Why Starving Brown Skinned Children frighten us: Confronting the Racism at the Heart of the Immigration Debate (repost)

With the recent debate about how to handle families including children at the US border, I want to spend a few days reposting some old blog posts I wrote for Progressive Redneck Preacher about immigration. Hope they bless you!

Micah

 

unaccompanied immigrant children

It would be hard to have not had immigration and borders on your mind at some time in the last few weeks. With the arrival of a throng of scared, dirty, hungry, and thirsty children at the southern borders of the United States plastered across TV screens, newspapers, and the internet, everyone has been talking about “How should we respond to these children at our borders?”

immigrationOn the one side, we have people saying “they are children, for God’s sake. We cannot turn a blind eye. Let’s welcome them in, harbor them, give them safe passage”. On the other side, we have people saying the law is the law. These children’s parents are irresponsible. They should never have sent them here as it is — what can we do with them but send them back?

Murrieta_ProtestersWorst of all, we have had people screaming “go home” meeting these children on the border with guns and American flags waving who, I think, really don’t express the best motives of those involved on both sides but, instead, the long-running fear of outsiders who are of black and brown skin that have permeated the southern states since their inception. This irrational fear of those of black and brown skin is what led to the Jim Crow laws in the southeast following the American attempt at reconstruction there following the Civil War. It also motivated the horrible mistreatment of Native Americans all over the southern states, on both coasts. It motivated the concentration camps we Americans tossed Japanese immigrants and Japanese American citizens into in California in the time surrounding World War II. And it is part of why our criminal justice system in the southern states is clogged to capacity with a majority of people of color, while white people commit as many and as heinous crimes on average. The threats and threatening behavior to these poor, scared children is an expression of the collective guilt we southern whites share over our treatment of people of color in slavery, in Jim Crow, and in the forceful theft of Native American lands, which instead of bubbling up in contrition and an attempt at amends instead bubbles up in a hatred and fear of those who we deem as “not American enough” which really means “not white enough”.

Downtown in Lumberton, NC.

I saw this when I lived in Robeson County, North Carolina, while pastoring Painted Skies Christian Ministries, a short lived intentionally multi-racial, multi-cultural welcoming and affirming church. Robeson County is deeply divided along racial lines. I remember while shopping in its old-fashioned downtown district having a resident who was alive in Jim Crow years tell me how when he was a child, he could not even go downtown. Though Robeson County’s population is predominantly Native American, during Jim Crow the local authorities did not allow anyone but white people to even walk through and shop in the downtown district of Lumberton, the county seat, without them being arrested.

A Pow-Wow in Robeson County held by the Lumbee tribe.  Pow-wow's are traditional celebrations of tribal culture for Native American tribes.

Even though Jim Crow had officially ended, while I pastored in Robeson County I saw the community still be very racially divided down as to where people lived, and even who people dated and married. I remember distinctively a young Native American lady I worked with at a non-church job I worked in order to support my ministry, who was encouraged to stay with an abusive boyfriend rather than a very loving and supportive male friend she wanted to date because the one who treated her well was black, and dating him would be “moving down” in status in her family’s eyes due to his race. I also remember when Barack Obama became president a biracial member of our church telling me, with shock and horror, how white members of her family were saying they were frightened Barack Obama would move them onto plantations, make them pick cotton, and have them as mistreated as they and their ancestors had treated people of color.

Though I don’t think most white southerners are so overt in describing their fears about race, or how they bubble up into racist actions and behaviors, it would be unrealistic to say that we are not influenced by this in our dialogue about issues in the south. Do any of us honestly believe that the resistance Barack Obama faced from white southern voters and their representatives in congress would have been nearly as extreme if he were, like Bill Clinton or George Bush before him, a white southerner? To put it another way, if he was white and named “Barry Smith”, how many people would have been flooding Congress with requests to see the president’s birth certificate?

mandelaquoteIn future blog posts, I hope to talk about what Scripture says about our relationship to immigrants is, and about what it says about borders specifically. But before we can discuss the issue of borders and immigration we have to think for a moment about this lingering legacy of racism, which is expressed in southern white culture’s fear of black and brown skinned people as “other”, as ones who pose a threat to white culture, which we like to pretend is “American culture”.

I’d like to recommend as a resource the following website, which includes a series of radio presentations on the continuing legacy of racism not just in the south but throughout the United States:http://bringingdownthenewjimcrow.com/ This series, coming out of Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking book The New Jim Crow, uses real life stories and interviews to illustrate various dimensions of how racism continues to shape not just American culture but policy in ways that structurally harm people of color. A number of programs connect the issues being faced by African American people in the US with those being face by people of Hispanic descent.

As Christians, racism is not OK. More than that, it is a grievous sin.  It is a denial of the promise of Genesis 1 that all people are made in the image of God. Its a denial of Galatians 3 that in Christ neither gender, class, or race ought to define who people are in the sense of how they are treated. This is not color-blindness. Rather it is a recognition that people’s culture is beautiful and a gift of God. Acts 17 tells us that God is at work in the histories of every people. This means instead of fearing people of other cultures and skin colors, we need to learn to work past our fears in order to learn to embrace people different than ourselves in their differences as gifts of God. In each person’s story, in their culture, in their gifts and talents, there is a reflection of who God is that could not be visible to us without them just as they are. This is why Psalm 139 teaches us to praise God we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

Yet racism is insidious.

Rev. Curtis May, doing a presentation for "Office of Reconcilation and Mediation", near Los Angeles, CA.

It, like ogres in the above clip, is a multi-layered thing. The Office of Reconciliation and Mediation  defines racism as prejudice put to power; and lists racism as not existing on the conscious level where we are aware of it, but also including unaware racism, cultural Racism, stereotyping, internalized racism, institutionalized racism, and denial of racism.

Confronting our own racism and working to change is a difficult journey. I’d recommend groups such as the ministry I mentioned above, The Southern Poverty Law Center , and the Racial Equity Institute , as beginning places to find resources toward working to confront your own personal racism and also discovering what steps you can take to help share in the task of working to build a less racist society.

If you live in or are willing to make the commute to the Carolinas, I’d invite you to consider taking the anti-racism classes the Racial Equity Institute offers in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area. There are details about these training conferences available at Organizing Against Racism.

dinner-table-l

A final problems is that this racist fear leads us to embrace the idea that there will not be enough. Yet the Biblical call is for us to work to build a world where there is more than enough for everyone.

The prophet Micah, who my parents named me after, spoke of this when he envisioned a day in which “But everyone shall sit under their vine and under their fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid” (Micah 4:4).

This is what the early Christian community lived out in Acts:
“All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as they had need…All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions were their own, but they shared everything they had… There were no needy persons among them. “ (Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-34)

To work for a world in which there are “no needy persons among” us because all have as they need is grounded for Christians in the hope and promise of the Holy Spirit, whom Psalm 104 promises us enlivens the world in such a way that there is always more than enough, if we but choose to redistribute it with justice and compassion:

“God causes the grass to grow for the cattle,
And vegetation for the service of human beings,
That they may bring forth food from the earth,
And wine that makes glad their hearts,
Oil to make their faces shine,
And bread which strengthens their hearts…

The earth is full ..

You may give them their food in due season.

What You give them they gather in;

You open Your hand, they are filled with good...

You send forth Your Spirit, they are created;
And You renew the face of the earth.”

one familyThe lie the lingering slave-holder mentality in the south has taught us is that this is a utopian dream, that the call of the prophets and of Jesus to build a world where there is enough for all is impossible.  Its lie is that God is so callous that the Spirit does not fill the earth with good well enough that, if we share that good with justice and compassion, generously and fairly, there will be enough for all. Instead racism teaches us to believe we must settle for protecting “our own”, having others be in a place of want or powerlessness so people “like us” can thrive.

This in reality is not true.

A 2013 study already shows that, just in the area of nutrition, we already produce enough as a world that no one ought to grow hungry:
“The world produces enough food to feed everyone. World agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase. This is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720 kilocalories (kcal) per person per day according to the most recent estimate that we could find (FAO 2002, p.9). ”
(Taken fromhttp://www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/world%20hunger%20facts%202002.htm )
The Holy Spirit is filling the world with good, with more than enough for all.  The problem is not that there is not enough to provide for us and others. The problem is the way in which our society’s methods of distributing money, power, and resources remain wedded to greed, prejudice, and fear in ways that keep the bulk of food, money, and power in the hands of the few.

