Saturday, December 04, 2010

RevGal Friday Five: December Survival Edition

Whether a RevGal or a Pal most of us in this cyber community have enhanced responsibilities during this time of year. We also have traditions - religious and secular - that mark the season for us in a more personal way.

For this Friday Five please let us know five of the things that mark the season for you.

And the bonus? Tell us one thing that does absolutely nothing for you.

1) I don't appreciate "The Griswold" effect, but I LOVE Christmas lights. I suppose growing up in Kansas City with the Plaza Lights has been cause for this. I love single string lights that highlight the edges of buildings and outline structures. I REALLY love this one particular house near my parents'. They outline every line they can on their house in multi-colored lights. It looks like a gingerbread house.

2) Advent carols. I truly do wait until Advent to listen to any holiday music - and even then I stay away from the radio stations that have been playing it since Halloween. Advent carols are some of my favorites, especially since they are rarely played.

3) Cinnamon candles. I know I could burn these scented candles at other times of the year, but I only burn cinnamon candles during the Advent/Christmas season and I love the way they make my house smell.

4)Luminaries. My parents neighborhood lines their streets and driveways with luminaries on Christmas Eve, and the church in which I grew up lines the sidewalk on that same night. I love it even more when there is snow to surround the luminaries. I feel like they are lighting the way to the wonder that is to come.

5) Decorations in the sanctuary. Every sanctuary takes on a new feel when we decorate for Advent.

Bonus: The consumerism that has become Christmas is not only my "doesn't do it for me," choice but it also makes it TERRIBLY hard for me to enjoy Advent/Christmas. It makes me ill.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Psalm 19

Does your pastor ever start out the sermon with “Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you,” or something along those lines? Maybe not a sermon starter, but have you heard Psalm 19:14 used before?

I’ve heard many preachers use this as a prayer to start their sermons, including myself. While I think we all genuinely hope that what we are saying is pleasing to the Lord, I wonder how much thought we all put into that before we spout off this well known Psalm. Don’t hear me wrong, I’m not putting myself above others, because I certainly use this prayer as well, I’m not saying others shouldn’t use it. They may have already worked out their understanding of this Psalm, but the last time I heard this Psalm, actually in song form, I started wondering.

I couldn’t help but wonder, when I heard this Psalm last, what is it that we are actually asking the Lord? Are we asking the Lord to grant what we’ve already prepared to say, what we’ve already written down, or jotted down in our heads, to make it as something pleasing to God? Are we asking God to listen to what we say, let’s say in sermon form, and to grant it to us as, “Oh, yes, that is pleasing,” even though we’ve already put all these thoughts and sentences down without that consideration? As ministers preparing to offer a sermon, at this point haven’t we already decided what our opinion is? At this point haven’t we already written a sermon with a “thesis statement,” with an opinion we want the congregation to hear? At this point, aren’t our minds already made up as to what we want others, including God, to hear?

Even those of us that preach from memory or from an index card of notes have engaged in some sort of preparation. (At least I hope we have!) All the reading and studying that has happened the week (or two) beforehand has formed inside of us some sort of opinion or “thesis statement” that we want the congregation to hear. Granted, many of us try to be careful that it is not our own opinion that others are hearing, rather something we think the congregation needs to hear from God, but regardless, to pray this prayer at the last minute before a sermon seems a little counterintuitive.

It seems as if Psalm 19:14 would be a prayer we should pray each morning, that before we even remove the sleep from our eyes, before we turn the iPhone to silent, before we put our feet on a cold floor we should pray this prayer.

God, guide me this day. Open my ears and my heart to listen to you today. I want all the words that I speak, to you, or to anyone else, and all the thoughts in my head and my heart to be something you would be proud of. Guide me. Direct me. Show me the ways that I can make my life something you would be proud of. Show me the ways that every little thing I do can be something by which you are honored. I pray this prayer to you, my rock and my redeemer.

But what about that prayer a minister offers before a sermon?

What I truly hope to get across in my prayers before a sermon is that I hope people will not hear me. I hope that they will hear God. I’m still not yet comfortable saying that what I say as a minister is as if I am speaking words of the Lord (yes I have authority issues), but I do hope that people will hear God. I hope that I will get out of the way enough that people can truly hear God speaking to them. As someone who has struggled to find a way to listen to God herself, someone who continues to try new forms of prayer in attempts to continue to listen to God in the clearest way I can hear, I just hope others can hear God.

God I pray that the words of my mouth are those that you have put there, and not the ones I put there thinking it was you. I pray that the thoughts I have in my heart and in my head are from you, and not from my own ego. I hope that the words I speak will be your words to others. I pray that whatever I say, people will truly hear your word. Because your Word is that rock and your Word is our redemption. May we all hear it… in whatever form we can.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Finding Balance

Scott Linscott is a pastor at First Baptist Church in Portland, Maine.  He wrote the following blog which can be found at 

I can't agree with him more about finding balance.  In so many words, I hear him say that one of the quickest ways to make your kids apathetic about faith is to NOT teach them about balance. 

Whether we're teaching our children or youth, or struggling ourselves, one of the quickest ways to an apathetic faith is a lack of balance. 

As a society I fear we've placed so much attention on the RESULTS of academics, because its those that eternally lead to MONEY (whether it be through scholarships, or to that high-paying job).  The RESULTS of academics may be what lead to MONEY, but it is the emphasis on BALANCE and EDUCATION (which I find dramatically different than the results of academic pursuit) which leads to a full and meaningful life.

Education does not always mean an academic degree, rather a pursuit of continually "bettering" yourself.  Education does not always mean that you have received an "A" on a project, but rather that you learned a lot in the process of producing this paper, presentation, project, degree, etc.  One is not educated because he/she can spout off memorized facts and figures, rather one is educated because they have learned to apply the information that has been acquired, and the ways to acquire more information.

Balance is something that has severely been lacking in the United States and many of our lives (I'm certainly not above this struggle!) for a long time.  When we started putting the almighty dollar above people and relationships, we immediately lost any hope for balance.  When we put our emphasis on the almighty dollar, and ways to acquire it at whatever cost, we're slowly chipping away at our own future, at our own opportunity for balance.  It's certainly harder to acquire balance, and to change a way of thinking away from the "almighty dollar," than it is to maintain a sense of balance with God and relationship as the most important.  My ultimate goal for the church is that we speak to a meaningful and fulfilled relationship with God; not a relationship that has cut and dry answers, but one that makes you question and seek, one that makes you wonder as you wander, until you develop a balance of faith and question, a balance of pursuit and enjoying the ride, a balance of priorities.

Your kid’s an All Star? Wow! Someday he’ll be average like the rest of us.

The church in America is puzzled. Young adults are leaving in droves. Magazines, books and blogs are wagging the finger of blame to point out who is responsible. Some say it is a failure of youth ministry, some point to church budgets and some nail the blame on outdated, unhip worship services. We parents are shocked that our kids just really aren’t all that into Jesus.

When I look for someone to blame I head into the restroom and look into a mirror. Yupp, there he is. I blame him. That parent looking back at me is where I have to start.

If you’re a parent, I’m might tick you off in this post. But, hear me out. I think that we, as parents are guilty of some things that make it easy for our kids to put faith low on their priority list.

Keys to Making Your Kids Apathetic About Faith

1) Put academic pursuits above faith-building activities. Encourage your child to put everything else aside for academic gain. Afterall, when they are 24 and not interested in faith and following Christ, you’ll still be thrilled that they got an A in pre-calculus, right? Instead of teaching them balance, teach them that all else comes second to academics. Quick … who graduated in the top 5 of your high school class? Unless you were one of them, I bet you have no idea. I don’t.

2) Chase the gold ball first and foremost. Afterall, your child is a star. Drive 400 miles so your child can play hockey but refuse to take them to a home group bible study because it’s 20 minutes away.

2b) Buy into the “select,” “elite,” “premier” titles for leagues that play outside of the school season and take pride in your kid wearing the label. Hey now, he’s an All-Star! No one would pay $1000 for their kid to join, “Bunch-of-kids-paying-to-play Team.” But, “Elite?!?” Boy, howdy! That’s the big time!

2c) Believe the school coach who tells you that your kid won’t play if he doesn’t play in the offseason. The truth is, if your kid really is a star, he could go to Disney for the first week of the season and come back and start for his school team. The determined coach might make him sit a whole game to teach him a lesson. But, trust me, if Julie can shoot the rock for 20 points a game, she’s in the lineup. I remember a stellar soccer athlete who played with my son in high school. Chris missed the entire preseason because of winning a national baseball championship. With no workouts, no double sessions, his first day back with the soccer team, he started and scored two goals. Several hard-working “premier” players sat on the bench and watched him do it. (Chris never played soccer outside the school season but was a perpetual district all-star selection.) The hard reality is, if your kid is not a star, an average of 3 new stars a year will play varsity as freshmen. That means there’s always 12 kids who are the top prospects. Swallow hard and encourage your kid to improve but be careful what you sacrifice to make him a star at little Podunk High here in Maine.

