Monday, June 21, 2010

A Whole Lotta Delta

The other day my partner said, "there is a lot of delta in our lives right now." Yes, indeed, there is, and it seems appropriate for reflection on this the longest day of the year, the summer solstice.

I often say that the one constant in my life has been change (delta). Sometimes I wish I could either step back a bit for some gamma, or move on to epsilon (a little shout out to other Greek nerds out there!). But today is a day that reminds us that everything changes, and so I am trying to settle into this current life season of change.

Here are some of the waves in the sea of delta I'm currently floating in...
- I recently completed my Master of Divinity. Last week my diploma finally arrived in the mail, and the reality of it still hasn't quite settled in. Now I don't have to register for classes or figure out whether my scholarships and student loans will cover my expenses. I don't have to go out and buy or borrow books and shape my calendar around major papers and projects. It's a little disorienting, since the last 4 years of my life were organized by semesters.

- I have been packing up my old house in Fort Worth and moving things to Dallas, where I share a home with my partner. This is a wonderful change for the most part, and I'm thankful to have the constant love and support of an amazing and life-giving partner. It keeps me afloat. At the same time, every few days I sink into momentary breakdowns over not being able to find the right kind of pan to make enchiladas, or not having a good work space...all the little things that come along with living out of boxes and trying to combine households. Thanks to my friend and partner, I'm always able to come back up to the surface and ride the waves without too much sputtering.

- My 3 years as youth director for a wonderful church in Fort Worth came to an end last month. I'm still doing some little things, trying to tie up loose ends and keep in touch with the youth as best I can, especially until they find a new youth director. I'm taking stock of all the blessings that this church has so generously bestowed upon me. I'm proud to continue to call them my church home, and I hope that as I move into the next phase of my life, I will be able to keep some degree of contact with them. I cannot say enough good things about this church - the children & youth & adults who show up week after week ready to share a welcoming smile and a story about where they have seen God in their lives; the leadership teams who struggle to make decisions that will empower the members of the church to embody God in their local communities and around the world; and the pastors who share their lives with all of us, inspiring us to think more critically and reflect more lovingly and spiritually in our everyday journey of faith.

- In April, I was approved for ordination in the UCC, pending a call to a church. So I am entering the search and call process, apprehensive about the time involved and the new (to me) chains of communication and networking; wondering whether I am really cut out to be a pastor; excited about the prospect of doing what I have always felt called to do. Sometimes the thought that I am living into this lifelong dream fills me with so much hope and fear, all wrapped up together, making it hard to breathe and at the same time making me want to jump for joy.

-And still I need to find some gainful employment where I am now, something to pay the bills and start to pay back all those student loans (ugh!). So I am submitting resumes, and interviewing, and waiting...

In the meantime, I am living into the delta time, grasping for some constants by doing the things that give me life - living in the present with my beloved, arranging my space, cooking, reading, cuddling with my animal companions, coloring mandalas, listening to music, writing, etc.

I know delta well. We are good friends, and every time we have to dwell together, I emerge richer and wiser. The delta time makes me all the more ready to embrace the blessings of epsilon, the letter in the Greek alphabet that begins so many beautiful words: Euaggelion (Gospel or Good News), Eucharist (which is from the root for giving thanks), Eirene (Peace).

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Doubt, Faith, and Friends - A Confirmation Sermon

Sermon as prepared for delivery (edited to preserve confidentiality) at First Congregational United Church of Christ, Fort Worth, TX, April 11, 2010. For the confirmation service of 7 youth.
Text: John 20:19-31

As I prepared for this morning, I reflected on my own baptism, 20 years ago. On May 20, 1990, 5 days after my 13th birthday, I was baptized by my youth minister at First Colony Church of Christ in Sugar Land, Texas. Every year for about 15 years after that, my mom would give me a card for my “re-birthday.” It was the day I decided to make my faith public. In that church, we were not baptized as babies or as children. We waited until it was a decision we could make on our own.

