Wednesday, November 25, 2015

What Not to Talk About at Thanksgiving

It’s going to happen. 

They will will be brought up. 



And this year, in light of current events, the two seem more connected than when we set the table this time last year. 

While many suggest bypassing the twin topics in favor of attempts to recapture the Norman Rockwell portrait of a family at Thanksgiving, avoidance of controversial matters rarely results in harmony.  Avoidance certainly will not lead to progress and resolution. 

So talk about it. Talk about Syria. Talk about #BlackLivesMatter. Talk about Paris, Baghdad, Beirut, Nigeria, and Mali. Talk about the real threats of terrorism.  Talk about religious extremism- and include Christianity in the discussion.  Talk about presidential candidates. Talk about refugees. Talk about the violence plaguing our nation and world around us. Talk about religion. Talk about politics.

Talk about family. Talk about Advent and Christmas. Talk about the time you burned the turkey and had to order out. Talk about gratitude and grace. 

And if the conversation turns ugly, talk about forgiveness. 

But don’t talk about absolutes. Don’t talk about certainty. Don’t talk about your convictions without leaving room for your family member, who is about to hand you the sweet potatoes, being given equal space to be heard. Don’t talk about the one who just passed the stuffing in a way that minimizes, ostracizes, and alienates their perspective.

No matter how wrong they may (seem) to be.

After all, polarization and dismissal rarely (if ever) move any conversation forward or change anyone's mind. 

So this Thanksgiving, talk about the awkward and uncomfortable.  Talk about the pertinent issues of the day.  They’re on all of our minds. But talk about these matters in a way that models grace and peace. And be thankful you can gather around a table and truly talk. Many cannot.  Many will not. 

This may be a good place to begin your Thanksgiving prayer. 

Then talk about how, in the year ahead, we can find common ground as we love our neighbors as ourselves.  No matter how near or far they may be. 

But don’t talk about avoidance.  The brokenness of our world needs more people willing to work through disagreements and move the conversation forward. 

And in these moments, we can all be truly grateful. 

A Great Placemat from 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

What Does Your Ideal Church Look Like? Brief Musings on a Recent PCUSA Survey

“What does your ideal church look like?” 

This was the question posed by a recent survey put out by national leadership of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly. The intention is to engage a broad audience of Presbyterians and otherwise in conversations about denominational identity, structure, and mission.  For this, I and many others are deeply grateful. 

I have wrestled with this question (and others in the survey) a lot over the past few days.  It’s a good question.  It’s a faithful question.  It’s a pertinent question in an age of decline and perceived irrelevance for many mainline denominations. Nevertheless, it’s a difficult question. We know what kind of church we don’t want to be.  We know what kind of church does not "work” in the twenty-first century.  Yet, when the question is framed with possibility over cynicism, opportunity over angst, responses are not as easily nuanced. 

Maybe that’s because we are more comfortable swimming in the confined waters of criticism versus the open waters of creativity and hope.  We are possibly more familiar with dead-end despair and rhetoric about death, dying, and bleak futures at best than anything that suggests God is not quite done with us yet. 

This summer, the lectionary journeyed through 1 Samuel.  There I found unexpected institutional and ecclesial solidarity in the aged prophet who lamented the end of King Saul’s reign. The supposed glory days of the first national leader of Israel were over and uncertainty about what and who and where and when Samuel would anoint a new king weighed heavy on the prophet.  Amidst the grief and angst, God spoke:
“How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out…” (1 Sam 16:1)
Variations of these words have echoed throughout history, as God’s people have navigated cultural, political, and ecclesial evolutions for the sake of God’s mission in and for the world.  And with each passing era, the God who is unafraid of change asks a similar question:

How long, Church, will you grieve the end of what once was? Fill your horn with oil and set out...

But where to? That’s the million dollar question. 

So back to 1 Samuel.

The invitation of God was for Samuel to move beyond lament and venture to Bethlehem and the house of Jesse.  There, reminiscent of a playground draft, seven of Jesse’s boys are lined up eager to be selected and named God’s anointed one. 

