The Heart of the Matter
During this COVID outbreak, I frequently call to check in with Trinity’s older members who are quarantining. This week, I spoke with a retired pastor who attends Trinity. I always enjoy talking with Dale. Perhaps he’d told me before, but I’d forgotten, that his older sister is also a retired pastor. In her mid-90’s, I remarked to him that she must have been quite the trend-setter. Indeed, he confirmed that she faced much opposition and an uphill battle from the moment she verbalized her ministry call… which would have been in the 1950’s! Women weren’t supposed to be ministers in the 1950’s. It was a man’s job. God called men, right? After all, the New Testament tells women to be silent in church.
Fortunately, today, women are welcomed as pastoral leaders in many Christian denominations and churches. Welcomed because people understand that 21st century American culture is very different from the ancient Mediterranean world. We recognize that women are not property, nor are they inferior to men.
To truly live according to scripture, we need to understand scripture. To understand scripture, we need to understand the differences between our cultures. A great deal of our New Testament epistles or letters contain contextual theology, an early evangelist’s instruction/responses to people asking questions or facing challenges specific to their lived experiences and context. If we do not understand the intersection of culture and theology, we’ll make inappropriate applications that don’t fit our cultural experiences and context. Worse yet, they may cause spiritual pain and harm to those whom God loves.
This Monday, July 20, is our monthly Fusion gathering at Trinity. The speaker will be Jason Conner. Jason arrived at Trinity two weeks before COVID shut-down. I’d say I’m amazed he didn’t give up on us (because he’s never seen our sanctuary with more than 45 people in it!), but it’s become pretty clear to me that Jason doesn’t give up easily. A gay man, he’s faced a lot of rejection and judgment from churches over the years. Yet, he has such a deep love for Christ and the Church that he has endured, wisely recognizing that God is more welcoming than many who claim to represent God.
I invite you to come and hear Jason’s inspiring story this Monday, July 20, at 6 p.m. on Trinity’s south lawn.
Fusion is a once-monthly gathering offering an alternative experience in Christian community. It’s designed for individuals who might describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious” and as seeking a sense of community, but may not be attracted to traditional, or even contemporary, church worship services.
Fusion features a speaker sharing a personal story based upon a specific topic and a bible (sacred) story connected to their own experiences. At the conclusion of the speaker’s narrative, participants are invited to join in “table talk” to share their personal stories and perspective in a facilitated, small group setting. Fusion concludes with a free meal. You are invited to connect, discover and grow within this community.
Can’t physically make it to Fusion? It’s live streamed on our Fusion Facebook page.
[Check out my new Twenty at Twilight weekly video post. Twenty at Twilight airs each Wednesday from 8:40 to 9:00 p.m. It is a quiet, reflective way to end the day praying the scripture. View on Trinity’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/TrinityUMC509 This week’s post: https://www.facebook.com/TrinityUMC509/videos/3109484055805564
Also, check out my new book Companions on the Journey: Foundational Spiritual Practices available through Wipf and Stock (https://wipfandstock.com/companions-on-the-journey.html) or contact me directly for a signed, discounted copy.
Contact me regarding spiritual direction at email@example.com]
A while back, on news coverage of the protests, I saw a young girl holding a sign. It simply said, “Be kind.” Simple. Basic. Yet so important. Kindness and gentleness seem to be at a shortage in our culture these days. And, although we might think that we all should have learned how to do it in kindergarten, perhaps a refresher, updated for our current culture and context, might be helpful. I’d like to come up with a clever “Top Ten” list in true David Letterman fashion. But, our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. So, I think I can boil it down to three….
- Wear a mask. I recognize that there may be people who, because of a medical or mental health condition, find this difficult. And, I think we need to show some compassion when this is truly the case. But don’t just shed the mask because you don’t like it, it messes up your makeup, or – worst of all – you think it’s a political statement. It’s not. It’s more of a “golden rule statement.” In our gospels, Jesus continually calls his followers to love others, even to the point of laying down our lives as he did. The science doesn’t lie. Masks help prevent spread of infection. When I consider needing to sacrifice my life for someone else’s well-being (the true gospel call), something as basic as wearing a mask feels like I am actually getting off pretty easy.
