Thursday, August 28, 2014

An interruption & an apology

[To say that I have neglected this space is an understatement, but an experience I had today needed to be shared.  So, here goes breaking a year long blogging hiatus!]

I have heard more than once that we should look for God in the interruptions.  Today brought that truth home.

The interruption in my neatly planned out day came by way of a phone call this morning.  I had decided to spend a few hours working from an office at our partner church. I was sitting at my computer preparing my talk for this Sunday’s dinner church when the volunteer receptionist came to the door.  “There’s someone on the phone who wants to talk to a minister,” she informed me. “They sound pretty upset, can you take the call?”  

Well, duh.  Of course, I can.  Seconds later, I found myself listening to a man’s life story.

His speech was labored and hard to understand right away.  I could make out that he was 50 years old and had arrived Monday night in Palm Coast after a long train trip from Los Angeles.  He made the trek there to re-unite with his parents and three sisters.  He had not seen them since he was 20 years old, but had been hoping - no, longing for reconciliation.  

He explained how they had kicked him out when he told them he was gay some 30 years ago.  He found his way to Los Angeles, where he has been living and working ever since.  He had made other attempts, but this was the craziest thing he had done.  He hoped that knowing his AIDS was advancing and seeing his physical condition, they might have pity on him.

He was wrong.

“I feel so dumb for thinking that,” he kept saying to me.  He told me he was there less than an hour before they became violent and sent him on his way.

Of all the phone calls I would take, this one had my name written all over it.  

As a follower of Jesus and a minister of the gospel, I have a strong sense of calling to embody the love and welcome I believe God has for ALL human beings, and especially those who have been rejected by so called ‘God fearing’ people - which this man’s parents claim as the basis for rejecting their son.

A few hours after our phone conversation, I found myself at the Super 8 on Phillips Highway delivering some Ensure and other snacks to him.  

When I saw him, my heart sank.  He stood there frail, eyes bulging and with little emotion.  All I could think was, 

how is it possible that so-called-God-fearing parents looked into the face of their dying son and did not immediately welcome him home?  

I could go into all of the theological reasons why I believe wholeheartedly in the full embrace and inclusion of my gay brothers and sisters (into our lives, families and churches), but that’s not for this post. There are many people who have written and spoken in depth about this with clarity and wisdom. All I can tell you is that this is not the way of the God I have come to know. God’s story, which culminates in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, leads toward love, reconciliation and wholeness.  

It is life-giving instead of life-stealing.
It heals wounds instead of inflicting them.  
It sees all people as made in the image of God instead of just some.

We talked, prayed and I gave him the food.  The exchange left me feeling sick to my stomach.
I just don’t get it.  

Parents, you gotta do better.  
Church, we gotta do better.  

Since the only place I can start is with myself,  I want to use today’s interruption to say something to my friends (and those I don't know) who know this rejection all too well:

I am sorry.  

I am so sorry you have mistreated you in the name of God.
I am so sorry religion has been used as a disguise for fear and intolerance.  
I am so sorry you have been made to feel stupid for hoping in reconciliation.  
I am sorry that you have been made to feel less than, like a mistake or a misfit, like something to be easily discarded or cast aside.  

You are not those things.  
You are loved.  
You are created in the image of God.  
You are worthy of belonging.  
You are right to keep hoping for reconciliation 
and thank God, one day you will receive it in full.

Till then, I promise to do my part to open more doors of love and welcome.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The nagging voice called "Courageous"

One of the challenges of a new church start is finding the right space to call home.  While we have been settled in the same space for awhile, I am always on the look out for something more permanent, something better suited for all we dream of doing.  On Wednesday of this week, I met with the owner of a building that has been waiting for renovation.  A former neighborhood grocery store, there are still empty refrigeration coolers filling this now over-crowded makeshift storage room.  I have driven by this building a thousand times, and have always wanted to see the inside.  Upon entering, one of my first thoughts was wow, this is a ton of space.  It is roughly 5 times as much space as we now occupy for our Sunday morning worship gatherings.

As I often do, I began imagining the potential and I began day-dreaming of the many ways we could bring this place to life. I envisioned how we could have more room for our children to learn and grow, more space for hosting community groups and more room for storing all of the equipment we set up and tear down every week.  And, so on and so on.   Just as I had decided to quiet that daring and dreamy voice and to listen to the more practical side, I heard a familiar phrase that came from deep within my heart and mind.