Frankly, most of us would have assumed an adequate selection from the initial candidates.  We would have likely noticed their leadership skills, entrepreneurial edge, and charisma perfect for navigating the emerging future for God’s people. Some of them may have looked and sounded a lot like Saul in his hay day. Ah, familiarity.  So, like Samuel, we would have been ready and willing to sprinkle some of that oil on any of their privileged heads.  

But God had other visions and dreams.  God was not looking to duplicate the past but launch a new present and alternative future. God dared Samuel not merely to look for a new king but really to notice a new kind of anointing about to unfold. So God speaks, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, his resume and successful church growth strategies, his productive stewardship campaigns and fluency in polity and governmental structures.  Do not prioritize his charm, flashy references, and advanced degrees because I have rejected those priorities; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart." (1 Sam 16:7; a bit of a paraphrase...)

So after Jesse names each of his sons, none who have been called, Samuel asks if there are any others. 

Rather than naming the only remaining possibility, Jesse points to the fields and in the direction of his youngest. There, among the sheep and on the fringe of his own family, was God’s anointed one. God’s future rested in one frequently unnoticed and unworthy of being mentioned by name. 

So, what does the ideal church look like? Probably better asked, where will we find God's anointing presence? 

If we consider stories like this, the “ideal" church of the present-future exists in the fields and among the unnoticed shepherds on the fringes of society. God calls us to discover the Spirit's anointing beyond the seven sons representative of faded and privileged pasts and in those whose voices have for far-too-long been dismissed as irrelevant and unworthy of consideration.  

We must listen to those who neither give two rips about or did not grow up with old systems, institutional language, and polity once prized as hallmark of our tradition.  

We must be willing to change our rhetoric and adapt the way we conduct business in the church so those who do not have ancestry in all things Presbyterian can understand. 

We must explore intentional means to engage younger generations whose time, schedules, families, and careers look different than those of generations past, posing new hurdles for serving in leadership capacities. 

We are called to look to the church in developing nations not merely as deposits for our charitable contributions, but as critical conversation partners and primary educators on pertinent matters of the church as an organized and sent community.  After all, the face of Christianity is no longer (if it ever was) American. 

We are nudged to listen to the voices of our sisters and brothers of diverse ethnic and cultural heritages, woven into creative expressions of faith, worship, and neighborhood ministries. Even more, we must leverage related leaders to positions of influence, innovation, and executive significance.

We must elevate the voices of children and youth.  If they cannot participate in and share the mission and identity of the church, does anything we really do matter at all?

We must look to the small churches in our networks, mid-councils, and synods, aware many have been innovative since their inception. Creativity and missional engagement have been critical to their theological identity and organizational survival even before it was trendy.  

We must be willing to gather in spaces beyond church campuses so those who would never set foot within a sanctuary or education wing of our buildings can be a part of our community and formative conversations about faith and public theology.

We must ask a whole lot of questions and include our neighbors in these inquiries.

We must be willing to try and fail and try again.  One thing we cannot do- remain in our grief about what once was. We cannot afford attempts to reboot an old system. That’s not ideal. 

So back to the question: What does your ideal church look like?

I’m not completely sure, but I’m asking around. It probably doesn’t look the same for anybody anymore. Nevertheless, I am finding great joy and hope in new conversation partners who call the fields and fringe their home. For this is where God's Spirit is awakening a hopeful, sustainable, faithful, redemptive, localized, and anointed future for the Church and its witness in the world. 

Maybe that’s how I should have responded to the question on the survey...

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Pilgrimage to the Grotto and a Wet Blanket on Papal Visit: Shared Knots that Need to Be Undone

Yesterday morning, I visited the Knotted Grotto outside the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.  Our Presbytery, given the shared value of personal, corporate, and ecumenical prayers, participated in the project by sending in strips of written petitions to be woven into the sacred installation. 

I am sure the one from our family is located at the very top and out of reach.  Read more about the project here. 

The visit was quite overwhelming.  As I grabbed handfuls of prayers and felt strips of cloth graze my shoulders with each cool breeze, I was moved to tears. 

Prayers to overcome addiction.

Prayers to be delivered from infertility.

Prayers for those battling cancer.

Prayers for peace in war-torn nations. 

Prayers for families.

Prayers for enemies. 

