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

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Counting Our (Un)Blessings!

I am participating in the UncoSynchro blog, a writing collaborative effort from ‪#‎Unco14, focusing on subversive themes of faith and life. The theme for November is (Un)Gratitude. This is my first entry for the UncoSynchro blog, and I will participate monthly.

In this season of gratitude and a time in which we give thanks for all the good things in our lives, I think we too often don't acknowledge or hide the not-so-good things in our lives. We focus on all we have and conveniently (for one month at least) forget about all the things that aren't. In an attempt to change the conversation, this post represents my attempt to take stock of all the many things in my life and in the larger world that I am not grateful for. If you don't want to read about this topic and think that I'm being a terrible person or negative Nancy for even mentioning these things, that's fine. I  invite you to move on and ignore this post. However, I think there are some of you who could use this and so I write this for all those who don't always want to be told to be grateful for what they have.

I'm Not Grateful: That I will be spending yet another holiday season without a special someone in my life. I mean, really? Again? Why do I seem to suck so much at this one particular aspect of my life? I'm thriving in all other areas of my life so why not this one? Does my special someone even exist? Am I a leper? Am I so completely undesirable that no one could even stand the thought of being with me for longer than two dates? I'm so over this dating game shenanigans. I'd love to just once have a special someone to spend the holidays with. This whole being single during the holidays thing is so over-rated.

I'm Not Grateful: That my dad died when I was 19 years old. He never got to see me become the amazing man I am now. He never got to see me mature or graduate from college. He will never get to be a part of my wedding day (if I do meet someone to marry). He will never meet any kids I someday have. I'm ungrateful that he had to die when I was still too young to really appreciate him fully. I really wish he were still here. I miss having a dad in my life. I miss having that special connection with someone who never let me forget that he loved me. I really wish I could call him up next week and wish him a Happy Thanksgiving. The fact that I can't ever do that again makes me really ungrateful and really angry.

I'm Not Grateful: That I never really knew my grandparents. I was a late in life child and my grandparents were pretty old when I came around and lived on the other end of the country. They all died when I was young. Thus, I never really got to have any type of significant relationship with them. I'm so jealous of my friends who have great relationships with their grandparents and can tell stories of summers spent with them and time spent learning from their wisdom. I never had that. I wish I had. I have almost no memory of any of my grandparents and that makes me very bitter and very ungrateful.

I'm Not Grateful: That there will still be hungry people on the day after Thanksgiving. Despite however many of us spend at least part of our Thanksgiving at a soup kitchen feeding the hungry, there will still be hungry people. Why? Our world produces enough food every single day for every single person on the planet to have more than enough food to eat every single day. So, why are there hungry people then? No one should have to go hungry, not in a world of plenty. I guess I just don't understand why we allow this system to continue. Maybe I'm just being naive but it seems like feeding everyone would benefit everyone. While you consume your pumpkin pie and your fifth piece of turkey this Thanksgiving, remember all those who would love just to have the crumbs off your pie.

I'm Not Grateful: That 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ. Yes, really, 40% of the youth that are homeless consider themselves part of the LGBTQ alliance. Why isn't this addressed more? Don't get me wrong, it makes me so happy to see more and more states finally allow marriage equality but what  about all the other issues that aren't about marriage equality but affect the LGBTQ community? I worked with homeless youth in Chicago. It was hard work. It's what inspired me to go to seminary. It made me angry that any of them were homeless. Let's address this issue NOW. Let's help get these youths off the streets and into some type of permanent housing situations. Let's work to keep them safe, find them jobs and help them with their bills so they can afford to stay off the streets. Most importantly, let's work to enact laws that will protect them from harassment. They deserve that.

I'm Not Grateful: That we still cannot seem to have a real, actual conversation about the horrible state of mental health care in our country. I thought and hoped that the death of Robin Williams might have finally been the impetus we needed to have a dialogue about the terrible state of our mental health care in this country. It doesn't seem to have done anything, though. We need to actually have a conversation and begin the process of doing something to address the very real issue of mental health. I say this as someone who deals with mental illness every day and would love to be able to get some better mental health care for myself and for all the others who need it so desperately. This is an issue that affects all of us and it needs to be addressed.

I'm Not Grateful: That we've had over 70 school shootings since Newtown, CT and yet we can't seem to get any sort of gun legislation passed. Our children are literally dying and yet we don't seem to care enough to do anything about it.

I'm Not Grateful: That we are all expected to be cheery and merry and full of joy during the holidays. Not all of us feel that way about the holidays. Many people dread them. Some just downright hate them. Yet, we are still expected to smile and put on a happy face and be cheerful even when all we want to do is cry and rant. Just let us have our time away from the holly and the jolly. And for the record, I love the holidays but I resent being told that I have to always be happy or jolly during them. Sometimes, I don't want to be and I want that choice to be respected.

I'm Not Grateful: That I spent so many years hiding who I really was from people and not allowing people to know the real me. My life has improved so much in the five years since coming out of the closet. I really wish I'd done it sooner. I feel like I missed out on so much by staying closeted for so long and that my friends didn't get to know the real me.

There's plenty more things that I'm ungrateful for but that seems to be enough for one post. What are some things you're ungrateful for this holiday season?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Give Me Something to Sing About!

Diclaimer: What I write about here is very sensitive, very personal information. It is not something that I share lightly or share looking for sympathy. I share all this because I believe it is time to be completely honest and open about who I am. It is time to quit hiding. Also, I want to add that the experiences I relate here are mine and that I do not claim to speak for anyone else even in places where I use plural pronouns. My story is not everyone's story. It is mine alone. With that being said, please read below.

Actor/comedian/entertainer Robin Williams died earlier this week by taking his own life. His death shocked and saddened many. What so many found shocking was that it was so hard to believe that someone as well-loved and well-liked and respected and funny as Williams would do that. He seemed to have it all together. How could he do that? Why would he do that?

I can tell you why. You see, I have struggled with many of the very same demons that Williams himself battled. His death shook me up because it made me realize just how deadly depression can be. I've battled depression for years now. It's something I've learned to live with and have accepted the fact that it is something I will have to deal with for the rest of my life. I think I've written on here before somewhat about it but this post is intended to be my full, honest account of what I struggle with every day. It is intended to put a human face on it and to show that depression doesn't discriminate. Even those of us who seem so put-together and so care free can still be fighting a terrible internal battle.

I think I first started dealing with depression when I was in middle school. I can't really remember specific instances but I just felt such a deep sadness in my body. I also started hearing voices in my head. Voices that told me that I was worthless and would never amount to anything and that nobody loved me and nobody would ever love me. Voices that said that the people in my life would be better off if I wasn't still around. Those voices were always there, every single day. Sometimes they were quiet and I was able to get through an entire day without hearing them. Other days, they wouldn't shut up and I would be pestered by them all day. My teenage years were rough. I dealt with a lot of self-loathing and self shame. Some of this was due to the extreme verbal abuse I was receiving from outside forces but some of it was also my depression making itself manifest and telling me that I didn't deserve to live. At my darkest and lowest points, suicide seemed like a great and viable option. It would free me from my torment and it would relieve my suffering and misery. I came very close to killing myself on a couple different occasions. I really can't say why I didn't do it. To this day, I'm unsure. Something always stopped me. Still, the belief that I wasn't worth much always was there, preventing me from fully enjoying my life.

I want to address something here that I have seen come up over and over in the national debate about suicide that has been happening this week. I've seen several people call Mr. Williams selfish for taking his own life. Over the years, I've heard that repeated over and over that people who commit suicide are selfish. For a long time, I even believed that myself and that may be why I didn't do it. However, I've been thinking back on those times when I got so depressed that suicide seemed like a viable option. I have to say that at the time, I wasn't at all thinking of it as a selfish act. To me, it seemed like a selfless one. I felt like such a terrible burden to my family and friends that I honestly believed that they would be better off if they didn't have to deal with me. I wasn't very popular and had very few friends and the friends that I did have I wasn't very close with anyway so I honestly didn't feel like anyone would miss me regardless. I felt their lives would be better off if I wasn't a part of them anymore. I would no longer be a burden to anybody ever again. So, again, suicide felt like a self-less not selfish choice.When you are in that deep a spiral of depression, you lose your ability to think logically sometimes. Suicide can seem like a good option then. It can seem like the only option. It can seem like the self-less option.