I think this is at the heart of Jesus’ rarely followed and often explained away teaching “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”” (Mattthew 19:21).  Jesus knows the reason for poverty is not that there is not enough, but that its kept in the hands of just a few.  So Jesus calls us all to reconsider the ways in which we may prop up this status quo with our choices, and invites us to find ways to do our part in leveling our society’s playing field.

To bring real change to this, we need to trust the promise there is more than enough for all of us.  We need to find ways to let go of our fear of others, and begin to open up to share God’s blessing with all.  To change the structures of our society so that wealth and power aren’t hoarded in the hands of a few along largely racial lines requires confronting the specter of racism.  It begins with me.  It begins with you.
When we begin in our own stumbling way to answer this call, we will go a long way to living out the late Vincent Harding’s invitation, included in this clip, to build a better world:

Let’s do it together!
And I’m not just whistling Dixie,
your progressive redneck preacher,
Micah

micah pic

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Week in the Word: Making Your Whole Life Prayer

hanks chapel easter

 

This is the message I preached on Sunday, June 10, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC, for our Homecoming Service.   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us!   Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.

Luke 5:12-16
12 Once, when he was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy.  When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” 13 Then Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I do choose. Be made clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. 14 And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and, as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing, for a testimony to them.” 15 But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. 16 But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.

images-of-jesus-praying-to-godx1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

Let us pray.

Oh still-speaking God, Open the eyes of our minds and ears of our hearts so we might see and know what you have for us in these words of Holy Scripture.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Last week we began a series called “Drinking Deep the Waters of Life”.  We are looking each week at specific practices which can help us connect with and drink deep of the living waters of God’s Spirit, to sustain us through times of change and trial, when we cannot keep going on our own power.

Our Scripture readings today point to a key way we can drink deep of the water of life: prayer.

Jesus’ example in Luke reminds us of our need to regularly stop in the midst of our busy lives, burdened as they often are with our worries for the future, desires for more, or

moving fail

1 Thessalonians goes a step further, reminding us that prayer is not just something we are to only do at a set point in the day, when we have time to pull away from our busy lives and the crowds, but can also be a way of living our life all the time.  We are to rejoice always, and to pray without ceasing.

What does it mean to pray without ceasing?  For me this call to pray without ceasing is beautifully pictured by the life of Nicholas Herman.  Moved by the sight of a tree in mid-winter that was barren, without blossom or leaf, just waiting to become vibrant and alive again come spring-time, Herman decides to learn how to have a relationship with God.  He goes to a local French monastery, hoping to follow their example of doing as Jesus did and regularly pulling away from the busyness of the the world to focus on prayer. There the monks re-name brother lawrencehim “Brother Lawrence”.  Sadly, Brother Lawrence quickly becomes overwhelmed by the formal language of their prayers which are so far removed from his usual way of talking he has trouble relating and joining in. He has trouble understanding them and at first feels awful.  Surely he can’t grow at all as a Christian, at least not like these life-time monks he meets and looks up to there. In fact, Lawrence has such a hard time following the traditional prayers and tasks of a monk he changes his mind and chooses not to actually become a monk himself like he hoped, but instead only to  join the monastery in what he feels is the most menial, humble and unspiritual of jobs: as the monastery’s combination cook, handiman, and janitor.

Despite his initial discouragement, Lawrence soon discovers that those seemingly menial tasks can became prayer for him.  Though he has trouble experiencing God in the formal Latin prayers of the monastery he joins in every day, in each of these seemingly everyday tasks Lawrence found he could encounter God easily. He learns as he sweeps the floor, as he repairs walls and doors, as he gathers vegetables, chops carrots, and makes stews, how to turn each of those activities into opportunities to see God’s presence, thank God, listen for God, and talk with God about his day like a friend with whom is doing chores side by side.  In the end, by learning to see these everyday occurences of his life as moments to encounter God, Brother Lawrence cultivates a life of quiet ongoing prayer, a peace of mind, a love of others, and a compassion, which ends up making the way he lives out his faith the envy of the long time monks he had looked up to as so far beyond him in their faith. Much to his surprise, these very same monks end up seeking him out for his advice in how they can build a closer relationship with God. After his death, they gather up his advice into a book, Practicing the Presence of God, which still inspires and teaches people today about how to have a close, intimate relationship with God.

You see, what Brother Lawrence discovered is that these times when we pull away from the busy-ness of life for a special moment to look for, listen for, and speak with God, ultimately are not just about what happens in those private, quiet times themselves.  Instead, those moments we pull away from the busyness of life are about training ourselves how to do as Lawrence did: to learn to encounter God throughout the day in each moment we are in, each person we meet, and in all we do. When we take time out every day to pray one on one alone with God like Jesus did or pray together with others as the monks did, we are training ourselves to open up to God in prayer throughout our lives, turning our lives themselves into prayer.   

Because of this, I want to spend some time looking at a number of different ways of praying, focusing both on how to pray in that way, and also how such kinds of prayer can help wake us up to God’s presence in all our lives.  

Before I do, are there kinds of prayer that are particularly helpful to you?

Listening Prayer

listening 1The first kind of prayer I think is worth noticing is listening prayer.  Often we think of prayer as talking to God by saying: God would you do this, God would you do that, like God is a giant Santa Claus to whom we are writing a Christmas list.  The purpose of prayer, however, is not to just get what we want, but for you and me to cultivate a real relationship with God, which involves listening as well as talking. Listening prayer involves putting aside the noise and busy-ness of our day, in order to look and listen for God to speak.  It starts with noticing and letting go of distractions. As you give your distractions over to God, bit by bit other thoughts, feelings, images, and ideas often enter your mind which can seem like answers to questions you have been asking in prayer, or concerns you are facing. Not always, but often, as you pray about these thoughts, feelings, images, and ideas, it will become clear that those are not just your own ideas, but moments where God is leading and inspiring you.  As we say in the United Church of Christ, “God is still speaking” in our lives and in our world. In listening prayer, we practice listening for God’s still-speaking voice.

Centering / Contemplative Prayer

Related to listening prayer is centering or contemplative prayer.  When we put aside the noise and busyness of life, not only can we hear more clearly what God is saying in our lives, but also we can sense God’s presence.  In centering and contemplative prayer, we don’t just sit with God to listen for direction but also simply pay attention to God’s presence all around us. Contemplative or centering prayer is like a child crawling up into motherhis or her mother’s arms — not to get advice, not to ask for more things,  but just to be held close to her. Contemplative or centering prayer reminds us to be aware of God’s presence all day long, looking throughout our day for how God walks beside us or goes ahead of us. It also reminds us folks we care for don’t always need us to serve them or give advice. Sometimes our just being together with another person, offering our company and appreciating theirs, is the greatest gift we can give.

Conversational Prayer

You may notice I have not yet talked about speaking to God as a form of prayer.  There is a reason for that. Often we focus just on talking to God, forgetting prayer can be listening for God or being aware of God’s presence.  No relationship with anyone, even God, where one person does all the talking or asking, without ever listening, is much of a relationship at all.

friend-with-jesus-clearYet talking to God is still an important part of prayer.  Prayer is a relationship with God, a give and take. Hebrews 4 invites us to come boldly before God with what is happening in our lives — our fears, our needs, our concerns. And just as we might ask a friend or loved one for a hand with tough situations we or folks we care about are facing, so God wants, even longs, to hear about our needs and respond.  In fact, the Scriptures make it is pretty clear there are some things God longs to do for us and others but will wait to reach out to do until we and others ask.

I would challenge you to practice talking to God as a friend, opening up about your feelings and concerns.  

Praying the Scriptures

Sometimes, it can be hard to figure out what to say when we pray, which is one reason praying the Scriptures can be helpful.  The Bible is full of prayers others have prayed, which are included in the Bible to inspire us to learn how to pray by following their example.  The Lord’s Prayer, which we pray each Sunday, is an example of such a prayer which Jesus himself taught. The book of Psalms is chocked full of such example prayers, jewish prayerbut such prayers are found throughout the whole Bible.   In the Gospels, there are a number of times Jesus prays the words of Scripture, such as when he prays Psalm 22, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” on the cross as he is dying. One way to pray the Scripture is to recite a prayer from Scripture one line at a time, paying attention to what God brings to mind in that Scripture, and sharing with God whatever thoughts, needs, and concerns it makes you think about.

