Monday, September 23, 2013

Are You Willing? Youth Encounters with a Leper and Ordinary Opportunities to Love Your Neighbor

I am not willing to share a beverage with someone other than my wife and kids. This may have started as a kid and the visions of shards of whatever falling from my father's mustache into the preferred liquid to be consumed. Some call me a spit-phob as a result.

I am not willing to eat pickles. Actually, I take offense to the consumptive assumption that Americans prefer pickles on their chicken sandwich or burgers. Restaurants nationwide refuse to consider what the vinegar residue, i.e. pickle pee, does to the roll, waffle fries, and whatever else is on the purchased platter. Hint: ruined forever.

I am not willing to jeopardize the health and safety of my wife and kids.

I am not willing to text and drive.

I am certainly not willing to root for the New York Yankees regardless of who they play or if they are on my fantasy team.

And when I was in Honduras this past summer, when I looked over my shoulder and saw a teenage leper propped up against the wall of the cathedral as our youth were in conversation with some folks from the Micah Project, I was not the first to be willing to offer food and drink.

The high school youth were more willing than I. Actually, they were willing because one of the homeless youth, despite his lingering high from yellow glue, was more than willing to offer compassion and empathy.

I will never read Luke 5:12-16 the same again.


The story goes like this. A leper, accustomed to exclusion and isolation from people, community, religious hubs, and sacred practices, gets word about this Jesus whose message hinges on the marginalized and social outcastes. This religious teacher many called Messiah, went from town to town, village to village, and city to city breaking every social norm and religious taboo.

Would he be willing to outstretch his hand towards even a leper who had not known human contact and connection since his diagnosis?

Would the love of God, the kingdom of God, the dreams of God's healing from disease, oppression, exclusion, and constant rejection be extended to him?

"Jesus, if you are willing..."

"I am willing..."

Are we willing?

A large part of what it means to be called a disciple of Jesus is rooted in willingness. Willingness to follow. Willingness to try the impossible. Willingness to use your gifts, talents, resources, passions, and time for a greater cause than yourself. Willingness to fail. Willingness to love those the world has rejected. Willingness to have your eyes and ears opened to others the world has closed itself off to? Willingness to surrender all that you are to the dreams of God that are not only for you, but also and especially for the whole world.

Willingness to embrace the leper in your midst, and those just like him, whom Jesus considered on the A-list of his divine banquet.

But not all of us will have the chance to meet a leper like the one in Luke's narrative or our friend in the Honduras cathedral. This can easily become another means to dismiss these stories as though though they have nothing to say to us. But we encounter lepers every day.

Each day youth who walk into a school, which is more a less a village of teenagers, they encounter large numbers of their peers. And not everybody fits in; not everybody is welcome; not everybody feels as though they belong or they are valued by another.

There are lepers who sit in isolation from those who do belong, at those folding tables in the cafeteria. They may walk the hallways with head down, doubtful anyone is aware of their existence until they are bumped into by someone headed the opposite direction.

There are those who live across the street from all of us or a few houses down who do not fit the accepted image of cleanliness, lack the ideal body type, practice a stereotyped religious tradition, or have a history of struggles with mental health.

There are those who sit beside us on the train as we commute from the 'burbs to the city, others with whom we share an office or cubicle, and those we pass by on the streets as we walk from the train to that very office complex.

Are we willing to stretch out our hands of compassion in a way reflective of Jesus the Willing One?

We don't have to strive to be heroes. We just have to be willing.

"God's love for you and God's love for the larger world in need cannot be separated. God's longing to see you liberated for life tgar really is life can't be neatly pulled apart from God's longing to see the poor liberated for life that really is life. The two are inextricable. God's concern for the stuff of our lives, and God's concern for the lives of those who live on the margins, can never be neatly parsed...Can you see what great news it is that this serendipitous double liberation isn't something extra we do? We don't have to add lots more overwhelming activity to what we've already got going. Rasther, the regular stuff of our lives- the commute to work and the potlucks and home improvement projects and errans and play dates- are the exact places in which we express and experience God's love for a world in need."

