Reflections for the Fifth Week of Lent

john 12While we can inhabit holy spaces, scripture reveals that the holy inhabits us as well. God puts the holy law within us. God writes on our hearts. God cleans us from the inside out.

As we consider holy spaces along this Lenten journey, we must recognize that our very bodies are holy spaces because God promises to be within them. Paul acknowledges this truth when he writes to the church in Corinth that “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you. Don’t you know that you have the Holy Spirit from God, and you don’t belong to yourselves?”. Leave it to Paul to point out the flip side of God dwelling within us–it means that we do not belong to ourselves. Or, as Jesus put it: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

To claim something as holy is to assert that it is set apart, that it is wholly other. To acknowledge the holy is to admit that, as the saying goes, there is a God, and I’m not her. When we are in a holy space, we are in the presence of something beyond us. Something more than us. Something that calls for sacrifice, for service. We carry our covenant with God, our commitment to follow Christ, within us. Every day. Every step.

It is, perhaps, not particularly surprising or offensive to claim that the holy calls for service and sacrifice on the part of us mere mortals. But we see in this week’s readings that the cross is the culmination, the transformation, of God’s covenant with the people. And this shocking cross stands as witness that the Holy One is also willing to sacrifice and serve. God does not ask of us anything that God was not willing to do in Christ.

The One who is wholly other is also one of us. It is the divine mystery of the incarnation. A mystery that is deepened and darkened as we move closer and closer to the crucifixion. A mystery that holds us warm and secure in the darkness, like a seed hidden in the soil, dying, dying, in anticipation of spring.

Prayer:

Holy One,
Dwell within me;
Whisper in my ear;
Glimmer in my vision;
Write upon my heart.
I wait
with ears, eyes, heart open.
Amen

Categories: Lent/Easter | Tags: | 1 Comment

Micah 6:6-8 Call to Worship

So we’re not exactly using the Lectionary right now. This Sunday’s theme is “sacrifice,” and here is our call to worship based on Micah 6:6-8.

With what shall we come before our God?
How shall we approach the Almighty?
Should we write large checks?
Should we empty our wallets?
Should we promise to fast and pray every day?
Should we sign up for more committees?
Would that make God happy?
How shall we approach the Almighty?
With what shall we come before our God?
With humble hearts.
Hearts bent toward justice.
Hearts open in loving-kindness.
Hearts earnestly seeking God.

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The Blessing of Wilderness–Reflections for Lent 4

Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma

Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma

I am notoriously bad with directions. My ability to get lost has amazed and astounded my friends throughout the years. Some of them have found out the hard way that just because I’ve been somewhere before does not mean I know how to get there again. For that matter, just because I’ve gotten somewhere does not mean I know how to get back to where I started.

Once, as a high school student, I went to some sort of nature trail with my youth group. Somehow a friend and I managed to get lost on the nature trail. We knew that the other group members could not be far away. We knew that we were close, oh so close, to a marked trail. And yet there we stood in the middle of a Kansas prairie, unable to see anything but tall grass and distant tree lines. Even though we knew we couldn’t really be that lost, even though there was no real danger of harm, panic began to set in.

That’s the thing about wilderness. It is a frightening space–whether it’s actually dangerous or not. Wilderness is a sort of anti-space where we can’t figure out where we are in relationship to anything that we know. As the ancient Israelites could attest, even a miserable place can seem preferable to this no-place, this unknowing space. In the midst of the physical wilderness, this lack of direction for forty years, the Israelites also experienced a spiritual wilderness. They could not figure out who they were in relationship to those things that they knew most intimately–particularly, they couldn’t figure out their relationship to God.

They praised God and then cursed God. They asked Moses to receive a message from God on their behalf and then they proceeded to make their own god out of melted jewelry. Where was God? What was God like? How were they supposed to be in relationship with God? And what did their covenant with Yahweh mean for their relationships with each other? In this week’s brief story from Numbers, we see God portrayed as provider and denier; as murderer and savior. The ancient Israelites did not know where they stood–literally or figuratively.

