Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Unexpected Places

There is something about playing music in a band that is really special. Over the past couple of months, Scott Stevens and Doug Dickey and myself have been practicing weekly and sometimes twice weekly to prepare for leading worship at the Maine UCC 2015 Annual Meeting. My Maine 20/30 UCC pastors group was asked to lead worship and offer upbeat and lively music by our new Conference Minister the Rev. Deborah Blood. So of course I took this to mean offer a variety of different kinds of music, the Civil Wars, The Mama’s & the Papa’s, some Gospel, and beyond. So I enlisted, or rather, begged, Scott and Doug to join me. Turns out they really enjoy playing music together and we’re a good ensemble. Then on Friday of the conference we added my clergy colleagues, Geoff Parker and Kelli Whitman, and also the church pianist Lynne.

 The theme of the conference was “Finding GOD in Unexpected Places” and we were reminded of the disciples who found Jesus on the road to Emmaus. They didn’t recognize him at first, but the scriptures reports “their eyes were opened in the breaking of the bread.” There is something about that practice of having a meal together, where we can come to welcome each other in new ways. This happened at the conference over meals, and also as we broke bread together in communion.

The picture above is the altar that we created to symbolize finding God in Unexpected Places. I borrowed these lobster traps from my friend and lobsterman Pat White, for which I am grateful. God finds us on unexpected roads, surprising us with the beauty of unexpected friendships that grow and blossom because you’re asked to play music together, or to lead worship together, and you say yes. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

I Am Listening

The most important mentors in my life have been extraordinary listeners. These were people who often said very little, however, they gave me the space to share stories of struggle or blessing without commentary or advice, unless of course I asked their opinion. 

The past couple of months my church has challenged all parishioners with a ministry opportunity called the Kingdom Project. Everyone is given seed money to begin a project, with the goal of reaping more than what we were given. The scriptural connection is the Parable of the Talents, Matt 25.14-30.

My project was inspired by the Compassionate Listening Project, which you can look up. The idea is to offer a listening ear to total strangers on a street corner. The obvious goal is to practice listening to others, and making space in our lives to do this with folks who we don’t know. This will take a courageous bunch of folks, but I believe this is going to be a gift to all those involved. The above shirts I purchased with my own resources, Are You Listening? If you want a t-shirt, I will send you one if the shipping isn't more than a couple bucks. All I ask is that you share your experience with me in writing.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Summer Reading: Pastrix

Meeting weekly on Monday nights at Pastor Rachel’s, a small group of folks are gathering to read Pastrix by Nadia Boltz-Weber. Nadia’s take on ministry will have you laughing and crying. So far we have been moved by the way that Nadia encourages fellow Christians to make space for folks who are addicts, or recovering, or who find themselves on the belief continuum, and need a place of safety to explore without being judged. She shares her stories of failure and yet the ways God breaks into her life and cuts through her doubt, and disbelief. One particular claim that resonated with the group is “something has to die for something to live.” This is a provocative claim to make especially as we contextualize this within the framework of church life. Our churches fear change, including our own, and yet we are resurrection people. God will not betray us. I wonder who might be missing in the seats of our church if we really begin to look and ask.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Seven Last Words: A Good Friday Meditation

Experiencing my local clergy group's Ecumenical Good Friday Service was such a meaningful worship experience. We shared the seven last words of Christ, utilizing a resource brought to our attention by a friend and colleague in the group, Sudie Blanchard, edited by her husband Peter Blanchard from the sermons written by his father the Bishop Roger Blanchard.  

I've seen the story of Jesus' last days enacted by actors, very dramatically portraying these final moments of Jesus' human life. Some that were staged as memorial services for Jesus. Sometimes Mary would drop a rose at the front of the Sanctuary, pause and return to her seat in tears. I've been to many good Good Friday Services in my last seven years in ministry, and yet this experience was unique from all the rest.

Rt. Rev. Roger Blanchard was beautifully poetic in retelling the story of our faith once again, and humanity's failure to love God as we have been loved. Each of Jesus' last words were spoken readers theatre style by the voices of clergy from different Christian traditions.