---Margot Starbuck, Small Thing with Great Love: Adventures in Loving Your Neighbor

Are you willing... love your competitor on the local sports field? serve a meal to the new parents down the street? sit at that lunch table with those kids who eat alone? engage in a friendly conversation with the person one seat over on the train? invite the parent of the kids your kids are friends with to church on Sunday, or Wednesday, or any day?

...are you willing to go to Honduras, or Philly, or the borough down the road and learn about those who call the streets home and how you can be a part of their liberation?

Are we willing to see every day as an ordinary opportunity to outstretch our hands towards others and love our neighbor as ourself?

To follow Jesus is to be willing.

But this doesn't mean we have to eat pickles.

Thanks be to God.


Friday, September 13, 2013

Comparison as Joy's Thief and Parenting as My Christian Vocation

It's about 1:00 p.m. on Daddy Day (Fridays when my wife works and I do not) and here is what I have accomplished:

8:30 a.m. sat in the bathroom and attempted to coax my daughter to pee on potty

8:45 a.m. cleaned up puddle of pee on living room floor that never made it into potty

9:30 a.m. Watched The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything while cuddled on couch with the Twinado

9:45 a.m. Read several articles about justice and peacemaking efforts locally and globally by friends and colleagues after kids abandoned me on couch

10:30 a.m. Felt inadequate as changing two diapers in between articles seemingly paled in comparison to what I just read

11:00 a.m. Built an impressive Lego tower in basement (I let the kids help me)

11:15 a.m. Clipped my son's toenail that was falling off after dropping a rock on it a few weeks ago

11:30 a.m. Picked up where we left off on The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything

12:00 p.m. Made kids lunch and then attempted to do the dishes from last night

12:15 p.m. Cleaned up the water dripping from dining room table after my daughter knocked over flowers as a declaration that she was done with lunch

12:30 p.m. A dramatic reading of Green Eggs and Ham prior to putting kids down for a nap

1:00 p.m. Sat down for a cold cup of coffee I made this morning

The day is only half over and it is easy to wonder, have I really done anything of significance?

I read the other day a reference to Teddy Roosevelt's quote, "comparison is the thief of joy."*


In a world where everybody's life is public and we can read about everything everybody is doing on our Twitter feeds and Facebook pages, comparison is the great idol and demon of our day.

Our life is never quite good enough.

We are never doing enough.

Somebody is always better.

Someone is always out-serving, out-living, out-advocating, out-innovating, out-achieving, out-earning, out-adventuring, and out-cooking the most organic and well-balanced meal worthy of Instagram.

So cleaning up pee on the floor or microwaving chicken nuggets can make this youth pastor, blogger, dreamer, and wannabe advocate of justice and reconciliation feel as though I am not living up to some mythical ideal of who and what I should be.

Then I hear the grounded words of my wife, nothing matters more to us than caring for our kids.

I hear echoes of Scripture, "whatever your task, put yourselves into it as for the Lord and not your masters" (Colossians 3:23). [While the context is complicated and it may be difficult to compare my children as masters to Paul's charge to first-century Roman slaves, you get the sentiment.]

Whatever your task on whatever day and season of life, do as though God has called you to it.

My task on Fridays, and everyday for that matter, is to love my kids, play with my kids, serve my kids, teach my kids, clean-up after my kids, and treasure my kids as the gift God gave to my wife and me.

This gift is never to be taken for granted and deserves no comparison to what anybody else is doing, lest either of us be robbed of the joy and calling of parenting.**

I am a firm believer, although it is a challenge to remember, that to be a faithful, attentive, compassionate, humble, playful, and thoughtful parent is just as worthy of a calling as anything "heroic" I read about in magazines, books, blogs, and newsfeeds. In fact, unless I am committed to my calling as a dad, and a calling is exactly what it is, nothing else matters.

"I have no greater joy than this, to hear that my children are walking in the truth." (3 John 4)

So I am learning to stop comparing. I am attempting to quit pondering what else I could be doing. God will open those doors in due time.

