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Approaching Lent

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APPROACHING LENT

Lent starts this week, which I know is very exciting news to you. OK, maybe not.

I’m probably one of the few people who actually likes Lent. After all, it’s still so dark this time of year, and Christians insist on saying things like, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Really? We *know* that, thank you very much, and we expend plenty of effort trying to forget it. And then to add insult to injury, they smear ashes on your face!

Those Jesus people also talk about Lenten “repentance and sacrifice” and — ACK! — SIN. That whispered word and the shame with which it’s been imbued by some church traditions is probably the reason a lot of people reject religion altogether. I know it was the reason my mother did.

“No man who doesn’t even know me is going to stand up there and tell me I’m a sinner. I’m a perfectly nice person,” she would say. And so she was.

But the word “sin” — despite being used as a weapon to manipulate people and strike fear into their hearts — really only means “to miss the mark.” That’s not so bad, right? It means we’re not all we could be, and even my Mom could have owned that truth.

For me, Lent is a time of great hope and expectation, because we get to press the re-set button. It’s a time to intentionally step back and take stock of our lives and decide how we want to change. It can be humbling to admit how much we “miss the mark,” yet it’s empowering to know that we have the power to change, if we have the will.

So I look forward to Lent, beginning with Lenten “eve” on Shrove Tuesday, when I’ll gather with a group of friends for an overly large pancake dinner and bid farewell to my usual state of denial as I begin to “return to the Lord to examine and probe my ways.” (Lamentations 3:40)

Who am I, that you are mindful of me?

Who am I, that you are mindful of me?

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Apologies if I Offend, but I’m Offended

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As with all religions, I believe there’s a lot about Catholicism that’s good, quite a bit that’s questionable, and a few aspects that make me shudder. If I were a Catholic, my personal crusade (now there’s a shudder for you) would be organizing my fellow parishioners against the rule that non-Catholics aren’t allowed to take communion in their church. I mean, really — remember Jesus? Come-unto-me, God-loves-everyone Jesus? Perhaps with Pope Francis in the Vatican, there would be a chance.

I went to a Catholic funeral mass this morning. After a long ninety minutes, it came time for the eucharist. The priest got up, sang a nice chant, and said “For you Christians who aren’t Catholic, unfortunately, we are not able to share communion with you. During this time please be praying for unity in the church.” Unity in the church? WHAT??

When presented with this situation over the years, I have gone forward and pretended to be Catholic, watching others so I’d know how to cross myself. I have rebelliously walked down the aisle and taken communion in all my non-Catholic glory, daring the priest with my eyes to refuse me. I have gone forward and received a blessing, something that some Catholic churches offer for those of us not good enough for their communion wafers. I have stayed in my seat, sometimes stewing in resentment, sometimes quietly praying, depending on the day. I have excused myself and gone to the restroom.

Today I was already angry because the priest had just finished explaining that Heaven is for God and for the people that God loves. Again: WHAT??? Only one way to hear that: God loves some of us, but not others. You can believe whatever you like about Jesus, an after-life, heaven & hell, whatever. But you don’t get to say that God only loves certain people. Purple robes and incense notwithstanding. God IS love, just IS, so how could God NOT love?

So I couldn’t help it, when the priest declared my unfitness for the Lord’s supper, which Jesus himself asked his friends to always share together in remembrance of him, I sat in my pew and rudely shook my head for all to see. It’s just wrong, and Catholics should rebel against it.

After that, I sat quietly and prayed that God would heal my anger and pettiness, the church’s hubris, and all people — all of us.

All are welcome in these seats, not matter what the guy in the purple robe says.

All are welcome in these seats, no matter what the guy in the purple robe says.

I Wish You Joy! (And Maybe Merry Christmas.)

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I wish you joy this Christmas day, whether or not you celebrate Christmas, whether or not you consider yourself a Christian, whether or not you get angry if someone wishes you a Merry Christmas.

Mind you, I am not wishing you a Merry Christmas, unless you would like me to, in which case, I wish you the merriest of Christmases! Otherwise, I wish you joy: big, robust, impossible-to-resist joy.

