Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Reverend Rachel J. Bahr is an ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ, serving as a minister in the Church for over eleven years. Rachel received their Masters of Divinity at Chicago Theological Seminary. Afterwards spent six years building up the youth and family ministry in Glen Ellyn, IL, from a handful of kids to among the largest in the Chicagoland area. During this time, they mentored under the Reverend Doctor Lillian Daniel, author of When “Spiritual but Not Religious” Is Not Enough (2014) and Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To (2017). In 2013, Rachel moved to Maine, serving as associate pastor for a community of fisherman, craftspeople, artists, and leaders of the local tourist industry. During this time, they became engaged to their now wife and mother to their children, Doctor Gabrielle M.W. Bychowski, Ph.D. Subsequently, Rachel received a call as associate pastor in Connecticut, where they pioneered a racial justice ministry, LGBTQI ministry, Family Promise ministry, and developed a successful network of social media ministries including online Bible Studies and a new lecture series on faith in pop culture, “Christ and Comics.” In recent years, they have gone on pilgrimage through holy sites in England, sitting in the anchorite cell of St. Julian of Norwich, as well as hiking the Olympic Rainforest, the Appalachian Trail, and the Adirondack Mountains.

In a previous era, Rachel worked in theater performance and arts, receiving their Bachelors of Fine Arts from Catawba College in North Carolina. In “the windy city,” they worked primarily in Theater of the Oppressed circles, a form of social justice performance ministry that set their down the path towards ordination into the Church. While Rachel is no longer headlining shows, they bring singing and character voices to their ministry, creating a Broadway sermon series, hosting church talent shows, and adapting the life stories of Church leaders into monologues to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. On a smaller stage, they used the gift for song to propose to their wife, Gabby, with a rendition of “the Origin of Love” and would sing again at their wedding, this time performing a duet with her father, “the Rainbow Connection.”

Ministry really is in Rachel’s DNA, following in the legacy of their father, a retired pastor ordained in the Assemblies of God Church. As a youth, they were baptized by “the Power Team,” a group of weight-lifting ministers whose talents of preaching while ripping phone books in half by hand would demonstrate for Rachel the various types of strength required to be a leader in today’s Church. Today, while they don’t destroy books in their ministry, Rachel does still enjoy exercise that involves strength training.

In addition to their sermons and social media ministry, Rachel maintains a routine of writing. They produce a blog,, and is actively developing a book on ministry and social justice. An avid reader, a few of their recent favorite books include Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander which became the focus of church book groups.

Rachel’s family is full of strong women. As mentioned, they are married to Dr. Bychowski, a full time faculty member in English, teaching seminars on ethics, diversity and social justice, including, “Queer Christianity,” “Beyond Male and Female,” “Women of the Civil Rights Movement,” “Intersectional Traditions of Feminism,” and “Histories of Disability.” Gabby serves on the Executive Board of the United Church of Christ’s national Mental Health Network. She has written over a dozen academic articles on disability and transgender in the Middle Ages, as well as regular pieces reflecting on theology, her life as a trans woman, and pedagogy.

Together, Rachel and Gabby raise two willful and creative children, Clementine (12 years old) and and Elanora, who often goes by Nora, (8 years old). These kids fiercely approach the world and all its wonder, reminding their moms that as difficult as the world can be that life is full of joy, play and laughter. Clementine has just finished her first year in a School of the Arts, where she developed her passion for theater, singing, and the visual arts. Nora just received her green belt in Karate, but wants everyone to know that she also loves rock n’ roll, people, science (especially chemistry), and people. The tuxedo cats Frankie and Mustache complete the family.

With her family and in her downtime, Rachel likes to laugh, think, and eat yummy food. Coffee is one of their closest friends and cheese is a frequent house-guest. Among human friends, Rachel prefers sitting and talking while a brisket smokes or sitting for hours together at a Thai restaurant. At home, they watch zombie films, the Handmaid’s Tale, and Parks & Rec.

Above all, Rachel has a deep and abiding faith in God, keeping their eyes full of hope and their heart full of passion for the building of Christ’s Church. They will tell people: the God who I experience is closer to me than my breath, who is my constant company beckoning me closer, who reaches back to me in the depths of my moments of loneliness and despair, and the one who sees all of God’s children as beloved. As a young adult, they fell in love with Jesus again through the faith communities that compelled them to see Jesus again with new eyes. This Jesus stood in solidarity with all oppressed people, and breathed new life into my soul. This is when their call to transformational leadership emerged: when they were learning alongside black civil rights activists, church leaders, and mothers. Rachel believes that as followers of Christ, now more than ever, we must listen and respond to the voices beyond the walls of the buildings who have been ignored and excluded, offering hope to people that are desperate to witness good news. We need to remind ourselves that we have many collaborators still to come who will help us broaden our boundaries. A commitment to justice is at the heart and soul of Rachel’s ministry and faith. This means standing up for the least of these and being a pastor for all people. When we gather together around the communion table, it is a reminder that each of us matters equally, and that we need one another to thrive. All people are welcome, affirmed, and valued in Christ’s table and that is the spirit that Reverend Rachel J. Bahr follows in their ministry.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Bringing Your Queer Home: Growing Up Queer in Rural Community

