Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Christmas as Invitation to Godbearing Life: Belated Reflections on the Third Candle of Advent

The joy candle is my daughter’s favorite. Probably because Joy is her middle name. Probably because she loves the color pink. Probably because, once we have reached the third week of Advent, she gets to light this candle and blow it out after dinner. 

She also loves the joy candle because of the traditional link with Mary.  As she will point out, Mary was a girl just like her. 

Side note: If you want to discover the patriarchy laced within Scripture, just read a Bible with a four-year-old girl. She’ll make you aware of it every single time. 

I think my daughter's on to something; Mary may even be quickly ascending the ladder of my favorite Biblical characters, too.  After all, as the Theotokos, Mary is a beautiful microcosm of who we are called to be as the church of Jesus Christ in the midst of our tired and fearful world:
“The Eastern Orthodox tradition calls Mary Theotokos, or ‘Godbearer,” because she (quite literally) brought God into the world…And while God does not ask any of us to bring Christ into the world literally as did Mary, God calls each of us to become a Godbearer through whom God may enter the world again and again.” (Kinda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster, The Godbearing Life 17). 
This is the invitation of Christmas.  Christmas dares us not only to witness the climbing down of God [1] into the brokenness of the human condition, but also to nurture the very life of God within ourselves and among our most vulnerable neighbors.  Each Christmas we reclaim the words spoken to Mary, “do not be afraid,” as the holy nudge to respond with the same willingness to bear the love of Christ and subvert the many reasons to despair. 

We are beckoned to bear the love of Christ as we welcome neighbors into our homes and explore possibilities to host others from distant lands looking for refuge and safety. We are called to nourish the life of God as we advocate for victims of violence, legislation that can make such violence more difficult to repeat, and peacemaking efforts that do not require a sword or gun or weapons of war. We are invited to carry the life of God through hospital visitations, solidarity extended over a cup of coffee with a friend, and the embrace of neighbors who face daily prejudice due to their ethnicity, heritage, and religion. We are moved to care for the life of God as we journey alongside the family who has been struggling with infertility, for whom the Christ child is just another reminder of the void they have yet to fill. We are dared to nurture the Advent of Christ when we give anonymously to families looking for assistance so they can provide for their little ones at Christmas. We are called to bear the life of Christ when we engage in new relationships and confront the realities of racism, bias, and privilege. We are inspired to share in the identity as theotokos whenever we welcome guests, many for the first time, into our congregations, sanctuaries, and worship services and assure them of their belonging. 

And we bear the life of God in all these places with great joy. This joy is more than mere sentiment, rather the perspective of the faithful fixed on God’s promise and presence wrapped up in the Christ child. Joy as perspective is what propelled Mary towards the God-bearing life. 

But there’s a bit more as to why I am beginning to favor the lone pink candle of Advent.

As a young, marginalized first-century woman living under ethnic, religious, and political siege, carrying the child who does not belong to her betrothed, Mary reminds us God’s preference is for the unexpected other. When God acts, God does so among the least of these.  When God calls, God does so through and for the sake of those frequently relegated to the fringes of our nations and neighborhoods. So Mary’s witness beckons us not only to be the bearers of God, but also to recognize the theotokos all around us who show up in persons most have written off as insignificant or threats to power and privilege. 

So this Advent, as you light the pink candle…and the one next to it…and the one in the middle…be reminded that you are called to bear the very life of Christ into the world. Even more, as the light of this candle lingers during these last days, dare to take notice of the theotokos in neighbor, stranger, and the other. Who knows what God is birthing in and through them…

[1] Karl Barth once wrote, "This is the miracle of Jesus Christ's existence, this descent of God from above downwards- the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary. This is the mystery of Christmas, of the Incarnation" (The Dogmatics in Outline 96).  The "descent of God" has frequently been translated as the "climbing down of God."  

