Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Song of Mary, Third Sunday of Advent

Canticle 15
The Song of Mary MagnificatLuke 1:46-55
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; 
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
 From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
  He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.
 He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
 He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,  and has lifted up the lowly.
 He has filled the hungry with good things,  and the rich he has sent away empty.
 He has come to the help of his servant Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever.

Faith, Hope and Love
A reflection on Luke: 1:46-55

I love this passage of Scripture.  I find Mary’s song beautiful and I hear in it faith, hope and love.  Mary is a woman of faith.  She’s able to see through the eyes of God and see the ending before the beginning has begun.  Nothing has happened yet.  Jesus has yet to walk on water or heal the sick or raise the dead.  He hasn’t even been born and yet Mary is rejoicing at all the things God has done that still appear to be quite undone.  It seems like even in our own time the mighty are still on their thrones, the hungry are still hungry and the lowly have yet to be lifted up, in fact they seem to be falling even lower.  I think about Haiti, the country my parents come from.  I think about all the hardship and suffering that tiny island has endured, then the earthquakes, then the cholera outbreak, then the riots after the elections.  Is there really a reason to rejoice?

During prayer at The Crossing last night there was a man who expressed such anger and exasperation towards God.  At first I felt like saying, “Oh no buddy!  You don’t talk like that in God’s house!”  Then I started praying for him inwardly and I began to feel compassion towards him.  I prayed that the anger, the pain and the frustration would not deceive him and blind him to the goodness of God even in the midst of a world that’s gone awry. 

Mary would agree with him.  Indeed there is darkness in this world, but somehow Mary understood that the darkness cannot overcome the light.  She had hope.   Now Mary wasn’t some bright-eyed idealist.  She spent her entire life living under Roman occupation.  She knew what pain was.  She knew what injustice was.  She knew what it was like to feel humiliated.  There must have been times when she felt powerless and helpless.  But as her belly swelled and she could feel life stirring within her she had hope.  Hope that light was coming into the world and indeed in some way was now here.  Hope that her tomorrow would be better than her today.  She had so much hope that God would right the wrongs that in her mind the issue was already settled; it was already done.  The mighty have been cast down.  The hungry have been filled.  The lowly have been lifted up.  Her faith and her hope erupted into love for a God who deeply cared about her and her world.  And so she opened up her mouth and let words of praise flow out and her song is still ringing in our ears to this day.

I stand with Mary on this one.  In the midst of all the pain, suffering and trouble this world can throw at us I have faith because the One who promises is faithful.  I have hope that a day is coming when all of the shackles of injustice shall be broken.  And that hope gives me the strength to work towards hastening that day until it arrives.  I have love for a God who cares about me and my world.  Indeed there is darkness in this world, but light is coming and has now come and the darkness cannot overcome the light.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Gospel Reading for Sunday, November 21, 2010

Luke 23:33-43
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots to divide his clothing. The people stood by, watching Jesus on the cross; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!" The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews."
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

Radical Trust
 A Reflection on Luke 23:33-43

“Are You not the Messiah?”  This question jumped right out of the screen when I read this passage.  When I’ve heard this passage talked about in the past the man who asks this question always gets a bad rap.  It’s often assumed that he is mocking Jesus.  He’s the “bad” thief and the one that rebukes him is the “good” thief.  And maybe the bad thief was mocking Jesus when he asked the question, but I also feel that this question is one that we all ask in the face of intense suffering even if we’re not ready to admit it.  I’m not talking about having a bad day or a bad week.  It’s not all that difficult to trust God then, but what I’m talking about is intense suffering, when you feel like everything is falling apart and your entire life is coming undone and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.  In that place, there is a part of us that says, “Jesus, I don’t understand.  Are you not the Messiah?  Are you not the One?  Do you not see the condition I’m in?  I am in agony!  Jesus, do something!  Are You not the Messiah?

I can remember feeling like that and asking those types of questions and waiting for a response.  I’ve had periods of depression in the past on and off, but in 2008 I slipped into a deep dark pit of depression that almost swallowed me whole.  It started gradually.  I felt a heaviness around me, but it kept getting heavier and heavier until it hurt to even take a breath.  In December I noticed that I had lost a couple of pounds.  No big deal I thought.  I have a fast metabolism and I lose weight easily.  In January I lost three more pounds.  February: another couple of pounds. March: 3 pounds.  April: 3 more pounds.  May: 4 pounds and by June I had lost a total of 20 pounds because I was too depressed to eat. My pants barely fit me anymore.  I could count all my ribs standing in front of the mirror.  I was slowly dissolving into nothing inside and out.  I couldn’t see God.  I couldn’t hear God.  I couldn’t feel God even though God was probably closer to me than ever.  I never felt so alone.