Prayers of hope.

Prayers of lament.

Prayers of confession.

Prayers of thanksgiving.

Prayers in English.

Prayers in Spanish.

Prayers in Latin.

Prayers in Hebrew.

And as I walked in, around, and through the grotto, I lifted a “Presbyterian” prayer for the Catholic Church.

It is no secret, I am fond of much of Pope Francis’ words and witness, especially as he elevates the poor and all who dwell on the periphery.  Pope Francis, as a Jesuit priest, continues to awaken our theo-political conscience and religious rhetoric to the needs of the those so frequently dismissed, ignored, and oppressed.

This is indeed Good News. 

When invited to congress, the Pontiff chose to evoke the names of Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton, each who shared an ethic of justice and compassion rooted in Christian theology- more Good News. 

When Francis preached in both New York and Philadelphia, he reminded us God is in the midst of our cities and dared us to consider our personal call and responsibility within the mission of God. The Pope even challenged the Church to be willing to move beyond the mere maintenance of old institutional structures and systems.

Good News.

When he addressed the United Nations, Francis elevated the value of the planet and proclaimed, “war is the negation of all rights and a dramatic assault on the environment. If we want true integral human development for all, we must work tirelessly to avoid war between nations and between peoples.” 

Good News.

As he stood on Independence Mall, Pope Francis confronted globalization’s temptation to promote uniformity at the expense of cultural diversity critical to our humanity.   

Again, Good News.

I could go on...

Yet, while I want to be a boisterous Presby fan of the Pontifex, there is a bit of a wet blanket draped around pertinent public speeches in front of political figures and landmarks, televised and spontaneous embraces of marginalized persons, and broadcast visits to the incarcerated. There are shadows cast upon the Pope’s concern for those he frequently labels as “on the periphery," reminders that he is so very human.

When the Pope parades throughout our streets, small businesses are left with no choice but to close and absorb significant blows to profit margins; the homeless are driven out of the parkway to accommodate the festivities; social service agencies are shut down; nearby churches (mostly small) are closed for worship and unlikely to recoup financial offerings they depend upon to pay their bills and sustain their ministries.

Women still do not, and likely will not, have equal opportunity within the Church. The Pope has reminded us of this before. 

While commenting, "who am I to judge?," the LGBTQ community are not equally included in conversations about marriage and the family. 

There are infinite and important questions- justice questions- swirling around the Vatican’s (mis)handling of clerical child abuse. 

And moments after I walked out of the grotto, I read two articles about a supposed secret meeting with Kim Davis, the Kentucky County Clerk who conscientiously objected to issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples and subsequently imprisoned.  One article considers this as a cloud over the papal visit; the other cautions us of the potential publicity stunt pulled by Davis supporters and representatives

What happened to the Good News?

Trust me, I wish I could simply walk in and out of the grotto with nothing but optimism and warm feelings about the Pope’s recent visit.  But there are just too many knots woven around the religious institution and papal office that need to be undone. These issues and more cause me great pause.

Maybe that’s why I am a Presbyterian Minister.

But alas, our denomination and institutional leaders have a fair share of knots, too.  Good Lord, I have even more knots. 

This may call for a second visit to the grotto. 

There I will offer prayers for grace, humble pleas that my ordained work, missional witness, and advocacy for those on the periphery of our neighborhoods, nation, and world will not be as scrutinized as those of the Pontiff.  After all, my resume as an advocate and activist will pail in comparison to the leader of over 1 billion of my Catholic sisters and brothers.  I will also lift prayers on behalf of my church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), asking for God’s mercy in the midst of the tangled webs we have woven and the ways we have missed the mark as proclaimers of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

In my return to the grotto, I will also pray for Pope Francis, grateful for the Good News he continues to offer the world, aware he is praying for us Presbyterians, too. 

Maybe this is the way forward for all of us as we work towards the reconciliation of a very knotted world.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Who Do We Say Jesus Is? Reflections on 9/11 and Defining Questions for a Generation in Angst

There are particular moments that define a generation. For our generation, September 11th was that defining moment. We remember where we were. We remember where our loved ones were.  We remember the sense of paralysis as we saw images of two towers bellowing smoke eventually crumble on live television.  We remember the tears, the fears, and the immediate uncertainty about anything and everything. 

