Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Broken but Hopeful

I describe my faith like this:  a basket full of beliefs and doubts, carried by God.  The doubts are not about whether I believe scripture is true or if there is a God but more about my own doubt in being able to trust that God is listening, He is engaged, and will act.  That is one reason I write this blog: it’s important for me to pay attention when I see God’s hand at work in the world.  It reassures me in my times of doubt. And one of my doubts is usually that God will give me anything to write!  I know – it’s silly.    

This past year has been particularly challenging for me.  I see the world becoming more broken by sin.  Jesus tried to open our minds to the concept that we all are one people – that no matter how different we may seem, we are one in the Lord.  And for me, that means that as a Christian, all people, even the non-Christians, are precious and held in the Lord’s loving arms. Maybe it is only my perspective but I see a more individualistic culture becoming the norm.  I see sin (separation from God) manifesting in our world as a lack of concern for the poor, dehumanization of certain groups, disdain for experiences different than our own, and the use of religion as a weapon.  This pains me greatly and so this past year, I have struggled to keep my depression under control and avoid cynicism.

Thank God, literally, He continues to act and show me even in my doubts, that my belief in an all-encompassing, world-changing, no qualifications required LOVE is still truth.  One thing that my experiences of divine love have in common is that I was open to it – emotionally available and physically available.  It would have been so much easier to pull the covers over my head and never leave the house. 

One day during staff meeting, a mother and daughter stopped in to join us for prayers before her daughter’s surgery.  We laid hands on her as we prayed.  For me, when I touch other people during prayer, I get an intense physical sensation that runs through my body which I believe is the Holy Spirit.  This particular day, it was so intense that I nearly collapsed.  Broken but hopeful.

Recently, a group of us went to the local Mosque for their Open Mosque Day – an opportunity to meet as neighbors, as one in the Lord.  They invited us to an instructed call to prayer.  When I heard the call to prayer, in a language I didn’t know, the Holy Spirit shot through me and I felt that this call to the divine was ancient and preceded our time of division.  Tears came to my eyes.  I have no intention of converting to Islam but that day was a lesson for me.  Not only is the Holy Spirit present everywhere but as I am committed to supporting their spiritual expression, I need to support those Christian expressions of faith with which I disagree.  Broken but hopeful. 

After Hurricane Harvey, a group of us delivered lunch to relief workers in various neighborhoods.  It would have been more convenient for me to go by myself since the neighborhood was close to mine but a parishioner suggested we go together which meant I arrived back at the church where a woman had been waiting.  She asked if the church was open because she needed to pray.  It was locked but I was happy to let her in.  We prayed together and shared our flood stories.  When I saw her recently at St. Mary’s Fall Gift Market, we both said we were doing better now and she was surprised when I remembered her name.  We shared a Holy Spirit moment; I will never forget her.  Broken but hopeful. 

One of my beliefs is that of free will.  God has the ultimate power to act but we have free will to make ourselves available or to pull the covers over our heads and protect our hearts.  While I cannot control everything, I also don’t believe that God is controlling everything.  He gave us the ability to choose.  We have 31,102 verses in the Bible that encourage us to choose love.  What is keeping you from making yourself available to God?

Monday, July 24, 2017

Wade in the Water

In my ministry, people often ask if they will need to get baptized again to become a member of St. Mary’s.  If you have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then the answer is no.  We don’t baptize people into the Episcopal Church; we baptize them into the body of Christ - the body of Christ that spans people, denominations, and countries around the globe.  We don’t think we’re the only ones going to heaven. 

I was baptized when I was five years old.  As I stood at the front of Trinity Episcopal Church in Minnetonka, Minnesota, I distinctly remember my little kindergarten mind thinking, “Something big is happening to me right now.”  Years later, I confirmed my baptismal vows. I didn’t know at the time how important those vows would become to me as I grew in my faith.  There is more to them but I’m most thoughtful right now about the vows to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” and “respect the dignity of every human being.” 

After a quick search of baptism liturgies for the other mainline traditions, none of them include the vows above.  This speaks volumes about the way the Episcopal Church sees baptism – not as only something to be received but as a commitment to a way of life and not only study, prayer, and resisting evil but seeing Christ in every person.  That is a high bar.  Additionally, we promise to strive for justice which means we work to dismantle the structures that cause suffering - no small thing.

Another question I get is about “the rules.”  This question makes me squirm a little bit because I usually feel my answer is inadequate.  Growing up in the Episcopal tradition was never about following rules to express your faith.  I was taught to try to emulate Jesus and get as close to God as I could and listen for the Spirit’s direction.  We believe we are saved by grace and that everything necessary for salvation is contained in the Bible.  Any “rules” we have are about how to live our common life as Christians and not as criteria for inclusion, forgiveness, or worthiness. 

This does not mean that we have no expectations.  Baptism in the Episcopal Church is not a quick admission pass to heaven.  As the baptized, we receive new life in Christ and that new life should look different.  So maybe a better question to ask is:  What is it going to cost me?  This question should probably scare us to death.  Standing up for the scorned got Jesus killed.  If you live in the United States, you likely will not have to die to love like Jesus but it will cost you something.  These costs are likely related to comfort, status, wealth, or power.  What are you willing to lose to love like Jesus?

Our Baptismal Covenant, among other things, very clearly charges us to live rebellious lives.  I say rebellious because when you fully live into this Covenant, it will cause conflict.  These vows are not about maintaining the status quo. 

What sort of rebellion could we lead with two million Episcopalians in the United States striving for justice, seeing Christ in every person, and protecting the dignity of all humans?  Let’s wade into the waters of baptism and make some waves. 

For more inspiration, here is a link to one my favorite African spirituals, Wade in the Water.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

God is Good. Really.

In my ministry, I hear many stories.  It is the joy of my life to hear the stories of people who are searching for God.  Sometimes, they are full of positive experiences of dedicated pastors or youth leaders or a chance encounter that pointed them to God.  Other times, they are full of suffering caused by the words or actions of others in the name of God.  In both of these cases, these storytellers are experiencing God through other people.  That is what I want you to remember:  if you are a Christian, others are experiencing God through you.  What you do and say matters very much.

This was brought into sharp focus a few weeks ago when I went to our state capitol to advocate for equal rights for our LGBTQ citizens.  As I shared my story and listened to others, I felt others’ pain of rejection and hurt at the hands of Christians.  I experienced none of that pain in my faith story.  I was blessed to grow up in organized religion and was not wounded by it.  The Episcopal Church has been a safe and affirming place for me.  This is not true for many Christians. 

One of the women I was chatting with mentioned she lived in a suburb south of Houston called Pearland.  I suggested that she might attend St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, that she and her family would be welcome there.  I gave her my card and told her to tell the priest I sent her.  She was so relieved to know there was someplace where they could worship just like everybody else. 

As I travel this road for LGBTQ advocacy, to work to dismantle the structures of injustice that cause suffering, I find myself in groups on Facebook and in other arenas where I hear these painful stories.  As a bartender listens to patrons’ stories of woe, so do I.  I am sort of like a “spiritual bartender.”  These stories are heartbreaking and I cannot help but be taken aback by the hate dished out in Christ’s name.  It is always shocking and I don’t think I will ever be jaded to it.

I have heard stories of parents of special needs children who for some, only felt unwelcome in worship but others who have been told their children were too disruptive to attend worship.  I have heard stories of churchgoers who were specifically pointed out and shamed from the pulpit.  The list goes on and on. 

Have I been disappointed or angered by folks in my Christian community?  Sure!  We’re a family and every family has its struggles.  I have also witnessed true forgiveness and reconciliation.  Because of my positive experience with organized religion and seeing God’s loving hand at work, I can invite others to meet Jesus with confidence.  And it is the BEST to witness someone who never thought they’d find a loving Christian community find one and realize that God does love them and always has. 

I have offered to help anyone find an Episcopal Church (nationwide) that is accepting and affirming to all people – not only LGBTQ individuals, but all people who may have felt excluded from Christian community.  I’m inviting not from a place of naiveté but from a place of hope.  I guess that makes me a “spiritual matchmaker.”

I truly believe that if you’ve been hurt by the Church, you need to be healed by the Church.  A gaping wound doesn’t get better by ignoring it.  The Church owes it to you to right the wrong. So keep searching for God.  He is with you every day, hoping you’ll return so he can show you how much he loves you.

And for those who carry the cross of Jesus, your words and actions matter.  Be sure you represent the generous and expansive love of Jesus - a love that others thought was so broad, so bold, so radical that he had to be stopped.  Can you throw caution to the wind and love with abandon so that others can know God loves them?

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Thin Line

You may recall one of my earlier posts called “Who Will Be a Witness” where I share a story of meeting a young man who had never been to church nor heard the story of Jesus and how I believed that God had put me in that place, at that moment, for that purpose.  My spiritual director simply responded with, “What if that were every moment?”  In those simple words, she opened my heart and mind to the concept that God is placing me in every moment, in every place, for his purpose.

For most of my life, I have lived my life with a hard line between the spiritual and the secular.  There was a definite difference between those two worlds.  The Episcopal Church is centered on worship, unlike other denominations who are centered on education or service.  Since we are focused on worship and worship has historically been in a building with beautiful music and intentional words, it is very different than other experiences of my week.  Worship brings us together and can reset our priorities.  It can be a way we experience or hear God.  But it is only worship. 

Our curate, Rev. Alan Bentrup, reminds us that what we do on Sunday is worship and what we do out in the world is church.  Being the church, loving God, is so much bigger than showing up at church on Sunday.  If we love God, then we are doing and being as much like Christ as we can – in every part of our lives – not just Sunday. 

In the Old Testament, God gives us a clear command to worship no other Gods but him when he hands down the Ten Commandments.  Throughout the Israelites’ time in the wilderness, there was emphasis on worshiping God and observing the rules of a people set apart.  In the New Testament, Jesus reminds us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  This was not new – it’s also in the Old Testament – but loving became the focus instead of the rule-following.  He also reminds us that he came for all people – not just the Jewish people who were set apart.  This was Good News to many but radically disappointing news to others.

In these fractious times, I struggle living out my Christian beliefs because I feel I need to consider how others may react to my loving all of God’s creation.  Loving our Muslim neighbors and defending the dignity of the LGBT community are as natural to me as prayer.   I also take my Baptismal Covenant seriously to strive for justice and peace.  It is not possible to compartmentalize my love to avoid ruffling feathers because my “worlds” aren’t separate anymore. 

I wonder this morning what Jesus would think about being worshiped since he came to serve and not to be served.  I wonder what he would think about our churches since the early church had no buildings to separate followers into various houses of worship.  Followers were simply in the world, sharing their witness of the love they had experienced.  In that way, there was no line between the sacred and the secular.  The church was the world – not contained in a building.  Ashes To Go was all over the news this year; this shows you how revolutionary it is to actually be the church.  This shows you how much we have hoarded God for ourselves.  

Someone recently shared with me this powerful quote from Wendell Berry: “There are no sacred and unsacred places; there are only sacred and desecrated places.”  Every part of the world is God’s world and it is all sacred until we desecrate it.  How does our life protect every moment, every place, as sacred?  That every person is sacred and precious to God?  Does your life – your words and actions – reflect loving God’s world and all that is in it?  How can you make the line between you and God thinner?    

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Pressing the Reset Button

This month, it has been two years since I began working at St. Mary’s as their welcome leader.  I took a look back and remembered how I was feeling spiritually at that time.  After leaving my corporate job a month earlier, the pace of my life suddenly changed.  Going from working 75 hours a week to 40 was a huge change.  It took about three months for me to fully decompress and I noticed that I was working every day but it felt like I was on vacation.  (FYI - I also work from home doing the accounting for a law firm.)  My mother, who lives with us, said she had never seen me so relaxed.  I felt weird.  Then it hit me:  I hadn’t felt this way in probably five years.  I hadn’t truly relaxed in years.  This weird feeling was peace.

As I moved through 2015, I was able to take good care of myself and whereas before, at the end of the day, I felt completely spent, I was able to be fully present with my family in the evenings.  This blog was born and inspiration was never in short supply for words to share.  This lasted about a year or so.  Then, as my ministry expanded, I started losing this new sense of peace.  Exciting opportunities were set before me to spread the Gospel and I truly felt that everything I had done in my previous career had prepared me for this calling.  There were so many amazing moments where the Spirit was at work, but I wasn’t taking care of myself and by early 2016, my pace was frenetic and I came down with shingles.  

My spiritual director and priest kept encouraging me to answer the call to silence and stillness otherwise I might not have made it through 2016.  It was also a rough year in my parish with the April floods, including our rectory, and the loss of a three-year old child by accidental drowning.  This grief was compounded by watching a presidential candidate come to power that hurt so many.  The blog was harder to write in contrast to the year before where the words came pouring in every couple of weeks.  In my post, “Messengers,” I wrote about my experience on a silent retreat which was truly life-giving.  It was a moment of peace but not enough.  Heading into the fall in a very dark emotional place, I forged ahead. 

I continued to pray for the sense of peace to return.  I reached out to my doctors to address my depression.  We adjusted medication.  All of those things helped and in December, I started experiencing joy again.  But I wanted to feel weird again; I wanted peace.  Sometime during 2016, I had ordered a book called The Seven Whispers by Christina Baldwin.  I don’t even remember who recommended it to me and it sat unopened on my nightstand for months.  When I finally picked it up and read a couple of chapters, I was hooked on the ideas, but my “work” derailed my attempts to implement the spiritual practices.  

Fast forward to January 2017 when our women’s Wednesday fellowship agreed to do a book study on The Seven Whispers.  This last week, I decided to practice one of the concepts from the book, “moving at the pace of guidance.”   Christina says that “speed is the enemy of guidance.”  So on inauguration day, with a demanding workday ahead of me, I heard doves outside my window.  I decided to stop and sit with God in centering prayer for five minutes at the top of each hour, starting at 7 am and ending at 5 pm.  I also took a break from TV and social media.  It was transformative.  While going away on retreat has very good purpose, stopping and re-centering during the workday finally returned the peace I was missing.  I headed into an evangelism workshop I was leading on Saturday with a new calmness.

When Elijah felt that he could no longer go on, he went to the wilderness to die.  After the angel had fed him and he rested, he heard God’s voice.  He obeyed and went to Horeb where the Lord came to him.  But the Lord did not come in the rushing wind, nor the earthquake, nor the fire.  God came to him in the silence that followed.  How can you slow down and listen for God?  Is there a community that can support you in finding the peace that only God can give?