It's a phrase I've heard a lot lately, and one that if I'm honest, scares me quite a bit.  I've heard it as I've been in conversation with friends, in discernment meetings, and in the books I'm reading.  I've heard it in scripture, in sermon preparation and in quiet moments of prayer and reflection...

Think bigger.  Think bigger.  Think bigger.

I have to admit it's really starting to get on my nerves.  After all, I left my career, moved away to pursue a calling into ministry and said yes to starting a new church from scratch.  As a woman living in a pretty conservative city in the South, isn't that big enough?  

Apparently not.

I don't know exactly what this bigger thing is, but I have some ideas.  I have a hunch it will require me to stop second-guessing myself.   I have a feeling it will cause me to listen to the voice inviting me to risk doing something beyond my capabilities.  It has everything to do with the courage to act on the belief that God is capable of doing something even bigger than what I can even ask or imagine.

I have often joked with our church that I am an idealist, and at times have used that line to minimize what I am about to say.  It's almost like I am apologizing to them for having to endure the dream, idea or possibility I want to share.  The truth though, is that I do believe God has given me (us) a dream, and I need to stop apologizing for it.  I have a deep sense that God wants to use us to help restore a community, that God wants to use us to help restore the church, and that God wants to use us to retell a story of Love that has been misrepresented and manipulated for too long.  We won't do it perfectly and it will be overwhelming at times, but we will never realize this dream without taking some risky steps in it's direction.

I will never help us realize this dream, if I do not help lead us in this direction.

I began this year by naming courageous as my word for the year.  Looking back, there have been times when I have worn this word well.  I trained and completed a 15K, we moved our family into Springfield, I've dared to  begin life coaching, and I have had far more fierce conversations than in the past.  I'm learning to let fear be an okay thing, yet not letting it have the final say.  I'm glad there's still another five months to go, though because I sill need some practice.  I still need to trust the voice that says think bigger, and to let the dream become the vision that guides me forward. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Belief and belonging

During her first week of brushing up on church history, writer Rachel Held Evans began a blog list of learnings with this statement: "Christians have never been in full agreement when it comes to theology."  In Worlds Within a Congregation: Dealing with Theological Diversity, Paul Jones writes,
There is no such thing as the Christian faith, in the sense of anything resembling a common, agreed upon substance of belief held as a uniform center by those calling themselves Christian.  Currently there are more than two hundred fifty recognized denominations, which together weave the tapestry called American Christianity.
I am comforted and challenged by these reminders.  I've been reminded lately that no matter how clear we are about our mission and values, churches wind up being a collection of such a variety of individuals.  We bring our many experiences, backgrounds, personalities, and previous church histories with us.  We see God, scripture, life and ministry from different angles. It's what makes things lovely and beautiful...and very difficult.

The question on my mind is just how much theological diversity faith communities can handle without a disruption in fellowship.  Is there a way of being church in which the lines that have been drawn in the sand splitting so many faith groups, congregations, and denominations can be avoided?

Theological diversity is nothing new as Jones affirms, "What is new in our era, then, is not the fact of diversity but the call of the church to celebrate this diversity in a gesture of rare and expectant honesty" (p.36).

New and existing congregations have the opportunity to be safe places of belonging, where we can wrestle with our beliefs, honestly express our different perspectives and still practice the way of Jesus together.  We have the opportunity to express the gospel in our context as we say no to allowing differences to divide us and yes to peace and love toward each other.  Instead of huddling together with a homogeneous group of like-minded followers, we have the chance to work out our beliefs with fear and trembling.

That is good news for those who think they have to believe before they belong.
That is good news for churches.
That is good news for all of us, if only we would dare to embrace it.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

hope, freedom & sacred space

I encountered the question what is sacred space? recently, and it has caused me to do some thinking.  Last Sunday at The Well, I shared a brief response to that question.  I experience sacred space as the place where one's true self and God meet, I said.  It is a place of attention and openness to God's presence.  It can happen anywhere, and can stir us toward a spontaneous response of some sort.

Over the past couple of months, as we have moved through the book of Acts, we have explored the ways that the Spirit of God has broken numerous barriers.  Fear, (over)certainty, and roadblocks were all encountered by post-resurrection followers of Jesus trying to share the good news.  As we have shared the ways we too have met, and at times overcome barriers on our journeys, it seemed fitting to come together for a night of celebration.  The idea was to create space for those who may not have paused to see or to celebrate a broken barrier, and to offer all of us room to be encouraged by these shared stories.

