Daily Devotional: God in the Everyday

Mark 4:1-20

plain speaking mandelaThis text begins Mark’s account of Jesus’ teachings. It is striking to me how Jesus’s approach to teaching differs from our own at times.   Often times we are quick to jump to doctrine, drawing lines in the sand about what is right and wrong to believe, right and wrong to do. We try to draft dogmas and rigid rules. Sometimes too we talk in abstractions – focusing on aspects of faith and life far removed from people’s every day experience. This can be as varied as arguing about how many angels can sit on a pin, arguing about the metaphysics of the Trinity, trying to map out heaven, hell, or the end times.   Finally, sometimes our teaching can become almost a political tract: very focused on either enforcing or upending the current system of things because we believe it upholds the right or oppresses the people.

In actual fact, each of these approaches to God’s message have their proponents who model this approach in Scripture, from Amos crying out against systems of injustice to the Teacher of Ecclesiastes waxing long about philosophy to St. Paul with his long drawn out treatises on theology to St. John the Revelator with his visions which popularly are understood to be depictions of heaven, hell, and the last days.

everyday lifeTheir example suggest there is a time and a place for such approaches, and in fact there are brief moments Jesus focuses on each of these aspects of the journey of faith. But more often than not Jesus’ approach is like the one he uses here in Mark: focusing on the stuff of everyday life. Talking about planting seed, growing plants, rain, sunshine, and summer heat. Talking about families and work, everyday conflicts over income or land or inheritance.   Telling stories that people can relate with, seeing themselves as a part.

There have been times as a Christian and a minister I have been drawn to all these other ways of approaching faith we see modeled in Scripture and by Christian leaders but more and more I am awe-struck by Jesus’s approach and drawn to it. On the surface, it seems simplicity itself. Yet looking back on the many sermons I’ve heard and talks on faith I’ve listened to it is the messages that follow Jesus’ model that stand out to me. I remember those down-to-earth examples which locate God in the dirt, rain, and sun I encounter everyday, in the conflict and joy of everyday life.   I remember those down-to-earth messages whose stories I can find myself and those I love within.

The wisdom of Jesus’ example is so often these other approaches to faith can send the message both to ourselves and others that God is distant and far off – a law-giver or architect untouched by his masterpiece; an abstraction distant from my life; a far off Figure in heaven I will encounter bye and bye in heaven but not in the here and now in the dirt and mess of earth; a soon-coming King and Judge who in the meantime I see from a distance.

kingdom of god within thomasInstead by drawing on examples from our everyday life, Jesus invites us to see God as present in, with, and under our everyday existence. God is the One at work in the seeds growing in the earth, the rain falling from the sky, the sunshine and wind making things grow. God is the One at work in children being born, families being raised, and both love and justice being forged as once-broken families are healed and made new. God is the One present in those who are sick and struggling giving them at times healing and other times strength to persevere with humanity and integrity, even gratitude, all the days they have despite their illness on this earth.   God is the One present in the cries for justice and space to breathe from those crying “I can’t breathe” as they are pressed down by the structures that oppress. God is the One giving me and you passion so that our 9-to-5 jobs do not become simply humdrum marking of time but in fact opportunities to shape our world through small acts of grace every day, nd also the passion to serve God in countless ways outside of work in our families, friendships, neighborhood, volunteer opportunities, and time helping out our communities.

It is Jesus’ way of reminding us as he does elsewhere in the Gospel not to worry when people speak with lofty language of the Kingdom of God being like this or that, here or there, or arriving at this or that time-table. We need not worry about that because Jesus’ stories let us in on the secret that the Kingdom of God, the life-giving transforming presence of Resurrection and New Life, is already present with, in¸ and throughout our lives. If you split a log, you will find it and if you lift a rock, you will see it there for the living One and Their Kingdom lies already within and through you.

everyday lifeFor me, this reminder challenges me. First it challenges me in my talk of God to not talk so high and lifted up in my language that it makes God sound inaccessible. Instead I need to when I talk of God tlk about the stuff of my daily life and others. If people cannot walk away from my talk of my faith recognizing ways God is present in their own life, or seeing places near to their experience to look for God, I do God a dis-service. In God we live and move and have our being. God is nearer than the air that we breathe or the cool morning wind upon our flesh.