2d) By the way, just because your kid got a letter inviting him to attend a baseball camp in West Virginia does not mean he is being recruited. You’ll know when recruiting happens. Coaches start calling as regularly as telemarketers, they send your kid handwritten notes and they often bypass you to talk to your kid. A letter with a printed label from an athletic department is not recruitment. When a coach shows up to watch your kid play and then talks to you and your kid, that’s recruiting.

3) Teach your kid that the dollar is almighty. I see it all the time. Faith activities fly out the window when students say, “I’d like to, but I have to work.” Parents think jobs teach responsibility when, in reality, most students are merely accumulating wealth to buy the things they want. Our kids learn that faith activities should be put aside for the “responsibility” of holding a job. They will never again get to spend 100% of their paychecks on the stuff they want.

3b) Make them pay outright for faith activities like youth retreats and faith community activities while you support their sports, music, drama and endeavors with checks for camps and “select” groups and expensive equipment. This sends a loud and clear message of what you really want to see them involved in and what you value most. Complain loudly about how expensive a three-day youth event is but then don’t bat an eye when you pay four times that for a three-day sports camp.

4) Refuse to acknowledge that the primary motivating force in kids’ lives is relationship. Connections with others is what drives kids to be involved. It’s the reason that peer pressure is such a big deal in adolescence. Sending kids to bible classes and lectures is almost entirely ineffective apart from relationship and friendships that help them process what they learn. As kids share faith experiences like retreats, mission trips and student ministry fun, they build common bonds with one another that work as a glue to Christian community. In fact, a strong argument can be made that faith is designed to be lived in community with other believers. By doing all you can to keep your kids from experiencing the bonds of love in a Christian community, you help insure that they can easily walk away without feeling like they are missing anything. Kids build friendships with the kids they spend time with.

5) Model apathy in your own life. If following Jesus is only about sitting in a church service once a week and going to meetings, young adults opt out. Teenagers and young adults are looking for things that are worth their time. Authentic, genuine, relevant relationships where people are growing in relationship with Jesus is appealing. Meaningless duty and ritual holds no attraction.

There are no guarantees that your children will follow Christ even if you have a vibrant, purposeful relationship with Him. But, on the other hand, if we, as parents do not do all we can to help our children develop meaningful relationships in Jesus, we miss a major opportunity to lead them and show them the path worth walking.

I want my kids to see that their dad follows Jesus with everything. I want them to know that my greatest hope for them is that they follow Him too.
Mt. 6:33 Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. (The Message)
On a personal note: I know the struggle. My wife and I have lived the struggle firsthand. My son was recruited by a few D1 NCAA schools for baseball and opted instead to attend a small D3 school. My daughter was recruited to play field hockey by a couple D2 programs and ended up playing D3 when the scholarship offer was not enough to make her top school affordable. Both played in “premier” leagues. Both got A’s in high school though we often told them not to stress out too much over it. Both are in honor societies in college and my son now has offers from UNC, Univ. of Wisconsin, Johns Hopkins and Weil Cornell for a Phd in Pharmacology. Neither ever missed a youth group retreat, conference or mission trip because of their sports or academic commitments. Both missed a game or two to attend faith-based activities. Both missed school for family vacations. Both held down part-time jobs in high school and learned to give employers advance notice for upcoming retreats. My son often changed into his baseball uniform at church to arrive in the third inning of Sunday games. Robin and I did all we could to make sure they connected in student ministry even when it meant driving straight from a tournament to a music festival at midnight so that they would not miss out. It was that important to us. My youngest, a culinary student, lost a restaurant job because he went on a mission trip. That’s fine. Thankfully, all 3 have strong faith walks today. That is due only to God’s grace. But, I do believe that our efforts and example helped them long for a community-based faith.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

9/11, the Qur'an and Football

It's a little weird.  I logged onto Facebook this afternoon to see a mixture of basically two messages.  Everyone seems to be posting about one of two things.  1) A combination of 9/11 and possible Qur'an  burning comments or 2) FOOTBALL.

It's been a busy day already and it being 4:00pm , I'm just now really thinking about either one of these things.  Granted I've been concerned about and reading about the possible Qur'an burning for weeks (as the media has made this possible) and let's be honest, I live in Southern Louisiana where you're only allowed to think about two things in life, the Saints and the Tigers.  But at the same time, a service project with the Young Adults in the morning and a women's tea at the church this afternoon, I haven't really taken into account much of what this day could mean, or does.

Do I remember?  Yes.  I remember walking back to the Kappa house on Mizzou's campus and having some random fraternity guy in the parking lot tell me something about NYC being attacked.  I remember praying with several women at the sorority house and calling my mother to make sure my dad wasn't traveling that day as he often had for work.  I remember thinking about those who died a senseless death and those who lost their loved ones because of a senseless act of hatred.  I remember people wanting to sign up to serve in the military to protect our country and its freedoms.  I remember being concerned for my friends who were Muslim, for their safety, and even for my friends who simply "looked" Arab-like.  I remember hating the words about a Holy War and being discouraged at the violence committed because of fear and ignorance.  I remember wanting people to understand the difference between a person of the Muslim faith and an extremist of any faith that gave that faith a bad name.  I remember praying for those who were serving our country, prayer for their safety and well-being in the middle of this senseless act.  I remember the flags and the moments of silence, the prayers for PEACE.  I remember the country coming together and making statements like, "United We Stand, Divided We Fall."

United We Stand.

It doesn't seem as if we're very united though, on this particular day, 9 years later.  We're fighting over economic issues, over racial issues, over political parties, taxes and health care.  We argue about money and communication, about custody issues with kids and divorce court.  We argue about what we are teaching our children in school, over where people are allowed to worship and about who is allowed to legally be married.

Divided We Fall.

We have fallen.  We had fallen.  We still fall.  But I have hope.

I have hope that this country can stand united.  We didn't necessarily stand united nine years ago.  And we haven't necessarily stood united since then.  But I have hope.

I don't hope that we stand in uniformity, believing in and espousing the same lifestyles, thoughts, religion, affiliations, ethics or the like.  I do not hope that we stand together against those who are different, persecuting those who are not like us.  Rather, I have hope that we will stand united.  

I have hope that we will unite around our differences, taking into account the strength that comes from diversity.  I have hope that we can stand united because our differences make us more complete, and more whole than we could ever be alone.  I have hope that we will stand in unity, supporting one another not because we are the same religion, color, gender, age or ethnicity, but because we are united in our humanity.

Call me naive.  Call me ignorant.  But I would argue that hope is a difficult choice; not one of a mere naivete or ignorance.  On the contrary, hope is a difficult choice, an unpopular choice, that I make because of my life experience, a choice I make because of what I have learned from my sisters and brothers in humanity.

I remember hearing something - probably about 9 years ago - about the point of terrorism.  History has shown that the purpose, the point of terrorism is to stop life; not in that you end life, but that terrorism stops life.  Terrorism is a successful tactic only when people allow themselves to be terrorised.  Terrorism only works when we allow people to create an "us" and a "them" which in turn divides us, and does not leave us "united" in any way.  Terrorism only works when we allow terrorism to stop our lives, to prevent us from living life because we are afraid.

I choose hope, because it helps me to not be afraid. 

I choose hope, because it is that which builds bridges and extends hands towards one another.

I choose hope because while it is risky, it brings the most gain.

I choose hope, because it is ALWAYS better than despair.

I choose hope, because life is nothing without it.

I choose hope because it allows me to live life in such a way that fear prevents, to live my life to the fullest.

I choose hope because I have been give life by the One who showed me what hope is. 

I choose hope because it is one thing that can unite all people against common enemies of humanity; against ignorance, poverty, hatred, and death,

I choose hope because it allows me to live my life.  It allows me to live a life that will involve me going home, reading a portion of the New Testament, a portion of the Hebrew Bible and a portion of the Qur'an. 

And then I will watch some football.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Glenn Beck and Social Justice

I recently posted an article on facebook about a response by Serene Jones to Glenn Beck after he made comments about Liberation Theology and Social Justice.
The initial Glenn Beck video/commentary can be seen here:

An interview with Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, followed and can be seen here:

Serene’s open letter to Glenn Beck , published in the Huffington Post can be seen here.

Serene is a fellow Kappa, (University of OK), an ordained minister in the DOC and UCC and the first woman president of Union Theological Seminary. I’m proud to call her a sister on many accounts, and was recently inspired by her response to Glenn Beck.

I posted Jones’ open letter to Glenn Beck on facebook, with some commentary, and some discussion ensued. Eventually a question came up about “What is the basis of social justice?” Serene Jones stated in her response to Beck that she would be mailing him Bibles with passages about social justice underlined in them, so another question was raised asking “what Bible verses would be underlined?”

I don’t mean to call out the friend that asked these questions – but I did need to preface this post by stating what inspired it. I didn’t feel like I could answer the question properly without devoting some time and thought to my response. I’ve typed this blog over and over again, listened to this one show of Glenn Beck several times in an attempt to take careful notes on what I hear him saying. I also took great care to respond because it’s the “shock jock” mentality that has contributed to many of our contemporary political disagreements; I didn’t want my response to be considered just some off-handed remark.

In preparing my response to that question, I’ve discovered is that I could spend a lot of time meticulously picking at several of the things Glenn Beck declares in this particular episode, or pointing out slights of his hand as he tries to appear reasoned and “fair,” amid his completely personal and individual interpretations of Christianity. But I also discovered that a man who is far more equipped than I to do so has done just that. I highly encourage you to look at his response to Beck concerning Black Liberation theology here.

However, I still have not answered the question of what is the basis of “social justice?”

In a day and age where we (I don’t’ pretend to be above this, I know am guilty of this too) more often than not, compartmentalize our lives, it becomes harder and harder to serve people, as church leaders, in our congregations. We all want to keep politics out of church, and don’t talk much about our faith outside of Sunday morning, as if we can separate those two things, faith and politics. So often we watch hours of television, or listen to hours of radio concerning money and the economy, but if a minister spends much more than 5 minutes talking about tithing, let alone talking about how few people actually tithe 10 percent, the minister is chastised and told that there is no place for talk about the national economy from the pulpit – often because it borders on political conversation. The words “politics” or “politically” coming from the pulpit are often career suicide for many local church ministers.

However, if we are to truly be called to be pastors, then we need to speak to the whole lives of church members. It’s a difficult thing to care for the spiritual, ethical and physical well-being of a congregation when most often we are pushed out of anything that does not directly relate to a sermon or the ways it can speak ONLY to our faith as we experience it once a week in worship.

I think this is the first problem we have when trying to identify where in the Bible we find social justice. If we ONLY wanted to speak about our personal faith and want to ignore any hints of Biblical social commentary because it borders on political discussion in church, then we can get rid of a huge portion of the Old/First Testament (most certainly the law and the prophets), a significant portion of the gospels, and almost all of The Epistles. The Bible is FULL of social commentary, and writings on the direction of society and humanity, how we are called to be in relationship with one another. If we pretend that the Bible only speaks to our personal and individual faith, our individual salvation, then we discount so much of the Bible that we end up proof-texting our way to eternal life.

We preach about the righteousness and justice of all of humanity in the same manner that we speak to ways of personal righteousness, because faith encompasses both individual and collective salvation. If religious leaders were not called to minister to the whole lives of church members, then why do we make such an effort at creating community in the congregation? If we are not called to minister to the whole being of our church members then why do we teach ways to help the community, go on mission trips, or show ways to give back to the community? If we are not called to minister to the whole lives of church members, then why do we spend hours of preparation on sermons that can speak to the intersection of faith and our daily lives?

We are called to minister to the whole lives, to the whole person of church members because Jesus ministered to the whole lives of those who followed him, and even to those who were not his disciples (see the Syrophoenician woman). Jesus called us to minister to the whole being of individuals in the same way that we are called to minister to the whole being of society (see Matthew 25:31 – 46).

The ways that Beck – and others – has recently defined “social justice” as the government dictating the ways in which we handle and “share” our money that we have earned is a gross misrepresentation of the definition of “social justice.” You are correct Mr. Beck, that nowhere in the Bible does it say that we should allow the government to take our money and redistribute it to the poor. But we’re also operating on completely different notions of government and governance than they were in the Old/First Testament and even in the New Testament. So there’s some gray area in understanding how we as society, as humanity, are supposed to give to the poor, to care for the least of these like we are called to do. When Jesus tells the rich young man in Matthew 19:16-26 to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor does Jesus mean we should only sell our possessions in a garage sale and give money to the salvation army – or can we sell our things on ebay and then give our money as a donation to the national deficit? Was Jesus’ teaching a commentary on exactly how we are supposed to get rid of our possessions, or is there an overarching theme here that teaches us about the treasure of eternal life?

Whether it be money or jobs, possessions or civil liberties, the notions of Biblical social justice are not defined only by the ways that contemporary governments create or “take away” these things, (money, jobs etc.). I’m not sure how “social justice” has come to mean some sort of evil communism or socialism that the government takes away all those things you worked for in order to give them to some undeserving schmuck that is going to smoke or drink away your hard earned assets. However, social justice is certainly not demanding that the only way we can enjoy fullness of life is by picking ourselves up “by the boot-straps” from whatever systematic oppressions has befallen us and demanding that we earn every single thing we receive. If we had to earn everything we’ve ever received, including our salvation, we could never earn it. It’s called grace – and it’s something we’re called on to share.

The frustrating part, is that the definition of “social justice” that Beck is arguing against is not what people like Jim Wallis and James Cone are arguing for. (At least in my understanding) Beck et al. are arguing against one thing and Wallis et al. are arguing for something quite different. If we’re all operating from different definitions of “social justice,” then we’re certainly never going to be able to have productive discussion on the matter, let alone much agreement.

As a starting point, I suggest separating “social” and “justice.” If we first understand justice to be rightfulness or righteousness, especially the righteousness of individual acts, then we can certainly understand social justice to be righteousness, or rightfulness on a collective scale. But we haven’t just haphazardly added the word “social” to justice because of some contemporary liberal political ploy at communism or socialism; rather we find the roots of the social nature of justice in the readings and writings of the prophets from the Old/First Testament, in the readings and writings of the prophets of which Jesus was a follower. The morality of the people of Israel is what brought about God’s judgment and to what prophets of the OT addressed. Individual morality certainly affected social morality, but the Word that prophets received from the Divine, and spoke to the people of Israel was a word about the “public morality on which their national life was founded.” (Rauschenbusch) Israel as one individual was not going to be a light to all nations, rather the nation of Israel, the collective, including how it operates as a community, is to be considered a light to all nations.

We struggle as Americans reading the Old/First and New Testaments in our contemporary understandings of Christianity and of government. The descendents of Abraham were a country, a nation, that operated under a theocracy, in which word and law was received from God and dictated to the people. However, the people of Israel eventually wanted leaders more like those of other neighboring nations, calling to God for judges and kings. While Israel was led for a number of years by judges and kings Israel still had God speaking to them through voices of the prophets. While we look to Israel, and to the early church as models for how we ought to exist in community, the United States is NOT a theocracy, and we are not governed by the word of God. We are governed by people, individuals, who many of us hope listen to their word of God, but who are not speaking for God, as God.

In the United States we claim to be a free nation, yet somehow also insist on being a Christian nation. We pride ourselves on the founders of our nation who left England in search of religious freedom, yet we still insist that God (the God of Jews, Christians and Muslims) must still be included in our laws and in our land. We want God in our laws and in our government until it makes us uncomfortable, then we demand that this God and this religion is blasphemous and must be wrong. We want morality in our laws, morality based on Biblical notions when we speak of abortion and of homosexuality, but when other parts of the Bible speak to the ways that we need to share a common purse, we must certainly be misreading the Bible?

A Biblical call to social justice does not mean that our contemporary governments should lawfully take away money from the rich and redistribute it to the poor. Rather, a Biblical call for social justice means that as faithful followers of God, of God Incarnate in Jesus Christ, we are called to care for the least of these (Matthew 25), we are required “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with [our] God.” (Micah 6:8). A Biblical call towards justice means that we are to be the one who takes care of a beaten traveler (Luke 10:25 – 37), and cares for the stranger who comes to our door (Genesis 18). As socially active Christians we are called to support institutions and programs that help us to fulfill these and other Biblical examples. But the question remains, are these institutions and programs part of the government, or are they separate from the government and driven solely by grass roots organizing?