Behind the communion table in the front of the sanctuary, there was a baptistery that was hidden by panels, only opened when someone was going to be baptized. It was a small tub, about 3 feet deep. On either side, there were changing rooms – one side for the minister, who would put on waders so his pants would stay dry. In my changing room I put on a special garment, like a plastic jumper. I waded out to meet my youth minister, who asked me if I believed in Jesus and if I wanted to live my life for God. Yes, I answered, and I was dunked in the lukewarm water.

I still remember the clothes I wore that day – I had on a black shirt, a white skirt, black socks, and white Keds. And a black and white bow in my hair. It was during my black and white phase. After church, my family went out to eat at Ninfa’s, my favorite Mexican restaurant.

As you can tell, I still remember that day pretty clearly. It was an important day in my life, a turning point in my journey of faith. The seven of you being confirmed today, I hope that this day is the same for you – that 20 years from now you will look back at today and remember it as a turning point, when you shared your beliefs with your church.

I can’t say that the 20 years since my baptism have been free of doubts, questions, or fears. And I’m guessing I’m not alone. I wonder if anyone else here knows what I’m talking about… if there are any adults here who never have any questions, anyone who has it all figured out, please stand up…
That’s what I thought!

Our gospel story today has plenty of people who are scared and unsure. We often focus on Thomas – because he was brave enough to express his doubts. Thomas sometimes is the only one who gets credit for being a “doubter” – but if we read the story carefully, it’s clear that he wasn’t the only one who had questions.

Mary Magdalene had already told the disciples that she had seen Jesus. She is the first witness, the one sent to tell the men. But there is no indication that they believed her. In fact, in Luke’s version of the story, the men think the women are just making it up. So why should we be surprised, then, that Thomas wouldn’t believe it either? If you had watched someone close to you die – even if they told you they would be back – would you believe they were alive again if your friends told you they were, if you hadn’t seen them yourself?

At this point, it seems that everyone has seen Jesus and believes he is alive again – except Thomas. But somehow, Thomas still feels safe enough to tell his friends that he is not so sure. And no one judges him for it. He had to go a whole week before he got to see Jesus. They must have had a lot of conversations, and I’m guessing that, over that week, even those disciples who had seen Jesus started questioning whether that had been real or not.

Can you imagine them sitting around together, doing a candle lighting ritual like we do in youth group? For those of you who don’t know, we often being our youth group time by lighting a candle and sharing our answers to the question: “How is your heart this week?”

As they each lit a candle, how do you think this group of friends would answer that question – how is your heart this week?

Peter might say - “Last Sunday, my heart was great – relieved and overjoyed to see Jesus. But since then, I’ve been feeling confused, wondering whether it really happened.”

And Joanna – “My heart is tired and afraid. I’m scared the same things will happen to us that happened to Jesus.”

And Thomas – “My heart is about the same today as last week. If Jesus is really alive, how can I know it’s true?”

A lot of times when we do our candle lighting, and throughout our conversations with each other, the youth share their questions – was Jesus really God? Did Jesus really, physically, come back from the dead? Did he really do everything the Bible says he did? And how was it that Jesus could appear in a room when all the doors were locked?

Notice that Jesus didn't come to Thomas in private - it was with his friends. Thomas and the other disciples got to have a special experience that was a turning point in their faith journeys. They saw and touched the risen Jesus, and he told them to share their faith. Over the years they would tell their story to others, and sometimes, when they got together for those candle lightings, maybe they helped each other remember what that night was like, when they saw Christ among them.

The other night I was downtown at the Main Street Arts Festival, and a little child – maybe 5 years old – handed me a tract. You know the kind I’m talking about – these little brochures that attempt to tell you – in 2 pages or less – what you need to do to be saved, which means to avoid going to hell when we die.

The front of this one said “God’s last name is not DAMN.” If that doesn’t catch your eye and make you think, what would? Then, if you take the time, you can read through the text and discover that all humans are sinful, and that in order to be saved, we can pray a special prayer, admitting that we need God and claiming belief in Jesus.