Also it suggests I need to be open to God every day breaking through in everyday ordinary things. In every blade of grass, every tree limb swaying in the wind, and especially every person I meet I have a chance to encounter the Sacred reaching out to me with arms of grace.   This may mean I need in fact to speak less and more listen, look, and learn. As I do so, my vision of God, myself, and my world may be transformed. Yours can too.

And I ain’t whistling Dixie,

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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Daily Devotional: The Power of Porch Sittin’ in a Marathon World

rocking chairs on porchPsalm 131 is a picture of perfect contentment.

As mystics like Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen envisioned, starting with the prophet Isaiah, the Living God is pictured like a mother holding us close to her bed, cradling us in life.   Just as a child is quieted and soothed by this experience of being held close to the beating heart of their mother, so we need to let ourselves experience being held, being lift up, being cradled by the Sacred One whose heartbeat flows through all of life.

Often the message I get from the world around me, whether from the media, from the messages I heard growing up about what a “real man” looks like that I still carry with me, from the pressure of bosses and coworkers, from the syllabus for class or the calendar of to do lists, is that I need to carry. I need to man up. I need to carry my load. I need to buck up and just do what needs to be done. Yet if that voice alone is the one I listen to, I find myself exhausted, drained, and heartsick.

mother-and-childThe promise not just of Scripture but of what Richard Rohr calls the “perennial tradition” at the heart of all life-giving spiritual traditions of every faith and land is that we are more than grunt laborers, more than automatons working to hold up the ever-grinding image of economies.   No we are at heart each people of infinite worth, deserving of love and compassion. Each spiritual tradition envisions this differently, but in the Christian tradition the image is that the Ultimate Reality known by many names but called by us “God” is best known more as a Parent loving a child, a Lover embracing her beloved, a Friend defending his circle of friends even to the death.   Ultimately, the Christian message is that we are loved, beloved.   Our worth is not based on our output, based on our material success. We have intrinsic worth. Just as you might look at your newborn child and value it, love it, embrace it not for its list of successes or failures – which it has not had time to have yet – but simply because it is your child, so God looks at us all with the eyes of love saying over each of us the same words spoken over Jesus in the Gospels — “This is my Child, the one whom I love, in whom I am well-pleased”.

To be able to sustain our lives with all of their responsibilities and trials, we have to take time to pause, to stop going along with the ever-turning seemingly ceaseless grinding of the wheels of “you must do” which we often seem locked into. We need to take time to experience ourselves as ones full of worth and value, not because of our output but because of our intrinsic worth, simply because we are ourselves. We are children of the King, Queen, or Ruler of Creation, infinitely loved.

meditation+dogs+do+it+too_99a07b_3753826One of the things I’ve begun to do to help me with this is a daily meditation practice. In meditation, I stop from the constant focus on what I must do and accomplish and what is lacking in my life. I simply am. I simply focus on my life, on this moment, and on the God who is ever present.   As a lifelong southerner, I find myself drawn to do this not in a traditional lotus position like the mystics of the East but on an old fashioned rocking chair. Yes, I do meditation on a rocking chair with a Mason Jar of sweet tea, thank you very much. I am convinced from that experience that my southern ancestors, poor farmers all who lived close to the earth, were onto something with their sitting on the porch in a rocking chair at the end of the day. There is something to the motion of my body while meditating that reminds me of being rocked as a little child in my mother’s arms.   I am reminded through that meditation that, as this psalm shows me, whatever tasks lie ahead of me and whatever list of oughts are before me, I am still in the eyes of that Living God a precious child, whose worth lies in simply being and being loved. I am reminded that ultimately I am held, held by arms more capable than my own.   Though I must do what lies before me, my worth is not bound up in success and failure. My worth lies in the fact that each moment, however I succeed or fail in the eyes of the world, the One whose heartbeat makes the universe with its galaxies and planets dance in all their orbits is unceasingly looking at me with the eyes of love saying “You are my Child whom I love, in whom I am well-pleased”.