Do I wish I didn't have to battle with this every day? Yes, I really do. You can't pray it away or wish it away though. You can only live with it and deal with it in the best way possible, whether that be through medication or therapy or something else. I never know when my depression is going to hit. It can come at any time and stay for as long as it needs to. I don't get to control it or tell it when it is allowed to visit. It sets the agenda. That's the most frustrating part. I can wake up one morning and be completely depressed and there can literally be no reason at all for me to be depressed. I can be completely miserable even though things in my life are going great. The voices in my head tell me that even though I have amazing, supportive friends and am going into a career that I have excitement about and am thriving at school and enjoying life, that none of it is good enough or that I don't deserve it or that it is all an illusion and will be gone in just the blink of an eye. The voices in my head tell me that I should be miserable, not happy. It's messed up, I get it. Believe me, I wish it wasn't this way.

I don't always tell people when I'm feeling depressed. I hide it pretty well. I don't like dealing with all the attention or the questions or the probing that telling people would involve. I have social anxiety disorder and Asperger's so being the center of attention is really difficult for me. This is also why I don't always tell someone when I'm feeling suicidal. I don't want to deal with all the attention and exposure that would bring me. Sometimes, I don't want to talk. I just want to be left alone to cry or feel sad in peace. This is why I take some issue with the whole "if you need help, get it" mentality. I don't always want to ask for help because of the attention it will bring me. I don't want to deal with all the questions or scrutiny or probing that will come about if I tell anyone I'm suicidal. Plus, what if word were to get out publicly to all my friends and family? I would feel so ashamed and so embarrassed and even humiliated and that is not something I want to be put through. That is guaranteed to make me feel much worse, not better. Instead of putting the onus on the person suffering, how about others around that person reach out to them instead? Look them in the eyes and ask them how they are doing. Be sincere with them. Maybe they still won't tell you. That's ok. Don't demand that they do. Don't shame them into telling you something that personal and private. Also, keep in mind that even if you do tell them that they are loved, that they may not believe you. I don't always. Doesn't matter who tells me. The voices in my head say otherwise. They say that that person is lying or just being nice or polite. How could anybody love me, a messed up screwup of a person who can't do anything right? These are the things that they tell me sometimes. These are the things that I live with.

Can I say with 100% certainty that I won't ever be suicidal or try to take my life again? No, I can't. I wish I could but I can't predict the future. I can't predict just how bad things might get for me someday or how bleak things might seem or what the voices inside my head will tell me. I hope I don't get to that point ever again. I certainly don't plan to. I plan to live a long, healthy life and die an old man surrounded by my loved ones. However, I also have to be realistic here and just admit that I can't say with any degree of certainty what might happen to me in the future. Am I ok now? Yes, I am actually. It's been a few months since my depression last hit. I'm feeling good at this point in my life and hope those feelings continue for a long while. Do you need to be worried about me? If you want to be, sure. Know that I do go to therapy and that my therapist has been really great at helping me mute the voices in my head. She might literally save my life someday. However, no method is 100% effective so there's no guarantee that I will be ok even with therapy. My depression can come back at any moment.

I think what I want to close this with is just a reminder to be kind to everyone. You don't know what type of battle they are fighting. We all are fighting some type of battle. The only difference is the combatant. I will also say that unless you yourself have battled with depression you don't get to judge those of us who do. Don't tell us that our problems are trivial and that there are starving children in Africa so what do we have to be depressed about anyway? That doesn't help. That trivializes my problems and insults me and my intelligence. Yes, I know there are starving children in Africa and people being blown up in Gaza and murders happening in Chicago. I know all that. That doesn't mean that my problems aren't real or aren't important or aren't worthy of attention. Treat me with kindness, not hostility. Treat everyone with kindness. Be gentle. Be supportive. Be a friend. Don't take offense if we have a hard time believing you when we say you care about us. We know you do. Our depression wants us to believe otherwise. The voices in my head tell me otherwise. Why would you want to be friends with me? Why would you care about me? Don't you know how messed up I am? You should stay away at your own risk so I don't become a burden to you later on. Get out now while you still can.

Like I said in the disclaimer, I didn't share this hoping to get attention or to elicit sympathy. I simply wanted to be more open and honest with everyone who happens to read this, whoever you might be. I wanted to put a human face on this illness that so many people struggle with on a daily basis. Just know that even if you see me laughing and smiling and making up a spontaneous song and dance routine that I just might be crying on the inside and may not even be able to tell you why.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

We Are Each Other's Angels

Today, I was blessed to preach at the church that raised me. It was an honor and privilege to be among them today. The service went great and people loved hearing what I had to say. For those of you who couldn't physically be there, here's the text of my sermon. Hope it brings you some comfort during these turbulent times. Scripture texts were Micah 4: 1-4 and Matthew 5: 7-12

My name is Javier. I am 10 years old and I am from the country of El Salvador. El Salvador is a country that has been wracked by violence and bloodshed for over 30 years now. Many of my friends have lost relatives due to the extreme violence. My own parents were murdered just last week. I was told that I needed to get out of El Salvador and head north to the United States, where I would be kept safe and free from violence. Instead, I’m being kept back at the border and told that because I’m an immigrant, I’m not welcome in this country. I thought the United States was a land where immigrants could come and be free and safe from their own countries. Now, I have men at the border pointing their guns at me and threatening to kill me if I attempt to cross.
My name is Kat. I am 22 years old. Last year, I came out to my parents as bisexual. They didn’t take the news well. In fact, they kicked me out of the house and told me I was not welcome to come back. Now, I’m homeless and forced to live on the streets. Did I mention I’m from Chicago, a city that is supposedly progressive and inclusive? How could this have happened then to me? Why don’t my parents love me for who I am? How could they do this to their own daughter? Why am I forced to live on the streets? It gets cold here in Chicago in the winter and I am forced to find some sort of shelter during those months. Last month, I was verbally harassed by a police officer. Two weeks ago, I was sexually assaulted by a man who thought that because I was homeless, it meant I didn’t mind being taken advantage of. No one should have to live like this. No one.
My name is Jonas. I’m 15 years old. Last month, my best friend was shot dead in another school shooting in another town in the United States. He was one of 15 victims. What’s sad is how little press coverage his death got. School shootings are so commonplace now that nobody really even bothers to report on them anymore. They have become just another fact of life. It saddens me that the life of my best friend and my other classmates weren’t worthy of being mentioned on the evening news, as if their lives weren’t important enough to warrant coverage. Why did this happen here? Why does this happen anywhere? Why are the lives of our citizens not worth more to our politicians and lawmakers? Why is my best friend dead and no one is being held accountable?
The stories you just heard are, in part at least, fictional. Javier, Kat and Jonas are just characters I made up in my imagination. However, the stories they share are, sadly, all too real and important. In our New Testament reading today, we hear Jesus say, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” Let’s think about that line for a second. “Blessed are the peacemakers.” “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Um, really? When I look at this scripture text and then read the news headlines, I can’t help but wonder if Jesus would still be saying this in our modern times.
You’ve read the stories, I’m sure. About Gaza and Russia and Ukraine and South Sudan and Venezuela and Iraq and Syria and El Salvador and it becomes increasingly clear that we live in unstable and violent times where peace is really hard to find and where people who try to make peace are seen as irrelevant and useless and not as important. We live in a world that glorifies war. We live in a world that is constantly showing us images of terror and violence and death. In our country alone, there have been 74 school shootings since Newtown, CT and our government has done absolutely nothing to address this. Children are fearing for their lives and are being gunned down every single day and yet we are so beholden to the gun lobby and so in love with our guns that we can’t even see that our current ways of living are not doing anyone any favors.
Is this the world where the peacemakers are blessed? A world where we give medals to people who kill others in combat and call them heroes? A world where we execute murderers so we can prove that we are tough on violence? A world where we tell children like Javier that they need to return to their own countries because we don’t want them draining our resources? A world where LGBTQ people like Kat are still subject to bodily harm and even death in more countries than we can count?
This world is where peacemakers are blessed? Really, this one? It sure doesn’t seem like it to me. I’d love to hear what Jesus would have to say to us now. I’d like to think that even he would just give up, throw in the towel and retire to a house in the woods and live in exile. It would certainly be easier to believe that.
“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Neither shall they learn war anymore.” It’s a great passage, isn’t it? One that pacifists love to trot out all the time to justify why they are against war and violence. Yet, I’ve seen no evidence either in our modern times or even our ancient times about this ever being the case. We are a world that knows how to conduct war all too well. As a friend of mine recently put it, “I used to believe the world could change. I’m not so sure anymore.” It’s hard not to agree with that sentiment, especially when looking at our own history.
Two weeks ago, I traveled to Ghost Ranch in New Mexico to attend a week-long retreat with prominent Celtic theologian John Philip Newell. We spent a week in the desert talking about God and participating in silent meditative walks through the beautiful landscape there. It was during one of these walks that we were asked to reflect on the statement, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” We were asked to think about what that means to us and our context.
I spent my walk observing the beauty of where we were. I spent my time reflecting on just how much natural beauty there is in the world. It gave me a sense of inner peace. That’s when I realized something. Perhaps Jesus isn’t talking about external peace, a peace that is so rare and increasingly hard to find. Perhaps Jesus was instead referring to an inner peace, the kind of peace that comes along only when we search for it. I’ve discovered that when you are at peace within yourself, it is very hard to have any desire to seek revenge against others. Perhaps that’s the kind of peace that we ought to be pursuing, a peace that calms our hearts and quiets our fears. A peace that results in contentment, not anger. A peace that comes about through Jesus and through our belief that Jesus is working in our hearts and in our world to make everything better.
Last weekend, I went to Indiana for a retreat that I look forward to every year. It is a retreat for all LGBTQ people that are in the Presbyterian ordination process. This is a community that knows all too well the sort of violence and hatred that others in the church are capable of. This is a community that knows personal stories of being rejected and abused by others. This is a community that could easily give up on the church. Many have. Yet, many of us have chosen to stay with it and are continuing to seek ordination in the church. Perhaps we’re crazy. Perhaps we’re weird. Perhaps we do it because we know that we can find some sense of inner peace and contentment through each other. We support each other, love each other, help each other through the process and in that helping, we start to find some sense of peace about everything.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” Perhaps that’s the kind of peacemaking we should be pursuing: inner peace. We can help each other get there. I can’t help but wonder what our world would look like if we started helping each other achieve inner peace. Maybe we wouldn’t feel the need to strike back in anger against each other. Maybe our children could go to school and feel safe. Maybe in our own quest for contentment, we might find that the world actually is capable of changing and our own inner cynicism and bitterness will melt away.
Let me clarify something here that I know is perhaps nagging at some of you. I’m not at all advocating for a withdrawal from the world or for us to focus only on ourselves and not on the problems of the world, vast as they are. What I’m instead advocating for is a different approach, an approach that emphasizes our own inner capabilities to change the world. When we find inner peace, we thus strive for outer peace. When we are at peace within ourselves, it can spur us on to action, action that will bring peace to others like Javier and Kat and Jonas. What might that action look like?
Best selling author Anne Lamott recently posted a compelling answer to that very question on her Facebook page: “I know that if I want to have loving feelings, I need to do loving things. It begins by putting your own oxygen mask on first: I try to keep the patient comfortable. I do the next right thing: left foot, right foot, left foot, breathe. I think Jesus had a handle on times like these: get thirsty people water. Feed the hungry. Try not to kill anyone today. Pick up some litter in your neighborhood. Lie with your old dog under the bed and tell her what a good job she is doing with the ruptured ear drum. I try to quiet the drunken Russian separatists of my own mind, with their good ideas. I pray. I meditate. I rest, as a spiritual act. I spring for organic cherries. I return phone calls.
I remember the poor. I remember an image of Koko the sign-language gorilla, with the caption, "Law of the American Jungle: remain calm. Share your bananas." I remember Hushpuppy at the end of Beasts of the Southern Wild, just trying to take some food home to her daddy Wink, finally turning to face the hideous beast on the bridge, facing it down and saying, "I take care of my own."
I take care of my own. You are my own, and I am yours--I think this is what God is saying, or trying to, over the din. We are each other's. There are many forms of thirst, many kinds of water.”
Beloved, we are each other’s angels. So, take care of each other. Don’t let this crazy, violent, topsy-turvy world get you down. Find inner peace. Find contentment. Help others find theirs. If you see a homeless person on the street, help them. Offer them a hand up. If you hear about a school shooting on the news, find out what you can do to help the victims and survivors. If you hear about violence toward others trying to immigrate to the United States, ask yourself what you can do to be a part of the solution, not the problem.
Maybe it won’t do any good. Maybe tomorrow, Javier will still not be able to immigrate across the border. Maybe Kat will still be homeless. Maybe Jonas will still be grieving the loss of his best friend. Somehow, though, I think our efforts to find peace, real peace will do some good in the long run. I think it is worth trying anyway at least for the sake of Javier and Kat and Jonas. They deserve better. We deserve better. We can do better.
“Now, go answer your calling. Go and fill somebody’s cup. When you see an angel falling, won’t you stop and help them up? We are each other’s angels and we meet when it is time. We keep each other going and we show each other signs.”

Monday, June 23, 2014

Abound in Hope

  This past week, I had the pleasure of once again attending the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Detroit, Michigan. This biennial conference is where Presbyterians of all ages, races and political persuasions gather together for a week of worship, prayer, and discernment as to what the will of the body is regarding various issues that have come up since the last General Assembly. I attended the previous General Assembly in the role of a Student Assistant but this time I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to attend in a different role, that of a Theological Student Advisory Delegate. These are seminary students who are sent to the Assembly as representatives of the seminary. They serve on committees and have full voice and vote in committees and voice on the floor of plenary. Our votes are tallied but are considered advisory votes and thus do not count in the final total where voting is considered.
   I had been an alternate to go and then found out a week before the start of the Assembly that I was needed to go in someone else's place. I quickly changed my plans, canceled some flights and was soon enough well on my way to Detroit for an experience that I can only describe as amazing! I like to describe GA as one big family reunion and that was definitely true from the very beginning of this one. Almost from the minute my plane landed I was running into people I knew and some I hadn't seen in years. It was a very joyous experience and that proved to be true for the entire week.
 On the second night of the assembly, we held elections for our Moderator and Vice-Moderator of the PC(USA). These two people would be representing our denomination all over the world for the next two years and would be the face of the Presbyterian Church over the course of that time. This was quite a historic year as all three candidates for Moderator had publicly stated their support for same-gender marriage, one of the issues that would be coming before the Assembly later in the week. Thus, in my own opinion, there really were no bad options. I'm blessed to say that a good friend and former colleague from Chicago was elected as the Vice Moderator. It felt so awesome to see her up there being inaugurated and installed and knowing that she would be someone representing the denomination that I love for the next two years. That was another way in which the Assembly was a blessing to me.
  I ended up serving on the Church Polity committee. This is the committee that considers overtures regarding changing different parts of our constitution. I'm a bit of a self-professed polity nerd so this was actually the perfect committee for me to serve on. I found myself really drawn in to our debates and questions. It was all fun for me. I had also agreed to help plan our committee's worship services, something that I have found myself really enjoying over the last two years. I ended up being in charge of picking out hymns, something that I find very spiritually rewarding for me. Needless to say, this made my time on the committee even more enjoyable.
  Our committees met for two days and then we were back in plenary session so that we could all vote on the overtures that the committees had approved or disapproved. While there were many that were very important, there were a few issues in particular that were the most watched and the most prayed about. They were ones that the Assembly chose not to approve at their last gathering and there was much conversation in the months before that this time things would go differently. I know that I was certainly praying for a different outcome this time around.
  The first issue of controversy to come before the assembly was the one regarding same-gender marriage. There were two overtures relating to this and I'm so proud to say that both of them passed the Assembly by an overwhelming margin. The first one is an authoritative interpretation that gives pastors the freedom of conscience to marry same-gender couples in states where it is legal. The language of this overture was really lovely and made it clear that pastors who don't agree with same-gender marriage don't have to be required to perform one. They still have the right to say no to any couple, straight or gay. It also doesn't require pastors to break any state laws as the rule only applies to pastors who reside in states where it is legal. As more and more states allow it, more and more Presbyterian pastors will be able to follow their conscience and marry their same-gender congregants without fear of prosecution from either state or ecclesiastical authorities. Because it was issued as an authoritative interpretation, its passage at the Assembly meant that it would go into effect as of the end of the Assembly. Meaning that in the 19 states where same gender marriage is legal, those Presbyterian pastors are now free to marry same-gender couples if they so choose.
  The other overture that passed was the one that would change the description of marriage in our Book of Order (which is Part 1 of our Constitution) to read that marriage is "between two people, traditionally a man and a woman". This is a huge change from the current language which explicitly states that marriage is only between a man and a woman. Because this is a change in our Constitution, it requires a majority of our presbyteries to ratify it so won't go into effect until a year from now (assuming it receives the required number of votes). Passing these two overtures was a huge step forward for the denomination and one that comes at great risk. Many churches have already threatened to leave because of our actions. For me, I saw it as an opportunity for us to truly live out the Gospel. Jesus called us to be people of acceptance and love for everyone. He broke bread with the outcasts and sinners. He was a friend to the friendless. By passing these overtures, my denomination showed that it was willing to be bold, brave and prophetic and that it was seeking to live out the values that Jesus taught. To me, that's worth losing some people over. What wasn't said in the conversations was how many people we may gain by passing these overtures. People who have left the church because we've been rejecting them. People who got tired of waiting for the church to change. People who were waiting for the church to become more like the Jesus and the God that they believe in. These are people who will hopefully come to church now. They are people who will agree to be part of a denomination again and will become an important part of our future as a denomination.
   The other controversial overture that passed, albeit by a very slim margin, was the one regarding divestment from three companies that have been profiting off the Isreali occupation of Palestine. This is an issue that attracted lots of passion, controversy and twisted stories. There has been a lot of misinformation about the actual language of the overture that was passed. Here are the actual facts from someone who was actually there, read the overture and voted for it. The PC(USA) did not divest from Israel. We did not declare ourselves to be anti-Semites. We instead chose to take a moral, highly symbolic stand and declare that we weren't going to profit anymore off of the suffering of the Palestinian people. It was an act of conscience. It was a prophetic move that declared to all that we are seeking ways of peace in a land that hasn't known any in a long time. Yes, it has been twisted and distorted by the media as an anti-Israel, anti-Semitic action but nothing could be further from the truth. Those "facts" are being reported by people who didn't even bother to take the time to read the actual language of the overture. The Presbyterian Church (USA) still loves their Jewish brothers and sisters and still cares about them. That hasn't changed. Let me make it perfectly clear. This wasn't an anti-Israel action. This was an anti-oppression action.
  All that being said, I left this assembly filled with so much hope and joy for the church that has been a part of my life for so long. The theme this year was "Abound in Hope" and I can't think of a better theme, personally. It was abounding in hope. Hope permeated the entire week. Hope energized my conversations. It fueled my motivation and it gave me the courage to speak on issues that felt important to me. This Assembly gave me hope for the future of my denomination; for the future of my ministry; for the future of my life. Indeed, I left Detroit on Saturday morning feeling eternally grateful that I got to be a part of the experience. I can't really even tell you in words how awesome it felt to be in the room when they announced that the two overtures about same-gender marriage had both passed. I felt proud, joyful, grateful and so appreciative for the people who had dedicated the last several decades of their lives to ensuring this would someday happen. I remain awestruck by it. As a queer (a word I don't often use to describe myself) seminary student, I am very much aware how historic that particular day was and the fact that I was privileged enough to be sitting on the floor of plenary voting on an issue that is so personal to me and so many of my closest friends. It makes me cry just thinking about it.
  I close this off by saying that I am so glad that the opportunity to go to Detroit fell into my lap. It was where I needed to be. It was how I needed to start my summer. It was what I needed to give me hope in my denomination again. I feel so excited now to someday be a pastor in this church that I have grown up in. I'm so lucky and so privileged and so grateful and yes, so hopeful. Detroit restored my soul. It restored my life. It restored my dreams.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Living on a Prayer

One of the last sermons I will get to preach at my internship congregation. This was probably one of the toughest and most personal ones yet. Scripture text was Matthew 6: 5-14.

It is slightly ironic that I am standing in front of you today, preaching on this particular topic. I was a bit taken aback myself when I saw that I would be preaching on this subject. Why, you may be wondering? Well, here’s the thing. When it comes to prayer, I confess that I just have a really difficult time with it. You see, when it comes to prayer, I just can’t seem to do it. The idea of sitting there and praying just doesn’t seem to work for me. I have tried so many times to just stay focused and to pray but to no avail.
I should confess here that I have ADHD or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Thus, I think that perhaps explains why I lose focus so easily and why I therefore find praying to be a rather difficult task for me. I know I haven’t always had a hard time praying. I remember when I was a much younger person that I would pray every night before going to bed. At some point, I stopped doing that and never started again.
Here’s just some of my reservations about prayer. These reservations, at least to me, represent the main reason why I don’t pray. Why do it? Why bother praying? If God already knows all our needs and already knows what is on our hearts, then why do we have to bother articulating them? Can’t God just give us what we want without us having to ask?
We live in a broken, violent world. A world where people are savagely beaten and murdered every single day. A world where families are torn apart by war, violence, poverty, and death. A world where those with money and power have access to everything while those who lack both have access to nothing and yet we are told that this is the way it should be and that we shouldn’t expect or hope or long for anything better.
Where are our answered prayers in this world? People have been praying for peace in the Middle East for decades and yet the violence rages on. People have prayed for an end to hatred and homophobia and yet the persecutions continue. People have prayed for our children to feel safe and yet the violence in our schools and neighborhoods continues to rage on and consume entire families.
Is this what our answered prayers look like? A world shattered and broken by war and violence and poverty and hatred and abuse? This is the world that we continue to live in and grieve in and pray in. Our prayers don’t really seem to be making much, if any, difference at all.
So, again, I ask you, why pray? Why bother? Why not just give up and stop praying and just accept that the world we live in is the world we have and stop trying to pray for it to change or be better. Why, indeed?
In our scripture reading for today, we see Jesus tell his disciples how not to pray. He instructs them to pray not with boisterousness and loud voices like the hypocrites do. Instead, he instructs them to pray in secret and in quiet and not to make a big production out of it. Then, he teaches them the prayer that is perhaps the most well-known prayer in the entire Bible. The prayer that has been repeated by Christians for generations. The prayer that we now know as the Lord’s Prayer.
At first glance, it seems so simplistic and so easy. It seems almost unfinished and feels rather short. Surely, there must be more to the prayer than just these few short lines, right? I mean, how can we possibly encapsulate everything we want to say to God in just these few short verses? I mean, God has to hear about our sick grandma and our anxiety over our upcoming test and our anguish over our loss of a job and none of those things is mentioned at all in this prayer. What gives?
What Jesus is expressing here is the idea that our prayers don’t have to be these long, drawn out things. They can be simple and easy. They can be as short as one word or as simple as just saying Thank You. There is no need to attach fanciness or ornamentation to them. God sees right through all of that. God sees right to our hearts. God sees what we need to say even before we say it.
Which brings me back to my initial question: why bother praying? A few months back, I had the opportunity to attend the Companions on the Inner Way retreat down in Malibu, California. I basically signed up for this retreat as an excuse to spend a week in Malibu. I knew absolutely nothing about what I had signed up for or what I had gotten myself into. I got off the airport shuttle at the retreat center, received my schedule for the week, looked through it and thought to myself, “What in the world have I just gotten myself into?”
It was a week-long prayer and spirituality retreat. We were scheduled to do lectio divina meditations and spend time in contemplative silence and do art and journal and most importantly of all, pray. All stuff I have professed to either hate doing or to not get much out of. From the very beginning, I knew I was going to be in for a rough week. However, something inside me had told me to come on this retreat. Something inside me had told me to open myself up to this experience and to open myself up to the new ways of seeing that this might bring me. So, that next morning, I woke up and decided to be open to these things that I have been so against for so long. And, you know what? I found myself really enjoying them. I found myself actually enjoying lectio divina and enjoying time spent in contemplative silence and being able to actually, dare I say it, pray. I even, shocker, made art!
Again, let me ask the question: why pray? Let me, if I may, reframe the question and approach it from a fresh angle. Instead of asking, why pray, I’m going to ask instead, why not pray? Why not take a chance and pray for each other and for ourselves. Why not pray knowing that God will see us and hear us? Why not swallow our pride and humble ourselves just a little bit so that we can take some time to just surrender ourselves to the act of prayer? After all, sometimes all we have is prayer.
Here’s what I have come to realize about prayer: it doesn’t have to be some on your knees with your mouth open praying to God type thing. It can be found in other ways. In the beloved children’s book, Anne of Green Gables, little Anne Shirley, an ever-inquisitive and spunky young lady, has this to say about prayer: “Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I'd do. I'd go out into a great big field all alone or in the deep, deep woods and I'd look up into the sky—up—up—up—into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I'd just feel a prayer.” That, is a form of prayer. Walking the labyrinth? A form of prayer. Lectio divina? A form of prayer. My personal favorite way of praying? Through singing. Whatever way you choose to express the desires of your heart to God are acceptable and worthy as prayer.
Yes, we live in a broken and fearful world. We live in a world that is full of violence and anger and hate. We live in a world that can be so crazy and topsy-turvy that it sometimes can threaten to be too much and we think that we should just give up. Clearly, God doesn’t hear our prayers or answer them because how could our world be like this if God did? So, wouldn’t it just be better to give up rather than continuing to pray without ceasing?
No, it wouldn’t. Yes, it may not always be easy. Yes, we may get distracted during our praying or feel like it isn’t making a bit of difference. Yes, it may be that we would rather God just give us what we want without having to ask for it. When your dad has been sick for five years and you pray for him to get better only to see him get worse, it can seem pointless to continue praying. When you have a loved one go to prison and you pray to God everyday for them to be paroled and come home to you only to see them denied parole again and again and again it can seem pointless to continue praying. When you are being verbally abused and bullied every single day and you just pray for it to cease and it doesn’t, it can seem pointless to continue praying. Most of all, when you realize that you prefer boys instead of girls and you know that this very fact alone will mean isolation and ostracism and you pray, night after night, for God to just take it away and make you “normal” and instead God doesn’t, it can then seem pointless to pray.
Yet, here’s the thing. Those are exactly the times when you need to pray the most. Perhaps you just need to change the request some. Instead of praying for your dad’s healing, pray instead for him to have a good and peaceful death so he can be relieved of his pain and suffering finally. Instead of praying for your loved one’s release, pray instead that they are safe and that when they do get out, they have learned something and won’t go back in. Instead of praying for the abuse to stop, pray instead for resiliency to keep on going in the face of abuse. Most importantly, instead of praying for God to change your sexuality, pray instead for the wisdom to see your sexuality as a gift, not a curse.
So, yes, continue to pray. Continue to walk labyrinths and sing and dance and meditate or whatever else you find prayerful. Continue to believe that prayer is an essential and important part of your life. Continue to believe that it can somehow make a difference, because it does. We are, all of us, living on a prayer. Sometimes that is the only thing that keeps us going. Pray without ceasing. Pray with or without words. Pray every day in every way. Pray as if your life depends on it, because it does. Pray and know that God hears those prayers and appreciates them no matter what. When you can’t think of anything else to do or anything else to say, pray.
Will we still live in a broken and fearful world even if we continue to pray? Maybe yes but that doesn’t mean we should quit. Wars will rage. Diseases will spread. People will continue to be people. Yet, we must continue to pray. Not for an end to war but for our own abilities to stop war. Not for an end to disease but for an end to the conditions that leave people vulnerable to disease. Not for an end to hatred or bigotry or prejudice but for our own abilities to start loving everyone. This is the real purpose of prayer. To reveal ourselves to God and to pray for a change in ourselves, not our world. By humbling ourselves before God, we allow ourselves to be open to the ways in which the Holy Spirit opens us up to new ways of visioning. Yes, I think it is safe to say that we ought to live on a prayer.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Someone to Watch Over Me

I preached again at my internship congregation. Here's the text of what I said for those who are interested! Scripture texts were Ruth 1: 15-18 & 1 Corinthians 12: 14-26

I’m about to tell you a shocking fact about myself that you probably won’t believe. It is something that many people, even my closest friends, don’t believe about me. It is something that I do my best to hide from people because of the stigma attached to it. However, I think this is as good a place as any to just outright admit it. Alright, here it goes. I am an introvert and a bit of a loner. Don’t believe me? No worries, I’m not offended. I know I fake it pretty well and make myself out to be this big extrovert who loves being around people but the truth is I actually find myself drained by being around people. I crave my solitude and alone time. I crave those moments when I can just keep to myself and not have to interact with anybody. I crave my evenings alone with just a book.
Here’s something I guess I should also mention about myself, something that perhaps openly contradicts what I just stated. For the past four years, I have lived in intentional Christian communal living. I realize that many of you in the congregation do not understand any of the words that I just said so allow me to define what intentional Christian communal living means. These are best defined as communities of people who covenant to live together and agree to share various responsibilities like chores, grocery shopping and meals. We meet together every week or so in order to discuss various issues that have come up since our last meeting but also to just update each other on our lives and what we would like for the rest of the house to pray about in our lives.
I lived by myself for most of college. I had a house all to myself during most of my adolescent years. Thus, I’ve become really good at and really used to living alone. So, what has it been like for a loner and an introvert to live in intentional community with other people? In a nutshell: an incredible blessing for my life with its share of challenges and difficulties as well.
I first moved into intentional communal living when I moved to Chicago. I had covenanted to live in community with five other people my own age. I had literally no idea what I had signed up for or what I was about to get myself into. Yes, it was rough. There were times when it was downright challenging. Even now, four years into living in intentional community, there are still times when it is rough. There’s still times when I contemplate getting my own apartment or times when I just crave more alone time or times when I just don’t want to interact with another human being the rest of the day. Yet, in the end, I have found myself feeling greatly rewarded by my communal living experience and honestly can’t even think of my life without it.
What does all this have to do with our Scripture texts for today? How does my rambling about the benefits of living in community relate to our Scripture passages for today?  In our first Scripture reading, we hear a strong statement about what community can and should look like through the lens of Ruth’s vows to Naomi. “Where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Now, these just happen to be some of my favorite verses in the entire Old Testament. That’s not, however, the reason why I chose them. These verses have a lot to say about the nature of community. Naomi was urging Ruth to return to her homeland and be with her own people. This was actually the custom of the times back then so it wouldn’t have been unusual at all for Naomi to tell her daughter-in-law this. Ruth defies convention, though, and insists to Naomi that she will stay with her and will follow her even unto death. She will forsake her old ways and live in new ways because she has such respect and deep love for Naomi. Keep in mind that this was a very patriarchal culture and the very idea of two women traveling together without a man to accompany them would have been considered quite scandalous and even slightly dangerous. What can explain this desire on Ruth’s part to buck conventional norms and stay with her mother-in-law? The Hebrew word for such a concept is hesed, which is usually translated as loving-kindness. It is normally understood as a kind of love that goes above and beyond all reason or rationale. It is the kind of love that would cause a young woman to break with tradition and stay with her mother-in-law rather than return to her native land.
Hesed is also the kind of love that would cause someone to choose to live in such an unusual living arrangement like intentional Christian community. When you think about it, how counter-cultural is it for someone to do that? We live in a society that prizes individuality over anything else. A society that tells us that we should value our privacy and mocks those who choose to march to the beat of their own drummer. We have labels for those people. “Freak”; “weirdo”; “non-conformist” are all insulting labels that we attach to people who go against the grain. I mean, why would somebody choose to live in such an odd arrangement when they could just as easily live by themselves? Why would somebody defy social conventions like that? There must be something wrong with them, right? Why would a woman, who has just lost her husband, want to remain with her mother-in-law and travel to a foreign land rather than head back to the safety and security of her own land and the stability and strength of a man’s presence? Why, indeed?
Hesed, that’s why. It is the kind of love that can’t be explained or understood or comprehended. It is the kind of love that just makes you do things that might be slightly unconventional but that you know will benefit you in the long run. Things like staying with your mother-in-law or living in an intentional community that requires praying for others. These things aren’t always going to be understood by others, nor should they be. Hesed, or loving-kindness, is the only thing that could possibly explain it.
I’d like to shift now to our New Testament text and talk a bit about its contribution to the concept of community. First, though, I’d like to introduce you to another unfamiliar word. The Greek word “koinonia” has many different translations but the definition I like best is when it is translated as “fellowship” or “community”. The concept of koinonia is one that permeates the New Testament and is widely identified as the idealized state of unity and fellowship that should permeate our Christian lives together.
  We see that concept on display here in this passage from 1st Corinthians. While Paul never actually uses the word koinonia in this particular scripture passage, the idea of it is clear throughout it. To Paul, community or koinonia means that we are all a part of the body of Christ and that we all matter. Even though some of us may fulfill different functions or serve different purposes, his point remains that we are all one. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it. If one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
Thus, we see here that the concept of koinonia to Paul means that we each play a role and we each have importance in the body of Christ. When one of us is hurting, we all are hurting. When one of us rejoices, we all rejoice. This is what being in community means. This is what being in community looks like. This is what being a Christian means. Rejoicing with other people’s joys and crying with other people’s pains.  That’s the type of community that we are called to live into.
How does this play out, though, in our everyday lives? More specifically, how can we do a better job of practicing the concepts of hesed and koinonia in a world that doesn’t even know what those concepts mean? For that answer, I turn to a classic George and Ira Gershwin tune. The song “Someone to Watch Over Me” is a beautiful well-known ballad about a woman who is waiting for the love of her life to come find her and be the someone to watch over her. What I’d like to focus on from that song is the concept of someone to watch over me. When taken out of the context of the song, it actually could be about how we are called to live with each other in community. We all need someone to watch over us. We all need someone to hold us accountable. We all need someone to practice hesed and koinonia with us. Naomi had Ruth. The disciples had Jesus. We, too, all have people in our own lives that can be that person for us. It could be a significant other. It could be a best friend or a parent or a sibling. My point being that even those of us who claim to be loners and introverts still have need of people to watch over us. I don’t mean that they discipline us or punish us or anything like that. Rather, these are people who are part of our cloud of witnesses. People who are part of our body of Christ. People who are our community, our koinonia.
This is what living in community has taught me. Yes, I may still be an introvert. Yes, I may still sometimes be a bit of a loner. Yes, I may still have times when I just want to be alone. Yet, living in community with other people has taught me so much about the value of community. It has taught me the value of having someone to watch over me; to pray for me; to hug me when I am at my lowest point. I saw the benefits of community when I was violently mugged a few years back. My housemates supported and helped me through that very difficult time. I saw the benefits again when one of my best friends died just a few weeks after I started seminary. Over and over during the past four years, I have received the benefits of community. It has both blessed and enriched my life in countless ways. My koinonia has shown me the benefits of hesed and for that I remain grateful.
I want to encourage you to show hesed toward others. Be like Ruth. Show others the same kind of loving-kindness that Ruth showed to Naomi. I’m not saying you have to leave everything behind and defy convention like she did but think about the ways that you can better enable others to be a part of your community.
Where is your koinonia? Do you have one? Take some time this week to sort that out. If you don’t have it, what steps can you take in your life to find it? We all need the blessings that community can provide. We simply can’t live without it.
If you take away nothing else from this sermon, take away this: hesed and koinonia. What are we doing to both affirm and support those things in our lives? Without the blessings that community and hesed has given me, I would not be the person I am now. Neither would any of us. Find your koinonia. Find someone to watch over you. “Won’t you tell them please to put on some speed? Follow my lead. Oh, how I need someone to watch over me.”

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Let It Go?

I preached at my internship congregation today! Here's the sermon for those who would like to see it. Scripture text is Matthew 18: 21-35.

         I have a confession to make. It is not one I make easily or lightly. It is one that I would prefer to never state publicly but in the interest of full disclosure, I think it is necessary that I reveal this to you today. I hope that what I am about to say won’t shock you or make you love me any less but if it does, I accept that as my punishment for what I am about to tell you. Are you ready? Are you sure? It is going to be quite shocking and maybe a little scandalous. Okay, here it goes. I have a hard time with the concept of forgiveness. The old saying, “Forgive and forget”? I can do the forgetting easily enough but the whole forgive part is something I struggle with.
I suspect it is the same with many others, perhaps even many of you in the congregation. What is it about forgiveness that we find to be such a challenge? Why is it easier and sometimes better for us to continue to hold a grudge for years, rather than simply forgiving those who trespass against us? 
Perhaps I should back up a bit and first define what forgiveness actually means. According to Webster’s Dictionary, forgiveness is defined as “to give up resentment of or to cease to feel resentment against”. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? All it requires is that we give up our resentment of another. Yet, this seemingly simple act seems so hard for so many of us to do. 
Here, in this Scripture text, we hear Jesus’s words about forgiveness and how important it is to the Christian lifestyle. Peter asks him, “Lord, how often shall I forgive my brother who sins against me? Seven times? Jesus replies, “No, you shall forgive him seventy times seven.” Now, Jesus isn’t saying that you should literally only forgive your brother 490 times and then at the 491st time, you can say, ok, that’s it. No more forgiveness. It is a metaphorical meaning implying that we should forgive without ceasing. We should forgive without any limitations on it. 
I have to stop here and ask, though, really? Is it really supposed to be that way? It is easy for Jesus to say that we should forgive our brother or sister when they have done us wrong, like when they talk about us behind our backs. However, I wonder if Jesus would say this to a woman who was sexually abused by her brother. Would he tell a woman who’s been raped that she should forgive her rapist? Would he tell an abused child that they should forgive their abuser? Jesus’s platitudes about forgiveness might have worked fine for the community he was in and the times he was in but they seem to bear no relation to the world we live in today. Instead, they come off as cheap and empty and hollow and don’t seem to offer much comfort to our modern day troubles.
Or do they? A few weeks ago, Rev. Fred Phelps passed away. For those of you who have somehow managed to avoid knowing who Fred Phelps is, he was the founding pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. This church has single-handedly promoted hatred and intolerance and is infamous for their picketing at Matthew Shepard’s funeral and also at funerals of military personnel. The church has been labeled as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and is generally seen as an extreme example of the conservative Christian movement.
Now, I’m about to say some stuff that you might find controversial or perhaps even surprising. You might think that when I first heard that Phelps was on his deathbed and had entered his final days that I was happy or excited or perhaps wanted to perform a cha-cha on his grave! You might have thought that I would be the first to throw a party to celebrate the death of a man who has done nothing but spread hate and intolerance toward me and my fellow LGBTQ sisters and brothers. I’m not gonna lie, if this had happened a few years back, I might have done just that. It would have been very easy for me to simply wish for him to be suffering in hell. I don’t think anyone would have begrudged me that much. 
Yet, here’s what I have come to realize. In order to be a Christian and a follower of Christ, it is essential that I also be able to forgive others, even those who have deeply hurt me. Does this mean Fred Phelps gets a free pass and that we can excuse everything he ever said or did? No, it does not. Let me make this perfectly clear. I do not excuse, condone or in any way endorse anything that Rev. Phelps or the Westboro Baptist Church does or says. This man spent a lifetime hating people that he probably never even bothered to take the time to get to know. He spent years spewing vitriol and promoting a false Gospel and a false God. 
Yet, and here’s the controversial part of my sermon, I forgive him. I hope that he is up in heaven partying with Jesus and Matthew Shepard and that he has found the peace in death that he so clearly never had in life. Best-selling author Anne LaMotte has this to say about forgiveness: “Forgiveness means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back. You're done. It doesn't necessarily mean that you want to have lunch with the person.” Would I want to sit down to lunch with Fred Phelps? No, I think not. I don’t think anything productive or healing would happen there. I no longer feel the need to hit back. I no longer feel the urge to wish him suffering and misery. I no longer wish him anything but peace. 
This next weekend at SFTS, we will be presenting our Fourth Annual Production of the Vagina Monologues. This is a show about female empowerment. It is a show about women who are willing to speak up and say that they are no longer going to allow the abusers to win. It is also a show about forgiveness. In the show, there are several monologues about women who experienced sexual violence against themselves. Women who were violated, raped, abused or otherwise broken down and told to be silent because their voices aren’t worth hearing anymore anyway. Yet, what the show acknowledges is the fact that this won’t be the case for these women anymore. They are about to rise up, speak up and declare their truth. The truth that they are beautiful and wonderful people just as they are and that no one can tell them otherwise ever again. 
What is most striking about the monologues, at least from my perspective, is the fact that none of these women seek revenge against their abusers. None of them declare any type of ill will or wish any sort of harm on their attackers. This, in its own way, is an example of forgiveness. The realization that they are strong and empowered in spite of what has happened to them is an example of what is possible through the power of forgiveness. They exemplify the idea that you don’t have to hit back. You don’t have to ever see your abuser again but you also don’t have to allow yourself to wallow in sadness and shame. 
What we see in Jesus’s parable of the unforgiving servant is what happens to us when we are unable to forgive. We see a servant who is punished severely by his master because he cannot forgive his fellow servant of a relatively small debt, even after the master forgives him a relatively large debt. The master, in this case, is meant to be God. God can forgive us of anything we’ve done. That’s the very nature of God. God can forgive Fred Phelps. God can forgive an abuser. God can forgive anyone, no matter how large the debt or terrible the burden. 
Of course, we aren’t God. We are human. Humans are subject to all kinds of failings. Thus, I want to really emphasize here that it is okay to be unable to forgive. It is okay to be angry. It is okay to be mad. It is okay to be feeling whatever you are feeling. Your feelings are valid and important and need to be acknowledged. As someone who spent years being verbally abused by people close to me, I totally get that anger. I totally get that wanting to see the abuser suffer or be punished. It makes perfect sense. It may even make us feel good. At what cost, though? 
The whole concept of forgiveness in the New Testament is based on the idea that those who are able to forgive others are also able to receive God’s forgiveness. When we fail to forgive others, we also fail to receive God’s forgiveness for us. We fail to be better than our abusers. We fail to be better people. 
Anne LaMotte also has this to say about forgiveness: “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” We can’t continue to be in community with others if we aren’t willing to forgive them as well. Holding a grudge does a disservice to both parties. Are we willing to continue to be Christians? If so, we may have to make the hard choice to forgive not only others, but also ourselves. When we do, we open ourselves up to receiving God’s forgiveness. 
  What does this mean, then, for our modern context? Does it look like an abused woman forgiving her abuser? Does it look like forgiving Fred Phelps? Does it look like being willing to enter a church again, years after feeling driven out due to hatred? While it could look like any or all of those things, I hesitate to ever use the word should because I know that may not be possible for many of us. What I will say instead is that I think forgiveness looks more like being willing to move on with our lives without becoming abusive ourselves. We can break the cycle of abuse but only when we are willing to forgive. This doesn’t mean we have to ever see the person again. It does however mean that we have to be willing to let it go. Not in the sense that we can never talk about it again or that we should just shut up. Please don’t think I am ever advocating for that. Instead, I am advocating for us to love ourselves. For us to forgive ourselves. For us to find peace with ourselves and with each other. This is the true path to forgiveness. This is the true path to letting go. This is what Jesus was advocating for with each of us. 
We need to stand up and speak our truth. We need to stand up and proclaim our power. We need to stand up and proclaim that we forgive our brothers and sisters for what they have done to us. We need to create a new paradigm. Let us be more willing to forgive. It might not be easy. It might take some time. Yet, as Christians, it will always be the right thing to do. It will open us up to new things. It will open us up to receiving forgiveness from others. I encourage you to leave this place today and go forth sowing seeds of forgiveness. You just might be surprised by what blooms. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

All You Need is Love?

Sermon I preached today at my internship congregation. Scripture text is 1 Corinthians 13: 1 - 8.

All You Need is Love?
Love conquers all. Love can build a bridge. Love’s the only house. Love will keep us together. I’ll never fall in love again. Where is love? Stop in the name of love. You can’t hurry love. Love is a battlefield. Love, love me do. Love is a many splendored thing. Love lifts us up where we belong. All you need is love.
Those are all statements that have been made about love over the centuries. Some of those statements are so well known that they have become cliches. Our culture is obsessed with the concept of love. So much so that we even have an entire day dedicated just to it in which love and affection are celebrated and those who have found love are all happy and cheerful and full of joy while those who haven’t are supposed to pretend as if they aren’t depressed by the whole notion of love in the first place.
Permit me to be a bit cynical here and stop to ask the question: why. Why Love? What is Love? Why do we even want or need love in our lives? When it comes to love, I confess I tend to be a bit cynical and bitter toward the whole thing. Perhaps I’ve had my heart broken one too many times. Perhaps I’ve been in too many bad relationships. Perhaps I’ve opened my heart too often only to see it stomped on. For whatever reason, I just find love to be a really hard concept for me, especially around February 14th. Believe me, when you’ve spent 29 consecutive Valentine’s Days on the couch in your pajamas watching TV instead of out with your significant other, the whole concept of Valentine’s Day and of love really starts to make you depressed and bitter.
Yet, here I am today preaching about love. What do I, an old bitter cynic, have to say about love? For that answer, I turn to our Scripture text for today. The Apostle Paul tends to not get a lot of love, particularly in more progressive Christian circles. Some of that is deserved as he does say some very harsh things about women and gays in his writings. However, there are also some great and quite profound things that he says in his writings as well. In particular, these verses from his first letter to the Corinthians are some of the most beautiful and most profound in the whole Bible. They have been reproduced and re-used so much that they have become almost cliches themselves. They are frequently used in wedding ceremonies as a way for the bride and groom to remind themselves how they should act toward each other in marriage.
Yet, I want us to hear them together today with a fresh set of eyes. I want everyone to close their eyes and listen as I read these words to you. Pretend that you have never heard them before. Pretend that they haven’t yet turned into cliches. Just pretend, if you can, that these words are being read to you just after they’ve been written. Let the words wash over you.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.
Did you notice anything about these verses that you maybe hadn’t seen before? Anything jump out at you? What I noticed when I heard these words was how often the word love is used. In these eight verses, the word love is used seven times. The number seven is a very significant number in the Bible. God rested on the seventh day of creation. Jesus tells us to forgive our neighbor seventy times seven. In the book of Revelation, seven angels deliver seven scrolls to the seven churches. Indeed, the number seven is believed to be the most holy and perfect of numbers, a fact that Paul would have been well aware of while writing these verses.
The Greek word for love is “agape”, often translated as unconditional love. This agape love is the kind of love that Paul is referring to in these verses, a love so powerful and pure that it stands as perfect. God’s love for us and our love for God is a perfect kind of love. That is why the word is used seven times in these verses, because agape love is the most perfect and most holy kind of love. The kind of love that is so perfect that it is patient and kind and not boastful or rude or arrogant. It is the kind of love that never ends. It is the kind of love that more of us need to practice. It is the kind of love that more of us need to show toward our fellow human beings.
Before starting seminary, I spent a year living in Chicago serving with the denomination’s Young Adult Volunteer Program. This program is intended for young adults between the ages of 18-30 who agree to serve either domestically or internationally for a year doing volunteer mission work. They are placed with other volunteers their own age and all the volunteers are assigned to work in either churches or non-profits depending on their interests. I was assigned to work in a church, specifically a church located in the heart of what is known as “Boystown”, the neighborhood that is known as being the most gay-friendly. One of my specific duties was to serve as the volunteer coordinator for the church’s Friday night programming known as Cafe Pride. This was a program in which volunteers of the church would commit to opening the church doors every Friday night to allow the local homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth to have a place to congregate and get away from the weather and police harassment. From 8 to midnight every Friday night, I saw real agape love on display as the church volunteers would provide a home-cooked meal for the youth, play games with them, watch a movie with them or just engage in conversation with them about their lives and their interests. There was never any judgment or condemnation of their lifestyles or telling them that they needed to be saved and repent of their “wicked” ways. That wasn’t the purpose of the program. It was simply a safe space for these youth and young adults to see what real, agape, unconditional love looks like. It looks like a church opening its fellowship hall every Friday night to youth who live on the streets.
It looks like Antoinette Tuff, the brave woman who managed to talk a mentally disturbed young man out of shooting up an elementary school in Georgia this past August. At one point in her conversation with the gunman, Tuff says the following: “It's going to be all right, sweetie. I want you to know I love you, OK? I'm proud of you.” This radical approach to dealing with an attacker is widely credited with convincing the gunman to surrender to police with nobody being harmed. Ms. Tuff looked at this gunman and saw a real person. She saw someone who needed love. She saw someone who needed proof of the real, agape love. By showing him that kind of love, she also prevented a tragedy.
That’s the same kind of love that God has for us, the created. The beloved. Our being loved isn’t a choice. It is an inherent and beautiful part of who we are. This is the kind of love that Paul is talking about in 1st Corinthians. The kind of love that is so perfect and so holy that it casts out all our hatred. It casts out all our bitterness. It casts out all our cynicism, our bigotry and our fear. It is the kind of love that can even cause an old, bitter cynic to keep believing in the power of love even when he wants to just give it all up.
Mother Teresa, a woman who fully embodied agape love in everything she did and in the way she lived her life, said “I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.” If we love with that all-consuming, all-encompassing agape love, we too will find this to be the case. We will find that when we do everything in love, that that love will illuminate and shine throughout all we do. We will find that there will be no more hurt, only more love. We will discover that even when we have had our hearts broken over and over again by other people that there is still love to be found in this world. We will discover that God’s agape love is so powerful that we can’t help but continue to believe that love is still a powerful and important force for good in our lives and our world.
Let us love like Antoinette Tuff or like the Friday night volunteers at a church in Chicago. Most importantly, let us love like God loves. Then, we will find that yes, indeed, all you need is love. Love bears all things. Love believes all things. Love hopes all things. Love endures all things. Love never ends. Beloved, never let your love end. It really is all you need in this world.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Wrecking Ball

Folks, here is the sermon I preached today at my internship congregation. Scripture texts were Matthew 2: 1 - 2 and Revelation 7: 15-17

        The Book of Revelation is a challenging text. Biblical scholars have struggled with it for centuries as they have attempted to understand just what exactly this book is actually about. It is full of strange prophecies and visions and images that cannot easily be explained. It is usually claimed by more conservative Christians to be a text about the end of days and what will happen to the faithful and unfaithful when Christ comes back in final victory. The wicked shall be punished and the good shall be rewarded and there shall be much wailing and gnashing of teeth. The Devil himself shall be conquered when Christ comes back in final victory. Before that can happen, though, there will be a great war to end all wars and there will be many casualties. Those who believe will be saved while those who don’t shall be denied eternal rest with God and instead will suffer the eternal torment of Hell.
That, as I said, is a conservative Christian reading of it. It has been used to justify all manner of evils in this world from holy wars to genocides to persecution of non-Christians. I’d like to, if I may, reclaim this text. Instead of labeling it as a text of terror, I’d like to offer up the idea that it is a text of grace. Let me explain what I mean.
Recently, there was some controversy in the news regarding an interview that the patriarch of “Duck Dynasty” gave in GQ magazine. For those of you who don’t know what “Duck Dynasty” is, it is a reality show on the A & E network that follows a family of duck hunters in the Louisiana bayou. The show is one of the most-watched TV shows on basic cable and frequently has more viewers than many critically-acclaimed shows like “Downton Abbey”, “The Good Wife” and “Mad Men”. In the interview, Phil Robertson, patriarch of the family, was asked about his views regarding homosexuality. Now, it shouldn’t really be that shocking that a redneck bearded straight white male from the South wouldn’t be in favor of it. What really stood out about the interview was the level of vitriol and distaste he had for it. He compared homosexuality to bestiality and cited his religious views and personal belief in God as the reasons for his dislike of it. Now, I’m not here to judge or condemn his remarks in any way. That’s not the focus of my sermon today, other than to say that if you’ve known me for more than five seconds, you can hopefully guess where I stand on his remarks.
What I am going to focus on is the level of “Christian outrage” that was generated over his remarks. The A & E network immediately suspended Robertson for his remarks claiming that his statements did not fit with the network’s personal views. The amount of Christian outrage over Robertson’s suspension has been astronomical as Christians have rushed to Robertson’s defense even going so far as to send A & E’s CEO death threats for daring to suspend him. Many Christians have held up his views as the correct Christian view on the issue and have said that Robertson is being persecuted for his religious beliefs.
Now, here are my questions about all this. A man is suspended from a TV show because he expresses his Christian beliefs that homosexuality is sinful and wrong. Christians everywhere respond with death threats and boycotts. Over 28,000 people in the United States have died due to gun violence since the school shooting in Connecticut last December. That means 90 people have died every single day due to gun violence. Where is the Christian outrage about this? One in eight people worldwide suffer from hunger or malnutrition issues. One in 8. Where is the Christian outrage about this? The United States, the richest and most developed country on Earth, has approximately 50 million people living at or below the poverty line. Where is the Christian outrage about this? In countries like Uganda, Russia and Qatar, LGBTQ individuals are subject to imprisonment, castration and even death just because of their sexual orientation. Where is the Christian outrage toward these countries and their flagrant human rights abuses?
Perhaps we have our priorities out of sync. Perhaps we’ve let our more conservative brothers and sisters in Christ hijack the message of Christianity. Perhaps it is time we reclaim this message and what better day to do it than today.
Today is the day when Christians celebrate Epiphany, otherwise known as the day that the magi (or the Three Kings or the Three Wise men) came to deliver their gifts to Jesus. Epiphany traditionally marks the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas and the beginning of what we liturgical nerds call “Ordinary Time”. Epiphany comes from the Greek word, epiphania, which translates as “the manifestation of God into the world”. Epiphany, literally then, is the day on which we celebrate the coming of Christ into the world because Christians recognize just how important Christ’s entry into the world is for their own lives.
What does it look like for Christ to be manifest in our world today? Earlier in the service, we sang the hymn “My Soul Cries Out with a Joyful Shout” or as I learned it, “The Canticle of the Turning.” This happens to be a personal favorite hymn of mine and one of the reasons why is because it details what will happen when Jesus Christ manifests into the world. “The hungry poor shall weep no more for the food they can never earn. You will show your might and put the strong to flight. Your justice tears every tyrant from his throne.” This is what the world will look like when Epiphany happens and Christ is manifested in the world.
We hear this same sentiment expressed in our Scripture text from the book of Revelation. They will hunger no more and thirst no more... and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. This is the Good News that we hear from this book of the Bible. This is how we, as Christians, can reclaim the Book of Revelation and indeed the entire Bible: by declaring that it is a book full of hope and promise and grace. It proclaims that when Jesus comes into our world, there will be no more hunger. There will be no more thirst. There will be no more gun deaths or homophobia or racism. Not in the world that Jesus creates. There is simply no place for any of that in Jesus’s new world.
Just like a wrecking ball, Jesus comes in and tears down all our walls. Our walls of homophobia. Our walls of racism. Our walls of classism, sexism & transphobia. Jesus breaks on through them all and calls us to live with each other in peace and freedom. Freedom from violence and hate and bigotry. Freedom from oppression and freedom from repression. When Christ manifests himself into the world, it is truly a new day and a new world. One where indeed, the hungry poor shall weep no more. One where bigotry and homophobia no longer exist. One where our Christian outrage directs us to work for the outcasts and the displaced. The immigrants and those in poverty shall all have a place at the table in this new epiphany.
There’s a new day coming. A day in which Jesus is at the forefront. A day in which the Christian outrage is over issues like gun violence and poverty and homophobia and bigotry and sexism. The only questions that remain: are we going to let Jesus break down those walls? Are we willing to let Jesus Christ be the wrecking ball that our world so desperately needs?