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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Why?

I am not going to relate this blog to a specific scripture, but instead will worry a bit with the idea of living in the gray areas of our faith. The study group in which I participate had a lively discussion about why Jesus seems so often to answer the questions he is asked with another question or with a parable.

Doesn't this just cause problems, some asked. Doesn't it add a great potential for misdirection, asked another. And then the opposing view - that this approach just adds to the beautiful mystery and spirituality of our faith. I fall somewhere between the two extremes of responses.

I truly believe that Jesus answered us in parables not to be confusing but to enable and encourage us to use our brains in our faith lives. Rather than just giving cut and dried answers, God expects us to grow through mature reflection, study and wrestling with faith questions.

For me the givens are God's grace and love for all. Beyond that, I take comfort that my faith can change and grow with me. I can be wrong but move on later when I figure it out. I am assured by the grace and forgiveness of God. It is also comfortable to not be expected to be perfect. Cut and dried laws left humans in a lurch because we are incapable of living up to them. Gray area leaves room for change and learning from our errors.

A God that can fit in a box and be defined with a ruler and measures of human ability to communicate is a limited God. A God that so desires to be in relationship with us that the discussion remains open can be frustrating but is so much more. More than the parent who always says "Because I said so..." in answer to the every query.

God demands of us to work it out - and to work it out together. We muddle along, but I think that we learn so much more by the experience. And, we grow closer to one another at the same time as growing closer to God.

If instead of parables, we had been given a list, would the list have been the amazing reading that we have today in the collection of stories that is the Bible? Would it have been relevant across the years to the depth that we find in the many stories and parables Jesus shared?

So how do we live faithfully into the gray? We constantly challenge ourselves with 'why?' and, we hold one another accountable to the 'why?' And, if we ever think that we have it figured out to such a degree that I am right and you are wrong about faith - we need to take a really hard look at our answers. The biggest error of all is imagining that we have it all figured out. And it is a red flag if we are adamant more about another being wrong than the tenets we hold dear.

God is beyond our full comprehension, and I take comfort in that. But I take comfort that God is with us in scripture, through one another and through the Holy Spirit helping us maneuver in the gray of our lives. Each moment is enriched if it is valued and explored with integrity, love and grace for all.

