Monday, December 14, 2015

An Advent Prayer

After a much-too-long hiatus, I'm inspired to write again by the realities of this Advent season. I'm now at an age where my conversations with friends and family are more about pregnancy, babies, and child-rearing than they are about dating and weddings. It's a new stage for many of us, and with that new stage come new prayers. Here is one.

God of Advent Expectancy,
You chose a courageous young woman named Mary to birth your presence and promise into the world. Through her nurture and labor, you became Emmanuel, God-With-Us. And so in this season of anticipation, we pray for all expectant mothers who are preparing to bring your children into the world.

As Mary, nervous about her new condition, fled to the home of her cousing Elizabeth, we pray for all those form whom pregnancy is a frightening prospect. We pray for teenage moms and women with high-risk pregnancies. We pray for first-time mothers, alarmed by nausea and concerned about all the changes that await them. We pray for women who tremble at the prospect of raising their children alone. We pray for women who have struggled with infertility, who worry daily that something will go wrong. Give all these women peace and courage, Lord. Help us to become a community that offers them support and care.

As Mary had to travel to Bethlehem while great with child, we pray for mothers who face travail and danger. We pray for refugee mothers and migrant mothers, who flee violence, war, persecution, and poverty seeking better lives for themselves and their children. We pray for mothers in war zones and areas of conflict, and for those whose homes are places of abuse and fear. We pray for mothers-to-be struggling with nausea and exhaustion, who must carry forth with the tasks at hand without regard for their own health. Strengthen these women, Mothering God, for the challenges they face. Help us to build a world that gives safety and shelter to the vulnerable.

As Mary gave birth in a stable with no midwife, we pray for mothers who lack access to medical care. We pray for women living in places where doctors and medical facilities are unavailable. We pray also for women who cannot afford the care they and their children need. Send your healing Spirit to enfold them. Move in our world to inspire us to care for all in need.

Be born anew in our hearts, Holy One, that we might learn to love as you love and to bear your presence into the world through the good news of Jesus Christ, the Emmanuel. Amen.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Elephant in my Brain

Preaching is a strange animal. It's a big, fuzzy hybrid created by the breeding of the unidentifiable mutt that is my creativity, energy, and intellect with the pedigree Holy Spirit. Perhaps that's why, when someone makes a positive comment about a sermon I've preached, I feel a little like I do when someone tells me that my dog is adorable: I say "Thank you", but it's awkward because I know that I'm not really responsible for what's good about this. I'm very thankful for that hybrid aspect of preaching. It's the only thing that keeps me writing liturgy and standing in pulpits. It's only by the power of the Spirit that I have the confidence to stand up and talk to people, to think that the words coming out of my mouth have value and relevance to the people who will hear them. Please don't misunderstand: I'm nervous every Sunday when I stand up to speak in worship. But I've learned that I can trust the Holy Spirit to show up there, and that helps me get through the anxiety.

That is why, when I'm asked to speak in a totally different context that I get very, very nervous. I don't have the same assurance that God will show up and fill in the gaps. I'm afraid I'll be standing there, in front of a room full of people, with nothing interesting or valuable to say.

That's what I'm afraid will happen this week. Several months ago, I was invited to teach a workshop on worship at an event for our provisional members. (For those of you outside the denominational box I live in, that's pastors who are serving churches but haven't totally finished the ordination process yet.) I was shocked and humbled by the invitation. Of all the pastors in the conference who could have been asked to teach, I was on the short list. I don't feel like I'm necessarily qualified for this honor and responsibility, but I immediately accepted. There are very few things I like better than talking about worship and theology, and this is the perfect opportunity to talk about worship with knowledgeable folks, so it is right up my alley.

Except, of course, that it is public speaking that isn't preaching. And that makes me nervous. I've been pondering what I'll say for weeks now. I've gone through possible presentation formats with my friends and my fiance. I've plotted out an outline for the presentation, then reworked it. I even went into a panic and overplanned possible activities on the off-chance that all of the participants absolutely refuse to take part in the discussion and leave me stuck.