I say “socially active,” because we cannot compartmentalize our lives the ways we try to. We cannot leave our Christian selves at church until we are ready to come back in two Sundays time because we have other more important compartments of our lives to attend to. We cannot leave Christianity out of our politics until we need the Bible as ammunition, and then put it back neatly into our compartment when we are challenged by words like “social justice.” We are socially active because we are social beings. Genesis teaches us that we were created to be in relationship with one another, and are therefore social beings, in relationship with one another, with all of God’s children, even the ones we don’t understand and argue with. Our Christian selves should dictate who we are in all aspects of our lives, politically, ethically, morally, and physically. Jesus came to minister to, and to save our whole selves, our whole beings. Consequently, our saved Christian selves are demanded of as our whole selves, in whole, from our whole being. “To the individual, Christianity offers victory over sin and death, and the consummation of all good in the life to come.” Christianity certainly is individual, because it is our individual selves that find salvation in Jesus. But because we are saved wholly, and because Christ came to save the whole of humanity, not just a few individuals, our salvation is social and collective. Therefore “to [hu]mankind Christianity offers a perfect social life, victory over all the evil that wounds and mars human intercourse and satisfaction for the for hunger and thirst after justice, equality, and love.” This is social justice. When our societies are just in ways that evil no longer wounds or mars human interaction. Social justice happens when we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

Where in the Bible does is speak of social justice? Where doesn’t it? I don’t say that haphazardly as a way to get out of answering this question, but I don’t know any other answer; where doesn’t the Bible speak about social justice? I will try to list a number of scriptures that speak to social justice, but I know I cannot speak to them or list them all. Simultaneously, some of those authors that I list here may not speak to the exact question of “where in the Bible does it talk about social justice,” but they speak to the spirit and overarching notions of Biblical social justice. Listing where in the Bible we hear messages of social justice is like listing where in the Bible we hear about love. Our loving, just, and all-knowing God speaks to us in all places and in all times, and speaks to us justly and with love.

Just a few random verses I can think of...
Isaiah 25:1a, 4
Psalm 12:5
Isaiah 29:18a- 19
Deuteronomy 26:12
Leviticus 19:9-10
Amos 5:24
Isaiah 58:6-7a
Mark 1:14-15
Luke 1:46-47, 53
Luke 4:18-19
Luke 6:20b-21
Matthew 25:35a
Luke 16:19-21a
Acts 4:34-35
Hebrew 13:16
1 John 3:16-18

As far as readings go, I would suggest “A Theology for the Social Gospel” by Walter Rauschenbush or “Christianity and the Social Crisis” also by Rasuchenbusch. I would suggest Carl F. Henry who founded Christianity Today, which has become the website I would also suggest Rod Sider and the website of his organization Evangelicals for Social Action. Disciples Peace Fellowship,, is a small grassroots organization from within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), that partners with other peace and social justice organizations affiliated with mainline protestant denominations such the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ,, and the United Methodist Church, I would highly suggest “The Cost of Discipleship” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer as well as Martin Luther King Jr., Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Moral Man and Immoral Society” as well as “The Nature and Destiny of Man” in addition to writings by his brother, H.Richard Niehbur. Jim Wallis’ books are wonderful, although the website for Sojourners sometimes frustrates me, but it is at least worth looking at.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

To Flag or Not to Flag

2 Kings 5:1-14

For some people, celebrating the 4th of July is an important expression of their faith. As we live in a nation that declared freedom from and freedom of religion as an important part of the first stepping stones towards nation-hood, it only makes sense that we would want to celebrate this day in our worship service. Others want to celebrate this day in hopes that our Christian faith will lift up this nation, that our fervent prayers and hopes will lead our nation towards greater things.

However, there are still others that believe this day makes an idol of the nation itself, that especially on the calendar years where the Independence Day lands on a Sunday, we end up making our nation the center of our worship, and therefore we should avoid combining this holiday with any expression of our faith, all together. For some, we are still a free nation, and while there are a majority of Americans who profess Christianity as their faith, to be American does not mean you have to be Christian, so how do you reconcile the two on this day of both celebration and worship.

I’ve struggled with these thoughts all week. I’ve struggled mainly because I know there are a fair number of all these opinions within our congregation, and I’m confident there are still more opinions I have yet to even think of. I have gone back and forth between the importance of celebrating our nation, what it stands for, and remembering it’s “birthday,” but I have also thought about the meaning of worship, that to worship God we are giving praise and glory to God, worshipping a God who is not exclusive to this nation only.

I’ve done lots of reading this week, between biblical commentaries, articles, books, and have come across a fair number of readings on “both sides.”

I’ve come across some authors who assert that it is un-Christian to celebrate the fourth of July in any form of Sunday worship because as Christians we follow the teachings of Jesus Christ who often spoke against the empire of Rome and empire in general. Speaking against social systems that marginalize and disenfranchise the outsider is a large part of the Christian faith for many, as we follow Jesus Christ who not only spoke with, but also ate meals with the outcasts, with the sinners, with the tax collectors, and the prostitutes, so why would we celebrate a secular holiday on the day we worship?

I’ve come across authors who declare that as the United States, it is only natural for us to celebrate our Independence Day in worship. We come from a group of people who were seeking religious freedom and the right to worship in ways they find authentic and fulfilling. We are thankful for our upbringing, or for our lives in a nation that allows us to follow Christ, that allow us to worship God freely and openly. Still more authors have made connections between our citizenship in the United States, and our citizenship in the Kingdom of God. Some that use the examples of our passion for our country that we live in, for our home, as a model for the passion and devotion we should have for our eternal home

In all my reading, I did find one author that I resonated with, that I thought conveyed a feeling about this holiday that almost everyone in our congregation could resonate with. Ted Smith is a professor of ethics and society at Vanderbilt Divinity School. He says that he has come to think about his country like he thinks about his family of origin.

His family of origin is not perfect, but he can't really leave them. He says he has come to love his family fiercely. They show him the same grace, and then some. He has come to think that the members of his family have been given to him to love, just as he has been given to them. They belong to each other, for better and for worse, by the grace of God. And so he loves his country like he loves his family—as that which has been given to him to nurture, chastise, wrestle with, care for, raise up, suffer beside, celebrate with, and love. So it only makes sense that he would celebrate and remember its birthday. ( But is it suitable to celebrate and remember its birthday in the weekly worship service where we lift up and remember Christ, who died for all, that all might come to know faith in God who transcends nations?

I think it’s safe to say that we want to recognize this day in worship. And this is more than some congregations do, who simply refuse to address the issue at all out of fear of controversy. It shouldn’t bring about controversy, because I think it’s safe to say that we want to at least address Independence Day in our worship this morning. Worship is a coming together of our lives, a coming together of all the “things” in our lives, all the: emotions, celebrations, sadness, frustrations, stresses, gifts, and all the faith we hold. Worship is a coming together of our lives as we worship God through Jesus Christ. We bring all these “things” to worship with us, and we can hardly bring our lives together if we refuse to address an important aspect of our nation for fear of controversy.

So we’re going to address it. We’ll address Independence Day, the “birthday” of the United States of America. But how? How do we go about addressing this celebration, this day of thanksgiving for a country founded on the principal that all people are created equal, where all will be free to speak their minds and to worship God? How do we speak to a day that commemorates the ideals for which this country was founded, while still maintaining our allegiance to Christ, while maintaining our citizenship in the Kingdom of God?

I think we can find our inspiration for this question in scripture.

We find our scripture passage in the book of 2 Kings.

Now the books of 1 and 2 Kings were never originally meant to stand as two separate books, rather they were written as one large book, as a collection of stories of kings and prophets, and the people of Israel as they continue to follow God, and try to be that “city on a hill, a light to the nations.” The books of Kings highlight the successes and struggles of the people of Israel, stories of their faith, of their struggles, of their successes, of their backsliding: stories of the moments when they truly embraced the prophetic words spoken by God’s messengers, and moments when they relied on an untruthful word. Both 1 and 2 Kings have stories of the prophets, the people who sought to lead God’s people through a visionary word, as well as stories of kings who led God’s people by different inspiration. The whole book is full of stories that struggle between divine will and human will, and this is where we meet a commander named Naaman.

More specifically we return to Naaman’s encounter with one of God’s prophets, with the prophet Elisha whom we met last week.

Naaman is the commander of an army that is an enemy to Israel. King Aram’s army had fought with Israel previously, and Naaman was held in high regard, because his army defeated Israel’s army. We even see in verse one that God used Naaman to defeat Israel’s army.

But it is interesting because Naaman now needs Israel . You see, Naaman suffers from leprosy. This great army commander, who is high favor with his King because he won a battle over Israel, he is an outcast. He is an outsider because he suffers from a disease that seemingly had no cure. A disease that pushed you to the outskirts of society because of fear you would pass on the disease to others.

But Naaman’s wife had a servant, who was from Israel. And this servant girl proclaimed the power of God to Naaman, telling Naaman that if only he would go see the prophet Elisha, in Israel, he could be cured of his leprosy.

Naaman had defeated Israel’s army. But now Naaman needed Israel.

So after a visit with his King, Naaman sets off towards Israel, to meet the King of Israel, complete with lavish gifts and a letter from King Aram to the King of Israel, because the person with the power to cure this leprosy most certainly had to be a king.

But scripture tells us it is not a king who has this power to cure leprosy. No, it is not the leader of a nation, nor the most well known person. It is not the most powerful or commanding person in the country. The King of Israel in fact is concerned that Naaman’s king is trying to start an argument with him. Surely King Aram could not think that he can cure Naaman’s leprosy.

But all is well when we read that Elisha has heard of these events and sends word to Naaman, that he is the one who can cure him of his leprosy. Naaman heads toward Elisha with his caravan of horses and chariots and gifts for the one who will cure him.

