everything I hated to hear, and yet, exactly what I needed. Few people could have planted those seeds with such care and compassion. A year after she read this to me at my favorite restaurant in my favorite city, I scoured my inbox to find her words. I needed to hear them, again.

Because, I wanted to believe Cheryl. I wanted to believe that God needed me in California. I desperately needed to know that God had brought me here for a reason, and I needed to know what it was: NOW.

As I started doing more wondering and exploring, I realized that in the newly-found onslaught of alone time, I was starting to be drawn back to the things I loved most. Music, theater, museums. I spent time visiting Los Angeles, because I love the city. I craved an attachment to an urban area, and loved the vibrancy and diversity of life there.

During one of my drives back from LA, I intentionally turned off my GPS, and roamed. I accidentally found myself in West Hollywood, and my first thought was, "I've found my people!"

I looked around and saw familiar sights, familiar people, familiar circumstances. I realized that this was the place to which God was calling me. I know how to serve in a place like this. I know how to reach people who haven't been reached. I know how to share God's love with people who have been hurt. I know how to reach out to people who are hungry - spiritually and physically. Not only do I know how to do these things, but I feel *called* to do them. I felt the overwhelming assurance that Frederick Buechner writes about when defining vocation:

The place God calls you to

is the place where your deep gladness

and the world’s deep hunger

meet.

Driving through West Hollywood, I found that place for me.

I felt a sense of deep gladness, to feel home and comfortable in my setting. Not just comfortable to settle into contentment, but clear on the work that could be done.

I saw the world's deep hunger, manifested in many different ways.

As I continued to explore the city, I noticed something else important: the churches that were growing like wildfire were all conservative, evangelical churches. This is not news, nor is it a phenomenon exclusive to the west coast. But, I had long been thinking about the nature of the church, the future of my beloved denomination, and the ways in which the culture of Southern California is very different than that of the South. My affection for the Beer and Hymns movement had already shown up in at least one sermon, and I believed that if the church, as we know it, is going to survive, then it is in desperate need of adaptation.

I simply can't believe that the only reason conservative evangelical churches grow into mini-cities is due to their theology. It might be compelling to some, but it's certainly a turn-off to others. The question that had been plaguing me for months was, "Why doesn't someone get their act together and form a progressive evangelical church?!"

And then, in a comically predictable lightening-bolt moment, I realized:

That someone was me.

Falling in the long line of people who felt called by God to do something unexpected, my first answer was, "Really?! Me? You can't be serious. I have no gifts in this area, no experience in church-planting, no previous interest in such work." The apostolic lineage of doubters in their own ability is really very humbling. It's an honor to share in their succession.

But, the more I prayed about it, the more I realized that my entire course of my life and ministry had been preparing me to do such a thing. I couldn't have imagined that the circumstances of the last few years would bring me to a new place of wonder and opportunity.

Truly, it is pruning which yields the ripest fruit.

Everything certain in my life had been stripped away: my home, my community, my family, my traditions, my expectations. To think about forming a new faith community in the heart of a city I knew little about was daunting, to say the least. But, I couldn't have considered this possibility coming from a place of comfort or contentment. I literally have nothing else to lose.

It seems as if this is the best time to take a risk, to try something new, to plant seeds in soil that has been left fallow (and covered in a fair amount of manure, to boot).

So, I started formulating a concrete plan about what seemed clear and certain. I started reading books by Rick Warren and attending church-planting conferences to glean all the wisdom that I could. I stopped feeling so persnickety about the success of conservative churches, as I realized that the world is filled with people, and there are certainly folks who will not be reached by their interpretation of the Gospel. There are plenty of people - billions, in fact - who have not yet had an invitation to engage their faith in a way that's invitational, non-judgmental and open to wonder and question.

I became clear on my focus: my new faith community needs to be committed to two things, in principle:

  1. The radically inclusive and unfailing love of God, shown most powerfully through the ministry and grace of Jesus Christ.
  2. The radically inclusive and unfailing love for one another, shown most powerfully through compassion and service.

The expression of this community needs to be done through excellent, creative worship and preaching. As my friend, Chuck, says, Sunday is not the reason we gather, but the celebration of all we have accomplished during the week. For some, this will mean celebrating the gift of feeding hungry people. For others, it will mean staying sober 4 days out of 7.

The seeds of this community will root and grow in our commitment to faith formation for all ages and familiarity with the Bible and theology. We will strive to empower our community to feel confident in reading Scripture, knowledgable about how to engage these texts, and passionate in living out what we believe.

The growth of this community will be seen in acts of service and outreach, social justice and advocacy. If we are not living out our faith in real ways, then we are empty vessels. There is so much work to be done in the world, and God literally became Incarnate to show us how to do it. We will take the teachings of Jesus seriously. Matthew 25 is a chapter that's been referenced a lot since Trump took office, but it's no more relevant now than it has been at its uttering:

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 

‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ - Matthew 25:34-40, NRSV

Feed. Quench. Welcome. Clothe. Care. Visit.

