Sunday, December 14, 2014

Anyway, Rejoice

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. [I Thessalonians 5:16-18]

This is a blog of obligation. I wanted to write something for every Sunday in advent, and I even had some ideas, but it's been a rough weekend and I'm not feeling like following through.

But I'm confronted with the above verse from this morning. Circumstances aren't that important in the grand scheme of things.

So, anyway, rejoice.

It's that Sunday in advent, actually. Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of advent. We rejoice especially this day as we're halfway to Christmas and the Lord's coming. My priest this morning told us that Paul wrote the above to the Thessalonians because they were expecting the return of Jesus immediately, but it was getting to be a long wait and some people were dying and what did that mean? Paul was basically saying, Jesus will take care of that and it's not for you to be anxious about.

So, anyway, rejoice.

I made a note of something else my priest said. Discernment brings conflict. She's referring to decisions we need to make as a congregation and how we're not going to agree, and cited historical incidents in the life of this congregation of other such moments of discernment. I also heard it personally, as a warning and lesson about some things I'm trying to discern (always trying to discern) and how I feel more combative than usual. I'm seldom combative. My default setting is to avoid conflict. I don't know what this means. Discernment goes on.

So, anyway, rejoice.

I've been asked to do something I don't want to do, potentially a big commitment. It's a good and maybe even necessary thing to be done, but it makes my stomach hurt. Also, I'm in conflict with someone I love very much. I don't feel very good about myself.

So, anyway, rejoice.

Moods come and go. Rejoicing is the work before us. Sundays, we do liturgy---the work of the people. But always, we have before us rejoicing and prayer and thanksgiving. It's our daily work. Some days, the work goes better than others.

So, anyway, rejoice.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Forerunning

Today, we heard from Isaiah 40 and the appropriation of it by John the Baptizer.

It's a mixed message to my eye. Prepare the way of the LORD, to which we might reply "Yes, come, Lord Jesus." Then there is all this talk of people being grass, withering away in a day.

Well, the Bible isn't the book if you want soft-pedaled encouragement.

Yet, Isaiah 40 starts with the words, "Comfort, O comfort my people." I tend to latch onto those words, some of my favorite in all scripture. The hard stuff was hard (even double than you deserved!) but now God calls to us, tenderly.

Isaiah was talking about the end of exile. John used the same words to talk about the coming of Jesus. Long waiting was over, both proclaimed.

Both were proclaiming the end of the wait to the latest generation of waiters. A lot of grass had withered away in the waiting.

I tend to be in the group of people who, while waiting, call out with the psalmist, "How long?"

We wait on the coming of the Lord, for the word of comfort, for the release even as we feel the withering coming on in our bones. Yes, we wait.

But with John, we also prepare. We smooth out some rough spots, make a road easier to travel. In reading the Isaiah passage today, I realized the English translation doesn't really make it clear if the "way of the LORD" is for the LORD's traveling or for our traveling. Perhaps it's clearer in the Hebrew, but I'm pretty sure we're always expecting that it's a road for God's approach. Tonight, I'm wondering if it's preparation for weary travelers to have easier access to the "glory of the LORD."

In this way, it seems to me, we are all, with John, forerunners for a meeting with God.

Those of us who are followers of Jesus, who claim some encounter with the Good News, are likewise called to lead, I think. Or that's what's on my mind tonight. In what ways do I serve God by making a rough patch smoother? In what ways do I go before Jesus (can a follower of Jesus go before Jesus? ah, language and its tensions!) and prepare the way for a weary traveler to meet my Lord?

Perhaps this is not something we can know. This morning we also heard these words from 2 Peter: " . . . that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day." Waiting and fulfillment are not on our schedule, but the promise is there and anyway keep about the work of preparing a way for a meeting between God and people we may never know.

Comfort is not out of reach.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Once Again, the Imago Dei

EDIT: I wrote and posted this yesterday in a bit of a rush of anger and immediacy. In a cooler head, it's clear I'm addressing white people, and the language is definitely about black people, which can become objectifying. Still, I'll let it stand as another piece of me struggling with racism and my own assumptions and privilege. -neo

Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them. [Ecclesiastes 4:1]

As a boy, I was taught to be afraid of the black boys at school. Not relentlessly, not in even particularly forcefully or in relentlessly fear-inducing ways. But the lesson was there. 

I know I'm not alone. 

I know this lesson is costing the lives of black boys and men and the news is full of it lately, and the lives are lost without consequence to the takers. 

Today, it was decided that there was no need to prosecute a a NY police officer for using lethal force against an asthmatic who couldn't breath. 

I've written before: stop being afraid of each other. 

If you've read many of these posts at all, you know how central the Imago Dei---the Image of God in which we all are made---is to my theology. 

I know this little blog just isn't going to change the world and I know that anything more that I have to say on it is not going help. 

Still . . . it's what I have in this minute. Stop being afraid of one another. Search each other for the Image of God. 

