Lenten Study on the Life of Jesus — When God Brings the Keg

As we continue the journey of Lent, I think reflecting on the life of Jesus is a great way to help us finding our footing on its true meaning: learning to walk in Jesus’ steps. Because of this I want to share a series on the life of Jesus I gave earlier this year at Diversity in Faith, a Progressive Christian Alliance church in Fayetteville, NC.  

Here is the fourth message in this series, “When God Brings a Keg”, which examines Jesus’ first miracle.   I hope this reflection helps you learn how to embrace the ways your life, unique as it is, can be a place God becomes present in flesh in and blood for others this Lent.

And I’m not just whistling Dixie!

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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Our Gospel reading comes from John 2

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, wedding at cana 2and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”

“Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”

His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.

Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.

Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”

They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside 10 and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

11 What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

12 After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother and brothers and his disciples. There they stayed for a few days.

I want to begin by sharing a short video:

I can relate to this video because of my experience in college. I was a pretty strict religious guy in college… I did the whole “True Love Waits” thing, and stuck to it. And in part because of trying to stick the straight-laced faith I grew up with, and in part because of having a family member who was not just an alcoholic but at times an angry drunk when he drank, I would not really touch the stuff.

So I was that guy in the video, standing around puzzled while others partied.

Because of this, like a lot of religious folks, I found this whole story about Jesus a little embarrassing. Like many I had grown up with this picture of faith as a life of discipline, constantly working hard to do the right thing. Which usually meant sacrificing pleasure, choosing the narrow road few went by, however painful. Sacrifice. After all, didn’t Jesus call me to take up the cross.

serious kegBut here we see Jesus’ first miracle, which you would think would be the one to sort of picture what his ministry and his work was all about. And what does Jesus do? Jesus goes to a party. And, as important as I still think a designated driver is, Jesus does not seem to go as one. This is why later in the Gospels when Jesus is criticized, it is for drinking and partying too hardy … unlike his cousin John the baptizer who never touched the stuff & his criticized for being too rigid. No, Jesus was known to have a drink. Here Jesus went one better: Jesus not only had a drink at the party, brought the keg. Jesus’ first miracle is bringing the keg of wine to the party. Not only is it bringing a keg, but turning the barrels of holy water, which are about the size of a beer keg, into strong wine, the kind you bring out at the beginning of the party when folks are still sober or on a light buzz, not the cheap stuff you bring out later.

In fact Jesus doesn’t bring one keg … he brings six. Six kegs of strong wine to a group of people who’ve already drunk enough.

What can we make of this? What does it teach us about our lives and our calling?

The first thing this shows me is that Jesus did not come to call us to sacrifice.

In fact Jesus tells us this in the Gospels.

Later in John, Jesus says “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10) and in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus repeatedly says things like “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:7).

I don’t know about you, but for years the opposite message is what I heard: that if you want to follow God, it means choosing suffering, choosing sacrifice. It means giving up the celebration, giving up the joy, giving up the career you love, the life your family wants. I’ve seen people sacrifice caring for themselves, for their families, in the name of this sacrifice, all because they believe that is what God asks of them.

And I don’t know about you, but I have seen the innocent condemned based on this belief that Christian life is all about sacrifice.

I remember having a man, heart-stricken, come to me as I served in a church in Los Angeles, saying “Here’s the thing, I love God, I love this church, but I also know I’m gay”. The message he had been given was that in order to please God, he had to sacrifice who he was, sacrifice his sexual orientation, be something he is not, and live without love and alone. That Jesus, not the thief, was the one who had come into life to steal, kill, and destroy who he was.

I remember seeing a young lady told she had no faith and that is why she was not healed – that her disability was a sign she was not a believer. That preacher and that church lived out sacrifice, not mercy. They taught Jesus came to steal, kill, and destroy who she was.

I am heart-broken to recall a young person struggling, feeling like a woman trapped in a man’s body, having a church respond that “we don’t want someone like that here”, because they saw sacrifice, not mercy ruling the day.

I think that Jesus’ miracle shows us that God’s focus is not sacrifice. God’s call is not for us to deny who we are in order to serve God. Instead as it says in Ephesians 2, verse 10, “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do “

 

Turn to someone and say “You aren’t junk; no, you are God’s handiwork”

Turn to someone else and say “God doesn’t call you to deny who you are, because you were created in Christ Jesus”.

In Jesus’ first miracle, Jesus blesses the very things in our lives so often we are told to sacrifice in the name of religion.wedding at cana Jesus blesses celebration, pictured by the wine and the party. Jesus shows us being filled with God’s presence ought to cause you to enjoy life, to celebrate – drawing you closer to others, helping you see the joy in each moment. For some people, this might not mean lifting wine, because for them that bottle might very well be the very thing that causes them to become so broken they cannot be present in the moment, truly enjoying others, truly embracing life. I know that family member whose drinking made me decide to turn away from the bottle at one point in my life later decided that, for himself, he had to give up the bottle not to sacrifice a good, full life but in order to find it. Now after working through some of my experiences stemming from that relative’s drinking and from my own experience of legalistic religion I can have a drink from time to time in celebration. What is important is not the bottle, but the fact that Jesus is showing us that being able to drink deep of the joy and blessings in life, and doing so with others, is part and parcel of the life he brings. Our faith ought to awaken us to the depths of joy in our life. This is a part of what we have been talking about by saying that God becoming flesh and blood in Jesus not only is a promise of salvation, but a picture of what it makes possible: that in your life, however unique or seemingly ordinary, God is already breaking forth every day in big and little ways if you have eyes to see. So in you, in your every day life, God can also become flesh and blood so that through you others can find more fully the healing, the hope, and most of the joy and celebration in their own lives every day.

Also, though we often fail to notice it in this passage, Jesus is celebrating sex through this miracle. After all, what follows the wedding party but the wedding night? For many of us, we have learned from the church the opposite message – to be ashamed of our sexuality. How many gay, bisexual, or transgendered folks have heard from the church over the years that their sexuality is a curse, their love an abomination, and their relationship a pathway to hell? Even many straight couples I’ve worked withas a pastor over the years have told me stories about how mixed messages in the church calling for them to sacrifice led them to feel ashamed of their sexuality, to struggle to really celebrate intimacy with their spouse.

But in celebrating this miracle at a wedding, Jesus is blessing sex as a beautiful gift. Jesus is showing sexuality to be a beautiful gift with the power to draw people together in ways that are healing and life-giving. I thank God that this miracle is here, because we know so little about Jesus’ own sexuality.

Turn to someone and say, Who you love is a gift. Love can never be an abomination.

In her book Christ the Lord: the Road to Cana, Ann Rice imagines this scene as being the marriage of a young lady that Jesus had been smitten with to someone else, and coming after Jesus, having confronted his own sexuality, chooses to forsake marriage for a life of singleness, because he knows that, headed to the cross, he cannot be there for a wife or children. This is the traditional understanding of how Jesus expresses his sexuality: by choosing a life of singleness. Yet some scholars point toward some writings in the early church that suggest Jesus might have had a wife, as other rabbis did, to suggest Jesus was married. Still others point to the text at the end of John where Jesus entrusts his mother into the hands of the beloved disciple, traditionally the apostle John, as a sign that Jesus was bisexual or gay and had a loving partnership with another man.