- Don’t ask people how they are unless you mean it. A lot of people right now are feeling frightened, anxious, overwhelmed, confused, and frustrated. They need someone to talk to. The only thing worse than no one to talk to is someone who pretends to care and doesn’t. When you ask how someone is, really listen to their reply. If you sense the emotions I’ve listed above, invite them to talk more about their feelings. Listen with the ear of your heart, as St Benedict would say. Listening is the ultimate expression of hospitality and welcome. And, if what you hear worries you, offer to help them find a qualified professional to talk with.
- Show respect and open up dialogue with people who are nothing like you. Our nation has become so divided and so many of us have locked ourselves up in our own echo chambers. That perpetuates the cycle of misunderstanding, mistrust, and – ultimately – violence. Invite others to share their stories, their experiences with you and – for the love of God (literally!) – don’t critique or diminish their experience. Even if you vehemently disagree, don’t use their openness as a doorway to disagreement. If you disagree, perhaps say something like, “It’s hard for me to understand that perspective, but I appreciate you sharing it with me.” And, don’t offer your own perspective, unless they ask for it. The goal of listening is understanding and empathy. Listening isn’t a tool to get our own rhetorical foot in the door.
And the world will be a much better place for all of us.
Click on the link below for my vlog for Tuesday of Holy Week. Have a blessed week. In these dark days, we are never alone. Christ walks with us.
How to Suffer Like a Christian
At Trinity we’ve been doing a Lenten study based on the book Transforming Our Painful Emotions by Evelyn and James Whitehead. In the book, the authors remind us that negative emotions aren’t a bad thing. They are our bodies’ invitation to explore what is going wrong in our lives. When we face our emotions and sit with them, we can peel back the layers to see what is really happening deep within us.
Right now many of us are experiencing a mixture of negative emotions:
- Fear as we watch the COVID death toll daily mount,
- Loneliness as we follow social distancing rules and stay at home orders
- Anger that this seemed to catch our nation unaware and so poorly prepared
- Shame that perhaps we should have been better prepared personally (Why did I let myself run out of toilet paper? Why don’t I have a functioning thermometer? Why didn’t I put more into my savings account?)
- And of course, grief…
I now walk through my church sanctuary about once a week. Last week as I walked through, I caught myself saying right out loud (not that it mattered because no one was there!), “I miss you.” It’s not just its breath-taking beauty – the stained glass windows and exquisite woodwork. I miss what it symbolizes for me. I can imagine people in their usual pews and see myself scurrying around before church to catch up with members, greet new visitors and review last minute service details with musicians and sound people. (Especially I miss seeing the kids race around.)
What about your daily, everyday life do you miss most right now? What are you grieving the loss of… even if that loss is temporary? In the book, the Whiteheads talk about steps in processing our grief:
- Accepting our loss
- Respecting our pain
- Creating cherished memories, and
- Finding hope for the journey ahead
But how do we do that? Well, one of the ways we can process our grief as people of faith is through lament. The Book of Psalms contains many lament psalms. A lament psalm is a ritual through which we can give voice to our grief. These psalms allow us to bring our distress before God, praying that what we lost might be honored and transformed.
In the sermon for this week (check out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQWdjf6wVBI&t=452s), I remind us that Jesus’ words from the cross in Matthew’s gospel (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) are the opening words of Psalm 22, a lament psalm.
This week I want to invite you to process some of the grief and loss you have experienced through this current COVID crisis by writing you own lament psalm. And, you are even invited to share it with others through Trinity’s website (www.trinitylafayette.org). Below is the lament psalm literary structure.
