Final Parish New Year’s Resolution

I like groups of 3—very Trinitarian. So we have 3 resolutions: practice offering yourself in love, commit to adult formation learning more about God and your faith, and the final one, hopefully the easiest, come to church.

We need you here. The Body of Christ is not complete without you.

I realize it is a new world. I realize life is complicated. I realize there are other commitments and obligations that vie for your time. I realize sometimes you just need a day to sleep in. I realize that the world is crazy and it seems that we have lost touch with God. Me too.

We need you here. The Body of Christ is not complete without you.

I could mention that many people that work so hard to make church lovely and meaningful. We work all week to prepare music and readings, practice and make sure we have help, print bulletins. We want everyone who comes to feel welcome and have an easy time participating and understanding. I think we do a good job, and I want to thank the ushers, the altar guild, the chalice bearers, the choir, the acolytes, the staff, people who clean and decorate, the properties committee—everyone who offers themselves to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

We need you here. The Body of Christ is not complete without you.

I could also mention that we keep statistics measuring Average Sunday Attendance, which we report to the diocese and national church every year. Our growth and health is measured this way and makes a difference in funding and support. Our church attendance needs to keep growing. People pay attention.

We need you here. The Body of Christ is not complete without you.

But all of these things aside, we need to be a part of a worshiping community to be a whole, healthy, holy person. We need each other. We need to worship. Need it, deeply. We are drawn to God like a magnet, and we know God best when we are together doing God’s work, living into our baptismal vows, celebrating our blessings and praying for our needs, getting motivated with carry the love of Jesus into the world.

We need you here. The Body of Christ is not complete without you.

Please make a commitment of regular attendance to church on Sunday in 2018.

Parish New Year’s Resolution #2

I like lists. So there will be a short list of resolutions. And the second one is adult education. I would like the parish adults to be more active and intentional about learning more about God and the church. Studies show that churches whose adults care about growing in their faith are more successful, more likely to grow. We need to bump up our efforts.

And luckily I have a plan. The diocese has offered us a free year trial of an online adult education program. This will supplement the wonderful work that Rev. David Hill does on Sunday morning, and maybe even overlap!

In order to help us make the best use of this, the diocese has also given us money to hire The Rev. Joshua Caler to help us kick this off. Many of you met Rev. Caler when he took the services when I was in the Holy Land. He is going to study the program, introduce it to the parish, and hopefully present to us an online study option for Lent. Expect him to pick your brains about what you need and the best way to help you to learn.

Our hearts are filled with a deep desire for God. We are pulled toward God like a magnet. God wants us to know God more, to pursue God. We do that through prayer, reading the Bible, knowing the saints and the history of the church, and teasing out theological concepts. Follow your impulse to God, and we will find ways to know more together.

Parish New Year’s Resolution #1

Happy New Year everyone! This is the time of year to look ahead and try to do better, to assess and plan. So I will be offering the church 3 resolutions to ponder, 3 ways to do a little better in 2018. St. John’s is doing great, but God is always moving us to more. So the first resolution is: to do better at offering ourselves as a living sacrifice. Let’s start big and bold!!

I spent most of last week with my family. My boys are always competing with each other, and wanting to hear that they are special. And of course they are, each with their own gifts and goodness. It was the grandchildren that really captivated my attention though. They are little- 3, 2, and 1. And you can just see them figuring out how to navigate the world, experimenting with relationships and behavior to learn how they want to be.

Life for my grandkids is a marvelous science project. They tried out sharing, dancing, putting toys down the sink. They continually looked back at their parents to see the reaction to whatever it was they were trying out. Sometimes they needed affirmation, and sometimes not. Learning to share, take turns, say sorry—it is hard work! Constant hugs and high fives were necessary to reinforce good behavior. We adults need to make civil and loving behavior worth it, both by demonstrating it and by valuing it.