Of course, being a follower of Jesus, I consider the Christmas message and the state of joy very closely related. The bible says — and my experience is — that when you are truly connected to the spirit of God, you will experience complete joy, along with love and peace and patience all kinds of other good stuff that you can’t buy and wrap up in packages.

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The Joy of Jesus

Throughout the Bible, Jesus brought joy wherever he went, beginning with the Christmas story. Angels heralded his arrival as tidings of great joy to all people, lowly shepherds celebrated, and the magi were overjoyed at the star over Bethlehem.

Later, Jesus hung out at big dinner parties with “undesirables,” celebrated at weddings, and cooked out on the beach with friends. He turned water into wine at a wedding party, and when faced with hungry crowds of thousands, he handed out endless bread and fish, showing that God’s abundance and capacity for celebration never runs out. His enemies even accused him of being a glutton and a drunkard! Despite being homeless and hated by many, Jesus surely knew how to bring joy.

laughing jesus

Imagine the joy that followed this guy as he healed people from every kind of brokenness and illness. He told them to leave their baggage behind, to go and be free from shame. He freed people bound by unhealthy exclusive religion, releasing them from legalistic rules and toxic preconceived notions about God.

The Non-Joy of Too Many “Christians”

That’s why it’s so sad that today, many people who consider themselves Christians (never mind that Jesus didn’t come to establish a religion) have lost their joy and put themselves back into bondage. They appear to believe it’s their job to judge other people in a serious, somber, and sometimes angry manner, constantly warning about the wages of sin. An Onward Christian Soldier attitude: life is a battle, suit up. Attack!

How is that reflecting Jesus? Even at Christmas, these people wage a campaign of negativity and victimhood and resentment: “There’s a war on Christmas, poor us!” Trust me, I know what it’s like to have your faith mocked, to have your beliefs attacked, to feel belittled by people you love, behind your back and on Facebook.

But Christians: get over it. You shouldn’t become part of this divisiveness. Pray that you would be filled with love and compassion and forgiveness, not pettiness. The peace of Jesus doesn’t come from this world, and our joy does not depend on other people.

Followers of Christ should be leading a counter-cultural campaign of joy against the darkness and division in the world, not an angry pity party.

I saw a bill-board in Pennsylvania yesterday: a big “Happy Holidays” crossed out and “Merry Christmas” written over the top of it. Really? REALLY?

Jesus-filled people should be wishing everyone joy in a way that brings joy, not in an aggressive way intended to make people angry. How dumb (or worse, mean-spirited) is that? The joy of Jesus is not an exclusive joy or a joy that creates divisions; it comes from love, not anger or fear.

love thy neighbor

Party On!

Here’s the thing: There’s a cosmic party going on, and everyone belongs! It’s a joyful place right here, right now, not just in some puffy, pink-clouded after-life, and it is much stronger than the dark side of the Force. Jesus called it the “Kingdom of God,” and he said that everyone is welcome.

That’s what I’m celebrating at Christmas: There’s an open door, come on in. Just ignore those misguided, cheerless “Christians” in the corner. Celebrate with the rest of us!

Joy to the world! And joy to you, no matter where you are in your spiritual journey.

What’s the Motive for the Mass Shootings on Twitter?

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WHAT’S THE MOTIVE FOR THE MASS SHOOTINGS ON TWITTER?

There’s been a mass shooting! Let the games begin! Grab your word-weapons of choice and get to your Twitter battle stations!

Although the San Bernardino murder venue is particularly disturbing — a facility for people with disabilities — a mass shooting isn’t unusual anymore: we’ve had more mass shootings in 2015 than we have had days.

What is shocking to me, though, is the virtual bloodshed, which is every bit as hate-filled as the bullet and bomb-induced bloodshed. I’m not a huge Twitter person; I’m too addicted to Facebook to spend much time tweeting. I tweet a photo or a link once in a while.

Yesterday was the first time I monitored Twitter for any length of time. Wow. America is even sicker than I thought, which is saying quite a bit.

