Monday, December 17, 2012

Living Gospels: Christmas Message

For me Christmas is the most remarkable time of the year, it is a time when the words leap from the pages of the Bible and they become flesh.  When I was a college student I helped with worship at my home church in Plattsmouth.  It was an early service and a good number of folks in the pews were part of my family.  I had been a part of that service as long as I could remember and I knew them well.  A few weeks before Christmas, I looked out and saw people smiling, they were singing and smiling.  Startled, I assumed they could hear my less then great singing and rather then all out laughter they were politely smiling.  I stepped back from the lectern, I step forward and recheck the microphone, it was off, I stepped as far away as I could and the smiling continued.  Which was an awaking moment, people just love this season.  They took the words of joy they were singing to heart.  This moment may have happened in Plattsmouth but I have witnessed it other places, people don’t always sing hallelujahs with an inspired spirit.  But at Christmas, the words become flesh and they dwell among us and within us and we sing them out like we mean them.  It is a season when we delight just a little bit more in giving, it is a season when we make choices about our money with an eye to the folks and organizations we love, it is a season when we live the story of faith by caring for people we don’t even know and inviting folks we might disagree with during the election cycle to share a meal at the family table.  

More often than not we allow the ink on the page to dry up rather than taking it in and living it out.  We can focus on exact meaning of each word, study how often that word is used, search for the where and why.  And even with the best intentions we can let the words on the page stay there.  We can hunt for the words we want to find and put them up against the folks with whom we disagree and they toss their scripture up right back.  We can forget that the word becoming flesh, doesn’t mean defending words on the page as much as it means defending the relationships we have with our neighbor.  Barbra Brown Taylor speaks of this as mistaking the words on the page for the realities they describe, loving the ink marks more than loving the encounters that inspired people to write them.
We might ask why Matthew sets the stage with a history linking Jesus to big time insiders like Abraham and David, as well as defiant outsiders like Ruth who traveled with Naomi and vulnerable women like Tamar.  Luke sets the story differently, not so much about the 14 generations before Joseph but about the angel that invites Mary into this work of giving life and about Mary’s family Zechariah and Elizabeth, the everydayness of their struggles and joys are lifted up into view just as Mary sings the ancient Hebrew song of God lifting up the lowly.  Matthew and Luke are different and we somehow we do the most remarkable thing of all at Christmas, we allow them to be different.  There are not historic rivalries between folks who favor Luke’s Angels over Matthew’s Dreams.  We don’t take sides of the Christmas narrative, arguing that John’s Gospel starts a lot earlier than Luke or Matthew by connecting Christ’s birth to God’s creative presence saying, “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.”  Folks who might privilege the Gospel of Mark and the Letters of Paul, the early birds of Christian writers, don’t have bumper stickers banning shepherds and wise men from the nativity as a conspiracy to re-write history.  No they are all different and they are all true.  

The gift of Christmas is that we seem to do our very best at bring the words on the page to life, it doesn’t matter who said what, it matters that we sing the journey with the wise ones that sensed God in the stars and set off to follow.  It doesn’t matter that Luke writes a different story it matters that we are terrified with the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night and open their eyes to God’s radiance that inspires them to get on the move without even finding a sheep-sitter.  When the word becomes flesh it is overwhelming and surprising, before they were chapter and verse they were encounters that left people stuttering.  Before the word was Greek or Hebrew it was a moment that left some one speechless.  At Christmas we greet the word made flesh in the manger, the ink is alive with the sweat and blood, the words resound with the hard won tears of labor.  The gift of this season is to take it all in, to open our eyes to the sacred all around us, the gift of the season is to take it all in and let the word be part of our flesh, to do the work of Christmas with our own hands and to walk the journey of Christmas with our own feet.  May we be inspired by the vulnerability and the resilience that is seeded within each of us and may we boldly live this season of grace all year through.  