I want you to close your eyes for a moment and think about a time when you felt just like that and you felt like saying, “Jesus, I don’t understand.  Are you not the Messiah—then why am I in so much pain?  Jesus, do something, anything!”  Now open your eyes and take a deep breath.  It’s ok. You’re not the only one to ever ask such questions or feel such feelings.  Intense suffering can make us feel like God isn’t God anymore.  Maybe you grew up without a father.  Maybe you never had a family that you could rely on to begin with and always had to look to people on the outside to be mother and father and sister and brother to you.  Maybe you’re battling a horrible disease like cancer and you’re only in your twenties.  Maybe you’ve experienced a great deal of loss in such a short span of time and you can’t help but wonder where is God now?  Is God even real? 

But your pain is not the end of your story just like the cross was not the end of the story for Jesus and somehow Jesus knew that.  If his life was all about radical welcome than his death was about radical trust, radically trusting God when you can’t see God and you can’t hear God and you can’t feel God, but knowing that God is there because God promised to always be there and believing in the face of agonizing pain that God can be trusted.  And for the one thief, even while hanging on a cross he was able to see Jesus in the midst of his pain and it made all the difference; it saved his life. 

Despite the intensity of the pain of life, don’t make the mistake that the other thief on the cross made and fail to recognize the God who is always right by your side, bearing your pain with you.  The voice you hear in your head that tells you, you are all alone is a lie.  God is with you, bearing your pain with you.  And your story doesn’t end there.  Your pain is not the end of your story, but a gateway to a new beginning if you just hold on long enough to realize that Jesus is always right there with you.


Gospel Reading for Sunday, November 14, 2010

Luke 21:5-19
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down."
They asked him, "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?" And he said, "Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, `I am he!' and, `The time is near!' Do not go after them.
"When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately." Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
"But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls."

Stand Firm
A Reflection on Luke: 21:5-19

I just love these warm and fuzzy Gospel passages! “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.”  How do you read that and NOT think, “Yay, Christianity!  Sign me up!  That’s exactly what I need in my life right now: to be hated by all!”  And yet even though this passage can easily make any number of us uncomfortable, it communicates a really important and vital truth: following Jesus in this life is going to cost you something.  Being authentic is always going to cost you something.  It wasn’t free for Jesus and it’s not free for us, but the only other alternative is to live an inauthentic life and though at times it seems so much easier—is that what we really want? I believe that Jesus is still calling us to follow him into living an authentic life.

For me, being authentic meant responding to Jesus’ call to accept the truth about my sexuality and to bring my whole self and not just parts of myself into my relationship with God and boy did that take me a long time to do!  I wrestled with God in prayer for 16 years and it’s almost a miracle that I finally reached a place where I could accept myself as God accepted me and follow Jesus into that acceptance. Coming out was one of the most deeply spiritual experiences I’ve ever had.  It was wonderfully liberating and for a while my soul was just bursting at the seams with God’s joy!  And then I thought, huh, following Jesus into authenticity may mean that I’m going to lose some friendships and I did.  It may mean that I’ll no longer be accepted at the church that I’ve labored in for 7 years and I wasn’t.  It may very well mean that the journey I’m on is going to get a bit tougher and lonelier for a while and it did.

I remember coming out to an elder at my evangelical church at the time and watching this usually kind, mature and reasonable man get real nasty with me really quickly.  He felt that I was no longer fit to serve in ministry in any capacity.  I had known this man since I was a teenager but in just a moment he had dismissed me completely.  I was no longer Kevin to him, just another gay person who had no business being involved in the life of the church.  Following Jesus into authenticity meant leaving that church that had become a second home for me for 7 years behind.  Following Jesus meant refusing to stay a part of a church where only certain people were welcome.  Following Jesus meant steadfastly holding on to the conviction that God’s infinite love for me was not dependent upon my orientation and searching for a new community of faith that felt the same way. And it wasn’t a very easy process.

I’m sure we can all take a look at or lives and see that following Jesus has indeed cost us all something.  Embracing the kind of radical welcome that Jesus practiced and that landed him on the cross isn’t always easy; it’s not always smiled upon by the people around us and they’re not always so quiet about it either.  Whether it’s standing up for the rights of the poor and the marginalized or refusing to buy into the claims of a society obsessed with materialism that money is everything or simply deciding to hold onto common sense when so many are being swept up into extremes, Jesus was right.  In being authentic you may lose those very dear to you, even your own mother and father.  But Jesus also tells us to stand firm because in following Jesus we get to have Jesus and what more could we ask for than to have Jesus, his love, his grace, his peace, his presence?  God with us!  What more could we ever ask for?

In the NIV version of verse 19 of John chapter 21 Jesus says, “Stand firm and you will win life.” So stand firm as you seek to live out an authentic life.  Stand firm as you extend to others the same radical welcome that Christ extends to you.  Don’t back down. Don’t shrink back. Don’t remain silent when God urges you to speak.  Now is not the time for letting go.  Don’t walk away from the journey because it gets hard sometimes and it will get hard sometimes.  Don’t settle for anything less than authentically following Jesus.  Stand firm because having a life with Jesus is worth it.