Here, I did a Google image search on "groups of black men." Here's a screen shot to help you. Look at these men (and some boys) and pray over each face, each body: Here is the Image of God, here is God's own child and worthy of respect and honor. I will no longer default to fear when I meet the Image of God.

It feels so weak to the the enormity of the problem. But do it.


 (I do not know any of the men in this picture or even the source of any of the pictures. If the owner of any of these pictures would like this removed, please let me know at neilellisorts at yahoo dot com and I will comply immediately. I simply did not want to speak in the abstract this time. Also, to see a larger version of the image, you can click it and it will expand.) 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

#staywoke

 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ [Mark 13:32-37]

It was impossible for me to hear this passage this morning in church without thinking about the current hashtag being used in social media, #staywoke. I'm not always savvy about how and where these things begin, but it appears to be in reference to the debacle in Ferguson, Missouri, and how the shooting of Michael Brown wakes us up again. It is an imperative to not fall asleep again, a cry about the the importance of vigilance. (It has also been misused and abused by some would-be wits out there, but if you look it up on Twitter, just be aware that some people are not on board with this. I started to say some people need to be ignored, but that's sort of like falling asleep again, no?)

It's the first Sunday in Advent, the season of watching, waiting, expecting, dreading . . . We like to think of it as the season preparing us for the baby Jesus, meek and mild, but we also like to fool ourselves. Yes, we are waiting for our Savior. Yes, we are waiting for the Christ to come and set us free. We don't do very well with expecting the Christ to also set free those other people over there, the ones we maybe don't like so much or maybe we just don't think deserve to be free as much as we deserve to be free.

The dreadful thing about this Christ is that there is no freedom in him until all are free.

I admit, I have a hard time even imagining what that could possibly mean or look like, but I believe it is true. And while I can probably run down a few ways that I am bound and chained and restricted, stepping outside of my circumstance now and then I find there are surprising ways that other people are chained, ways that other people are restricted that I've never imagined.

Worse, there are ways that others are bound that benefits me.

The Reign of God breaks in when that system is broken.

Yesterday, a friend posted on Facebook, "All change is perceived as loss." I clicked "like" and pondered it longer than most Facebook status updates. The Reign of God breaking into the world, into our systems and our social norms, will find some people losing. Not lost, but losing in ways that right now probably seem unlikely and afterwards inconsequential. Power, wealth, status . . . some will lose these things when the Reign of God breaks in. But none will be lost.

The thing about the Reign of God, I've come to believe over the years, is that it is not a one-time, end-times sort of scenario. It is happening right now, right here. We have to repent of our power-weatlh-status hunger and see the abundance that we all can share. We have to stay awake and see the ways the humble power of the Incarnate God moves among us. We have to stay awake, #staywoke, to see where our loss is our salvation, and the salvation of others.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving, 2014

Psalm 95
1 O come, let us sing to the Lord;
   let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
   let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!

I find it a somber Thanksgiving Day, really. The news out of Ferguson, Missouri, and the resultant conversations and non-conversations have left me in something of a lamenting mood more than a thanksgiving mood.

And so I am thankful I have been called to a religion that has a deep tradition for both.

In a bit, I'll be picked up ant taken to some friends' home, where I'll eat and be thankful for them, and for the abundance in my life they are and more broadly represent.

And I do have an abundant life.

Navigating the world of abundant blessings and deep sadness is, it seems to me, today, a good definition for a life of faith.

May your thanksgivings be many, your laments few, and may both move you into the world.

Happy Thanksgiving. 


Saturday, November 15, 2014

Discipling/Disciplining

Disciple and discipline obviously have the same roots. One who is a disciple follows the discipline of a teacher or other leader.

I feel terribly undisciplined. I was telling this to an artist friend a few months ago and she said, "but you're always producing something, you must be disciplined enough to do that work."

True enough, I suppose. I publish some writing regularly (my novella Cary and John published this past summer, a short story in a new anthology, a dance preview this week, and a few pieces out to journals here and there). I've done a lot less performance this year (took a break, haven't quite broken the fast), and yet I'm directing a very short play to go up with some one-acts at the university where I work and plotting other things for next year. These things don't just happen without actually exercising some sort of regular practice. I suppose that much is true.

But it feels haphazard. The writing is often in short snippets (on the bus, primarily) and the performance-making is often interrupted by more than my own taking a break.

But of course, what's on my mind is more than my creative endeavors.

Prayer. Charity. Sleep and other rest. (I'm writing this even as I should be in bed.) Reading, even study. Heck, laundry and dishes.

But mostly prayer.

I like to think I'm a disciple of Jesus, a follower of this master teacher. And Jesus spent some time in prayer. It's how he discerned his Father's leading. Or so it seems at least some of the time.

And, you know, Jesus ended up pissing off powerful people and getting killed.

Recently, as I'm making feeble and failing efforts for a more disciplined prayer life, I find the most honest prayer I have is, "I'm a little afraid of you and what you might lead me into" and "I kind of don't trust you."

It's a prayer form that I know I can't stay in for very long. I know this will get me no where. And, in fact, I find myself already shifting it to "show me what you want" and "help me trust you.:"

But it's a start, yes? It's a place to re-enter a discipline that once, honestly, gave me life and hope and freedom. I'm hoping that re-entering this discipline (however feebly and failingly) restores some of that life, hope, and freedom.

All of which to say, I think we enter where we can, where our honesty and integrity require us to enter. There may be better or worse ways to do this, but we do it as we're able and maybe that's not a wrong way.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Good to Come, Better to Go: An Encouragement to Queer Christians

This blog post is offered as part of the 2014 Synchroblog event, sponsored by QueerTheology.com.

Some years ago, I was in a church council meeting, and I guess we were talking about evangelism or some related topic.

At that time I was working in retail, among predominantly unchurched and nonreligious coworkers. I'd never hid my church life, neither did I ever press my coworkers about their faith or lack of it. This kept the workplace pleasant but sometimes also led to religious conversations that I didn't instigate. Once in a while someone would say they might try church again someday, and I'd give them the worship times at my congregation, but that's usually as far as it went. I might hear attitudes of disdain for all things religious or I might experience some mild bemusement that a gay man would be so religious, but overwhelmingly, most just didn't perceive a need or interest in church attendance, much less membership. Church simply wasn't a concern for them.

I related most of this at that council meeting and then asked, "Most of you have secular jobs, surely you have unchurched colleagues. What do you hear?"

I was met with blank stares. Understanding that some work environments allow for religious chitchat more than others, it became apparent that most of my fellow council members hadn't even thought about having conversations like this at their work.

+ + + + +

At another council meeting, we were discussing possibly steering the congregation toward making a public statement of welcome to LGBT folk, thereby joining a network of congregations that did so. It was not the first time we'd had this conversation and the man cover question/resistance to it was, Why do we need to make a specific statement about gay people? We welcome everyone!": 

That night I pushed back a little bit harder than usual. I said, "Do you see any news items about gay rights? Who is blocking gay marriage? Who is protesting pride parades? It's not secular organizations, it's religious organizations and churches. Unless you say specifically, 'LGBT folk are welcome here,' you look no different from any other church that is protesting the gay pride parade.:" 

One member asked, "Why is it our responsibility to do something for them if they're going to judge us before they even try us?" 

I replied, "You can sit there and feel defensive about being judged unfairly all you want, but your defensiveness doesn't change the fact that you are indistinguishable from the Westboro Baptist Church unless you make the first move." 

While that congregation eventually did make a public statement of welcome, it was a year or more after I had left it. 

+ + + + +

More recently, there was a gathering of clergy at which they were to discuss how to talk to the "nones," the growing demographic of people who claim no religious affiliation. They hit upon the idea that maybe they could get a panel of "nones" to answer questions from the gathered church leaders. 

There was one problem: None of the people planning the event knew anyone who didn't already go to church. 

Eventually, they got together a panel (thinks in part to one of my clergy friends who is active in her community, beyond her congregation's campus), but the point was driven home---Christians and Christian leadership aren't very proactive in getting to know anyone who isn't already one of us. We want people to come to church, but we aren't very good at going to them. 

Oh, and another thing? Almost half of that panel turned out to be queer folk. 

+ + + + +


We who have been condemned by the institution and nonetheless can't help but answer the call of grace, can't help but respond to the Good News of the Reign of God manifesting at hand are a sign and a wonder to those who want nothing to do with religion. And yet, we have the experience of knowing why someone would not want to be part of the church. We have experienced first hand the ways the church does not work.

When I think of the gifts LGBT people might bring to the church, one is this understanding, this awareness that not all things that come out of the Christian tradition are helpful, that some are downright harmful. Hopefully, we maintain our unchurched friendships better than most Christians, hopefully we listen with more empathy and care to the stories of those bleeding from wounds inflicted by the church. Hopefully, more than most, we are able to listen without offering platitudes or prescriptions for overcoming those hurts---hopefully, we know that it is the working of the Holy Spirit to bring us into the Body of Christ, not the arguments of other Christians who have had a better time within the church.

I say "hopefully," because it is so easy to become complacent once we are "in." Really, that's what is happening in the stories at the top of this essay. It's easy to become so involved in church life that we become salt without flavor, light hidden under a basket. I've been there and if you've been part of the church for any length of time, it's possible you have, too.

So my call to you this day is that if you recognize yourself in the people who don't have conversations with "nones," or if you want to be defensive and have the wounded make the first move toward reconciliation----Turn away from this behavior. The Reign of God is not found there.

Coming to church, and inviting others to come to church, is good and we shouldn't stop. I'm just saying we can't stop there. We have to go out among people not like us and be that sign and wonder that is in our power to be.

____________________
[ My novella, Cary and John, is now available on Amazon.com or from the publisher.]