We shared a potluck dinner together, and then gathered in the backyard for a time of listening and sharing.  There were children (and pets) running around, no scripts or worship orders, and an unruly fire pit mixed with wind that kept blowing smoke in our direction.  As person after person began to offer up their broken barriers, words of hope were mixed with sadness and fear.  Addictions, anxiety and abuse were named.  Even in the overcoming of difficult circumstances, there were regrets, fears of relapse and the humility of owning our own stories.  It was messy and beautiful at the same time.  It was so real. God was evident in difficult details and in hope-filled futures.

It was sacred space.

During the remainder of this week, I have experienced a raised awareness of God's presence.  In conversations with my children, in encounters with strangers, in moments of relaxation and in quiet moments of prayer, I have been more mindful of God at work.  The faith community that I am part of has helped remind me that God stirs, calls, and moves beyond our control.  God is present and moving through the fears, uncertainties, as well as in the celebrations along the way.  In our willingness to bring the details of our lives to one another and to God, we encounter hope and freedom for the days ahead.

I wonder...

Where and how are you encountering sacred space?  

How is it nourishing you for the journey ahead?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

On Broken Hearts and Crazy Love

open heart: by marianne konvalinka

There are never any words sufficient to address the senseless acts of violence that are happening too frequently in our world.  Our instinct as human beings is to somehow try and make sense of it all, to find an explanation, to express our concern and prayers, and ultimately to get even.  However we respond, we are still left with a bunch of questions, and most of them begin with why...

Why, at the finish line of a marathon, of all places?
Why intentionally inflict this kind of pain on fellow human beings?
Why have we not moved beyond this kind of barbaric, violent way of dealing with our differences?
Why, why, WHY?

Even those in the church have tried to come up with some sort of theological explanation.  Unfortunately, there are those who insist that God is behind the scenes using such tragedies as acts of judgement against God's own creation.  There are those who claim Satan did it, free will allows it and God chooses not to intervene through it.  While there is a time to seek understanding, that time is not in the midst of raw pain, intense shock and inconsolable grief.

So, how can we respond as human beings?
How do we respond as those who claim to be followers of the risen Christ?

I suppose I should not assume that we will respond at all.  After all, if there is no tangible way made available, we will likely go about our lives feeling and doing little to counter such horrific realities.  Sure, we will post some kind, thoughtful words on Facebook and offer up our prayers, but  any kind of active, ongoing response is doubtful.  We know this is just the way things are, and if we are honest, we have grown accustomed to images of war, bombings and injustice that flow through our computers and TVs.

We are no longer moved.  Our hearts are no longer broken.

For those who know me, you know I can not stand easy, trite responses to the incredible sufferings that happen in and around us.  Sometimes, this leads me to say and do nothing at all.  This morning, though, as I ran through my neighborhood, I was searching my mind for possible (and appropriate) responses to yet another crazy tragedy.  After finding flaw with almost all of our usual half-hearted attempts, that's when it came to me.

The only appropriate response to insane, senseless, heart-breaking acts of violence are insane, senseless, heart-healing acts of love.

Crazy, I know, but stay with me for a minute.  We can never explain away, kill off or make sense of the awful evils that continue to threaten our lives and spirits.  When will we learn that neat explanations and calculated revenge are no match for insane and unrelentless evils? If that is the case, then what are we left with?  I think we know deep down, but it is perhaps the most difficult of all of our options.

The only appropriate response is love.  

I'm not talking about the cautious, calculated, safe kind of love we are prone to extend.  Rather, I am talking about the kind that Jesus talked about and lived - the kind that showed up as he ate and drank with strangers, the kind that showed up in the stories he told, the kind that looks like foot washing and forgiveness, like words of love while hanging from a cross.  I'm not talking about the come to us and we will help you kind of love, it's the kind that goes with people in the midst of their hurt and pain and offers a no-strings-attached presence.  It's the spontaneous, there's nothing in it for me kind of love that lets people know that they are loved and valued children of God.  It's the I don't have the words to say, but I will be with you kind of love that meant more to us than anything when we were the ones suffering.

In the midst of our feelings of helplessness and vulnerability, is there anything that we can do to counter the senseless violence that plagues us?

Yes.  We can follow the One who showed us how to respond in the face of unspeakable violence.  He chose to love in a way that made no sense.  He suffered and died for that love, but he also experienced resurrection.  I can not think of no greater way to live or to die than in extending wide open arms of love.  It's crazy, I know.  Some say it's complete foolishness, but I believe it is the way to abundant and everlasting love.