First Encounters

My first up close encounter with the lectionary was a month ago when it was my turn to lead a reflection on the weekly Gospel passage at The Crossing, a wonderful progressive worship community that is reinterpreting Anglican tradition.  I’ve preached messages before, but this was the first time I was given a passage of Scripture to preach from as opposed to choosing a passage myself.  This did not sit well with me.  It’s hard to tell a Pentecostal what to preach about; we’re not used to that.  A part of me wanted to say, “Listen, don’t tell me what Scripture to preach from.  God will tell me what to talk about and when I come to church I’ll tell you what God told me to say and if it doesn’t fit in with your lectionary you take it up with Jesus 'cause I’m just doing what He told me to do.”

In fact, that’s pretty much what I did when I led a prayer service during the summer.  The Gospel passage from the lectionary didn’t fit what I felt led to talk about so I set it aside and gave a reflection from a different passage.  I got away with it then because the prayer service was small and was much more flexible in terms of structure.  Also the priest wasn’t there that week and I figured that it would be better to ask for forgiveness than permission:)  This time I was stuck.  I had to preach from the lectionary.  The passage was Luke 21:5-19.  I read it and thought, “See this is why evangelicals don’t follow the lectionary.  What am I supposed to say about this?  This is not a passage I would have chosen.  How did I get mixed up with these Episcopalians anyway?”  But when I approached the text with the understanding that God has something to say to me and my faith community in this passage indeed a message came to me.  I encountered God in the lectionary and I really didn’t expect to.  Quite a new experience for this charismatic evangelical! 

I shared my reflection and I believe that it spoke to the people present.  And I have to say it really is a gift to me to see how God moves in different Christian traditions other than my own.  I feel like this exposure to the liturgical tradition in some way adds to and enhances my own evangelical, pentecostal, charismatic perspective of faith and for that I am grateful.


Learning To Love The Lectionary

I have attended evangelical, pentecostal, charismatic churches for 17 years; at this point it’s in my blood.  Hand-clapping, foot-stomping, dancing in the aisles, speaking in tongues—some people call that going too far, I call it a typical Sunday morning.  So it’s quite amusing that I would now find myself a part of a liturgical community that celebrates the Eucharist every week and follows the weekly lectionary.  Proof if anyone ever needed it that God has a great sense of humor!

So how did this happen?  How did I get here?  I love the energy, the passion and charisma of the evangelicals.  I love their devotion to God, their commitment to taking Scripture seriously and the reverence with which they approach the things of God.  I love their emphasis on having a personal one-on-one relationship with God and giving your life over to Jesus.  My faith has been intensely nurtured by the evangelical, pentecostal, charismatic communities I’ve been a part of.  However, (and you knew this was coming), I am deeply disturbed by how rigid, judgmental and anti-intellectual evangelicals can be.  I firmly believe that living the life of faith does not require the abandonment of reason and there are certain aspects of evangelical theology that require you to turn off your brain and abandon common sense.  I cannot accept that nor do I believe that God is calling me to.  Jesus says in Luke 10:27 to love God with all your heart, your soul, your strength AND your mind.  Authentic Christianity is not the abandonment of reason for faith, but the marriage of faith and reason.

I struggled with my sexuality for many years, 16 to be exact.  It was absolutely amazing to me to finally experience God’s acceptance of me as a gay man.  For so many years I never thought that was possible.  For the first time in my life I felt whole.  My faith and my sexuality came together.  Having reached this place I could no longer remain with my evangelical church.  I could stay and hide a big part of my life or leave; staying and being open and honest was not an option.  A friend told me about The Crossing and somehow this evangelical fell in love with a liturgical community that is at once intellectual and progressive, and deeply spiritual.  After leading a couple of reflections from the Gospels in the lectionary during service I decided I wanted to continue the practice of encountering God in the weekly Gospel selections and share my reflections with others. So here I go!

Every week I will share a reflection on the Gospel passage in the lectionary that is read in churches all over the world during Sunday service.  I will follow the guidelines I learned at The Crossing:

·      Choose one point to make that is closely related to the Scripture passage.
·      Weave your personal story into the message you’re sharing.
·      Use your personal story as a diving board to help cause others to focus on their own lives.
·      Bring the reflection to a meaningful close.

As a charismatic evangelical I am excited to now join a tradition that has nourished the faith of many Christians for many, many years by following the lectionary.  And I hope my reflections will be of benefit to others.  I’ll also be sharing bits and pieces of my experience incorporating liturgical tradition into my evangelical understanding of God.  Thank you for being  a part of this journey with me!