Church is in many ways the same. We come to church trying out how to be our best selves, how to be good, how God might want us to be. And we don’t expect that there might be conflict, that people might not behave or cooperate the way we want them to, that we might be frustrated. Thankfully that doesn’t happen all the time. But it does happen. Lesson #1 is that everyone, everyone has challenges and hard times, even when it seems like it is only me who struggles.

Because there is so much happening, and because we all care so much about God and this church, disagreement and competing priorities are inevitable. So how do we respond to that? Most of the time, great. We respond in love, we are kind, we forgive. But sometimes it isn’t that easy. And that is when we have to offer ourselves. That is when we have to give up being right or getting our way. That is when we have to put aside our needs and serve someone else. That is when we offer love, kindness, compassion and/or understanding.

We have an opportunity to use church as a grand experiment, and then take the learnings from that into the world. If we can get it right at church, the compassion and kindness and sacrifice, then we can practice it in our lives during the week. But we have to be intentional. We have to believe it is possible. And we have to look for situations in which we feel frustrated and can offer ourselves into that moment as an offering of love. Not by brute force, but by the simple acknowledgement that we will not always get our way, and that is just fine.

So, for our first new year’s resolution, I propose that we get better at loving one another. It seems the best place to begin.

Staying Connected

I am in that between space. I have one foot in Israel. I am getting posts from our pilgrim group. I am walking by the icons and art that I bought there to remind me of the trip. I still have vivid images of sights and sounds. A piece of my heart is there. And frankly, I am still a little exhausted.

And yet here I am, another tremendous Christmas celebration in the books, my grandson playing trains in my family room, the remains of the roast a soup cooking on the stove. My house is clean, and I am getting ready to go to Chicago and Indy to see the rest of my family. Life keeps hurdling forward at breakneck speed, and I want to be present to all of it.

How do I stay connected to the Holy Land? How do I pray? How do I hold on to the mystery and awe, the heartbreak and the urgency? Because this was not another continuing ed workshop that got me through a few sermons and thoughts of some new programming. This was a past and a present struggling for a future. Part of it my past, who I am and what I believe. Jerusalem is now mine, along with millions of others.

I don’t know the answer. Life doesn’t stop. So a new question is, how will I be changed and what will that mean in my life? That seems a worthy thing to pray about for now.

Iyad’s Cousins

I am back from my pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I wanted to blog with you while I was gone, kind of an accompaniment to the trip. But truly every time I tried to write something I had technical difficulties, which led me to believe that maybe God was saying to slow down and pay attention, to just be. I will be unpacking the events and emotions of this trip for a long time to come. Here is my first reflection.

I spent some time last night when I got home, and again this morning, unpacking stuff. I confess I bought a lot of stuff.  But here is how it went, we would get off the massive tour bus to go somewhere, and our guide, Iyad, would say, here are some of my cousins, they have good things at good prices, it would be great if you would help them. We all knew by the end that most of the people who were there certainly knew Iyad, but probably weren’t related.

But at the end, just as we were getting ready to get off the bus, after he had told us what to do and where to go, the time we were supposed to be back, or whatever was important, he would add almost under his breath, help them if you can, it might be all they have for their supper tonight.

It was the off season (the weather was great, cool and sunny), and there were not many tourists around (everything was cheaper). For us that meant no lines, quick service, great prices, and no heat exhaustion. For the venders, many of whom handcrafted their items, many of whom lived in isolated places, that meant there were fewer people to sell to, less chance of making enough money to feed their families.

So we bought things. My family and friends will have a good Christmas this year. We bought because the items were beautiful and represented the Holy Land. We bought because we imagined having to return home to hungry children. We bought knowing that was our role, to stimulate the economy for people in need. I wonder in this holiday season, when tourists are at home and travelers are few, what will happen to Iyad’s cousins and their families. Because in my Christian life, they are my cousins too.  It is just one of the many things I will be praying about this Christmas season.

Bethlehem

I think I am re-entering normal life with some dignity after my pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  My laundry is done, my bills are sent, my kitchen is cleaned. I am reasonably ready for Christmas, with most details taken care of. And while I am not over jet lag, I don’t think it is dangerous for me to be behind the wheel of a car.