I really, really want this to go well. I want it to go well so I don't look foolish. But, more than that, I want it to go well because provisional members are important and so is worship. These are people just starting their ministry, who will be leading worship in churches for years, probably decades into the future. These are people who have experience and are trying to learn to be even more effective and fruitful in their ministries. I remember--not long ago--when I was a provisional member; I went to these events hoping to learn and leave with helpful strategies and lessons. I don't want to let these provisional members down. And I don't want to let their congregations down. What they learn (or don't learn) will be reflected in the worshiping communities they serve. This is a HUGE responsibility. And I wonder how on earth the powers-that-be selected me to undertake it. Me, a pastor with only 4 years of experience in a church, who just 18 months ago was sitting right where they're sitting now as a provisional candidate--who thought this was a good idea?

While I know that the Holy Spirit will be just as present in this event as she is in the pulpit at my church, this isn't preaching. It feels like a different animal, something wilder, with more mutt and less pedigree. And I'm just praying that it doesn't maul me or bore the class to sleep. That prayer goes something like, "God, please show up and help me out here! Amen."

Sunday, July 14, 2013


Wise people will write wise words about the events of this week. I don't have wise words today. I have tears.

I'm not generally an emotional person. It takes a lot to make me cry. But last night, as I heard about the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, I wept.

I wept for a young man whose life was cut short for no good reason. I wept at laws that allow violence and do not protect unarmed people from being shot without reason. I wept for all the young black men who heard, in a verdict of "not guilty" the subtext: Your life is not valued, your life is not protected, there is no justice for you. I wept for mothers who raise sons knowing that those young men are more likely to be mistrusted, incarcerated, or even killed just because of the color of their skin. I wept for a nation that seems to make so little forward progress on issues of hate and injustice. I wept for systems so steeped in racism that I wonder if we'll ever fix them. I wept for the racism that I know lurks within even me. I wept because, yet again, one beloved child of God has killed another. I wept because I cannot understand it, and because I understand it all too well.

With the tears streaming down my face, I found myself repeating over and over again the words of Psalm 13: "How long, O Lord? [...]
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?" (Psalm 13:2, NRSV)

How long, O Lord?
How long must we go on in this broken world?
How long will we let inequality and prejudice reign?
How long until we see precious children of God instead of skin color?
How long until all people get equal treatment under the law, and in our own minds and hearts?
How long will this violence go on?
How long, O Lord, will my heart be broken?

I do not believe in retributive justice. I don't think that we get any benefit from simply punishing someone. Putting someone in jail in a vengeful attempt to make them suffer as "we" have suffered does not achieve anything. But I believe in restorative justice. I believe in the reconciliation that can come from people taking responsibility for their actions, acknowledging their guilt, and working to repair the relationships that were broken by their actions. In this verdict, no justice was served. George Zimmerman walks away, free, not taking responsibility for the fact that he killed another human being. He does not have to acknowledge his guilt, and there is no process of healing here for him or for the Martin family. Zimmerman gets his gun back, and the Martin family becomes one more angry, hurting family grieving the loss of a child to violence.

And so the cycle continues: Violence breeds further violence. Anger feeds more anger. Broken, hurting people walk wounded through the world, often unintentionally breaking and hurting more people. Without justice, without healing, there is no end to the cycle.

How long, O Lord?
How long, America?
How long?

Friday, April 19, 2013

Bad News Week

It has been a rough week. In Boston, bombs at a marathon wounded more than a hundred people and killed 3. In Iraq, a bomb in a coffee shop killed 27 people and injured dozens more. In West, Texas a fertilizer plant exploded killing thirteen people and destroying homes and buildings. A massive manhunt closed the city of Boston. There was an earthquake in Pakistan, and violent fallout from an election in Venezuela. Here in Richmond, we heard the announcement that Freedom House is closing after almost 30 years of caring for those most in need in our community—closing not because there are no longer people in need of food and shelter in Richmond, but because they do not have the financial support they need to stay open. And that’s to say nothing of the ongoing problems of violence in Syria and tensions with North Korea that were bumped to the back burner by stories of destruction closer to home.