Centuries later, we have another Jewish wanderer named Nicodemus. He is a Pharisee who comes to Jesus by night. Since this story is in John’s Gospel, we can be pretty sure that “night” here does not refer merely to the time of day–there is spiritual darkness in his life. Nicodemus is looking for a path, a sign, anything to show him where he stands in relation to God. And apparently he thinks that Jesus can help him get his bearings.

In the song “Hard to Get,” Rich Mullins cries out to God: “I can’t see where you’re leading me unless you’ve led me here, where I’m lost enough to let myself be led.”

That is the holiness of the wilderness spaces in which we find ourselves. When all we can see is sand or prairie grass; when there is nothing familiar, nothing comfortable; when no directions seem right but none seem necessarily wrong either; when we are utterly and absolutely lost, we might wander for awhile. We might walk in circles for days, or years, or decades.

Eventually, though, by God’s grace, and out of sheer exhaustion, we will let ourselves be led. Eventually we will rest in God’s steadfast love.

Categories: Lent/Easter | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

On Sacrifice and Suffering

4085417983Lent was a fairly new concept for me when I was in college, and one year I decided to make the ultimate sacrifice—chocolate. I still remember standing in the ice cream parlor, looking at the luscious rocky road and chocolate swirl and brownie chunk ice cream–and choosing butter pecan. Butter pecan. Such is the suffering I was willing to endure for Jesus.

I think now that the whole endeavor was a bit melodramatic. (I gobbled up a candy bar at 12:01 on Easter Sunday morning—when I should have been asleep.) It’s not that giving up chocolate is a bad discipline in and of itself. I just think that sometimes we act like the point of our lenten fasts or sacrifices is to make us suffer—and it’s not.

As Christians, we can be far too quick to equate sacrifice with suffering.

Sacrifice is something that Jesus asks of us: lay down your nets, leave your father and mother, give all you have to the poor, deny yourself. Jesus does not hesitate to ask his followers to make sacrifices.

But, in asking us to make sacrifices, Jesus is not calling us to deprive ourselves; rather, he is calling us to lay aside certain activities, attachments, attitudes, so that we are more free to follow him, more free to live out the abundant life he offers. Christ-directed sacrifice is a means to abundant life.

Jesus’ call to sacrifice is not a call to suffering. Yes, he calls us to take up the cross; he also says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Yes, he says to lose our lives; he also says that in losing our lives we gain our lives.

And yes, sometimes the sacrifices we make as followers of Christ lead to suffering. But the suffering itself is not a part of Christ’s call or God’s desire for our lives. The suffering happens because this world is tragically out of line with the Good News of the Kingdom.

It is vitally important that the Church gets this right. Asking people to give things up for the sake of their faith can be life-giving. Telling people that God calls them to suffer is death-dealing. This pro-suffering theology supports domestic abuse in the home, facilitates sexual abuse cover-ups in the church, and contributes to unwarranted apathy about economic and racial injustices in our nation.

It is vitally important that the Church gets this right. Jesus does not call us to suffer. We suffer anyway, of course. And the Good News of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is that God’s own self is intimately present with us in our suffering.

So during this Lenten season, whether you have given up TV or Facebook or alcohol or chocolate, remember that this sacrifice is not a meant to make you suffer, but rather is a way for you to move toward abundant life in Christ.

*This post is part of a MennoNerds synchro-blog on the topic of suffering.

Categories: Lent/Easter | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

The Resolution has been Submitted!

Over the past several months I have been working with others to craft a resolution. I am happy to announce that the “Becoming a Just Church Resolution” has now been submitted to the Mennonite Church USA Resolutions Committee! Those of us supporting this resolution believe it speaks an important word to our denomination as we are in the midst of “intense conflict” and “difficult conversations” about the “issue” of “homosexuality.” (Yes. I do understand appropriate use of quotation marks.)

rainbow doveAs you might imagine, however, not everyone is completely thrilled with this literary and political masterpiece. Apparently there are some Christians who understand Biblical teachings about sexuality differently than I do. These people obviously do not support this resolution.

There are also people who agree with the Biblical perspective presented in the resolution; they agree that current denominational statements and policies related to LGBTQ Christians are unjust and outside the way of Jesus. Yet they do not fully support this particular resolution. Those are the folks I would like to address in this post. (I directly address some common Biblical concerns in a previous post.)