Those six verbs will guide our work. Because Jesus said so.

This isn't new. In fact, it's the oldest possible mission statement for a church. It's just that we've gotten so sideways in how we live it out.

I also feel strongly that a building isn't necessary for our work. We need places in which to gather, yes. But, the temples we've built have become our idols. I think the Body of Christ needs to be freed from the expectation that people will come into our doors to seek out the Gospel, and we, as Disciples, need to take seriously the work of bringing the Gospel to the world.

I started quietly sharing this idea with a few people, to test the waters and see if I was crazy. Or, at least, if I'm the right kind of crazy to tackle this sort of work.

The idea took. I shared it with a few more people. And a few more. Soon, I was talking with my District Superintendent and the director of New Ministries. A few weeks after that, I was sharing my story with the Bishop. And, a few weeks after that...

I got a phone call.

As it happens, there is a faith community in the heart of Downtown Los Angeles, which happens to need a new pastor: Los Angeles First United Methodist Church.

In 1853, the church was born in the converted El Dorado Saloon.

Yes, friends. A bar. I like to believe that this was the first expression of the Beer & Hymns movement.

Los Angeles First UMC was a leader in the abolitionist movement during the Civil War, partnering with the courageous emancipated slavewoman, Biddy Mason, in the struggle for integration. Over the last 160 years, LA First UMC has helped to found the University of Southern California, Goodwill Industries, Methodist Hospital, the Chinese Mission, Children's Learning Center, Los Angeles Urban Foundation and several affordable housing properties in Los Angeles.

They have a long and rich history of taking the Gospel into the world.

LA First UMC is also a Reconciling Congregation, which means this community is committed to actively welcoming all people into the whole life of the church, from membership to leadership, especially those of differing gender and sexual orientations.

But, as a part of their rich history, they have gone through a lot of changes and adaptations. This includes the sale of their building, the purchase of a new property, and the decision to build affordable housing for seniors and for families on said property, in lieu of a church building.

There is no temple to maintain.

And, for the last year, they were deemed "dormant." They had no pastor, and an uncertain view of their future. I believe fully that my season of laying fallow and their time of being dormant are no coincidence. We were just waiting for the time when new life could begin.

I don't think I could have scripted a more incredible answer to the prayers I've been praying. I think God likes to sit back and watch as we wrestle, since God is much more comfortable in the expanse of infinity than we are with our finitude.

Beginning July 1, I will move to Los Angeles to make something of this vision God has given to me.

I have been appointed to serve as the Senior Minister of Los Angeles First United Methodist Church. They have a committed legacy congregation: the Faithful Remnant. The have a long history of doing incredible work in the city to help those who were most in need. They have a revenue-generating parking lot which helps to fund their work (who ever heard of a new ministry that isn't panicking about money?!). They have hearts and hopes and a calling to be the church in radical ways. We are thinking of this as a 163 year-old new church start. I am thinking of this as an answer to prayer.

This is just the beginning. The deep breath before it all begins.

We all welcome your prayers. Me, for the work that is to come, for the people I've yet to meet, for the Gospel we try our best to share it and live it. For my children, who through the blessed work of compromise, will not have to change schools in this transition, but they will still have a season of adjusting and re-learning. For Laguna Beach UMC, who is set to receive an amazing pastor, and I couldn't be more excited for the future of all that is to come to this beloved congregation. For Los Angeles First UMC, who will live into the promise of resurrection.

Here is to all that is to come. Thanks be to God, who most certainly has a sense of humor and far more wisdom than I can conceive. 

Untangling From the Brambles

IMG_6213.JPG

It’s no secret that the holidays are a time of evocative nostalgia. We all work through the motions of what is familiar and customary for us.

But, this holiday season is different for me. Not bad. Just different.

Last year, shortly after my oldest son’s 11th birthday, I was handed papers in the church parking lot by a stranger. A process server. They were the papers telling me that my marriage was over, and there was nothing I could do about it. I have a lot to say about that experience and what led to it, but what I care to say now is that it opened the door to three months of grief, anger and a bizarre and guilt-inducing sense of relief.

I barely remember the holidays last year. I swam through the season with a lack of consciousness about most things. I showed up to church, I did my work, I was grateful for the hour of time to be surrounded by loving and kind people. And, then I went home to an often empty house. The sudden absence of my children half the time was more than I could bear. I found ways to avoid coming home, so that the crushing awareness of my isolation wouldn’t destroy me altogether.

But, even when they were home, the grief would come in waves. While making breakfast for them, I would reach for a plate: a plate that we’d registered for, argued about, conceded to go with for now. I remembered all of the intentions, dinners, tables, places and people who had shared meals with my intact family. And, the grief of loss would wash over me again and again.