Another form of praying the Scripture is “breath prayer”.  In breath prayer, you take a short section of Scripture like “Be still and know that I am holy” and slowly say it, one word at a time, over and over again, paying attention to what feelings, thoughts, and ideas enter your mind, both looking for what God is saying to you through that Scripture and sharing with God what feelings and needs of your own it brings up.

Popcorn Prayer

popcorn“Popcorn prayer”, is allowing prayer to pop up in the moment, like popcorn popping left and right.  What this means is, when you see something that makes you think of God, to quietly in the moment say a word to God.  You might see something beautiful like a bird singing or a sunrise and quietly say “thank you God”. You might see or think of someone who is sick or in need and say “God help them”.   Adding popcorn prayer throughout your day allows you to pepper your day full of short, quiet prayers.

Prayer Walking

Prayer walking is just what it sounds like:  you praying as you walk around an area outside.   You can pray any type of prayer while you do this, but often it can be prayer walkingmeaningful to pray about what is around you during your walk: thanking God for peaceful or beautiful things you experience in your walk, asking God to bless people or parts of nature you see, asking God to bless the school, home, workplace you pass, asking God to bless your neighborhood, and asking God to help you see how you can be a servant right where you are living, working, or visiting.

I want to challenge you to pick one or more of these practices of prayer to engage in a little each day in the next week.  Remember what counts is not which practice of prayer you use, but that it works for you, that it opens you up to notice, experience, God throughout your day, wherever you go, and to have back and forth conversation with God throughout the day.

Rather than me saying a prayer of my own to close, I invite you to take a few minutes and quietly engage in one of these kinds of prayer right where you are.  (Afterward): Amen & Amen.

Week in the Word: Drinking Deep of the Waters of Life

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hanks chapel easter

 

This is the message I preached on Sunday, June 3, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC, for our Homecoming Service.   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us!   Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.

John 7:37-39 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

37 On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38 and let the one who believes in me drink. As[a] the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” 39 Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit,[c] because Jesus was not yet glorified.

O Still speaking God, open the eyes of our minds and ears of our hearts, that we might see and know what Word you have for us in these words of Holy Scripture.  In Christ’s name, Amen.

RiverLifeLife has a way of pushing us, stretching us out, leaving us exhausted.  At times it is like winds that blow against us, threatening to uproot us and toss us to and fro.  At other times, we feel parched, dried, and emptied, without the resources to move forward in life.

There are storms in life that can shake us to the core.  There are trials and challenges God might call us to face head on which can drain us, leaving us at the limit of our own strength, wisdom, or power.  Even at times the ordinary struggles of work,of caring for family members in need, can stretch us all. And even trying times of transition can occur in our churches, families, and wider community. We certainly have seen some of these this year, haven’t we?

This happens to the best of us.  In his autobiography, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King tells of when this happened to him during his fight for equal rights for all:

‘Almost immediately after the protest started we had begun to receive threatening telephone calls and letters. They increased as time went on. By the middle of January, they had risen to thirty and forty a day…

MLK praying

As the weeks passed, I began to see that many of the threats were in earnest. Soon I felt myself faltering and growing in fear. One day, a white friend told me that he had heard from reliable sources that plans were being made to take my life. For the first time I realized that something could happen to me…

‘One night toward the end of January I settled into bed late, after a strenuous day. Coretta had already fallen asleep and just as I was about to doze off the telephone rang. An angry voice said, “Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you; before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” I hung up, but I couldn’t sleep. It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached the saturation point.

‘I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. I had heard these things before, but for some reason that night it got to me. I turned over and I tried to go to sleep, but I couldn’t sleep. I was frustrated, bewildered, and then I got up. Finally I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. I sat there and thought about a beautiful little daughter who had just been born. I’d come in night after night and see that little gentle smile. I started thinking about a dedicated and loyal wife, who was over there asleep. And she could be taken from me, or I could be taken from her. And I got to the point that I couldn’t take it any longer. I was weak. Something said to me, “You can’t call on Daddy now, you can’t even call on Mama. You’ve got to call on that something in that person that your Daddy used to tell you about, that power that can make a way out of no way.” With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory: “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now, I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. Now, I am afraid. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

‘It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.”  … I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me alone … Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.’

I don’t know about all of you, but even though I’ve not led such a historic and risky fight for justice as Dr. King, I can relate to that feeling he described of being worn out, reaching the end of his powers, and not knowing the way forward.

exhaustion 2

In today’s reading, Jesus invites us to the same realization Dr. King came to: ultimately to sustain ourselves through life’s trials, through its challenges and changes, and even through the work God has called us to do, we must discover and drink deep of the living waters Jesus alone can give.  Without regularly connecting with the living waters Jesus offers, drinking deep of and being renewed by them, we cannot keep the energy, perspective, and strength we need to stand firm, to continue to make a difference without faltering, and to live out each of our callings.

Psalm 1 uses similar language to Jesus’ own: “Happy are those ….  [whose] delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.   They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season,  and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away …”

The “living waters” Jesus speaks about in our reading is the same Holy Spirit we spoke about both last Sunday and on Pentecost Sunday, who is described in Genesis 1 and Psalm 104 as the source of life itself: the One who moves over what is or has become barren, dry, and dead as dry bones, reviving it with fullness of life, until it is green, vibrant, and renewed. This Holy Spirit also is the one Jesus promised in Acts 1 would be the source of the power for us to be Christ’s witnesses, sharing His love by word and deed and transforming our lives, communities, families, and world.

In the next several weeks, I want to look at different practices we can put in place in our everyday lives to connect with this Spirit, practices that work like planting a tree by living water, so we can put down roots and grow

psalm 1 image

Like Dr. King had to learn to stop, pull away, and reach out to God, so do we.  The Bible suggests a number of ways we will look at over the next several Sundays through which we can plant ourselves close to the Living Waters of the Spirit.  

Two things happen when we learn to connect with the Spirit, drinking of the Spirit’s Living Waters.  

First, we put down deep roots.  These roots automatically grow for a plant in the right soil, right sun, near a source of water, giving ready and ongoing access to the waters that give them life.   When in the right environment, the tree sets roots which both let it drink deeply of the water it needs to thrive but also make it hard for it to be shaken or knocked down by wind or rain.  We too can put down roots, becoming rooted in God’s Spirit, daily refreshed for all we need.

This naturally happens when we regularly choose to connect with the Spirit, in some of the ways we will explore.   This becoming rooted, so we can grow strong, tall, and unshaken by life’s storms is beautifully pictured by the words of spiritual writer Marianne Williamson.  She writes, “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, and 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 will not 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 is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”   When we set down roots, we stand tall. And our standing tall calls other to set down roots of their own, discovering their strength and stability in God.

Apple-Tree

Also, Psalm 1 tells us that when we plant ourselves near to the living waters, drinking deeply of them every day, we will “yield … fruit in due season”.    One reason trying to answer our callings – whether we are called to activism, being a witness, helping and serving others, being a good neighbor, spouse, parent, caregiver, or even trying to become a better person in how we speak, act, and treat others – can leave us so worn down, especially in the midst of trials, is it feels like so much work.  Yet Scripture does not talk about these good actions and attitudes as things we work up and do in our own power, but rather as fruit the Spirit naturally produces in us, just like fruit trees planted by streams of living water naturally produce fruit . Think of it. If you plant a tree in the ground and it has regular water, sunlight, and fresh air, does the tree grit its teeth and with great effort work really hard to force fruit to be produced, til the tree falls out in sheer exhaustion from the effort of fruit making?  No, when it is time, in its season, fruit naturally comes, as natural as the sun rising or setting.

This is the same with us – too often, we push ourselves, work really hard, grit our teeth , trying to force this or that work or attitude in the face of trial, only to find ourselves falling out in sheer exhaustion, frustrated and empty.  Yet, if we regularly participate in practices that connect us with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit will naturally strengthen us, nourish us, and transform us, in ways that don’t happen all at once but over time, coming not by our gritting teeth and trying through painful effort, but instead coming just like a plant naturally growing, producing leaves, blossoming, and in the right time, producing fruit.

