Weekly Devotional: The Point of Pride – Changing Shame to Praise

And God said, “I will gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.”        — Zephaniah 3:19

Last Sunday afternoon was hard as a small group of folks from New Church, along with friends from Central Congregational Church, gathered to walk in the annual Dallas Pride Parade. Dallas was having unusually warm weather for September, and while we waited for the parade to start, the heat was oppressive. Even huddled together under an overpass didn’t seem to make things any better, and the rainbow stole I was wearing added to my personal misery. The parade usually starts at 2:00 pm, but soon we realized that none of the parade entries were moving. Later we learned that the parade officials were having trouble with the barriers that hold the crowd back, and so we waited. Finally, nearly 2 hours after the parade was scheduled to start, we began to move.

As we waited for the start of the parade I was thinking, “Why on earth are we doing this? We are both small congregations and even by joining together we are probably one of the smaller parade entries. Why are we doing this?” Still, as we began to walk, the heat didn’t feel so oppressive, and as we reached the beginning of the parade route the energy and enthusiasm of the crowd began to lift my spirits.

We were carrying signs that we felt were in keeping with the theme for this year’s parade, “Stand Up! Speak Out!” They were signs we got from our denomination, the United Church of Christ.  They said things like: “White Privilege: If You Can’t See It, You Got It,” “God is Transgender,” “Believe in Science, for God’s Sake,” “Looking For Jesus? Good. So Are We.” I could go on, but you get the picture. As we walked along, people cheered our signs and called out to us yelling “Yes!” It was exciting.

Then, as we neared the end of the parade, we noticed a small group of young women looking at us and pointing at us with expressions of wonder. By then Stephanie and I were holding hands. They took out their phones and started taking our picture. It was as if they had never seen two women holding hands in public, or maybe it was that they had never seen a woman pastor and her wife holding hands.

I realized in that moment that they were the reason we were there. It didn’t matter how small a parade entry we had. It didn’t matter that we had waited for over an hour to begin. It didn’t matter that we had been miserable in the heat. All of that faded away when we realized that we had a message to share with the parade watchers. We were there to proclaim with our signs and our very presence that there is another way to understand Christianity, a way that follows Jesus, a way that stands for peace and works for justice, a way that proclaims and works for a just world for all, a way that says, “Church Is the Practice, Love Is the Point.”

We were echoing the words of the Prophet Zephaniah who, speaking for God, said to the people, “I will gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.” So, if our witness and our presence changed one life last Sunday afternoon, if we helped one LGBTQIA young person know that they matter and they are people of worth and God loves them, and that God wants to change their shame to praise and renown, then that was why we were there, and that was enough.

Holy One, just for today remind me that showing up, standing for peace and working for justice, and witnessing to your love is enough. Amen.

 

 

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Weekly Devotional: Come to Jesus and Find Your Rest

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”         -Matthew 11:28 (NRSV)

More and more, I find that people I know and encounter are tired—tired mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. As I was thinking about this contemporary phenomenon, I found myself remembering how the pace of life felt so much slower when I was growing up, and I have come to believe that there is something to be learned from reflecting on that slower pace of living.

As I think about our fast-paced living today, I can’t help but believe that our 24-7 news cycle, 24-7 connection to the internet through our multiple electronic devices, our 24-7 work cycle means that our minds, hearts, and souls are never really still. Add to that the threats of global nuclear war, our country divided ideologically, environmental disasters of hurricanes, earthquakes and fires means that we’re in a constant state of anxiety, fear, and stress.

So, last week when Stephanie suggested that we take our lunch break by going to the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration and walk their labyrinth, it felt like an invitation to take a drink of cool water and quench my parched throat. It was as if I could hear Jesus saying, “Martha, Martha (add your name here, “Jo, Jo”) you are worried about many things.” (Luke10.41) When the noon hour came we went to the church and spent 45 minutes walking in silence a beautiful labyrinth in the entryway to the sanctuary, and I came away feeling rested and restored.