Rev. Debra McKnight

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Advent Prayer

Loving God, Living Water

We are waiting in a season of pulsing lights, busy schedules and hurried days where the work of Christmas finds us wrapping and shopping, sending, and baking under the buzz of florescent lights rather than sinking deep into moonlight bathed sleep.  Our days are punctuated with buzzing alarms and honking horns, singing toys and obnoxious ring-tones, while commercials remind us of everything we want, no of everything we surly need.  

We are loosing our rhythm;  
Struggling to find the beat.  

Quite our souls, that we might hear anew creation’s tender pulsing heart 
renewed and reconnected in each deep deep breath.  
Prepare us for the possibilities to be birthed in our waiting.  
Calm our spirit that we might relax our selfish grasp and change our hurried pace; choosing new instruments 
and dancing your dance in this season of grace.  


Rev. Debra McKnight
Abbot, Urban Abbey

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Rethink Church: Questions in a Living Sanctuary

In the United Methodist Church the phrase, “rethink church” has been branded on everything from t-shirts and hats to Conferences and conversations.  But if we are honest, when it comes right down to it, rethinking anything is easer to put on thousands of sweatshop-free t-shirts than it is to actually do.   Change and the fear of loss that comes with it invites us to hold on tight, and if we are not careful, we can love something (even our faith community) to death.  

If you will allow me to embellish on a church growth legend, imagine a consultant working with an aging congregation. He found they were brave enough to recognize they were missing out on the diversity of voices from other generations but not brave enough to make change.  
Frustrated he asked, “How many of you love your Grandchildren?”  Hands shot up! 
 “How many of you,” he continued, “love your grandchildren so much you would give them money if you new it made a difference in their wellbeing?”  Hands waved for attention and ladies started pulling photo books from their handbags to show off beautiful babies.  
“How many of you would give even your own life for your grandchildren?”  Hands stood at attention with the intensity one might expect of navy seals being briefed for a mission.  
Then he asked, “Now how many of you would be open to adding new music in worship if it meant, your grandchildren would feel at home and find space for their spiritual exploration?”  The forest of hands started to shrink.

Change is never simple for a faith community.  I think in part because it challenges us to the core of who we are, and we take it as criticism rather than recognition that evolution is a part of life.  It is seeded all around us, healthy elements of creation evolve; they find new ways to give life into the world, or they struggle to exist in changing climates.

At First United Methodist Church Omaha we are exploring church in a new way.  This is not because we are dying, but because we are growing.  It is an adventure to see how the space shapes and reshapes our experience.  It is born out of the notion that evolution nudges us to change the DNA of our space and structures.  So with care and courage, we have opened the Urban Abbey.  An Abbey, originally a French Monastery, is a space for covenant relationship, for books, for food, for prayer and for wrestling with questions.  We are exploring what this new space, that is part non-profit coffee shop and part books store does to shape community.  I dream that it is a living sanctuary, active all week long, as refuge to folks who need space to study, reflect and worship, as safe space for folks brave enough to wrestle with questions and as creative space to inspire us to love the diversity of who we are.  I dream that neighbors and friends will help us explore what that means to be an Urban Abbey.  What are your dreams?  What can we make possible when we dream all together?

Rev. Debra McKnight

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Joker and the Psalmist: Bless the Lord, Oh my soul.