So, I suppose I am inviting you to join me in doing something a little senseless today -
leave behind the explanations,
the brainstorming of solutions,
the blaming,
and the fascination with media coverage
and do something
in the name of Love.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Between darkness and light

Last night, our church family gathered around a fire and recounted the story of Christ's crucifixion. We entered the darkness of that night as we prayed, sang and reflected on our own acts of betrayal.  We considered how we are called to enter into the suffering of those around us, and how we are called to be part of the new community that formed among those who dared to follow Jesus to the cross.  As we heard Jesus' last words and of the giving up of his spirit, the Christ candle was extinguished and black cloth was draped around the cross.  The sun had set, and the fire struggled to stay lit.  Darkness was everywhere.

Tomorrow, followers of Jesus will come together to celebrate the miracle of his resurrection.  The One we watched suffer and endure execution will be brought back to life!  We will feast together, sing songs of praise, and hear the joyful re-telling of the empty tomb encounter.  We will be filled with wonder, amazement and anticipation of all that this life-giving God has and will do.  When morning comes, light and life will consume us.

So, what about today?  What will come of this Holy Saturday, the day between darkness and light?

In all honesty, this day is probably like most of our days.  It is a day between despair and joy, between defeat and victory, between darkness and light.  It is how we spend most of our days; we are somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.  It is a day like many in which our longing, restlessness, anxiety and impatience can overshadow any anticipation that God may actually do a new thing.

If this is so, then maybe we ought to pay closer attention to this Holy Saturday.  Maybe we should be more attentive and more vigilant in our waiting.

Instead of trying to find ways to fill the days between, we could be looking and listening for signs that light is indeed about to break through the darkness.  We could be more willing to sit in quiet and stillness.  We could become more open to the kind of expectancy that we hear in the words of the psalmist ...

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope; 
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.

I pray that you and I will be open to being shaped by this day, and the many other days we spend living between darkness and light.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Refusing to settle

Despite evidence that change is needed, I've often wondered why groups or organizations continue status quo, ineffective, better-than-nothing-but-not-quite-who-we-said-we-wanted-to-be practices. I think I've finally figured out why.  It should have been obvious from what I have experienced in my own life.  I know first hand that change is tough, that giving things up I've grown accustomed to can be painful no matter how much I know I need to move on.  I guess I just assumed that instead of groups of people having to struggle harder to change, they would have access to greater power to move in new directions.  That is not necessarily true.

What I'm really talking about here is the challenge of being intentional.  I'm talking about the challenge of critiquing potentially empty, tired, ineffective, even harmful ways of being church together.  I'm talking about the challenge of consistently asking questions about why, how, when and with what resources we should express the gospel in a way that is true to the life and message of Jesus.  I'm talking about the challenge of constantly trying to creatively form and shape a faith community around its shared vision and mission.

It's just a not-so-small matter that can effect everything we do, from the structures we create to the message we proclaim.  The place and way we worship, how we structure ourselves, spend our resources, talk about God, involve our children, etc., etc.  All of these things matter, and all of them require time and thought.  Maybe that's why being intentional can be such demanding, exhausting work.

I've begun to realize just how deeply ingrained our way of doing church is.  Church as a place to go, a service to attend, a business to run, a club to join or church as a predominantly consumer-driven/feel-good/don't rock the boat mentality can be pretty stubborn mindsets to unhinge.  Breaking free can be a long, tiring and sometimes painful journey.  Just when you think things are starting to move in new directions, you confront another way that we are stuck.

The struggle to be intentional about breaking free from old, ineffective patterns effects all of us at times.  Whether you are the pastor of a 200 year-old church, a church planter or a professional trying to change the culture in your work place, you feel it.  At times it is overwhelming  and the task of moving in a new direction can seem impossible.  It's then that we have a decision to make.  We can choose to give up and to give in to the comfortable and complacent, or we can do what needs to be done to re-energize and engage ourselves for the journey forward.  This may mean stepping away for a bit, seeking out a friend or colleague, resting, or re-evaluating.  It may mean spending time with someone who reminds us of why this work is so desperately needed.

Whatever it is, I pray that you and I will have the courage to keep believing that what we are doing is making a difference.  I pray that we will refuse to settle, but that we will also find ways to dream and work that enable us to see when we need to step away for a bit and catch our breath.

I'd love to hear what you can add to the conversation...

In your most challenging times, what practices have helped you re-connect with why you choose the difficult path of being intentional?