Thursday, December 10, 2015

What If St. Nicholas Really Did Come to Our Town? Keeping Advent Eyes Open in a Tired World

On the heels of St. Nicholas Day (December 6), I believe it's time for the annual post as homage to the most mystifying saint of the Christian Way.

Nicholas of Myra was born towards the middle of the third century in Patara, a town on the coast of modern-dayTurkey. Nicholas’ birth was surrounded by mystery and his earliest childhood laced in legends about piety- like how the infant rose from the baptismal font and pronounced a blessing to the congregation. 

As time passed and folklore grew, Nicholas’ faith and charity inspired the masses until one afternoon, upon a vision given to a local church leader, Nicholas walked into a sanctuary in Myra and was immediately anointed archbishop.

Apparently the Book of Order and Presbyterian polity had not yet arrived to Myra.

Nevertheless, Nicholas served as a prominent leader in this ancient-Turkish city around the time of the council of Nicaea. Legend has it St. Nickwas there, fending off heretics with his sandal. 

But this is not what historians and hagiographers most emphasize when they write about Nicholas. Instead, they underscore the Bishop’s obsession with advocacy, justice, and God’s concern for the poor, oppressed, wrongly accused, and victims of violence- especially children.

And much like our world today, there were more than enough reasons to advocate and intervene.

One such story tells of Nicholas, who had learned of a family on the brink of bankruptcy and about to sell their three daughters into a trafficking ring, secretly tossed two bags of money through the family’s window, which landed in their shoes. The amount was enough to pay a dowry and prevent life-long captivity and exploitation of the young girls.  

But there was still one daughter left.

Anticipating another act of covert generosity, the father camped out on the roof of his home and waited until he caught a glimpse of the Great Giver. That’s when one starry night he saw Nicholas, dressed in his red clerical robe, drop a bag of money down their chimney and into a sock hung out to dry.

Chimney. Stocking. Rooftop. Shoes. You get the idea. 

Wanting to maintain a spirit of anonymity and humility, the pious bishop made the father promise to refrain from revealing who had provided such elaborate funds. Thus the beginning of the mystery behind the man with a beard, red mitre, and prophetic witness.

Yet the story was too good not to be told. It was a glimmer of hope amidst their reasons to despair and fear. The prophetic and radical generosity of those who benefited from and followed behind other secret graces of Nicholas birthed new tales.

My favorite is the story of three men wrongly accused of a crime by the governor, Eusthatius, who in turn sentenced them to death. Just as the sword was about to come down on the innocent, Nicholas intervened, ran towards the platform, climbed the wooden steps, seized the downward thrusting sword in his calloused hand, tossed it aside in disgust, and refused to cease protest in the governor's courts until their accusations were expunged and wrongs righted.

Not your typical illustration of holly and jolly. 

As I made my final sermon preparations this past Sunday, with the images and stories of our nation and world swirling in my mind, the images of Nicholas laying his own life down for the lives of others took over my homiletical imagination. 

After all, his world was not all that different than our own.

So I wondered, what would happen if St. Nicholas really did come to town? 

On Monday he rode around Philly on a motorcycle blasting festive carols (see picture above). 

But I am not sure that's where you'd find him. 

Instead, I imagined the Archbishops's red cloak and mitre being spotted at rallies and protests alongside those who continue to demand that their lives matter. I imagine him echoing their chants from Baltimore to Chicago, Ferguson to New York.

I imagined the saint listening to the voices of those wrongly accused and unjustly sentenced in the midst of broken penal and justice systems fueled by racism and discrimination. 

I imagined letters with his signature at the end demanding the welcome of refugees fleeing nations torn by violence and religious persecution.  I imagined Nicholas housing such refugees in his church and home, regardless of the law of the land.   

I imagined St. Nicholas tossing aside guns and the broken legislation that makes them so readily available.  I imagined him at the office steps of his political representatives and demanding change. 