Someone to Blame

I first got on Twitter yesterday to sarcastically point people to the National Rifle Association’s website, where for twenty-five bucks you can join up and get a free copy of their magazine Freedom, the cover emblazoned with the words: The Catastrophic Consequences of Gun Registration. You can also purchase their lovely holiday cards featuring bald eagles and American flags and a special cute puppy collection.

I admit spewing at the NRA — as evil and culpable as they are — wasn’t a particularly helpful contribution, but it made me feel better. I felt angry and powerless and needed someone to blame.

I was surprised to instantly have scads of people liking and re-tweeting my little jab at the NRA. Weird. So I scrolled. And scrolled. Oh. My. God.

Right-Wing Rage

#He’s a Muslim! is trending big-time. The RWNB (right wing nut-balls, for those not in the know) are ecstatic that the killer is #notawhiteguy and has a “funny name” and is probably a terrorist, so of course this has nothing to do with gun control.

Except, except – didn’t they use guns? Wouldn’t it be better if terrorists couldn’t get multiple guns legally at Walmart? Oh, no matter. #He’s a Muslim! It’s not #2nd amendment!

We quickly go from accusations of a #mediaconspiracy to hide the guy’s funny name to protect #radicalIslamists, to Syrian refugees being behind it all. And of course, our president.

Barack Hussein Obama

Barack Hussein Obama

“See?” tweets one RWNB, “Now Barack Hussein Obama has a whole army of Syrian illegal aliens.”

Jesus Christ, have mercy on us.

Liberal Rage

And speaking of Jesus Christ — just as nasty as the conservative racism and hatred of Muslims is the liberal vitriol and outrage at the people actually PRAYING about this. Praying, for pity’s sake! What an abomination!

#stoppraying is becoming a popular hashtag. “What a waste! Don’t pray, do something!” is the sentiment. “Praying to an imaginary friend is what causes these shootings!”

This puts me, an unabashed liberal whose first impulse is nevertheless to pray, in an awkward position. I know liberals aren’t supposed to pray these days, it’s bad form. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela are just so . . . yesterday.

But clearly, humans on their own can’t solve these problems. We have a deep soul-sickness. We are destroying our own planet, for God’s sake! Do we not need a power greater than ourselves?

I know that the liberals are angry and lashing out at hypocritical right-wing politicians who say they are praying, tell others to pray, and then fight gun control with every blessed breath they’ve got. But really, liberal friends. Get a grip. People praying is not the problem.

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Making Sense of the Soul-Sickness

I happen to believe that only the Great Good Spirit can change hearts and teach love and unity instead of fear and division. Until the hate and fear stop, the carnage — both the virtual and the flesh & blood – isn’t going to stop.

So I’m going to pray. #Excusethehelloutofme. And I’m going to work to pass gun control legislation. And I’m going to try not to judge or hate people who disagree with me.

All of these unfortunate rage-filled tweeters are really just trying to make sense of this soul-sickness. We are all trying to understand, to find someone to blame, to fit these atrocities into our narratives of reality. It’s Muslims! It’s religious people! Too many guns! Not enough guns! It’s liberals/conservatives/right/left! It’s starving, frightened Syrian refugee children!

See, if we can explain it — no matter how big a stretch we make — maybe we can control it. Maybe it won’t happen to someone we love. Or to us.

Advent Happens, Love Happens

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I’m happy lately, feeling as if I’m in the zone, using my gifts, and helping people. And you can’t beat that.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve rededicated myself to a regular practice of prayer and meditation over the past few months. Last week, I gave a sermon about “becoming prayer” — prayer not so much as something you do, but as a state of being.

In the interest of practicing what I preach, and having learned that pastoral work is more about being a centered, compassionate human being than it is about book learnin’ and fancy words, I am dedicating myself this Advent to truly reaching for God’s heart, opening myself to that spirit of love that comes only through prayer.

The love that keeps going through the darkness, the love that never folds in on itself even when it hurts to stay open, the love that loves even the unlovely. Especially the unlovely.

The love that breaks down our defenses and cleans out our ego-crap and prepares a place for God in our hearts. Advent love.

