Friday, April 29, 2016

Hell - NO.

We say it three times in the rite of baptism.
Hell - No.  
Hell - No. 
Hell - No. 

Well, we don't say it quite like that.

Rather it is in the form of three renunciations that have to to with the devil and all the forces that defy God - the powers of this world that rebel against God - the ways of sin that draw us from God. I suppose you could also say we are directing our attention to the personification of evil and its wardrobe of violence that has a way of seducing us into taking part in its character of deceit - disrespect - dishonor - rivalry - envy - brutality - lying - and dying, that keeps the world as it is - broken and separated.

We make sure that we hear about the empty promises that lead to death. We do this so that as when we begin walking in the wetness of God's Reign we will remember the look and the smell and the grasping and the lies that well up in the midst of Hell as it comes alive around us trying to flirt with us and seduce us.

That renunciation could be said in another way: Hell NO - we won't go. But remember that in this refusal we are not directing our attention to another time and place - a disembodied domain that is the antithesis to another disembodied place called Heaven. We are lifting up a voice of resistance even as the water of baptism is rolling off the heads of the newly baptized. This watered life comes when we are being drawn up and brought up into each day as people who renounce Hell's invitation to join the parade of horrors that are so often the ways of the world - unfortunately they are often ways we have adopted as our own - with a price.

We say: Hell NO - we won't go along - with Hell's character. As long as we are wet with the unbounded love of the peaceable Reign of God that looks like the humanity of Jesus, we will face many of our days living lives of love that ceaselessly say:
Hell - No.
Hell - No.
Hell - No.
I think that is when the dancing begins.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Uncovering Joy: Tales of Everyday Urban Spirituality (1 of 25)

Every Wednesday as part of TRRR, there will be a post from a collection of reflections from everyday life - a spirituality for those who - simply look around - smell what is in the air - stay within the bounds of the day - get knocked over by the obvious - fall apart and crumble - and find that in each day no matter where we might be - the Reign of God is at hand. 
Uncovering Joy –  tales of everyday urban spirituality
An Introduction 
“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, „Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.‟ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, „Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those who he favors.‟ (Luke 2:8-14) 