I imagined St. Nicholas waving his sandal in disgust, a sign of condemnation and offense, when he learned of the rally cries to carry concealed elicited by evangelical university presidents who claim to follow the same Jesus who said, "blessed are the peacemakers." I imagined Nicholas doing the same when candidates for political office suggested religious testing, registries, and exclusion of religious people groups as their only thoughtless responses to terror and immigration. 

I imagined Nicholas walking alongside persons of different faith traditions, shedding off fears of the other, and working to alleviate ignorance and prejudice. He would call them neighbor and friend. 

I imagined St. Nick coming to the poorest of towns and working tirelessly to end pervasive poverty and broken education systems that left children with a bleak future at best. 

Then I rememebered- there are many Christians and faith communities already doing these very things. They just do so in a way that doesn't always get noticed by the press or the public. They frequently work in subversive means for the sake of the common good- humble yet bold and determined witnesses to the gospel.

Sounds a lot like St. Nick. 

So this Advent, I am doing my best not too allow the despairing world and the irresponsible and unethical remarks of "Christian" and political leaders to overshadow the reality that God is with us, for us, and calling us to something far more gracious. I am keeping my Advent eyes open to the many faithful witnesses who have taken seriously their call to prepare the Way to God's coming peace and justice. I am looking on rooftops and street corners, in cities and suburbs, at protests and advocacy groups, and even in sanctuaries each Sunday morning, assured the same Spirit who moved and motivated the life of St. Nick equips and inspires saints 1700 years later. 

"The message of Advent about the coming of the light requires that we become people of Advent; people who persistently await the victorious light. Where there are such people, Christmas can happen. Christ waits for people who will not compromise the light with darkness, neither in themselves nor in anything else, but who are moved by the serious need for the light of Christ and who are aware of whence the help comes. May God give that we may go forth to the festival of Christmas as moved and motivated people. Then we will experience Christmas with the gifts of grace and blessing."
---Karl Barth

Helpful Links

Blogpost with Adam English and link to an excellent podcast about hardcore St. Nick:

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. 

Monday, August 31, 2015

Be Opened: Lectionary Reflections for Back to School Youth and the Rest of Us, too.

"Be opened," Jesus proclaimed in Mark 7:34.

The disciples were pilgrimaging with this prophetic Rabbi when he put his fingers in the ears and touched the tongue of a deaf man with a speech impediment. 

“Be opened,” Jesus commanded. 

Only a handful of verses earlier, Jesus encountered a Syrophoenician woman. This Gentile neighbor ran to the Jewish Messiah and pleaded for the life of her beloved child suffering from an “unclean spirit,” a sure subversion of first-century social mores. She knew her life mattered; her daughter's life matteredUnconcerned about such racial barriers and ethnic codes of segregation, this poised mama dared, even provoked, Jesus to model the same. 

And she was open to a miracle and resurrection possibilities. Her only question, would Jesus be open as well? 

The answer, “the demon has left your daughter.” 

These two healing stories are everything but loose fragments and isolated parables in the building of Mark’s gospel.  Last week’s lectionary highlighted the preface to the narratives we encounter this Sunday.  Jesus challenged the Pharisees and Scribes who had become so obsessed with the letter of the law they were closed to the reality that in Jesus God was doing very new things.
“You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition…You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition” (Mark 7:8-9).
Now we read of Jesus practicing what he preached. The entirety of Mark 7 is a call to be opened to what God is doing all around us, even when it confronts our most hallowed traditions, collective assumptions, and cultural barriers set up to protect and preserve what we (sometimes falsely) believe to be right and good. Jesus' witness pushes us to collapse anything and everything set-up to oppress or marginalize another. 

“Be opened,” Jesus reminds us nearly two millennia later. 

If we are truly listening, we will notice Mark’s account of these healing stories is aimed at us. They dare us to remain open.  They challenge us to hold loosely our truth claims, comfort zones, and social networks as we consider what God may be up to in the very people and places we have previously dismissed. 