In our responsive prayer at church yesterday — the first Sunday in Advent — we used the phrase, “slipping from regular time into Advent.” I love this image of a gentle but certain transition. Advent happens. God happens.

The church of Jesus slips into this ancient-but-new season together, a communal season of the spirit, a season of reflection and celebration. These days everybody talks about their spirituality as if it’s an individual personal growth thing, which it is, but Jesus said that he came to empower us to be One in the spirit of Love, so Christian spirituality is also a community thing. Slipping out of “regular time” and into Advent time is something we do as a spiritual family.

To celebrate the start of Advent, I want to share this lovely but challenging prayer by Howard Thurman, an African-American theologian, educator, and civil rights leader.

“May the sounds of Advent stir a longing in your people, O God. Come again to set us free from the dullness of routine and the poverty of our imaginations. Break the patterns which bind us to small commitments and to the stale answers we have given to questions of no importance. Let the Advent trumpet blow, let the walls of our defenses crumble, and make a place in our lives for the freshness of your love, well-lived in the Spirit, and still given to all who know their need and dare receive it. Amen.”

May love happen for you this Advent!

Preparing for Advent

Preparing for Advent

Adoration Happens: Advent Eve

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I’m trying to avoid Christmas music until Advent, which starts tomorrow. I don’t have a TV, so it’s not impossible, but it does mean staying out of stores and abstaining from the radio completely. It’s silly, really, my meaningless protest against the extended Christmas season that creeps across the calendar pages, earlier and earlier each autumn, all in the service of greed, consumption, and profit margins.

I stage this rebellion most years, but by the time we reach so-called Black Friday – one of the most abhorrent plagues in America – it’s a fool’s errand, trying to avoid the jingly jangly carols.

This morning as I was driving around the D.C. beltway, I accidentally broke my own abstinence and began warbling, “Oh come let us adore him…”

Adoration happens.

I guess it’s Advent Eve.

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I want to be more mindful of Advent this year, the season during which those who follow Jesus (or say they do) prepare for Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Christ: the day “love came down,” as we say. I know, I know, it’s not really his “birthday;” we don’t know when that was. But early Christians piggy-backed on a Roman pagan celebration, so there were parties all around: still are.

Anyway, I’m going to write about Advent this month, so prepare yourselves, my non-Jesus-type friends.

Right now, though, I’m off to my fourth celebratory feast of the week. Just wrapping up Thanksgiving before entering Advent.

Spirit on the Wing II — The High Cost of Flying

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I wrangled with God for decades before I decided to follow Jesus, mostly because I feared God might send me off to Africa to become a missionary. I liked being in charge of my own life, thank you very much, and Africa wasn’t part of the plan.

Now, after several decades of bumbling along after Jesus (including a brief time in Africa working with AIDS orphans and widows), I view my life and God very differently. I have given up the illusion that I’m in charge of anything and have thrown in my lot with a loving higher power who plots goodness for the world and for my life.

There is nothing that gives me more joy than hanging out with other people who embrace the adventure and freedom of searching for and surrendering to the infusing power of Love.

That’s why my annual trip to the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina is so inspiring and refreshing. To be among thousands of truth and justice seekers, all bathed in mud or dust depending on the year, singing and praying and sharing our stories and struggles — well, that is the Kingdom Come for me.

beer and hymns

Nightly beer & hymns

Sharing stories

Sharing stories

It’s certainly not all happy hymns, there is plenty of struggle and sacrifice and pain in this faith journey. Jesus people are asked to step into the uncomfortable and the countercultural, and we don’t even get a pass from the everyday trials and losses; we just get a different perspective on them. And so it is good to come together to bear witness to the joy and sadness of the journey.

goose crowd

Kingdom Come

This year we had two surprise guests at the Goose, one a young African-American woman and the other an eighty-year-old white guy. Both received standing ovations for their courage, and both spoke of the high cost they have paid for responding to the Holy Spirit of Love.

The Courage to Change your Mind (Repent)

If you’re a Christian, you’ve probably heard of author and evangelical thought-leader Tony Campolo. Or you might have seen him on The Colbert Report. While he is viewed as a relatively progressive evangelical, he’s been outspoken in his opposition to gay marriage. In June, he completely reversed that position and said that he had been wrong.

He was immediately castigated by other evangelical leaders, and long-time friends now refuse to speak to him. His 300 speaking engagements for the year dropped to 30 as the “dis-invitations” rolled in.

Ahhh, Christianity at its judgmental best.

The good news is that because Tony’s speaking engagement for the weekend had been cancelled, he was able to come to the Goose where he was warmly welcomed. A huge tent quickly filled to capacity and hundreds stood outside in the sun, fanning themselves as they listened to him tell his story.

Tony said he had always “accepted” gay people as long as they remained celibate, but as he got to know more gay people and their families, he became increasingly uncomfortable with his position.

“We all said, ‘love the sinner but hate the sin,’ but the thing is, Jesus never said that. Jesus said, ‘Love the sinner and hate your own sin;’ I had to look at myself . . . who am I to deny gay people the same joy and fulfillment I have enjoyed with my wife all these years?” he asked. Indeed.

Tony Campolo (left) and Brian McLaren

Tony Campolo (left) and Brian McLaren

He said that he owed the gay community an apology and acknowledged that he and the church have caused gay people and their loved ones a lot of pain. Tony told stories of courageous pastors who have been standing up for their gay friends and parishioners for years and paying high costs. “I’m eighty years old, I don’t have much to lose. Those are the real heroes.”

This being a loving crowd, Tony stuck around for the whole festival and basked in the acceptance and forgiveness of the Wild Goose community, gay and straight alike.

The Courage to Risk your Life

I would have thought that our other surprise guest would need no introduction, but a lot of folks didn’t know who she was. Bree Newsome — ring a bell? She is featured in this blog I posted a few weeks ago.

Bree is the young African-American woman who scaled the flagpole outside the South Carolina statehouse and took down the confederate flag, quoting scripture all the way up and all the way down and as she was led off to jail.

In the name of God , this flag comes down!

In the name of God , this flag comes down!

Bree and her colleague James Tyson almost didn’t accept the invitation to speak at Wild Goose because they have been threatened with violent retaliation and were nervous about standing in front of a big crowd. “But we decided to come because God is a God of peace, not fear,” Bree told the crowd. Still, they were accompanied by eight low-profile security folks at all times.

The day before Bree arrived, there was a confederate flag emblazoned with a skull flying from a tree on the way into the festival. I’m ashamed to say I did not stop to take it down because I knew someone else would.

Bree spoke of her decision to climb the flagpole as a “crisis of faith moment” for her. After meeting with other activists, she went into a back room alone and prayed. “I got the peace that passes understanding, and I said, ‘OK, Lord, I gotcha — I’m supposed to climb that pole,’ but then I got home and there was my grandmother and my niece, and I thought, ‘Oh Lord, what are you asking me to do? I could die.’ I called my sister at 3 a.m. and said ‘pray for me.’ After that experience, you can’t tell me anything. Christ is real . . . Jesus Christ is one of the biggest agitators ever.”

Bree is deep in the struggle with both feet, and I’m sure she scares the pants off of those who don’t agree with her. She is well-educated, well-spoken, poised, fearless, and driven by a fierce and holy hunger for justice.

“Justice is a way of being that fully recognizes the humanity in all beings,” she told us. “The black struggle is part of the overall struggle for liberation to end oppression itself.”

When someone asked her what legacy she would like to leave, she answered, “I’m not living to leave a legacy for myself. I hope I’m remembered as someone who died doing the work of Christ.”

Bree Newsome and James Tyson: The joy of the Lord is our strength

Bree Newsome and James Tyson: The joy of the Lord is our strength

Bree’s words made me think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor who was thrown into a concentration camp and then executed by the Nazis for his work against Hitler. He wrote a classic book called The Cost of Discipleship, which was a little heavy-handed for me, but the title raises a question for all of us who call ourselves Christians. What does my faith-life cost me?

See part one: Spirit on the Wing: Scaring the Hell out of Christians

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