I wrote my Christmas morning sermon this morning. Not a bad effort, filled with a good mix of archeology and hope and personal responsibility. You know, it’s Christmas. You want to be peaceful and hopeful and celebratory. So I tried to write something to that effect.

But I am haunted by something that I chose not to mention. Bethlehem. The scene of the birth of our Savior, of the shepherds in the field and away in the manger is surrounded by a wall. It is a wall built for political reasons, and keeps the people of that town essentially in prison. There is a house that is surrounded on 3 sides by the wall. To enter or leave the city you have to pass through a checkpoint, and armed soldiers determine if you go or not.

You see, the thing I am not ready to preach about yet is occupation. There are people in Israel who are not free. And if anything helped me to understand better the life of Jesus and the disciples, it was this experience of occupation, listening to the voices of those who are not free but long for freedom, who are not treated fairly but long for justice.

I do not live that way. I am reasonably free. I can mostly say what I want. I can come and go without restraint in my own country. But Jesus could not. And neither can the people of Bethlehem. I am not yet sure what to do with that, how I will preach it, or what will come of my efforts. But I had to say it, to acknowledge the fact. Bethlehem is surrounded by a wall, and this reality changed me.

Advent Reflection for December 3rd, 2017

I have been wondering lately if hope is a privileged emotion.  I came to that question through an interracial dialogue with our campus ministry students. The question which was to wrap up a rich and honest session of sharing was “where do you find hope”? The white students all had answers, perky hopefulness. The African American students were silent.

Hope is a spiritual discipline that is rooted in action. So I stand with the prophet Isaiah, who we hear in the first reading today—“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains will quake at your presence!” I want to engage that mighty God who “works for those who wait for him.” I want God to fix our broken world.

And yet I know that the possibility of hope for all people comes in my “staying awake”, as Jesus provokes us in the Gospel of Mark. I have to be present to opportunities for justice, for actions that make hope possible for all. Hope is not just for Christians, just for white people, just for me. And I can’t be careless or cavalier about it. I have to be responsible for the hope I can generate.

And…I can’t function without hope. I need it in order to get up every morning. So I am not willing to let it go. Instead, I pray to be worthy of it, and to do the work for hope that God gives me to do.

This Thanksgiving

I have been reflecting on gratitude this Thanksgiving week. When we pray at our children’s service at St John’s we go around the room and pray for people or needs, and then we offer thanks. The kids come up with some wonderful things to be thankful for, very creative. Their parents giggled nervously when they depart from the standard “family” or “house”. But I love when they say snow or cookies or their doll because those things are worth being thankful for every day!

There is much that I don’t think to say because of my privilege. I don’t think to be grateful for a garage with a garage door opener. I take that for granted. I don’t think to be thankful for a spice cabinet or a tea cabinet (I have both). I don’t think to be thankful for a backyard with trees in it. Or that I can drive almost anywhere without fear of being randomly pulled over by the police. I don’t think to be thankful that I am accepted for who I am with little question.

It’s the children that I interact with at our local elementary that remind me of the abundance of my blessings. They don’t have many of the simple things that I take for granted. And conversely, they see things as blessings that I would ignore. They remind me to be thoughtful, to think creatively about gratitude, and that I might be more vigilant in recognizing all that I have.

They also remind me that a kind word and a little encouragement are worth more than just about anything. And that being cared about and caring is golden too. This Thanksgiving I am going to spend the whole day noticing. I am going to notice my son’s sense of humor, the thoughtfulness of my friends, the richness and beauty of my home, and the aromas of amazing food. I am going to notice my ability to walk up and down stairs and to call my parents and to shut the door of my bedroom at the end of the day.

And as the gratitude of one day of thanksgiving per year fades into the consumerism of Black Friday, I am going to try, really try, to keep noticing.  What are you especially thankful for this year?