Be opened.

Every year for the last four years I have written a letter to students as they go back to school.  These letters are public prayers for those who navigate the hallways and commune in classrooms for 180+ days of the year. 

This year I write less of a letter and more of an echo of the words of Christ, “Be opened.” If we listen carefully, what follows are invitations for all of us. 


Be opened by your neighbor next door, behind, and in front of you, as their life and story are equally as significant as your own. 

Be opened by history learned and lamented, celebrated and grieved. Be opened by how history can transform our collective present and future.

Be opened by the teachers in your midst, who have devoted their lives to spark the imaginations of young people and nurture agents of change locally and globally. 

Be opened by nonviolent means to solve conflict. 

Be opened by forgiveness.

Be opened by faith communities, especially those different from your own. What may God teach you through the convictions of others? 

Be opened by rest, aware you cannot do everything, all the time, every day. 

Be opened by play, reminded life is a gift to be enjoyed versus a task to be completed. 

Be opened by Scripture and new ways of understanding the story we claim as sacred. Welcome others to read alongside you and remain open to the possibility of the Spirit reading you page after page, story after story. 

Be opened by service and opportunities to engage your most vulnerable neighbors. Recognize the stranger not as less rather as equal. 

Be opened by advocacy for those relegated to the margins of your campuses, workplaces, neighborhoods, cities, and world. Dare to challenge the status quo and never cease to elevate the voices from the fringes of society. 

Be opened by art, so frequently the Spirit’s tool for social change and movements rooted in God’s concern for justice and equity. 

Be opened by being wrong.

Be opened by being right.

Be opened by failure. 

Be opened by joy. 

Be opened by tears. 

Be opened by hope. 

Be opened by shared suffering.

Be opened by witnessed resurrection. 

Be opened by the One who was able not only to open the eyes and ears of the blind and deaf, but also a cold and dark tomb many believed would forever remain closed. 

Be opened. 

Thanks to fellow Presby, Mihee Kim-Kort, for featuring the litany in her Podcast, "This Everyday Holy": 

A great Podcast that brilliantly engages the story of the Syrophoenician woman:
LectioCast: Entrusting Ourselves to Abundance and Generosity

See also a recent reflection from Jill Duffield of The Presbyterian Outlook: 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Technology as Sacramental: A Means of Grace, Prophetic Witness, and Community Formation

I remember my ordination service vividly. 

Probably because it was this past February. 

Also because I was able to preside at the Eucharistic table and serve communion to family, friends, and neighbors who joined in the celebration. 

The opportunity to break bread and share the cup was what I most looked forward to as an ordained Teaching Elder and, more preferred, Minister of Word and Sacrament.

In seminary and throughout my theological studies, the sacraments were taught as a means of grace.  Presbyterians are also apt to affirm the ordinariness of the elements, a visible sign of an invisible grace. Water. Font. Bread. Cup. Wine. Juice. 

Ordinary. Common. Everyday. Tangible. Not much has changed in nearly two-thousand years of Christian tradition and sacramental practice. Theological nuances of the practice have varied; nevertheless, we still use the same basic elements. 

And these elements point beyond themselves.*  They point to the God made known in Jesus Christ and the Spirit who calls and sends us all into the world as embodiments of the very means of grace that drench our heads and nourish our bodies. The sacraments are simple reflectors.

These liturgical elements, in a certain sense, were also ancient and sacred technologies of the church. 

I once stumbled upon this definition of technology:
technology, n. the mediums and/or tools used to apply knowledge of something [or someone] of significance for real and practical purposes.
As the real and practical mediums of bread, wine, and water are used to apply the knowledge of and bear witness to the Crucified and Resurrected Christ, the sacraments serve a technological function. 

The ordinary also becomes holy. 