Today I had the privilege of supporting my wife in teaching her classes at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. In the class Beyond Male and Female, we discussed Eli Clare's Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation, and I shared my own story of working class constrictions on queer bodies. The code of my family of origin was very similar to Clare’s.To participate in the family means going along with the structures and assumptions of the family that have been established for generations. There are those who are seen and valued and the others ignored and despised-binary embodiments- white and black, male and female, hard-working or lazy, work of the hands or work of the mind, heterosexual or queer, able bodied or freak. Binary thinking at its worst, where the only folks who are seen and heard are those who buy-in to the identities of the local community- who would you imagine this would be? Respect was awarded to those who stayed in their boundaries, followed the rules of the community. 

Growing up in this context, the queer burrowed deep down inside of me, I learned to be a girl, through lessons that my grandmother and mother inadvertently taught me, my value came through baking and cooking, on holidays being taught to serve the men food before sitting down to eat myself, the assumption that one day I would marry and mother, and this was my informal training, “be a good little woman.” I’ve never been a good little woman. The environment was suffocating. I was frequently told to be quiet at the table, to not share my mind, especially not with Grandpa or Uncle Jack who refused to listen to me. I did anyways, and they would mock me for claiming my own truth. They would mock me for having big ideas, “Rachel, you are talking like a fish!” My dreams of going into the theatre would illicit names like “Miss Hollywood! You and your big ideas!” followed by their laughter. 

My desire to escape this hostile, small-minded, place of origin was clearly articulated through dreams of careers that would draw me into places and professions where I would be far away, where I would be taken seriously. I wasn’t ever asked about my academic success, education was not valued. I was never asked about my sports successes, even though I played soccer, volleyball, and softball from 1st-9th grade.

Adolescence for most is a crisis of belonging, but for me it went far deeper. Naturally as a teenager and young adult my chosen community and family were was ever increasing in nerds, goths, theatre kids, queers, those who had become experts at dancing on the margins, enthusiastically carving brave spaces, widening the boundaries, and unapologetic about wearing the rainbow.

Even though I cloistered myself within these communities, I myself replayed the tape of my family of origin, married at 21 to a man, mothering at 23 and again at 26. Although, I was pretty snug in my own self and communal pit of denial, my curiosity and academic success led me to pursue a professional degree in ministry in Chicago. I knew when I was surrounded by the beautiful rainbow of people in seminary I had died and gone to queer heaven. I came out as queer to my then husband when I was 22. I was always unsatisfied with the relationship. There were many times when he would say, just quit seminary and your job and stay at home with the kids. If hell exists, being the good little woman might be it. It took me 7 more years to get a divorce and come out to my family.

Of course many of you know that Dr. Bychowski and I were married in February. My ex of course is a co-parent with us in parenting our children, and he sent us congrats upon hearing about our marriage, saying to me “I hope you have a better experience as a husband than as a wife.”

As Clare describes bringing his queer home, I want to share a story that happened not so long ago. In September my grandmother died unexpectedly, and when I decided to go back to FL for her funeral I knew that it would come with costs. My mother, for instance, made it clear that her brother, my Uncle, insisted that my partner, and my sister's partner, were not welcome to come to the funeral. My mother also again asked me, for the sake of keeping the peace in a turbulent time, to not be an activist with her family. “Can you just ‘be quiet”’ echoed in my ears from my childhood. But I decided to go anyways out of love for my mother and to offer her needed support, even though I knew I would be headed into a hostile environment.  

The funeral was filled with relatives, some that I recognized though hadn’t seen in 17 years. I walked into the funeral parlor, presenting somewhat androgynous- half shaven head, black tunic, leggings that I wore specifically because my grandmothers favorite color was purple, but they were hiked up to expose the bottom two inches of my hairy legs, with my black leather mens boots. all eyes seemed to follow me. They politely looked down, refusing to make eye contact. Even after the service ended, folks avoided me, looking at me long enough that I noticed, only to look away when I made eye contact. I asked my mother to facilitate a meet and greet, wondering if folks just didn’t recognize me anymore- age has changed me, some think for the better. But that wasn’t it, it was that I wasn’t recognized, I was no longer one of them. I didn’t belong, I wasn’t following the rules of the family. 

On my parents request, I went with them to lunch at my grandmother’s favorite restaurant, the Golden Corral- still none of the relatives would talk and engage with me. They would talk to our children. My mother encouraged me to say goodbye to my Aunt Barbara before I left. So I went to her, sat down next to her, while she finished up a conversation with a close relative, though the conversation just went on and on and on, and I had run out of time. I simply stood up, and walked away with no recognition from my Aunt that I had patiently waited for half an hour to catch-up. Her silence communicated its own message. You do not belong here. And that’s true I do not belong there. I do not belong to them anymore. I have a family of a chosen variety that welcomes the opinionated, outspoken queer activist me, and I’m no longer buried in that pit of denial. I’m wild and free, unbound from the binary.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Easter Brunch

Easter Brunch

Easter brunch is one of my favorite things about the holidays, even if, as a Pastor, Easter brunch doesn’t come until around dinner time! Whether it is a fun meal with out of town family or just take-out Thai food, there is something about Easter brunch that makes the meal extra satisfying, even holy. I promise you it's not just the satisfaction of being done after marathon Easter services. Well, not only that.

Funny enough, out of all the various Easter holiday traditions, Easter brunch is probably one of the more biblical. We may love seeing kids (even adult kids) running around looking for eggs hidden around a lawn or house. We may remember fondly holding little baby chicks that the Pastor brought to Church. We may have rabbit candy, bunny shaped decorations, and watch rabbit themed movies. But as special as Easter bunnies, chicks, and eggs are, they are not very biblical. I don’t want to take away the fun or even deny that the theme of rebirth isn’t a part of the joy of Easter. Yet the events at the heart of Easter are far from metaphoric. When we say that Christ is Risen indeed, this isn’t just about the idea of new life but about the physical resurrection of a body; a body that the scripture today tells us was not only very tangible (touchable) but a body that ate food.

From the literal resurrection of Christ’s body, Scripture tells us the story of the first Easter Brunch. The meal happens while the Disciples are feeling high anxiety, perhaps even exhaustion, and grief. Their leader and friend, their messiah and Lord, their God and Christ, has died. This was not a metaphoric death. This was not just a myth. They saw Jesus taken from them. They were at his trial. They saw how his associates were being hunted. They had failed to be there for Christ. And then they saw him die. Worse still, afterwards, they had lost even his body, which had somehow disappeared after burial. The affect of the first Easter was likely one that involved a lot of fear, grief, and confusion. Is this it? Will all of this end in death; a gut wrenching cessation of life with nothing symbolic about it?

It is into the anxiety of Easter that Christ arrives to deliver the good news of Easter Brunch. The first thing Christ tells them here is, do not be afraid. “Peace be with you,” records scripture. This is a good opening line for the resurrected Christ to make. First, because they were afraid. Their leader, who they supposed would be the savior of the world, had been brutally killed. Now they were being hunted. They had reason for fear and anxiety. But second, into the very real and very gritty context of the apostles huddling together in hiding, the man who they had just seen brutally killed had walked in among them. Despite all Jesus had taught them about God and the promise of resurrection, the first thing they seemingly think when the risen Christ walks in would be some various on: “AHHHHH! GHOST!”

I don’t know about you but I often imagine Jesus giving a knowing, indulgent smirk to his disciples. “What were they expecting?” Jesus might have wondered. “Did they think I was being metaphoric when I talked about the life to come?” or “Are ghosts really more believable to them than the Son of God rising from the dead?” All of this wry humor and exasperation may be present when Jesus asks them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

Clearly, even Jesus’s followers had found resurrection more digestible as a metaphor than as a physical reality. Because even when faced with the literal body of Christ standing in front of them, seeing is still not believing. Their minds jump again to doubt, to things as insubstantial as a ghost or spirit rather than accepting the literal fact of the resurrection that is present before them.

Jesus consistently meets people’s anxieties head on and more often than not he meets their anxieties about the life, death, and resurrection of the body with food. When the Apostles immediately jump to conclusions about his resurrection as some sort of spiritual metaphorical vision, Jesus stops them in their tracks and commands them, “touch me.” He reaches out with his body, coming to where they are and calling on them to meet him where He is. Because the Kingdom of Heaven that Christ reveals to His people is not a merely metaphoric or spiritual place. Christ was not a metaphor in life and nor was he a metaphor in death. Christ was fully God and fully human. Humans have bodies. Humans need bodies. Human’s touch one another. Humans are touched by one another. God does not hate human bodies but regularly finds ways to affirm the importance of bodies.

One of the most direct ways that God affirms the importance of bodies in the resurrection is through food. Throughout scripture, we see God not only bless bodies but literally feed bodies. God feeds his people in the dessert. Christ turns water into wine, multiplies fish and breaks bread. These are signs of God’s love but signs delivered through literal physical meals. What can be more of a reminder of our materiality than our body’s constant demand to be fed drink and food? We might prefer we not have bodies. We might want bodies that don’t demand so much maintenance. Working all day, praying, even leading a marathon of Easter services would be so much easier if our bodies were not whining that it needs to be fed. We may prefer to think of the resurrection as spiritual because we frankly find bodies to be inconveniences that we would rather transcend if at all possible.

Yet the reality that God gives us is rarely the half-baked, thin, and unsubstantial fantasies and fears we concoct in our minds. In response to our solitude and anxiety, Christ walks in among us. In response to our doubts and theories about ghosts or visions, Christ commands, “touch and see.” In response to our tendency to be spiritual but not religious, or metaphorical but not material, the resurrected Christ says, let’s sit down and have the first Easter Brunch.

Whether the Risen Christ needed to eat for his own needs, or whether He was eating as yet another sign and lesson for us, Jesus’s command that they sit down together again for a meal is yet another way he teaches us about God and heaven. “’Do you have anything here to eat?’ [Jesus asks. Then] They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.” In the cartoons, if he was a ghost he would have eaten the sandwich, and they would have been able to see it going down his esophagus, and that didn’t happen.

Eating teaches us something about the resurrection. Because Christ’s resurrection isn’t just a metaphor but a present reality. The resurrection isn’t just spiritual but something that can be touched. The resurrection is just sort of divine vision that plays with our senses but one that can pick up a material fish and eat it. The fish isn’t just touched by the risen Christ but eaten.

Christ asks his disciples to share in their food, provided by their talents. The Gospel of Luke records that while Christ ate, he continued to teach them about the Kingdom of Heaven, “he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” Christ in particular seemed to prefer the simple meal of wine and bread, maybe some fish. Christ made signs turning water into wine and multiplying the fishes and loaves. Christ tells us that he is present in the breaking of bread and wine. Here the resurrected Christ eats fish. These are not unimaginable holy foods from some spiritual banquet. This Easter Brunch was simple and not extravagant, humble and not showing off. The Easter Brunch with the embodied Jesus was just the sort of food that was lying around.

Then as now, God meets us where we are and shares in our world, our bodies, and our meals. Christ comes to join us in our communities, our homes, and share in our meals. Easter is not just about going out to meet God but making room at our tables for a God that desperately wants to come in and meet us. Christ wants to be present with us, to embody a physical, a human God among us.

Christ was always concerned with the material needs of his followers. An embodied Christ, understands personally the material needs of his followers, however, transforming the materials lives of the people meant also transforming systems.

In the summer of 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. visited homes in the hamlet of Marks, Mississippi. Later he remembered the hundreds of children who lacked shoes. A mother told King that her children had no clothes for school. The Nobel laureate wept openly. “They didn’t even have any blankets to cover their children up on a cold night,” he recalled. “And I said to myself, God does not like this.” Then he vowed, “We are going to say in no uncertain terms that we aren’t going to accept it any longer. We’ve got to go to Washington in big numbers.”

The Poor People's Campaign (PPC) was created on December 4, 1967, by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to address the issues of unemployment, housing shortages for the poor, and the impact of poverty on the lives of millions of Americans. Unlike earlier efforts directed toward helping African Americans gain civil rights and voting rights, SCLC and its leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., now addressed issues that impacted all who were poor regardless of racial background. Their immediate aim was to secure Federal legislation ensuring full employment and promoting the construction of low-income housing to raise the quality of life of the nation's impoverished citizens.

The SCLC planned a nationwide march on Washington on April 22, 1968, to focus the nation's attention on this issue and particularly to pressure Congress to pass legislation to address the employment and housing issues. Unlike earlier marches, SCLC leaders planned the creation of Resurrection City, a giant tent city on the Mall in Washington, D.C., where demonstrators would remain until their demands were met. When Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, movement leaders debated whether to go forward with the planned demonstration. They chose to continue the march with King's lieutenant, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, as its new leader. The march date was postponed to May 12, 1968, though a few hundred people arrived in Washington on the original date. The first week, May 12-29, brought a wave of nearly 5,000 demonstrators. During the second week Resurrection City was completed.

The protestors, people from a wide range of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds—Native Americans from reservations, Latinos from the Southwest, impoverished whites from West Virginia, as well as rural and urban blacks—came together and spread the message of the campaign to various Federal agencies. They also disrupted life in Washington to try and force the government to respond. At its peak, the number of protestors reached nearly 7,000 but still far short of the expectation of 50,000 people.

A NEW Poor People’s Campaign launched just a couple weeks ago, a national call for moral revival launched by the Rev. William Barber, this campaign is no longer cart and mules carrying people across the country, however, there remains for people who follow Jesus fundamental claims that we have a moral obligation to care for people’s bodies, the material needs of the people of our communities. The word is spreading through grassroots campaigning, revival services where testimonies are shared of people whose lives are impacted by environmental poverty and racism, whether the Detroit mother whose baby is suffering from lead poisoning, or the poisoning of the water supply in reservations from oil spills. Something has to change...


1. We are rooted in a moral analysis based on our deepest religious and constitutional values that demand justice for all. Moral revival is necessary to save the heart and soul of our democracy.

2. We are committed to lifting up and deepening the leadership of those most affected by systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, and ecological devastation and to building unity across lines of division.

3. We believe in the dismantling of unjust criminalization systems that exploit poor communities and communities of color and the transformation of the “War Economy” into a “Peace Economy” that values all humanity.

4. We believe that equal protection under the law is non-negotiable.

5. We believe that people should not live in or die from poverty in the richest nation ever to exist. Blaming the poor and claiming that the United States does not have an abundance of resources to overcome poverty are false narratives used to perpetuate economic exploitation, exclusion, and deep inequality.

6. We recognize the centrality of systemic racism in maintaining economic oppression must be named, detailed and exposed empirically, morally and spiritually. Poverty and economic inequality cannot be understood apart from a society built on white supremacy.

7. We aim to shift the distorted moral narrative often promoted by religious extremists in the nation from issues like prayer in school, abortion, and gun rights to one that is concerned with how our society treats the poor, those on the margins, the least of these, women, LGBTQIA folks, workers, immigrants, the disabled and the sick; equality and representation under the law; and the desire for peace, love and harmony within and among nations.

8. We will build up the power of people and state-based movements to serve as a vehicle for a powerful moral movement in the country and to transform the political, economic and moral structures of our society.

9. We recognize the need to organize at the state and local level—many of the most regressive policies are being passed at the state level, and these policies will have long and lasting effect, past even executive orders. The movement is not from above but below.

10. We will do our work in a non-partisan way—no elected officials or candidates get the stage or serve on the State Organizing Committee of the Campaign. This is not about left and right, Democrat or Republican but about right and wrong.

11. We uphold the need to do a season of sustained moral direct action as a way to break through the tweets and shift the moral narrative. We are demonstrating the power of people coming together across issues and geography and putting our bodies on the line to the issues that are affecting us all.

12. The Campaign and all its Participants and Endorsers embrace nonviolence. Violent tactics or actions will not be tolerated.

Will we be resurrection people? Will we invite our brothers and sisters to Easter Brunch, sharing our plenty and our want? Will our hearts and our minds be opened in the breaking of the bread? Will we touch, and see, and embrace the resurrected Christ who helps us face our fears, disbelief, and wondering?

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Today is the fifth Sunday in Lent. Next week is Palm Sunday and then we go into Holy Week. So we are nearing the end of a journey. Lent is often an intentional time of struggle, some the dark night of the soul, preparing ourselves for the resurrection that comes in the morning. 

For many, Lent is a time of examining our scriptures and commandments to consider how well we live up to God’s words. Lent is a time of reconciliation and repentance to God’s Law. That is what makes today’s scripture challenging for us. We want laws to be clear and unambiguous. God’s Law above all others should be explicit and apparent. 

This type of legalism leads some to reach into places in scripture, where legalism becomes idolatry, where isolated texts from Leviticus or Deuteronomy, picked out of specific codes by which to live and hold others accountable. I say pick out because very few of us, even the most legalistic, do or even can live by every single literal word of either Leviticus or Deuteronomy. We may like the condemnation about not eating shellfish. We can give that up that during Lent. But what’s this about wearing mixed fibers? Do I really have to stop wearing my rad polyester blends? Cotton and wool make me itchy, that part of the old Law can’t be so literal. Even for those who try, living by every single word of the Law is near impossible and if carried out in today’s world would put you into trouble with other laws: the United States isn’t wild about stoning people in the streets or selling children into slavery. But beyond the United States legal system, it seems that God wasn’t crazy about our tendency toward Biblical legalism either. This is why, through the Prophets, God came in and revealed a deeper truth in God’s Law, revolutionizing the way the Jewish community and we today interpret those Laws. That’s what we hear in the words of Jeremiah when scripture record’s God voice, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” 

In moments like this, God isn’t changing what God is or the nature of God’s Law but correcting how we know and relate to that Law. God has seen in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, a people called to live by example become closed-off, exclusive, and sometimes more in the love with the words of the book than in the Spirit of God. God knows that when humans write things down, we have the tendency to suck the ambiguity and Spirit out of things. Have you ever read a text message and gotten very upset about what it sounded like it was saying only to have the sender get equally upset and surprised because you apparently misunderstood the tone and spirit of the text? Throughout the books of the Prophets, God is time and again tapping us on the shoulder and saying, “hey did you get my texts? Because you seem to have misinterpreted who I AM and what you should and should not be doing.” For this reason, God says today, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” God writes in our hearts because we too often misunderstand God when we try to write God’s Law on paper. Writing on our hearts is God’s way of taking our precious writings, texts, and legalism away from us and handing us back a Spirit. God is deemphasizing “thou shall” and “thou shall not,” which create exclusiveness and judgement and re-emphasizing a Spirit of love which reaches out to be more inclusive, open, and affirming; leaving judgements, if they come at all, to God, the God to whom alone goes all the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory. So God takes away our exclusive law and gives us a Spirit. God also takes away our ego and pride then gives us humility and relationship instead. “I will be their God,” scripture continues, “and they shall be my people.” Let’s make this clear, God does not choose us because we are so great, awesome, and perfectly follow “Laws.” We do not earn God’s Love. God has chosen us. God calls out to all of us to come into relationship with God, to be God’s people. God also opens the door to everyone to be people of God but also for God to be all our God. This sounds like a simple inversion of the previous statement but is actually very profound. God isn’t just my God. God isn’t just Pastor Ron’s God. We don’t exclusively own God because we have been ordained. God isn’t just this church’s God. God isn’t just the UCC’s God. We don’t exclusively own God because we follow certain rules and dogma. God is everyone’s God. Everyone has access to God. People outside this Church community, they already have access to God. People outside this denomination, they already have access to God. People we don’t like and can’t possibly imagine ever agreeing with or liking, they already have access to God. God has already claimed them as God’s special people and already written God’s Law in their hearts. This means not only that we should avoid legalistic literalism and the tendency to close ourselves off or close our doors to others - this means not simply that we should open our doors and affirm the stranger because that makes us God’s people - but that we need to see that we NEED the gifts, wisdom, and guidance that God has written in the hearts of those who aren’t get here, aren’t yet included. God has written something special in their hearts, messages we desperately need to read and understand. We need all of God’s people at the table because then and only then can we begin to see a fuller Image of God written in our hearts, only then can we begin to read the fuller Law of God written in our hearts. God has taken our exclusivity and legalism and marked our hearts, giving us a desire to reach out and include the strangers we may have formerly shunned.

I had the awesome opportunity to attend the True Colors Conference this weekend. For anyone who doesn’t know what True Colors is, True Colors is a non-profit organization that works with other social service agencies, schools, organizations, and within communities to ensure that the needs of sexual and gender minority youth are both recognized and competently met. True Colors offers the largest and most comprehensive conference in the country focused on LGBTQ youth issues. Now in it’s 25th year, the conference hosted at the University of Connecticut more than 3,500 participants from the Northeast and Nationally. With more than 220 workshops to choose from. What an incredible experience to attend this conference as an adult, I can only imagine that as a young person this was a space of authenticity and liberation, of freeing themselves fully and making bonds with a new chosen family, family that doesn’t reject them, but welcomes them just as they are.

We here at the First Congregational Church of Southington know how long the journey is and how great the reward of being Open and Affirming, with all the dimensions and colors. Last Lent we held a series of workshops on race, disability, mental health, gender and sexuality, in order to consider the many facets of our Open and Affirming statement and mission as a Church. After that series, hearing from a wide range of voices on the specific needs to be accessible across divides of racism, sexism, ableism, classism, homophobia and transphobia, I was struck by how there is no one Law or set of Laws that can possibly make certain that we will always get it right. 

Being Open and Affirming is not just written as our Church Mission in legalistic terms but is written on our hearts. The mission was not merely put there by vote but rather we collectively looked into our hearts and saw that the command to LOVE is already written there from the start of all things. God did not come to just give us a list of Do’s and Don’ts, to take away, shellfish, pork or prescribe fashion statements. God came to call us into relationship. God has written LOVE on our hearts. 

And yet, as we look to the world and wonder? When will we embody LOVE without question or hesitation? When will humanity reach the point where hope and life will shine brilliantly through all people, not just a few? Jesus changed the world to show us that another way is possible. As Lent draws to its end, how will you glorify Jesus so that folks know God’s LOVE as it is written on your heart?

Friday, March 16, 2018

True Colors: Much Needed TLC

True Colors Conference

I had the awesome opportunity to attend the True Colors Conference this weekend. For anyone who doesn’t know what True Colors is, True Colors is a non-profit organization that works with other social service agencies, schools, organizations, and within communities to ensure that the needs of sexual and gender minority youth are both recognized and competently met. True Colors is the first LGBT organization to offer the largest and most comprehensive conference in the country focused on LGBTQ youth issues. Now in it’s 25th year, the conference hosted at the University of Connecticut more than 3,500 participants from the Northeast and Nationally. With more than 220 workshops to choose from. What an incredible experience to attend this conference as an adult, I can only imagine that as a young person this was a space of authenticity and liberation, of freeing themselves fully and making bonds with a new chosen family, family that doesn’t reject them, but welcomes them just as they are.

I had the opportunity to serve as a True Colors Conference Volunteer as well, called a TLC, we were asked to walk through the halls of the Student Union and other buildings, looking for youth who were in need of some TLC, maybe they were off by themselves, looking unconnected, maybe they need help with directions, whatever the moment presented we helped folks. We were dressed in purple aprons, and I with my clergy collar underneath.

I approached two young people as they waited in the Student Union for a balloon animal. We chatted about their creation, it looked like a giraffe, not quite fully formed, the body was still being created. “You’re a pastor?” I nodded. "My pastor kicked me out of church because I’m transgender. Right in the middle of worship, he told me that I couldn’t be there. God didn’t approve of my lifestyle.” I looked at this young man, with compassion, and said, “That’s not ok. I’m so sorry that happened.” He asked, “Where’s your church?” “Southington, and we are Open And Affirming, which means you are welcome just as you are.” This blew their mind. Because they knew how being truly open and affirming can be. They knew that not just saying you are open and affirming but living out that mission means constantly examining and re-examining who is not yet at the table, how is our church still exclusive or not fully accessible? 

In the past 25 years, the True Colors conference has grown to include not just lesbian and gay youth but intersex and transgender youth, not just gender and sexuality but race and disability issues, not just those with money and privilege but the poor and disadvantaged, not just those of one political party not all political parties, not just those who can can walk, see, hear, or think in a normate way but those with all sorts of bodies, ways of moving, ways of sensing, and ways of thinking. They have made great strides to make True Colors about all of our True Colors, all the different parts that make us who we are. They try and try hard but each session ended with a little piece of paper for attendees to review and critique the conference. They knew that in the work of being Open and Affirming, there is so much more to do to reach out, be accessible to more people who deserve a seat at the Table.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Razzle Dazzel'em

What gets folks attention? Sparkling brightness, thats what...and that’s what we find in our scripture today. This is about as close as the Bible gets to the lights of Broadway or the Vegas Strip.

Jesus has been teaching his disciples for a whole week about the suffering that would come at following the cross, and then he decides to go on a fieldtrip, a cub scouts hiking and camping trip to the top of a mountain.

I wonder what Peter, James, and John were all thinking as they followed Jesus up this mountain? Jesus had fed the 4,000, and opened the eyes of a blind man….and now they were headed up a mountain?! Seriously?!

Some argue the Transfiguration is “the” epiphanal moment of the entire season of Epiphany.  On the mountain top a dazzling, sparkly Jesus, or as I like to refer to him Razzle Dazzel’em Jesus shows up with cosmic force. And even Moses and Elijah appear and begin talking with sparkly Jesus. Jesus his teacher, and these two revered fathers of the faith. Can you imagine what was going through Peter’s mind? OMG! OMG! OMG! <squeals, pinches self> Peter terrified and also completely overwhelmed by what he was witnessing suggests building tabernacles for Sparkly Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, tabernacles were tent like dwelling places, built by the ancient nomadic cultures of woven layers of curtains, as a way of marking the space as holy, and inhabited by God.

Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" If this was the Vegas Strip there would be a “HUGE” flashing sign, saying “He’s the Real Deal” Sometimes God knows we need some razzle dazzle to make us pay attention.

But just like Jesus breaks down Peter’s suggestion to keep Jesus in a tabernacle on the mountain, like a special shrine you can go and see in the same way every time, once Jesus shows him his glory he knows nothing will be the same. This is why people call it a secret. Sure sounds like Jesus doesn’t want the world to know how awesome he is. That is one way of reading this story: Jesus hiding his razzle dazzle on a mountain. But I see it differently. I see it differently because I’ve walked up mountains in my own life and I know how they can change you and show you things in ways that you just can’t describe to people who haven’t been on that journey yet.

The day had been rainy. Not just a light sprinkle. A downpour. This is not what we had expected when our family planned a trip to Lake George in New York for the weekend. We had wanted to go out hiking up a mountain that day. But once we saw the torrential waters and mud, we opted to stay inside and play board games; all except Gabby. Although she regularly claims that it is the Bahr part of the family which is particularly stubborn, my partner Gabby can be extremely persistent when she sets her mind to something. All I knew was that even with the rain, she was determined to go up the mountain. She was gone for about two hours. When the door to the cabin opened to reveal thoroughly drenched Gabby covered up to her knees in mud. “Well? Was it worth it?” “Yes!” Taking off her sticky boots. “You have to see what’s up there.” We asked what it was that was so worth it. “You just have to see what’s up there.”

Well the next day was drier, no rain, and a little less muddy so this time the four of us were geared up and ready to hike. Almost immediately, once we hit the mountain itself, the climb seemed daunting. I mean, as straight up as you can be without having to crawl with your hands. The kids right away wanted to bail. “But you have to see what’s up there,” she said, “let’s go.” And once we put foot in front of foot, we started to fall into a rhythm which made things feel doable if unpleasant for a while. Most of us did. Our youngest Nora was not having it. She found a spot, parked her feet, and refused to go. With parental prodding, I got her moving but slowly and with deliberate defiance. “Carry me,” she would say. You can walk, we would tell her. “What’s so special up there anyway?” she would argue. Eventually we traded off and Gabby took her turn. By this point there was no more arguing with this child. “You will see,” is all she would get. She was forced by collective will to take the lead of the group. With constant and consistent prodding she made it up the steepest part of the climb.

Around the middle of the hike, she found that rhythm we had promised and the way became easier,and the complaining stopped for a minute.

Then the road got really steep again and this time very winding. Hitting this rough patch made her want to walk all the way back down. Or to just sit where she was. Smothering her in encouragement and challenge, yeah, you know... “You’ve gone this far, do you really want to surrender all that work for nothing?” “Yes,” she said defiantly. “You will miss what’s up there,” we repeated. “What’s so special about it?” She asked again. “You just have to see!” Well, she eventually heard us and let go, accepting the new challenges, --the logs, the streams, the jutting rocks -- all seemed kind of exciting. She began jumping and leaning and climbing up faster than all of us.

Then suddenly the way bent out of sight and the way got suddenly a lot easier. Turning around this bend of trees, we finally saw it. It was as if the mountain, the land and the sky broke open. On this outcropping of rock was a sheer cliff and in all directions we saw what felt like the whole world but the whole world as we hadn’t seen it before. We felt like we were momentarily in a kind of heaven space. A holy place. Everything we saw, we had seen before, but not like this. Our point of view had changed. We had been moved. We followed a way on faith. And on the road we had been changed. Now looking back, everything looked new. The world was more beautiful, more good, somehow even more true because we got to see this view into and across it. Even now, putting it into words is difficult.

I imagine each one of us has one of these moments, your own mountain-top experience. And a part of me understands another reason why Jesus told the others not to tell others what they saw on the mountain. But another way of thinking of the mystery is that Jesus showed them a truth that they could only ever understand after heeding the call to “follow me” and walking up all that way, by pushing themselves up the path of cynicism, through the trials of habit, and beyond the challenges of exhaustion and despair.

Caroline Lewis argues that the transfiguration isn’t only about the changed and glorified, Sparkly Jesus. This story is about our own transfiguration.
“Jesus gets this. What will it be that gets you to move, to come out of your tent, or maybe even not to want pitch one in the first place? Rather than blame Peter for his myopia, maybe we admit our own. I am guessing that not much about human nature has changed in the two thousand years since Jesus’ earthly ministry. Transfiguration means exposure. I mean, look at Jesus. You can’t miss him. Vulnerability is less than comfortable but it seems absolutely essential for life and thus for a life of faith. At least Jesus seems to think so. When we exchange vulnerability for certainty all we do is live the lie that authenticity does not matter. That the truth of who we are can be absconded by our denominational structures, doctrinal commitments, and dogmatic insistences, that is, our tents that we secure, pounding stake by stake into the ground. Tents are not just about shelter. They repel the forces of nature. They keep out that which might harm. They keep as much in as they keep out. And Transfiguration will rip our tents into shreds. Transfiguration means change.”

Only then can one turn around, look back at the world from which you came with special knowledge. Because the razzle dazzle of the holy truth, the special mystery, the beautiful truth is not just a thing you can point to and say “see, there.” The Way and Truth of Christ is a not just something to be seen but a way of seeing. And that way of seeing truth requires us sometimes to hike up our own mountains of faith. It may feel like we are leaving our comfortable dry world behind but if we give up all those things, we will eventually be given back those things like a world made new again. We will not just see the razzle of the mountain but the mountain will frees us to follow Jesus to let go, and be changed.

On this last Sunday of Epiphany, as we prepare to begin our Lenten journey, we are reminded to listen, we are invited into transformation. That’s what Lent is about. It’s an invitation to listen for God’s voice, to journey into the darkness and be transfigured by shining the light in our lives.

“Give them the old razzle dazzle, razzle dazzle’em…”