In future weeks, I want to look at some different ways we can practice connecting with the Spirit in our daily lives so we can grow, be transformed, and also become people able to help heal, comfort, love, and bring justice in other’s lives and in our world;  so we can be rooted, able to stand strong and secure through all the winds and storms of life.

For now, I wonder, do any of you have any spiritual practices that you find particularly helpful in renewing yourself through life’s trials or to do what God calls you to do, which you’d like to share?

I want to mention two practices which I feel our Scripture suggests, one of which we will join in together.

dog meditate

First, we have the practice of meditation, which Psalm 1 mentions.

Meditation deals with one of our first barriers to connecting with God’s Spirit: how distracted we are.  So much of our life is being busy, busy, busy, with our to-do lists. We are constantly on the go, constantly thinking about a thousand different things – worried about what to do next with work, worried about the people in our lives, thinking of what to cook for dinner; sometimes swamped with fear, anxiety, and heartache to a point we can barely think, let alone notice God’s presence or listen for God’s guidance in our lives.

This practice of meditation is primarily about clearing out the clutter and noise of your day and of the world, so your mind and heart are quiet enough to look for and listen for God.   This is pointed toward in the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19. Overcome by emotion, fear, anxiety, and exhaustion, Elijah leaves the noise of the crowds and goes up into the mountains alone.  While there, his heart is too full still of worry and heartache to hear God. Then he looks out and sees a frightening earthquake, a wind so strong it breaks apart the rocks on the mountain where he stands, and a blazing fire that threatens to burn down all around him.  Yet God is not any of these noisy, flashy things Elijah sees. No, God instead is found in a sound so quiet it is like silence which, on hearing, Elijah is so overwhelmed by the presence of God at hearing it he has to cover his head.

You see, to connect with the Spirit, sometimes we need to quiet the wind, earthquake, and fire in our hearts and minds some, because only then can we hear the still small voice Elijah did.

When we have our time of confession at church, this is why I have us pause for silence to look and listen for God.   To truly hear what God is calling us to do, we need to silence ourselves, we need to put aside worry and noise.

There are two main ways I’ve seen Christians meditate.  

(slide 11)

In one form of meditation, breath meditation, people take deep breaths and pay attention to their breath.  Folks take time to notice how they feel all over their body, beginning on the top of their head, and then, moving down their body, through their jaw, neck, shoulders, all the way down to their toes. As you do this, the busy noise in your minds and hearts will hit you and you will pay attention to those thoughts and feelings, and then let them go, like letting a leaf fall on your hand, looking at it a second, and then letting it go again.   Then you will take deep breaths, pay attention to the breaths and as you do so, again notice the thoughts, feelings, ideas, that pop up, not holding onto them, but in a way where you notice them, and then let them go.

Another form of meditation — meditation on Scripture —  follows a similar process but instead of focusing on your breaths, in this meditation you pick a short verse of Scripture, like “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength,” “Be still and know that I am holy”, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me”,  or “this is my son, whom I love, in whom I well pleased,” and repeat that verse slowly over and over again throughout your time of meditation, focusing carefully on each word, what it means, and what it brings up in your mind and heart.

I tend to do this second form of meditation the most in my own life and it seems to be what Psalm 1 is talking about when it speaks of meditating on the Law of the Lord.  I find as I continue to pay attention and let go of the thoughts and feelings that pop up during meditation, returning to focusing on the Scripture I am meditating on, on my better days I either feel a greater peace  that clears away the noise, a peace in which I can simply rest knowing it is God’s presence surrounding me, or I begin to have thoughts enter my mind that are no longer about the business of the day but instead about things I can pray for, or that are insights about things I’ve prayed about already, looking for answers.  Often these insights feel like the beginning of answers to questions or concerns I have prayed about that, when I follow through on, help me discover and walk into what God’s will is for my life. I usually move from this clearing up of the noise of the day through meditation to praying by listening for and speaking to God.

Another practice that I think flows directly from this language of drinking deep of the waters of life is communion.  In communion, we use bread and a cup of drink to remind ourselves that our ultimate source of strength and nourishment is, as Dr. King discovered, not anything of this world, but God – Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit.  When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we remind ourselves that ultimately we must look to God for our source of strength, our wisdom, our direction and that our way to come to God is through Christ whose body was broken and blood shed.

So to conclude this sermon, I want to invite you to join us in a service of holy communion.

 

A Week in the Word: Welcoming God Home

hanks chapel easterThis is the message I preached on Sunday, May 27, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC, for our Homecoming Service.   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us!   Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.

 

 

1 Corinthians 3:1-16

Brothers and sisters, I couldn’t talk to you like spiritual people but like unspiritual people, like babies in Christ. 2 I gave you milk to drink instead of solid food, because you weren’t up to it yet. 3 Now you are still not up to it because you are still unspiritual. When jealousy and fighting exist between you, aren’t you unspiritual and living by building-home-construction2human standards? 4 When someone says, “I belong to Paul,” and someone else says, “I belong to Apollos,” aren’t you acting like people without the Spirit? 5 After all, what is Apollos? What is Paul? They are servants who helped you to believe. Each one had a role given to them by the Lord: 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow. 7 Because of this, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but the only one who is anything is God who makes it grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters work together, but each one will receive their own reward for their own labor. 9 We are God’s coworkers, and you are God’s field, God’s building.

10 I laid a foundation like a wise master builder according to God’s grace that was given to me, but someone else is building on top of it. Each person needs to pay attention to the way they build on it. 11 No one can lay any other foundation besides the one that is firealready laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 So, whether someone builds on top of the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, grass, or hay, 13 each one’s work will be clearly shown. The day will make it clear, because it will be revealed with fire—the fire will test the quality of each one’s work. 14 If anyone’s work survives, they’ll get a reward. 15 But if anyone’s work goes up in flames, they’ll lose it. However, they themselves will be saved as if they had gone through a fire. 16 Don’t you know that you are God’s temple and God’s Spirit lives in you?

There is something wonderful about coming home.  I remember when I lived and worked in Los Angeles with some churches there in my early twenties.  I felt at times, though I was still here in the US of A, I was off in a far country. Though the work was good, though I had great experiences, though I even met a woman I fell in love with and kudzu1married, my late wife Katharine, there, it wasn’t home.   Nobody had that soft reassuring twang and lilt in their voice I knew growing up in Eastern North Carolina. Whenever I asked for sweet tea, I either got odd looks or something that tasted alarmingly like tropical fruit. Everyone was always in a hurry.   Nobody really answered when I asked, “How are you doing?” And good fried chicken and grits – yes, this was before my vegetarian days – were hard to find. Everyone gave me the side eye even for asking!

Those few times I could scrounge up the money on my meager assistant pastor’s salary to sweet teafly into NC and come back home were a welcome respite.   When I stepped off my plane, I knew I was home, home in the land of kudzu and sweet potato pie, home with folks who knew how to say “howdy”, have southern hospitality, & be a neighbor.  I knew soon I would able to laugh and cry as you can only do with dear family and close friends. I was reminded, no matter how far away I went, no matter what happened, no matter which choices I made, I could always come home again.

This is what we often celebrate in the church at homecoming.  We remember that here, in the church, you are always welcome. No matter how long you have been gone, how far you have moved away, you are always welcome here.  Our arms at Hanks Chapel are always open to embrace you back – just as Christ always will open his arms wide to us.

I think this message is timeless and true.  I don’t think there is ever a time to not remind us of this promise.  I am so glad we can remind you each of that each Homecoming.

Yet as I reflected on what message God has for us this Homecoming at Hanks Chapel, I could not help but turn to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians.   In these words, Paul gives us another challenge. He asks – will we welcome God back home this homecoming?

You see Paul challenges us to remember that being God’s people, being God’s church, is not just about us being welcomed back, no matter what we’ve done.  It is that. It is not holy spirit like windjust about us remembering those who have gone before – something we should do and have done as a part of our service here at Hanks Chapel.  It is not just welcoming back those long gone from our doors, whether it be through callings from God that took them away or through wandering in a wilderness all their own.  All of these are good, necessary, and true. It is also remembering that you and I are made to be the temple, the dwelling place, the home of God in this world. As we spoke about last Sunday, Pentecost Sunday, the day God began to pour out the gift of the Holy Spirit on all who open their lives to Jesus, God promises to come and make God’s home in each person who follows Jesus, through giving them the Holy Spirit.