To begin with, there are people who feel that the language of the resolution is too strong. Some have pointed out the statement that “the current policies of MC USA do violence to the personhood of LGBTQ people” as being particularly harsh. Pacifists do not like to be called “violent.” Some think that suggesting a connection between church teachings against homosexuality and the high suicide rate among LGBTQ young people is too extreme. Some people don’t like the word “perpetrated” because, well, it suggests violence (see above).

I want to be fair to people who hold these concerns. Many Mennonites who advocate for LGBTQ inclusion have had harsh language and unfair accusations leveled against us. We do not want to simply repeat the abuse from another perspective. There is also concern that strong language will provoke further conflict within the denomination rather than bringing Mennonites of differing perspectives closer together.

Still, I believe clear and strong language is needed. Those who support exclusionary policies tend to invoke “sin” and “clear Biblical teaching” while advocates of inclusion use phrases like “differing perspectives” and “congregational discernment.” This can give the impression that those who wish to exclude LGBTQ people are passionate and convicted and Biblical, while those of us who seek full inclusion just have a kind of quirky idea about church we’d like to try out if you don’t mind.

No.

We don’t want inclusion because we think it might be a good idea. We want inclusion because we passionately believe it is what Jesus wants for his church. We believe inclusion is supported by the witness of scripture. And we believe that as long as the church—which we love—continues to teach false doctrine regarding sexuality, it sows damage and despair in the world rather than healing and hope. That is what we believe. And we are allowed to say it. And it might hurt some people’s feelings. And that is OK.

There are also some people who are concerned about the conclusion of the resolution, where we call on the denomination to “extend grace and forbearance to those individuals, congregations, and conferences that will choose to remain in fellowship with MC USA despite being at variance with the inclusive position of the denomination.”

If an exclusive policy truly does violence to people, why would we, as a peace church, want to remain in fellowship with the perpetrators of that violence?

It’s a legitimate question.

One response would be that we are seeking the middle way. But frankly, I’ve had about enough of this middle/third way rhetoric.

Another response is that none of us are right about everything and none of us are wrong about everything. If we are willing to stay connected, I believe the Holy Spirit will help us learn from each other and grow in our faith together.

Another response is that being kicked out of a denomination sucks. And we don’t wish that on anyone.

Another response is that there are LGBTQ young people in churches that would be at variance with inclusive policies, and if we kick out those churches we cut off potentially life-giving resources to those young people.

So, while I know it is not perfect, I strongly support this resolution. I know a lot of other people who support this resolution. (You can show your support for the resolution by filling in the form on the resolution web site.)

Even if you do not support this resolution, I hope that it will contribute to positive, respectful conversations about how MC USA can become a more just and faithful denomination.

Categories: GLBT Concerns | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Reflection for the Third Week of Lent

Pictures 2010 339In the Celtic spiritual tradition, people refer to “thin places”–spaces where the veil between the Divine and the earthly is especially thin; places where you can easily have a sense of the holy, a feeling of connection to God.

There are places commonly recognized as thin, as holy. The places where Jesus is said to have been born and to have died. Places where our ancestors in the faith are buried. Magnificent cathedrals. Ancient forests. People seek out such places. They embark on pilgrimages to experience these sacred spaces. Certainly one place noted as holy is Mt. Sinai. In this week’s scripture from Exodus, Moses is on this mountain for the express purpose of talking with God. And in Jesus’ day, the Temple was the place to go if you wanted to connect with God.

Both Sinai and the Temple were places supposed to facilitate Divine-human interaction. So it seems ironic that in the readings from Exodus and John this week, these supposedly holy places are actually sites where the people separate themselves from God and God’s will. As Moses receives the commandments on the mountain, the people waiting below witness “thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking.” God has drawn near, and the people are scared. They say to Moses, “You speak to us and we will listen, but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” Mt. Siani proves so “thin” that people run in the opposite direction.