What I was struck about in this telling of the story was the return to the beginning of it all, the Creation narrative moving forward. Telling of God's action over and over again to remind humankind that we are beloved. And humanity's ignorance of God's love, and so Jesus, God incarnate, was birthed into the world, not turning away from the daunting task of living and dying, but reminding us again of God's unending LOVE.

As Maundy Thursday is a reminder of the mandate for us to LOVE, as we have been loved, for me Good Friday was filled to the brim with God's love for us creatures, us imperfect, broken people. The me that struggles to LOVE, especially those I dislike, the me that doesn't want to forgive the judgmental, the me that betrays Christ, scared for my own neck, not living authentically, and turning my back to violence when I know I should speak-up and speak truth to power. Yep. I stand convicted. This is what Good Friday is about.

Overwhelmed with my powerlessness, I give thanks for LOVE.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Preacher's Pastor

The voice on the other end was very matter-a-fact. “My wife just died, and I am wondering if we can have the service on Saturday? “ I can feel his grief. He’s not saying the words, his voice is cool and crisp, and everything in me tells me he is trying to keep himself together. I agree to meet with the family the following day, and offer something pastoral to comfort. Click. I prepare my office as I typically do, clear of my table, place my book of worship, a hymnal, a sample bulletin, and tissues. They come in handy. In walks the family-husband, daughter, son, son’s wife, and friend of the family who is also a pastor. I welcome them all, and suggest we pray, to calm folk’s anxiety. As we talk, I get a couple of stories, although I realize nobody is interested in talking directly about the deceased. That’s when they tell me they have just spent the last 24 hours recounting stories, and laughing and crying together, they are exhausted. We discuss the service, their hopes and dreams. I want folks to feel cared for. They tell me they want their pastor friend to give the homily. I can tell how much it will mean to them, so of course. I will sing the hymns, offer the prayers, read scripture, and guide the speakers. We close with prayer, and the pastor friend says, “You did well.” I think he is referencing that I didn’t insist on preaching the homily. I look at him, he was clearly their safety net, and they brought him to the meeting for a reason. He says to me, “you know they didn’t leave the church on good terms, thanks for easing their transition back.”

The next day I meet the family in the church parlor, I begin introducing myself to the family, I hear from at least six more grandchildren that they want to share, and I begin organizing the speakers. That’s when I noticed their pastor friend, standing in the corner, completely bereft. I wondered how he was standing-up. He was giving the homily about his beloved friend he had known for 50 years, that I never knew, and I, well right then and there I realized what my job was. I was the preacher’s pastor that day. I became the pastor to the preacher and to the family, a service that only I could offer at this time. I called everyone together, we prayed, and what emerged in the service was an honoring of their beloved, and wow, what a beautiful and meaningful display of love. Being a pastor sometimes means knowing when we are called to swallow our ego, and listening where we are being called, sometimes leading from behind, sometimes leading on the side, and sometimes within.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Corporate Sin, Confession, & the Cross

Today I visited the English Department of George Washington University, invited by M.W. Bychowski, who teaches Introduction to English Literature I. In preparation for Medieval Confessional Literature, texts such as John Gower's Confessio Amantis, Book One and Chapter One of Ovid's Metamorpheses, and The Confessions of Augustine of Hippo, I was welcomed to speak about Corporate Sin and Confession from the perspective of a Christian pastor. I happen to not shy away from conversations about sin; in fact, I believe that we talk far too little about sin as Mainline Christians.

Bychowski began the class with the song the "Hanging Tree" from the movie Mockingjay: Part I. The hanging tree symbolizes the imagery of oppressed peoples being lynched for unfounded crimes, and the song ultimately calls for a revolution. Bychowski translated confession as "speaking together" challenging notion of sin as personal, but always inherently corporate, because a society shapes the people, plays a role and responsibility for one another.