STRUCTURE OF A LAMENT PSALM
- Intimate address – such as “My God” or “Jesus, my Friend.” An intimate address that reveals your relationship with God. Think of this as establishing that intimacy heard in the gospel hymn, “Precious Lord, take my hand…”
- Complaint – make known to God what upsets you in detail. Don’t be reluctant to engage in overstatement or hyperbole. Tell God how this virus is impacting your relationships, your mental and physical health, your employment, your financial stability.
- Demand God’s Help – The psalmists weren’t reluctant to demand that God do something. They were too desperate to be polite and reasonable.
- Appeal to God’s Honor – the psalmists reminded God that this was personal. Their message was “If I belong to you, God, and you don’t help me, what will people think of you?”
- Revenge on / Defeat of One’s Enemies – COVID-19 is an enemy threatening us. Many of spoken of it like a war we are waging. What do you wish God would do to this enemy? Personify this virus; create your own scenario of how you wish God would attack it.
- Call to Praise: after pouring out your soul…
- be still,
- rest, and then…
- Remember God’s faithfulness to you; God’s care for you and others.
- Express your confidence in God and invite others to join you in praising God
Check out my new book, Companions on the Journey: Foundational Spiritual Practices at https://wipfandstock.com/companions-on-the-journey.html or view links on my home page
Take a Deep Breath
This Sunday is Pastry with the Pastor at http://www.trinitylafayette.org It’s an event designed for people who are new to Trinity, new to church, want to find ways to engage, or just have questions.
Here at Trinity, I’ve begun to open these events with the second verse from Ecclesiastes which, in English, often reads, “Vanity of vanities… All is vanity.” In English, that might seem like an odd choice. But it is – as sometimes occurs with scripture – just a victim of bad translation. The Hebrew word there is hebel. It’s a word that can mean a puff of air, a breath, or a vapor. With those words, the writer reminds us that life and the things of this world can be fleeting. Seasons come and go; flowers grow, blossom, and wither.
But there’s more to it than that. Every day, more times than we can count, we breathe in and breathe out. And, unless we have a medical condition, we generally don’t even think about it. Yet, without that constant, automatic exchange of oxygen in and carbon dioxide out, our lives would end. So the fact that each breath is fleeting doesn’t diminish its value. In fact, things like deep breathing can lower blood pressure, anxiety, and provide a host of long-term health benefits.
I pastor in a university community in a medium-sized city. A big adjustment has been that people come and go on a pretty frequent basis. Sometimes, it’s professionally discouraging and personally sad. Just this summer, we lost an amazing young couple, Evan and Morgan, after she completed her Masters. They moved to Alaska, a time of adventure in their lives. We all rejoiced at their new adventure, but also grieved that they are no longer with us on a regular basis. They served in so many ways and brought joy and energy to every situation.
Sometimes people are reluctant to plug in to a church because they’re not sure they’re ready to become members; they’re not sure it’s the “right” church for them; they’re not sure they want to be tied down or make a commitment; they don’t expect to be around for long. That’s when I think of that word hebel. Just because something – or someone! – is fleeting does not diminish their value and their worth. My church will be forever richer and blessed for the 20+ months Morgan and Evan spent with us.
We all have a chance to offer our best to one another, every day, right where we are. If we waste time worrying about how long we’ll be in one place, how much we want to commit, how hard it will be to break away, etc., we’ll never get around to doing anything.
Is there a place in your life where you’re hanging back, afraid to jump in and commit? Just give it a try. Life really is too short to hold back on offering our best to others in whatever time and space we share with them.
Interested in finding ways to serve others through the ministries and events at Trinity? Join us for Pastry with the Pastor this Sunday, October 6, at 9:15 a.m. in the church’s GREAT Room.
Speaking Up and Speaking Out
I still have a scar on my forehead from a fall I took in the first grade. It was recess and my class was the first to hit the playground. I was really tiny but I found someone to lift me up so I could grab the Maypole (if you don’t know what it is, Google “Maypole playground equipment” for a pic). But within moments other classes poured out on the playground and some big kids grabbed hold of the Maypole. With their weight and momentum, before I knew it, my feet were flying through the air and my little arms could hardly hold on. That’s when I made a really poor decision. I let go, tumbling to the asphalt and splitting my forehead open. To this day, I wonder, why didn’t I say anything? As best I can recall, I said nothing to try and get the big kids to stop and let me down from the Maypole. Did I think they just wouldn’t listen to me because I was so small and young?