After some hesitation towards his instructions, Naaman finally listens to the instructions of Elisha and takes a dip in the Jordan River. He washes in the Jordan and was made clean, his leprosy was cured and his skin was as fresh as the day he was born.

So what does leprosy and a king unable to cure it, or a commander who visits a foreign prophet – what does this have to do with the national holiday we observe today?

It’s not the commander of the Israeli army that is cured.

It’s not the king of Israel, in all his power and glory that cures this man.

It’s not the high powered officials of God’s people, God’s chosen nation that make this story.

So what could this story have to do with our national holiday?

It’s not the commander of the Israeli army that is cured. It’s an outsider that receives God’s healing.

It’s not the King of Israel, in all his power and glory that cures this man. It’s a prophet, a man of God, of little societal importance that can channel God’s healing presence.

It’s not the high powered officials of God’s people, God’s chosen nation that make this story. It is the outsider, the ones of little societal influence that make our story important.

An outsider, an army commander of a foreign nation, and a prophet who struggles to be heard , a prophet speaking to God’s chosen nation demonstrate God’s power and love, and have something to teach us.

Naaman’s healing teaches us the importance of nationality. Because in God’s saving acts, God sees beyond national lines, and includes all, even the outsider in salvation.

Naaman’s healing teaches us that God works through the powerful, people of each nation. Because it is not the most well-known elected officials who are the most powerful in a nation, but rather those often overlooked, but most devoted to God’s purpose who are the most powerful, for it was a servant girl who told Naaman about a prophet in Israel who could cure him.

Elisha’s work teaches us that work between nations must be led by the leaders of the nation. Because it was not the two kings who worked out a negotiation through letter writing, but rather a leaders of the people, a prophet and an army commander, who caused social change and through Naaman’s healing.

As many of you may know, when I was in college, I studied abroad for one semester in New Zealand. I spent seven months, studying and living in a different country, a different culture, as an outsider. And while I was there I had a spring break that just happened to fall on Holy Week. But it being Spring Break, and seeing as how I would rarely have an opportunity like that again, I chose to go on a trip during Spring Break and missed out on some of the worship services during Holy Week. Yet, my faith was still strengthened that week, and I still had an experience with God.

You see, on Good Friday I was headed from one city to another by way of a bus. I was backpacking through the Northern Island of New Zealand. I wasn’t really sure what the next town would hold. I had a reservation at a hostel to stay the night, but other than that I was a blank slate, ready to take on the next adventure.

While I was on this bus, driving to a town called Lake Taupo, there were a group of travelers who began talking about this opportunity in Taupo, an opportunity they heard was an absolute must. Lake Taupo was the best place to do this, and so if we were all arriving in Lake Taupo this afternoon, we just had to do it. Sky Diving.

And before I knew it, I was in a jump suit, head in a helmet to keep my hair back, goggles on, strapped to a jump instructor who was going to jump with me and climbing into one of the smallest planes I’ve ever been in.

I’m afraid of heights, so this was truly a “before I knew it,” moment, because before I really and truly could grasp what was going on, and what I had decided to do, I was headed up in a plane to jump at 9000 feet with hopes that my instructor and tandem jumper would remember to pull the chute.

But I did it. With the help and some encouragement (known as a push) from my tandem partner, I successfully jumped out of an airplane, out of a perfectly good airplane, 9000 feet in the air.

But after those moments of shock and absolute fear, and even a couple of profanities, I was able to see something I think very few people have the pleasure of seeing. Reserved for others who jump out of planes, for astronauts and God, I could see one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

I could see the curvature of the earth. Now I’ve been in airplanes in general before, I’ve flown all over the country and to many different places around our globe, but never had I seen such a picture. The curvature of the earth and the land beneath me.

I imagine this is how God sees our earth, and us, each and every day.

I imagine this is what it must be like to see humanity from up above.

I imagine that God sees all of God’s children, and loves each and every one of them, beyond nationalities, beyond ethnicities, beyond gender.

I imagine that as you look down on the earth, the lines of division fade away. The lines of neighbors yard have no distinction between another neighbors yard, that the cities blend in with one another and fade into each other without distinction. I imagine that harsh divisions of color within God’s family are rubbed away as the colors of skin fade from one beautiful color into another.

I imagine that as Christians gather with one another around the world, God sees national lines fade, and the blending of the Body of Christ.

We are gifted this same view, this same view that God has when we read our story this morning. We are able to see that love of God that transcends nation and ethnicity when we see God healing a commander of a foreign army.

We are gifted a view of God’s complete and encompassing love when we see that God works through all of us, that God works through the great leaders of countries, just as God works through a whispering prophet and a slave in a foreign land.

This is not to say that nationality is pointless or is without merit. No, this is not meant as any sort of disrespect to our country, or to the day on which we celebrate the many people of this country.

Rather, it’s meant to remind us that we worship a God who is bigger, more inclusive, more loving, more justice oriented, more righteous, more faithful, and just plain MORE than we could ever imagine.

It’s meant to remind us that God is bigger than any division we might make here on earth. Whether that division be by nation, gender, ethnicity, economic status, orientation, race, political party, neighborhood, school, or any other manner of division we could dream up. God is bigger than those divisions.

It’s meant to remind us that God is bigger than the divisions we create over how to celebrate this day. It’s meant to remind us that the many different faithful attempts to mark this day, whether they play up the flag, or include many national songs, or whether they purposefully ignore the secular holiday, these many different attempts to mark this day, this day of worship and commemoration become like stars in a constellation – or on the bright blue field of a flag. They play off one another to suggest something more than any one of them could embody alone.

They bear witness to a hope that is our God. They bear witness to a God who is bigger, more inclusive, more loving, more righteous, more justice oriented, more faithful, and just plain MORE than we could ever imagine.

And we give thanks THIS day, that we worship in a place that allows us to give praise to God openly and without reservation.

Rev. Laura Ann Phillips
First Christian Church of Baton Rouge
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
July 4, 2010

Sunday, June 27, 2010

20/20 Vision

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14

I have TERRIBLE vision. My vision is something ridiculous like 20/450 rather than anything close to 20/20 vision. I’ve been told that this means without contacts or eyeglasses, I can see something at 20 feet that the person with “correct eyesight” can see at 450 feet. A football field is 360 feet long – which means the average person could see an object more than a football field away, while I could only see it 20 feet in front of me.

If we weren’t as advanced as we are today in our technology of vision correction, I’m confident I would have 2 inch thick coke bottle glasses that were about as stylish as a potato sack.

The 3 years I was in seminary I studied both Greek and Hebrew, not to mention all the reading I did in general. One little dot in a Hebrew letter or one curl of a letter in Greek could change the entire meaning of a word, so it was imperative that I was able to see these tiny Greek and Hebrew characters no matter what it cost my ego.

So I broke down and I got reading glasses. Nothing fancy of course – nothing expensive. I didn’t need expensive reading glasses just yet. The $10.00 glasses from Walgreens that make me look even more like my mother would have to do.

But they helped. They helped when I was reading the Greek and Hebrew, not to mention all my other books, and surprisingly I could suddenly see the computer screen a lot better as well.

Vision most certainly has plenty to do with our ability to see clearly the things that are sitting in front of us, to be able to see the letters on a page, to be able to differentiate between colors and to be able to see things far away.

But vision is also so much more than that. Author Bob Logan, who’s written books about Church Growth and Church Planting, says that vision is “the capacity to create a compelling picture of the desired state of affairs that inspires people to respond; that which is desirable, which could be, should be; that which is attainable.”

This “capacity to create a compelling picture of the desired state of affairs that inspires people to respond,” is something that all church leaders struggle with on a daily basis. I don’t mean struggle in the sense that it’s always a bad thing, but church leaders, whether they be ordained ministers or lay leaders wrestle with and labor with the idea of vision each and every time they look to the future of the church.

What is a compelling picture that we can create that will keep current members happy and fulfilled spiritually, while also growing the church as we move out into the community? What is this picture of our church that is a desired state of affairs? What picture of our faith community is one that would inspire people to respond?

This is where we meet Elijah and Elisha in our story. We meet Elisha at a point and time when his vision as a leader is being tested. If he is to be the successor to Elijah, then his vision must be clear and unmistakable.

You see, we come to the point and time of Elijah’s ministry where he is ready to “pass the mantle” to Elisha. Elijah had been the prophet to the kingdom of Israel during two different kings. Both King Ahab and his son King Ahaziah had looked to Elijah for prophecy and guidance, but now it was time for Elisha to take the mantle, to take that role from Elijah.

But was Elisha ready? Was Elisha prepared enough, and was he capable enough to take the place of the prophet Elijah who had led the people of Israel during a very chaotic time.

There are two things to take into consideration when describing Elisha’s readiness and discerning whether or not he has the vision necessary for taking up the role of prophet after Elijah.

