Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Breathing Deeply Before Christmas

Steal away, steal away

Steal away to Jesus

Steal away, steal away home

I ain't got long to stay here


Steal Away”—the African American spiritual from the era of slavery in the United States—has been beckoning me in the midst of the mad rush leading up to Christmas. Over and above the season's bright wrapping paper and tinny pop-star carols, beyond the cheesy (sorry, parents) sight of girls dressed in Mrs. Claus faux red velvet frocks and boys in Santa-Claus-gone-casual green cable-knit sweaters, the simplicity of this spiritual calls: “Steal away to Jesus.”


Admittedly, it may be that I am misappropriating the deep meanings of “Steal Away” for my own need for escape from our commercial Christmas traditions. “Steal Away” is a spiritual rich with double meanings. It was a secret call to steal away in the night for planning meetings of the Underground Railroad...Nat Turner, among others, would sing “Steal Away” to give the call for escape to freedom in the North. It was also a song of strength and hope for those who could not or had not yet escaped slavery...“Though they beat and chain your body, let your soul steal away in confidence that they will never own your spirit.” Above all, “Steal Away” claimed an ultimate faith in Jesus who was freeing—if not in this life, then certainly in the next.


Steal away, steal away

Steal away to Jesus

Steal away, steal away home

I ain't got long to stay here


The meaning of any song shifts when you take it out of context; singing “Steal Away” at Christmastime seems almost a trivial application of an Underground Railroad spiritual. But I greatly appreciate how the text carries me and encourages me through the hubbub of Christmas, and I am reflecting on how best to “steal away” from holiday chaos to contemplate the everyday miracle of an unexpected child who was born 2000 years ago.


Short of taking a complete hiatus from the hyper pre-Christmas season (known in the church as “Advent” and known in secular America as “It's almost Christmas!”), this year I'm viewing the twelve days after Christmas—from December 25 to Epiphany on January 6—as an ideal time for stealing away. In my home, I am fortunate that the Twelve Days of Christmas include a vacation from work and a winter break from school. During those twelve days, the frantic bustle leading up to Christmas dissipates and a quiet contentedness settles in. The busyness of church life and work pauses oh-so-briefly, for a brief winter moment, before the business of annual church budgets and the upcoming preparations for Lent begins.


So this year I plan to “steal away to Jesus” between Christmas and Epiphany. Steal away in prayer. Steal away in the early mornings before my kids wake, sitting in my grandfather's rocking chair with a hot mug of tea, wrapped in the warmth of my prayer shawl. Steal away with a few thought-provoking, life-reflecting books to gain new perspectives on faith and the divine, and to nurture new insights for my work with words and the Word. (On my to-read list: Madeleine L'Engle's The Irrational Season and Julia O'Brien's Challenging Prophetic Metaphor.)


Whatever your circumstances and plans in this holiday season, may you create opportunities to steal away to Jesus and to nurture the freedom for faith-full living in the new year. Blessings.


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-O5hz5KnSdc

(Mahalia Jackson and Nat King Cole sing “Steal Away”)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

An Article Worth Reading

The cover story from the newest issue of Newsweek is a thorough and non-reactive reflection in mainstream media on how the Bible is misused and misrepresented in the debate over gay marriage. The article is entitled, "Our Mutual Joy."
http://www.newsweek.com/id/172653

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

In the aftermath of Prop 8

A video commentary to share with you: these are MSNBC's Keith Olbermann's remarks from November 10, entitled "Gay marriage is a question of love." The link was passed along to me from a friend whose son just came out; in the aftermath of California's approval of Proposition 8, this message conveys hope for a better future.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21134540/vp/27652443#27652443

If you support gay marriage and civil rights for the GLBT community, please say so publicly. If you are unsure or you know someone who is undecided or anti-marriage, please watch this video and start a conversation.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Advent in October (Part 2)

For a musical expression of living in Advent, listen to "Hey World (Don't Give Up)" by Michael Franti.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=01FE9cPXE3M

Monday, October 13, 2008

Advent in October

Last week, I broke a sacred rule in the Hackenberg family: I listened to Christmas music before Thanksgiving.


This rule against playing Christmas music before Thanksgiving was created in counter-cultural response to the ridiculously extended Christmas season as marketed and twisted about by retailers. When I was young, the elaborate plastic wreaths and towers of Santa teddy bears appeared in stores a couple weeks before Thanksgiving. These days, I see Christmas displays before Halloween, after all of the well-planned parents (unlike me) have purchased their child's annual flimsy-$5-superhero/superstar-makeover for four times its value. Hence, the no-Christmas music rule in favor of celebrating one holiday at a time, thank you very much.