The Bible is not very clear on whether Jesus was single, was straight and married, or gay or bisexual and in a committed same-sex relationship. I think the reason why is that any of these paths can be paths of holiness, where we allow God to become flesh and blood in our lives. By not telling us clearly which path Jesus is on the Bible makes room for us to imagine each of these paths as paths in which God can be made flesh in our world. Being single can be a way we experience our sexuality, and do so in a way that is healing and life-giving if we are ones called, whether for a time or for life, to singleness. Straight couples can and do reflect the life and love of Christ when they let Christ-like love rule their relationships. And I have seen so, so many same-gender couples whose sexuality is turned into a portrait of the love of Christ in how they allow their sexuality to help them find true, deep meaningful love through which they build a life together that reflects the life of Christ.

love is loveThis means that following Christ does not mean denying who you are in terms of your sexuality. Instead it means accepting it, whatever it is, and asking not how can I get rid of this but instead how can I be true to this in a way that reflects the love of Christ? There are a few people who, like Paul in 1 Corinthians 7, will determine the best way for them to be true to who they are in Christ is to be single, whether for the moment or long-term. Most others will find Christ showing them how their sexuality can be a gift which binds them together with others, in relationships whether same-gender or opposite-gender, that call out the best of who they are and help them learn how to love another selflessly as Christ loves us and gave his life for us.

Turn to someone and say Love can never be an abomination, because the Bible says against love there is no law.

 

In closing, I want to ask you to listen to the words of a Bon Jovi song, which illustrate the central truth of this passage to us.

 

 

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Son of Ham and Resurrection City: Liberating Christianity From Slaveholder Mentality

Hear Glynn Washington on NPR's Snap Judgment

Hear Glynn Washington on NPR’s Snap Judgment

I recently heard a powerful piece connected to what we focus on here on Progressive Redneck Preacher.

The piece is “Son of Ham”, a recording by Glynn Washington, the producer of NPR’s Snap Judgment radio program.  In this piece, Glynn tells his experience growing up in the Adventist sect, the Worldwide Church of God, at a time it was dominated by a form of what I call “slave-holder Christianity”:

 https://soundcloud.com/iron5wolf/wfmu-tmi-son-of-ham

One  theme of Progressive Redneck Preacher has been the question of how to liberate Christianity from what I call slaveholder Christianity.  Slaveholder Christianity is the approach my ancestors and the ancestors of many other southern white Christians once used to justify buying and selling other human beings as property.  To do this, these white Christians had to interpret Scripture and Christian tradition in a way that propped up their own prejudice, and justified oppressing other people.  Even though we don’t have race-based slavery  in the US south anymore, Washington’s piece shares a powerful testimony of how the same mentality that uses Scripture to marginalize others was used in my own life-time — in fact in a church tradition my own family attended at one point.

Ambassador Auditorium, the sanctuary for the denomination Washington describes in "Son of Ham"

Ambassador Auditorium, the sanctuary for the denomination Washington describes in “Son of Ham”

I actually spent part of my life in the sect Washington described.  As a young white person I noticed more its exclusivist approach and its legalism — banning things like Christmas, Easter, pepperoni pizza, sports from Friday evening to Saturday evening.  I remember more how it used its exclusivism to frighten and control others.  I didn’t notice in my childhood the same racism and bigotry that Washington did, but know now about it through the testimony of others.  The difference in what we both remember shows how slave-holder Christianity’s abuses are easy to overlook if you are not its intended victim.

It was through the ministry of Curtis May that I came to become aware of the power of what I now call slave-holder Christianity.   Curtis had experienced much of the same experiences of systematic racism which Washington had faced.  He took these experiences as one who had been systematically discriminated against in the name of God and used them to help move that group out of racism and into a ministry focused on racial reconciliation, as well as to reach out in the larger world inviting people of all faiths to engage in the work of racial reconciliation.  When I ministered some in Los Angeles I came to know this man and was blessed to see how his Office of Reconciliation Ministries worked to un-do some of the slave-holder mentality in his denomination and in the larger community.  I remember  how striking it was to hear for the first time what Washington so tellingly describes in his piece “Son of Ham” — how Scripture had been used in that church to promote sort of prejudice.  This ministry made me aware of how faith could be used to either tear down

Curtis May, speaking on the importance of tearing down structures of racism and prejudice.

Curtis May, speaking on the importance of tearing down structures of racism and prejudice.

walls of prejudice and discrimination or build bridges just as much as how it could be used to promote bigotry and hold people in oppression.   The few years I served in some churches in Los Angeles that partnered with his ministry, I was blessed to be a part of presentations he led where he welcomed people to share their experiences of racism and abuse which came out of such approaches to Scripture.  I believe Curtis’s heart for this ministry came from sharing experiences like Glynn Washington’s.  I think a starting place for people like myself, who grow up without having Scripture or faith used to justify oppressing us or putting us down, is to simply listen to their stories and especially to pay attention to how their experiences with similar times in life  and situations is so different.  And to become more mindful of the unintended ways we may be going along with those around us to buy into to these patterns of prejudice and discrimination.

We need to realize as Desmond Tutu has said a number of times, Scripture and Christian are tools.  They are like a blade.  A blade can have wonderful useful purposes — being used to do the cutting and preparation to build something or even as a scalpel by doctors and nurses to help the injured and sick heal.  Yet a blade can become a weapon used to hurt and kill others.   So Scripture and tradition can be used either way, and have been.

This mentality to Scripture and the church which Washington and May both confront in their work as radio personality and minister respectively continues.  Even though the denomination that promoted it in Washington and May’s case ended up, largely through the work of individuals like Rev. May moving in a direction standing against racism that uses Scripture to heal the experiences of prejudice, racism continues to exist in all our churches. Its presence in our society is something I witnessed when there was race-based conflict in communities in Los Angeles when I lived there, and which I recently saw in a presentation here in North Carolina about patterns of racial profiling in police work in the Raleigh and Durham area.  But I don’t think this slave-holder mentality is  limited to issues of race.

I saw it in the churches I served in as an evangelical minister which, though they worked together with Curtis May’s ministry on racial reconciliation, at the time frowned on women having more than a second-rate place in the church and which I saw horribly mistreat community members who were gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered.  (In truth, Rev. May’s ministry does not confront or discuss the issue of how Scripture is used to prop up such discrimination, nor offer workshops  aimed at reconciliation for those affected by heterosexist and homophobic abuse).  Seeing that double-standard and how those churches continued to use Scripture to mistreat “the other” and marginalize people who were different was the wake-up call that led me on the long journey out of conservative evangelicalism into a more open, progressive approach to Christianity.

I feel though, that you only have to open your eyes and look around to see this same mentality at work in our communities.