In all that you will read throughout these pages, I hope you see that I write from what is quite concrete and simple: joy. There are many ways of speaking of joy. For example: I find myself in the midst of joy with the simple movement of my foot from under the covers of our bed - cool air - a moment of refreshment – simple - full. It is much like our cat, Francis, who brings the day to a close for me as he climbs on top of me, makes sure I am aware of his presence, and then he lies on my upper thighs and pelvis and settles in. It is a simple time. Often, it is a reminder of the fullness of the day that has past and the simple gift of having a place to rest for the night. It is the smile that breaks across my heart – a smile no one can see and yet one that sustains me. 
If joy is something that must be sought out or something one must pursue, then I am not one who can speak of it. Whenever I attempt to take part in something “joyous” or recreate a moment of joy, I am quite aware that my many attempts fall short of that which I may have anticipated. Rather, joy comes like a breeze - a fullness - a sense of wholeness - a moment in time that is not controlled by the uncontrollable movement of time as I try to create it. Joy is as fresh as an announcement of well-being that comes within the simple presence of one whose love is completely available. 
Joy is laughter that breaks out like an unexpected wind. It takes our breath away and it returns with fresh air that fills us beyond our expectations. Such laughter needs no explanation and it does not matter what brings it upon us. Sometimes it is a part of a fleeting memory finding a connection in the moment at hand. We cannot fully explain the laughter - the joy - because it roars out of the belly of our history. Though we can share the outward sign of that joy, it is more - much more. Such joy cannot be contained by our attempts to put it all into words. 
Having a sense of worth without having to state the reason for being worth anything at all is joy. Joy does not wait for acclamation or ovations or recognition or accomplishments or judgments. Therefore, it is always a surprise to hear when people are filled with joy. For in those stories, all outside perceptions fail us. That which appears to be a situation through which we think we could not see ourselves living without being destroyed or broken - may be a situation that fills another person with joy. The fears and anxieties that we bring into our lives need not be seen as the same stuff going on in the lives of others. That which is fear-filled for me, may leave another person feeling vibrant and fully alive. Joyfulness may mean that we leave our judgments at the door and welcome what we do not know or what we think we should be able to control. 
We find out about joy as we become available to others. We begin to see the expansive meaning of joy as we enter into moments of vulnerability that serve to bring the various elements of joy to blossom. Who would ever think that the joy of your life might be nothing like the joy that fills me? And yet, beyond our self-imposed limits and controls, there is joy we have yet to touch and hold - a joy we have not let move us into new life. 
Joy breaks out when we are alerted to the fact that there is reason to hope - there is reason to stand up - there is reason to expect more - there is reason to leave time and place in order to observe and be present within that which is not yet. Out in the hill country around Bethlehem the gospel writer Luke tells the story of the shepherds who were out with their flocks by night. When the great glory of the Lord burst into their lives, the most reasonable reaction is for them to want to run for their lives or take up arms. But the angel of God takes what appears to be threatening and beyond the understanding of those shepherds and the angel reframes the event. “Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” 
Outside of the everyday experiences of these shepherds was a reality that was being born into the world. This world was the one in which they lived. It is also a reality that was being dressed in promise. It was a reality that promised to leave no one behind. In their living-in-the-fields-lives that meant they were unclean and could not be a part of the parties in town, these shepherds were informed that joy – the time when all people will be embraced and beloved and made whole – was at hand. Messiah was no mere name in this storytelling. Messiah is a reality that takes up all people into its life. This is good news that begins to heal and care and set free and forgive and liberate and rescue and make the least and lowest and left out fully included – it is sheer joy. 
Joy can be defined as rapture. I like to mix those two words within one context. This is especially the case when so many churches use the word rapture to speak of a day when the followers of Jesus will be “taken away” from this world that is -as they like to say- “so evil and corrupt.” The story on the hills around Bethlehem is all about rapture – joy – filling all that is here and now with new life. Jesus born to Mary becomes a joy-filled life that finds its expression in the most down-to-earth experiences of our humanity - birth. If we are waiting for joy to come to us somewhere down the road - if we are anticipating a day when this world will be something left behind, then we are leaving behind the good news that is already building a home of joy in the presence of our God – as our God is revealed as “God With Us.” I would want to lean in here and note that ‘our God’ does not merely mean ‘my God.’ It is the whole character of the peaceable Reign that I have found through the Judeo-Christian story - but I have seen the joy of such a Reign in, with, and under the lives of those who know not the story I know. It is still a joy being uncovered by all of us. 
Uncovering joy is part of the experience of living within the moment at hand. It is the exercise of looking again at what is so common. Joy does not have to be something more that must be added to our lives. Joy does not have to be something more that we are told to find in another place and time. Joy can be something that is already at hand. What if the core of our spiritual development had to do with knowing that the fullness of God’s Reign is here - here as I am writing and the coffee is brewing and conversations are being held at the tables around me - here where a child is perched on top of his father‟s shoulders and is getting a view of all the stuff that goes on behind the counter that is usually blocked from his view? 

Uncovering joy is the reality behind what I have come to call urban spirituality. The joy is here - waiting to be witnessed - waiting to bring new life - waiting to be uncovered for it is already here among us. Joy is like the baby Jesus in Bethlehem in the middle of the ordinary and overlooked lives of peasants who are vitally concerned about simply getting through the day. And yet, the Reign of God is being brought to life – right down the street – down in the town – waiting for the joy of the moment to change all that will be. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

Hell exposed in the voices of others

I have always had a really tough time remembering lyrics to songs. I often wrote my own songs to use as sermons or in education - but I could never even remember the words I wrote. So I'd be standing there playing the guitar and I'd be stuck behind a music stand. When I sing along with some of the great hits over the year, there is always a time when I have to simply hum or harmonize or throw in words that sound correct - but they are usually way off - even nonsense. At a bar in L.A. last month we were listening to the people taking part in karaoke. The guy running the computer flashed up the words to the songs in order to let everyone see the lyrics as they came up. I was amazed at the words I did not know. During a CCR song I said 'Damn, those are great images.' Duh.

So what does hearing lyrics have to do with Hell? Well - it is more about listening - learning about what is being said - stepping into the milieux of the text. After a minor medical procedure a week ago I was sitting upstairs and finally gave myself the permission to watch Straight Out of Compton. I'm an idiot when it comes to Rap music. If following the words of CCR or The Beatles is tough for me, Rap had me and still has me spinning. The movie was good for me because it tied together the music - the words - the context - the world - the powers - and the Hell some folks must go through - while most of us dance our way through our thoughts and wants and self-indulgent ways.

To be quite frank, I actually thought about Soren Kierkegaard and wondered if his rage against the church of Denmark would make make him a noted rapper if he was here today. SK had the ability to pull down the pants of the mighty and proud and expose the absolute devilishness of all things considered 'respectable' to the masses. And yet, the masses only see and hear one story - the one that keeps them as they are - the one that has mastered stories that keep whipping up a hell of a life for everyone. Imagine SK being yanked out of a chancel because of his brash - truthful - unveiled words piercing the comfort of our congregations.

When Hell is so close - when Hell binds up every part of your life - when  Hell touches you with the intent of taking your life - your home - your family - your friends, and it also reaches out to bring you into the hellishness of its life, what can be done? Most of us - me included - go the other way. We close our eyes and do not look back. We stop listening to the voices of truth and we do whatever we can to drown out that 'noise.' The 'Songs in the Key of Life' usually carry the tunes we know and recognize. And then - sometimes deliberately - sometimes by accident - sometimes when we hear the rhymes and feel the rhythms, our lives are touched by the wonderful yet raw reality of others.

It is my intention to pull up lyrics of rappers of the past and present so that I can hear the key of life in which they write. It is my thought that in, with, and under those words I will be confronted with the Hell in which I live. Yes, the Hell that is made up of turning around and going away from life that is not just I have it. It is Hell because Heaven is the daily experience of all of us being at the table and everyone sharing the lyrics of life so that we can each have a more realistic picture of what we do to one another when we do not hear the voices of others. When we listen to the voices of others we gain the meaning of the expansiveness of God's Reign - God's love - God's justice - God's mercy.

Once again, I will be judging the poetry slam this Saturday for the Columbus Public Schools - it is the closest I come to hearing the poetic fury - confusion - imagery - honesty - verbal dancing - love unbounded - hatred unveiled, that offers a invitation to hear something more than  my own kind of voice. I find it to be a time listening to Heaven pushing back at Hell so that we all can have our hearts and minds open to the wideness of our humanity - the image of God.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

When Hell is exposed

I love it when sometime during the day - Hell is exposed. That is, when the light of grace and love and peace and nonviolence of the Reign of God allows the Hell around to lose its many ways to keep hold of its power. It can be the simplicity of a rambunctious child who steps into a room and all of the sudden it seems as though the power of death has been asked to leave for there is no room left for such antics unless, of course, death is raised to new life by this joyous presence.

Hell is already in the room. It is not a place some folks are sent once they die. It is the power of death - division - jealousy - envy - violence that usually has control of the house. It is that tale into which we slide so easily in order to stay in control of life as we have it or want it. It is the lie we will tell about him or her or them quite often because we want the life they have. And yet, into that kind of a room comes laughter - joy - vulnerability - and an unbounded love that seems to be utterly naive until we experience its authenticity.

When Hell is exposed as it resides in the midst of us - it is not our task to drive it out. We are invited to act as though it cannot control our laughter and delight. We go so far so as to invite Hell to be embraced by that which Hell seems to always want to destroy. So rather than let Hell own the day we set another seat at the table of unbounded love. The world might change. We might not be the same ever again. And Hell, well, maybe it needs something like a rambunctious child to bring down the veil and lies and fears that keep the power of Hell alive among us.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

To whom do we bow - another perspective

Sometimes we can hear people admit that they bow to a power in their life That may mean that they pay close attention to it - they abide by its rules and demands - they move as that power demands or requests - they can see personal benefits from going along with this or that power or group. Usually the bow is to an institution and not and individual - although that can also be the case.

At other times we can see how a person's life is influenced -maybe even controlled - by a power in their life and yet they do not seem to see it or they are unable to acknowledge it. Prophets have a history of pointing out how we bow to the powers of the world. I'm not necessarily talking religious prophets here because I want to acknowledge all the prophets who help us see and hear that which we are unwilling to see and hear in our own lives. That is probably why prophets are only appreciated after they are gone or when they have moved on to address another group or issue or their message is so poetically veiled folks do not hear it. We usually do not like to have a mirror held up to our lives when the reflection makes us see everything.

We are in the middle of political process in the U.S. that is giving us many opportunities to witness how folks bend and bow to the powers of their lives. We throw around the language like 'special interests' when we want to point out that a politician or a group is attached to or under the control of a  person - a corporation - a policy issue - or a 'really good cause.' Just listen to the rhetoric from so many of the people in the presidential race. Many point at others in the race and name the powers that seem to be controlling them or influencing them too directly. Most of the time these are not prophetic voices. More often they are blame-throwers attempting to cast themselves as a more trustworthy or honorable person. Someone is accused of bowing to the right which allows that person to hide or conceal the fact that s/he is bowing to the left.

I was going to label this post to what do we bow because I am talking about institutions and groups to whom we bow - not necessarily a person. Then I remembered the Citizens United decision from the Supreme Court. All of the sudden, those powers that are able to play with the lives of politicians and citizens are no longer a maze of smoke and mirrors and tax shelters. They have become individuals - or at least they now can be addressed in such a way - even as we cannot grasp all that they are. It is almost the way religious storytelling takes the power of evil - the power of negativity - the power of death - the power of division - and exposes it all within the guise of personhood. That nasty devil - Satan - Lucifer. The power of evil is no longer  'in the air' - it is right there - it can be named. Did the Supreme Court give us a way to name the powers of evil around us?

For those who bow to the cross and take on the life of the Crucified and Risen Christ, sometimes it is good to see how we are all drawn into bowing to other powers. It is not easy to admit. Being retired makes me see again that I am counting on Wall Street to do whatever it can - in whatever way it needs to do it - so that my pension will prevail over time. So there, I named one of the powers. And yet, I also go by that name for I bow to its power for the life it may give me. I could clean up how I bow by saying I invest in 'clean or good' companies - but that is simply like kissing another part of the beast.

When we devotionally bow to the life of the Messiah of God and to the way that life is made manifest in the community of the followers of Jesus, could it be that we will be more and  more able to name the powers of death around us and expose them and turn from their power - to live a new life? In the meantime, it is good to keep asking one another to whom do we bow.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

To whom do we bow

Several years ago I created a new 'may' rubric in worship. That simply means I suggested that at a specific part of the Sunday liturgy the Assisting Minister walking alongside me in the procession at the beginning of worship 'may' join me in an liturgical action. For years, we would start the procession during the opening hymn. As the cross was carried by us, I always bowed my head. For me this was an act of resistance and commitment. This simple action reminded me each week that there is one power - one Lord - one life - one way - that I intend to follow into my daily life. It would mean a life of resistance to the powers of the world and commitment to walk in the way of the Christ.

For many people who take leadership parts in the liturgy and process forward at the beginning of worship it is quite common (even expected) to stop before entering into the chancel and bow to the table (or as some would call it - the altar). It has always been a sign of reverence. I have heard all sorts of reasons for that bow. In conversation with our seminary Intern, I suggested that if we are going to bow before we enter into the chancel, I will now be turning and I will bow to the people - the body of Christ. I will 'reverence' the living presence of the Christ as manifest in the character of the gathered body. He was invited to join me.

Since the Assisting Minister and I walked side by side as the last people in the procession and most folks are busy singing the hymn or finding a seat -  this new rubric often went unnoticed. Each week I would remind the Assisting Minister of what I was going to do and invited her/him to join me. It was their choice. It can be an awkward move but week after week we turned and bowed to the living presence of the Christ.

This simple 'may' rubric has made me think more seriously about bowing every day. If the Christ is before me and around me and in the midst of the community at hand, then it is good for me to pause and bow. Maybe that is only a movement in my head. Then again, it is in that moment - that pause - that I give myself the opportunity to look with new eyes on the people around me. It has become somewhat of a discipline as if I keep telling myself, "Stop - turn around - look - see - and wonder a bit about how in the presence of this other person I will entertain the Messiah." Oh, I am far from doing that well or with much consistency from day to day. It is so much easier to leave the bowing within the worship space - and with that - leave the Christ there too. With a simple bow

Saturday, April 16, 2016

When nothing seems left

In response to a discussion about suicide in our local paper, I wrote a letter to the editor about my personal journey on the pathway to suicide. It was not a road I ever expected to take. And yet, I know that road is always available for anyone to take at anytime. There are so many reasons people walk down that pathway. This post is not about all those reasons. It is more about the imagination it takes to accept the fact that the path is there and someone right next to me may already be on the way.

So I wrote about a time in my life as a pastor when it seemed as though this and then that and then something else was crumbling all around me. Was I to blame? More than likely I was a part of the grand picture - yes, a part. And yet, the picture was bigger than me. As I walked farther along this pathway that was leading into a hole that seemed to be overwhelming me I wondered about how I could get out of it all. Run away - not. Come out with caustic blame directed toward others - not. Simply continue within a downward swirl that could become the rest of my days - not.

As it turned out, I did not follow through with my plan. I had the dynamics of that day in place in my mind. I knew I could implement it at any time. A friend caught me in a backhanded comment within a cheap chuckle behind it and confronted me. Even though she was able to sense what were to be the next pages of my life, she simply reminded me that she was available without condition - anytime.

I wrote that letter to the editor as one who - for my reasons and in my situation - had contemplated killing myself. I wanted to hold up the fact that there are all sorts of people who wonder about the time when nothing seems left. My sister-in-law took her life while suffering within the landscape of her daily battle with bi-polar disease. That is not my story. I was depressed - distressed - disheartened. I hear those voices in people all around me.

After the letter was published, only a few people commented about it. Most of those were positive comments laced with a bit of thankfulness. Recently I heard that my letter was a conversation piece in a congregation. "How could a 'man of God' even think of such a thing?" Well folks, it is always the beloved children of God who take their own lives - for none of us are outside that embrace. That embrace is never withheld because of what we are able or not able to do in life.

None of us can know how another is experiencing life unless we enter into their lives and become available and vulnerable friends and neighbors and - even strangers. When nothing seems left, it may be that all of us need to lean into one another and walk with each other and take the hand of the other and help us all become mindful of one thing - we are the beloved of God. That will not prevent someone from suicidal thoughts or actions. It may simply provide a moment of peace from which we enter into the life that is possible - a reminder of the life still at hand - when nothing seems left.

Friday, April 15, 2016

In the beginning

Over the years I have come to see myself as being religiously irreligious. This blog will hopefully reflect such a way of wandering within the realm of everyday life in which folks must wonder about how we are gifted to be people within the Reign of God as it is coming alive among us. Will I be ranting? Will I be right? Will I be reverent? Well, we shall see.