On a recent Friday morning, I sat down with my tea and laptop at home to review my sermon draft. My text was Psalm 103, a sacred song of David, which proclaims, “Bless the Lord, Oh my soul; and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name!”
Turning on the “Today Show,” however, I became aware that they would not offer their typical craft and cooking segments.  Perhaps your Friday morning routine also was interrupted by the news: of a young man with 6,000 rounds of legally purchased ammunition and multiple firearms  unleashing pain inside a movie theater crowded with people.
News of people scrambling amid smoke and rushing the doors in a rain of bullets can force us to imagine ourselves and our loved ones in such chaos. And I thought, how can we possibly proclaim this Psalm, “Bless the Lord, Oh my soul”?  The morning did not feel like a blessing.
As the media grasped for details and the numbers of victims changed, a press conference invited clarity.  The chief of police wept on national television. The Mayor said this is an isolated incident and reminded us all that it is safe to go to the movies.
Isolated?  Those in Aurora were not the only victims that day. An average of nearly 270 people a day fall victim to gun violence in our nation.  A shooting — or two, three or four — seems to occur every night in Omaha. We recall our own mayor speaking after the massacre at Von Maur. The Aurora attack doesn’t seem so isolated when we remember the violence at high schools, college campuses and even a grocery store plaza in Tucson, all places where gunmen have unleashed pain on crowds of people.  
And the Psalmist cries out, “Bless the Lord, Oh my soul.”  
It doesn’t seem so isolated when you consider the fabric of our culture resurgent with Batman —  and Spiderman, the Avengers and the X-Men: heroes who sometimes have to do bad things for a good reason in stories woven from violence. Today’s Batman is not the one of old-time comic books and reruns, punctuated with words of “Boom!” and “Ka-Pow!” In today’s movies we see every punch land and every explosive detail. 
The Psalmist still proclaims “Bless the Lord.”
No, it doesn’t seem so isolated when you realize that every death-dealing instrument in Aurora was a legal purchase, that there is little distinction made between a weapon made to hunt animals and one made to hunt people. The gunman didn’t even have to look another human in the eye to purchase 6,000 rounds of ammunition.  No, it doesn’t seem so isolated when you consider the extraordinary rate at which Americans turn guns on themselves, their family members, their friends, their enemies and even compete strangers; we are world record holders in gun violence when compared with 22 of the wealthiest nations in the world.  It is astounding that the only law that might have limited his ability to buy automatic weapons, that might have set parameters on the type of the ammunition he could purchase was allowed to expire in 2004.

 “Bless the Lord, Oh my soul.”
The only isolated element appears to be the young man, calling himself the Joker, who quietly slipped through the holes in our social fabric. Our “safety net” is increasingly torn by over-tasked school systems with at-risk young people, poverty that makes violence seem like a viable choice, and lack of access to mental health care.
In the aftermath of that Friday morning in Colorado, one preacher said faith would have saved the day, and invited people to give their lives to Christ. He could have — but did not — talk about Jesus as a model of non-violent resistance. 
Even Christianity has a confusing history of violence. Jesus may have died resisting injustice and domination, but Christians have marched in crusades, sanctified genocide and even set parameters for just how much domestic violence is acceptable. 
How are we to sing “Bless the Lord, Oh my Soul” when violence has been part of our faith? How can people who advocate for change have faith when they face well-funded Goliaths such as the NRA (National Rifle Association)?
Then it occurred to me: Maybe that is the point.
Psalm 103 is attributed to David. Whether it rose from his lips, or the Hebrew people remarkably attributed it to him, we can feel David’s presence in singing “Bless the Lord, Oh my soul.”
David knew the best and worst of life. He faced his Goliath. He knew despair. He struggled to save his own life, and felt the grief of losing companions like Jonathan to violence. He knew the heartbreak of his own children acting with violence toward one another, and yet he sings “Bless the Lord, Oh my soul.”  
He made huge mistakes, overstepped his authority and was seduced by power. He took the wife of another man while sending him to die in war. And yet, David knew about redemption. He lived in sacred covenant with God, no matter the mistakes or missteps.  David was not perfect but knew God’s promise of relationship anyway. David sang of the nature of God, “who redeems your life from the Pit.”  The pit was a lifeless space and even in those depressive depths, David sang confidant that God breaths life in to the most difficult spaces.  David sang of God’s healing, God’s grace and God’s steadfast love that shows mercy rather than nursing anger.  
David knew that faith does not insulate people from the realities of the world. Rather, faith ignites them for living in the world. Faith ignited David to face the hard times, and inspired the Hebrew community to do the same.  
These are the Psalms Jesus grew up singing.  He celebrated Psalms of a God who heals and he acted to bring healing.  He touched the untouchable, raised-up the bent over woman and he brought care to people on the margins.  He sang songs of a God who forgives and he ate with people labeled sinners.  He spent time with friends and disciples who constantly miss the mark but he never sent them away.  He sang songs of a God who loves, so he loved.  His faith did not protect him from the world it ignited him to live differently in the world. 
This Psalm celebrates God’s nature.  God acts, and I think it challenges us to act as well. May we have the courage to face our Goliath's. May we have grace in the difficult conversations.  And may we have the courage to live with every fiber of our being as a blessing into the world. May we live as people of steadfast love.
“Bless the Lord, Oh my soul.”  

Rev. Debra McKnight
Urban Abbey and First United Methodist Church Omaha

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Sorry you got Christian-ed: One Christian Ministers struggle with Christians 

One Saturday morning, within steps of the Urban Abbey door, I was physically reminded why Christians can have a bad reputation.

At the Farmers' Market, people from across the city weave among the stands of local produce growers and artists, frequently with a cup of coffee in one hand and fresh greens peaking out of shopping bags perched over their shoulders. Children peer out from strollers; dog lovers paraded pets of all sizes. Beyond the locally grown food, the market offers an easy-going space in a society than often pushes our schedules into overdrive. People meet and share and taste. Everyone is welcome to this communion.

There I was, in the midst of this beauty, inviting folks to taste the Abby's coffee and tea whose sales support local non-profits such as Project Interfaith. Then it happened.

The woman took my coffee coupon – then asked whether I believe in Jesus.

"Well....," I began. Then she asked whether I believe Jesus died for my sins.

Before I could share my beliefs about the nature of Christ and humanity, that there is so much more to faith, she touched me, and not like Christmas carols or even Hallmark greeting cards can be touching. Holding my arm in one hand and raising her other hand into the air, the woman told me what I should have learned about the apostle Paul and that he wants me to go to heaven.

She moved in closer, rallying to her final talking point: "If anyone tells you there is more to it than Jesus’ death," she said, pausing for effect and then, tapping her index finger on the tip of my nose, she continued, “you should give them hell.”

Then she walked away.

I felt my nose. Did that just happen, a complete stranger tapping me on the nose, same as my grandfather used to when I was a child and he called me "Pumpkin" with a loving smile? My nose felt sensitive the rest of the day, not like a sunburn but more like it remembered.

Bystanders in the market gave me knowing looks, as if to say, “Sorry you got Christian-ed, I’ve been there, too.”

As a Christian minister I have written papers that explore her questions, and yet it is a stunning experience when you're not allowed even to respond. Truth is, I do believe there is more to the Christian faith than Jesus' death, and so much more than could fit on a bumper sticker. That’s why I hand out coffee coupons, not religious pamphlets. Faith is wildly complex, about relationship and not lectures. I believe anyone who wants to give the “right answers,” personal-space violations aside, misses out on the gifts of faith and the mystery of life.

That is why we gather at the Urban Abbey, to build community that has conversation and opens us to hear different voices. Maybe it's time we reclaim that part of the Christian faith tradition that Jesus modeled, the tradition that invited difference to the table and challenged in parables about everyday life.

Help us make this community of welcome. Gather with the courage to share your voice and the courage to listen. Join us Sunday evenings for something focused on life.  Join us Saturday mornings to welcome and connect.  Join in the journey.

I promise: no nose-tapping.

Rev. Debra McKnight, Urban Abbey Executive Director

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Upcoming Services at Urban Abbey

Coffee and Culture Night, Sunday July 8th, 5:30pm

       Join us to explore the coffee and culture of El Salvador.  Chris Smith, local artisan roaster and owner of Beansmith will lead the tasting as we connect with the sights and sounds of El Salvador.

Psalm Study, Sunday July 15th, 5:30pm

Eat. Pray. Love Worship Service, July 22nd, 5:30pm

      Join us to explore the relationship between ancient scriptures and modern life.

Honey Gathering, Sunday July 29th, 5:30pm

      Join us for a feast and bring your favorite or your new favorite dish that has honey as a key ingredient.