Here in the southeast US where I live, just this past month we’ve seen a number of states working to try to pen discrimination into law, working to make it so that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered can be discriminated by companies, workplaces, and rental offices if those people have religious beliefs that ban being gay.   This is similar to if the US had allowed people in the group Washington describes to have discriminate against inter-racial couples penned into law again.  Lucky for us, in Loving V. Virginia, the Supreme Court upheld that there is no real justification for discrimination and has overturned such attempts.  Yet the logic behind such attempts to apply this to gay couples and transgendered people is grounded in a slave-holder approach to the Bible.  It is attempting to use Scripture as a tool of oppression and marginalization.

Some of the marchers at the Moral March in Raleigh, NC

Some of the marchers at the Moral March in Raleigh, NC

 

On the flip-side you can see how here in the south, others are finding in their faith a call to speak up against injustice.   In the beginning of March, my wife Kat was able to join a group from the United Church of Christ in Chapel Hill, who took part in the Moral March on the NC State Capitol.  That church joined a number of other churches, mosques, and synagogues in raising their voices against the way in which the poor, the outcast, children, and others who are the most vulnerable are being forgotten by our state government.

Spear-heading this event was the Rev. William Barbour.

Barbour’s  work is inspired by that of Dr. Martin Luther King and grows directly out of his faith. It grows out the vision of resurrection city.

 

Rev. William Barbour

Rev. William Barbour

Recently I was able to begin reading Peter Heltzel’s book Resurrection City. In it he begins to paint a picture of what a Christianity would look like that is used not as a weapon but as an instrument of healing. In it he uses King’s vision of a “resurrection city” as a picture of what it could be.

When Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, the civil rights movement stopped in a shock. Shaken and confused, seeking and searching, its leaders decide to continue King’s Poor People’s Campaign by building a tent city on the National Mall in Washington, D. C. People from around the country converged on the nation’s capital to bear communal witness to the ravages of poverty and homelessness. They called it ‘Resurrection City’, a parable of loving, equal, and just community…”

 

The "Resurrection City" following Martin Luther King's assassination

The “Resurrection City” following Martin Luther King’s assassination

This image of people from all walks of life setting up a tent city where the poor and disenfranchised camp out on the capital grounds, with the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish leaders standing up alongside other the broken-hearted and dejected, with African-American people whose faith was forged in resistance to a southern society bent on holding them down, taking the lead, is a beautiful image of what Christianity can be.

I’ve only just begun to read Peter Heltzel’s book, but I want to recommend it to my readers. In it he attempts to paint a picture of a Christianity centered on compassion, on justice for all; on a Christianity focused on upending slaveholder mentality. I think this is the call we must hear: the call to discover how the old old story of our faith can be the liberating force people like Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, and William Barbour know it to be.

Whether from his example or not, ultimately we are called to pick the city where we pitch our tents. Will it be the past Washington and May spoke of – where faith was used as a way to prop up injustice? Or will it be a modern version of “resurrection city”, where our faith inspires us to build communities of healing, of justice, that tear down the walls that divide us?

Hetzel's book on justice-centered Christianity.   Click for details.

Hetzel’s book on justice-centered Christianity. Click for details.

 

 

The choice is yours — and mine.

And I’m not just whistling Dixie!

Your Progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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Lenten Study on the Life of Jesus — Making Friends with the Monsters Under Your Bed

As we continue the journey of Lent, I think reflecting on the life of Jesus is a great way to help us finding our footing on its true meaning: learning to walk in Jesus’ steps. Because of this I want to share a series on the life of Jesus I gave earlier this year at Diversity in Faith, a Progressive Christian Alliance church in Fayetteville, NC.  

Here is the third message in this series, “Making Friends with the Monsters Underneath Your Bed”.  Hope it blesses you. I would be remiss, on a blog about progressive Christianity in the south, to not share a traditional tale of temptation. Here it is.

I hope this reflection helps you learn how to confront the shadows in your life in a way that is liberating and life giving this Lent.

And I’m not just whistling Dixie!

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah
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Our Gospel reading comes in Luke chapter, beginning in verse 1, going down to verse 14. We join Jesus after he has chosen to answer his calling, like we spoke about last week. I feel Jesus’ example here shows us some necessary work we must do in our life to begin living our life to the fullest by truly living out our callings from God.

Luke 4

 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.

The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”temptation of jesus

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”

The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. 10 For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you
to guard you carefully;
11 they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

12 Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

13 When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.

14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside

These are the words of God, for the people of God. May the Spirit inspire our reading, discussing, and I hope and pray, embracing, of these words today. Amen.

 

Before he begins his ministry, Jesus is drawn by the Spirit to confront potential pitfalls he might face that could trip him up by keeping him from fulfilling what he is called to do.

I remember when Jowancka became a deacon, giving her the sage warning I was given when I was ordained: hold on tight to something. Whenever you step forward in your calling, get ready: if the devil hit Jesus hard, you can know he will attack you. All growth produces spiritual resistance.

 

That advice was not bad when I first received it from a mentor of mine, and not that bad I think when I shared it, but as I began to study this passage getting ready for this sermon, I realized isn’t completely true. It makes it sound as if what happened to Jesus was some attack out of the blue, a tragedy or travesty it was too bad he could avoid; and as if we might have to fear such attacks in our life.

 

But as I read over this passage, getting ready for today, I realized that this is not really the case. Instead we are told that God actually drove Jesus to the desert where Jesus had to confront the devil. The Spirit of God leads Jesus right to this moment that Jesus has to face the heart of darkness itself.

 

Instead of the devil coming on Jesus out of the blue for Jesus, Jesus is being led to come on the devil out of the blue. Jesus is being led to confront the darkness that lays before him in his own life before he goes full-tilt into his ministry that way he is ready to confront that darkness.

 

great cloud of supportI don’t know about you but this is very different than I have tended to look at darkness in my life, but it shows me that I do not need to fear the darkness in my life, the painful broken places that are a part of who I am, those aspects of myself that are growing edges which make me struggle to be what I am called to be – whether the best Christian I can, the best employee I can, the best husband I can, the best minister I can.

 

We don’t often think of Jesus as having weaknesses, but during his 30-some year life span, he did. To be fully human means to not just have wonderful gifts we can delight in, which God delights in us about, but also means to be limited. Jesus gets tired like we do, and has to sleep or become grumpy. Jesus has to eat like we do, and gets lonely and sad at points. Jesus can only be in one place at at time and, like us, at times struggles to have faith crying out “Father if you would just take this cup from me”.

 

And so by confronting the devil Jesus is confronting his own growing edges, his areas where he is vulnerable, where he is weak, where if he does not do the work of preparation, he could fall short.

 

Sometimes we are slow to confront our own weaknesses. We might be slow by trying to appear we’ve got it all together, when in fact we need to admit we need help. We might be slow to admit our failings and growing edges, instead blaming focusing on where we are strong. We might become angry or defensive when others point out we are not perfect, even blaming others for our seeming short-comings. We might refuse to try new things, to be pushed, for fear of failing. All of these are ways we can be slow to confront our short-comings.