sweet teaKnowing this in your soul is essential. Your spiritual practice may not be rocking chair meditation and your drink of choice not be sweet tea from a Mason jar, but finding ways daily to connect with your identity as one with intrinsic worth, deserving of being loved, deserving of compassion from yourself and others is key.   You may not be a southerner, or even a Christian, but finding the practices that help your rediscover each day that worth will help you sustain your life and reinvigorate your soul.

It is more than just such seemingly spiritual practices as meditation or prayer. Sadly in the West we tend to think of the world of spirit and of flesh, of life-giving awareness and earthy concerns, as separate. So we may see practices like jogging, fishing, laughing, going to a play, writing a poem, working a garden, enjoying our family and friends, as essentially non-spiritual or non-religious.

I think though that these practices, too, can help us renew our sense of worth, value, and push pause on the often crushing tyranny of the oughts. I think for Christians this is modeled in our Scriptures.

It is modelled by Jesus who is often found gathered with friends, food and wine in hand, celebrating his life and theirs.   What’s more, it is modeled by a Jesus who often right when the list of oughts before him is the longest leaves the crowd to lonely places simply to be, because he knew that even as God with men & women as humanity to dwell He could not sustain the life of compassion He had come to model without maintaining his own sense of being Beloved, Valuable, of Worth.

I think this is why in the Jewish tradition in which the Christian Old Testament was composed and in which Christianity emerged perhaps the most central spiritual practice is the keeping of Sabbath. Unique in the ancient world the people of God were taught to break the tyranny of the oughts one day in seven, taking one day in which no back-breaking work was to be done. The responsibility was not that day to meet quotas for work, to clean the house, or even to go to church (for the Sabbath command has no mention of going to temple or synagogue for worship).   Instead it is to do as God did. In the priestly creation myth of Genesis 1 shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike after 6 days of busy labor, God’s final act of creation is to rest. It is not because God is tired, but because God is modeling the need to take time to delight in the life you have been given. So on day 6, God watches the beauty of the animals, walks in the cool of the garden, listens to the songs of the bird, and takes time to simply enjoy what is and be enjoyed by creation. pruning  This practice is not considered a binding rule for Christians in the New Testament to avoid it becoming just another task on our list of oughts, but the principle stands: in order to not lose sight of who we are, we must take regular breaks from the business and strain of the many to do list’s in our lives, simply to delight in life.   This delight may be in simple daily activities like gardening, going to the bowling alley, painting, listening to music, or playing with a child. But embracing the delight in your life and the lives of others is a spiritual practice and, as a way of keeping the principle of Sabbath rest, an act of worship.

How do you find ways to put breaks on the breakneck pace of life and hear that voice that calls you Beloved?   I’d love to hear your way of finding peace in life’s storms.

Tell me, while I sit and rock a while, Mason Jar in hand.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Daily Devotional: Embracing Leadership That Gives Life

leadership2 Samuel 23:1-17,13-17

In this passage, we are given a picture of the power of leadership.  It can be like daylight breaking forth after the dark of surrounding storm or the end of a too-long night.   Leaders can be the ones in our midst and communities who help set to right what is broken, inspire us to more fully become all we are made to be, and help us as a community truly work together for the good of all.  This is true of leaders in all spheres of community – church, family, government, the workplace, schools.

When I first read such a stirring description of leaders as given in David’s oracle in 2 Samuel, I want to shrug it off.  “Yeah, sure, easy for you to say”.  A part of me scoffs.  I, like many of you, have been burned by leadership gone wrong.  I have seen the government official who treated those seeking assistance as just numbers on a page, not real people with real needs.  We’ve all seen those in high office use their power for their own whims, letting common people’s needs go unmet.