We knew life would never again be the same. 

September 11th reminded us no people, culture, nation, or religious community is immune to tragedy, loss, and infringements on our safety and security. 

September 11th birthed an increase in nationalistic zeal, which many call patriotism. 

September 11th planted fertile seeds for new wars hell bent on ending terrorism. 

September 11th fostered a rise in racial-ethnic profiling, deeming suspicious persons whose heritage and complexion originates from a particular part of the world.

September 11th also unified a people around phrases symbolic of a longing for freedom and justice for all…at least all of "us."

"Let’s roll."

"Never forget."

September 11th also hallowed grounds in Manhattan, Pennsylvania, and Washington. D.C.  Monuments have been constructed and annual memorial services are hosted as means to ensure we indeed never forget what took place that Tuesday morning 14 years ago. 

And as I think back to September 11th, 2001, I also remember September 16th.  

On the first Sunday after the attacks, there was doubtful to have been a single empty sanctuary.  Churches were packed as many, even the most cynical citizens, crammed into pews looking for hope, healing, comfort, and a sense of community as we wrestled with all that had transpired only a few days earlier.  

And I wonder, what was preached? How was the biblical story illustrated? How did preachers respond to spoken and unspoken questions sure to be shared by congregants and visitors alike? 

Who did the church say Jesus was in light of the tragic events of September 11, 2001? Who do we say Jesus is fourteen years later? 

This Sunday’s lectionary text nudges us to ask that very question:
"Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, 'Who do people say that I am?'  And they answered him, 'John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.' He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?' Peter answered him, 'You are the Messiah.' And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him." (Mark 8:27-30)
Caesarea Philippi was the northernmost edge of ancient Palestine and under Roman control. In this Hellenistic city, monuments and memorials were everywhere. Familiar symbols, well known to the readers of Mark’s gospel, littered the landscape and underscored the socio-political narrative of the day. Temples were constructed and political leaders immortalized as gods.  No doubt, many saw these symbols and also thought of the pain caused by the very people and events they represented. They didn't forget.

It was in these villages of Caesarea Philippi where Jesus dared to ask his most poignant questions:

“Who do people say that I am?….Who do you say that I am?"

After Messianic declarations by Jesus’ disciples, the prophetic Son of God began to “teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering.” (Mk 8:31).

Jesus pointed the faithful (and often faithless) towards suffering. Unlike those manifested throughout the empire, Jesus identified with those who suffered and laid in the wake of oppression and injustice.  Jesus, much to the chagrin of Peter, invited them to do and be the same, "Get behind me..."

Nearly two millennia later, Jesus’ questions still linger and challenge those of us who would like to identify ourselves as disciples.  Whether in the shadows of Roman temples and oppressive emperors, collapsed towers by way of modern terror, or political propaganda set up on social media and cable news networks, these questions are still our questions.  Who do the people say Jesus is? Who do we say Jesus is?

In light of Syrian refugees fleeing genocide and civil war, whose children wash up on neighboring shores, who do we say Jesus is? 

In light of movements like #blacklivesmatter, who do we say Jesus is? 

In light of increased gun violence and shootings in schools, malls, movie theaters, and on the site of live news broadcasts, who do we say Jesus is?

In light of debates about marriage equality, who do we say Jesus is? 

In light of pervasive poverty in cities and communities near and far, who do we say Jesus is? 

In light of presidential candidates who profess a particular brand of faith, who do we say Jesus is?

In light of immigration and threats of deportation by political campaigners, who do we say Jesus is? 

In light of negotiations with foreign powers and beholders of nuclear weapons, who do we say Jesus is?

In light of broken education systems that create pipelines to even more broken prison systems, who do we say Jesus is?  

In light of September 11th, who do we say Jesus is? 

Our response to these questions must not be taken lightly. These are defining questions for our generation.  Our responses to these questions will determine whether we truly have heard Jesus’ call to get behind him and follow as disciples who identify with the suffering among, around, and beyond us. After all, we are called to carry our cross as those who work for the liberty and justice of those marginalized by us all. 

This, too, we must never forget.