In the Digital Age, might this be the framework in which the Spirit invites us to view the everyday mediums of social media, digital devices, on-line platforms, and new technologies we hold in the palm of our hands or upon our laps? As twenty-first century disciples of Christ, the witness of the early Church dares us to consider not only the sacraments as technological but also the technological as sacramental.  We are nudged to consult all available mediums and tools within reach to apply our knowledge of the One who gathers us at font and table and sends us from these sacred, technological spaces.  
“The church can’t change her response to Gutenberg’s printing press, the radio, or the television; they are forever fixed in history.  But at the onset of this digital revolution, her response to New Media is wide open.  The world is waiting and listening in the virtual sphere.  Will the church remain silent, or will her voice be proclaimed from the roof tops (and the laptops)?  Will she plunge the message of Christ into Facebook feeds, blogposts, podcasts, and text messages, or will she be digitally impotent? If the Church’s promotion of evangelization, formation, community, and the common good is to continue throughout future generations, she must harness these technologies and utilize them well."

The Christian church continues to wrestle with how to engage the digital revolution of the last 25 years.  Especially since the advent of social media and on-line networks, we are more connected than ever before. New and innovative technologies are more accessible than at any point in human history, being used for both good and ill. 

Think of all the hashtags that have birthed social movements through open-source rhetoric. Think of all the Facebook posts that have perpetuated various forms of hate speech and slander. 

As a result, many church leaders and members of our congregations become admittedly overwhelmed, overly indulged, or even dismissive of new technology and media. Our on-line world creates unique challenges for congregations and related pastoral care as we live into the emerging cultural realities. 

Nevertheless, we must not throw out the baby with the bath water.  Instead, we must regularly ponder which forms of new technology our congregations and ministries will use and how we will use them as means of grace for practical purposes of loving and serving our local and global neighbors.  We must be willing to view various forms of technological innovation not solely as evolving distractions, although aware of such possibility, but as redemptive opportunities for community formation, social advocacy, prophetic witness, and proclamation of the Good News. 

In so doing, the ordinary technologies we apply become sacramental platforms versus trendy widgets void of broader meaning. They are able to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth, pointing beyond themselves and towards God’s dreams for a world made new and right again. That’s what our earliest ancestors of the faith did with bread, cup, and water as they went viral with the Good News of Jesus Christ. 

May we be at least as technologically innovative as they were two millennia ago.

Where have you seen technology as sacramental?  #sacredtechnology

Theology of Technology, Media, and Ministry (Slideshare Presentation: 

A great resource: 
The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World by Keith Anderson

*"We cannot celebrate and receive the sacrament ordained by [God] without looking beyond the sacrament as such and finding [God] in the sacrament" (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 p. 50).  

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Naptime as Divine Office & Smartphone as Acolyte: Technology's Ability to Usher Us into the Presence of God

"You can never catch your breath in this house," I said to my wife after another failed attempt to put our youngest down for a nap.

I huffed back up the steps, lifted our crying son out of the crib, plopped myself in the recliner, and tried once again to soothe him back to sleep.

I also pulled out my iPhone, opened a YouTube playlist complete with some my favorite contemplative hymns (#PresbyNerd), turned the volume on low, and whispered to our nine-month old the lyrics of John Bell's, "The Summons." 

As each verse appeared on the screen, complete with kitcshe background images, I caught my breath. 

I also realized gratitude for these holy moments must become my reactive posture more so than lament about what I could or should be doing instead of caring for our young children. 

Maybe there needs to be a new category for Divine Offices: when putting little ones to sleep. 

Maybe we also need to see our smartphones and various technological tools not so much as distractions, although they can be, rather accessible acolytes into the very presence of God. We may be surprised how the Creator of all things can use even the most complex technologies to breathe calm in the midst of chaos.

Here are a few ways the smartphone or tablet can serve as everyday acolyte, whether a caregiver in the middle of a late-night rocking, a working professional looking to engage in spiritual formation during a brief lunch break, or a minister making the daily commute to the office:

Recommended Podcasts and Blogs: