What does life look like post graduation from graduate school? I am about to find out!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Hard Candy Christmas

Folks, here is the sermon that I preached last night at my internship's Blue Christmas Worship Service. May it provide you with some comfort and healing during this holiday season. Scripture text was Matthew 11: 28-30

In this passage from the Gospel of Matthew, we hear Jesus say, “Come to me all that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.” I don’t know about you but I sure would like to do that. The holiday season can be a very rough time for many people. I’m sure it might be that way for most of the people here tonight, which is why you are here. We hear songs of joy and peace and we feel neither joy nor peace. When you are having a difficult holiday season, hearing a song like “Joy to the World” does not make you feel very joyful. In fact, it can make you feel very unjoyful and even, dare I say it, grinchy.
Yet, all around us, we see nothing but happiness and joy and mirth. The grief that many people feel at this time of the year is almost never acknowledged or appreciated. It is almost as if society would rather not think about it and expects us all to just get over it and be happy and cheerful for a few weeks. Yet, for many of us, that’s not the reality we face. In 2004, my father passed away after several years of declining health. I still have fond memories of spending Christmas with him so every Christmas since his death has been tinged with sadness. In 2005, my mentor/friend/surrogate father-figure killed himself a week before Thanksgiving. That same week, my mother fell and broke her leg and had to have major surgery. Thanksgiving that year was spent at the hospital with my mom. In 2010, I was violently mugged for the first time ever a week before Thanksgiving. Needless to say, I was having a hard time finding much to be thankful or jolly about that year. This year, I received word that a dear friend and surrogate grandmother passed away after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer and in the same week also experienced the dissolution of another failed relationship.
I think it is safe to say that when it comes to the holiday season, I know something about not feeling all that joyful or merry. Don’t get me wrong, I still love Christmas. I listen to Christmas music obsessively. I love watching Christmas movies, decorating Christmas trees, drinking egg nog, opening presents, the whole bit. However, I’m also keenly aware of the fact that for so many, Happy Holidays are anything but.
In the song, “Hard Candy Christmas”, Dolly Parton sings about the end of a relationship but her words really could be about anyone who is experiencing a difficult holiday season for any reason. “Hey, maybe I'll dye my hair. Maybe I'll move somewhere. Maybe I'll get a car. Maybe I'll drive so far, they'll all lose track.” What we hear here is a desire for escape, for a fresh start. Doesn’t that sound so great for so many of us? When we are faced with difficulty, we do feel the need to escape or run away from it. That can take many forms. It can look like us getting on a plane and traveling across the country for a few weeks. It can look like us selling our home and moving far away from everything that reminds us of our grief. It can look like staying in our bed for three days straight and refusing to leave the house or answer the phone. It can, unfortunately, also look like us retreating into drugs and alcohol. Our grief can and does take many forms.
“I’ll be fine and dandy. Lord, it’s like a Hard Candy Christmas. I’m barely getting through tomorrow but still I won’t let sorrow bring me way down.” Here, we hear conflicting emotions. On the one hand, we hear Dolly say that she has hit rock bottom. She can barely make it through her days. On the other hand, we hear her say that she won’t let her sorrow bring her down. She will rise up and stand tall. The line hard candy Christmas is often regarded as a reference to Dolly’s childhood. She grew up in poverty and had 11 siblings. Since money was tight, at Christmas, rather than receiving presents, she and her siblings would receive hard candy instead. That was what their parents could afford to give them. It wasn’t much at all but it was all they had to give. The term “hard candy Christmas” has come to symbolize those times when we aren’t able to provide much joy to anybody so we have to make do with what we have, even when that is just a piece of hard candy.
For many, the idea of a hard candy Christmas resonates. For those who can’t afford to give their families the presents that they want. For those who can’t afford to fly home to be with their families and instead are spending it alone. For those who are just one paycheck away from being homeless. For those who are already homeless. For all these people, a hard candy Christmas is about right. For them, there will be no presents under the tree. For many, they won’t even have a tree because they don’t have a home to put a tree in.
Yes, there will be plenty of times in our lives when we too will experience a “hard candy Christmas.” It may be because we recently lost our job and cannot afford to spend extra money on presents for our loved ones. It may be because we are facing this holiday season without someone we deeply cared about. It may be because we are dealing with mental illness or an addiction of some sort. It may be because we are grieving the end of a relationship that meant so much to us. It may even be that we are lamenting the fact that we are once again facing the holiday season alone due to our spectacular inability to maintain a relationship for longer than a month! For any or all of these reasons, this could indeed be a “hard candy Christmas”.
This past weekend marked the one year anniversary of the school shooting in Newtown, CT. There’s no words to express the grief that the parents of the victims have experienced over the last year. I can’t even comprehend what emotions they’ve been dealing with every day since the shooting. I’m sure that for many of them, it was and will continue to be a “hard candy Christmas”. Songs of joy and peace probably haven’t been very comforting to them over the last year. Where is their relief? Where is their rest? Who can they bring their burdens to?
“Take my yoke upon you. . . For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” What comfort can we find in these verses? What Jesus is saying here is that when we trust in him, we will find ourselves with a lighter burden to carry. Come, bring your burdens to God as the song says. Does this mean that our burdens will suddenly cease to exist or that we will forget that we have them? Surely not. My dad is still dead. I still miss him almost ten years later. The families in Newtown, CT still miss their children. The homeless are still homeless. As Lea Michele, star of the TV show Glee, so eloquently stated it on “The Ellen Degeneres Show” recently, “Grief goes with you every day, whatever you’re doing.” Our grief, our sadness, our struggles will still be there. What has changed, however, is how we deal with the grief. Rather than wallowing in self-pity and refusing to leave the house, we go outside and take a walk in the fresh air. We hike up a mountain. We go visit friends. We reach out to our communities of support and they help us process everything. “Maybe I’ll learn to sew. Maybe I’ll just lie low. Maybe I’ll hit the bars. Maybe I’ll count the stars until dawn.”
It is at our darkest moments when we have to learn to keep going because we can’t let sorrow bring us way down. We trust in Jesus. We trust that God is there to comfort us in our grief, no matter how bleak things might seem. We trust that when we bring our burdens to God that God can handle them. We trust that even in those moments when we feel so completely lost, alone and afraid that God is there walking with us and perhaps even carrying us on God’s shoulders. Our mourning shall turn to dancing and our lamentation shall turn to joy. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow. Maybe not even next month or next year. But one day, you’ll see, you’ll wake up and the sun will shine again and you’ll feel a sense of joy and peace again. You, too, will be “just fine and dandy” even if it has been a hard candy Christmas.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Someday, My Prince Will Come?

With the holiday season approaching, I wanted to write about a topic that has been on my heart the past few weeks. I warn you that this is a subject that many people don't like to talk about. It's one that I particularly don't like to talk about. I'm going to make myself very vulnerable here and possibly say things that I've never said out loud. Also, it is entirely possible that some of my loyal readers may not like some of what I say here. That's fine but I make no apologies for how I feel. You shouldn't have to apologize for your feelings anyway. All that being said, let's discuss the subject of dating and relationships.

Why do I bring this up? Because it is something that has been a part of my life almost from the beginning. I just turned 29 years old last month. Perhaps that is why this has been weighing so heavily on my heart. I've entered the last year of my 20s and I cannot even tell you how hard it is to continually hear from friends that they've started dating someone or they've gotten engaged or they're having a baby while I continue to strike out in the dating world. As I watch more and more of my friends partner up and settle down, I'm left feeling very alone and unloved. I want to emphasize here that I am very happy for my friends and I share in their joy and excitement over those kinds of things but I also can't help but feel a slight stab in my heart that I continue to feel like a failure in that aspect of my life.

Yes, I am aware of all that positive stuff that is spouted about how you have to love yourself first and how you are supposed to feel like a complete person by yourself and blah blah blah. Here's the thing. I say that stuff to myself all the time. I do feel like a complete person. I do love myself (most of the time) but I'm not gonna lie, being single can still really suck. I know I like to put on a cynical, tough exterior here and say that I'm not a relationship type of person or that I don't need anyone else in my life because I don't have time for it or whatever but the truth of the matter is: deep down, I really want to share my life with someone else. It's a very human desire and how could I not want that? I'm also very aware of the idea that we shouldn't compare our lives to other peoples because that means we will never be satisfied because our lives will never be as good as someone else's. I hear that but let's be honest, that's not actually how we are wired. You can tell yourself every single day that you are perfectly happy with your life and how it is but the minute your best friend meets the love of her life and gets married, don't even try and tell me that a part of you won't be depressed because you still haven't met anyone worthy. The truth of the matter is, yes, my life is pretty great. I live in a beautiful part of the country surrounded by supportive friends. I'm in great health. I have an internship that I love and am thriving at. Yes, I have it better than a lot of people. I get that. Yet, does that mean that I can't be at least a tiny bit sad that I haven't found anybody to share my joys and sorrows with? Does acknowledging that my life is pretty great also mean that I can't acknowledge that that aspect of my life isn't so great?

It's not for lack of trying, I can assure you of that. I've been in two relationships so far and they both ended very abruptly and very suddenly. The most recent one happened over the summer with someone who I really thought had potential to be a great permanent partner for me. They checked off all of the boxes on my checklist (and believe me, I am extremely picky so almost no one checks all the boxes). Sadly, it didn't last. I didn't take it well. I think I'm still not entirely over them and it is conceivable that I won't be for quite a while. I really hate the dating world and the games you have to play in it and the subtle hints you have to decode. I was so looking forward to being done with all of it. To be honest, I really don't want to deal with it all over again. My Asperger's means I have a difficult time picking up on social cues or subtle hints which seems to be what dating is all about. I don't like having to watch what I say or being afraid that I'm going to scare them off or hearing after two dates that they "just like me as a friend." Here's the thing: I'm not looking for any more friends. I have plenty of friends. I could literally not make another friend for the rest of my life and I would still have too many friends. At this point in my life, I'm searching for something more than that. I'm craving something deeper. Someone I can be intimate with in ways that I can't be with friends. Someone who I can be with forever and even potentially raise children with. Yes, I just said that out loud. I do have a desire to have children. That might shock some of you as I like to make jokes about how I hate children or don't think they are the right thing for me but the truth of the matter is, I would love to be a dad. I think I could be a pretty good one so the idea that that door might never be available to me is one that I really struggle to be okay with. My other deep, dark secret? I have a fear of dying alone. I have a fear that there will be no one at the hospital to say goodbye to me when I go. In my ideal scenario, I'd be surrounded by my partner and our kids and maybe a few really close friends as I take my last breaths on this earth. I worry that that ideal might not become reality.

I don't think my coupled friends realize sometimes how unintentionally hurtful some of their rather innocuous comments can be. When they gush about their boyfriends or husbands on Facebook. When they post a picture of their huge engagement ring. When they post about their pregnancy or post pictures of the baby. While I know they mean well, these types of things are unintentionally hurtful to me because I know that that might never be my situation. My Facebook status might consistently stay at single (it has so far). I may never know the joy of being a parent. I may never propose or be proposed to. So, every time I see stuff like this on my newsfeed, I seriously want to gag or cry or just go lay down in the fetal position. Why can't people post more pictures of their cats? I love seeing pictures of cats. Why don't we brag about our goldfish more? I'd much rather see a picture of your cat than your baby. It would hurt less!

I think another reason why this weighs so heavily on my heart is because I'm going into a profession where single people are heavily frowned upon (even if that's never stated directly). Churches feel much more comfortable hiring pastors that are married and/or have kids. That's the narrative they want to present to other churches. That's the narrative they want to use to recruit more families. I've heard stories of churches who outright have rejected candidates because they were single. Since it is entirely possible that I will still be single by the time I finish school and am ready to seek a call, this really worries me. Is my inability to stay in a relationship longer than a month going to affect my ability to find a job? What am I supposed to do about that? The #1 reason why many single adults stop going to church? Because it is the one aspect of their lives where they feel most acutely aware of their singleness. At work, at school, even in their families, they may not feel it but at church they are keenly aware of it. Thus, they stay away from church. What are churches doing to address this fact?

I think we need to be more aware of the language we use and the words we say to singles. Someday, my prince will come. Maybe he will. What if he doesn't? What if my "knight in shining armor" doesn't exist? Is that okay? Does that make me less of a person? Am I okay with accepting this fact? What if I am meant to stay single? I've certainly been on more than enough bad dates to never want to dip my toe into those waters ever again! I guess I'm just getting to the point where I'm starting to wonder if that special someone is even out there. I can't help but feel slightly inadequate that I still haven't met anybody. I have accepted that I may never meet anyone. Maybe that's how it is meant to be. Not everyone is meant to get married or partner up. Here's the thing about that. Yes, perhaps some of us aren't meant to be with someone but do I have to be one of those someones? Why can't I be with somebody? Yes, I fully believe that I am a complete person even by myself. That doesn't mean that I can't still have the desire to have that special connection with a special person. I think what I've realized is that I'm not a dating person. I'm a relationship person. I want the relationship but not all the drama and games that go with dating. I just want that one special person that I can come home to after a long day of work and cuddle with on the couch and watch a movie. Or someone that I can vacation with or someone that I can bring home with me for the holidays and have them meet my family and feel like I have somebody special that loves me in spite of (or because of) my flaws. Sometimes, I just feel so aware of how much I desperately want that and don't have it. And, it hurts. It deeply, deeply hurts. Maybe it shouldn't but it does. Every. Single. Time.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Light Up the World

Folks, here is the text of the sermon that I preached today at my internship congregation. It was my first time preaching there and it went really well! Got lots of positive feedback and really felt like the congregation enjoyed it immensely. My Scripture text was Romans 12: 4-8

Today is Christian Vocation Sunday. It’s also Labor Day Weekend. Combined, these two days are days when we honor and celebrate the act of working. The Presbyterian Church (USA) clarifies the word vocation by defining it as the idea that God has given each of us gifts and that we are therefore called to use those gifts in a way that pleases and serves God and others. Our vocation is the way in which we respond to the many gifts God has given us; how we live our life.
That seems to tie in well with our Scripture passage today. We hear Paul say the following words, “we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.” What does this mean, though, for our modern-day context? What it refers to is the idea that we each have something to offer the world. Educational reformer John Dewey once said, “To find out what one is fitted to do, and to secure an opportunity to do it, is the key to happiness.” Therefore, it behooves us all to discover what it is that we are called to do with our lives. For some of us, it may be cooking. For others, it may be working in the financial sector. For others, it may be raising children. All of these, if they fit our gifts, our interests and our abilities are good, life-giving work and can be considered our Christian vocation and even, dare I say it, our ministry.
I define ministry as anything you enjoy doing that also brings joy to others and that means that if you enjoy cooking and it brings joy to others, then that is your ministry. I happen to enjoy watching movies and reviewing them and that, to me, is ministry. If you enjoy teaching children or youth, that’s your ministry. Anything can be a ministry. Anything that fits our gifts and talents and interests. I think Paul would agree with me there. We may all have different gifts but we all use these different gifts in unison to glorify and honor God, the one who gave us these gifts.
So, what does this mean for our lives together as Christians? It means that we are all members of the same body of Christ. We may each have different gifts or even different ministries but no one is outside of the body of Christ even if their gifts or ministries might not be “acceptable” in our eyes. We each bring something different to the table. We each bring something of ourselves to the table. What we contribute may in some cases seem insignificant or small or relatively unimportant but it all is important to God and it is all acceptable to God. The work we do matters. The work we do is important even if society would sometimes like us to believe otherwise. The images we see on television and in magazines is that some careers are better or more important than others and therefore those people deserve more attention or more importance or more money or more status. We emphasize just how much more important a CEO is than a maid or how a Senator is just too busy to handle something mundane like housework or raising children.
Yet, that’s not actually the case at all. In the eyes of God, there is no difference between a CEO or a maid; a Senator or a housewife. Each contributes a different but just as important gift to the Christian community. In the same way that eyes contribute something different to the body than the feet do but each is just as important to the makeup of the body, so it is with what we do with our vocations. Yes, a Senator and a housewife have radically different jobs with different responsibilities, benefits, pay grades and statuses but ultimately they both contribute in their own way to the larger Christian community and without both their contributions, the community looks and feels different.
This is why it is of paramount importance for us to honor and respect each other’s work. It makes no difference if one is a waitress or a banker or even the President of the United States, our work is important and useful and good because it honors and serves God. This is why it becomes absolutely vital for us to appreciate all the many ways that we each contribute to the body of Christ. So, on this Labor Day weekend while some of us rest from our labors, let’s remember those who don’t get Labor Day off. Let’s respect those who work in jobs that we might consider beneath us. Let’s appreciate the hard work of those who don’t get any appreciation from society. I worked in retail for two years before coming to seminary. I worked every Labor Day, every Christmas and every Thanksgiving. It was hard, monotonous and sometimes boring work. The hardest part about it, though, was the lack of appreciation that I would receive from customers. I got plenty of complaints (and even a few profanity-laced tirades) but almost no compliments. It made me very aware of just how little we appreciate that particular sector of our society. We are just as likely not to tip our waitress who brings us our food as we are to ignore the janitor who cleans our bathrooms. In many cases, we don’t even see these people unless there is a problem. We are all too eager to complain if the bathroom is not clean enough or if our food is served cold but how often are we willing to take the time to compliment someone on their superb job cleaning the bathroom or their excellent handling of our complicated beverage order? My point is is that too often, we forget to acknowledge the work that others do for us. We forget to see them as part of the body of Christ. Instead, we complain and gripe at them because they dared to forget to put non-fat milk in our triple latte. Nothing’s worse than getting the wrong coffee at Starbucks, am I right?!
I think I would be remiss here if I did not at least acknowledge in some way the historic event that occurred fifty years ago this week. On August 28, 1963, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech in which he someday dreamed of a world in which we would not judge others by “the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Many may not realize that his now-famous and well-known speech was actually the culmination of what was titled the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The marchers were protesting a system of economic inequality that was keeping the poor oppressed and preventing them from lifting themselves out of poverty. At the time, the national unemployment rate was 5 percent. Sadly, that number has actually gone up to 7.7 percent. For African Americans, the unemployment rate is nearly 16 percent and for Hispanics, 10 percent. Then, the federal minimum wage was 1.25 per hour. Today, it is 7.25 per hour meaning that the minimum wage has only gone up 6 dollars in 50 years. There is absolutely no reason why a woman working 40 hours a week at her job shouldn’t be able to provide the basic necessities for herself and her children. It is unconscionable that the McDonald’s Corporation, a company worth billions, asks its employees to create a budget for themselves that doesn’t allow for child care, gasoline, groceries or clothing. Meanwhile, corporate CEOs continue to rake in millions and are able to afford to buy that second house in Maui that their kids have been begging them for. Does anyone else see the irony in this?
This is happening because we have forgotten to see each other and the work we do as valuable and important. We have forgotten to see each other as part of the body of Christ. We have forgotten to see ourselves as the body of Christ. We have lifted up and made important some people while denigrating and fundamentally denying the importance of other people. We have forgotten to let our light shine but instead hide it under a bushel because we don’t see what we do as important. We are the ones working the minimum wage jobs. We are the ones working every single weekend and holiday. We are the ones who have to work two jobs just to pay rent and buy groceries. We are the ones who, at the end of the day, are tired and worn out and exhausted and are then told that we are lazy and don’t deserve to have the same privileges as others.
I say to you that we need to start writing a new story. We need to start writing a story in which we all are equal in each other’s eyes. A story in which we see each other as part of the body of Christ. A story in which a CEO is no more nor no less important than a housekeeper. A story in which we let our own lights shine because then other peoples’ lights will shine as well. In her book, A Return to Love, author Marianne Williamson provides one of the most profound and most-quoted lines about this very concept. She writes, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we're liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Therefore, I say to you, go and let your light shine. Go and remember to see each other as part of the body of Christ. We all have different gifts but all our gifts are equal and important to our community of faith. Remember that, always. Don’t hide your light under a bushel. Instead, let it shine and brighten other people’s lives so that they may in turn do the same. Go and liberate each other from your fears. Light up the world. We already have too much darkness out there. Let’s, instead, be the light.
(Sung) “This Little Light of Mine, I’m gonna let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!”

Saturday, August 24, 2013

I Know What I Did Last Summer

 Hello folks, once again I must apologize for my extended absence from this here blog. Lots going on means I have had no time to blog about it even though I wanted to. It just becomes hard to write down all my thoughts. Anyway, here we go.

 Spring Semester ended well. It was a pretty rough semester actually, both academically and personally. I was really struggling with some personal issues all last semester and found myself having trouble concentrating in my classes because of it. I still ended up doing really well in my classes and now have the highest GPA I have ever had in my life but making it through the semester ended up being a bit of a challenge. Not really going to say anything more than that other than I am glad I got through it and I am doing a lot better now.

 Summer was pretty low-key. Mostly consisted of working full-time at my job and then doing as little as possible when I got home from work. I spent most of July traveling as I do every summer. Its become increasingly important to me that I travel for at least a week or two in the summer. I visited five states in 23 days, a schedule that I do not necessarily recommend as it really wore me out. Started my travels in Georgia at a retreat that has become a vital and important piece of my summer. From there, I traveled up to Indiana to take part in the Presbyterian Youth Triennium that I had been helping to plan for the last two years. It was really great to finally see all of our hard work come to fruition but the week itself was completely exhausting and difficult. I was sad to see it end but also ready to move on to the next part of my journey, Wisconsin. I stayed with some seminary friends out there and just had a really good, relaxing time exploring the town and visiting with my friends. I had never traveled to Wisconsin before and I have to say that I really enjoyed my time there. Not sure that I could ever move there as the winters are really terrible but it seems like a really great place to settle down and live. From there, I took a Greyhound bus to Chicago, IL. For those of you who don't know, Chicago was where I lived for a year before moving to California (and where this very blog really came into existence!) but I had not been back since leaving two years ago so it felt really good to be back in a city that I had come to love so much. It was so good to see friends again and explore the city that I spent so much time in. I was reminded, though, of why I left and so in that sense, it felt good to be there so that I could realize that. I realized that Chicago was a great place for me at the time I was there but that I was never meant to stay there. I already knew that but being back there just re-confirmed it for me. I've moved on and so has the city. From Chicago, I traveled to my final destination: Louisville, KY. I was there to attend the Big Tent Conference of the Presbyterian Church, specifically the Compassion, Peace and Justice Conference which was dealing with the issue of food justice, an issue that I have become very passionate about over the last year or so. It was a great conference and I had a great time seeing old friends and making new connections. I was ready to leave by the end of it so that I could get back to California after being away for so long.

 I arrived back in California and then a week later started my internship. For the next 9 months, I will be serving as the Pastor in Training/Intern at Christ Presbyterian Church in Terra Linda, CA which is about twenty minutes from campus. I'm full-time there Sunday through Thursday and I have my own desk, office, land-line phone and keys so I have a pretty great set-up. I'm going to be gaining practical experience with all the things that I've been learning how to do over the last two years of seminary. I'll be preaching, leading Bible Studies, serving as a youth group sponsor, creating young adult programming, teaching children's Sunday School, singing in the choir and developing Adult Sunday School options. Yeah, it is a lot. I don't deny that. However, it is all stuff that I wanted to do. They're all areas that I either enjoy doing or need to learn how to do so therefore I agreed to take on all those responsibilities. Good thing I'm a Type A! So far, I'm really enjoying being there. I have a great supervisor who is very pastoral and really good with boundaries and the church is so welcoming and friendly. I think it will be a great fit for me. I will be there until June 1st and then next September, I will be returning to full-time classwork taking the last 4 to 5 classes that I need to graduate and then graduating in May of 2015 with my Masters in Divinity. After that, who knows where I will end up? While I love California, it can be very expensive to live here so I may not be able to stay once I am no longer a student. Plus, after four years of living in the same place, I may be ready for a change. Who knows? Guess I will find out soon enough. For now, though, I'm just going to continue to enjoy my time in California for as long as it may last which may be two years or ten years or forever.

 So, all in all, I'd say I am doing pretty great. Dealt with some personal aches somewhat this year but I'm happy to report that I seem to have gotten past all that and am now content and satisfied with where I am in life and what I'm doing. I even have my own business cards at my internship!! How cool is that??! Anyways, I shall close this off now as I need to go to bed. Hope you are all doing well and that you had restful and good summers, like I did. I will try to be more consistent about updating this thing so that I can keep you filled in on how my internship is going. No promises, though, so bear with me!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

"Hope is Not a Noun"

Here is the sermon that I preached today at my church, Sausalito Presbyterian Church. This was my first time to preach a full-length sermon to a congregation. I got great feedback and people seemed to really like what I had to say. So, I share it with you in the hopes that you too will get something out of it. Scripture text is Romans 5: 1 - 5.  

What does the word “hope” mean? It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot in our culture but I wonder if any of us really are aware of what that word actually means. Webster’s Dictionary defines the word “hope” as “the feeling that what is wanted can be had or that events will turn out for the best”. Hope is a noun as when we say, “I really hope I get an job” or “I hope my dad recovers from his accident.” Yes, hope is a noun.
However, in the Greek language, hope was actually personified. Elpis, the Greek word for hope, was actually the name of a Greek personification and spirit of hope. She was usually portrayed as a young woman with flowers in her hair. She and her fellow spirits were kept locked in a box that was entrusted to Pandora’s keeping. However, as many of us know, Pandora became curious and opened the box thus unleashing all sorts of evil spirits upon the earth. Famine, death, disease, envy, greed etc. were all unleashed upon the earth because of her curiosity. The only spirit that did not escape, though, was hope. She remained in the box and it was her duty to comfort humankind from the ravages of the evil spirits.
In this passage from scripture, we hear the following: suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. I am reminded of the words of Jedi Master Yoda in the Star Wars movies: (secret confession time: I’m a huge Star Wars nerd so please indulge me!). Yoda says: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” This scripture text sounds almost like it is coming directly after that. As if Paul was channeling Yoda in his writing of this Scripture. Either that or George Lucas is a secret fan of Paul!
Anyway, I’m struck most by this idea that suffering produces endurance. Really, Paul? Really!? Suffering produces endurance. That almost sounds like an insult to all those who have suffered or are suffering. Tell that to the mom with cancer. Tell that to the Ugandan child who is living in poverty and will never receive a proper education. Tell that to the 13 year old growing up in conservative Texas who gets beat up every single day because he is gay. Yeah, I think it is safe to say that if we actually said this phrase to someone who is actually suffering, we might not ever be asked to provide pastoral care to them again. It’s certainly not the most pastoral approach. It’s like the saying, “Everything happens for a reason.” While this may prove to be true most of the time, it’s not exactly something that I would say to someone while they are in the midst of suffering.
But go on further and you read that endurance produces character. Well, I think we can say that that one is certainly true. I think it’s fair to say that what we have endured has helped make us who we are. During my teenage years, I was unfortunate enough to live in a very hostile and abusive living environment. I won’t name names but I had a member of the family who would constantly put me down and verbally and emotionally abuse me. This was on top of the bullying and abuse I was experiencing at school so it was a non-stop onslaught both day and night. Teenagers, if you didn’t already know, are very susceptible to the words they hear and how adults in their life treat them. Because of this, I came to believe what was being said about me. Maybe I really was ugly and anorexic and stupid and not worthy of being accepted or loved. I don’t think I need to say that things got to a very bad place for me.
Yet, I am able to look back on that period in my life now as a period of growth. Yes, things were really terrible for me back then and I felt like I had nowhere to turn but with the passage of time and more than a few hours of therapy I’ve been able to see that those years helped make me who I am today. To be honest, they’re really what led me to the ministry. For all those who endure, when we get through it, we look back and realize that the scars have become our character and have made us who we are. Those tough times are hard, that’s certain. However, they also make us stronger people. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” as the song says.
Character produces hope. This is how Paul chooses to end his maxim. The idea that character produces hope. What does he mean here, though? What is Paul trying to convey through this phrase? Hope for what? Does he mean that those who lack character also lack hope? Again, not the best pastoral care advice. I can only imagine what would happen if I were to tell a congregant that they had no character and thus no hope. I don’t think that conversation would go over very well. Indeed, it smacks of downright arrogance. I think what Paul was perhaps trying to suggest here is that it is our collective experiences that make up our character and it is our character that produces hope.
Hope does not disappoint us. Now this statement I can fully support. Hope is what keeps our fire burning. Much like Pandora’s box, it is many times the only thing we have to cling to in a world that seems to be spinning out of control. A world where we think access to guns is a right but access to healthcare is a privilege. A world where we spend more money on fighting terrorism than we do on fighting poverty. A world where teenagers are bullied mercilessly and their tormentors are given a free pass rather than being disciplined. We cling to hope: hope that the idolatry and worship of guns will end; hope that we will someday see that poverty is the real terrorism; hope that a young, closeted teenager may one day have the courage to stand up and speak his truth from the pulpit. Yes, hope is what we rely on when everything else seems to have failed us.
Ok, so hope is a noun as I stated earlier. Yet, is hope just a noun? One of my favorite t-shirts is a shirt I got during my senior year of college. The back of it has a  quote that says, “Hope is not a noun. Hope is a movement.” The quote isn’t attributed to anybody and I have searched for years to find out who originally said this but to no avail. I think it is one of the most profound statements I have ever read and it has become one of my life mottoes. “Hope is not a noun. Hope is a movement.” What would our world look like if we actually embodied this statement. It would look like people throwing away their guns and committing to non-violence. It would look like Congress approving a budget that not only completely eliminates poverty but also invests zero dollars into the war effort. It would look like a young, bullied teenager standing in front of a congregation and preaching the Gospel. That’s the kind of movement that hope can be. That’s the kind of movement that hope needs to be. A movement that not only provides hope but depends on it. This isn’t just about clinging to hope. It’s about saying that hope is the impetus for change. Hope does not disappoint us. It invigorates us. It charges us. It motivates us. Hope is the fire in our bellies that encourages us to work for justice. To march for marriage equality. To invest in people, not buildings. To worship God, not guns.
We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. We work for change. We work to make others see that God is at work in our world, every single day. Our hope moves us forward. Our hope drives us on. Our hope compels us to share with each other the wonder and the glory of Jesus and God, our Creator. So, back to my original question: What is hope? Hope is you and me working together to bring about an end to violence. Hope is the disaster relief people in Oklahoma. Hope is our school systems taking a zero-tolerance approach to bullying and other forms of abuse. Hope is a formerly abused, scared teenager growing into a confident young man preaching about hope from the pulpit. Hope is not a noun, hope is a movement.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Back in Black

Hello folks,
     I am terrible about keeping up with this thing. My apologies. Anyway, spring semester started last week and so far, things are going rather well. Classes haven't gotten too challenging yet and I have gotten back into a groove that I think will allow me plenty of time to get all my classwork done plus do the other things I like to do. I've even gotten back into yoga after taking last semester off from doing it. Right now, I've only been able to go one day a week but I'm hoping to be able to do it two days a week pretty soon. Otherwise, things are going great for me.
     January was spent mostly off except for the week I was in Kentucky taking a class at the Presbyterian headquarters. The class was about introducing us to the six different mission agencies of the denomination and how we can better get our seminaries, churches and presbyteries more involved with the work they do. It was a really great experience and I met some great people. Of course, I also got to spend the week with my old Chicago housemates which was just the icing on the cake. It was so great to see them all again. We had a really fun time reconnecting and hanging out again and it was just the vacation that I needed. The rest of the month was fairly uneventful as it consisted of me watching movies and working at my other job full-time during the week. Not much to write home about there. Now that classes are back in session, though, I feel much more with it. January is a pretty dead time around here which can make things more difficult for us Type A personalities! Now, however, things are back to normal aka busy!! Just how I like it!
     I also wanted to take a second and talk about how things are going for me personally. I made some major life changes recently and I just wanted to take a minute to talk about them. Starting with the first of the year, I made a vow to myself to start the new year off right. I realized that I was spending too much time and energy on things that weren't bringing me happiness and joy but instead were bringing me grief and pain. To that end, I vowed to cut back on my meat consumption. I'm now what is referred to as a "flexitarian" meaning I am only eating meat a certain number of days per week (in my case, 3). The other four days of the week, I am strictly vegetarian with no meat in my diet at all. While at first this proved to be tough and I found myself eating a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and grilled cheeses, it has gotten easier as the weeks have progressed. I'm able to still find ways to make sure I have plenty of protein while also making sure that what I eat is delicious and tasty. I'm also now aware of what kinds of meat I eat and am trying my best to only eat meat that has been treated and/or killed humanely. This is harder than you might think and I am still working on it but I have made significant improvements to my diet without suffering any ill effects from it. Eventually, this may lead to full-on vegetarianism but that hasn't happened yet. For right now, I've made the right decision for myself. The other big change that I've made is that I've completely disabled all of my online dating profiles. While I think online dating is a great thing and I have plenty of friends who have met their special person through it, for me, it just wasn't working. It wasn't contributing anything positive to my life and I found that I was spending more time with it than is healthy. I guess that means that I've technically taken myself out of the dating pool. That's ok. To be honest, I'm not real sure that that is something that I want to get myself entangled with anyway, at least right now. I'm actually in a really healthy place in my life right now and while it would be great to share that with someone else, maybe that's not the right thing for me right now. I'm perfectly happy being single and I'm also content being single. I don't need another person in my life right now. If that other person just happens to come along, then great. I'm certainly not going to fight it but for right now, I'm a whole person without that. I don't need to go looking for it and get my heart broken over and over. I'm done with that. I'm tired of going on dates and all the conversation and the pain when they say that they "just didn't feel the connection". I'm tired of being told that I'm a nice guy but they "just like me as a friend." I'm tired of constantly feeling rejected and unwanted. I'm just tired. I'm done. If someone wants to be with me, let them be the pursuer. I've done all the chasing I'm going to do. I'm focusing on me.
    Lastly, I've been trying to take at least one day per month (usually Saturdays) to spend some time in silence and contemplation. This is a time when I step away from my computer and my phone and just allow myself some time to read, pray, write or whatever else strikes my mood. I've never been very good at being contemplative so this is a real stretch for me but it's also something that I want to become better at. I may eventually stretch it into one day per week but for right now, I think once a month is pretty good for me. Only giving myself three hours because that seems to be a good amount of time to spend on this, especially for me.
   Anyway, I know this blog was pretty lengthy but I figured since it had been a while since people had heard from that you might want to know what is going on in my life. That's all I have to report for now. I will do my best to get back into blogging on a more regular basis but no promises about that. I want to conclude by letting you all know my class schedule for this semester. It's pretty light and represents the least number of units I have ever taken in my life. Here it is:
New Testament Exegesis - M/Th 8:30 to 10 AM
Hebrew Reading - M 6 PM
Gospels & Acts - T 9 to 11:50 AM
Preaching - TH 2 to 5 PM
Plus, a class on the Reformed Confessions which mostly meets online. That's all, folks!!