It’s important for people to have a voice. To have a voice means we can express our needs and longings to others. Our voice matters.
In the ancient Middle Eastern world, people associated “zones” of the body with particular human activities. The ears and mouth formed one “zone”… which makes sense. For that reason, it’s not uncommon to read of Jesus healing someone who is both deaf and mute. The “zone” of mouth and ears is associated with listening and responding… the building blocks of relationship. While today cell phones and other technology allow us to engage with the deaf or mute, there would have been no such options in the ancient world. When Jesus heals those who are deaf and mute, it symbolizes much more than a restoration of hearing and speaking. It provides restoration of relationship; they are restored to their social place or context. They are given back their voice.
Join us at Fusion (https://www.facebook.com/TrinityFusion/, http://www.trinitylafayette.org/fusion.html) Monday, August 19 at 6 p.m. in the Great Room when our guest story teller will be Indiana State Representative Chris Campbell who will share the story of her call to serve her community and be their voice so they can be heard.
Trinity Fusion is a space to bring you and your story so that, together, we can connect, discover and grow.
Right now, I’m on sabbatical… which means I get to pop in and out of whatever church I want whenever I want. It’s a weird feeling; being a “religion consumer.”
As a pastor, people “looking for a church” sometimes share with me their process. Often, each church gets one shot. (Church leaders, if you have one shot, let’s hope you can bring you’re “A Game” that morning and that nothing “human” happened. You know, like you had insomnia the night before or one of your kids was sick and kept you up all night or your organist called one hour before worship to tell you she was in the ER with her sick kid… cause then you may be assessed as low-energy or unfocused and crossed off the list.)
Many times people are looking for a church made up of one specific demographic (read here for example: “I want a large group of middle-schoolers because my kid is in middle-school). I get it. Life is a lot easier when the people around us look like us, think like us, act like us, value what we value. It definitely makes parenting easier. It makes life easier. No worries about contradiction and complexity.
But here’s the thing: Jesus didn’t hang out with people just like him. Jesus, holy as he was, hung out with people who were judged and rejected by the religious establishment.
One of the things I’m discovering during my sabbatical is this: that I miss the church I pastor even though it’s anything but simple. It’s full of complexity with people whose lives are filled with challenges.
So here’s some interesting data (since I’m a “data geek”): Statistically, young people are far more likely to stick with church through their adult years if their adolescent church experience is the opposite of what most families look for, i.e. a church with tons of other kids that provides all of the whistles and bells that put the spotlight on their interests. Now, I’m not suggesting we make the gospel (or church) boring for anyone of any age. Jesus kept things lively for sure. But when young people grow up in a church where they are mostly segregated, i.e. most of their interactions are with other youth or with adults whose passion is to serve them (and not to mention people who are “like them” economically, socially, racially/ethnically, even theologically), they reach their adult years expecting that is how Church “works.” Then, they join a church committee or leadership team as an adult and experience someone disagreeing with them and not supporting their idea and they’re out, they’re done. Note: I also recognize that, sometimes, these are just adults being contrary and fearful and resisting change. But sometimes the mere differing of opinions – a very normal human thing – becomes more than they can bear and “they’re out.”
But, going back to my prior paragraph and putting it in simple terms, I’d like to suggest that Church, discipleship and compassion aren’t really things you learn about; stuff you’re taught. Rather, Church, discipleship and compassion are something you “live/mature into,” something you come to comprehend because you are experiencing it.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a church that provides you with a great softball team, coffee shop, bookstore, etc. But the bigger, more important question is this: does your church provide you with a chance to learn how to see the presence of Jesus in people that are not “like you”; people who may even annoy you, offend you, or make you feel uncomfortable; people whose political or theological views may be very different from your own. It’s such an easier and personally gratifying thing to go serve a meal at a soup kitchen in a nearby city or build a handicap ramp for someone in rural Appalachia or go on a mission to a poor African or Central American country. And then you get to return home, put your feet up, relax, feel that you’ve “accomplished something” (one might even say fixed something), and get on with your life.