We have to remember how important Elijah is to the Hebrew people – even still today to Jewish customs. Elijah is the “legend” who “visits” every Passover seder, where we watch to see if the wine in elijah’s cup has diminished. Elijah also attends every circumcision where a special chair is set aside for him.

Elijah is also important for our understanding of this story, as Christians reading the Hebrew scriptures. Two of Elijah’s miracles performed were multiplying food and bringing the dead back to life, which many believe is the basis for the miracles that Jesus performed more than 800 years later.

So is Elisha ready to take up this mantle following the “legend” that is Elijah?

Simultaneously, we also have to take into consideration the state of chaos that the nation of Israel is in. The people of Israel were struggling with a divided kingdom, and with the kings that lead them throughout this time. Many of the kings had taken up worship of a different god, a god named Baal, but many continued to listen to Elijah and worship the one true God. This led to chaos and unrest within the kingdom of Israel, and a time when prophets, and a voice from God were most needed.

Long before Elijah and long before the people of Israel had been under the rule of their kings, they had been wandering in the desert yearning for the Promised Land after their exodus from the rule of pharaoh and from life as slaves in Egypt. After coming into what they knew to be the Promised Land they were ruled by judges, people raised up by God to deliver the Israelites from the other kingdoms and armies coming into the Promised Land. But the Israelites were not happy with the constant attack by foreign armies, so they demanded from God a king to lead them, a leader that was more powerful, one that could lead them in their defense.

However they ended up relying on the king far more than they were relying on God, and this is where we meet the people of Israel, and their prophets Elijah and Elisha today. The more well known kings, Saul, David, Solomon have already come and gone, the kingdom of Israel has divided into a northern kingdom and a southern kingdom, and the prophet Elijah has been leading the people of Israel by leading the kings, King Ahab and King Ahaziah.

I say all this to remind us of the power struggle that Israel has been under ever since they experienced the exodus from pharaoh. Ever since the Hebrew people followed Moses out of Egypt and across the Red Sea they have been struggling with power. Who has it? Who’s better at having it? Who can lead us because they have it? Who should lead us because they can get it? Who is looking to other gods who might have more power? Does God have enough power? How can we get more power?

The people of Israel continue to be obsessed with power. But what they fail to see when they are so obsessed with power is the ultimate power of God. And this is why Elijah’s job was so difficult, and why his shoes are so hard to fill. The people of Israel were so concerned with immanent power, with the temporary power of one king, or of one nation, that they often failed to see the transcendent and supreme power of God who wanted to lead them, who wanted them to receive the gifts that come with trusting in God’s transcendent power, God’s power that goes far beyond the limits of a political leader or a king.

The role of the prophet during this time was to get Israel to see beyond the illusion of this temporary power of a kingdom, and to see the ultimate reality of God’s power. And in order to do this the prophet had to have extraordinary vision.

The prophet had to have the capacity to create a compelling picture of the desired state of affairs that inspired the Israelites to respond. The prophet desired so much for the people of Israel to trust in God, to put all their power struggles aside and to trust in the transcendent power of God. The prophets had to create a compelling picture of this, a compelling picture of what it looked like to trust in the omnipotent God.

So it’s no wonder that when we meet Elijah and Elisha in the story today, when the role is being passed from one to the other, that the test to see if Elisha is truly worthy of taking up Elijah’s mantle and continuing on with his ministry, it’s no wonder that this test has everything to do with vision. It’s a vision test.

Shortly before Elijah is taken into heaven, he asks Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” And Elisha responds to Elijah asking for a double share of his spirit. Elijah’s response is odd, stating that if Elisha sees Elijah ascend, then this request will be granted, but that otherwise the request will not be granted. But Elijah’s response is not meant to be cryptic and mysterious, rather it is meant to say that it is not Elijah’s decision.

It is not Elijah’s decision how much of the spirit is poured out onto Elisha, rather it is God’s. And it is God’s power that with either grant Elisha this spirit or not. But not before a test. Elisha is tested.

If Elisha is able to see God take Elijah up into heaven, then Elisha will receive that spirit, God will grant that request to Elisha if Elisha has the vision to see this incident. It is a vision test. It is a vision test to see if Elisha can truly see the power of God.

Is Elisha able to see the power of God that takes Elijah into heaven? Is Elisha able to see beyond the notions of power here on earth, and able to see the transcendent power of a God who is powerful beyond measure? Is Elisha able to see past the power of human leaders, and able to look to the power of God? Because if so – if Elisha is able to see this – then Elisha is ready to lead God’s people.

Elijah is taken up into heaven by chariots of and a whirlwind of fire, and Elisha confirms that he has seen this when he shouts out “Father, Father! The chariots of Israel and its horseman!”

Elisha confirms that he is able to see this vision and has passed the test, he has passed the vision test and is ready to lead the people of Israel. Elisha’s confirmation, his passing of the test, indicates that he is able to see past the powers of earth, and that he is truly able to see the power of God. And this means that the Israelite people will be lead by a prophet who is able to see past the powers that they struggle with, they will be lead by a prophet who can see past the political powers, past the power of the kingdom, one who can see the almighty power of God,

Now what does that all have to do with us here at First Christian Church? What does this story about the Hebrew prophets have to say to us? We rarely read the Old Testament, so it’s a valid question, what does this story have to do with us, and our yearning to live more faithfully following the example of Jesus Christ?

These Hebrew prophets, although they are not spoken of very often, have a lot to teach us about vision. We have a vision. We all have a vision for ourselves, for our own faith life, for the spiritual life of our family, and we all have a vision for the church, for what that desired state of affairs is here at FCC. But that vision can always use some inspiration, it can always use some guidance.

So Elisha’s test, Elisha’s vision test before he is able to become the next prophet leading the people of Israel, is a test to see if Elisha can truly see the power of God. Elisha is tested to see if he can look past the powers of the earth, the political powers, the powers of the kings, the powers of the armies, and to see if he can look past all these things to truly see the power of God.

It is similarly a test for us, for our leaders and for us as a community of faith. Are we able to see past the things that prevent us from truly seeing the power of God?

What things do we need to look past? What things are we supposed to look past in our trusting of God, in our faithfulness that God is powerful beyond all measure? What things do we need to look past in order to see the vision of God?

Maybe it’s finances? Maybe we’re supposed to look past the hold that money has over so many of us. We’re constantly talking about money, whether we’re making it, or saving it, spending it, or giving it away, there’s a certain amount of power that money holds over us, and it can prevent us from seeing the power of God. Are we supposed to look past the power of money in our lives trusting that God will provide our every need?

Maybe it’s in our family? Maybe we’re supposed to look past the dis-function of our families, past the frustrations of spouses or children, past the non-traditional set-up of our families, past divorces or separations, past arguments or stresses of this family. If we look past these things, are we truly able to see the family in the Body of Christ?

Maybe it’s the political realm? Maybe we’re supposed to look past the political powers, knowing that even if we disagree with certain leaders, even if we disagree with a mayor, or a governor, or a senator, that we can look past the authority that they exercise knowing that God us ultimately in control?

Or maybe it’s right here in our church? There are things that go on in every church that can cause irritation or dissention. There are stresses in every church that burden the spirit, the weekly offering, worship attendance, the budget and the board. Elisha’s story encourages us to look past these things, to look past these things so that we can see the Spirit of God moving within our congregation.

I want to share with you a poem, Money Refuses the Operation by Lisel Mueller. I’ll only share a few lines from this poem, but I also want to share with you some of the pieces of art to which she is referring, some of the impressionist paintings of Monet.

Monet Refuses the Operation
Doctor, you say that there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don't see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
wisteria separate
from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don't know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent. The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and changes our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.

Monet’s painting requires us to look past a lot. It requires us to look past the individual brush strokes and the individual dots or blots in order to see the work of art that Monet has painted. It requires us to not be so focused on the small individual things, but rather to focus on the bigger picture, the more complete vision of his art.

As does God’s work of art. There are many things in this world that we are required to look past in order to see the true vision of God’s creation – but it is there.

We may be required to look past hunger and poverty, past natural disasters and politics, past disagreements and hatred, but we have the vision to do so. We have the vision to see past these things, because we were given this vision in Jesus Christ.

This doesn’t mean we are supposed to ignore hunger and poverty, natural disasters and politics, past disagreements or hatred. Any psychologist or counselor will tell you that is not healthy. But it does mean that we are to look past them when we are creating a vision for our future.

When we focus on the vision of our future, of our own personal faith vision, or when we focus on the vision of this community of faith we may have to look past some things.

We may have to look past arguments with spouses or with children, but we see the vision of love that God has for our relationships. We may have to look past the power of money in our lives, but we are able to see that God has provided us with everything we need. We may have to look past a wavering budget, or dwindling numbers of volunteers, but we are still able to keep in our sight our vision of this community of faith.