Still, the urge for Christmas music overwhelmed me last week...not because I was in the Christmas spirit, but because I was in a very Advent spirit.


The church season of Advent begins on November 30 this year, the first Sunday after Thanksgiving. Congregations of many shapes and styles will light candles of hope, peace, joy and love in the four weeks preceding Christmas. Yet despite our tendency to view Advent simply as the ritual precursor to Christmas, in fact Advent is distinctively not about Christmas (or at least, not only about Christmas).


Advent is the season of waiting for God's appearance, of watching for God's miracles, and as such it is perhaps the most difficult of church seasons for Christians to observe (Christmas joy? Got it. Easter celebration? No problem. Lenten penitence? Bring on the guilt!). Still, of all the church seasons, Advent most closely reflects our everyday life experiences of uncertainty.


Peter Gomes, in his brilliant new book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, observes the church's theological dilemma of waiting for God, especially in regards to the content of Jesus' sermons:


What Jesus proclaimed did not happen, nor has it yet; the glad tidings remain a proclamation of things to come. The world remains pretty much as it was when he preached his first sermon at Nazareth, and although there are many more Christians now, and the world is older, that Yum Yahweh—day of the Lord—appears no nearer now than it was at the time of Jesus' proclamation.


That, for example, is why Advent is a more painful season than Lent...Advent speaks of a perennial hope, a great expectation that, despite the language of the hymns that tell us that the day is drawing near and that light prevails over darkness, actually seems just like the 'same old, same old.' How many 'theologies of hope' can trump the stubborn facts of good news postponed?” (Gomes, Peter. The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What's So Good about the Good News? New York: Harper Collins, 2007. 17.)


So I listened to Christmas music. Not the cheery, let's-open-presents sort of Christmas songs (I skipped over those), but the kind of songs that conveyed the wonder of a birth in the midst of foreboding times. Songs of comfort for these days when fear is strong. Songs like lullabies of hope for easing fatigue. Songs that promise Emmanuel (“God with us”) just in time to save us from ourselves.


Probably I will keep listening to Christmas music in the weeks ahead...not because I am anxious for Christmas, but because I am poignantly aware these days that we are already living in Advent.


Monday, September 8, 2008

Debating Gay Marriage

The following thoughts are adapted (primarily the preface) from a sermon that I preached from Grace's pulpit. Sometimes a sermon is crafted to deliberately provoke conversation; always such a sermon runs the risk of not adequately engaging the hearers and subsequently becoming one-sided. This may have been one of those sermons.

Whenever a minister officiates at a wedding, she acts as an agent of the state (having been granted this authority from the local municipality via the marriage license). Likewise the church, by hosting a wedding, complies with the legal system of marriage—whether through building rental, by extension via its minister, or in church members' attendance at the wedding, the church acts a witness to the legal binding of a bride and groom. As I see it, this involvement is essentially a conflict of the church-state boundary.

My argument to the church, and my challenge as a minister, is that the participation of the church and minister in this legal institution goes largely unexamined and unqualified. If marriage is as valued and sacred as many Christians claim, then the church should reclaim marriage as a religious covenant and extract marriage from its currently legal entanglement. If, on the other hand, marriage is to remain as a legal institution (with nearly 1,000 laws contingent upon husband-wife designations), then the church should excuse herself from her present church-state compromise and more appropriately speak to any concerns of the “values” of marriage (I would say legal injustices) as an outside voice.

So: here is the hard question for the church to consider amidst all the loveliness and sentimentality of hosting weddings, a question that bubbles to the surface every time I read a marriage license: What's so sacred about marriage?

Before you leap to an answer in your mind, let me elaborate on the question. What is it about getting married that prompts many engaged couples, who are otherwise nominal Christians, to go looking for a church? When couples plan weddings, what's the appeal of having a minister versus having a judge? And on the flip side, what's the interest of a church in deciding who can and who cannot marry within its walls (members, non-members)? What's the church's purpose in hosting a wedding? And—here's what I'm really getting at—what is it about marriage that is so sacred and so valuable to the Christian Church that she has weighed in on the legal (civic/secular) debate over gay marriage in recent years?