When invited, I offered perspective about Ancient Judaism. Following the Law, or Torah, brought the People of God back into right relationship. Our scripture is full of examples of the ways that our faith ancestors turned away form God, and God called prophets to go to the people calling them to repent, to turn back to God. The prophets called for the repentance of the collective, the entire nation, this understanding of corporate sin, the sin of the collective was, unlike our modern understanding of personal sin. Following the Law, people/tribes/families would offer their sacrifice, atoning for their sins. This was a public confession, and was offered on the Sabbath, the first day of the month, festival days, and holy days. We discussed the year of Jubilee, where every 7 years debts were wiped away, symbolizing a confession of love of God and neighbor.

Fast forward to Medieval Europe. Though confession was practiced throughout the early Christian church, penance didn't become a formal practice until the 11th Century, when becoming a sacrament of the Catholic Church. Penance was the act of confession by individuals to the priest for the absolution of sin, which then required an offering of prayers. The move to the confession booth in many ways shifted the understanding of corporate sin to personal. Also the practice of selling of indulgences to the families of the unconfessed deceased became a controversial issue in Medieval Europe, this among other grievances led to a young Catholic bishop to begin questioning the actions of the Catholic Church.

The role of the priest in Confession on top of the selling of indulgences led to the perception of the corruption of the Catholic Church, and so the model of confession among other things became challenged in the Reformation. Catholic bishop Martin Luther called for reform, claiming "the priesthood of all believers," everyone has equal access to God, and therefore individuals can give confession directly to God, both individually and corporately in worship. Liturgically, the Lutheran and Reformed Church integrated the Confession into a corporate style prayer.

As we look to our present world we can can contextualize our understanding of Corporate Sin and Confession, and look to present movements that influence our current understandings of these terms.

In seminary I studied the scholarship of Dr. James Cone. In reading God of the Oppressed, I first discovered Dr. Cone's argument for the ontological blackness of Christ, Jesus' being was bound in solidarity with the oppressed, and he ultimately was strung up on a cross. Dr. Cone also argued that slavery was the U.S. original sin, with over 400 years of Black people being oppressed and lynched, and segregated. In 2012 Dr. James Cone preaching at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church in his sermon entitled "The Cross & The Lynching Tree" argues "Despite the obvious similarity between Jesus' death on the cross and the Black people who have been strung up by their necks, relatively few people have looked at the deep similarities between the cross and the lynching tree."

We turned next to the song "Strange Fruit" by Billie Holiday, and talked about the context in which this song was written. The students pointed out the obvious connection between the opening song and this song. Strange Fruit reminds us of the strange imagery of the lynched bodies of Black folks. This song, however, was tied to a specific hate crime when Black men in Indiana during the time of Jim Crow were suspected of a crime they didn't commit, were jailed and then released to an angry mob of over four thousand white folks, many of whom were Christians.

Next, we talked about the #BlackLivesMatter Movement being one of the largest young adult lead movements in the U.S. in the last century, they are the Prophets in our own time. And ended asking them, what would any meaningful act of Confession to the Corporate and Systemic Sin of racism be in our time?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Fat Tuesday Pancakes

I had no idea what Fat Tuesday was until I was a young adult. In fact, the season of Lent was something that I had not heard about prior to college. Dr. Clapp, the chaplain of my small liberal arts UCC college offered an Ash Wednesday Service, and I, of course, wouldn't have missed. I was hungry for God back then in a different way than I've ever been since (new Christian), ready to soak up every bit of spiritual formation or teaching- similar to my appetite for pancakes this morning:) 

Fat Tuesday is in many ways the preparation for the preparation. We prepare our bodies symbolically and materially by eating rich and nourishing foods, for a time of intentional spiritual preparation during Lent. Lenten preparation is important for Christian Formation. An intentional posture of holding open our Heart to the Spirit's conditioning- making us hungrier and hungrier for PRESENCE, LOVE, and ultimately the coming of EASTER- for a power beyond our own might and thinking and discipline, that performs the thing that we are utterly incapable of on our own- love conquering death in the RESURRECTION. 

I don't know about you, but I know that there are areas in my life that I need to work on. I tend to hide my more tender places, the areas in need of disciplined focused attention. So go out and get some yummy pancakes, fortify your body and mind, preparing for God's good work.