Jesus, the Rabbi of Nazareth, often taught using paradox. He called us to come to him and find rest. The paradox is that we think that if we work hard enough and fast enough we will have time to rest when we are done. But Jesus knew that in order to stop the cycle of being “worried about many things,” we would need to take moments in the day to rest in God’s presence in order to still our minds, hearts, and souls in order to encounter what is Holy and Mystery to find true rest.

So, I commend to you a few exercises to try. Why not spend a few moments throughout the day taking deep breaths and praying a prayer Brian McLaren offered in his book Naked Spirituality, “Here I am. Here You are. Here we are together.” Or instead of taking a power walk try walking leisurely noticing everything around you. By the way, this works even in an urban setting. Or, if you just can’t put your phone down, try downloading an app like Aura or Insight Timer to guide you in meditation. Or take the advice of William C. Martin in his devotional book, The Art of Pastoring, “There will be a hundred voices saying, ‘There is more yet to do.’” To every voice that says, ‘Go home’ listen carefully.” Then come to Jesus and find your rest.

Holy One, awaken me to your presence. Help me to stop, listen, and find my rest in you. Amen.

Weekly Devotional: On Hurricanes and Prayer

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, until the destroying storms pass by.                                   —Psalm 57:1

The images of the devastation of Hurricane Harvey from Corpus Christi and Rockport, up the coast to Houston, Beaumont, and Port Arthur, and now in states north, is heartbreaking. And if you’re like me you may have had friends and family in the way of the storm. Many times I found myself praying for my family and friends and all the people in harm’s way. I imagine they were praying, too, and that their prayers sounded a lot like the prayer above attributed to King David of Israel. It is a heartfelt prayer for mercy and refuge and safety.

But here’s the thing. Try as I might, pray as often as I did, the storm did not change course. As much as I wanted to storm to move away from Houston, so that the floodwaters would recede and my family and friends would be safe, it didn’t happen. And when I told a good friend of mine that I was going to pray for the hurricane to change course away from land and people, it still didn’t move. And I know that those who were caught in cars and trucks that flooded, and homes where the floodwaters chased them onto their roofs, were praying hard for God to give them refuge. Some people were saved and others died.

So, you might be wondering why we would pray at all. Honestly, I don’t know why some peoples’ homes had no flooding or damage and others’ homes were destroyed. I don’t know why some died and others lived. I know some religious extremists are blaming it on the “gays,” because LGBTQ people are an easy target. I also know that many lived because of people who decided that saving others’ lives matters. I don’t think anyone or any group of people caused the devastation, unless you want to blame it on humanity’s reckless use and abuse of God’s creation. When it comes to natural disasters, I personally believe that we live in a natural world where storms exist and sometimes people lose their livelihood and their lives. So, back to my question, “Why pray at all?”

Well, I think we pray because it gives us comfort and strength and helps us to recognize God’s presence even in the midst of our darkest nights. I am convinced that those who died in the storm discovered that God was with them in life, in death, in life beyond death. And so, it does not surprise me that the Psalm does not end with the prayer for mercy and safety. In fact, that Psalm begins with a plea but it ends with praise. It seems the Psalmist knew the truth about God, who is with us, does not forsake us and is worthy of our praise even then the storms rage. May we also come to know that truth and so let us pray with the Psalmist:

 I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.
For your steadfast love is as high as the heavens;
your faithfulness extends to the clouds.
(vs. 9 & 10)

Amen.

Weekly Devotional: Make Love Your Greatest Aim

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.                                                                  – Hebrews 13:2

Last week, my family and I had the opportunity to go to Galveston for a last hurrah before the beginning of school. It was a nice respite from the push and pull of daily life. We spent the better part of our time sitting under umbrellas on the beach. While on the beach, we were visited by a flock of small birds. When I was growing up on the Gulf Coast we called them sandpipers, but I think they were more likely killdeer. The flock of birds, whatever their name, were actually a mother and perhaps ten or twelve babies. We watched as they ran along the beach. They would run toward the water, and then as the waves came in they would run away. Of course, this beautiful dance was precipitated by their desire to find the best food uncovered as the waves retreated.