So we are challenged to ask the question: how then can we welcome God home this homecoming?  Both in our our hearts and lives as individuals — but also in our families, church, and community?

One way Paul points to us welcoming God home in our reading is remembering who it is all about.  It is easy to miss the point. Paul describes how people miss the point by getting caught up in labels and names.  “I follow this person” or “I follow that person,” they say. It is easy to get caught up in how so and so always did things years ago in the church and either cling to that, or fight against it — rather than asking where is God in this?  What is God saying now, today, and where is God the Spirit leading us all together? It is easy to get caught up in people’s personalities. We can give into simply blindly going along with others — whether that is moving in lock step with a popular person or group in the church, or siding blindly with a political party, so much so we forget those left out by its stances.   This blindly going along can even be about trying to keep up appearances, when we make choices less out of what God is calling us to do and more out of concern for whether we will look respectable to others. And though honoring those who’ve gone before us as we do each Homecoming is a part of us recognizing, as the book of Hebrews home 3challenges us to, that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses challenging us to lay aside everything that hinders, we can also lean so heavily on their example, their way of doing things, we live as if we can get to God on their coat-tails, rather than inviting God into our hearts and lives for ourselves.  

Ultimately, our life as Christians is not supposed to be about any of these potential pitfalls I’ve mentioned. It is supposed to be about making room for God to move in us — and the way God moves in our own lives can be so very different for each person. The path God paves for you may be very different from the path God paves for me. The kind of home you are to make for God might be different than mine — perhaps your life is to be like a yurt in your back yard, or a giant mansion, or an old log cabin, a giant farmhouse, or a cute little bungalow. What counts is not whether the home of our lives look alike — how boring would that be! — but that our lives, however similar or different they may be, are built as spaces where God is winter homewelcome to dwell.  We can compare our callings to others, whether those that have gone before us or those in the next pew over, and feel we aren’t enough because we don’t live out our call like they do; or we can judge them that they are different or wrong for the same reason. However, whenever we do either, we forget it is not about comparing ourselves among ourselves, but about making room for God ourselves. As the hymn the choir sang last week says, “Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain, But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again… If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus and say, ‘He died for all.’” However different our paths, each of us can welcome God’s Spirit into our lives in ways that share God’s love.

Another part of welcoming God home in our lives, church, families, and communities  this homecoming is pointed to by Paul’s language of fire. We often find such imagery of fire scary sometimes, jumping to thoughts of hell and damnation. Paul, on the other hand,  is not talking about damnation at all here — in fact, most of the Bible’s language of fire is about something different than damnation. Paul instead is talking about how life sends things our way which, on the surface, can look scary or seem out to harm us.  But we won’t know until we get to the other side of these fiery moments whether what we face is something to be feared or not. Fire may harm — but it can also purify and heal. fiery furnace danielFire removes impurity from metal and can sanitize something that has been exposed to germs that carry disease.   Paul’s language of fire warns us that the thing which seems like a blessing we want to hold onto with all our strength may be the very thing we need to let go of, for if we hold it too tightly it could be a fire which destroys what we care about or where God calls us to be. Also that experience which seems to bring the greatest pain can also teach us the most about ourselves and God’s plan for us, if we let it — teaching us compassion, humility, lessons we need to learn for the next step in our journey.  It can purify us and make us whole.

Rumi, a Persian poet I love, puts it very well in his poem “The Guest House” —

“This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.

meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.”

Learning to embrace all of who you are, every experience you go through, all your so-called strengths and weaknesses, all your so-called trials or joys, all your so-called triumphs or failures, as places where God can work and teach, is part of welcoming God home in your life — and also in our communities, churches, and families.

A final challenge of welcoming God home is also recognizing that God shows up most of all in each person we encounter.    Most of us have heard Matthew 25, in which Jesus tells us both, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me’ and ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’

Sometimes we tend to think we can only experience God’s Spirit in extraordinarily holy people — in preachers, in church leaders, in some of the sainted folks we have just remembered together.  Yet these words of Jesus tells us that in each person we encounter — no matter how seemingly ordinary, different, or strange they might appear to us and others, God is present already. Jesus recognized this included people whom the religious establishment deem as too sinful too, and embraced those outcasts from the church so warmly that people mockingly called him “the friend of sinners”.  Each person we encounter — well, God is with them, for the breath of life they breathe comes directly from the Holy Spirit. God is guiding their life, their every experience they have. And if they have opened their life to God, the Holy Spirit too has come to dwell in them. Too often we are too quick to judge others as not knowing God, when the Bible tells us not only was our Savior in whose steps we are called to follow “a friend of sinners”, but God the Holy Spirit even has spoken through former prostitutes, dirty fisherman, and even once a donkey.  There is no one we can rule out. Only God knows another’s heart.

glory of godI can tell you, in my work as a hospice chaplain, I meet with people from every conceivable background and walk of life, some which would be celebrated by everyone and some which other people might look down on.  And yet there is not yet a person I have met through that work as a hospice chaplain who has not taught me something about God as I truly listened to their story.

Friends, if we want to welcome God home in our lives, in our families, in our churches, and in our community, each time we meet a new person,we need to press pause on any judgments we are tempted to make.  We need instead to ask ourselves, “Where is God in them?” and look and listen for how God shows up through their life. There may be talents and gifts they have that they either already are using or can begin to use to help others.  They may have lessons they learned in their life we never could have learned in our own lives, since their journeys have been so different from our own. And, after all, any lesson of truth and wisdom we gain ultimately comes from God, the giver of every good and perfect gift, doesn’t it?

For those who might want to join us in future weeks here at Hanks Chapel, I hope starting next week to begin a sermon series where we spend more time talking about how we can connect with God the Holy Spirit, who lives in us, strengthens us, and guides us.  This series will discuss further ways we can grow in welcoming God the Holy Spirit home in our own lives, in our church, and in all the places we find ourselves: homes, neighborhoods, work, school.

But for right now, what a great challenge — to not just experience being welcomed home by God, but to choose each day to ask the question: how can I welcome God home in me, in my life, in my relationships, my community, my family?  Let us answer that call with open hearts, open lives, open minds, and open hands. Amen

Week in the Word: No Hum-Drum, “Just Ordinary” People

hanks chapel easterThis is the message I preached on Sunday, May 20, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC.   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us!   Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC. 

If you are able to join us on May 27th, that is our Homecoming service — and we will begin with bluegrass Gospel at 10 AM, with our service to follow, and a nice meal.  No Sunday school on May 27th.

 

 

Acts 2:1-4, 14-21

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. 4 They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

14 Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! 15 These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! 16 Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 In the last days, God says,

I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

   Your sons and daughters will prophesy.

   Your young will see visions.

   Your elders will dream dreams.

18     Even upon my servants, men and women,

       I will pour out my Spirit in those days,

       and they will prophesy.

19 I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above

   and signs on the earth below,

       blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.

20 The sun will be changed into darkness,

   and the moon will be changed into blood,

       before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.

21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

 

Philippians 4:10-23

Paul’s thanks for gifts

10 I was very glad in the Lord because now at last you have shown concern for me again. (Of course you were always concerned but had no way to show it.) 11 I’m not saying this because I need anything, for I have learned how to be content in any circumstance. 12 I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor. 13 I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength.14 Still, you have done well to share my distress.

15 You Philippians know from the time of my first mission work in Macedonia how no church shared in supporting my ministry except you. 16 You sent contributions repeatedly to take care of my needs even while I was in Thessalonica. 17 I’m not hoping for a gift, but I am hoping for a profit that accumulates in your account.18 I now have plenty and it is more than enough. I am full to overflowing because I received the gifts that you sent from Epaphroditus. Those gifts give off a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice that pleases God. 19 My God will meet your every need out of his riches in the glory that is found in Christ Jesus. 20 Let glory be given to God our Father forever and always. Amen.