Right now as I write, the news headlines are loudly pointing out leadership going wrong – popular preachers fleecing fleecing the flockthe flock God has called them to lift up by using their tithes to build lavish mansions, buy expensive planes.  I grew up for part of my childhood in a church that I did not know until an adult did that.  Hard-working people trying to care for their families gave much, yet the man at the top saying he was hard at work proclaiming the Gospel with that money built houses and gathered luxuries for himself all while hard-working folks like my parents struggled to care for their kids.

We see it too with political leaders, as just another scandal is across the news of people in power using their authority to cheat on their spouses thinking they won’t get caught, to take advantage of their position, all while opposing the requests for respect of certain citizens because it will put in ruins “family values”.   When people use the language of morality and faith to oppress others, all while living morally dubious lives themselves, how it shakes our faith in the ability of anyone in leadership to do any good.

Yet isn’t this the second half of David’s oracle?  That those who are in leadership and misuse that power will by thorns that choke the life out of people and communities who, until they are dug up and tossed away from their place of leadership, drain dry those they are called to serve.

Thankfully where I live in the US, we can choose as citizens to vote out those who do such damaging work.  We don’t realize often but this is also true of the church.  If our church allows voting we can vote against the leaders staying in power who abuse others.   Even if we can’t we can vote with our dollars and our shoes – moving our cash and ourselves from organizations that use and abuse others to ones that lead through serving the least of these without prejudice.   I be-the-change-you-want-to-see-in-the-world-mahatma-gandhi2know I am constantly shocked to see individuals who claim they oppose homophobia, mistreatment of women, and other social injustices continue to worship at, tithe to, and remain supportive of churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples which consistently keep in power religious leaders who continue to promote such prejudice from the pulpit.   You as a member of your faith community can and should stand against such injustice either from resisting from within or choosing to support those spiritual groups in your community who chose to have the courage to stand for such commitments against prejudice and for justice.  They need your support, and the groups refusing to make such stands may not change while they think they have your support and the support of others.  You can be a voice of change.

If we carefully consider our histories both personally and as a community, despite our cynicism that flow from being burned by bad leaders, we can see glimpses of good solid leaders.

In our histories, we have Sojourner Truths, Desmond Tutus, Mahatma Gandhi’s, and many many others who were people of conviction who stood for what was right, resisting injustice, calling those around them to lives of service, making the world a brighter place.

In our own histories, we have that.  I think of how I came to be a minister myself.  It was strong men in life who modeled compassion and justice, men like Greg Williams the pastor who baptized me and showed both  an openess to learn, to change, while also a humble genuine concern for others.  I think of Matt Crump, the youth minister who worked with the Youth For Christ group I found my faith in, whose down-to-earth spirituality and humor helped me realize you didn’t have to be out of the ordinary to find faith.  A normal guy like me could do it.   I think of other mentors like Jonathan Stepp, Bermie Dizon, and others who helped me find my way into ministry through their example.  I also think of leaders who after I became a minister were lights on my way.  I think of Rev. Sandy Williams of Heartland Christian Fellowship who when I had left the ministry of the church that ordained me over their treatment of LGBT people & women told me “quit talking like your ministry is over.  It is God who ordained you.  No church can take that away.  If you keep listening and looking to God, you will find that calling continues”.  Having planted and pastored many churches since then, and working now as a chaplain, I can say her words became prophetic for me though they were words of compassion simply spoken.  I think of pastors Laurie Hays Coffman and Gayle Felton whose ministry provided a place of peace and healing at a broken time in my life, while also showing me my hope for church to be a place all are welcome is not just a wistful dreaming but an actual possibility.