 

Yet the fact Jesus has imperfections he has to confront before he can go full of the Spirit into ministry, even as the Son of God, shows us something: If the Son of God has imperfections that means being imperfect, having weaknesses, isn’t sin. It isn’t wrong. It is simply being a human being, a child of God. As one of my favorite writers, Pia Melody, says in her book The Intimacy Factor, to be a child is to be perfectly imperfect. It is to be vulnerable, needy, and full of weakness and have all of that be where your potential lies. It is not despite the fact that a new-born baby has to be held, has to be fed, has to be clothed that we love it but precisely in its needing to be held, fed, clothed, and cared-for vulnerability.

 

inner-peace (1)

So God uses the devil to help Jesus confront his own weaknesses and vulnerability. Those weaknesses and vulnerabilities are the root of his temptations, just as our weaknesses and vulnerabilities are the root of our own. And it is only by confronting them head on that he can avoid falling into them.

 

To me it reminds of two things. First of all, it reminds me of trip planning. In a way beginning to live out a calling is like planning a trip. One of the first things my dad taught me when learning to drive was to check the engine before a trip. Checking the engine is checking the vulnerable areas of the car – does it have enough oil and water to make the trip? Are there any parts of the car that don’t look right? Not taking time to get to know your areas of weaknesses is like not checking your car engine. You might feel better for a short time, but you know what? If that oil and water runs low, or the belts bust in your car, you might very well end up stranded.

brokencar

Likewise it is by coming to know and accept your vulnerabilities you can begin to care for your self so you can make it long haul in answering the callings in life God is giving you, making it less likely you’ll get “stranded” through falling into temptation, or collapsing under the weight of trials later in your journey.

 

A second example of this is how I’ve seen this when I’ve counseled couples. Often couples having troubles in their relationship will want to avoid talking about or dealing with their issues. Usually to get their relationship working what I have to help them do is find ways to do the opposite – to talk about their pitfalls in their relationships, but in ways that bring them together, not push them apart. The way forward is only through really owning up both their strengths and their weaknesses.

 

These points of weakness are actually the flip-side to what is good in Jesus and his calling.

I never noticed this until I began to really look at the temptations the devil uses for Jesus. What fascinating ploys the devil uses.

First he questions Jesus’ identity – if you are the Son of God. Being able to question or call into doubt Jesus’ identity stems from the fact Jesus truly is a child of God. Deep down Jesus knows his need to be connected to God and to know who he is. The devil tries to use something good: a sense that Jesus should be connected to God, a sense that he ought to have worth, in order to try and lead Jesus astray.

Then the devil quotes Scripture to Jesus – which is only important because Jesus knows Scripture. The devil knows how important being connected to Scripture and to the faith it proclaims to Jesus. So the devil uses this very good part of who Jesus is to try to lead people astray.

 

If we are committed to Scriptures or to a particular faith, is that a good thing? Certainly. It can ground us, giving us a place to turn to in order to find God’s voice and discern if we are on the right path. Yet the devil can also use that connection in our life to wreck us, if the particular form of faith we join in becomes an idol that is more important than loving God and loving others. Even the Bible can become twisted into an idol when we let it become used in ways that are not loving. I have seen this happen when a church began to ask of people sacrificing family, or health, or work to serve the church. I’ve seen it when the Bible was twisted to justify mistreating inter-racial couples or gay couples. People’s positive commitment to Scripture and to the faith has been misused by the devil to lead them away from loving others and at times even accepting themselves.

 

This same thing is at work with the three classical temptations. We usually get it wrong by talking as if the great temptation of Jesus’ is to eat food. In reality in each three temptations he is being tempted to be a certain type of Savior. Turning all the rocks to bread in the desert will allow him to feed all the hungry peasants in Israel, and set up the ultimate kitchen for the poor. Jumping from the top of the temple and being carried down by angels will be the ultimate sign or wonder so people can believe in Jesus because he is a wonder-worker. And getting the power to rule the nations would allow Jesus to set right all that is wrong in the world. These temptations are in fact things which, on their own, Jesus actually kind of does. Jesus does feed 5,000 people with miraculous bread – but never makes miracle bread the center of what he does. Jesus does in fact perfect countless wonders, healing the sick and raising the dead, but never makes flashy signs the point of what he does. Instead again and again Jesus tells people what they need is faith, even if just a tiny bit, which comes not based on what is seen but what cannot be seen or proven. And Jesus proclaims there is a day coming when every nation will bow to him, and he will sit in judgment of the nations separating them from the east from the west, but he refuses to let power become an end in itself that is expressed through violence or worship of anything other than God. All of these pitfalls are actually things which, in another context, would be good and beautiful becoming blessings in our ministry.

 

This is true for us too. So many aspects of who we are are good and wonderful, in the right context but bad for us & others when they take the wrong place in our lives.

 

Caring for your family is such an important priority. But if you let what your parents or brothers and sisters believe keep you from being true to who you are and who God is calling you to be, you can shipwreck your lives.

 

Prayer can move mountains, and is important, but if you use prayer as an excuse not to do your part in solving the problems in front of you, you short-change your growth and end up shutting the door to God answering the very prayers you offer.

 

Alcohol, when used in moderation, can be relaxing and a source of joy. But if someone becomes addicted to it or misuses it, it can wreck their life and, as I’ve seen before while in the hospital, take others in drunk driving accidents.

 

Sex is a beautiful gift that can bond two people together, and help them celebrate each other and their love. It can also be misused in ways that treat others as objects, or even where it becomes a weapon of abuse.

 

Being willing to help others can be a great way to show God’s love but if your willingness to give the shirt of your back puts you in the poorhouse, or ends you in the hospital for not taking care of your own health, it can become a pitfall.

 

Being a contemplative person can help you shut out the noise of the world and hear God’s voice; it can also be an excuse to pull away from others who need you and can build lasting friendships.

 

All our vulnerabilities and weaknesses include potentials for strength; all our strengths include potential weaknesses.

 

This is why we need to learn to be able to say, as a popular song right now does,

I’m friends with the monster that’s under my bed
Get along with the voices inside of my head…”

We need to learn to embrace our brokeness, our weaknesses, as well as our strengths.”

 

 

What happens with Jesus to me shows me that the answer to our weaknesses which the devil can use to tempt us off God’s path for us is not as simple as we often make it. The answer is usually neither giving in to these pitfalls or rejecting them, but learning from them and embracing what is good in them. Jesus is able to still produce bread to feed the thousands, but without reducing people into being animals who only need food. He also teaches them of their spiritual worth, and the way to food that will last to eternal life.

 

Likewise we need to learn to look for the positive lessons our weaknesses teach us, and how they can become not vessels for temptations off God’s path but instead vessels for blessing us and others.

 

Your sexuality instead of making you an abomination can be a way of finding a life mate, or of relating with someone who is some other minority and, like you, faces prejudice for who they are.

 

Your disability might not just stand in the way of you doing certain things others can do, but might open up doors for understanding yourself or others in ways you would not otherwise do.