Final greeting

21 Greet all God’s people in Christ Jesus. The brothers and sisters with me send you their greeting. 22 All God’s people here, especially those in Caesar’s household, send you their greeting. 23 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirits.

May the still-speaking God open the eyes of hearts and ears of our minds that we might see and know what words God has for us in these words of Holy Scripture, in Christ’s name, Amen.

 

pentecost sermonWhat an amazing story we read in Acts — of the giving of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church.  

Though none of us have had the exact experience of God the Holy Spirit these first Christians did when the Spirit came down on that first Pentecost Sunday, the Bible promises us that, if we have trusted and committed to follow Christ, we already have this Spirit dwelling in us and empowering us, if we will only listen to and work together with this Spirit.  On Ascension Day, Jesus promised that as John the Baptizer baptized with water, so after He ascended to fill all creation with His presence, Christ would baptize all who came to Him with His Spirit. This is why Romans 8 tells us “So now there isn’t any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death… you are in the Spirit… If anyone doesn’t have the Spirit of Christ, they don’t belong to him. …  If Christ is in you, the Spirit is your life because of God’s righteousness… [and] the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead .. will give life to your human bodies also, through his Spirit that lives in you.”

Take a moment and think about what that means.  God the Holy Spirit dwells in you. Genesis 1 tells us that, at creation, it was God the Holy Spirit moving over the lifeless world like a mother bird brooding over a nest of eggs that brought the breath of life into all things.  Psalm 104 tells us that even now whenever God the Holy Spirit moves over Baptism-of-Christ (1)what has become dead and broken in our lives and world, the Spirit restores it to life, making the world green and vibrant again. In the book of Judges, the same Spirit of God who dwells in you now filled women and men of faith like Deborah  and Gideon. When God the Holy Spirit filled them, they were given strength and courage, wisdom and insight beyond their years, setting them free to perform miracles and do what they never could have dreamed defending the defenseless, fighting for the oppressed, overturning every injustice. In the books of the prophets in the Bible like Isaiah and Jeremiah, it was this same Spirit of God who has come to dwell in you that filled the hearts and minds of the otherwise ordinary people God called to speak as prophets.  When the Spirit filled them, they discovered God’s will, God’s dreams for their community and world, understanding what God was saying about the struggles and questions they face. That same Spirit inspired those who heard these prophets to keep holy spirit 1those words in their hearts and eventually to write them down so that, now, centuries later, their words remain for us today in our Bibles. Through its pages Spirit is still speaking. Whenever we open the Bible’s pages, whether in the prophets, the psalms, the proverbs, the Gospels, or anywhere else, and find its pages speaking to us, there, too, the Spirit is speaking. It is this same Spirit of God who came upon Mary in the books of Matthew and Luke, enabling Jesus to be born to her, as Savior of the world, even though Mary cannot point to an earthly father for him.  This same Spirit came upon Jesus in his baptism, giving him the wisdom to teach the Gospel, the power to heal the sick, to raise the dead, multiply bread and fish to feed the multitude, and most of all giving him courage to welcome the outcast and forgotten, while speaking the truth unflinchingly to those comfortable and complacent folks sitting in power and wealth they hold onto by crushing the poor, the last, the lost, and the least. It is this same Spirit who gives Jesus the power to face temptation in the desert head on for 40 days, and every time after when it raises its head in his life and ministry, and say no to it each time. After Jesus is crucified, Scripture tells us that it it this same Spirit who moves over the lifeless broken body of Jesus, both raising him from the dead and glorifying him so his presence can fill all things at his ascension. This Sunday, Pentecost Sunday, reminds us that this same Spirit of God who moves and acts in such amazing ways throughout the Scripture and in our history is still speaking and moving This icon of the Trinity draws on the feminine images used in Scripture for the Holy Spirit, as a reminder that women as well as men can bear the image of God. in each of us.

God the Holy Spirit, who can bring life and healing in the midst of death and disease, who grants wisdom and direction when our ways are uncertain, who grants strength to speak truth in the midst of confusion, to tear down barriers of injustice and welcome all people in, to multiply resources so all can have enough, to change the world one moment, one life, one community at a time — This same Spirit is within you, within me, within each of us.  The question if we have opened our lives to God is not “does the Spirit dwell within me?” but will you learn to listen and look for the Spirit, and work together with the Spirit as the Spirit leads?

Sometimes it is hard for us to see this, hard for us to believe this same Spirit who came down on the first Pentecost, this same Holy one who did such amazing things throughout history, is still with us, even is within us. Yet God the Spirit is — and through the Holy Spirit, God is still speaking and moving, acting and doing, within us and through us!

One reason it may be hard to believe you and I have this same Spirit within us is because we look for the Spirit to show up today in flashy moments like the first Pentecost: when the Spirit appeared like fire dancing upon our heads and people supernaturally were gifted to speak new languages, dream dreams, or see visions.

Most, though not all, people of faith I know have had their moments like the first Pentecost — though not the exact miracles seen then, definitely moments where they can sense, feel, and know God’s presence is near at hand.  Where they could know without a doubt God was walking with them, guiding them, leading them. Where they saw prayers answered or doors opened and shut for them or others in ways that they knew were miraculous. I bet if I asked each of you stand and share, most of you could share at least one moment you have had in your life just like that.

But most of our lives are not lived there, on the mountaintop of miracles.   Most of our life we feel less certain and a bit more humdrum than in those moments.  Most of our life we simply do the best we can, searching for God’s will and striving to do it, with very little certainty about what it is.  Most of our life is us doing our job, being a neighbor, Everyday-Miracles-of-the-Planetserving friends and family, raising our children and grandchildren, caring for aging relatives, leaning into the aging process ourselves.   Alot of our life is tears, sweat, exhaustion — punctuated by moments of joy. Our life, too, can include some raising of our voices against injustice — which is truly important work that is often done while we uncertain if anything will change even with our great efforts.  Our life can consist of us lending our hand to make our community better, to care for the hurting, while not always knowing what difference our little bit of effort will make.

And even those Pentecost moments we have — when we can see and feel God’s Spirit near to us, knowing God is present with such certainty — are rarely as dramatic as the description we have of this first Pentecost in our Bible.

Which is why Paul’s words at the end of Philippians are so important to remember on this Pentecost Sunday.    Everything Paul talks about going on through the church of Philippi in this chapter is so much less flashy then what we see in our reading about the original Pentecost in Acts.  But what the members of the church of Philippi are doing is just as much the work of the Spirit as anything that happened at the first Pentecost. Paul views each of these everyday, ordinary works of care, kindness, service, and faithfulness done in Philippi as just as important as his work as an apostle in furthering Christ’s Gospel and making God’s kingdom — heaven breaking out in our every day world — present.

Paul begins talking about the Spirit’s work in him, pointing toward what the Spirit can do within Phillipi and us, if we will be open. Paul tells us that through God’s Spirit, he has learned the gift of being content in any circumstance.   He knows how to go without, and everyday lifeyet still see God’s presence, still know God will provide, still give thanks for the little blessings, and learn lessons from the hardships, not just through good times or times when the bad situation changes for the better but even when he must bear up under trials like his own imprisonment. Paul  has learned too how to have enough, be grateful, be generous, and use what he has been given to make his times without less trying. Paul says he can “can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives … strength.”   

I don’t know about you, but when I have had to learn to go without, to suffer, to go through change, I don’t know that I have always thought about things like Paul.   When I have gone through losing people and relationships, jobs and work, or having people’s reputation of me go down, let alone faced my own health struggles or that of others, I can’t say I have always remembered to be content.  Yet Paul tells me, if I can be open to such situations teaching me to be content in all circumstance that is a gift, a work of the Holy Spirit. Learning to embrace the life I have been given, rather than I want, and to turn it into a source of blessing for myself and others, living with gratitude for each gift that comes in it, is as much a sign of the Holy Spirit in me and in you, as much of a gift of the Spirit, as the fancy flashy signs we read about occuring on the first Pentecost.

Likewise, when Paul talks about where God the Holy Spirit is at work in Philippi, Paul doesn’t point to flashy things like performing miracles, dreaming dreams, seeing visions, speaking new languages. No.  Paul points to how the church in Philippi has continued to show up in hard times to help him and others. He tells how, at points other churches wouldn’t support his ministry, these folks in Phillipi continued to send people, food, resources, money.  They continued to band together to support each other. They continued to share the Good News of God’s love by word and deed.