And that’s kind of like what you seven have done this morning – you made a statement of faith, admitting that you need God and that you want to follow the way of Jesus. But why do we have you do it in front of everyone? Why, when anyone wants to join the church, do they come to the front and publicly acknowledge their faith? Wouldn’t it be good enough to just send your statement of faith to our church secretary, where she could file it away, send you a certificate of membership, and send off a note telling God to add your name to the list of people who are saved?

There’s a reason we have this thing called church, a reason we join together every week, sometimes more. We need each other – we need a community of friends we can share our doubts with, and people who can tell us their own stories about times they have seen Christ. Just as Thomas’s friends told him they had seen Jesus, we can tell one another of the times we have experienced Christ in our lives. And like Thomas, we can share our questions with people who won’t judge us, but will only love us and patiently wait with us until we have our own encounter with Christ.

This is the gift of God this second Sunday in Easter, a community of friends who have some doubts, some faith, and a lot of love. We welcome 7 youth to be full participants in the life of this church, and at the same time, we remember that each and every one of us is welcome here. Jesus said, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Even though we have not seen Jesus in the flesh, we look around and see the spirit of Christ on one another’s faces and in each other’s hearts.

Church, let this day be a turning point in your journey of faith. If you have doubts, know that you are not alone. If you have faith, share it. Most importantly, be here, fully present and open, with your friends, and let us support one another as we grow in faith and celebrate the new life we have found in Christ. Thanks be to God!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

A mother's breast

I still find comfort when I lay my head on my mother's breast, and I know this is not true for everyone. Abraham calls God "El Shaddai," which may be translated "Breasted One." There is a place for all to suckle at God's breasts.

The lectionary Psalm for the past few days has been Psalm 27, and I was struck by this line (as rendered in The Inclusive Bible):
Even if my own parents reject me, you, YHWH, will accept me (Psalm 27:10).

And in the Luke text, Jesus laments,
"O often have I wanted to gather your children together as a mother bird collects her babies under her wings." (Luke 13:34)

As I write this, I am listening to worship music by Steve Iverson and Michael McCarty:
"In the heart of God, calm and quiet is my soul, as a little child, resting in its mother's arms."

May all who feel rejected - my LGBT friends, youth struggling with depression, people suffering in Haiti and Chile and around the world - be gathered beneath God's wings, be comforted at her breast, where there is more than enough room and more than enough food and more than enough acceptance for each and every one of us. Amen.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Lenten intentions

I entered into Lent this year in a sick body, stressed mind, and overwhelmed schedule. I thought that perhaps trying to add one more obligation, that is, a Lenten discipline, would not be spiritually edifying but rather would just add more stress to my life. This morning, with my health returning, I am reconsidering that idea.

In my early 20s I began attending a church that followed the liturgical calendar and the lectionary. It was like a whole new world opened to me. There is something deep and rich and moving about taking part in the rhythm of the church year, participating in practices that have sustained the body of Christ for generations upon generations. I LOVE the seasons of the church year. And perhaps it isn't entirely coincidental that I discovered all this in New England, where the seasons of spring, fall, winter, and summer are distinct as well. I know that the liturgical calendar wasn't invented in New England, but it could have been. Advent, the season of darkness, seemed especially poignant when the sun set at 4pm. Lent lasted through the toughest part of winter, when the cold and wet appeared endless. Easter was a reminder that spring was indeed coming, if it hadn't already. The green of ordinary time could be seen all around in the glory of summer. While these seasonal changes can be harder to notice in Texas, I have now accustomed myself to the rhythm of the seasons, and I look forward to the revelations each year brings.

In my childhood church, anything that appeared remotely Catholic was discouraged, so all I knew about Lent was that it was something my Catholic friends did, and I judged them as hypocrites for having visible ashes on their foreheads and being open about their Lenten disciplines. After all, Jesus said to do our good deeds in private, right? My grandmother liked to refer to that idea while telling us, her family, about the good deeds she had secretly done. I never brought up that it was no longer a secret once she told us!I think there is something to sharing our intentions for spiritual growth. The electronic age sometimes makes it seem impersonal, but there is community here, both with people I know and, perhaps, some I do not.