A Softer Landing

As we hear of one more shooting rampage, this time in a small town in California, I wonder if we are becoming distracted. Following each of the almost weekly massacres we have been witnessing, there follows an immediate polarization. In all of our shouting who is left to love the people who have been damaged by this violence, including those for whom this will stir up symptoms of post-traumatic stress?

It appears we as a society lack the collective will to prevent gun violence. We won’t take away guns, more closely regulate guns, or even commit funds to the research and treatment of mental illness. While a proactive approach is certainly the most effective, I can’t see any sign of one coming in the near future.

So, we could choose to become jaded. We could say that it is impossible to accomplish anything so why even try. I have a very hard time listening to accounts of the victims or watching anything on TV that I will not be able to unsee. When I heard about the California shooting I had to force myself to read the details. How many times can you rip off the scab of heartbreak and horror before it seems like you will never heal?

The truth is that I don’t have to be in California or Las Vegas or fill in the blank to encounter someone who has been a victim of gun violence. There are plenty in the Mahoning Valley.  I don’t know their names. I may see them and not even know what they have been through, what they have lost. And yet I am here, and it is here I have the best hope of doing some good.

So in small ways I hope we as a church and as Christians are making the world a softer landing. By providing food and meals, coffee and a chat, respect and dignity, beautiful worship, and other things small and mighty, I hope we are saying that in a country that can’t decide what it values, as a church we are clear we value people. Our neighbors. Justice.

If you have any ideas about how to do that better and boldly, let’s chat.

Unity

I want to talk about unity.

Last Thursday our church hosted a crowd of about 350 people to hear Dr. Carol Anderson discuss her book on institutional racism, “White Rage.” I thought it was extraordinary for so many reasons. The crowd was incredibly diverse. There was deep respect for the stories and experiences that were shared. In the end, people listened to one another, and for a moment, we all seemed to be on the same side—the side of justice and equality and dignity for every human being.

I left that evening exhausted but hopeful. Dr. Anderson’s encyclopedic knowledge of history, and especially the history of the oppression of black people, was daunting. Sometimes I just wanted to change the subject, to talk about goofy, vacuous, easy things. But Dr. Anderson is not to be deterred, in the best possible way. And I was educated. And it was a blessing.

When there was a fact or historical moment that was obscure but particularly poignant or harsh, there were audible gasps in the crowd. It was impossible to be there and not be moved by the pain and suffering she related, the gross unfairness and mean-spirited choices meant specifically to keep black people from being successful. We looked into each other’s eyes and acknowledged the truth. Again, it was a unifying moment.

And then the shooting in Texas came on Sunday, and we seemed shattered all over again. We heard people yelling about guns, pro and con, waving mental illness around like a pendant, blaming, horrified, wanting action. And so far, nothing has happened to address the root causes of this violence. Frankly I would be happy with anything at this point.  If we can’t get rid of the guns, fine, let’s throw some money at research and treatment for mental illness.  Anything!

And as I have witnessed people I agree with spiraling toward the harshness of rhetoric I expect from people I do not agree with, I understand that we have to start with ourselves. We have to ask what we are going to do to end the violence that claims the lives of 5 year olds who went to church Sunday morning. The stakes are so high. We have to honor that. So what do we do?

First we admit to the violence in ourselves, our tendencies toward anger and desire for revenge. We admit that we care more about power than we want to say. We want it, and the security that comes with it. And occasionally at least, in the interest of that power, we ourselves are violent, or manipulative, or uncaring or unjust.

Then we listen. We listen to the anti-gun lobby. We listen to gun owners. We listen to the people who have lost loved ones to violence. We look into their eyes. We see their humanity. We love them as they are. We build community with the person most unlike ourselves, lovingly and intentionally, at a personal sacrifice. We understand that for the good we seek, we are going to have to give up something. If it were easy, it would have happened already. And it is in looking into the eyes of our sisters and brothers that we have the courage and conviction to be a living sacrifice.

Conversation leading to conversion is something we are all capable of doing. Where you will begin, I don’t know. How you will compromise, I don’t know. That we all have to have equal investment and sacrifice, I am certain of that. So, where will you begin?