I am beginning to see parenting, in all its joys and frustrations, as my greatest expression of Christian vocation.

Nothing matters more to me in life right now than raising my kids alongside my wife.

And after many prayers whispered and shouted to become a parent, thank God for Daddy Days!

Actually, I can't wait until they wake up so we can build another tower.

Well, maybe wait until I take a shower...


*One of my favorite musical duos, Over the Rhine, mentions this quote in an interview with Relevant Magazine. Karin Bergquist, female vocalist, has a tattoo of this quote hovering above a hummingbird. Pretty awesome!

**I say this empathetic to all those who long to be parents and for whatever reason have yet to be able to have children or have lost children. My prayers are lifted for those struggling through infertility, pursuing adoption, or who have medical diagnoses that have made child-bearing a faint dream at best. God struggles and weeps right alongside you...

Monday, September 9, 2013

Pastoral Prayer: Syria, Slavery, Improbable Plowshares, and a Whole Lot More..

A prayer written and spoken as a part of the worship liturgy yesterday at Westminster Presbyterian Church:

God of justice and peace, in the very beginning your spirit hovered over the waters of chaos and confusion and birthed a world you called good. Animals of every kind, trees and fruit of every kind, and humanity crafted in your image to steward over all you made and the sacred balance and rhythm you wove through it all.

All was peacefully made and all was to peacefully exist.

Yet your people quickly resorted to violence and vengeance, lusting for power and privilege.

Your world was steadily subjected to conflict and turmoil, victimized by misplaced allegiances.

The creation you made as good and right ripped away from your dreams and divine intentions.

And this is the world we still live in and long to be set free from...

We ache for your Spirit to hover over the waters yet again of this chaotic world where children cannot find their daily bread, women are bought and sold into slavery, even at the youngest of ages, minorities are treated as objectified props and sex is illustrated at cable award ceremonies as means for acquiring and wielding power, healthcare is a privilege reserved for the wealthy, and where many cannot find something as simple as clean water to quench their thirst. We plea, O Holy Spirit, birth fresh expressions of your justice and promise for all to be new and right again.

Jesus, the one who taught us, "blessed are the peacemakers," we confess we are unsure how to practice and pursue your peace when we read about the horrific events in Syria. We lament the reality that our hearts are first drawn to the sword, considering the plowshare foolish and improbable to bring about real and lasting change. We ask for you to invade our imaginations, and those of our religious and political leaders, unveiling a better way, a more peaceable way, a more just and humane way to solve conflict than weapons and war.

Yet we confess we are not sure how, especially in places like Syria.

So we pray for all people who live there. We pray for victims of chemical weapons, political oppression, civil war, and crimes against humanity. We pray for political leaders worldwide, including our own president, who are faced to make tough decisions. We ask for your justice and peace to reign over Syria and for your church in the Middle East to be filled with your Spirit as they practice radical expressions of hospitality, compassion, and heroic and ordinary peacemaking efforts in their communities and countries.

God who is here, there, and everywhere in between, while our news feeds are dominated by foreign affairs, we also are reminded that there are many who also grieve right here in our own community. So while we lift up our neighbors across the globe, we also lift up to you those of this faith community in need of your love and care...

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we give you thanks for the glimpses all around us of your promised future breaking into our real present- even when those glimpses seem faint. We give you thanks for teachers who educate our youth and youth who befriend new students, especially those frightened by first days and new hallways. We give you thanks for your church and the many witnesses of love and generosity that flow in and out of this place. We give you thanks for children and parents, pastors and denominational leaders. We give you thanks for sacred space, like this sanctuary. And we also give you thanks for the prayer Jesus taught us to pray, an invitation to hold on hope for your new creation yet to come, a prayer we say together now….



A growing ist of helpful resources and PCUSA statements regarding Syria can be found at the bottom of this link here

Other Prayers and Links of Interest

Praying for Peace with Pope Francis

Pope Francis' Vigil for Peace Homily

Syria: The Stuff No One Wants to Talk About (Red Letter Christians)