God gives us the vision of love that was created in Jesus Christ. God gives us the vision of justice and righteousness that he expects from his followers. God gives us the vision. God gives us a vision each and every time we come to God in prayer, in concern, in worship, in rejoicing – God gives us a vision of the way our church and our world ought to be – and it compels us to act.

May we the same vision as Elisha – able to see beyond the many distractions of this world – to see the true nature and power of God – and to act because of God’s vision.

Rev. Laura Ann Phillips
First Christian Church of Baton Rouge
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
June 27, 2010

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Life in the in-between...

Hmm... so what's been going on in my life lately?

Summer started out with a bang - I hit the ground running and haven't really stopped yet.  Summer started with the mission trip with FCCBRLA.  If you want to read about the mission trip you can visit the blog dedicated solely to the mission of FCCBRLA at

Right after the mission trip - literally, about 5 hours after it ended I was headed to the airport to go on vacation with my family.  It's been about 6 years since my family took a vacation like this.  I have a feeling vacations like this will continue to be few and far in-between as we all grow older.  It was a great opportunity to relax and spend time with the kids and the family.  My only regret was that it was jam-packed in between so much at "home" and work.  I'm not sure I enjoyed it as much as I could have, but it was great nonetheless!

Between VBS at church and preparing for preaching three Sundays in a row, I've hardly found time to breathe - but here I am.

Here I am.  And I'm feeling apathetic.  It's weird to not have an "end result" to be working towards.  Granted, yes, there are the deadlines that come and go each year, the begining of the school year (youth group), Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, graduation and preparation for summer, Summer, etc, but it's weird to not have a specific "end result" that I'm working toward, like graduation or ordination, or the end of the job search.  It's a hard transition to make, and one I'm still working at.  I can't tell if it's living in the new city and still getting used to that, or if it's just getting used to life where I don't have a "next step."  I've always had a next step.

However, it's weird that I'm frustrated by this.  Because when people ask me what I do for a living and I say that I'm an associate minister I also get questions about how long it will be before I'm a senior minister, or how long I plan to stay in the south etc etc.  But that bothers me.  I don't have an answer.  My ultimate goal is not necessarily to be a senior minister.  My ultimate goal is not necessarily to live here for a specific amount of time and then change.  I'd like to live in the moment, enjoy what I do and work hard toward my current position, but questions like that make it hard to do.  I couldn't see myself doing anything else on a daily basis. And I'd like to enjoy what I do now, without always having to look forward to what's next - why can't I be happy for what I've accomplished now?

This reminds me of something I struggle with in my faith.  Why are we always looking forward to the after-life, to the eternal life?  Granted, I realize this is a lot of what Christianity is for many people - it encompasses all that they live for and all that they have been saved for - but what happens to the now?  Why are we not allowed to live in the moment and to enjoy the life we've been given without guilt?  Because it's not the beautiful life we're living now that reminds us of eternal life - it's the guilt and the sin that plagues us that forces us to look towards a time when sin will be no more.  How do you navigate this middle ground?  How do you live in the here and now striving to live up to the example we have in Jesus Christ without ignoring the notion of eternal life?  Can you successfully live in the in-between?  I know I'm doing my best to live in the interim - but I suppose if others struggle with this transition as well or if I'm the only one?  Based on life experience - I would doubt that I'm the only one.  But it can definitely feel like it sometimes.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Words Have Power

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Granted I haven't read the book that Williamson references, Sarah Palin's book, however I think this is a plea that can be made to all politicians. It can be made to all those who have "power," to all those who use their voice and share their opinions with others. Freedom comes with a lot of responsibility (no that's not the quote from Spider-man, Uncle Ben says with great power comes great responsibility – which is still true but that is for another blog).

Many people – myself included – want all the freedom they can possess, but rarely the responsibility. All the freedom one can possess is quite different than all the freedom one can handle, and all the freedom that one can handle responsibly.

We have the freedom to say almost whatever we wish. And while I disagree with some of the things Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter say, I defend their right to say it. However, I defend their right to share their opinions and enjoy this freedom while also imploring them to use that freedom for good. Call me a bleeding heart liberal, call me na├»ve, call me whatever you want – but speech and actions that do not build up humanity, speech and actions that incite hatred and antipathy cannot build up humankind in any way. A strong word is different than a hateful one. A stark argument is different than a hostile one.

May God send the Spirit among us – that we might learn to see the Divine in one another and to accept others as we have been accepted and loved.

Marianne Williamson's Plea to Sarah Palin: Words Have Power

"Dear Sarah Palin,

I don't share your politics but I do share your country. I am writing to you now as a fellow American and also as a woman who, like you, puts my spiritual journey above all else.

When your book first came out, I knew I had to read it because I felt judgment in my heart that was not in keeping with my religious convictions. I was tempted to think about you in prejudiced stereotypes, and I know that this doesn't jive with "Love one another" or "Judge not lest ye be judged." So I bought your book.

And I liked it. I admire you as a self-made woman who has achieved a lot in your life, and I can see how some unfair criticisms that have been leveled against you could have hurt terribly. I am sorry for that. As a woman from Texas, I recognized your refusal to "sit down and shut up" as the attitude of a kick-ass woman from a kick-ass state. Although I am pro-choice, I felt your spiritual process regarding coming to acceptance and obedience in relation to giving birth to a Down Syndrome child was both inspiring and profound.

When I read your descriptions of liberals in the book -- not just critical, but simply false -- my jaw did drop a couple of times, like I almost thought you must be joking... you couldn't really think that. But I knew my job in reading the book was to beware my own judgments, so I simply read on and tried to ignore your jibes.

I have defended you since reading the book, particularly when others would make fun of your comments about looking to God's Will to guide you. But something is happening now that is so critical to this country, with such genuinely significant repercussions, that I implore you to hear me -- not just as a fellow American, but as a sister who I know prays to the same God that I do: Words have power. Please modify your words.

In my lifetime, we have lost a President, a Civil Rights leader and a Presidential candidate -- all to gun violence. Another President was shot and survived the ordeal, while his press secretary was paralyzed for life. These are not left-right issues; they are not political correctness issues; they are human issues concerning life and death. I am not suggesting you would pick up a gun and shoot anyone; I am suggesting that there are other people who would, however, and in your position as a leading political figure you are stoking fires -- regardless of your intention -- that are simply too dangerous to be safely stoked.

This is not the stuff of media bias. It is the stuff of history -- in the United States and elsewhere. From Hitler's Germany to the arousal of genocidal fervor in Rwanda, there are more than enough examples of how a group psychosis can emerge within a nation. I beg you to join with me -- even though I am not your political ally -- in praying for blessing and protection on all our politicians and their families, and looking deeply within our own hearts for where violence lurks so we can cast it out.

I am speaking from genuine concern for our country -- a concern no more or less meaningful or legal or freedom-loving than your own. I have a pretty tough edge myself, and I don't mince words when it comes to politics. But no one needs to be "re-loading" now, and our political opponents are not "enemy territory." In a free society, we do not have to agree; in fact, that's the point of freedom. "Shoot with accuracy; aim high and remember it takes blood, sweat and tears to win" is a frightening statement, Sarah. It is not funny; it is threatening. There are some crazy people in this country on both sides of the political aisle, and saying such things could incite them to violence that is very real.

Please join with me in turning to a God of Love and not fear, that our country and our world -- and perhaps most importantly, our own hearts -- might be purified of hate. It is love and love alone that will heal our country and heal our world.

Marianne Williamson"

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Personally… Publicly…

Personally – I'm thrilled that President Obama hosted an Easter Prayer Breakfast on Tuesday morning, April 6.

Personally, I'm thrilled, because two amazing women from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) represented our denomination at this prayer breakfast and are helping to "solve" the "issue" of everyone always asking me – "Disciples of Christ… is that non-denominational? Is that a cult?" (OK, so maybe they don't ALWAYS ask me if it's a cult – but it happened once.) Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins and Rev. Dr. Cynthia Hale both represented our denomination among several other religious leaders that spoke at the prayer breakfast on Tuesday morning.

Personally, I'm thrilled to see the President standing in Christian solidarity and honoring the sacrifice that Christ made for all of God's children, that we will not perish but have eternal life. As a Christian minister, I'm thrilled.

But publicly I struggle.

I don't think ANY president should be overtly religious. I want them to be religious – I want them to have a faith life. I hope they are guided by a higher power that directs them in the ways of justice, mercy, compassion and love; the values I find God calling each and every one of God's followers to live out.

But I also value the separation of church and state. I value my freedom to assemble on Sunday morning, my right to worship God in the ways I find significant. I would hate to see a country where I am denied that right, denied the possibility of reading the version of the Bible I find most accurate, or of anyone being denied the right to read the holy book that they choose to follow.

If I wanted to live in an overtly religious country – I could. There are several out there.

But to my knowledge, the first amendment to the constitution, in the bill of rights, states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

In my opinion this means that the government cannot claim that one religion is superior to another, nor can it ascertain that religion in general is preferable over non-religion. So how does a president host so many different religious events at the white house – at the building many associate with the power that the United States represents?

President Obama hosted an iftar, a dinner during the holy month of Ramadan for Muslims. President George W. Bush and President Bill Clinton did the same thing.

President Obama also hosted a Seder meal at the White House.

Personally, as someone interested in the intersection of these three faiths – all of which have their roots in Abraham – all of which celebrate, honor and worship the SAME God – I find these things that the President and the White House are doing very respectable and it gives me great hope.

However, I also recognize that there are Hindus, Buddhists and Taoists, those of the First Nations, pagans, agnostics and atheists that live in this country. I recognize that they deserve the same freedom I do. While I understand that the President holding a dinner at the White House does not directly impinge on their freedom to worship, or not to worship for that matter – I do think that a picture of the most powerful person in the United States, a picture of the power of the United States worshiping might present a problem.

Granted – I'm not asking President Obama and future presidents to leave religion and faith completely out of their lives. In fact I find that almost impossible for a person of faith. If we are people of faith, it is not we who tell others about faith with our mouths, but rather our faith and our relationship with the Divine that informs our decisions and our lives so that we can live out our faith, living our love for God rather than simply talking about it.

But as a citizen of a free nation, which does not require our citizens to believe anything – what is the role of the personal faith of our leaders? How does their faith inform, but not dictate their public actions as serving in a public office? How can we citizens who enjoy this freedom granted by the first amendment rejoice when the President expresses overtly his faith, or when he supports faith, but simply does not offer a banquet for another? If I want to live by and enjoy this freedom – aren't I called to let others live in this freedom too?

Personally, I'm thrilled… Publicly, I'll demonstrate that excitement – but I'll also share my personal wrestling with faith and its role in politics.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I think the myth of the "gay lifestyle" is what most churches get hung up on. It's also what bothers me most. Wait - I take that back. I think SEX is what most churches get hung up on.

Our Young Adult group is reading a book called, "Oh God! Oh God! Oh God! Young Adults Speak Out About Sexuality & Christian Spirituality." It is part of the amazing series, WTF: Where's the Faith? In this book, a man writes about his experience of growing up gay in the church. He pinpoints what I think is the largest problem when he says, "The larger church does not like to talk about homosexuality because the church has never learned to talk in a healthy way about sex in general."

I think deep down many people are afraid to admit that this "gay lifestyle" is quite similar to their own "typical" lifestyle. Whether it be dating, getting married, raising children, discussing retirement, or planning your next vacation - this "gay lifestyle" isn't really what people are troubled by. Because there is no special gay lifestyle - or at least one that I'm not aware of. And this article reminds us of that.

Since we can't pinpoint a "gay lifestyle" as being so different from a heterosexual one, we go to the sexual act itself. And then we don't know what to say. And it's not that we don't know what to say only about homosexual intimacy – it’s that the church doesn't know how to talk about sex in general.

I'm not suggesting - by any means - that we should start preaching sexual acts from the pulpit (although there's plenty of sex in the Bible!) However, if we aren't able to discuss the God-given gift of sexuality in church, in safe settings, with church family and with trained church-leaders - where are we able to talk about it? If we can't teach our youth about sexual relationships and the immense significance of a sexual relationship with another child of God – then where are they going to learn about it?

Myth of the 'gay lifestyle' justifies bias

By LZ Granderson, Special to CNN
April 6, 2010 -- Updated 1858 GMT (0258 HKT)
  • LZ Granderson: Is grocery shopping, getting my son off to school the "gay lifestyle"?
  • Granderson: Nonexistent gay lifestyle keeps up an "us against them" tension
  • Gay rights foes drum up the fear of a link between gay men and pedophilia, he says
  • He writes: Being judged by the content of one's character is a constitutional right
Editor's note: LZ Granderson is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN The Magazine and, and has contributed to ESPN's Sports Center, Outside the Lines and First Take. He is a 2010 nominee and the 2009 winner of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) award for online journalism as well as the 2008 National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA) winner for column writing. 

(CNN) -- On most mornings, my better half wakes up around 5:30, throws on some sweats and heads to the gym before work.

About a half hour later, I wake up my 13-year-old son, go downstairs to the kitchen to make his breakfast and pack his lunch. Once he's out the door, I brew some coffee and get to work.

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you the "gay lifestyle" -- run for your heterosexual lives.

I understand opponents of gay rights must highlight differences in order to maintain the "us against them" tension that's paramount to their arguments. But this notion that sexual orientation comes with a different and pre-ordained way of life -- as if we're all ordering the No. 3 at a drive thru -- only highlights how irrational groups such as Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, the American Family Association and others like them are in this whole debate.

Pro-marriage organizations try to stop two consenting adults from marrying. Pro-family groups try to stop stable couples wanting children from adopting unloved orphans.

And somehow, me doing something like going to the grocery store threatens the very fabric of society, as Oklahoma State Rep. Sally Kern spewed. She says "the homosexual agenda is destroying this nation" and "homosexuality is more of a threat than terrorism." I'm not sure what her idea of a gay lifestyle might be, but with a growing teenager, buying and cooking food dominates my day-to-day.
I don't worship Barbra Streisand, I don't watch any TV show with the word "Housewives" in its title and I love fishing, beer and Madonna. But more important, I'm just a father trying to keep my son away from drugs, get him into college and have a little money left over for retirement. I'm no sociologist but I'm pretty sure those concerns are not exclusive to gay people.

In one of the most pivotal scenes in the biopic "Milk," Harvey Milk, played by Sean Penn, gathers a group of community organizers and activists to come up with strategies to combat a 1978 ballot initiative that sought to ban LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) teachers and their supporters from working in public schools in California. As the small crowd settles down, Milk quickly glances around the room and says ..

"If we're going to convince the 90 percent to give a ---- about us 10 percent, we have to let them know who we are ..."

"What" we are -- be it gay, straight, black, white -- is simply window dressing. "Who" we are is where the substance is, where the person is, where our humanity is.

Too often, discussions about gay people and gay rights focus on sex, as if a person's entire being is defined by his or her Hollywood crush.

This fixation has been the crux behind attempts to link gay men to pedophilia -- from John Briggs, a state legislator from Orange County who introduced the proposed ban on gay teachers in California, to the Catholic League's Bill Donohue, whose recent attempts to excuse the church for its global scandal coverup by seemingly blaming homosexuality -- and it's a tactic that is evil incarnate.

"The vast majority of the victims are post-pubescent," Donohue recently said on "Larry King Live." "That's not pedophilia, buddy. That's homosexuality."
Actually, Bill, sexual predators whose victims are 13- to 17-years-old are called hebephiles -- a la Joey Buttafuoco, Madeleine Martin and Heather Kennedy -- not homosexuals. And that still doesn't explain why the church opted to save face as opposed to, in the words of the infamous anti-gay figurehead Anita Bryant, "Save our children."

Being gay doesn't dictate how people live their lives any more than being straight does. There are gay people who go to church every Sunday and straight people who do not believe in God. There are single gay men who believe in the sanctity of marriage and married straight men who apparently do not -- such as Gov. Mark Sanford, ex-Sen. John Edwards and Sen. John Ensign, to name a few.

The truth is the only thing all gay people have in common -- you know, besides being gay -- is that we face continuous rhetorical, social and legal attacks for simply existing, thus potentially making something as mundane as bringing a date to a work function a fight-or-flee situation.

And yet, even in the face of that discrimination, LGBT people all handle it differently.

Some of us live in the closet, some of us do drag every Wednesday night, some of us are Republicans hoping to be change agents within a conservative sect and some of us are apathetic Democrats too dumb to carry on a conversation about anything other than Lady Gaga.

In other words, we're just as diverse, intolerant, upstanding and tragic as our straight counterparts and unless there is an annual meeting I don't know about, the only item on the much talked-about gay agenda is an abbreviated passage from the Declaration of Independence -- "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

In 29 states, people can be fired simply for being gay regardless of their education, experience or job performance; servicemen and women can be dismissed from the military regardless of their qualifications, dedication and courage; and partners are unable to see their better halves in the hospital regardless of the love, commitment and life they share.

Wanting to be judged by the content of one's character isn't a special right, it's a constitutional one guaranteed by the 14th and 15th amendments.

And yet, 145 years since the abolition of slavery, 90 years since women were allowed to vote and 20 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act, we're still involved in McCarthy-like investigations, holding Briggs-like elections and taking opinion polls based solely upon "what" someone is as opposed to "who" they are.

It's sad. We're such a great nation, still full of great hope and promise and yet we keep being tripped up by ignorance, which leads to fear and then eventually hate. Being gay isn't a choice, but being a bigot certainly is.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.