As I watched them, I realized that we are a lot like those little birds, especially when it comes to strangers in our midst. When we encounter those who are different or “other” than us, we often find them intriguing. We watch and wonder about them. We “run” toward them, but if they turn toward us, we become afraid and scurry back to safety. Of course, God is the ultimate stranger, the ultimate “Other.” And isn’t it just like us to run toward God, seeking, desiring to know who this is who breathed life into us. But when God comes close we run away.

Yet the truth of what will sustain us is the ability to find in the “other” a friend. In fact, it may be the only way to save our lives, our neighborhoods and the world. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that by showing hospitality to strangers we may well indeed be engaging angels in our mist. And the truth of our encounter with God is that our very sustenance in this life, in death and in life beyond death, is to encounter the “Holy Other,” to discover the love that is being poured into us and our world.

So, like little birds at the shore, go ahead, run back and forth, toward and away, from and back, toward those who are other, and our “Holy Other,” and discover the life and hope and angels in our midst. Join the dance.

Holy Other, draw me close to you, even when I try to run away. Remind me that there are blessings in offering hospitality to those, including You, who are a stranger to me. Help me to draw close and discover how very much alike we are. Amen.

Weekly Devotional: Encountering God — Wherever You Are

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for your courts, O Lord . . . Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.                  –  Psalm 84:1-3 (NRSV)

I love this song found in the ancient scriptures of the Hebrew faith. For the longest time I believed that it was about going to church. I suppose that is because the Psalmist refers to fainting “for your courts” and laying “young at your altars.” Growing up, I simply couldn’t imagine that there was a place outside of church that included altars. I also suppose it is because church was a special place for me. I grew up in a small town, and our church felt a lot like a family. Many of my classmates and their parents worshipped at the First United Methodist Church in El Campo, Texas. In addition, the Methodists were pretty progressive when it came to church. As children and youth we were allowed, even encouraged, to ask questions about the Bible and our faith. So, naturally it felt to me when I read this Psalm (or heard it read in church) that the person who wrote it and read it were talking about going to church—a place, a building, a sanctuary.

Of course, since then I’ve learned that God has all kinds of altars in the world. Just this week, we had about eighteen from our faith community, New Church – Chiesa Nuova, United Church of Christ (UCC), go to New Braunfels and stay at the UCC’s Slumber Falls Camp and float the Comal River. The water was brisk and the sun bright and the scenery beautiful. I couldn’t help but experience God’s presence in all the nature that surrounded us. There were altars in abundance for sure. But there was something else, as well. There was laughter, and music, silence and conversation, and sharing a meal of sandwiches, puffy Cheetos, potato chips, and watermelon, while we stood in the middle of the Comal River. Those experiences with others were also an altar of sorts, as well as the best sandwiches I’ve ever eaten. As you go about your weekend, and the week ahead, I hope you will look for all those altars in the world that surround you, both in nature and in humanity.

But I also hope you will come to the sanctuary and worship with us or with others. The story of our faith tells us that Jesus certainly found and made altars in the world, but he also made it his practice to worship regularly. I’m sure he heard the rabbis read Psalm 84, and I’m confident that his soul longed for and fainted for God’s courts. So, I’ve decided that we need both. We need to find God present in our day to day life and in our world, but we also need a time and space set aside to encounter the presence of God in worship, song, word proclaimed, and the covenant of the table among those with whom we share and experience this amazing journey of faith.

I hope you won’t cut yourself short by doing just one or the other. Because I believe God wants to meet you both out in the world and in your intentional presence in shared worship in a holy space.

Holy One, open my heart, mind, and soul to meet you in the world, then help me to have the spiritual discipline to meet you in your courts and at your altar. Amen.

 

Weekly Devotional: Precious, Loving, Unforgettable – YOU!

As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”  Philip commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.                                 – Acts 8. 36 & 38

There is an interesting story that is found in the second book of the Bible, believed to have been written by the writer of the Gospel According to Luke. In the Acts of the Apostles we hear that Saul, who will later become the great Apostle Paul, is persecuting and killing Christians who are part of the church in Jerusalem. Among those who were scattered by this persecution was the disciple, Philip.