I didn’t realize that divorce was like a death. But, my spouse died only to me, not to anyone else. The world got to keep him as he was. I, alone, had to suffer the loss.

I already felt isolated in my marriage and in this new place, where I struggled to find community. But, it was a year ago that I made a new friend, a constant companion.

 

Loneliness.

 

He came to join me in the quiet moments, when I needed a friend the most. While cooking dinner, his voice would stealthily whisper in my ear, “Look at all of the No One who wants to enjoy this with you.”

As I would awake, Loneliness would press on my chest, squeezing my heart and mutter, “How does it feel to wake up alone, in a place you barely know, without your children?”

This new friend wasn’t shy. He would come over, uninvited. He would appear, unannounced. He came to work with me. He drove to hospital visits with me, and would share my footsteps as I left patients’ bedsides quipping, “How good that they have someone to visit them. Do you know who would come to see you in the hospital? Just me. I’m all you have now.”

I exchanged one toxic, unhealthy relationship for another.

Loneliness made me feel terrible about myself. I’d been feeling pretty miserable for a long time, but this new friend liked to sit with me and review all of my faults, all of my shortcomings, all of the reasons why we’d be together forever now.

I spent most nights crying myself to sleep, struggling to make sense of any part of my life. Loneliness took up a lot of space and time, and I didn’t recognize who I was when we were together. But, I couldn’t seem to get away. I was gasping for air, drowning in the suffocating co-dependency we’d cultivated.

I realized, slowly, that I had given a lot of power to my recent primary relationships; that I had given them the power over my happiness.

It was then that I made a choice. I made a choice to break up with Loneliness. He was, to be frank, an asshole, and I didn’t have the time or emotional energy to deal with him.

I did the only thing I knew to do. I prayed. Loudly, fervently, heartily, tearfully.

I prayed for something good to happen in my life, to make all of the bad make sense.

I prayed for an answer to the question, “Why would God allow all of this to happen? Why would the doors have opened for us to move here and then permit everything to fall apart?”

I prayed for the reasons to be revealed. Quickly.

I prayed for a new companion. A healthy one. A kind one. Because Loneliness knows that I don’t do well on my own.

And, almost immediately, something changed. I started spending my time with intention, purpose and joy. I met a new friend. A healthy friend. A kind friend. A very attractive friend.

The shift was sudden and astonishingly perceptible. Loneliness didn’t take no for an answer, though, and did his best to show up. He told me things about myself that were untrue. He tried to poison my thoughts about my new friend, but he made a bad case for it. Loneliness, as it turns out, is petty and weak.

As the months passed, I realized that I was untangling from all of the brambles that had kept me from thinking and dreaming freely. My mind began to wonder about things I’d never wondered about. I began to have visions, hopes… joy. I reclaimed parts of myself I forgot existed. I started to breathe and live and eat again. I laughed. I noticed the sun shining.

On our first real outing together, my new friend asked me where I saw myself in 5 years. Loneliness, who would still text me out of the blue, just to mess with my mind, sent me a message at that moment and said, “Alone. You’ll be alone, and sad. You’ll still be homesick and apart from your children, possibly so much that they won’t even miss you when you’re gone. Tell him. He already knows how pathetic you are. But don’t worry, I’ll still be here.”

But, something told me to ignore this. I reflected on how I was spending my time – so much if it awash in a confusing and heartbreaking legal process, much of it spent in meetings, and not enough of it spent with the people I love or doing the work I enjoy the most. I thought about what I was missing, and a deeper, truer, richer voice spoke louder than anything I’d heard in a while and gave me this: “Tell him you want to be doing more of what you love and less of what you don’t.”

And, that’s what I said.

As I said it, I realized that I didn’t need to wait 5 years to begin doing this. I could start now. I could start living into a reality that would bring me joy, rather than despair. I might have chosen to move to California for someone else’s benefit, but I could choose to stay for my own. I listened to my own voice give me wisdom, and I believed that I could start deciding what my own reasons were.

We finished our dinner and left, walking into the bright lights of downtown Los Angeles. I felt light and joyous. Things were easy and enjoyable. We said goodnight, and I drove home, reflecting on the choice I’d just made to make a happy life here for myself.

That was almost a year ago.

And, it’s worked. That was the day that I began to detangle from the thorny brambles that held me back.

Today, my new friend is now much more than a friend. He is my partner in all things. We laugh, we explore, we wonder, we create. The parts of my life that were put on hold are now starting to thrive and flourish. I could not have imagined all that would have come to be in this last year. I could not have imagined this kind of joy and hope in the wake of such grief.

And yet, that’s the gift that freedom brings. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t without pain. But it was necessary.

Here’s to the untangling, and the wide open path ahead.