But if your church is comprised of people in addiction recovery, people struggling with mental health disorders (and struggling to navigate the healthcare gauntlet), those living in poverty, or struggling to discern their gender identity in a culture that prizes conformity over honest discernment, you’re never “done.” People are people, not projects, and there’s no simple fix for the challenges that any of us face. (Note that “any of us” is in italics because being in a church where people acknowledge their own struggles makes it harder to hide your own and pretend they don’t exist.) Church is about relationships; not easy, simple, superficial relationships but real relationships that demand something of us and challenge our stereotypes and assumptions. The ministry of Jesus was all about relationships. Jesus engaged with people in open, honest and authentic ways. He wasn’t afraid to talk about anything.
One of the most interesting features of our gospels – especially the gospel of Mark – is that Jesus spent more time “fixing” the mindsets of the disciples than he did “correcting” the sins and shortcomings of the people in the crowds that followed him. (Not to mention how frustrated Jesus was with the “religious establishment”… which, I might note, is now US!)
(I know this blog is getting long so thanks for hanging in there with me!)
But here’s what I notice about many churches and Christians today: for as much as we talk about valuing diversity and issues of justice, many of us would prefer that kind of church to be a romantic notion/fantasy and not the reality we live in because a truly diverse church is messy and challenging.
And yet, if we can find the courage to step into that messiness, we – incredibly – discover what Christianity is really all about: faith or trust. Because trust in Jesus isn’t about believing in Jesus’ existence or adhering to orthodox precepts. Trust in Jesus is about recognizing and accepting and even finding ease with the reality that there is quite a lot about the lives of others and our own lives that we can’t ultimately control or fix; but that’s okay because the love and grace of Jesus abides within us and among us and God’s abiding presence is really all we need.
Where Church is revealed as authentic Christ-centered community (as it is at my church), it is because we have learned to live from a place of trust in God’s grace and to honor the presence of the risen Christ in one another.
Put It In Writing Please
Have you ever wondered what the Church might be like today without the writings of Paul?
Across the centuries, I doubt anyone’s mail has been held in as high esteem as Paul’s. What I find most interesting is that Paul likely never imagined that his letter writing would be canonized. How could he have possibly guessed his letters would be elevated to the status of Scripture? Now, I’m not suggesting they shouldn’t be Scripture. But I am suggesting that we’d do well to remember that they started out as letters to particular faith communities – living in a particular time and place and dealing with some very specific challenges. With the exception of Romans, Paul wrote to congregations that he’d established and knew well. These were relational documents. It’s clear that sometimes he was writing to address specific questions they’d asked or settle disputes. Sometimes he’s writing because he’s heard through the apostolic grapevine that trouble is brewing and Paul wants to nip it in the bud. A lot of passion comes through in those letters. His letter to the Philippians is filled with gratitude and affection. His letter to the Galatians gives you that feeling of standing in the foyer of your house getting chewed out by your parents when you come home long past curfew without a good explanation.
A lot of the challenges facing the United Methodist Church today – and churches around the world and across the centuries for that matter – are a result of our failure to remember that these biblical epistles started out as someone’s mail. Paul’s letters weren’t just about theology; they were about community and how to live in community. Perhaps more than anything else, Paul’s letters can serve to remind us that the gospel (good news) is experienced at that nexus where the sacred story and our personal or communal stories intersect.
Bring you; bring your story to Fusion on Monday, April 15. Our speaker with be Allegra Smith sharing the story of her love of writing; how writing has been a way of her processing and working through problems; how she has built community through writing; and her experiences teaching others to write. This year’s Lenten artwork will also be on display.
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