Shalom,
Laura

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Change Agent


Romans 12:1-8
Why was Paul writing to the Romans? The Pauline letters make up a large portion of the New Testament. They are letters that Paul wrote to the various communities he had visited offering advice, correction and greetings to the churches he had formed in those locations. This letter to the Romans is thought to have been written from Corinth when he thought he was going to visit Rome and use it as a new base for expanding his ministry into Spain.
Paul was offering advice regarding how a Christian should live. To Paul, a new time had come after Jesus’ resurrection. In this messianic time, The Kingdom of God was begun among us, being worked out by us and was to come. That this had started therefore called upon us to respond by leading changed lives. The old righteousness and wisdom should be completely thrown out – replaced with that of God, the wisdom and righteousness that are given to us not earned. The old ways are the ones where we trust what we have been taught and how we know things are supposed to work. With our own sweat and effort, we can make the changes needed, we can solve the problems. We are to replace that thinking, replace what we think we know with the ways of Christ. True change and wisdom is only found through God not our own efforts at independence and self sufficiency.
We are to be a living sacrifice – instead of dedicating all our efforts for self gain, we to serve and put our efforts toward God. The letter continues that this is our spiritual worship. We are to be transformed so we can discern what is God’s will – what is good, acceptable and perfect. Whoa, a living sacrifice, transformed with a renewed mind and now figuring out what is perfect. Paul has some steep expectations.
Where do we even start with how to follow the guidance of this letter? A huge challenge, but I think as Presbyterians, some of the words here are very comforting. We are not to leave our minds at the door but to renew our minds, discern – or think about what God wants. In the next sentence of this scripture, some form of the word think is used four times with nuances that are tricky to carry from Greek to English. Suffice it to say that Paul is not going to spoon feed us what we should specifically do but expects us to know how to work together as the body of Chris for a transformed community.
How do we begin to do this in society today? I think that there are special gifts in the art of transformation. It often seems easier for them to influence other to action and change. So often these are politicians, movie stars and musicians. But not always.
Does anybody know who Chris Kennedy is? He is a professional golfer in Sarasota Florida. Ring any bells? His wife’s cousin has Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS – he accepted the first ice bucket challenge from his golf swing coach and created a video to encourage his relative. This was around July 27 - by Aug 22 the challenge had raised more than $53.3 million! (Editorial note - by Sept 8 had raised over $100 million and climbing) This wasn’t the first challenge relating to cold water – polar bear challenges have been issued for years. What is it about this person’s actions that were different? Chris’ wife’s youtube video meant to encourage a sick relative went crazy – beyond their wildest imaginings. The Muscular Dystrophy Association has its annual fundraiser coming up labor day – last year they raised about 61 million yet they have seen almost that same amount for ALS with ice buckets.
How did this come about? Is it all social media? I think that a big part of it is intention. Chris Kennedy didn’t call it the Kennedy Challenge, nor did he have expectations of his own popularity or gain. What does it mean in modern vernacular for something to go ‘viral’? It means that like a virus, the particular news, story or trend can’t seem to be stopped. Wherever people are connected, it is being passed along. That is what transformation is all about. People use their brains to do something in service of others. Then, through our interconnectedness. Through that unique web of relationships, the transformation becomes possible.
It is no coincidence that Paul continues in the following verses about the importance of the gifts – each person having something to contribute to the whole with none standing any higher or lower in a scale of importance. By ourselves, we are nothing – we are what we are in relation to Christ and we are defined by that relationship and the relationship we have to the body of Christ – to one another.
So here we sit in relationship together and we might conclude that worship is adequate with the liturgy, preaching and music we do together in this room. While that is not wrong, Paul meant so much more. Worship is what happens in community as we live out faith by serving one another outside these walls. It is what we do with the rest of our week. It is all about community as we live out our faith by serving one another to build up the body of Christ. Our worship is not measured by what happens on only Sunday mornings.
It is things like we did yesterday – coming together with our neighbors. Pooling the resources around us, calling upon friends, raising awareness. Improving the lives of the children and families next door – with a vaccination or with just a smile. The Health Fair is definitely one way St. Barnabas worships together.
The challenge is to not just stop there and develop an apathy for what we think we can’t change. When we start to get overwhelmed – and all you have to do these days is pick up a newspaper or watch an update – the solution isn’t to allow ourselves to become numbed. The solution is not to think our voices aren’t important or large enough. I’m only human – what can I do. That is a poor excuse. We are humans created in God’s image and gifted in amazing ways to work together for transformation of the world around us to grow ever into God’s Kingdom exhibited here on earth in our midst.
I am always amazed what happens in churches when push comes to shove. Somehow the impossible often seems to shrink and become manageable. The trick to being a change management expert is to find your strengths – your gifts. Offer them to the whole. You will be amazed at the results. After all – who would have thought that a game of pouring a bucket of ice over your head would result in millions of dollars raised to battle a devastating disease.
In researching texts for a study with young adults, I ran across a book that encourages us to each embrace our quirks, own our weirdness. In the interconnectedness with the world, part of us being open and able to be transformed is that the very things we might belittle or not value are gifts from God and may turn out to be the talent that is needed for the next important change. Being a living sacrifice and transforming our minds means we become the change agents for the world. Each agent tied together in a complex web – through our relations in this group or through our connections at home, or even through the internet. The ALS challenge has gone viral, part of the catch is much like the chain letters of old. Once taken, the person who is facing the challenge doesn’t do so alone but brings in two or three others to join the effort – I challenge you – oh don’t worry, I am not bringing out the ice in the sanctuary, but I am calling us to remember the welcoming waters of our baptisms and to whom we belong. I challenge you to accept with me Paul’s call for us to be transformed and explore where our gifts meet the world’s need today to bring God’s justice to all. Amen.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Closed Doors



Associated Press photo from Portland Press Herald
 - children at Brownsville facility
I am struck numb by the response of so many of my neighbors in Collin County to the crisis of children trying to flee to the United States. The reasons given for not extending a helping hand center around fear - fear of giving to someone else instead of our own children, fear of disease, fear of the unknown. I find it ironic that we are afraid when the situations that these children are running from instill fear beyond our imaginings.
The very foundation of this country is based upon a pride in offering a safe haven to the oppressed. Why would we go out of our way to create a policy pre-emptively prohibiting a county from ever offering support to any group of people? Such a restriction flies in the face of freedoms we so value. How can we scream, ‘no, no, no!’ when we do not know what we might be asked to do, if anything?