 

What I’d like to challenge you to do this week is to take time this to think of one area you view as a weakness, a failing, a frailty about yourself and are insecure about us or ashamed of for every day this week. I want to challenge you to take time each day to meditate on that area and consider strengths, blessings, or gifts it makes possible for you and how it can become an asset you lean on or learn from. By considering how our weaknesses are a part of our strengths and our strengths are a part of our weaknesses we open ourselves up, like Jesus, to being God’s presence of healing and life for others more fully.

 

 

Lenten Study on the Life of Christ: Discovering What Life is For

As we continue the journey of Lent, I think reflecting on the life of Jesus is a great way to help us finding our footing on its true meaning: learning to walk in Jesus’ steps. Because of this I want to share a series on the life of Jesus I gave earlier this year at Diversity in Faith, a Progressive Christian Alliance church in Fayetteville, NC.  

Here is the second message in this series, “Born as a Bundle of Blessings”.  Hope it blesses you.

And I’m not just whistling Dixie!

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

2013-07-10 07.19.16

Our Gospel reading comes from Luke chapter 3, beginning in verse 1:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
5 Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
6 And all people will see God’s salvation.’”Baptism-of-Christ

7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with[b] water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

19 But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, 20 Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.

21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

23 Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry…

The word of God, for the people of God.

Thanks be to God.

May God add God’s blessing to the reading of God’s word, Amen.

Multicultural Jesus 1Last week we began to look at the ways in which Jesus’ life shows us ways we can encounter God in our daily, ordinary lives. We looked at the day when mother Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus into the temple to be blessed, only to discover through the words of Anna and Simeon it was he who was the blessing. We talked about how not only does this story clue us into how special and unique Jesus is, but also how each of us are special and unique, each born able in our own lives to encounter God and to have God come near, taking on flesh and blood for other’s help & healing, in a way no one else can.

We join Jesus some thirty years later. Like all of us, he has entered the world totally vulnerable – unable to walk, talk, eat, or clean himself without help and, like us, had to learn each day. That’s right, Jesus didn’t enter the world fully knowing his calling or what he should do with his life, either. That is why last week’s text said Jesus had to grow in grace, in wisdom, and stature after his dedication to God as a baby. Like all of us, Jesus didn’t enter the world having it all figured out. Those years of Jesus learning, growing, and (eventually) working – likely, with his hands as a carpenter like his stepfather – began to all come together, coalescing into a sense of calling in this passage. I think that Jesus’ hearing of a call, a sense of “what should I do with my life?”, teaches us volumes about our own sense of calling, our own answers to the question “what should I do with my life?”

Does anything stand out to you in this chapter about Jesus’ sense of calling? Anything that might point to how we find our own?

gods callingFirst I want you to notice that Jesus hears and answers his calling rather late in his life. When I first realized this, it shocked me – how could Jesus not have fully heard his call, until late in his life? It speaks volumes to me now. Growing up, I remember hearing preachers talk about hearing God’s call and school counselors talk about discovering what you wanted to do with your life and feeling this great pressure to decide what thing I needed to do with my life. I remember getting the impression I ought to know already – and if I just walked closer with God, or was a bit more together I’d know. Jesus’ example shows that, no, in fact the Son of God himself took awhile to fully realize what he was called to do. Why should you or I feel guilty if sometimes we feel like we are just beginning to find our way with God?

On the flip side I’ve known people who beat themselves up for not figuring out their life yet, or sensing their call so late in life. “If only I’d known it sooner” or “I must have something wrong to not be sure yet”. I remember distinctly while getting trained to be a pastor in Pasadena an older gentleman whom everyone called “Uncle George” who came with his younger family to church. He was approaching his 70s I believe, and at first when he came to understand the message of Jesus was hesitant to decide to follow Jesus because, as he said, he was too old to change and learn something new. Yet when he finally did get baptized as a commitment to follow Jesus – in his relative’s bath tub no less! – he was so full of joy saying “oh how I wish I had known Jesus earlier”.

anabaptist baptismIf you feel you should be further along in your calling, or worry it is too late to answer the call Jesus has placed in your heart, remember this: It was actually late in Jesus’ life when he came to realize his call and, through baptism, say yes to it.

Luke says Jesus was in his 30s – roughly Kat’s and my age – when he finally answered his calling; much later than us, and much later than his cousin who was the same age as Jesus, whose preaching helped Jesus understand his own calling. That certainly isn’t a teenager, or even a twenty-something. And though thirty might sound young to some of us, in Jesus’ day, living in a world without modern medicine the average age a man died was his mid-30s, so someone in their 50s or 60s was considered blessed with a long and productive life, almost ancient by their standards. At best Jesus is answering his call to ministry late in mid-life by the standards of his day, but in reality Jesus doesn’t answer this calling to ministry until near the end of his life, since Jesus only lived around three years more after he publicly embraced his calling here through baptism. Most of the rest of his life was learning, growing, working ordinary trades like carpentry. Yet how those three years out of 33 – 35 changed the world! That commitment Jesus made in his baptism literally split history in half, so that in the West now we mark history as before Jesus’ life and after. Three years living out his calling, in the three last years of his life, totally change the world.

That should show us first that we do not need to rush, if we have not yet figured out our calling. After all, rushing might lead us down a path that is not God’s choosing where we have to face situations or suffering God doesn’t have planned for us. And we should not beat ourselves up for not having arrived at a destination God might not yet have ready for us yet. Trying to arrive at God’s destination too early can be as disastrous as showing up too late.

And you need to not tell yourself you have not figured out what to do with your life fast enough, even if you are just beginning to figure it out fairly late in your life. Jesus has only three years left as he answers his calling – and he is right on time.

The heart of your calling is knowing & accepting yourself as God's child, whom God loves, and in whom God is well pleased.

The heart of your calling is knowing & accepting yourself as God’s child, whom God loves, and in whom God is well pleased.

Secondly, I want you to notice with me what Jesus is saying “yes” to, in answering his calling through baptism.

When I first read this story, it really made me scratch my head. John is calling people to the baptism for the forgiveness of their sins, and when I heard baptism preached in my church as a young Christian it was about going back home to God when you’d gone astray into sin. But Hebrews 2 & 4 tell us that Jesus lived without sin, that He alone was the first human to live His life perhaps not without making mistakes but truly without ever failing to fully love God, love others, and care for God’s earth. Jesus never sinned, never failing to do justice, to love compassion, and to walk humbly with His God. So Jesus had no sin to repent from, no sin to have forgiven. What call was Jesus answering?

One answer that is true is that Jesus was throwing His lot with us, saying that, sinful and broken as we are, He is embracing each and every person just as they are and in His life extending the arms of forgiveness for all who need repentance. And that is true, but there is something deeper, here… something that motivates this choice of Jesus’.

We see it in the words that the Father speaks over Jesus, as the Holy Spirit descends like a mother dove does when she shelters her baby under her wings. The Father speaks out Jesus’ calling clearly. What is it the Father says?

The Father says “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus’ calling is not to do this or that thing, not to perform this ministry or that. It is not to have a title, or a role. Jesus’ calling is to know, and know that he knows, deep in the core of his soul, that He is God’s own child, that He is loved without condition, and that because of this, before He has done anything in his life, God is well pleased in Him. Jesus is called to accept this love, to be well pleased in who He was made to be, and then to go out with that fire of love, showing others that they too are loved without condition, children of the same Father God and mothering Spirit, and ones God is well pleased in before they have done anything right or wrong, simply because they are God’s children.

And for 3 years this is what Jesus does – lives secure in the fact He is God’s child, He is loved without condition, and lives well pleased with who He is made to be because God is well pleased with Him. And Jesus goes reaching out, letting others know this is who they are too… and that they can make this world one where all are treated that way.

Ultimately, that is your calling and my calling too.

I used to struggle with that. Am I called to teach? To preach? To pastor? How can I live my calling when I can’t preach full time, but have to sometimes work in the school system, or a book store, or a radio station, or a mental health firm? I used to feel I was always falling short of what I was called to do. Have you been there?

But I see now – no. I am not called to do any one thing. Neither are you. I am called to know, in depths of my soul, that I am loved. Unconditionally. Irreversibly. That I am God’s child, and nothing on heaven, on earth, or under the earth, can ever take that from me. And that I am this, before I do anything, right or wrong; and after whatever I have done, disastrous or beautiful. And that God is always well pleased with who I am at my core, even though I don’t always live true to who I am, and so I ought to learn to be well pleased with who I am, just as God made me. Learning to truly believe this and live this out is my calling – and yours.

And when you start to do this, you can’t help but begin to also like Jesus begin to treat others like they are deserving the same unconditional love, like they too are God’s children, like there has to be something in them to be well pleased in because who God made them to be, who they are in their core no matter how often they are not true to it, is a divine work of art that God is well pleased in. And you can’t help but tell others, in your way, whatever job you are doing. You can’t help but begin to look around you at the many ways our world tries to send another message, and try to mend this world by making it a place that treats people more like they are loved children of God, who ought to be well pleased in how God made them. This calling is what we are truly acknowledging when we choose to be baptized as Christians, we are saying out loud that yes I accept your word to me, God, that I am your child, whom you love, and that you are well pleased in me and I should take pleasure in who I am in you.

jesus hugsIt sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Until you try to do it.

You may come out, as a gay or bisexual person, but still deep down wrestle with feelings that maybe I’m not good enough, maybe I’m broken, not just another beautiful way to reflect God’s love. You may tell others who you are, but deep down feel someone like me doesn’t deserve love.

You might voice that God loves you but continue to beat yourself up for the ways in which you ran from God over the years, doing things you are ashamed of – forgetting that God’s love separates that guilt and shame from you as far as the east is from the west.

You might voice the thought that you are worth something, but continue to treat yourself like you are garbage, staying with activities that tear you down. In my own family, some folks close to me did that through drinking themselves to near oblivion. In my own life, I did that by often putting other’s thoughts, needs, and feelings so ahead of myself that I ended up not making space for the full life God had for me, pushing down pain and hurt and brokeness for years.

And we might fail to live as if others are also so loved, so worthy of being well pleased in who they are at their core, in small and big ways – so often as a way of hiding from ourselves how little we are pleased in ourselves.

This is a part of why Jesus’ baptism is couched in John calling people to repentance. Repentance is not what I experienced in church growing up – beating people over the head with shame and self-loathing for what they’ve done. In reality, all that does is not change someone’s life but make it more painful. No repentance in the Bible comes from the word metanoia, which means to change your thinking and the pattern of your life. Repentance is changing your thinking so you little by little begin to see yourselves more fully as God sees you, and see others the same. It is changing your pattern of your life so you move away from those things that tear yourselvs town, tear others down, and make you relate to God as someone less than loved by God and wellpleasing to God.

To close I want to ask you to do somethin.

I want to ask you to take this phrase – You are my Child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased – and meditate on it 3-5 minutes each day. Do this the way that works for you – you might read through this story a few times each day, reflecting on different parts. You might journal or write your thoughts on this phrase, or write poetry or songs about it. You might run the phrase over in your head as you walk the dog, or work in the yard. To get ready for this sermon, I used it for a centering prayer – where I repeated this statement of love during prayer and meditation as a way of meditating, thinking a little about what it means about Jesus, what it means about me, and what it meant about different people I encountered each day. I challenge you to take this phrase and meditate on it each day this week.

I also want to encourage you to take time, if you are a baptized Christian, to remember your baptism. Martin Luther is remembered as having told people when they wash their face in the morning, to remember their baptism. Take time during this time of Lent to recall your own baptism, what it meant to you, and renew the sense of calling it brings to mind. If you have not been baptized you might consider in the weeks leading up to Easter talking to a leader at the church you worship about what baptism means, in case it is something that might help you on the next step of faith.

Most importantly, recall who you are and whose you are.  Child, heaven’s got a plan for you.

Lenten Study on the Life of Christ: Born as a Bundle of Blessings

Earlier this year I gave a series on the life of Jesus at Diversity in Faith, a Progressive Christian Alliance church in Fayetteville, NC.   As we embark on the journey of Lent, I think reflecting on the life of Jesus is a great way to help us finding our footing on its true meaning: learning to walk in Jesus’ steps.

Here is the first message, “Born as a Bundle of Blessings”, originally preached a little after Christmas.  Hope it blesses you.

And I’m not just whistling Dixie!

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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Luke 2:22-40simeon and anna

22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,

you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31     which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”

33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.

native american nativity
This reading comes just a short time after the story of Christmas – roughly a week after Jesus is born to Mary, when his parents take him to the Temple, to celebrate his birth and for him to be blessed by the priests who are there. And blessed Jesus is! The old wizened priest Simeon falls down, amazed, to see this tiny child held in Mary’s arms. Anna, an old widow who has served God for years, has her heart leap for joy and cannot stop praising God for the wonder of this little one.

So often, coming after the Christmas celebration, such a story can be for us a way of thinking of how different and wonderful Jesus is. After all, he is the Son of God come to save us. This is a part of why Anna and Simeon turn from there quiet prayers to songs of praise and celebration.

But I cannot help myself from thinking of the joy surrounding seeing other babies blessed in the house of God – of seeing my little nephew Mark at my brother’s home church, when one Easter he awoke with a shriek of surprise as cold water fell on him at his baptism; of when Kat took oil and anointed my god-son Jordan, praying God’s blessing on his life, of when Rebecca and Christina’s god-son was blessed at the church earlier this year.

IMG_20111223_155806Though Jesus is unique – God the Son come to earth to save – in a way none else have, there is also a way that Jesus being greeted with these songs of praise when he is brought as a baby to blessed at the temple ought to awaken us to our own blessedness.

So often we can think we are so broken, so hurting, so weak, so sinful, that God is way up there and we are down here. But in Jesus, God showed us – God always comes to us as God with us, God entering into our life. The early Christians liked to say, that what God becomes, God heals.