I could go on, but I bet you too can list quite a few souls whose lives have lit the way for you, as they exercise the gift of leadership in ways that were healing to you and your community.

leader manThis texts calls me, calls all of us, to recognize it is not just them who are people of leadership but all of us.  Each of us like drops of rain or pebbles from the beach leave ripples across the surface of the river of life, ripples that flow out in wider & wider circles touching all in their path.   We do this without being conscious of it, but if we choose to raise our awareness those touched by our sphere of influence, whether it be as we lead as a parent, a school teacher, in our particular work however glamorous or unnoticed by others, in our neighborhoods or communities, or in whatever humble ways we help out in our religious communities, we can consciously choose to create ripples that are life-giving, full of compassion, bringing justice and healing by being conscious of how our choices affect others.

I think this is why, of all the qualities of leadership David exemplified, this text focuses on David’s worship of the God of Israel through song.   Some walk away with a narrow and anachronistic understanding that this is suggesting that having leaders who strongly identify as Christian will make a better nation.   This is missing the point.  As Desmond Tutu, former archbishop of South Africa, once said we too quickly forget that religion itself is a tool like a knife.  When cutting bread, knives are helpful and good. When used to slit a man’s throat, they are dangerous.

Loudly proclaiming yourself Christian (or any other faith) and trying to impose those values on others can be destructive, and we need only look at the history of intolerance and oppression in every religion done by people claiming to Christianize, Islamicize, or otherwise transform the world to the values of their religion.

Winner-peace (1)hat counts is not the set religion you have, but the heartfelt spirituality.  Have you truly come to know yourself?  To experience that move of spirit which leads you to see your faults, failings, and truly taken account of how you might be a barrier to life?  Are you working to heal those barriers to life in you?  Have you been moved with compassion, able to see the Sacred image in others, especially those very different than you both the often marginalized and those you disagree with?  This is the heart of what true spirituality creates.

Someone may loudly proclaim themselves Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, you name it and it just simply be a play for power.  Such a person will work great harm on their communities in the name of religion.

One truly transformed by spiritual movement in their soul, however, cannot impose any beliefs or values on others.  They cannot push their culture onto others.  Their actions must be motivated by the impulse they found in their spiritual practice to recognize all people’s, all life, as valuable and all as interconnected.   We have all seen the leadership such a transformed life produces, and it is the sort of life-giving leadership that blows us away.

We are called in our own small way to be such people, and it begins in engaging that journey of heartfelt spirituality – becoming open to ourselves, to the Sacred in all of life, to seeing ourselves as interconnected and all others as having sacred worth.  Let us continue that journey together.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Daily Devotional: Trauma and God’s Delivering Hand

abuseIn Psalm 56, the Psalmist prays for God’s deliverance as they lay surrounded on all sides by enemies, hounding them and ready to bring them down. I have listened as a pastor in a church in predominantly military town to many a soldier and veteran of this as an actual experience. Likewise I have heard the stories of both women and men living with a partner, spouse, our parent who was given to physical, emotional, or sexual abuse who transformed a house from a home into a place that felt like a battlefield. They felt on edge, that they always had to be on guard.

I’ve also seen how when they get out – whether from warfare or an abusive situation – this feeling lingers.   The slightest noise can often set the most traumatized off in a reaction to the the memory of having to duck from bombs or gunfire on the one hand, or fists of rage on the other.

trauma defGod is here invoked as the one who brings victory from this cycle of pain, first in opening the way to peace and strength in the midst of the threatening situation. Most in such situations go through a period in which, though they want out, they cannot yet go. A soldier cannot just walk off the battlefield, for he or she has a commitment of finishing their duty.   Often the person in an abusive situation must seek help to find a path to navigate out of the situation of abuse, pushing against an inner resistance to any change.

Yet when they can leave the situation of threat, it is the power and presence of God that opens up that pathway to trauma chartfreedom and empowers them to walk alongside it. I remember talking with one person who did not see God with them in their time of being abused, but could remember the voices of ones who befriended them, told them they deserved better, and pointed toward ways out.   “Do you think perhaps God was coming to you in their friendship, in their voices, in a quiet way that could bring peace in the midst of your storm?”   Their mouth dropped open and eyes got wide as they realized God had not left them alone.

God comes to us in the situations of turmoil as the voice saying “let my people go”, as the wind blowing open our personal Red Seas, and yes even at times as the plagues which shock those who hold us captive with the strength they never saw in us, helping us find the strength to take each step. Just as the Pharoah’s troops were flanked behind and beside Israel as they ran into the Red Sea on dry land, so I have heard from so many leaving situations of abuse, of war, of terror, that they also feel a sense of threat through their process of exiting the abuse.

Moses-parting-red-seaYet unlike Israel, once free I find those who experience such situations of terror and abuse often continue to be wracked by its after effects. I think we can see God here too.   Though the effects of the abuse or of the terror-inducing situation rarely fully leaves, with some in fact having situations like anxiety disorders or PTSD out of it, with work people can begin to heal. They can begin to take ownership of their lives again, not letting the fear control them but instead living their lives with confidence.

Seeing this happen is beautiful and I believe it is a work of the Holy Spirit in those who experience it, a gift of healing and recovery from God.

This text calls me to remember the experiences of the traumatized and abused, calling me to live with compassion and openness, reaching a hand back in hope.

What has been your experience, either of recovery from trauma and abuse or of supporting others in such a journey?

So often I have heard people say that the church has been a place where they felt their situation was minimized by platitudes, but I also have heard stories of people of faith in churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples who held space open for people to heal. May we learn to be those people who help others know they have space and room where they will not be judged to heal through our friendships and love.

And I ain’t whistling Dixie here,

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Daily Devotional: Sometimes the Seeming Obstacles and Distractions are the Point of the Journey

Acts 16:6-15

obstaclesI am struck by the fact the apostles sought to go to Asia and the Holy Spirit “forbade” them.   I have had the experience of asking, pleading, begging God to be able to do certain things in my life and having every door to that direction slammed in my face.   It can be such a discouraging thing. This was particularly bad when I felt certain there was only one thing God called me to do, and it seemed like it was not an option.

I see a different picture of calling and Christian life here. The doors are shut where the apostles feel called to go – and shut by the same One they feel called by.   Yet they remain open. And they encounter Lydias, people along their journey they would have not encountered without their delays.

I find that in the midst of seeming delays in my journey if I remain open to the Spirit She can show me people I would otherwise overlook, situations I otherwise would be plunging forward blinders on to my surroundings so that I didn’t notice. Yet God slows the apostles down and they encounter Lydia both sharing with her that of God in their lives and experiencing that of God in her own.

detoursSometimes we get wrong-headed about our callings, thinking they are destinations to arrive at: pastoring, working in the inner city, getting married, becoming parents. When we have that outlook we can become frustrated and fuming about how many barriers we have to what we feel in our bones are who we ought to become.

Calling isn’t a destination though. It is a journey. It is a way of walking in the world.   It may be that the work or relationship you are supposed to have isn’t as set in stone as you think. It might be you are exactly right at what you should do. But ultimately God isn’t calling us to become this or that job, join this or that ministry, have this or that relationship. God is calling us to become as certain kind of person, one whose life reflects the love, humility, service, joy, and justice of Jesus.   The kind of person who sees the Lydias, the Lazaruses, the many others on our paths. For it is really more the connections like those ones we foster that are the point, the moments in which God’s realm breaks out into this world in tangible ways, not the specific roles or titles we take on. If you are to be a pastor, or spouse, or parent, or CEO, or… you name it … it is so that in that role you can foster such moments in the lives of those that role enables you to which only you can do.

To become the person who can do that requires learning, before you get into that role, when and how to stop so you can truly see the people along your path. It means learning before hen how connect with the Lydias, the Lazaruses, Zacchaeuses along your way.   When we become single-focused – and I know I do – we may need God to allow some barriers to be thrown up to our goals, so that we do not miss this journey.

I am challenged by this text not to get so caught up in where I think I need to be and what I think I need to do that I do not have time to connect with those God has placed along my path, both to let that of God within me shine to them and also to encounter that of God within them   I am challenged to be open to my future not being as set as I think, and to realize God’s goal is for me to become a certain kind of person not a certain role or job. Only in remembering that and becoming the kind of person I need to be will I ever be ready for the roles God may call me to play.

And I sure ain’t whistling Dixie here,

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Daily Devotional: Being Loved and Falling in Love with God

love1Psalm 18

What stands out to me in this reading is the Psalmist’s words “I love you, my Lord, my rock”.

I remember when such words first came alive to me I was a part of a Christian club at Terry Sanford High School. The student who organized it, a guy named “Shane”, had begun to do “praise” events with the group where folks sang simple praise songs.

This song was played —

I had grown up in church, but had never really thought of the idea of loving God. I loved my parents, my brothers and sisters, and sure hoped to fall in love some day.

But I had grown up in a harsh, legalistic brand of religion that emphasized God as King, high and exalted demanding obedience and faithfulness.   So I certainly thought about honoring God.  Here is an example of one of the common hymns, jazzed up a little bit, by a person from the tradition I grew up in —

God is lifted up, hard to reach. One you serve, obey. Love? Not so much.

But I had encountered in moments of prayer already a feeling of being loved, accepted, and embraced in ways I hadn’t known.   What I knew as God was more loving, more close, than what my religious upbringing had provided to me.

breath prayerAnd among the Christian club members in that group I started to see this lived out as a loving grace, a passion for God, I hadn’t seen before. I saw love lived out in its own bumbling adolescent way among them. I began to see that was what I had experienced in my private moments of prayer – a love breaking through beyond the crushing pain of the legalism I’d grown up within.

Joining in the words “I love you, Lord” something opened up in me. I could feel my heart open up, because I saw all the ways God was present to me in my life which showed God not to be the distant Judge I had grown up hearing of but instant a close companion, a loving friend, who was always for me and for all of us.   I began to see glimmers of grace throughout my life and knew I was loved, loved with a love that wouldn’t abandon me. I felt deep abiding peace and grace and begin to sing with gusto knowing I did love God, a love motivated by the love God had always had for me but I could not see because of having been taught to mainly see God as distant, one I related to out of duty.

In many ways it is this experience of feeling loved by God, having a deep abiding love break through, which the Psalmist describes.   Their experience of being loved also opens them up, freeing them to love God and live fully in their world

What are you experiences of love breaking through? Of those moments you came to know you were loved, loved in a way that freed you to love and to live more fully in this world?

Daily Devotional: Tearing Down Walls of Exclusion

varied disabilitiesMark 2:1-12

I think it is important in reading the story of Jesus healing the man who was paralyzed to note that Jesus’ first and foremost pronouncement is not “be healed” but “your sins are forgiven you”.

My wife tells me this story: She was born with spina bifida, a neural tube defect which meant for most of her life she walked with crutches but now later in life she has to use a wheelchair for her mobility.   In college, a group of friends invited her to what they called a “praise and worship” concert. As a Christian who loves good music she goes. “Growing in faith, and great music – what a great idea,” she must have thought.   What she did not know is that they were taking her to see a popular TV “faith healer”.   She was horrified as she was ushered forward for this man to stretch forth his hands and tell her to be healed.   Since I mentioned she uses a wheelchair now, it is obvious nothing happened.   When it became clear nothing happened, the preacher blamed her for this. “You don’t have faith. If you only had more faith you would not need those crutches any longer”.

Afterward she encountered others who viewed her disability as a result of sin or lack of faith. As folks often do when Bible Not a Weapon 4trying to ostracize people who identify as LGBT, so they used the same book to condemn her for her disability.  They opened up the book of Leviticus where it says in chapter 21: “‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. 18 No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; 19 no man with a crippled foot or hand, 20 or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles…”

They told her because of this verse that somehow being born with a disability was her fault, a sin that kept her from really belonging in the house of God. She knew the Lord and loved the Lord herself, so she rejected this interpretation of Leviticus as totally out of step with what Jesus taught.