Earlier in the book of Philippians, when Paul thanks this church for sending Epaphroditus to help him, Epaphroditus had been sent on a journey of many, many miles.  He was sent by this same church to bring food, money, and resources to support Paul while he was chained to Roman soldiers and not able to do his normal job he used to support his ministry —  being a tent-maker — very easily anymore. Epaphroditus comes carrying the help gathered up by everyone at Philippi even though the journey is risky, and leads him to become so sick he nearly dies. He does this all on behalf of the church in Phillipi, bringing the contribution of not just one person but everyone in Philippi, all who pitch in lending a hand, doing what they can, to support the work God has called them to together.

 

You see, sometimes it is easy to say, “I can’t preach.  I don’t pray fancy words. I don’t sing so well. I don’t have the talents and gifts of so and so”, and think you can’t make a difference for God and for others.   Yet, just because you don’t feel the gifts God gives you are flashy, doesn’t mean you don’t have gifts. It doesn’t mean you can’t make a difference. The Bible tells us the Holy Spirit has filled you, the very Person of God is within you who breathes life into all creation, who spoke through the Prophets, who inspired the words of Scriptures; who performed miracles and overturned injustice and set free the oppressed through the Judges, who did so many signs and wonders through Jesus, and who raised Jesus from the dead.

And that Spirit is there in you picking up your hammer and nail and helping fixing the house of one in need.  That Spirit is there in you lending an ear to a hurting person needing to tell their story. That Spirit is there in you knitting blankets for newborn babies and people that are on hospice, or making winter clothes from the homeless. The Spirit is there in you when you lend rides to someone down on their luck in need of help, or who need a ride to church.  The Spirit is there in you as you put together food for people caring for sick family members, as we are doing in our caregiving ministries. The Spirit is there in many, many countless ways you help others, you work to bring justice and compassion into our world, and you work to share in word and deed God’s love. The Spirit is there in your 9 to 5 job when you do it to the glory of God in ways that demonstrate to those you work with God’s love, compassion, and justice. The Spirit is there in your care for those you love. The Spirit is there in your serving, your doing bulletins, singing in choir, cleaning and keeping up the church here. The countless ways we show up bringing love, help, healing, comfort, liberation, and the message of Christ to others are all ways the Spirit works in us, even if we don’t feel they are flashy.

 

Let us embrace this Sunday that none of us are just ordinary and hum-drum — each of us here are full of the Holy Spirit, able through the Spirit to help heaven break our all around us.  Let us embrace that none of our gifts and talents are pointless — but all we have and all we are is a gift of God, which can change ourselves, others, and our world in healing ways. Let us remember God is still speaking, through the Spirit, not just through fancy showy miracles but in the tiny everyday wonders we cannot deny, in each person we meet, and even in ourselves.  Amen.

 

Blessing of the Hands

To remind us to embrace whatever gifts and talents we have as places the Spirit can do Christ’s work of bearing witness, healing, and setting free, I want to invite all who are willing to come and share in a blessing of hands.  In the blessing of hands I will invite you to come forward, naming in your heart or out loud as you do what the work or gifts you see God calling you to do to be, even if it might seem too ordinary or too odd for others — whether it being a parent, serving in the neighborhood, being a nurse, teacher, chaplain, or janitor; farming or gardening; working as a police officer or peace activist; weaving fabric, being a grandmother or caregiver to one who is sick, being a church musician or officer: you name it.  And then you stretch out your hands, which we will anoint with oil as a sign of the Spirit, and say a prayer that your work, whatever it is, be blessed as a way God’s power and love can be known in the world.
(As people come forward, anoint their hands, saying “O Holy Spirit, you have no hands but ours.  Bless the works of these hands that they may bring your healing, beauty, and freedom in our world”)

A Week in the Word: Walking in the footsteps of our Mothers of Faith

hanks chapel easterThis is the message I preached on Sunday, May 13, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC.   I hope it blesses you!  If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us!   Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC. 

In addition to our reading from Philippians, since it is both Mother’s Day Sunday and Ascension Day Sunday, I want to also read an excerpt from Acts’ account of Christ’s ascension, in addition to our reading from Philippians.

Acts 1:7-9

“It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” 9 After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.

 

Philippians 3:17-4:9     

17 Brothers and sisters, become imitators of me and watch those who live this way—you can use us as models. 18 As I have told you many times and now say with deep sadness, many people live as enemies of the cross. 19 Their lives end with destruction. Their god is their stomach, and they take pride in their disgrace because their thoughts focus on earthly things. 20 Our citizenship is in heaven. We look forward to a savior that comes from there—the Lord Jesus Christ. 21 He will transform our humble bodies so that they are like his glorious body, by the power that also makes him able to subject all things to himself.
leader man4:1 Therefore, my brothers and sisters whom I love and miss, who are my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord.
Loved ones, 2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to come to an agreement in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I’m also asking you, loyal friend, to help these women who have struggled together with me in the ministry of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my coworkers whose names are in the scroll of life.
4 Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! 5 Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. 6 Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. 7 Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.
8 From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise.9 Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.

Still-speaking God who speaks to us through a mother’s touch, a friend’s caring voice, the embrace of loving spouses who stand with us through trials, and in every place true love bursts forth, we know you have yet more light and truth to break forth from your holy Word.  Open the eyes of our minds, and ears of our hearts, so we might see and know what Word you have for us in these words of Scripture. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, my God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

 

The Sunday after Easter I was blessed to witness something that speaks right to the text in front of us.   Some of you might remember that I serve as vice president of our denomination’s board for Eastern North Carolina.  In that role, I get called to help with installing new pastors. In the United Church of Christ in our area, due to our churches’ injusticelong tradition of fighting for civil rights, from the days of slavery when many churches fought for abolition, to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s when our denomination was a key voice, many more of our Eastern NC churches are historically black churches than some other denominations. In fact when the diverse churches in our area in the 1960’s met to join to form the United Church of Christ, doing so defied laws on the books then in North Carolina saying black people and white people couldn’t sit at the same table in the way they had to for the vote to form the UCC.

Because of this background, many of the churches I visit through my work in our association, including  the one I was asked to help install a pastor that Sunday after Easter, are historically black.

As happens in installation services, there was alot more pomp and circumstance at this church service than I am ever comfortable with — one pastor after another, including myself, each was asked stand to preach a bit and pray a bit, all while great Gospel music echoed in the background.  This continued unstopped, until something I’ve never seen in a historically white church happened: All at once, suddenly everybody closed their mouths. Suddenly everyone stood at attention. Suddenly the music stopped and you could hear a pin drop, as all eyes turned to a little woman in a wheelchair being pushed up to the altar.

“Let the mother of the church speak” somebody shouted.  Then a 90-some-year old woman who had served that church with God’s love and care her whole life talked about being there in the 1920’s when the church was founded, of the ways she had seen God speak and work there since it first started, and of the lessons she thinks God would never want its new pastor and its members to forget.  There was hardly a dry eye in the room when she had finished. Though we all might have forgotten what the many distinguished preachers said, I don’t think a one of us forgot what this mother of the church did and said that day.

mother-and-childHer title, “mother of church,” is a common one in historically black churches here in the south, but not one I hear alot in historically white ones.  That’s too bad. It is a term worth picking up, especially on this mother’s day Sunday, a term that honors the women who have worked hard for God and God’s people in our midst, often without title, without pay, without thanks.  Our reading from Philippians focuses on two such mothers of the church in Philippi — Euodia and Syntyche. These women, though they have momentarily lost sight of the high calling being mothers of the church brings and so must be reminded of it by Paul and others, were ones who had consistently been such mothers in the church to which Paul is writing.