Marriage has not always been (and, I suggest, isn't now) an institution of the church. In the span of history, the coming together of two individuals to create a new family unit has typically been secular: either a private family matter or the business of government. For centuries, marriage was governed by local customs. In the Middle Ages, the Church actually had trouble becoming a voice of authority over marriage because marriage traditions were so localized and secular. The Roman Catholic Church finally established marriage as a sacrament in the 13th century, only to have major leaders of the Reformation —including Martin Lutherargue that marriage was a civil contract and not the business of the church (George Chauncey, Why Marriage, 79-80).

Simply said, the debate over who sets the rules for marriage is not new. Whenever gay marriage is debated today, there is an argument in the undercurrent of that debate: an argument of church versus government, sacred versus civil. Churches and church people are lobbying the government for the authority to say who can and who can't marry. And, in Pennsylvania, the government is now making rules for the churches over which ministers can and cannot officiate at weddings.

So let's take the debate in society and lay the questions on the table: What part of marriage—for us as a church, for you as a person of faith--is really important? What aspect of marriage (if any) is worth defending, in your opinion? What's the crux of marriage that we should really value and encourage?

Let's look at an Old Testament reading. It's a familiar story: Moses the shepherd and former prince of Egypt is having an average day watching Jethro's flock of sheep. Suddenly, he spies a burning bush: a green, growing bush that is red and yellow with dancing flames of fire...and yet it is not dying or crumpling into a pile of ashes! Moses says to himself, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight” (Exodus 3:3). Lo and behold, the voice of the LORD speaks to him from the bush, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt, and I have heard their cry” (Exodus 3:6-7).

“Moses, Moses! You have turned aside from your sheep

to marvel at a fiery bush, but I have called you here because

I have already turned aside and bent my ear to hear my people's cries.

I have turned aside from my place in the heavens

to concern myself with the welfare of the Hebrew people...

because that is WHO I AM.

I AM WHO I AM, and my whole divine being

is wrapped up in loving and rescuing my people.

I have turned aside to care for them, Moses,

and now I am calling you to turn aside from your business as a shepherd

in order to care for them as well.

I am telling you: turn aside for the sake of another,

because I have turned aside for all people.

Love one another, because I have loved all people. (1 John 4:19)

I AM WHO I AM, and who I am is to be understood in how I turn aside,

faithfully from generation to generation, to be near to those I love.”

If there is a biblical mandate for marriage, if there is a God-given example for committed relationships, it is not Adam & Eve or Abraham & Sarah & Hagar, it is not Jacob & Rachel & Leah or Hosea & Gomer. If there is a biblical mandate for marriage, it is God's own actions. It is “I AM WHO I AM” turning aside from the business of up-in-the-sky holiness to hear the Hebrew people crying in anguish in Egypt. It is God foolishly loving—over and over and over again—stubborn and selfish people such as us.

There are many examples in the world around us of people turning aside from what they are doing to focus on and care for others: parents turning aside from their work to bandage scraped knees or to rock away their children's pain; friends turning aside from their own schedules to spend time with one another when a tragedy occurs; volunteers turning aside from lucrative jobs to assist total strangers through non-profit organizations. Turning aside for one another—loving our neighbors—is beautiful and certainly holy.

But turning aside for a partner, a lover, a spouse,

in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow,

turning aside from one's own tunnel vision to rejoice when the other rejoices

or to weep when the other weeps,

day after day, faithfully through the years

turning aside from one's own ambitions and

remembering to turn aside from that innate self-focus

long enough to see the brilliant fire in the partner next to you,

to be always tuned in to hear their cries,

to say publicly that WHO I AM is wrapped up in WHO YOU ARE...

that kind of turning aside in imitation of God turning aside,

that kind of loving in imitation of God loving is a miracle.

In the sacred/secular battle over marriage, if we—this church or any church—really want to weigh in on the government's rules about marriage, then we should check our bible stories. The example of marriage that is given to us, the story of covenant that is told repeatedly from cover to cover, is not the story of one man and one woman...but the story of God's relationship with humanity. And there's no gender in that relationship! God speaks to Abraham and to Mary both; God appears in fire to the Israelites and to the early Christian Church alike; God turns aside to hear the cries of both Hagar and Job.

If there is something about marriage that is sacred, something about partnership that is holy, it is the faithful repetition of turning aside to see and to hear one's partner, in imitation of God turning aside to care for those most in need, in imitation of Moses turning aside to bask in the glow of God.

None of that is written on the marriage certificate that I sign after officiating a wedding. None of that is written into our state or federal laws. The government does not define what the quality of a married relationship should be or how partners should treat one another....only who can enter a marriage and who cannot.

So I return to the question: What's so sacred about marriage? What's so important about keeping marriage between a man and a woman that many Christian organizations and congregations are spending millions to lobby for legal restrictions? How does gay marriage threaten straight marriage? As an Open & Affirming congregation, can we risk being silent on the issue of marriage—on the meaning of marriage—or do we have something different to offer in this raging debate?

Adam & Eve don't particularly inspire me as the exemplary married couple in the bible; I want to know what their relationship was really like when the honeymoon ended and they were forced to leave the Garden of Eden. Abraham, that great father of monotheism, just wanted a son, and he would take in or throw out whichever woman (Hagar or Sarah) who was most helpful to him or most in his way. I could go on with biblical examples of "married" couples!

But show me two people—two individuals, regardless of gender, who otherwise have no reason or obligation to care for each other—and yet they faithfully and lovingly turn aside from their own egos to support, to walk with one another along life's journey... that is the holy ground of marriage. In the brilliant flames of that partnership, you can see the reflection of God's partnership with humanity. In the reflection of that love, you can hear God calling us out of our self-focused daydreaming, calling out to us from the miracle of a burning bush, saying, “Turn aside, for the sake of one another. Turn aside, for the sake of my name.”


Blessed be the name of God,

who has been faithful to the generations before us

and whose constant presence surprises us still.

We are amazed and thankful for the signs of your love among us....

for the miracle of two people in love,

for the joy of friends in each other's company,

for the tenderness of parents caring for children.

You call us to turn aside from our self-absorbed routines in order to see one another clearly,

to hear the cries of those most in need,

to behold the fire of your presence.

Do not stop calling us, we pray, even if we are slow to listen and slow to look.

We are grateful for people and events that reflect your love for life.

Break into us with your steadfast love;

make us bold to break through the limitations and restrictions that have been placed on the gay & lesbian community.

We would be hopeless in trying to love one another at all

if not for your grace and your example in first loving us.

Blessed be your name, O God, for you do not leave us alone.

Pour out your Spirit on us, full of strength and courage for loving one another.

For Christ's sake. Amen.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Statement of Faith

Recently I was asked by a church member if I plan to give a sermon about my faith journey. It's a fair question; certainly a congregation likes to know something about the faith and life story of its pastor. Still, I don't particularly view my journey as preaching material. So, in lieu of a sermon, here is one glimpse (an excerpt of my ordination paper) into my theological perspective as it has been shaped by life and Life:

i believe in God
the Creator
the Giver
the One beyond my imagining

God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God

i believe in Jesus
the Lover
the Example
the inexplicable Son of God and of Man

God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God

i believe in the Holy Spirit
the Sustainer
the Mover
the Joy that overflows my soul

God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God[1]


THEOLOGY[2]

We believe in you, O God, Eternal Spirit,
God of our Savior Jesus Christ and our God, and to your deeds we testify:
You call the worlds into being, create persons in your own image, and set before each one the ways of life and death.
You seek in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin.
You judge people and nations by your righteous will declared through prophets
and apostles
.[3]


I believe in God: the Creator who calls us by name; the Father of rainbows and unbroken covenants, the Mother of steadfast love and compassion[4]
; the Lord of Israel who attends to the slavewoman and her son in the wilderness, and whispers over dry bones in the valley until they dance with life; the Holy One who burns without consuming, judges without reviling, and pursues without relenting; and the Deliverer in whom to take refuge and find strength.

I believe that God is located most of all among the poor and the oppressed, in places where there is much weeping and gnashing of teeth. From the vantage point of history, the most downtrodden have been those who are darker and legally disempowered. “The One who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning”—this God who is above all gods—pours out “justice…like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”[5] The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has “set his heart in love,” dwelling with us, and requiring but that we love and serve God alone.[6]

When people ask me, “What is God like?”

I often answer
God is like a shepherd
tending to the flock
leading me to still waters

Or I say that
God is like a rock
grounding all being
securing me through storm and sun alike


But lately I’ve come to think that
God is like a mother’s womb
birthing in pain a new creation
bleeding to give life with the cycles of the moon

Perhaps I should elaborate
God is like a mother’s womb
stretching to hold a crying world and
feeding the hungry with divine placenta

In our scriptures, I hear how
God is like a mother’s womb
delivering people from and through blood
bearing justice for the sake of God’s name

In this world’s stories, I know that
God is like a mother’s womb
carrying the indignation of creation’s rape
braving to bear life to the weak

In my own life, I see how
God is like a mother’s womb
shaping my name and my ability to live
pushing me through the canal to be an agent of life

Finally and foremost, I believe that
God is like a mother’s womb
protecting jealously all of God’s children and
loving life above all pain[7]


I believe that theology and language for God are ultimately inadequate. Our knowledge of God is forever limited by our humanity, yet through God’s relationship to us and God’s relationship to Godself, we find insight into God’s nature. The Triune God therefore cannot be fully known apart from the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Finally and foremost, I believe that “the Lord our God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the stranger…He is our praise; he is our God, who has done for us these great and awesome things that our own eyes have seen.”[8]

CHRISTOLOGY
In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Savior,
you have come to us and shared our common lot,
conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to yourself.

I believe in Jesus Christ: the Word made flesh; the visible Covenant, definitively revealing God’s bond to humanity; the I am who feeds the hungry, heals the sick, and calms the storm; the passionate Son of God who loves fiercely; and the rebellious Son of Man who upsets empires for the sake of the meek.


I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, three days after his crucifixion and death. I believe in life after death because I know from my own life that there is joy after sorrow, healing after pain, dawn after dark night. Like Moses striking the rock until a wellspring burst forth, the resurrection of God Incarnate strikes a call for persistence. It is a revelation that the stubborn fight for goodness and life where there is none is both human and holy, an outpouring of Living Water into our broken world.

Jesus! the name that charms all fears,
That bids our sorrows cease
Tis music in the sinner’s ear,
Tis life and health and peace![9]


Fair are the meadows, fairer still the woodland,
Robed in the blooming garb of spring;
Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer
Who makes the woeful heart to sing.[10]


I believe that Jesus is God, fully divine and fully human. He is our Redeemer, who meets both the woman at the well and the priest in the temple, the beggar at the curbside and the teacher in the hall. Jesus is the One through whom God heals. I believe that Jesus is the true example of agape, and that he will come again to bring a new day. Until that time, the promised Holy Spirit dwells among us and empowers us to witness to the good news of the realm to come.

PNEUMATOLOGY
You bestow upon us your Holy Spirit,
creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ,
binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues and races.


I believe in the Holy Spirit: the Comforter of generations, who brings us into the calm of God’s grace; the Intercessor in our weakness and the One with us in trial and rejoicing; the Pentecostal Fire that shapes us into the people God has called us to be; the Mover through whom God’s grace inspires human passion; the divine Communion that breaks down walls and binds together one cloud of witnesses; the Giver of truth and wisdom for fruitful living and the dawning of God’s kingdom.

Spirit, spirit of gentleness,
Blow through the wilderness, calling and free.
Spirit, spirit of restlessness,
Stir me from placidness, wind, wind on the sea.

You call from tomorrow, you break ancient schemes,
From the bondage of sorrow, the captives dream dreams;
Our women see visions, our men clear their eyes.
With bold new decisions your people arise.[11]


I believe that the Holy Spirit is God, one with God the Father and God the Son. I believe that the Spirit is the Breath of God, moving over the waters of creation and stirring the waters of new life within each of us. I believe that the Spirit whispers to us the good news: “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you.”[12]


ECCLESIOLOGY
You call us into your church
to accept the cost and joy of discipleship,
to be your servants in the service of others,
to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil,
to share in Christ’s baptism and eat at his table,
to join him in his passion and victory.
You promise to all who trust you
forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace,
courage in the struggle for justice and peace,
your presence in trial and rejoicing,
and eternal life in your realm which has no end.


I believe that the church is the Body of Christ, called to serve and to speak with boldness and without reservation. I believe that the church is the primary place for spiritual nourishment within the Christian community. Community is vital to faith and essential to one’s experience of God’s grace. As Christian mystic Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “If I have faith, it is because I have met faith, I have seen it in action.”[13]
The giving of oneself to another—in love, in forgiveness, in compassion, in service—leads to a fuller understanding of God’s grace and marks the pursuit of Christian discipleship. The church is the cloud of witnesses that gives testimony to the truth of God’s grace and mercy.[14]

The mission of the church must be “to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.”[15] The passionate love of God, the radical justice of Jesus, and the fiery presence of the Spirit must be in the church. Because we are loved, we must love. Because we have been taught, we must teach. “Lord, speak to me, that I may speak. O lead me, Lord, that I may lead. O teach me, Lord, that I may teach.”[16] It is not enough to know God’s grace. The church must live God’s grace, passionately and radically.

The sacraments of the church serve to surround each person with this amazing grace, and to bring each person further into the community that shares in and guides one’s faith journey. The two sacraments celebrated in the United Church of Christ—communion and baptism—are those that we understand to be instituted by Christ according to biblical tradition.

The celebration of the Lord’s Supper invites people to a common place for the healing of brokenness and for the celebration of God’s Incarnate presence. In communion, Christ meets us in common elements and nourishes us with strength for life’s journey. The broken bread and the poured cup—signs that we remember Christ as commanded to us[17]—symbolize God’s covenant and God’s presence with us in all of life through the crucified and risen Christ.[18] The celebration of communion should be intentionally welcoming to all, for Christ calls all people to his banqueting table.[19]

Baptism, another symbol of God’s graceful presence, brings us into the church and sanctifies us before God. In the sacrament of baptism, the congregation (representing the larger church) affirms its care of members and recognizes their new life in Christ. The water of baptism marks us with the name of the Triune God, the One who creates us from dust and delights in our being. Because God’s blessing is available to all, including the very young,[20] baptism can be celebrated by the very young and the very old alike.

Wade in the water,
Wade in the water, children,
Wade in the water,
God’s gonna trouble the water.[
21]

I believe that God invites all people to wade in the waters of life, to be refreshed with healing, to be troubled and stirred to justice, to be tried and tested in faith, and to ultimately rest in God’s love and grace.
Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto you. Amen.


ENDNOTES:
[1] Hackenberg, Rachel. “A Nicene Creed.”
[2] Here I use the academic language of systematic theology to designate each theological theme. Theology is the study of God. Christology is the study of Jesus Christ. Pneumatology is the study of the Holy Spirit. Ecclesiology is the study of the church.
[3] UCC Statement of Faith (doxological version), 1981. Original version, 1959.
[4] A brief note regarding the supposed gender of God: While it is important to recognize the limits of a patriarchal God, a strictly feminine God also has limitations. God is mother and father, male and female, both and neither. That said, the “default” gender of God (male) is not always best, nor is gender-neutral language always suitable. Using gendered language for God can creatively inspire our theology. In the end, we must affirm the indescribable nature of God, who is beyond our imagining. Human attempts to succinctly categorize God are partially true and catchy at best, deceptive and hate-inspiring at worst. By God’s grace, our eyes can be opened to partial understandings of God so that we are moved and renewed to faith.
[5] Amos 5:8 and 24.
[6] Deuteronomy 10:15.
[7] Hackenberg, Rachel. “What God Is Like.”
[8] Deuteronomy 10:17-18 and 21, pronouns adapted.
[9] Wesley, Charles, 1739. “O For A Thousand Tongues.” Azmon tune by Carl G. Gläser, 1828.
[10] Gesangbuch, Münster, 1677. “Fairest Lord Jesus.” Schönster Herr Jesu tune, Silesian folksong melody.
[11] Manley, James, 1978. “Spirit, Spirit of Gentleness.” Spirit tune by James Manley, 1978. This hymn has been a favorite of mine since I was a camper at Hartman Center. It lyrically illustrates the Spirit as Comforter and Initiator, Maker and Revealer.
[12] Isaiah 41:10.
[13] L’Engle, Madeleine. And It Was Good: Reflections on Beginnings. Wheaton, Illinois: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1983. 43.
[14] Hebrews 12:1.
[15] Micah 6:8.
[16] Havergal, Frances R., 1872. “Lord, Speak To Me That I May Speak.” Canonbury tune by Robert Schumann, 1839.
[17] Luke 22:19b.
[18] Matthew 26:28. See Deuteronomy 29:10-15 for an example of God’s covenant with God’s people. “You stand assembled today…to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, sworn by an oath, which the Lord your God is making with you today; in order that he may establish you today as his people, and that he may be your God.” See also Revelation 21:3.
[19] Matthew 22:1-10. “Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet” (verse 9). Nowhere in the gospels does Jesus teach exclusion at the table.
[20] Mark 10:14.
[21] Traditional African-American spiritual.

Friday, June 27, 2008

This Beginning

This day, this beginning
sings of possibilities
and I rush to greet them.
Just as the sun anxiously awaits the dawn,
so I have eagerly anticipated
this day, this beginning.

Reaching for the doorknob to fling open
this day, this beginning,
I pause—
Is that a cloud on the horizon,

a potential what-if,
a snag in the perfection?

It may not work as I had anticipated,
this day, this beginning,
this new possibility.
There is a fear here—no, several fears

that I was avoiding,
dreading, denying.

Be with me, I can only ask,
in this day, this beginning,
to reassure me.
Surround me with confidence,
instill your strength within me,
bless me and guide me in
this day, this beginning.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Choosing Sides

In liberal Protestantism, there is a growing spirit of ecumenism--that cooperative, non-judgmental perspective that allows us to honor and affirm the traditions, perspectives, belief systems, and life choices of a diverse global community. Yet within this "room for all" spirit, too often we hesitate to assert our own faith and views for fear of looking like religious extremists (for liberal Protestants, any parallels to the Christian Right are anathema).

And so when a situation arises in which we must choose a side and declare a definitive position (or else choose silence, which is a "side" in its own way), many Protestants become guilt-ridden and uncertain. How can we know that we are on the right side? Implied question: Aren't we just as bad as "them" for asserting our right-ness and righteousness in a given situation?

This past Saturday afternoon, I stood (literally on the other side of the fence) watching protestors at an LGBT Pride festival. Their signs and t-shirts said such things as: "Jesus Saves From Hell" and "Homosexuality Is A Sin." The protestors told families entering the festival that they were going to hell; they shouted "It's not too late...repent!" to same-gender couples. And when I carried a rainbow umbrella with Silent Witness PA (www.silentwitnesspa.org) at the festival gates in support of those entering the festival, one protestor mocked the silent witnesses, saying that our umbrellas wouldn't save us when the world came to an end and fire rained from heaven.

Several of the festival-goers I spoke with that day were visibly disturbed. How can the protestors say those things? How can they yell at children? How can they believe in that kind of God? .....and that nagging question, how do we know we're right? To one person who asked me this last question, I replied (perhaps too glibly) that I'm willing to go to hell if I'm wrong for being pro-gay. But I, too, couldn't immediately shake the protestors' shouts from my mind on Saturday evening. I might accuse the protestors of erroneous biblical interpretation, but they would only say the same (and more) of my interpretation. Is it all relative? If/When we move past our liberal universalism and choose sides, do we have any assurance of right-ness with God?

Years ago, on a wall in the office of my college chaplain, there was a beautiful, poetic quotation that I read often. These days, I only remember the first two lines and that the author was a Sister So-and-So. But it read:
Choose life--only that and always--
And at whatever cost.
We must remember, and we must claim, that taking the name "Christian" means that we are choosing a side. Granted, there are many people who claim this side, but mainstream and liberal Protestants too often sit on the fence (and/or sit in silence) for fear of offending or creating waves. To claim the side of Christian, I believe, involves claiming and proclaiming the side of life....tangible, incarnate life....
life that nurtures,
life that celebrates,
life that understands resurrection after death in everyday living,
life that pays attention to and works to lift up the oppressed and discouraged,
life that resists the lethargy of the status quo and the greed of the powerful.

The protestors at the Pride Festival missed the mark by preaching a kind of "good news" that preserved the status quo, that upheld the position of the privileged (white heterosexual men), that relied on scare tactics, that proclaimed judgment at the expense of justice, damnation at the expense of celebrating life. The good news of Jesus is not disconnected from this incarnate life:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18)
As long as I am able, this is the good news that I will proclaim and the side that I will choose.

Monday, June 23, 2008

On Faith and Water

Beloved, you are the holy water washing me clean.
I bathe in your cooling grace, praying for comfort and finding waves of change.
Only in the mercy of the palm of your hand is the water a blessing.
The drops baptize and refresh me beyond my understanding.
Water surrounds me, still and strong.
My cup overflows.

The water blesses my life with joy and hope.
When the water is turbulent and stormy, it is the Beloved One bringing me to a new place.
The downpour washes away all that I once knew.
I am left alone with the Beloved in the new water.
I wade into the pool, alternately timid and bold.
My cup overflows.

Each day I step into the water’s storms and caresses.
If only I could be more confident in my wading, more intentional as I enter the water.
But the gifts of the water are grace and mercy.
I am afloat in the bounty of the Beloved’s love.
How can I doubt the healing of the water?
My cup overflows!