With all that going on, I didn’t want to write a sermon this week. I didn’t want to try to create anything, or do anything. I just wanted to pray, to cry out to God in anger and frustration, to read the news and weep for the victims, the survivors, and a world where such horrible things happen every day. I sat staring at the blinking cursor on my blank computer screen for HOURS.

Then I started to snap out of it. I remembered that the very reasons that I don’t want to write this sermon are the reasons that we, my congregation and community, need to have the word of God proclaimed. It’s when we’re surrounded by this sort of pain and brokenness that we most need the healing and restoration that God gives in worship, in prayer, and in Scripture. It’s when the bad news seems to be everywhere that we most need God’s good news to shore us up and spur us to action.

Yes, terrible things happen. There is bad news. There is suffering, violence, disease. There are unjust trials and crucifixions. But they are not the end. Those things do not get the last word. After the long night there is dawn. After destruction there is recovery. After torture, suffering, and death there is resurrection.

Yes, there were people who planted bombs in a coffee shop in Iraq and at the marathon in Boston. But there were also people who came running to help. There were more people who offered their help and their prayers than there were people who caused this destruction.

This is the Easter season. This is the season when we remember that a horrific death on a cross was overcome by an empty tomb. This is the season when disciples who denied Christ get a chance to proclaim their love for their Savior. This is the season when we face down death and rejoice, trusting that life is more powerful than death, that hope is more powerful than despair, that good will ultimately overcome evil—because that is the victory Christ has given, and that is the kingdom of God that has been promised. Thanks be to God!

Monday, April 15, 2013

One of Those Days

Today is one of those days. It's not that it's been a bad day for me, personally. My day in my neatly insulated world has been fine. No, today is one of those days when there's a voice nagging at the edge of my consciousness telling me that all is not well.

Today the local news affiliates are reporting that the Freedom House, one of this small city's homeless shelters, is closing. The Freedom House opened in 1983, and has served 83,000 meals since then. They have provided temporary shelter and helped people transition to permanent housing. You can learn more about their powerful work here. But without the necessary financial support to keep its doors open, this organization that provides warm meals to the hungry, safe housing to those without shelter, and transitional housing to help people on the road to self-sufficiency is going to close at the end of the month.

Today, too, an Op-Ed piece from yesterday's New York Times is circulating my social networks. The piece, found here, was dictated to a NYTimes reporter by a detainee at Guantanamo Bay named Samir. Samir describes the confinement he has endured for the last 11 years without trial. Arrested at age 24, he has had no opportunity to see his family in 11 years and, with right to trial suspended for "enemy combatants", he has no idea when he might be free again. He writes of being trapped with no hope of release, and of being force-fed when he attempted a hunger strike to resist this loss of liberty and human rights.

There is something deeply broken here. There is something very wrong in a society where we cannot bring ourselves to provide food for the hungry and shelter for the homeless here in our own community, but we invest in holding and feeding men and women against their will thousands of miles away. There is something wrong with our idea of what it means to be human. We are a country that promises the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," but we allow our own citizens to die of hunger and exposure. We drag people halfway across the world into prisons, deny their freedoms, and forbid them even the escape of death. How does that in any way promote life or liberty, much less happiness?

It's sad and sick and sinful. And what makes my heart break the most is that I haven't done anything about it. These things are happening around me, and I haven't even tried to stop them. I know about Freedom House, but I have never actually been there. Our church youth collect money for them every year with our Souper Bowl Sunday, but aside from that small annual donation, we haven't done anything to help with this organization's vital work. I've read about the conditions at Gitmo and the human rights abuses of holding people without trial and without hope. I celebrated when, in 2009, President Obama signed the order to close Gitmo. But haven't kept careful track of the situation, I haven't utilized any of the avenues open to me as a U.S. citizen to speak for the prisoners whose right to speak for themselves has been stripped away.

There are men and women, people created and loved by God, who are hungry, who are homeless, who are in need, and I have done nothing. There are men and women, people created and loved by God, who have been taken captive and silenced, and I have done nothing. I follow the Christ who came to preach good news to the poor and proclaim release to the captives (Lk 4:18), and I have done nothing.