So, this Lent, I am naming my 2 intentions:
1) Read the daily lectionary passages using this schedule, based on the Revised Common Lectionary.
2) Write a blog reflection twice a week. (I did not fulfill this intention, but I did take time to write and reflect every week)

My hope is that these practices will be life-giving and centering, and that they will help bring some focus and integration to my rather scattered life. May it be so.

If you are a Christian, what are your Lenten intentions this year? Blessings be upon you, dear friends, in whatever spiritual and physical season you find yourself.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A season of divorce, a life of salvation

Seven years ago, I went through two divorces. The first, from the brand of Christianity of my childhood. The second, from a man. The seven years since then have been a journey into wholeness, into salvation.

This Friday would have been my 10th wedding anniversary. I got married at 22, right out of college, believing that love and faith would overcome all challenges. I joined my husband in Boston, where he was in seminary. Our marriage had many ups, more downs, and less than 3 years in, it ended in a lot of hurt and isolation and confusion. I will probably never fully have "closure," because there is likely to be no reconciliation between the two of us.

I was raised believing that divorce is a sin - that nothing short of extramarital affairs justifies divorce in God's eyes - isn't that what Jesus said? I thought it would never happen to me. My parents separated when I was young, but they got back together within a year. I knew others whose parents were divorced, as were some of my extended family, but mostly, in my world, a woman and a man got married and they never split up, unless one person cheated, and even then sometimes there was forgiveness and they stayed together. Divorce was not in my vocabulary.

Shortly before my marriage ended, I went through a different kind of divorce - I left the denomination of my childhood (it was actually a joint decision for both my husband and me). Like my marriage, my relationship with my childhood faith tradition left me with both gifts and scars. Ultimately, it was not a place where I could live into what I knew to be a call to ordained ministry.

Just as marriage is a covenant relationship, so is our covenant with a faith community. Two divorces at once was a lot to handle. I hadn't yet processed the first divorce before hurtling into the second one. I don't know if one was harder than the other. And again, just as I had always known that ending a legal marriage was a sin, so was leaving the church that claimed to have a monopoly on salvation.

When my marriage ended, a friend told me, "this is where every conservative and fundamentalist bone in your body is going to cry out." He was right. Not divorce! Not me! It is a sin, a grave sin! But looking back now, 7 years later, I think that both of those divorces helped make possible my salvation.

Growing up, salvation had primarily to do with what happens to us after we die. As in, if you are driving home tonight and you die in a car accident, do you know, with certainty, whether you will go to heaven or hell? Don't you want to have assurance of salvation? And then the even more troubling question - what if you look at someone with lust, or think a hateful thought, or some other heinous "sin" right before you die? If you don't have a chance to repent, then will God forgive you, or are you doomed to hell? So of course I wanted to be sure, and was baptized, although unlike many of my peers, I didn't feel the need to repeat that baptism, just to make sure I was truly saved.

Seven years later, I don't see salvation that way. My season of divorce, along with other life experiences and relationships, took every bone in my fundamentalist body, made them rise up and cry out and seek a healing balm, a balm that would make me whole. And that is where I found salvation - wholeness. Suddenly sin takes on an entirely different meaning, too. Divorce, isolation, family tensions, hurt friendships, hunger, fear, poverty, pollution, all are symptoms of our brokenness, our need for a healing balm, for salvation.

It's another of those great paradoxes that point to the mystery of grace and truth and love - that our symptoms of sin, of brokenness, are often the very things that can lead us to salvation. I can say with certainty that divorce - times two - opened a new world to me, in which I seek to live into heaven - a place of peace, and love, and hope, and understanding, and joy, and justice, and wholeness - right here and now.

This has been and continues to be my salvation.