But in the days of Israel this text was known and, just as occurred with my wife, often misinterpreted.   The message became not (as the text actually was intended) some obscure rules about how animals would be sacrificed in the temple but rather that something is wrong with you if you have a disability. Clearly you sinned in some way and that is why you are like this. Maybe it was not your sins but your parents’ sins being visited on you, to punish them. Perhaps it is simply that you do not have enough faith.

disability dontsBy focusing first on the question of sin – and proclaiming this man’s sins already forgiven – God is not just announcing to us (as true as this statement is) that all that is necessary for reconciliation with God is already completed on God’s side but also further pushing aside any connection between sin and disability.   Similarly when asked what was clearly in the minds of the people here about this man with paralysis about a man born blind, Jesus answers in John 9:3 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

This text calls us to embrace that in God our sins are forgiven, yes, with an open path to a living God. But more than that, it invites us to put away all sorts of blame for their disability to those with disabilities. We do not know why some have certain disabilities and some don’t in the grand scheme of things. But we know God’s purpose is not to punish them or others for anyone’s sin but rather so that through them some work of God might be revealed that would not be revealed without the journey that disability gave them. Embracing this reality means embracing people with disabilities as gifts whose unique experiences add to the beauty of life, just as we are learning to more fully embrace people of all colors, races, cultures, sexualities, and gender expressions.

In truth, as a spouse to a minister with a disability, I can say first hand we are very bad about this.

disability vanI have seen far too often both our society and the church treat people with disabilities as throwaways who don’t matter and are disposable at best, and as people they can punish at worst.

So often businesses don’t obey basic rules of accessibility and equal services to people with disabilities.   More often than not, in searching for housing the options are slim and by no means equal. Jobs find ways without being obvious to discriminate against those with disabilities. And don’t get me started about how parking, access ramps, hallways regularly are blocked so people with disabilities don’t have access!

The church, which follows in the footsteps of Jesus, ought to be better. But often, people of God, we are worse.   It amazes me how many churches which loudly speak of going into all the world to preach the Gospel to all people don’t have any wheelchair accessible entrance to the church, let alone appropriate seating or program to bring in sign language interpreters if needed.   It amazes me more that this is rarely any better for progressive churches which so loudly speak up for racial justice, economic justice, and LGBT inclusion.

And so often when someone raises this concern, the response is as if people with disabilities deserve this outcast status, a very punishing and shaming response. I find this to be more true in the church than in the business community, though I would wager more because businesses know they can be sued over exclusion.

I think recently of my speaking about a very prominent progressive Christian conference at a campsite in the mountains of NC and how physically unsafe it is for people with disabilities. The response I got, not so much from its leaders, but from many who attend it was one of shaming, justification, and snark. As if the people with disabilities deserve to be excluded, pushed out, and rejected.

We know from Jesus’ example this is not the way that involves following in the footsteps of Jesus. To follow in the footsteps of Jesus is to learn to make welcoming all people as fully as possible into the community of God, an approach that may not fix all problems at once but includes within it a commitment to not just full inclusion of all kinds of people but also beginning to include people with disabilities as stake-holders and decision-makers in our communities.

Here are some interesting links about how we can integrate an awareness of the challenges for human rights in our world and inclusion in the church people with disabilities face:

http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2015-07-13/the-americans-with-disabilities-act-25-years-later

https://www.facebook.com/MarriageEqualityForPeopleWithDisabilities

http://cindywords.com/ten-reasons-people-with-disabilities-shouldnt-go-to-church/

http://umdisabilityministries.org/

https://sites.google.com/site/accessiblechurch/AccessibleChurch/barriers

http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/accessibility.html

http://www2.crcna.org/pages/disability_access.cfm

http://umdisabilityministries.org/access/audit.html

http://disabledfeminists.com/2010/11/19/what-is-ableism-five-things-about-ableism-you-should-know/

http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/feb07/vol64/num05/Confronting-Ableism.aspx

Let’s embrace God’s call in Christ to, like the friends of this man with paralysis, tear down every wall that society has built up to exclude people with disabilities.

And I ain’t just whistling Dixie,

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah