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Saturday, February 13, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Mark 13

Every time I encounter those apocalyptic passages such as today’s reading from Mark that point toward what some might call “the end times”, I find myself cringing a bit. Who wouldn’t be troubled by language attributed to Jesus that says, “If [God] let the days of trouble run their course, nobody would make it.” But today – as I sat with those unsettling words – I had a little different insight than I normally do.

As I sat with those words, I realized that those of us lucky enough to be in positions where we feel blessed by the conditions of the status quo would definitely find any words that point toward the end of it to be unsettling. We’ve grown accustomed to enjoying those things in our lives – so much so that some of us (myself included at times) have come to take the continuation of our blessings in life for granted.

Not everyone is in this position, however. There are those who are currently denied “the basics.” For these folks, a seismic (or apocalyptic change) would be welcome news.

I saw this dynamic play out in the recent debate on health care reform. Some of those who currently have coverage have treated the proposed reforms as a form of the apocalypse – signaling the end of “our way of life as we know it”. Others who have long been shut out of the health care system have seen the proposed change as a welcome sign of relief.

The trick for us as people of faith, I believe, is knowing how to bridge the communication chasm between groups so that we can focus on what really matters – ushering in the reign of God in our individual and collective lives that expands a sense of peace and justice.

Today I would invite you to consider how you might be a tool in bridging the chasm between groups so that (to borrow language from the civil rights era) we can keep our eye on the prize.

Til next time…

Friday, February 12, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Mark 12

Over the last several months, I’ve had a chance to look back and evaluate my first 7 ½ years of ministry. That’s because I formally concluded my time in my first parish. In the process of doing so, I was able to remember a few of those moments that captured what I feel is the essence of my ministry.

One of my favorite moments involved the presentation of a banner that was made by one of the members of the congregation. The individual was a wonderfully loving person who had a passion for contributing to the life of the community. One of her challenges, though, was that she had extremely limited finances. One day – after much thought – she decided she wanted to make a banner for the church. She poured in much time and energy to that banner. Finally, after a couple of months, she brought the banner to church. It was a moving Communion banner that simply read: “In remembrance of me.”

That story wouldn’t be all that unusual if that were all there was to it. That wasn’t all there was to it. If you were to observe the banner by purely objective standards, one could say it wasn’t perfect. The hand-sewn letters were slanted a bit, and the individual misspelled the word “remembrance”.

In many churches, the banner would not have been received (and certainly not displayed!) because it wasn’t perfect by some standards. Our community, however, was able to look beyond the superficial appearance and see that the banner was perfect in the one way that mattered most: love. We hung it in our chapel where our weekly Communion services were held. I had never been prouder of our congregation for “getting” what was most important.

I was reminded of that experience as I read the story that has become known as “the widow’s might” contained in Mark’s 12th chapter. In that story Jesus praises the woman who gave all that she had to go (despite the fact that the amount wasn’t that much by earthly standards).

So are you able to look beyond the superficial trappings and appreciate the offerings of others at their deepest levels; or do you tend to evaluate others contributions harshly?

Til next time…

Thursday, February 11, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Mark 10:35-11:33

As I was reading the section of text about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, I was struck by the piece of the story where Jesus encountered leaders who demanded that Jesus show them his credentials. They wanted to know who had authorized him to speak because he was saying such challenging things. I too have found myself in similar hot spots over the years – all because of the way I handled an experience I had in my twenties.

As regular readers of my blog know, I went through an experience of exclusion where I was tossed out of the denomination in which I was raised because of my sexual orientation. Some people handle their experiences of exclusion by becoming avid exclusionists themselves – going after those who caused them to feel the pain of exclusion. I, however, chose to handle my experience differently. I took all of the pain I felt from being excluded and channeled it so that I could become a radical supporter of inclusion. My commitment to inclusion means that sometimes I end up creating safe space for the very individuals and/or groups who were responsible for my own exclusion.

When I do that, some folks question my credentials as a progressive. I have been accused of being a closet-conservative (“After all, why else would you create room for those on the other side of the aisle?”), a self-loathing gay person, a Neville-Chamberlin “peace in our time” appeasement-advocate, or an out of control people pleaser. Truth be told, none of those descriptions fit me (though there are days when I still struggle to keep my people-pleasing habits in check).

Instead, my die-hard commitment to inclusion stems directly in my understanding of who God is and what Jesus stands for. I cannot celebrate a God who would inspire only communities of clones to form; nor can I follow a Jesus who built a movement comprised of only those who saw eye-to-eye. Instead, I celebrate a God (and follow a Jesus) who pulls all people together – across all theological/ideological barriers. If that causes some to question my “credentials” then so be it.

Have you had experiences where your values and commitments – lived out to their fullest - have gotten you into trouble? If so, remember today’s passage and take comfort from the fact that you’re in good company.

Til next time…

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Mark 10:1-34

Those of us who are ordained ministers have a challenge that most folks don’t fully appreciate. You see in order to be ordained, each of us spends at least three years in seminary where we are blessed to have the experience of learning about a wide variety of things ranging from Christian history to theology to biblical studies. Our heads get filled with rich, wonderful information about lots of things. Then – after a wonderful three (or more) years of exploration – we are sent out into the world to do this thing called ministry.

That transition can be extremely abrupt. There are lots of reasons why the transition is so abrupt. One of those reasons is because when we leave seminary, we are coming from a place where we have focused on the complexities of our faith. That complexity is often not what most folks out “in the real world” are looking for. When a person suddenly loses a loved one, for instance, they aren’t looking for an explanation of the evolved understanding of the afterlife as contained in the scriptures. And when a person deals with a spouse’s infidelity and cries out, “Why?” rarely do they find an answer that compares the virtues of a panentheistic theology versus a transcendent theology.

In other words, our challenge as seminary trained folks is to reclaim the essence of Jesus’ words to the disciples when he said, “Unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in.”

“So what are you saying, Craig? That our faith must be anti-intellectual?”

Absolutely not!

Instead, what I carry from Jesus’ words is that our faith – like a house – should have a solid, straight-forward foundation: a foundation upon which one can spend one’s lifetime building. No matter how elaborate the house gets, however, the simple foundation remains intact.

So where are you at with this issue of simplicity? Do you see simplicity in regards to your faith as a good thing or as a harmful thing?

Til next time…

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Mark 8-9:50

Like many people, I learned that sometimes those moments in life which are the hardest can be those moments that are – in the long run – most valuable. Case in point: an experience of mine during my second year of seminary.

I had gone to seminary in the fall of 1999 intending to earn my master of divinity degree and then work for a faith based non-profit. I had no intention whatsoever of serving as a parish minister. That’s because the denomination to which I belonged at the time made it clear that they did not ordain gay people into parish ministry.

During my first year of seminary, however, it became increasingly clear that my call was to serve as a parish minister. So I started the process to be ordained. My candidacy was derailed early in the ordination process because of my sexual orientation. I was given the following message very clearly by leaders within the other denomination: we will ordain you if you do one of two things – remain silent about your sexuality, or lie. If you do either of those things, you will be ordained.

I wrestled with that set of choices for a while. I could fulfill my call – if only I denied who I was. What a horrific choice that was!

As I agonized over those choices, I heard echoes of the sentiment Jesus expressed in today’s reading from Mark: “What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?”

With those questions lingering in my mind, I began to seek out other options and found that there was a place where I could do both things: answer my call to ordained ministry AND maintain my sense of integrity. And with that I arrived at my new home in the United Church of Christ!

Perhaps you have been thrust into a situation that has presented you with a false set of choices. Choices that would have you believe the road to “success” requires you to surrender your sense of self and your integrity. If that’s the case, carry the words attributed to Jesus with you today: “What good would it do to get everything [I] want and lose [me], the real [me].”

Til next time…

Monday, February 8, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Mark 6:30-7:37

This past week I had an epiphany of sorts about how I wanted to alter an area in the worship life of our community. I was looking for ways that we could begin to introduce new music into the life of the congregation in ways that had musical and theological integrity. I had been agonizing for months about how we might go about doing that.

And then something occurred to me. What if – instead of doing the traditional thing and designating some one (such as myself) or some group (such as a song leading team) to pick out new music for the congregation – we invited the members of the congregation themselves to bring in a favorite song to share that is not in our hymnal. Once we checked to see if we had copyright permission to reproduce the song, we could then create a congregational songbook that had integrity for the congregation since it would be filled with music the members themselves had picked.

I laughed as the idea occurred to me, because I should have thought of this idea years ago. After all, I’m the “emergent church” guy who prides himself on thinking outside the boxes and finding radical ways of empowering worshipers to participate in the process. And yet in this area, I was completely buying into the old models that said only “experts” should pick out music for the congregation.

As I read today’s text from the Gospel of Mark, I saw myself in Jesus words big time. When Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah as saying: “These people make a big show of saying the right thing, but their heart isn’t in it” – he was talking about me. I made a big show of talking about the spiritual important of involving/empowering laity, yet when it came time to practice it, I wasn’t there. Thankfully, God is patient with me and gives me time to move from merely professing values to actually start living those values.

Today, I would invite you to join with me in seeing if there is an area of your life where your professed values are not in line with your lived experience – areas where “you make a big show of saying the right thing” and yet fail to put those words into action.

Til next time…