And so in this little crying baby who is greeted by Anna and Simeon, God has come … in the flesh. In his crying, and his burping, and his diapers, God has come. In skin and bones, and blood beating in a tiny heart, God has come. In vulnerability, so vulnerable he cannot eat or walk without his mother nursing him or carrying him, God comes. In someone who must learn as we all did how to speak, how to crawl, how to walk, how to read, how to dress himself but until he does must have others do it for him, God comes. In Jesus God comes into every aspect of our lives, God comes as the innocent child, God comes as the toddler crawling on dusty floors, God comes as the little boy learning to play, God comes as the young man finding his way. God comes and blesses each of every aspect of our lives.

This means that there is not a part of your life or my life that is not holy in some way. Not a one of us are a mistake, but in a way very similar to Jesus, each of us have entered this world as promised children who can say with the Psalmist in Psalm 139,

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
How vast is the sum of them!

Master PotterEach of us are works of art, our lives canvasses upon which God can paint the most beautiful of pictures. Each of us are children of God and in us, as in Jesus, God can be made flesh in our lives by us choosing to take each moment that lies ahead of us as a place where we can encounter God and let God’s light shine through us.

In the next several weeks I hope in my sermon series to look at the way different aspects of Jesus’ life shed light on how our own lives can be places where we encounter God every day and also where we let God’s light shine through us in others. But what I want to challenge you with as we enter this time  is to embrace the fact that your life is special, that you are a unique child of God, and that you are someone in whom Christ’s light shines most beautifully.

 

That said, I want to conclude this reflection with the words of Christian writer Marianne Williamson, in her book

self acceptance 1

A  Return to Love, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful  beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

A Progressive Southern Preacher to Remember: Gayle C. Felton

 

gayle feltonIn the spirit of my previous posts celebrating folks who have been inspirations I connected with “in the communion of the saints”, I would like to share about a dear pastor who is a progressive southern preacher whose example lights the way for me.

A few months ago my wife Kat and I were blessed to go to the memorial to Rev. Gayle Felton, who I knew as one of the pastors at Calvary Methodist Church in Durham, NC. When I shared with co-workers about Pastor Gayle’s passing I was surprised to hear the Methodist chaplains at the hospital I am currently serving at knew Gayle.  They did not know her as Pastor Gayle, however, but as Doctor Felton.   I found Doctor Felton is a household name to many Methodist preachers.  My fellow chaplains knew this woman I knew as a dear pastor as a Duke professor who was one of the leading theologians on Wesleyan theology, who helped renew the Methodist understandings of grace and the sacraments. And what’s more she was one of the ministers really pushing the Methodist church to open wide its idea of open table to not just make room for all people to take the bread and cup but to truly open wide the table of fellowship to embrace all so that people’s sexualities, gender, and gender identities are a gift. She spear-headed organizing the Reconciling United Methodists, a movement of clergy and lay people in the Methodist church working to improve the understanding of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people by the church at large.

 

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Calvary Methodist, Durham, NC. “The Church with the rainbow over the cross”. A beautiful image of welcome and embrace.

 

I didn’t know all this about her. I did not know her as Dr. Felton the theologian, or even Gayle the advocate, but as Pastor Gayle, the plain spoken preacher at a southern church that was for me an oasis of healing in a time that healing was deeply needed. When I came to worship at Calvary Methodist, it was the year after my wife Katharine and I had to close up shop on a church plant in southern California. That church plant had been our first experiment in progressive church planting – an attempt to reach out with a message of love, inclusion, and grace to the transgendered and disabled community of the Inland Empire of California.We had worked our hearts out there.   We began that work after seeing a transgendered person whom we had come to know and love practically thrown out of a church in Grace Communion International, the evangelical denomination I was a minister within. We poured our heart into the lives of the people in that church-plant, without yet having healed (at least in my own case) from the heartache I felt from seeing the harm the church could do through the ministry I’d been a part of. And, in looking back, though my heart was in the work I was doing, I had not properly counted the cost, and the finances to stay on in California and finish that work did not last and we were unable to stay with that ministry. The shame and pain of trying to begin that good work, with all the best intentions, but not being able to continue on, hit me like a ton of bricks. (The church actually would continue, without us, in the hands of a gifted lady who herself was a part of the transgendered community, and last another five years, though I had no way to know that would happen at the time). The heartache of seeing friends I had felt were so close and true from the Christian college I had attended, and the church I had been ordained, distance themselves and look down on me for choosing to welcome “people like that” cut me deep. And the strain of it all stretched my marriage to a near breaking point.

 

I was a broken hurting man when I began to attend Calvary. I remember, in moving to NC to pick up the pieces, find work, and begin to move forward, not having a clue where I would find a place to worship. I knew, for all the ways I was facing up to how the church had hurt others and hurt me, that a place of worship where I could sense God’s presence was what I needed to have the breathing room, the space to heal, I needed. I saw the website for Pastor Gayle’s church, and saw it proudly proclaim that the ministry there grew out of the inspiration brought by the stories of faith of gay and lesbian Christians, and thought “perhaps this is it”.

 

calvarymethodist_032811The sight I saw at Calvary Methodist – of grand old southern bells, who so reminded me of my own dear grandmother, wrapped arm in arm with young gay couples, singing the old old story that I knew so well, brought tears to my eyes. One of the things I talk about sometimes in my ministry are the words of Jesus in John 3 – “You must be born again”. Nicodemus answers him asking how we can return to the womb when we are old, and Jesus never denies that we must, but instead talks about being born not of water but Spirit. To me that means that, yes, in fact sometimes we have to return to the womb again, going back to the womb of the Holy Spirit who travails like a mother in labor pains to bring forth our healing, our rebirth, our new beginnings.

 

For me that time at Calvary Methodist was a returning to the womb again, it was a time I could put away my feelings of shame and failure, put aside my experience of rejection and pain, and rest – rest in the loving embrace of the Holy Spirit, letting Her do the work of healing in my life, to allow me to see the world again with new eyes, the eyes of a child.

Pastor Gayle, with her rich southern accent, speaking the words of Scripture which I had2014-02-01 14.11.07 learned in an old, old way sitting on a rug at my mother’s feet playing with action figures in the church I grew up in, was a voice of the Holy Spirit to me. Gayle spoke with confidence and strength, speaking the language of faith, the same language I had heard used in so many ways to control, to abuse, to hurt others – and which I was coming to realize had been used in the same way toward me – and revealed in her straightforward way what I had always felt deep in my soul: their true message was freedom.

The way in which Gayle brought out the old language of faith, the old old story of Scripture, and showed it as a path to freedom, fit the image I heard at her memorial of a quiet revolutionary for full inclusion. The way Gayle’s progressive faith was not a tearing down of what had always been, as I feel too often progressive Christianity at its worst can become, but instead a bringing out the riches of the church long forgotten – its sacraments and songs, its liturgies and lived beliefs – fit so well the description of her as a theologian reviving much that had been forgotten in the church.