The story tells us that Philip made his way to the city of Samaria where he proclaimed the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, to the people there. I just want to remind you that many considered Samaritans outcasts because they had intermarried. It is here that “an angel of the LORD tells Philip to get up and go toward the south, down the road leading from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So, Philip goes.

Along the road Philip encounters an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the queen of the Ethiopians, who was returning home from Jerusalem where he had worshipped. Then the Spirit says to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So, Philip goes and discovers that the man is reading the scriptures. They converse and Philip shares with the man the stories of Jesus. As they continue on their way they come across a body of water, and the Ethiopian eunuch asks to be baptized and Philip baptizes the man.

Now, the reason this story is so very interesting and important to me is that it tells the story of a man who is considered by the culture of his day a sexual minority. And yet, after reading the scriptures and having the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection told to him and interpreted to him by Philip, this man is baptized in Jesus’ name.

Many people today want to claim that lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, and others who are sexual minorities are not children of God, or are less than those who are part of the sexual majority. The truth, as I see it, is that human sexuality and gender are gifts from God, and so there is, as with most of God’s gifts, a wide spectrum of expressions of gender and sexuality. Our God is an amazingly creative God who has made all people in the image and likeness of God. As we learn more about the science of humanity and our varieties, it just seems to me that this story of the Ethiopian eunuch has a lot to say to us about God loving all of God’s children, not some, but all.

Certainly, as people who follow in the way of Jesus, we might do well to recognize that truth, and, like Philip, listen to the angel of the LORD and include all people, including and especially transgender people, in all aspects of our communities and our country. Why? Because they offer to us many gifts that God has bestowed upon them, gifts that can enrich and enlighten our lives. May it be so.

Holy One, break open my assumptions about others and show me their full humanity and their full image made in your likeness. Then help me to love them as you love. Amen.

 

Weekly Devotional: Disarming Our Faith

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.         – Colossians 3. 12-14

For the last two Tuesday nights, a small group of our New Church community has been meeting to be a part of an online book study led by theologian and writer, Brian McLaren. In his latest book that we have been discussing, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian, McLaren shares a story of speaking to a seminary gathering at which he says, “You have to find a way to disarm your faith as a potential instrument of hate and convert it into an instrument of love. You have to convert Christianity from a warrior religion to a reconciling religion.” Of course, the great difficulty in meeting this challenge is where to begin.

How do you and I transform our Christian faith into a reconciling religion? McLaren tells us that we have to take a hard look at how, for centuries, the Christian religion has operated with violence as its core message of how and why Jesus died. We have to acknowledge that for centuries adherents to the Christian faith have participated in genocide all in the name of defending the faith from infidels. Okay, so much for the lesson on the history of the Christian faith.

What I want to know, and I’m assuming you do, as well, is just how I can be a part of this transformation. And as simple as this may sound, it seems to me that we have to start right where we are. We have to commit to non-violence not just in how we act, but how we think, and what we say. We have to commit that our faith will be a faith grounded in the love of God, revealed in the love of Jesus Christ, the Human One, and sustained by the presence of the Holy Spirit at work within us. That this will be the penultimate motivation for how we treat others, our family, our friends, our colleagues, acquaintances, strangers and our enemies. We have to make a commitment that we will not participate in violence: personal, communal, state-sponsored, global, period. We have to commit to caring, as best we can, for the earth.

Now, having said that, I know and you know, that try as we might we will have some successes and some failures. The keys, however, are to acknowledge our failures, ask forgiveness, learn from them, get up, dust off and try again. The keys are to keep seeking the presence of God, loving as Jesus loved and loves, and seeking the presence of the Holy Spirit through prayer, worship, conversation, study, service, generosity and trusting that God is with us, we are not alone. The keys are found in the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, that we are called to compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and forgiveness, from all of which we will learn how to love. Write those words down. Pin those words on your wall. Carry those words with you in your wallet.

McLaren’s book is a clarion call, a prophet’s voice in the midst of this current wilderness, warning us that we must change or die. I commend his book to you, and I pray that you will join me in this journey.

Holy One, I can’t, I’m yours, show me the way. Amen.