I have put on my privileged American blinders and ignored my brothers and sisters in need. I have stayed in my comfortable, insulated world and pretended that I didn't know better.

But not today. Today the Spirit is tugging at my soul, refusing to let me pretend that everything is fine. Today is one of those days, and I cannot sit by and do nothing.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

To the End

I always get stuck on the sermons for the big church holy days. Holy Thursday is no exception. This year I wrote the starts to three separate sermons before finally settling into the groove and finishing my sermon for tomorrow. But, even though this one didn't make the cut for worship tomorrow night, something about it intrigues me. So, here you have it: A meditation I'm not preaching tomorrow.

John 13:1: “Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. She’d married a strong, smart, capable man. And they’d enjoyed decades of marriage, they’d raised a family, and life had been, not perfect, but beautiful. But then the Alzheimer’s took over. His memory faded, his personality shifted, some days he didn’t even seem like the same man. But still she cared for him. She prepared his meals, she helped him dress, she even bathed him. He had forgotten, but she hadn’t. And she loved him to the end.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Jesus had chosen good, faithful, courageous disciples. He’d taught them and allowed them to witness his healings, his miracles, even his raising of Lazarus. They’d fished together and walked miles side-by-side. But they still didn’t understand. They grew scared when the storm came, they misinterpreted his teachings, some days he couldn’t believe that these were his disciples. But still he cared for them. He prayed for them, welcomed them to his Passover feast, he even washed their feet. They misunderstood, but he didn’t. And he loved them to the end.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. God created the world and everything in it good. God made humans in the divine image, shaped a perfect natural world, and shared a perfect relationship with creation. But we chose to sin, to walk away. We harmed one another, we damaged God’s perfect creation, we broke God’s heart, some days we didn’t even seem like the same people. But still God cared for us. God let us out of slavery, sent the prophets to lead us, reached out again and again. God even came down to live with us so that we might understand, to die our death, that we might live God’s life. We sinned, but God remained steadfast. And God loves us to the end.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Finally Found What I'm Looking For

Five years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Middle East. I spent three weeks traveling through Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Israel, and Greece with seminary students and some really awesome laity. While we were in Jerusalem, we had the opportunity to do a little shopping in the markets. Several of us went to a little store with lovely hand-embroidered textile products, where we found stoles for sale. I purchased two stoles, one for the pastor of my home church, and one for myself. It was a bit of a gamble, purchasing a stole for myself before I'd even finished seminary, but I decided there would be no better place to get a stole than in the place where Christianity began.

I took the stole back to Atlanta with me. But as I began writing my commissioning papers, I started getting anxious. It's an arduous process, and many candidates get delayed or even removed entirely. I was worried, and the stole seemed like too much pressure. I was afraid I'd never get to wear it. So I hid it from myself. I stashed it in a box and put it out of my mind.

I passed my provisional interviews, moved to Virginia, and started serving a church. As a provisional elder, though, I did not have the authority to wear a stole. For three years, I led worship in a plain robe. After three years of ministry, I was finally eligible to apply for ordination. I wrote another set of papers, survived round of interviews, and was recommended for ordination. I was ecstatic, and I knew I'd finally get to wear the stole from Jerusalem. Except, I couldn't find it.

I am, apparently, very good at hiding things from myself. I searched everywhere in my apartment. I had my parents search my room at their house. For months, I couldn't find it. I got ordained and had the opportunity to wear stoles for each liturgical season: Green for ordinary time, purple for Lent, white and gold for Christmas. But each communion Sunday, I would think of that Jerusalem stole. I would wonder where I'd put it and wish I could wear it. After almost nine months, I gave up the search.

Then, this week, several of my friends passed their ordination interviews. I spent this evening celebrating with one of them. When I got home, I had an epiphany. I remembered one last place where the stole might be. I looked in a closet, in a box within a box, and THERE IT WAS! Apparently, the stole was waiting for my friends to be approved for ordination.

So this Sunday, FINALLY, after five years of waiting, I'll get to wear my Jerusalem stole. I'll preside at the table wearing my much-anticipated white communion stole. And I must say, I'm pretty excited about that.