For me Gayle will always be one of the pastors at the church where I found healing and sure footing to continue my Christian journey, to fall in love with the Bible again as a book of healing, and to see how the best of my tradition as a very southern Christian can be a source of healing and freedom. Bringing the best of southern culture, and Christian tradition to bear as a gift of freedom makes her for me the epitome of the best of progressive Christianity here in the south.

 

So I tip my hat to her as a progressive redneck preacher, and thank God for the gift her life and ministry has been to me.

 

And I’m not just whistling Dixie,

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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The Power of a Southern Grandma: How My Southern Belle Granny Helped Me Become a Progressive Christian

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This is a repost of a blog I did last year.   In the spirit of my Sunday post on squirrels and the communion of the saints, I wanted to share this in memory of my grandmother and her influence on me. — Micah

This Sunday I had a real moving conversation with David Gibson, the choir director of our church. We were discussing during my sermon people who influenced our faith. He shared how his grandmother is part of why he is a Christian who loves the Lord today.

Hearing David share about how the faith of his grandmother shaped him got me thinking. The power of grandmothers in our lives is something we often don’t take time enough time to reflect on.

Most of my grandparents died when I was too young to remember them, but one of my grandparents, Myrtie Mclamb Barefoot, left a lasting impact on me. In fact, in looking back, I realize she is part of why I am a progressive Christian too. Thanks to her I am today a progressive redneck preacher.

My earliest memory of Grandma Myrtie (or Ma Barefoot, as we all called her) is the taste of caramel. Before her stroke, whenever we would visit her at her old country home in Blackman’s Crossroads her soft, strong wrinkled hands would greet us with a pat on the head, a hug and then an old fashioned caramel chew. I can still remember the comfort I felt with the taste of caramel in my mouth and those wizened arms holding me tight. I think that will always be for me what safety and love feels like.

Grandma Myrtie had a grand old house with the sort of porch you could imagine someone sitting at for hours, looking out over waves of tobacco fields, while sipping cold sweet iced tea for hours. Though farming was long over for her, behind her home was a large tobacco barn. I can remember climbing into it and running through it with a cousin while playing a game of hide and seek on one visit.

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A little after her husband, Grandpa Charles, died, Ma Barefoot moved into our house. Approaching her 90s this grand old lady no longer could easily care for herself. A stroke, the loss of her husband, and just the frailty of her many years took a toll on her. So Ma Barefoot moved into our three story home in the city and lived with us until my early teens, when her health became so bad she had to be placed into a nursing facility.

Even though she had moved out of the family farmhouse, Ma Barefoot continued to be a southern belle. I remember her crisp, exact speech. Unlike grandpa Charles she was well educated – a school teacher – and just like she did with her charges, so she encouraged us to use good English and clear speech. I can still here her rich cultivated southern accent as she spoke to me, always telling me something aimed at educating me and whetting a desire to learn.

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One day, probably around the age of five or six, I had taken Ma Barefoot’s hand and walked with her around our little suburban neighborhood of green manicured lawns, so different from the rolling fields of Johnston County, as she began a history lesson.

“You know, this city where you live, Micah, it almost became the capitol. Back in the days of the revolutionary war, it is here they signed the bill of rights,” Ma Barefoot began.

I walked, awestruck and jaw agape, in wonder at the wisdom of her years, as she began to tell me the story of Fayetteville where I lived and the great state in which I had been born. I did not understand as I do now that Ma Barefoot meant the capitol of our state, North Carolina. So visions of Ronald Reagan (the only president I have ever known at that tender age) getting sworn in at our market house building.

The many talks Ma Barefoot had with me like this, helping create in me a love of learning. The fact that she was a woman of strong faith also impressed me. Throughout her life she always spoke with honesty and compassion. I never remember her saying a harsh or hateful word about anyone.

I still remember how, as a fervent Missionary Baptist, Ma Barefoot would always have daddy drop her off at a local Baptist church (we attended somewhere else) to take time for her beloved Jesus. Also I recall how, when she was later living at the nursing home due to poor health, she would end each day praying every night for each of us and asking “Lord let me see another day to be here for my children and grand-children”. Ultimately one night she ended her prayer “Lord take me home”. That next day she had congested heart failure and died. I have always known on some level that moment did not end her life but ushered her into a new and more vibrant life in the presence of God.

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Following that day there have been moments I have sensed this so strongly it has sometimes been as if Grandma Myrtie was standing right beside me again. I remember one point, after a turning point in my life. I had moved from the restrictive sort of ministry I had grown up in – where women, gays, and a long list of other folks were given second class place in the church because of the denomination who ordained me holding onto some of the slave-holder Christianity I spoke about last blog. I had left that type of ministry and begun the sort of ministry I do now which is welcoming of all. I had experience a lot of rejection and loss by former friends and colleagues who felt I was abandoning my values and my Christianity by welcoming gay and lesbian couples into the church. It hurt. My family members didn’t understand what I was doing, and in many ways I felt very alone, cut off. Those who grew up in the south where we prize family so much know how painful that can be. I remember waking up one night, sitting bolt upright. I had a dream more vivid than real life where I walking down a winding country path and ran into Grandma Myrtie again – but strong and healthy like I’d never seen her. She wrapped her arms around me and said “I am proud of you, Micah, for what you are doing. You are doing the Lord’s work and he will take care of you”. When I woke from the dream I felt the strong presence of her there with me, and knew in some way she was still looking down from heaven and praying for me, rooting me on, in my journey of faith. With the words “I am proud of you in my ears”, still feeling those loving arms around me, tears of gratitude poured down my face.

I have thought many time about that dream since, though I’ve only shared about it with a few people. The dream reminds me not just of the fact Grandma Myrtie continues to live in a fullness of life with God I can only begin to imagine. It also reminds me that is one of the gifts she gave me was how through her I found the way toward my progressive Christian faith. The love of learning that Grandma Myrtie placed in me at such a young age helped me realize that learning, questioning, and growing are not contrary to faith but a part of loving God with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind. Her example gave me a foundation where when I so both creation and evolution both make sense, I knew God did not require to pick between science and faith. I can use head and heart. It gave me the freedom to later realize if my science book said being gay was not a choice or a sickness, and my Bible say marriage is a gift of God and blessing to the world, I could affirm both by blessing same-gender marriages and saying hate is not a family value. Her love of family demonstrated to me an example of love and service to others I strive to walk in today. Her love of God expressed in those nightly prayers for another day to live and help her family which ended with a final prayer to go home to God leaves me with an abiding sense that in our darkest moments, God is with us. And that in our final moments we face not an end to be feared but the ultimate embrace by one whose love is as deep as Granda Myrtie’s was to all her grandchildren.

Have you, like David and me, had a southern granny that helped you find a progressive faith of your own? If so, please share it with me.

In honor of Grandma Myrtie and all grandmothers out there, here is a song about the power of a grandma.

Lets honor those who have gone before us, shaping us to who have gone before us. That’s another lesson Grandma Myrtie gave me.

And I’m not just whistling Dixie here.

Your Progressive Redneck Preacher,

Micah Royal

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