In Jesus’ day, some people did not take the presence of God in the Temple seriously enough. They had lost the holy fear of encountering the Divine and instead had commodified the sacred space of the Temple. They tried to sell access to God, charging exorbitant rates for sacrificial animals and currency exchanges. Jesus boils over with anger when he sees the sacred space profaned by the merchants who exploit the people’s longing for connection to God.

The Bible affirms the existence of sacred places, the idea of holy ground. Yet is also cautions that it is not the place itself that is holy–it is the Divine presence in the place. The scriptures affirm the omnipresence of God, the potential for us to experience anywhere, everywhere, as a thin place.

Psalm 19 proclaims that the heavens and the firmament declare the glory of God; “their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” The poet of Psalm 139 asks the beautiful, rhetorical question: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” In the words of one of my favorite benedictions: We cannot go where God is not.

Beyond thinking about holy places, the ten commandments also suggest to us the concept of holy time. “Remember the sabbath and keep it holy.” There is one day a week set aside for honoring God through rest and worship. In my life, it often feels like holy spaces in time are more difficult to come by than holy spaces in place .

Whether we are considering holy place or holy time, we hold in balance the truths of scripture and the truths we experience in life. There are certain places, certain times, when God seems particularly close, where the veil between heaven and earth appears especially thin. We must honor and protect these spaces, making sure they are not defiled. And yet it is also true that God is present everywhere, at all times. We do not need to wait until Sunday or travel to a different place in order to connect with our Creator. God can and does speak in a myriad of places, and our ears and hearts must be always open.

Categories: Lent/Easter | Tags: , | 1 Comment

Practices for the Second Week of Lent

cross collageCreative Prayer Experience

You will need a piece of brown paper; pen, colored pencils or markers; collage materials if desired

Cut or tear a cross shape from the piece of brown card stock. On one side of the cross, write, draw, or collage the burdens that you feel you are carrying.  On the other side of the cross, write, draw, or collage the promises of God that will support you as you bear those burdens.  As you create, offer your burdens to God; receive God’s promises with joy.

Creative Writing Exercise

Write a scene parallel to the one found in the reading from Genesis 17, placing yourself in the place of Abram: “When ___(name) ____ was ___ years old, the Lord appeared to __(name) ___, and said to her/him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you. . . . Then __(name)___  fell on her/his face; and God said to her/him: _____________”

What would God say to you today?  What new name would God give to you?

Categories: Lent/Easter | Tags: , , | 6 Comments

On Doing Faith Together

*This reflection is excerpted from a sermon on Mark 1:14-20. You can also listen to the audio.]

This is one of those overly-familiar texts. One of those Bible stories we’ve heard over and over again since we were kids. I looked up the scripture, saw the heading–”Jesus calls the disciples”–and I knew what the text said even before I read it. It’s really a pretty straight forward story as far as Bible stories go. Jesus calls the disciples; he says “follow” and they follow.

Not only did I know what the story was, but I knew what it meant: like the disciples, we are supposed to follow Jesus when he calls to us. There is surprising agreement among preachers of all persuasions about what this story means for us today.

This week, though, I started wondering why we always read this story to say, “You should follow Jesus like these guys did.”

When we read the story of Jesus blessing the children we don’t say, “See how the disciples turned the children away? That’s what we should do.” We don’t read about James and John asking to be seated next to Jesus in heaven and say, “We should be vying for the best heavenly chairs.”

As Christians—and especially as Anabaptist Christians—our focus when we read scripture is on Jesus. What is Jesus doing? What is Jesus teaching? How can we better follow the example set by Jesus?

So, yes, it’s great that James and John and Andrew and Peter all leave their nets and follow Jesus. And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do the same—If ever God incarnate should ask you to lay down your fishing net, or turn off your computer, or leave your classroom, or send in your letter of resignation . . . I would suggest you do that.

But why are we so hyper-focused on the disciples in this story? What about Jesus? What is it Jesus is doing here that we are called to imitate?

If a charismatic healer invites you to leave behind the drudgery of being a fisherman in a backwater town like Galilee—Why wouldn’t you say yes? The perplexing part of the story is why Jesus asked them to follow him in the first place.

I’ve always taken it for granted that Jesus had disciples, but really, their very existence is pretty amazing. It’s a deep sign of God’s grace that Jesus—God incarnate, the savior of the world—walked around the countryside with a group of people. That he invited people to be part of the work he was doing—work he surely could have done without their “help.”

We’ve all experienced unhelpful help. The kind of help that makes a task take three times as long as it should: kids helping to wash the dishes; me helping Ryan iron his shirts; a committee full of people helping to edit a document. And the more capable you are at something, the more of a problem “help” can be. I’d say Jesus was pretty capable in the savior department. The disciples must have driven him crazy.

So why does he do it? Why does Jesus call James and John and Andrew and Peter away from their boats and nets? Why does he invite these uncomprehending fishermen to follow him around and get in the way?

It makes no sense.

And yet here is Jesus, on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, recruiting fishermen to follow him.

What if the point of this story is that we should invite other people to be part of our lives? People we don’t think we really need. People whose help might be less than helpful. People who will not always understand us or agree with us. People that will drive us crazy.

Really, this whole disciples thing makes no sense.

Unless the point isn’t to do life efficiently, but to do it together.

Unless salvation is as much about how we relate to each other as it is about how we relate to God.

Unless somehow, by God’s mysterious and confounding grace, the good news of the Kingdom of God comes to fullness only when we work to live it and proclaim it with each other.

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Reflections for the Second Week of Lent

Crucifix at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona.

Crucifix at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona.

As spiritual descendants of Abraham and Sarah and as followers of Jesus, we live within the holy space of covenant–of God’s promises to us and our promises to God. It might seem on the surface that this holy space of covenant is restrictive. We cannot step outside the boundary of the covenant. We must be careful of what we say, what we do.

But Paul argues in Romans that the covenant is actually spacious, freeing. When we live within the covenant, we live according to faith and not according to law. We live within the comfort of grace and not the fear of punishment. It is by our faith and through the grace of God that we claim our identity within the holy space of covenant.

Ours is a culture more accustomed to contracts than covenants. The covenant agreement most familiar to us is probably marriage. In the marriage covenant, both partners promise to be sexually faithful to each other, to care for each other, to love each other, to live life together. As anyone who has been through divorce knows, there is certainly a legal, contractual, aspect to marriage. But the heart of the marriage is in the promises that we make.

Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we receive the cross as the ultimate symbol of our covenant relationship with God. The cross marks the center of the holy space where we dwell within the promises God has made to us; where we are called to make promises in return. In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus predicts his suffering, death, and resurrection. This suffering and death are manifestations of God’s deep and abiding love for us; God’s passion for being in intimate relationship with us. The resurrection confirms God’s promise of eternal life.

Yes, taking up the cross does place some limits on what we will do. The cross does not fit through the threshold of selfish pursuits, hateful attitudes, destructive actions. If we want to go through certain doorways, we will have to lay the cross down.

Yet in picking up the cross, we follow the way of Jesus. We take life seriously and hold it loosely. We focus on other people, not just ourselves. We commit ourselves to truth, however inconvenient.

In taking up the cross, we make a deep promise to God, and in taking up the cross, we receive the promises of God: abiding love, divine relationship, abundant and eternal life. We stand, with our crosses, in a truly holy space of Divine covenant.

Categories: Lent/Easter | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Creative Writing Practice for the First Week of Lent

Read Mark 1:9-15

Choose six words related to baptism and use these words as a basis for a poem.

You can write a free form poem, or perhaps use the words to inspire a few haikus. (A haiku is a 3-line poem where the first line has five syllables, the second line has 7 syllables, and the third line has 5 syllables.)

If you love a poetic challenge, try writing a sestina. A sestina consists of six stanzas with six lines each and one final stanza of three lines.  The same six words serve as the final words in each line for every stanza–with the exception of the last stanza where each of the three lines contains two of the “end words.” The order of the end words in each six-line stanza is as follows: ABCDEF; FAEBDC; CFDABE; ECBFAD; DEACFB; BDFECA.This poetic form is challenging and will push you to consider your end words in fresh ways.

You can read an example of a sestina here. And my baptism sestina is here.

Categories: Lent/Easter | Tags: , | 1 Comment

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