We have not been asked in our county to house anyone. We have not been asked to pay for anything. There is no threat of disease. UNICEF has even indicated that these children are likely better vaccinated than many of our own due to mandatory plans in their countries. Programs for our own children are not on the chopping block, and no new programs are at risk of being cancelled as a result of immigrant children.
Pre-emptively it ties the hands of the county in the name of politics. There can be no other reason for taking such a stance at this point in time. Look to the actions of 2008 when the legislation was unanimously passed allowing children from non-bordering countries to receive protection. The action taken to prevent child trafficking was supported by all in the name of compassion.
“This is a piece of legislation we’re very proud to sign,” a White House spokesman, Tony Fratto, told reporters on Dec. 23, 2008, as President Bush signed the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008. “This program has been very effective around the world in trying to stop trafficking in persons.”
Nobody ever thought that protecting children would result in thousands fleeing to our borders. Yet, here we are. “It is classic unintended consequences,” said Marc R. Rosenblum, deputy director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute. “This was certainly not what was envisioned.” So, what now? Have we as a nation changed our mind to such a degree that all we can do is point fingers, cast blame and build walls?

Take care in action that prohibits future responses or that may have unintended results. I was reminded of the diligence of the Lost Boys of Sudan. Thousands of boys fled across great lengths to find safety. Many died along their journey. Yet, we opened our arms to them and welcomed them to sanctuary in this nation. Many of them grew into responsible contributing adult members of society as well as loved parts of our local families. We still care. We still revile child slavery and violence against children.
I have heard the cliché that ‘God does not call the prepared but prepares the called’. It seems that Americans as a people are being challenged to reach out in compassion. No, we aren’t prepared. Yes, it is frightening to think of the change and impact so many children may have. Who cares whose ‘fault’ it is? I pray that a nation that can fund an unexpected war or an economic crises can rise to the call to care for the children.

It is selfish and limiting of the amazing power of our God to motivate and empower people to think that caring for international children prevents us from caring for our own. Jesus didn’t ask for an identification – no pre-screening required. In fact, He was more likely to care for the child and the outcast rather than the local. But there is nothing to say we can’t activate to do both. It is time to pay attention to what Texans and Americans are saying about the importance of children. Collin county can lead the way.
 We the people are the nation. Don’t create walls and policies that block anyone from caring. Don’t be controlled by fear. How many closed and unused buildings surround us in our metroplex? Many of us are blessed in excess of our needs. The time is now to stand up and care. Instead of saying ‘no’ to what we might be asked to do, prepare and plan for what we can do. Be pro-active instead of pre-emptive. Reach out a hand. Would you slam the door in the face of a frightened child? Take the time to open doors of North Texas today!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Hope Abounds

Apologies to my non-Presbyterian friends, but here goes some unpacking from my last week.

The past week was a super busy one in the life of my church and in the life of the PC (USA). Watching the progress in polity of General Assembly (GA) our governing body meeting in Detroit from a youth mission work site in New Orleans was unique and in surprising ways enriching. In both service out in the world and service within the church body, we struggle together to do the right thing. There are no guarantees, but the spirit is at work in our midst to help us muddle through. We pray, we serve, and we struggle together. Because we are pretty much guaranteed to not always make everyone happy, we compromise and work together. In my case this time with a hammer in one hand and a cell phone checking updates in the other.

 
But the important thing is prayerful action. We serve together seeking to make the community and our neighbors feel the justice and benefit of Christ's body, the church, healthier in the world today. Divestment decisions and marriage definition were the big media topics from GA. However, these are complex issues that are not given justice unless you look at them more deeply.

 
The youth on the mission trip learned to look more deeply. They weren't just sweating and helping with construction, but they were extending a hand of hope in a community that desperately needs it. Holding out a hand in hope is what church is all about. Even though it has been eight years since Hurricane Katrina, the Ninth Ward needs hope - they need to know someone cares enough to act. The same is true of our governing body. You may disagree with actions taken, or may endorse them whole-heartedly. However, the church cares enough to act.

For those of you inclined to a knee-jerk reaction of joy or scorn, I encourage you to familiarize yourself with GA decisions beyond just media and to familiarize yourself with our mission work (youth, children and adults).

 
I don't think it coincidence that the theme for GA was: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit,” (Romans 15:13), and the group we did mission with was RHINO - Renewing Hope in New Orleans!

 
Talk to one another, talk to your pastors and elders (this works outside Presbyterian world too - talk to your faith community!). Read what missionaries write - talk to youth and children who go on trips this summer, and check out some of the summaries on  GA. I recommend Presbyterian Outlook as a good resource. I really liked what this article had to say as well:  http://kekovacs.blogspot.com/2014/06/abounding-in-hope.html?m=1

Relationship - how we get along in love with our neighbors is what Christianity and being the church is about. Extending hope  is fundamental to doing that. Don't look aside and get accustomed to the downtrodden in our midst. We can't ignore the uncomfortable issues because to deal with them may cause controversy. We are community and have a responsibility to know our work in this world as the arm of hope extended from Christ today.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

On the Way to Dinner

Palm Sunday is a wonderful/horrible day. How are we to preach this text when it is a very typical best of times and worst of times? We celebrate Jesus riding on a donkey and being welcomed by the crowds and then quickly turn to a gruesome betrayal. Weird as it may sound, this reminds me greatly of my experience this past weekend.

I attended a junior high youth conference. How in the world you might ask does this relate to Palm Sunday? The youth are having a wonderful time and are also being pushed and challenged in their faith discussions during such a conference. They are enjoying themselves in a retreat setting and can leave the cares of the world behind. Often times, they are rejoicing and spending time with dear friends who they will not see regularly outside of such retreats. For many it is a mountaintop experienced that they wish to hang onto.

Much like disciples who want to build tents on the mountaintop and reside there forever on the right and left hand of Jesus, the youth want to grab the good and freeze frame. Can't we just stay here? Can't it always be like this? No!

First, if it were always like that, then it would cease to be a mountaintop experience. Second, if we freeze and grab onto a moment so strongly we are idolizing that instead of the movement of the Holy Spirit that made 'that' special to begin with! Don't get me wrong, those moments are dear and are to be remembered and set aside to look back upon when we need rejuvenating or when we want to remember how we got to this point in our journey.

Yet, if we don't finish the meal and let our plate be taken away, how can we get to dessert? Sometimes I feel like I would rather just eat appetizers forever because those are my favorites, yet if I just stop there, I miss the meat and the sweet treat at the end. Not to reduce the passion story to a cliché about dinner, but the meat of the story is the resurrection.

To move on to what God has in store for us and to sometimes get to the more important parts, we must let go of the current mountaintop. Sometimes that seems like a great descent into a very unwelcoming valley. But we can be assured that the darkest valley and the biggest sacrifice has already been made on our behalf. This is a time to remember a bittersweet last dinner with humans whose faith wasn't enough.

Remember how much Jesus loved and was willing to undertake for us, take hope and step out in faith. For youth, that could mean venturing into the next big step of moving to the next level of education - journeying into the unknown. For us it could mean the next step in a career or a new volunteer task or even a big move. And, often it means leaving behind some of our beloved friends, not looking forward to the traditional retreat or times together that may have become a yearly ritual.

And yet, God has great things in store. God continues to feed us. If we stop with the small bites that seem so delectable, we miss the next thing god has in store. Our hearts are big enough to welcome in new friends while holding a special place for the existing ones. The Holy Spirit travels with us as we move down from those high moments into the unknown. The journey is not always easy,  but it is the path to growing closer to God. Trust in God when things seem hopeless and be ready to take that next step. Remember the sacrifice Jesus made for us but also celebrate that what comes next is even more amazing.

Shalom!