The church in Philippi was a church whose backbone was strong godly women.  Not only were Euodia and Syntyche such pillars of the church that, when they got at odds with each other, it threw the whole church into turmoil, but the book of Acts also shows us its founding was as much out of the work and contribution of a successful business woman — a dyer of fabrics — named Lydia as it was the tent-making preacher, the apostle Paul.  This was true of Phillippi but also true of other early churches as well, according to Scripture: in Corinth ,there was Priscilla, whom Paul praises in the books of Corinthians as a fellow minister of the Gospel alongside him; in the book of Romans the apostle Paul names a woman, Junia, as a fellow apostle together with him and the twelve, helping spread the Gospel where none had yet heard it and helping plant new churches where none existed.  And no wonder! It is a woman, after all, Mary Magdalene, who first shares mary magdalene easterin the Gospels that Jesus is risen, becoming the lady whom the earliest church called “the apostle to the apostles” for it is she who first confronts the other apostles, those men who had huddled themselves away behind locked doors for fear, with the hopeful message “He is risen!”  Wherever you turn, strong woman, mothers of the faith, pave the way.

A mother of the church is a woman who does as Jesus challenges all people to do on ascension day: they stand hearts open, waiting for and actually receiving the power from on high Jesus promises, the power of God the Holy Spirit.   This is the same Spirit we call to come down and give power on everyone, regardless of their gender, at their baptism, when they confirm their faith as teens or adults, when they join the church, and whenever we take part in communion.  This power Jesus promises, which we pray so often to have poured out in us, is one mothers of the church model having & using. This holy spirit like windPower is pictured in Scripture often in mothering terms too: in the book of Genesis, we are told that at creation, the Spirit brooded over the lifeless world God made like a mother bird brooding over her nest of eggs, warming them with her own body until life fills those eggs and they hatch into new thriving little birds.  Likewise at Jesus’ baptism, the Gospels tell us that the heavens are torn open, and a voice echoes from heaven “this is my Child, Whom I love, in Whom I am well-pleased”. At that very moment the Spirit appears like a mother dove over Jesus, brooding over him like a mother bird seeking to take her baby safely under the shelter of her wing. Even the word that gets translated “Spirit” in our Bible for this One who brings the Power from on High Jesus promises is originally ruach, a feminine name for God in the original Hebrew found in the oldest parts of our Bible.

These Mothers of the church are those who have lived their lives faithfully among God’s people, full of the Spirit who brooded over creation and Jesus, wielding the Spirit’s Power to call people to recognize and grow into their God-given identity as God’s own children, ones whom God loves and ones in whom God is well-pleased.  They are ones who work to allow all such beloved ones to be gathered in, as Psalm 91 says, underneath the shelter of God’s wings, and who labor night and day in that same Spirit until our world treats each person as ones so beloved by God.

Paul paints a great picture of how not just mothers, but also fathers of the church look.  All who act as leaders and mentors, who help others discover their own identity as God’s children, their own calling as God’s people, and their own place in God’s work of healing and setting free, are easy to identify.   Rather than falling into the selfishness to push for their own way, their own pleasure, at any cost, which Paul calls making their stomachs workingwomentheir god, these folk prioritize the values of heaven, their true home. They work to live and act as if their ultimate reward is there and as if the big or little choices they make while on this earth can help make this world a little more a place heaven breaks out here and now.    They don’t let anxiety — fear of what might go wrong, fear of not being or having enough — rule their life. Such anxiety is what leads us to put up walls to keep out others we feel are too different, fearing their difference threatens us all. We fear that God cannot provide for us and also for them at the same time, forgetting we are all part of God’s family, and others being welcomed in need not mean we go without.    It is this anxiety that drives leaders like Euodia and Syntyche to turn on each other, fighting, splitting the church into factions — fear leads us to think it is our way or the highway, forgetting there is a wideness in God’s mercy so that in Christ there is no east or west, north or south, as the old hymn says. 

To live out these values is to be a person who trusts that in God there is more than enough for everyone, to trust that we can turn to prayer for others rather than falling into anxiety about our future or theirs.  When Paul talks about focusing on what is true, noble, excellent, praiseworthy, he is not talking about being like the statues of the three monkeys who cover their eyes, ears, and mouth saying “see no evil, hear no evil, say no evil” you often see at novelty stores — he is not talking about being Polyannas who just put on a happy face, but hide our heads in the sand by not seeing the trouble in front of us, so can’t warn people away from bad choices.  We’ve all seen mothers of the church, like our own mothers, do warn us to avoid dangerous paths, don’t they?

Cuellar-Daru Mother and ChildWhat Paul is talking about is being people who focus with each person they meet, not on what makes them too wrong or different, but in what it is within them that reflects the  image of God.  It is being able to see and call out their identity as ones God looks at and says as God did over Jesus: this one is the the one I love, this one is the one in whom I am well pleased. It is being able to not just see the problems in front of us but asking ourselves and others, “how will you be part of the solution?”   The mothers of the church we have known — and fathers too — have lived out these values, and in their example, called us to be more fully who God made us to be. They do deserve to be celebrated — and, as Paul says, emulated.

I wonder if any of you have examples of such mothers of the church you have seen live this out in your life — or in our life together here at Hanks Chapel?

Of course the challenge we have is not just to be thankful and remember these role models in our life, but also to take up their mantles.  Whether we have biological children of our own or not, we can be mothers and fathers of the faith for others, when we choose to intentionally point others to who they are in Christ, to their unique gifts and callings, to the ways they can live out that calling intentionally, to how they can find their place in being agents of healing and setting free others in our world.

May we hear and answer that call together!

The Ascension as the Breaking out of the Rule of the Cosmic Christ

This week is the time we tend to remember Christ’s Ascension, which Scriptures describe occurring 10 days before Pentecost Sunday.   I am sharing some old blog posts about this theme, to help turn our minds toward it.  I hope they bless you!

Micah

joash-crowned-king

As we pass through this time of Ascension-tide, the 10 days between Ascension Day and Pentecost Sunday, I think it is good to devote some time to reflect on what this experience of Christ ascendant over us and all things means.

I am struck by the powerful words of United Church of Christ theologian and preacher Walter Brueggemann, who writes in his Mandate To Difference:

“… the same Jesus who was known in the Gospel narrative is able to do on a cosmic scale what Jesus of Nazareth had done locally:

“He feeds the hungry multitude.

He touches lepers and they are healed.

He welcomes children who are vulnerable.

He enjoys the company of those disapproved of by proper society…

ascension

“We may confess the creed: ‘He ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right of God the Father. ‘  But we may do more than confess.  We may move our life into coherence with the new rule of Jesus…

“[In light of Christ’s ascension over all of life] … our common practices of greed, of the pursuit of consumer goods, of the frantic efforts to acquire more, are both inappropriate and unnecessary…

“[the same Christ ascendant over all of life was the very] Jesus [who] went to great length to identity ‘sister and brother’ as everyone, including those most unlike us, those who do not fit, those who upset us and make us uncomfortable.   What a gospel word in a society that is increasingly given over to exclusion, to hate, and to vengeance!  There is an ideology at work among us that wants to make the world very small, in order to make it safe for us, and to exclude and eliminate everyone who is not like us…

jesus holds the world

“[Since the ascendance of Christ over all of life means] this is God’s world and … the rule of love is at work, then our mandate is not to draw into a cocoon of safety; rather it is to be out and alive in the world in concrete acts and policies whereby the fearful anxiety among us is dispatched and adversaries can be turned to allies and friends.”

We can imagine ascension as Christ seated “on a cloud of glory, keeping the world under caring surveillance” and from there that he has declared the following edict by press release, according to Brueggemann:

“The newly ascended power has decreed that there is more than enough, and greed iss inappropriate in a world of God’s generosity.

“Here is a new act of legislation from the government of God that says,

Perfect love casts out hate, that we are not free for vengeance but must leave such matters to the wise Father.

“Here is an edict from the government that says,

“Do not fear for I am with you and the world will hold”

I find Brueggemann’s reflection of what this experiences the disciples and early believers re-tell — of Jesus ascendant over all of life and our world — means very compelling.  I think if i wrote out my own version I would add the sense of Psalm 24 that we are reminded by it that the earth is God’s, the fullness thereof, and we are called to treat all of life as bearing the image of the Christ who rose, according to Ephesians, to fill all things with Christ’s presence.   And thus, also, we must change our relationships with the land, air, water, soil, and other living things, learning to see the whole world as the temple of God — as well as our own and others’ bodies.

What experiences have led you, like the early believers both on Ascension Day itself and in the early days of the Jesus movement, to experience a sense that Christ is ascendant over all of your life and all the concerns of our world?  In what ways does it inspire and challenge you?

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah