Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Celebrating our Partnership with UNO's Student Veteran Organization

Dear Abbey Friends,

As you may have heard, last month Urban Abbey received the 2018 Community Partner of the Year Award from the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Office of Military and Veteran Services. This was for our work and partnership with UNO's Student Veteran Organization (SVO), with whom we co-host our Coffee Talks Student Veteran Small Group. This small group is led by Joel Walker and provides a space for student veterans to connect and discuss their experiences and the unique challenges that come with being both a college student and a veteran. As the daughter (and granddaughter) of a veteran, I am eternally grateful to each and every one of these students for their service and sacrifice, and to UNO for providing such an array of services to their student veterans. I give thanks that we as a faith community are able to make space for UNO's student veterans to talk, share, and make connections on campus.

I'd like to thank Rev. Chris Jorgensen for establishing Coffee Talks in 2016; SVO Presidents Eric Velander (2016-17), Kat Clyde (2017-18), and Kyle Keener (2018-19) for all their work to make Coffee Talks a success; UNO's Office of Military and Veterans Services staff for their partnership, generosity, and support; and to Joel Walker for his leadership of this group since 2017. This year, Joel and Kyle together have helped grow this small group from an average of four students per week to an average of ten, providing space and opportunity for more and more students to fellowship and deepen their relationship with one another. And, as always, thank YOU for being with us on campus each week as part of the Urban Abbey community!

Warmest Wishes,

Sierra Salgado Pirigyi
Chief Operating Officer


“I am really excited about the partnership between Urban Abbey and the SVO, and our recurring coffee talks is an event that I look forward to each week. Together, we have created an atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable and we are able to discuss different viewpoints on a variety of topics. Plus, the fresh brewed coffee and donuts are a great way to kick start a Wednesday morning in a positive way! Thank you, Joel, Sierra, and everyone at Urban Abbey for the continued support.” - Kyle Keener, UNO SVO President (2018-19)

"What an honor it has been to facilitate the Coffee Talk discussions with the veterans and military members at UNO. Despite the diverse backgrounds and perspectives these students bring to the group, a deep civility and respect of one another is abundant. Whether we are talking about exams, family life, military experiences, politics, or spirituality, I always know that everyone leaves having learned something new about others in the room. Minds have been stretched in new ways, and rich fellowship has occurred. The world outside of Coffee Talks would benefit from seeing what goes on in that hour each Wednesday morning.” - Joel Walker, Coffee Talks Student Veteran Small Group Facilitator

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Magnificat Exporation 2018

By Rev. Debra McKnight

My Soul magnifies the Lord and dances in the dream of God’s great Love,
opens eyes to the vulnerable and sets the oppressed at liberty,
for God looks with favor on the lowly.

My soul dreams for a day when a mother’s great worry is getting kids to school on time,
scheduling dance class or
deadlines for what ever summer camp sets her sweet ones heart on fire.
rather than tear gas, gangs and genocide
without one thought to the old echos of poverty,
without one worry about where the next night will be or
if the food will be enough to nourish a hungry tummy.

My soul dreams for a day when fathers weigh heavy under his words
of encouragement and growth,
rather than the burden of the ransom they might have to pay
or the risks of a long road to safely or the paper work they need
or legal systems build for privilege of some other race,
some other face, some other religion.

My soul dreams of grandmas who dance and tell stories of peace and prosperity
Grandmas who breathe grit and whisper, “you can be anything you want to be”
without one thought to the news of the next school shooting
or brown face gunned down with tax payer dollars or
transgendered teen left broken, battered and abused.

My soul dreams of grandpas who build swing sets and bake good bread,
setting out the seeds for the birds of the air,
saying, “look close to the wisdom of God’s green earth”
without one moment of worry to the polluted air or
500 year storms coming every five or ten.

My soul dreams of aunties and uncles and families made out of friends,
gathered to share in hope and in good faith when the health of one is uncertain
without one moment spent raising funds,
without one hour lost arguing with insurance or
minute squandered debating a fee.

My soul dreams of children crying only for forgotten toys, spilt milk or skinned knees,
asking, “Are we there yet” when the travel is by choice and not fear
and pleading only for another piece of candy or one more book or
one more hug before bed.

My soul dreams of earth as it is in heaven, lowly lifted and hungry filled
My soul sings Mary’s song that the proud, haughty, arrogant and rude
the selfish and small that looms large in this present hell we make
be transformed, utterly changed,
God’s love making all things new and
our hearts making earth as it is in heaven.

© 2018 Rev. Debra McKnight, Urban Abbey

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Shopping: Evil vs Tempting

A Sermon by Rev. Debra McKnight
Preached at Urban Abbey on November 18, 2018

Scripture: Matthew 6: 25-26
‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?


We are approaching Thanksgiving, but if you look in the stores you know it has been looking a lot like Christmas… since July. The season of consumption is before us. Jesus is coming, and everyone is running to the mall or searching on Amazon. It is a season where Fox News will begin broadcasting from the front lines of the War on Christmas; except the perpetrators will likely be sales clerks saying, “Happy Holidays,” rather than luxury car brands using the birth of an impoverished baby to sell extravagance or define worth. It is a season of gift giving, a season of meal making, cookie baking, party celebrating, and more. It can be driven by love and abundance but it can also be driven by excessive consumption and incredible debt. So today I want to pause and think about shopping, shopping as a faithful act. While we might all feel differently about shopping, loving it or perhaps hating it, this will not be a sermon that condemns it as evil… sorry if that is what you were here for.

I come by a love of shopping honestly. So when I approach shopping I think of my Grandma Lila. She loved shopping and gift-giving, and for the last 15 or 20 years of her life, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving was Grandma’s Shopping Day. On those days she got her motorized scooter out and hit the mall. We helped her shop for Christmas, sorted her coupons, helped her use her senior discount, and checked her list. We tried to warn people about her scooter before she bumped into them - we still recount the story of the day she tipped a rack of bras over and we needed help getting her unhooked.

My Grandma Lila loved shopping, and it was something we did together. When I was little, it was a big deal to be old enough to go with Grandma and Mom and my Aunties, particularly on days when my all of the male grown-ups were left to watch some athletic event and the babies. It was a chance to look around, to imagine, to think about gifts you were giving or see what interested you. It was a time we spent together and it became a part of all the big moments in life; like buying a dress for a school dance, buying a bra for the first time, or buying shoes for a graduation. It wasn’t just about what we were buying.

My Grandma loved shopping and giving and remembered all of your important dates, but she also illustrated a deep care for finances. She was frugal, perhaps even cheap sometimes. She knew where every penny in her account was spent. When she and my grandfather moved from their house of 50 years, she had ledger books detailing every expense they shared. My grandparents were a teachers, but once the school found out she was pregnant, Grandma was not allowed to teach. My Grandpa taught and did all the extras like coaching or teaching drivers ed, but I know they lived within their budget. My Grandma worked and sold Avon but when their four kids were little, I suspect they were intentional about their dollars and cents.

Our scripture invites us to worry less about the material, about what we consume for food or put on our bodies. It is part of a passage where Jesus invites spiritual practices around prayer and names that where we put our treasure is where we put our hearts. Our tradition pushes us again and again towards intention for consumption. Jesus speaks about money more than anything else, perhaps because he knows that is the most powerful indicator of our values. He pushes us again and again to be intentional about how we enter the economy, how the marketplaces and our national budgets say something about our collective values. These scriptures invite simplicity and deep intention.

In these scriptures Jesus says we shouldn’t worry about the material and warns against letting the material hinder your connection to God and community. These scriptures have also inspired people into anti-materialism or anti-consumptionism, suggesting that all consumption is evil. I find this to be similar to the ways the church - or at least the church fathers, the early ones and the middle ones and some of the current ones - related to women’s bodies; telling women how to dress, how long their hair should be and if they can braid it, if they can wear pants, or any number of suggestions. It is easier to decide something is evil or to codify it than it is to work through your own issues of sexuality and sexual expression. It is easier to tell women their place than to work through your patterns of objectifying and commodifying women’s bodies. It is the difference between saying something is tempting to me verses something is evil. And I don’t think we can blame objects or commodities for our broken values. This anti-material theology also gets into an unhelpful honoring of the poor - idolizing poverty, but from a distance. Liberation theology invites us to see God’s preferential option for the poor and to engage in solidarity. But it does not invite us to say, from our relative comfort, that somehow the poor are so lucky to be poor. I often imagine such a person in a dark wood study, swirling the brandy in their cup as they wax on about how lucky the poor are to inherit the kingdom of heaven and how hard it is to get a needle big enough for a camel’s entry.

On the other end of the spectrum from anti-consumption or material goods is a theology that suggests abundance or even excess is a sign of God’s love, a sign of God’s favor and blessing. This theology called the prosperity gospel can be found on television and in some of America’s biggest churches. It says you have not because you ask not and, at its worst, it teaches that you have not because you are not worthy.

Theologian Michelle A. Gonzalez, author of Shopping: Christian Explorations of Daily Living, invites us into a deeper reflection than either of these extremes. She loves shopping, whether she is going to the market in Honduras or the mall in the US. She notes how there is an energy and liveliness around the creative opportunity to shop, to choose, to imagine what you might make for dinner or bring into your life, or choose to make your house a home. It is a chance for creative expression but it is also dangerous. In her book, Shopping, she notes how our American economy is driven by consumption and really by excessive consumption. We see this in national crisis when we are asked to be good Americans, to go out and buy things. This economy impacts our wellbeing. As individuals, we can be driven to consume in a way that makes us feel like less, we have to buy more so we can be more. We can shop to feel like we are worthy, we can shop to keep up, and if we don’t shop we might feel like we are behind. Our model from last year can make us feel like we are not quite enough. We can shop to feel better about ourselves, we can shop and feel worse about ourselves - like when the dress doesn’t fit. We often are driven into a dangerous level of debt. This excessive consumption is not only hard on us as individuals but as a global community. We demand more than our fair share of the earth’s resources. Our demand for cheap, disposable goods means that our global brothers and sisters work in death-dealing conditions.

I say this as a person who has participated in all of the worst ways. I have purchased cheap shirts, likely produced in terrible working conditions. I have purchased shoes because I felt sad. I have shopped driven by loneliness rather than creativity. I have purchased a dress that didn’t fit thinking it would change my life, to stop eating and start wearing it. I have even purchased a pilates machine on a late night infomercial, which I planned to put in my office at First Church. I imagined myself using it all day while I worked and in the end becoming the most fit pastor in Western Christendom. The truth is, I never figured it out and couldn’t even figure out how to send it back. All of this is to say that I come to this conversation with a spirit of trying more than an attitude of having it figured out.

My hope for all of us this season is that we enter it mindfully. That we think about the gifts we are planning to give and the people we love. That we seek to consume and share in ways that are most ethical to our global neighbors as possible. There are tools for thinking about how we engage in the market place: If the maker was treated with care, if the labor of the clerk was valued, does this support the neighborhood I love? We can think about shopping as close to home as possible, and in doing so we can re-invest more into our community. A year ago there was a children’s toy store run by a woman with deep care, and when it closed I heard parents lament that they couldn’t go in there anymore. I have also heard those same parents tell me about shopping with Peggy and then finding the toys online for much less. They had a choice, spending the same amount, consuming less, and investing in a place they loved, or spending the same amount and consuming more because it cost less online.

We choose what kind of community we want to walk through daily. I hope we ask ourselves questions about meaning and intention. I hope we ask where a product is made and how people were treated. I hope we set boundaries in the forms of budgets that guide our spending, our giving, and our sharing. I hope we think about the community we want to be a part of and support the businesses that matter to us, those that invest in our world in a way that is important.

This is a season of preparation and a season of waiting. It can be a season of busy schedules, overwhelming showing lists, and deep debt, but it doesn’t have to be. We get to choose. We get to make our way into to this season of waiting.

Thanks be to God, we get to choose.

  1. What is your experience with shopping?
  2. What does it mean to shop in ways that express your values?
  3. What do you plan to give and share this holiday season? How will you make that meaningful and life-giving to those who receive it and to our global family?

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Wild Wilderness

Abbey Birthday Prayer
I want to invite you to pray with me. This has been my prayer, a fervent and urgent prayer at times. In 2014, Mike Ramsey, my spouse and accountant, did some projections for the Abbey. He does these for a little place called Mutual of Omaha, so I figured it was serious when he said, “The Abbey will close in a year.” We had enough grant money to make it one more year. I said, “What if this happens? What if that happens?” and we played with the spreadsheet and the best case scenario was 18 months. That year led to the even more challenging year of 2015; the year in which we graduated from an identity as a part of First Church and becoming an independent new church start. That is when I found Psalm One. When it was hard to imagine our future, when it didn’t seem very fruitful or possible, I leaned into this ancient poetry and the image of a tree bearing fruit in due season. This prayer reminded me to be planted. It reminded me that maybe it wasn’t our season yet. Join me in praying this Psalm as we give thanks for the past and set our hearts towards the future.

Psalm One
Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on God’s law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in due season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

Scripture: Exodus 16: 2-3
2 The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3 The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’


The people of Israel are complaining. This is after Moses saw a burning bush; after the Pharaoh tried to kill the Hebrew baby boys; after plagues and crossing the sea; and everyone is still complaining. They are in the wilderness and they are hungry. They are complaining to, against, and probably about Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and God. There was probably a “go back to Egypt” contingent organizing, sowing dissent and disagreement; saying, “Why did you bring us into the wilderness to die?”

It sounds a little harsh to the modern reader, but we are not the ones wandering hungry in the desert, painfully aware that no one has a strategic plan, or a GPS. or enough provisions to make it to the Promised Land. All they had were the leaders that brought them this far. They were longing for the fleshpots, which must be some kind of Egyptian crockpot that had some meat, or the taste of meat, not the nice meat you give to the Egyptians, but the parts you give to people you don’t treat like people. The wandering folks were hungry, they remembered Egypt, and they remembered eating from the Egyptian crockpot. They were not remembering their forced labor, they were not talking about the violence they experienced, the pain of losing their children, or watching them being raised as slaves. Right now the only thing that mattered was getting something to eat. At least when they were in Egypt, they had something to eat!

I like to imagine God responding to this moment, gently and softly, “Oh my darlings, did you forget how the sea moved for you? Did you forget how you toppled an empire’s designs of exploitation and death?” God responded to the wilderness hunger with manna. The, wilderness landscape is covered with food, this divine bread called manna. The Israelites learned to collect and eat what they needed. They learned that hoarding the gift invites it to rot, turning it into food for worms. God sent the bread of life in a place that seemed barren; bread of nurture when the landscape seemed impossible and death seemed so near.

The story of our faith is written in the wilderness. The people of Israel will always grumble and complain again and again. They will be attacked and survive. They will leave Egypt, but Egypt will stay in their hearts and minds. It will be a constant struggle to get Egypt out of the people, to get bondage out of the people. They will build an idol and yet they will claim their identity on a mountaintop with Moses and Ten Commandments. The wilderness is where they found their way to the promise they had only imagined when they sat around the fleshpots of Egypt.

As the Abbey turns seven, I want to ask you to stay in the wilderness with me. We don’t usually like wilderness, it’s not our first choice. Walter Brueggemann suggests that we idolize certainty to the detriment of our faith. In most churches, particularly those older than seven or ten years, there is a committee that I like to call the “Go Back to Egypt Committee.” This committee usually meets in the parking lot. You can hear this committee when you hear phrases like: “We can’t do something that big, we are too small. Those people aren’t contributing, but are receiving. We don’t have enough money. We don’t have enough people. We have never done it that way. We tried that. I just want the church to be here for my funeral.” Yes, that last one is more real that you can imagine!

I want to ask you that as we celebrate our seventh year, that we stay in the wilderness, that we stay open to the next steps and the next phase; that we imagine beyond where we are, knowing we have come this far. The Go Back to Egypt Committee is powerful because we know the details, we know the systems and the structures. Even if we know they are not the best, we at least know them. Perhaps you have felt this in your own journey, those wilderness moments that are hard and defining, and those choices to stay in a career or a system that is hard out of fear of making something new.

Imagining is hard for us. Imagining the Promised Land when you are in bondage in Egypt is probably near impossible. But it is the space that gives life. We see this not only individually with our choices but also communally, with government systems that we have to dream beyond. This is why there can be such appeal toward the past. “Remember the systems of 1950? Let’s go back there, when it was great, even if it wasn’t really great for everyone.” Egypt is always whispering or shouting, “Come back!”

Our larger United Methodist church is struggling with the wilderness of a new day. There is an organization called the Wesley Covenant Association, that wants to make the Methodist church great again. They want to go back to a day when everyone just came to their local church because they grew up Methodist and they all loved to serve on a committee or 10. Maybe everyone really worked a 40 hour work week and were paid enough to have one partner stay at home. They want to go back to the day when stores were closed on Sunday and kids didn’t have soccer games during worship. Their answer is to dive back into the kind of theology that served a different time, when the church held more power and privilege, a time when diverse voices were less valued and women didn’t have a seat at the table. But we are in a wilderness time and going back is not an option.

The Abbey has been the most uncertain adventure. It is a gift. I was on the road to being a really good religious professional. There would have been the facade of certainty, I could have climbed the ladder to big church senior pastor. It was my dream, or so I thought. When we started the Abbey, I didn’t even drink coffee, but Chris Smith, owner of Beansmith, knew all about coffee. And when we started the Abbey, I didn’t know about staffing or permits or painting or spreadsheets - but Janelle did, and Jeannie did, and Mike did, and Barb did. For every unknown there has been someone with gifts who emerges in the just the right moment.

In 2015, when we set out on our own, my only hope was to grow enough that first year that when we ran out of money the Conference would see some merit in funding the gap (after I begged them to bail us out - which I planned to do, of course). And do you know what happened? I never had to ask them to bail us out. That year, two things happened: one, this community grew in giving, our giving doubled in one year. Two, our campus ministry grant came through. I set totally unreasonable (but necessary, if we were going to exist) goals for the next three years. I turned them into the Bishop’s office, knowing that if I was the one receiving them I would have laughed because they were such a stretch. And yet, every year we have made it. Every year, I worry; every year it looks uncertain; and every year I am amazed at our sure and steady growth, at people taking ownership in this place and at the generosity inspired by our work. And the truth is every time I get really confident, I am quickly reminded to stay in the wilderness. In fact, the Sunday I announced that our morning service had grown so large we needed to split it in two, was the smallest Sunday attendance we had experienced in nine months. The truth is, I looked out and thought can I stop this train? Can I say that mailer was a typo? Can I just go back to Egypt?

I am asking you to join me in the wilderness for a while longer. I’m asking you to stay flexible and fluid and dream something impossible. We are in the wilderness. What will it look like for us to include more people? What does the space look like for our next steps? How do we staff for the future? I have participated in plenty of “inclusive churches,” particularly in Dallas, where everyone was a close family and it was actually hard to be included. I have participated in small churches that liked being small, so folks were not really welcome. We have held enormous smallness in tension, including and maintaining relationships. We have leaned into this living sanctuary and made it active to a diversity of people all the time. We have hosted more non-profit events than ever before and included more people in our work. Our work now is to stay in the wilderness, to stay open and bold and flexible when certainty seems so attractive and actually attainable now - in a way I only dreamed years before. As we turn seven, I ask you to pray with me from the Psalm One and to imagine all the seasons before us, seasons of yet more growth, more room for more connection, and more relationships.

May we stay in the wilderness together.

What have you experienced in reading the Exodus Story? What do you hear in the scripture?
What has wilderness looked like in your life and your story? What did you learn from the wilderness?
How do you experience uncertainty? What is that like for your spirituality?

Thursday, November 8, 2018

A Note from Charles

Abbey Family

I’ve only been coming to the Urban Abbey since the beginning of this year, but I knew by the middle of that first service that I had found a place to call home. From the moment I walked in the door I was greeted with total love and acceptance and that was something that I was not accustomed to. As a closeted gay man I had lived almost my entire adult life in hiding and especially so at the fundamentalist nondenominational church I attended for the last few decades.

I recently asked Pastor Debra before attending the recent All Church meeting if it was ok to share with people that I was gay. Debra looked at me and gently admonished “There is no more hiding," that alone almost brought me to tears right on the spot and I don’t have enough fingers or toes to count the number of beautiful and supportive conversations the members of the Abbey have shared with me over these last several months.

At the end of the All church meeting I was able to meet our Bishop and asked if I could share a little bit of my story with him, he kindly agreed and I began to share with him how my life has changed in so many wonderful and incredible ways since finding the Urban Abbey. He encouraged me to use my gifts at the Abbey and at the end of our talk I thanked him for his time and asked If he would please do whatever is within his power to make sure that Abbey could continue to do the extraordinary work that it does.

I’d like to ask the same question of you, will you please consider doing whatever you can to help Abbey continue the amazing work that it’s doing here in the city of Omaha? I’m constantly astonished at that sheer volume of ministries and outreaches that we have and partner with here at the Abbey and that my friends is why I not only volunteer, but I also made a yearly pledge to help keep our little coffee shop bookstore church vibrantly growing and able to meet the needs of even more people. Together we can help transform our neighborhood into something that looks a little bit more inclusive and loving every day.

Would you please consider pledging a percentage of your income to help with the work here at the Abbey? It’s because other people just like you were willing to pledge a percentage of their income that I was able to wander in to this remarkably inclusive and caring coffee shop bookstore church and find myself in the midst of a life being completely transformed.

Thank you!
Charles Schlussel

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

All Saints Sermon


Isaiah 25: 6-8

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.


God sets the table and She goes all out, like Martha Stewart and Julia Child multiplied by 100! The wine is of such quality that even if you left it out it probably would never turn to vinegar. The vintage is so good that it is named twice and the food is rich, fatty, and succulent, filled with the ancient Mediterranean superfood, marrow. God sets the feast, everyone is welcome at the mountain top table.

We can imagine them sitting down, oppressor and oppressed, insider and outsider, all together delighting in the abundance, licking their fingers, running the bread through the rich drippings on the plate. God doesn’t swallow up the feast; God swallowed up death. God swallows the shroud, the last mystery that we all share, death.

Death comes for all of us, no matter our status or economics, we all face the mystery of death. This poetry where God swallows up our greatest fear and grief, and then wipes every tear looms large in our faith journey. Paul reminds the people of Corinth about God swallowing up death and John of Patmos in The Book of Revelation does the same. So it makes sense that on this day when we name our grief for ones we love and name our own struggles with mortality out loud, that we would lean into this ancient poetry about God swallowing up death. The gift of this day is that in a culture where we are zealously individual, you do not have to carry your grief alone. We can name that we wish for more time with people we love, even as we name the strengths and gifts they have given us. We can name together how we long for life, how imagining the loss of a partner and friend is almost unbearable; and we don’t have to do that alone. We lean into this poetry of God drying tears so we might be able to live life as abundantly as this table is set in our scripture. That is perhaps one of the most strange and profound aspects of this text for our modern times, it is deeply communal. God sets the table for everyone, invites everyone.

This text where God sets a big table is part of the “Mini Apocalypse of Isaiah” and I don’t know how you feel but I don’t usually use the word mini alongside anything talking about the end times. Isaiah might better be understood as the Isaiah(s) it has three distinct periods, all of which are times of struggle for Israel. The apocalyptic literature emerges from a struggle so deep, the only way to find justice, peace, and comfort is for God to wipe everything clean. Sometimes in our Bible this comes in the form of a final conflict, and sometimes if comes in the form or a great big table. God’s table in Isaiah is on the mountain, the place where God makes covenants and welcomes everyone. Banquets were tools of the empire, ways of making trade deals, way of establishing loyalty and relationships between nations; but here in this space God sets the table and everyone is invited, all the nations are included.

The language of God swallowing up death resonates with Isaiah’s audience, They know the story in Canaanite theology where Baal brings calm out of chaos until he is swallowed up by the God of the underworld/ death and chaos return. Our own tradition names the power of a greater being swallowing up death, death dealing forces and even chaos. Most powerfully, we can look to Exodus when the Pharaoh’s army, in pursuit of the Hebrew people, is swallowed up by the earth. That which would bring death and stop the people’s liberation is swallowed up. The sweeping change of swallowing up death is a part of this literature that people in extreme poverty and despair lean into. You see this “Mini Apocalypse” that culminates in a beautiful, abundant, table feast is written to people who don’t have much food on their own tables. The chapter before the feast rings with the desperation of the Isaiah’s first listeners, I suspect it must name the painful reality to be authentic or the promise of God’s feast will ring empty.

Isaiah 24

The earth dries up and withers,
the world languishes and withers;
the heavens languish together with the earth.
The earth lies polluted
under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed laws,
violated the statutes,
broken the everlasting covenant.
…The wine dries up,
the vine languishes,
all the merry-hearted sigh.
The mirth of the timbrels is stilled,
the noise of the jubilant has ceased,
the mirth of the lyre is stilled.

​(Life is so hard there is no more music.)

No longer do they drink wine with singing;
strong drink is bitter to those who drink it.

​(The wine they miss for feasting and merriment has changed, strong drink is bitter, medicating pain, people intoxicated in the streets…perhaps.)

The city of chaos is broken down,
every house is shut up so that no one can enter.
There is an outcry in the streets for lack of wine;
all joy has reached its eventide;
the gladness of the earth is banished.
Desolation is left in the city,
the gates are battered into ruins.
For thus it shall be on the earth
and among the nations,
as when an olive tree is beaten,
as at the gleaning when the grape harvest is ended.

​(All the nations are in struggle and the earth itself stumbles like a drunkard.)

The earth is utterly broken,
the earth is torn asunder,
the earth is violently shaken.
The earth staggers like a drunkard,
it sways like a hut;
its transgression lies heavy upon it,
and it falls, and will not rise again.

On that day the Lord will punish
the host of heaven in heaven,
and on earth the kings of the earth.
They will be gathered together
like prisoners in a pit;
they will be shut up in a prison,
and after many days they will be punished.
Then the moon will be abashed,
and the sun ashamed;

There is no wine and there are no feast days when an empire makes the schedule. This piece of Isaiah is written to people who look at desolation, who look at the earth and see it staggering, polluted and failing. People who have experienced such pain and injustice that even the sun and moon should be ashamed. People who long for the kings and cosmic beings to be held accountable for their sins. Just before the feast, the prophetic poetry celebrates a God who cares for the poor - people who know the harsh sun and the bitter cold rains. This is 100 percent different from any kind of end time narrative I heard in the stories told by “Left Behind.” Stories where preppy young adults worried about personal salvation and painted the picture of nice cars driving unmanned. The end times I was taught about - and even the salvation I learned about - in these groups was deeply personal and individual. It was my relationship with God or Jesus, it was how could I help others have a personal salvation to save them from a violent end time or eternal damnation. Perhaps we do this because the individual seems more easy to manage and because we love certainty, almost to the deficit of deeply exploring the mystery of faith. Or perhaps it is the mirror of our culture that likes rugged individualism and picking yourself up by your bootstraps. Or maybe it is just to hard for most of us to really read these prophets and realize that we do not fit. It’s not for us. We resemble Babylon or Rome or Egypt much more than we resemble God’s chosen but despairing people.

So I invite you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. To imagine this scripture from the vantage point of a parent, walking miles in the sun’s heat and the cold rains to bring your three year old daughter to a safe place to dwell. This week I saw beautiful and heartbreaking photos of children on what has been labeled the ‘caravan’ and when I hear this scripture through them it sounds different. Listen to Isaiah 25 just before the feast is set and imagine yourself reading from the caravan.

For you have made the city a heap,
the fortified city a ruin;
the palace of aliens (the outside forces of destruction) is a city no more,
it will never be rebuilt.
Therefore strong peoples will glorify you;
cities of ruthless nations will fear you.
For you have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.
When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,
the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,
you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;
the song of the ruthless was stilled.

A few weeks ago I was listening to the Detroit’s Public Health Director, watching his images of the city, and witnessing how he mapped public health concerns against the most blighted zip codes. Listen to the scripture from the street of boarded up homes.

The city of chaos is broken down,
every house is shut up so that no one can enter.
There is an outcry in the streets for lack of wine;
all joy has reached its eventide;
the gladness of the earth is banished.
Desolation is left in the city,
the gates are battered into ruins.
For thus it shall be on the earth
and among the nations,
as when an olive tree is beaten,
as at the gleaning when the grape harvest is ended.

These voices are hard to hear. We like to appropriate them, assimilate them into our context without the discomfort of realizing that most of us find ourselves on the side of the country that is ruthless and oppressive. So what is here for us? What do we do that isn’t making this about us without asking anything of us? I believe this still calls to us. We are created in the image of God. Our earliest stories witness to this and so we are called to be a part of God’s communal act. We can set the table. We can open the doors, rebuild the broken places and offer shade to the sun weary sacred souls. We can offer our best to the most vulnerable. We can be a part of swallowing up death dealing systems, death dealing broken and death dealing poverty. We can be a part of this most beautiful image of the divine, drying eyes weary with tears. We can be a part of the feast that feeds hungry people. This All Saints Sunday we can name our grief and our own mortality, so that it sends us into the world whole and open to making change. We can name our grief and our loss so we can help others find a way through. We can witness to the ways we make earth hell rather than like heaven. We can take hands and set the table because we are not alone.


What is your experience with grief and loss? Who do you miss that taught you, loved you or challenged you?

What does it mean to practice faith in community? What does it mean to share your grief and worry and loss in community? Do you feel pressure to manage grief alone?

What is it like to read the scripture from other vantage points? From what other eyes might you look at this text? What do you learn from their ears?

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Reflection Shared by Rev. Debra McKnight at Beth El Synagogue's Memorial Service

As a United Methodist clergy woman, I grew up in tradition that spoke of holiness that was not simply personal but social. Our faith is communal. It is relational, and so sometimes our heartbreak is not only personal but social. I think of this as systemic grief. And when I am feeling systemic grief, which can be a lot lately, I lean into the story of two Egyptian midwives. You can find them in the First Chapter of Exodus. It is this space where we can see a country, Egypt, go from welcome and embrace of outsiders escaping hunger in their homeland to systemic oppression, forced labor, and violence as they march towards genocide. The Pharaoh, in this moment of the story, has a new idea to deal destruction. He asks the midwives to kill baby boys born to Hebrew women while their mother is yet on the birthing stool. The narrative we inherit says, “but the midwives fear God,” and say no. They fear God, they stand in awe and openness, a posture of listening and action that makes them fearless in the face of Pharaoh. I suspect they have plenty of reason to fear Pharaoh, nobody likes to be called to the Principal’s office let alone the Pharaoh’s. He has all the systems of wealth and power, funneling privilege and control to his hands. In their resistance they risk everything, and their death at the Pharaoh’s hands would not be murder but state sponsored violence perhaps in the name of keeping the peace.

I imagine them at the birth stool. They dwell in a thin space, life and death so near. Their work is about giving life. They know how to coach the most unsure woman into the fullness of her power, they know how to stand in struggle and bring life into the world. They know how to manage an anxious room, how to quite the auntie who says all the wrong things at all the wrong times. And they know, when the worst outcome is near, how to make room for grief and loss with the most grace, care, and compassion possible. I imagine them, at the birthing stool, looking towards a mammoth wall, as big as a pyramid, of systemic violence, oppression, and destruction, and they give life anyway. They find a way to fight for life in the face of Pharaoh’s executive order to deal death. They give life because they work in a space where they know all the boundaries and barriers and divisions men make mean nothing, absolutely nothing.

So I look to them when I am grieved, systemically grieved. We see seeds of violence, hatred, antisemitism, and white supremacy nurtured rather than uprooted, and systems of injustice seem almost impossible to change. I pause to remember ancient voices that refused to succumb to despair and indifference. I look to the stories of those messy, holy-imperfect people who journeyed before us. We have the stories that can save us. We have the stories of midwives who faced the King of Egypt, we have the stories of those little guys defeating their Goliaths, and the stories of those who would not go back to Egypt but marched on to a bigger promise. Those midwives call to us today. Join in the work that gives life and breaks down the systems that deal death.

May we have the courage. Amen.

© October 29, 2018 Rev. Debra McKnight

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Me Too Me To & God Too: Seeing Each Other as Sacred


Matthew 5:5
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Esther 1: 10-12
“On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he commanded the seven eunuchs who attended him, to bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing the royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the officials her beauty; for she was fair to behold. But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command. At this the king was enraged, and his anger burned within him.”


We know a few things about Queen Vashti: She is the queen of a powerful empire, her husband thinks she is fair to behold, and they are hosting a great party. If you take a look at the book of Esther, you will find this is an epic party...180 days of food and drink and entertainment, the king hosts the men; heads of state, trade partners and powerful people. He spares no expense. Queen Vashti hosts their wives... that's how they roll, two separate parties. And then the King has a great King-ly idea (like when the Grinch has a really Grinch-y idea and his whole face curls with Grinch-y delight). What is the one thing that can make his party even better - showing off his trophy wife. So he calls for the servants, the eunuchs, a group of men whose masculinity didn’t threaten the king, and sends them to invite the queen to appear in her royal signet or royal crown. It is possible this means appear only in your royal crown or with your royal symbol. So the king, “merry with wine,” asks his wife to appear, perhaps nearly nude before a hall of intoxicated men, and she says no. She says no to the king - a man who never hears no from anyone. This could not have been an easy choice. Later we learn Esther could be killed for speaking to the king without being invited to speak to him first. Literally seen but not heard. Vashti risks it all and says no.She decides her worth and value, she chooses to stand up for herself.

This is perhaps the no heard ‘round the world. It creates a national crisis, all of the king’s advisors gather because they fear the word getting out. If the queen can say no to the king then wives may say no to their husbands. And this is a real problem!

“Then Memucan said in the presence of the king and the officials, ‘Not only has Queen Vashti done wrong to the king, but also to all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands, since they will say, “King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.” This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will rebel against the king’s officials, and there will be no end of contempt and wrath!” Esther 1:16-18

In the end the advisors send a decree to every corner of the empire that Queen Vashti will never be invited before the king again. I like to imagine her saying, “Oh Thank God.” The fact that she avoids execution if probably a miracle.

Vashti comes up again throughout history as a dangerous woman. A woman you shouldn’t be like if you’re a girl, and a woman you shouldn’t seek out if you’re a boy who likes girls. Thousands of years of history share her story as an example of what not to do and how not to behave. Don’t set off a national crisis, just comply with your king/husband when he asks you to show up in a crown surrounded by intoxicated men. She is the shrew who isn’t tamed, she is a troublesome woman... the opposite of meek and mild.

The church has a history saying, “Be meek, blessed are the meek;” honoring the meek. We picture meek in Mary, quiet, glancing down at the manger. We, the church, have used meek in ways that serve the not so meek. Reminding enslaved people they are blessed, being meek and poor. Reminding women to be meek when they name the violence of husbands. Or reminding children to be meek when they name abuse at the hands of the powerful - particularly if they are clergy. We use meek when it suits the status quo. But when Jesus says blessed are the meek, he does not mean be a doormat or just be cool with maintaining the status quo. Meek actually resonates with worth, knowing who you are, knowing you belong in God’s family, knowing you are created in the image of a loving God and so you are sacred. Blessed are the meek is a blessing for those who will not be measured up against someone’s standards, your power is not about the worlds measure of power regardless of if that is based on race, gender, economic status, age, dress size, and any other measure the world sets out. Blessed are the meek, I think is most powerfully expressed in Mary and not the Mary we have simplified over history. Mary speaks up in the Gospels. She is not the quiet, turtleneck wearing statue we always see opposite of a wild haired Eve at the church door. She is pregnant when she shouldn’t be pregnant. And rather than feeling ashamed of herself she says, “I help you see God, “my soul magnifies the Lord.” She sings a song about God throwing the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. Meek is not about being a quiet doormat for the status quo; meek Mary sings about God sending the rich away hungry. Mary is meek enough to be bold and resilient and courageous because she knows she is a part of God.

We have a history we must name and change. We have misused meek. I have heard the stories of women who have confided in their male clergy about domestic violence and they have been met with an encouragement to be meek, that this is the cross they must bear. Women and children have named church leaders as perpetrators of assault; and the church leaders of all denominations have defaulted to institutional protection, rather than a call to action to forever change the church and the world. We must honor Me Too stories from the past and the present so the future looks differently.

I believe part of this work towards a new future asks us to think about the words we use for God. We historically name God as He, we are “his children,” and we pray to our Father and sometimes our God and King. In 1973 Mary Daly reminded us that the way we name the sacred impacts how we see each other and ourselves, she said, “If God is a male, then the male is god.” She noted how we value masculinity. I see this when occasionally I slip a She into a conversation about God. Sometimes I get a “Wow,” a curious, happy, interested, surprised, wow. And sometimes I get a “Wow,” an unbelievable how could you would insult God with feminine pronoun, wow. It catches people off guard. We swim in culture of masculinity for God and I propose that if we could dive deep into our tradition and lift up more diverse images of God we might transform the way we see the sacred in others. God is a mother giving birth, a nursing mother, a tender comforting mother, a mother hen gathering her chicks and the two most intense I think must be the mother bear and the mother eagle…to which I say do not mess with her babies. We have lady wisdom to learn with and we are from the start all formed in the image of God. We are gifted with diverse and beautiful names for God because all of them fall short and all of them are needed to help us find our way.

When I was in seminary, a Ph.D. student assisted in one of my classes. He was not a part of the United Methodist Tradition and he invited conversation around an article that suggested women were to be excluded from church leadership because they don’t resemble Jesus. Men most resemble Jesus. I proposed that “resembling Jesus” might invite us to courageous leadership, participation in healing, a willingness to take risks, and servant leadership. Perhaps that resemblance was more important than physically being a male church leader. He disagreed. He named how some people, particularly women, needed a male clergy person, for him it really was about a particular body. I alway wish I had suggested that the Christian Church only hire 30 year old, Middle Eastern, Jewish men from Palestine to serve as priest, clergy and pastor. If we are going to really focus on the body, let’s focus on the body. I suspect he wouldn’t have been willing to take resemblance that far and disqualify himself.

We are in a faith of incarnation, God embodied in us and around us and through us. But we get hung up on the culture’s values of who is in charge, who is powerful, who is worthy; rather than living into Jesus’s message of abundance and blessing that is extended out beyond all of the boundaries we create. If we can see each other as sacred I believe we will treat each other as sacred. That means getting God out of our boxes particularly of masculinity. If we sang of God as mother, would it change how we cared for mothers after birth? If we saw the divine in girls and women, would we act to change an epidemic of sexual violence on our college campus? If we took seriously seeing God in the vulnerable baby, laying in a manger, would it change how we see the poor children longing for a safe place to call home? If we explored the images of God as mountain and God as living water, would it give us pause before mining the hillside or polluting the stream?

Our tradition pushes us to see God beyond He. We can see God in He, She, and They. We can imagine God as a vulnerable baby in a manger, we can see the sacred in Vashti’s no, we can celebrate courage in Mary’s song about God lifting up the lowly. We can celebrate God in the meek, the truly meek - self-possessed and living into God’s big dream.

May it be so. Amen

Discussion Questions

  • What image of God did you grow up with? What does it feel like to add a new image? How is that hard? 
  • What do you hear in Vashti’s story? 
  • What do you hear in Mary’s song and the images we see of Mary? 
  • How can you be an advocate for seeing the sacred in people the world doesn’t value? 
© Rev. Debra McKnight, Urban Abbey

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Pray for Me Too

God beyond all face and form,

You gift us with stories, fiery and faithful, stories that shine a light on the depth of human suffering and inhumanity. The stories of bodies broken, battered, used and owned, grabbed without consent, traded, bartered and bought as objects, betrayed by family, stranger, and friend.

These stories terrify us, we hate to read them, they’re not nice enough for church.
But they are there. Brave ones shouting, whispering just between the printed lines,
         witnessing, raging, “Me Too.”
         Tamar and Hagar, Lot’s wife and Lot’s daughters,
         David’s daughter and Israel’s son, both had princess tunics torn,
         the concubines, the slaves,
         the prisoners and captives,
         and the daughters, all of them unnamed.

They are there, witnessing to humanities great sin, dismissed quietly.
        Powerful women, simplified by history, brought down in size,
                Mary the quiet, downward glancing saint and
                        Eve the wild haired sinner hardly covering her breasts,
                sculpted and re-sculpted in word and stone,
                        over 2,000 years of the patriarchy’s fearful gaze,
                                proclaiming just how good girls ought to look and behave.

But Mary… You give us Mary and she sings anyway,
        sings of God lifting up the lowly and throwing the mighty from their throne.
        “Time’s Up,” she cries in an ancient song, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
                Vashti, Queen of self possession roars, “No,”
                         time’s up on kings controlling, demanding, deciding what my body is for.
The Woman at the well preaches time's up on the old ways, we are filled with the water of life.
        Time’s up on crumbs from the master's table and slurs dismissing our humanity.
        Time’s up on sacrificing bodies with Jephthah’s daughter, we dance in defiance.
        Time’s up on God only looking like “He.”

We remember the pain of me too, past and present.
        But the future must look differently, time’s up for the epidemic of inhumanity.
Our hands are made for helping,
        our hearts are made for loving,
                our bodies are sacred, and our dreams are worthy of living,
                        we gather, witnessing to our resurrection faith, Love making all things new.

God, you give us stories, stories where people are never the same, stories where people find their way out of no way, turn the tables, and discover they are beautifully and wonderfully made.
        They light the way as we write our own verse in creation’s eternal song.
Time’s up on false humility and quiet little women in church,
        Deborah and Lydia lead with wisdom and courage and grace.
Time’s up on ‘cat fights’ and divisive narratives,
        girls support girls, and we celebrate our strengths,
        Mary and Martha both have our back.
Time’s up on the vulnerable going it alone, Ruth taught us to stand side by side,
        no matter how challenging the road.
Time’s up on the glass ceiling, Mary Magdalene calls us into action, finding the funding, proclaiming the truth, and crushing the patriarchy,
        so all, all people
                he, she and they, can be free.
Let’s do this. And all God’s people said, Amen.

© Rev. Debra McKnight, Urban Abbey

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

My Life-Giving Space

Thank you, Debra, and thank you to all of the Urban Abbey for dedicating this service to Mental Illness Awareness Week, October 7-13.

I’m not bipolar! I’m Suzie.

I have the diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder, but that does not define who I am. I’m a spouse, a mom, a Nana! I’m funny, insightful, passionate. I’m a leader. I’m a follower. And, quite honestly, I’m “badass!” I’m so much more than my mental illness and the stigma attached to it.

I work for NAMI Nebraska, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and NAMI’s theme for 2018 is “Cure Stigma.”

Stigma is toxic to our mental health because it creates an environment of shame, fear, and silence that prevents many people from seeking help and treatment, and in some cases, it takes lives.
Compassion, empathy, and understanding counteract stigma.

When I’m really struggling, what hurts?  When I hear:
“What’s wrong with you?”
“You just need to... (fill in the blank).”
The messsage I get: “I’m broken.  I’m not okay as a person.”

What helps?
“Wow. That must be really hard.”
“I’m so sorry you’re hurting.”
“How can I best support you?”
The message: “You value and respect me.”
            “You’re not going to leave me.”

I’ve been treating my mental health for over 20 years, so I have quite a story, but for today I’ll stay more in the present.

Two years ago I stopped working because my mental illness took me to a very dark and painful place.  I was no longer capable of supporting others who needed and deserved to be heard. I walked away from the best and most meaningful job I’d ever had.

Even though my depression was very heavy and I felt suicidal much of the time, there were signs that I truly wanted to live.

4 1/2 months after I stopped working because of my mental health, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

My initial thought was, “Okay, well that makes this easy.” My depression was severe, but I did not succumb to my mental illness or cancer! I chose life!

I went through the prescribed treatments for my cancer as well as continuing to treat my mental health. I fought for my life! I made that my full-time job, and it was some of the hardest work I’ve ever done.

My healing involved many things, and the Urban Abbey has been one of the most valuable supports on this journey, and continues to be. I’m forever grateful Paige and I walked through the door 3 1/2 years ago.

Every week Debra asks us to name a life-giving moment. I had no idea that THAT would be a life-giving moment, literally. Not only does the Abbey give me life and make my soul come alive.. .the Urban Abbey honestly saved my life. When I say “the Abbey,” I mean more than the physical space.  Don’t get me wrong, I love books and coffee, they definitely give me life! When I talk about the Abbey, though, I talk about Debra, and the barista, Gabe, who was working that first day, told us what the Urban Abbey is about, and invited us to our first service. (A barista’s job at the Abbey involves much more than making a good cup of coffee!) But, mainly, I talk about you, the people of the Abbey. I’ve never had a church family that I’ve loved and trusted like I have here.

During those two years, I came into this space for peace and healing... serenity... clarity.. .to clear and quiet my mind. Some days I talked with Debra, prayed with her. Other times I sat back, talked to no one, was simply present. It brought great peace to look across the room at my pastor, my friends... and all the books! Some days that’s all I needed.

When I walk into the Abbey, my shoulders drop, my tension releases, and I can breathe.

On one of my worst days, a very cold day, when I thought my options were few, I found myself walking down the hill to the Abbey. I really didn’t know what to do and this was my only logical choice. I talked things over with Debra, made some phone calls, and a member of this church, who was volunteering that day, drove me to the hospital so I could get the help I needed. My church family was with me. Members of the Pastoral Team, my friends, visited me, let me know I’m not alone.

By getting involved in the church through reaching out and service work, I’ve made some lifelong friends.

I want to thank you, Debra, for taking the risk, starting a church, and making it the Urban Abbey.

And thank you all for BEING the Abbey. Thank you for saving my life.

- Suzie Noonan

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Beatitudes: Blessed 2018

Blessed are the uninsured with conditions pre-existing and
the ones with co-pays and deductibles beyond their means,
pressured under a mountain of out-of-network bills,
weighing their care with a lifetime of debt,
they will find healing.

Blessed are the unemployed seeking opportunity,
the under-employed seeking dignity,
and the underpaid working three jobs to earn enough to almost get by,
they will be valued.

Blessed are the queer homeless youth,
turned out and away,
homes broken by ‘family values’ and ‘righteousness’
they will be at welcomed home.

Blessed are the hungry, seeking nutrition on the dollar menu,
thirsting for fresh from deep in the food desert,
they will be nourished.

Blessed are the fat, heavy with body-shaming,
weary in their own skin, worried about where they fit in
they will be comfortable.

Blessed are the harassed and abused,
the trafficked and assaulted by the power-hungry,
‘grabbed’ as an object for control rather than a child of God’s great love,
they will be empowered.

Blessed are the immigrants seeking a way out of no way,
traveling through danger,
detained and families divided,
sacred bonds broken by state sponsored abuse and ice cold lies
they will be reunited.

Blessed are students afraid to go back,
walking weary through hallways once rocked by the rhythms of war,
grappling with survivor guilt and PTSD, a lifetime of grief and lost,
wondering when it will happen again,
they will be comforted.

Blessed are the resisters, uncovering their privilege working to change themselves
and untangle systems of suppression,
risking it all to speak truth to power,
protesting injustice and working for a better way,
they will be heard.

Blessed are the veterans with wounds to deep to see,
blessed are the single parents shouldering it all,
blessed are the refugees dreaming of home,
blessed are the diagnosed and the undiagnosed,
blessed are the broken hearted living with vivd dreams and memories,
Blessed are the poor and the poor of spirit,
Blessed are the meek, the mild and the ones longing for peace.


© Rev. Debra McKnight, Urban Abbey

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Teacher Blessing

May the light of your spirit bless your work.
May the light of your soul be a gift to each sacred child that receives it.
May you breathe grit and strength into each soul that enters your classroom,
        hungry, beleaguered, bullied or shamed.
May you have eyes that see possibilities that standardized tests can’t explain,
May you have ears that hear the words unspoken and the needs that are to hard to name.
May you have wisdom to know the time for love, both tough and tender.
May you never feel bland, and may you go to bed tired but not exhausted.
May you have support from friends and family along the way,
and may you feel passion that can push you through the hard weeks and the longer days.
May you pause in gratitude for this day, this work, this dream,
        and rest in blessing that you may offer gifts to others.

May it be so. Amen.

© 2018 Rev. Debra McKnight, Urban Abbey

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Mister Rogers Sermon Series: Divine Spark

1 Corinthians 1:25

For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.  God is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.

Reflection by Rev. Debra McKnight
There is trouble in Corinth, and Paul, like any founding pastor, is writing to the church and urging them to make a little course correction; it’s the first ‘Come to Jesus meeting.’ We might imagine it like a Bishop sending an email to a local church pastor… not that I would know anything about that.  Paul is railing against the status quo and inviting people to explore a different kind of power. Power the world sees as weak, nobility that is not by birth. Though it may sound like he is anti-wisdom, Paul is not, but he is anti-using wisdom to make other people feel small in your church community. The Gospel’s power is different. God chooses what is weak, God chooses what is lowly, God… so inconveniently does not care about our power systems… like noble birth or our certificates that make us wise. God’s power is different. God does not conform to our boxes or measure with our tools. 

This was one of Fred Rogers’ favorite passages. And I like to imagine myself in his shoes reading it. He was a man who reads about a different kind of strength and a different kind of power. I wonder if this is why he is so empowered to break down boundaries created by the world. One of his puppets, Lady Elaine, whose features bear no resemblance to Barbie, was tired of being a Lady. Fred was sure to make space for children to get beyond the boxes and boundaries of the world. He modeled men doing domestic work and he showed women doing work that the world around him would have deemed masculine. He made space for everyone to nurture and love, everyone to be strong and courageous, and he sang, “It’s You I Like” to bring the point home. Rogers himself embodied this push on boundaries or at least the ways we struggle with his identity. There was not much about the man that seemed very “manly.” His face was soft, his body was not imposing or intimidating, he spoke slowly, he listened deeply, and he cared about children with every pulse of his being. We are so uncomfortable with Mr. Rogers being himself, that the internet is full of “fake news.” Like by day he was a kind neighbor and by night the Navy Seals were dropping him into rivers, knife clenched in his teeth, for some special operation. It is like we cannot accept that a heterosexual, cisgender, white male is kind and gentle and loves children. If you saw the documentary, you saw this question play out even further in the question of if Fred Rogers was gay. He was so nice, he must be gay. But the truth is, he was just himself. He was kind, he was loving, and the norms of the day couldn’t stop him from being who he was, and he wanted us to know it should not stop us either.  

He believed we were extraordinary and ordinary at the same time, that we were lit with the Divine Spark of God, and it all boiled down to longing to be loved and longing to show love. This is where his Presbyterian roots showed the influences of Henri Nouwen and the Quakers. Rogers wrote, “Deep within each of us is a spark of the divine just waiting to be used to light up a dark place.” (Fred Rogers, Life’s Journeys According to Mister Rogers: Things to Remember Along the Way, p 58).

We give expression to the divine spark by reflecting and enacting God’s desire to accept all people just as they are (Michael Long, Peaceful Neighbor, p34). Rogers wrote, when we love a person we accept a person exactly as s/he is, lovely and unlovely, strong along with the fearful. He experienced teasing as a child, being called, “Fat Freddy,” chased home and broken hearted at the taunting. But at the same time there were adults who told him of his worth and value, adults like his Grandfather, Fred McFeely (remember Mr. McFeely?) who ended every visit with Fred by saying, “You made this day special by just your being you.” This became the phrase that rang out at the close of every episode and his dream of teaching that gave hope children feeling un-special by the world’s standards. 

Employing the divine spark means helping others grow and be accepted just as they are (Long, p 34). Fred’s grandfather told him he was special and also told him he was capable of growth, encouraged him to climb past boundaries and over obstacles to reach his dreams. Rogers wanted that for all of us, to be grateful for new learnings, to know we can grow from love. 

Using the Divine Spark means seeking to identify with and understand those who hurt us (Long, p 35). This may be more of a challenge to do than to read. Identifying with people who hurt us draws us closer to them and to ourselves, not truly good or totally evil but a life of complicated choses. His church was vandalized once and he spoke these words, “Once we see ourselves as hoodlums, we can have compassion for our brother-hoodlums and be amazed over and over that God would take us all in” (Long p 35).

Reflecting the Divine Spark means forgiving those who do not accept us as we are or make wrongful choices (Long, 35). Rogers stayed connected to a beloved professor, Robert Orr. One day, visiting his professor in the nursing home, they were looking at an old hymn that suggested there was one word that could fall the prince of darkness or forces of evil. Rogers asked his professor what he thought that word was… and he said Forgiveness (Amy Wollingsworth, The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers, p 98). Forgiveness, he held, was liberating and holy. Perhaps you remember the story of Esau and Jacob, the brothers always in conflict? After years of betrayal and time apart, Jacob returns home to face the brother he wronged and rather than vengeance, Esau embraced his brother and forgave him. Jacob’s response: “I have seen the face of God.” This moment of forgiveness was liberating for both brothers and it stopped a cycle of violence (Genesis 32-33). 

We reveal the divine spark by ensuring that our love is constant across the ages. Rogers saw his father care for people over the long course of their relationships and even after their business partnerships were no longer active. He believed we saw something powerful when people are in a relationship for the long term and beyond personal needs. He often told the story of a Seattle Special Olympics. Nine athletes were about to run the 100 yard dash. When the official started the race, one child stumbled and the other’s hearing the cries of the one boy, ran back to him, helped him up, linked arms, and ran the race together. They won the cheers of the crowd and Rogers said, “What really matters is helping others win, too, even if it means showing down and changing our course now and then” (Long, pg. 37).
Using the divine spark means seeing all under the care of God (Long, p37). The boundaries of the day did not stand in the way of God’s love and Fred felt called to help us all see one another as sacred. The big boundary of his day was the Cold War, and he did special work to help American families see how much they had in common with families around the globe. He even exchanged time with a Russian children’s program host.

Finally, and most challenging, is that the divine spark requires us to offer all six of these elements to ourselves; to see ourselves as holy, to extend understanding and forgiveness to ourselves, to care for ourselves and our growth, just like God does. Perhaps this is why this theology is so challenging. We get really good at singing songs about our unworthiness in the face of God; we love amazing grace that saved a wretch like me. But there are so few moments in song or prayer where we claim our worth, beauty and value. We sing praise to God but struggle to imagine God singing, “It’s You I Like” right back. Perhaps this is why Fox news railed against Mr. Rogers for making folks feel special, claiming it made people entitled rather than empowered. We are comfortable with systems that make us feel like we have to earn grace, that we have to prove our worth, be the right size or have the right GPA. We understand needing to prove we are special before we can be deemed special, that’s the way of the world. But this is not God’s way and it’s not even what we see in creation. We don’t plant a garden saying, “Grow, and I will water you.” We do not welcome a child into the world and say, “Do something lovable, and I will hold you in my arms”… most of us would deem that as abuse if we witnessed it. It is radical to be loved so much that we can love others. It is radical to liberate ourselves from the measures of the world and the power structures of the world and to look right in the mirror and say, “It’s You I Like.” Rogers was determined that loving ourselves, seeing the divine spark in ourselves, was the way to the sacred work of really loving others. May we have the courage. Amen.

Questions to Explore: 
1. Look at the Lyrics of “It’s You I Like” and imagine them as a message from God? How does that feel? What does that mean?

2. What does the theology of the Divine Spark invite you to consider? How does it make you feel to imagine yourself and others alive with the spark of God’s love?

3. What is the most challenging element of honoring the Divine Spark?

© 2018 Rev. Debra McKnight, Urban Abbey

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Pet Blessing Sermon

John 13:34-35 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Since Pastor Debra has been incorporating the amazing work and creativity of Fred Rogers from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood into her sermons, she asked me to also think about Mr. Rogers as I prepared to speak. When I think of Mr. Rogers and pets, there are several things that come to mind:

Koko the gorilla – 800 pound gorilla who learned 2,000 words in ASL during her lifetime. When Mr. Rogers went to visit Koko, we learned that she also watched his show, because the first thing she did when he came into her compound was to take off his shoes!

Mr. Rogers was always encouraging kids to enjoy make believe – even to the silly extent of having a gorilla as a pet. But as a practicing vegetarian, he didn’t push his own lifestyle, but had a deep desire to empathize and care for the animal kingdom.

I watched an old Mr. Rogers show last weekend where he talked about responsibility related to having a pet. He described responsibility as the ability to answer to someone else’s needs – and he sang a song called “I’m taking care of you.” And, of course, he talked about how our relationship with animals is good practice for our relationships with humans – answering to others’ needs, taking care of those we love, and being gentle with others even when we feel sad or angry.

Pets are one of the fastest growing industries in America. In fact, being a pet in an American home is a really good gig! We love our dogs, cats, turtles, fish, rabbits, birds, ferrets . . .

In a recent poll, 95% of pet owners said their animal is a member of the family. We buy them birthday gifts and sweaters/ties/Halloween costumes and treats. But it’s a 2-way street because some solid research also says people with pets have lower blood pressure, heart rate and heart-disease risk than those who don’t.

Mental health is also a factor – Gilligan is wearing his special therapy dog vest today because he wants to show off and because I can use him as an example of a growing number of animals who go through extensive training to become therapy dogs who help others calm stress, fear and anxiety in different settings. Every major children’s hospital in America now has some type of therapy animal program.

There have been interesting studies - in one, a group of stressed out adults were asked to pet a rabbit, a turtle, or a stuffed animal. For those who pet the stuffed animal – no effect. But petting a living creature, whether hard shelled or furry, lessened their anxiety (even if they didn’t like animals).

In another study, a group of elderly people were each given 5 not so cuddly crickets to care for. Depression lessened in a month was attributed to the act of caring for another living creature (remember Mr. Rogers – answering to another’s needs?).

One of the most studied therapy animals is the horse. Horses have been used in equine therapy in Europe since 1860. Adults and children with physical and mental health issues have made amazing strides while helping to groom or feed or walk or ride a horse.

Here we are today having a pet blessing service – because we recognize the significance of these animals in our lives and our homes and our relationships. I believe with all my heart that at the center of these pets is a wonderful thing called LOVE. As a psychologist who has studied human beings for years, I know that at our core, we want to belong and we want to be loved!

Pets are one of the closest things we might ever get to true unconditional love – but like Mr. Rogers, I believe these pets of ours are intended as practice for our relationship with humans. John 13 says love one another. People will identify you as someone special when you love one another.

Over 50 years ago, a sociology professor at John’s Hopkins University assigned his class the project of interviewing 200 inner city youth in the slums of Baltimore. Through these interviews, he asked his students to predict the future of these youth. His class predicted 90% of the youth they interviewed would serve time in prison.

25 years later, the same professor assigned a new group of students to track down the original set of inner city youth. 180/200 of them were located, and only four had spent time in prison.

What could have gone so wrong with prediction and so right with their lives? The sociology students used data and sociological trends to make their prediction. What they didn’t factor in was the majority of the inner city youth mentioned the strong influence of a teacher they all had in common.

So the university students tracked down 80 year old Sheila O’Rourke in a nursing home. She was confused by their questions. She said, “All I ever did was love them.”

Imperfect human love blasted a bunch of statistics and sociological principles out the door. Because LOVE – whether from pets or people – LOVE is powerful.

May I encourage you today to allow yourself to love and be loved? That thought might make some of you uncomfortable, but I’d like to remind you that in the English language, we use the same word for romance (I love him!) as we do for food (I love ice cream!). So there’s a wide spectrum to work with when we talk about love.

We gather in this community and we read scripture that says God loves us. In fact, I believe in that God Pastor Debra described via Mr. Rogers last week – God the Appreciator. That God is absolutely crazy about you and loves you just the way you are! And what does God ask of us? LOVE ONE ANOTHER.

Loving one another is a choice to journey with each other in our joys and our fears and our dreams. Loving one another is gathering together in community and in small groups and, through love, encouraging joys and dreams to grow beyond what we ever imagined.

Story of Larry Walters
Let me tell you the story of Larry Walters. He’s a truck driver. Thirty-three years old. He’s sitting in his lawn chair in his backyard, wishing he could fly. For as long as he could remember, he wanted to go UP. To be able to just rise right up in the air and see for a long way. The time, money, education and opportunity to be a pilot were not his. Hang gliding was too dangerous and expensive. So he spent a lot of summer afternoons sitting in his backyard in his ordinary old aluminum lawn chair – the kind with the webbing and rivets. Just like the one in your backyard.

The next chapter in the story is carried by the newspapers and television. There’s old Larry Walters up in the air over Los Angeles. Flying at last. Really getting up there! Still sitting in his aluminum lawn chair, but it’s hooked on to 44 helium-filled surplus weather balloons. Larry has a parachute on, a CB radio, a six-pack of beer, some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and a BB gun to pop some of the balloons when he’s ready to come down. And instead of being just a couple of hundred feet over his neighborhood, he shot up 11,000 feet, right through the approach corridor to the Los Angeles International Airport.

Walters is a taciturn man. When asked by the press why he did it, he said: “you can’t just sit there.” When asked if he was scared, he answered: “Wonderfully so.” When asked if he would do it again, he said: “Nope.” And when asked if he was glad he did it, he grinned from ear to ear and said: “Oh yes!”

The human race sits in its chair. On the one hand is the message that says there’s nothing left to do. And the Larry Walters of the earth are busy tying balloons to their chairs, directed by dreams and imagination to do their thing.

The human race sits in its chair. On the one hand is the message that the human situation is hopeless. And the Larry Walters of the earth soar upward knowing anything is possible, sending back the message from 11,000 feet: “I did it. I really did it. I’m FLYING!”

It’s the spirit here that counts. The time may be long, the vehicle may be strange or unexpected. But if the dream is held close to the heart, and imagination is applied to what there is close at hand, everything is still possible. (Fulghum, 1986)

Love one another – and together we fly . . .

© Dr. Carole Patrick, 2018

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

God the Great Appreciator

The lost coin and the lost sheep were among the favorite scriptures of Fred Rogers’ faith. These intimate expressions of a searching and seeking God; and a searching and seeking faith, were woven into his work and life. This scripture is part of several lost things...lost coin, lost sheep, and culminating in the Gospel of Luke with a lost son, but for today we will focus on the first two. This allegory of a lost sheep is also found in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel ofThomas. In the Gospel of Matthew, rather than the sheep being lost...perhaps wandering off at the sight of a good looking bush, the sheep is deceived; it is tricked away. So rather than a story told to explore repentance, or turning around or the Greek word metanoia or coming back to thefold...it becomes and exploration of being deceived or trying not to deceive by bad theology and cruel people. In the Gospel of Thomas...which did not make it into our canon, the story has the sheep owner searching after the sheep because he notices it is gone...not out of deception or getting lost, but because the owner notices the biggest sheep is gone, finds it, and then names how it was the most important sheep because it was the biggest. I’m going to say that interpretation is a little complicated to unpack, as there is really no moral to the story or value of community (and perhaps why Thomas didn’t make it in the canon). But I include it because you can see that this sheep illustration must have been commonly used by our wandering Rabbi Jesus and a diversity of voices share it with us yet today.

There have been a diversity of ways that folks write about and interpret this Jesus saying, which brings us to a friendly Anti-Anti-Semitism PSA for the day...Jesus is in conversation with the religious leaders of his day. The Pharisees are often in conflict with Jesus, and that conflict is between people who love their tradition and their people. We forget they are discussing their own identity politics, the meaning of their own faith tradition in community, and they are doing this under the oppression of the Roman Empire. According to Amy Jill-Levine, there are commentators who suggest Jesus is making the Pharisees mad just by bringing up shepherds and women...despised classes of people. I don’t know if there was a song, “Mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be shepherds.” There are likely some writings that perhaps give some basis for this; they work with animals that are not very smart and need a bath and they are likely guilty by association. But it is certainly more nuanced than modern Christians like to give credit. 

The Pharisees, like Jesus, are rooted in a tradition where every great leader passes through the vocation of Shepard. It’s Leadership Development 101 in the Hebrew Bible. It is an honorable profession, caring for dependent animals, enduring hardship and weather, knowing their needs. Every great leader was a shepherd: Moses spent time tending flocks; Jacob, on his way to being re-named Israel, tends to animals; and David, the greatest king in Israel’s history, was a shepherd. So we can’t get too excited about this passage, at Jesus offending the Pharisees by the mere mention of shepherds, nor can we get to self-righteous about Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors as through they are wholesale excluded from Jewish life. We like to tell it that way, but these “sinners” are welcome in the temple (Amy Jill-Levine, Short Stories by Jesus). Sinner is not used here, exactly as we might today...like someone yelling it at you from across the campus or holding up a sign at Pride Parade saying “Sinner Repent.” It’s an actual group of people who are outside the law and that law is about love. So often we read these narratives and think how Jesus is about love and not laws...like Jesus is the Great De-regulator (I’m sure that is the title of a White House Bible Study) and we Christians never created any rules. Being outside of the law meant not caring for the widow and the orphan, vulnerable people, foreigners, immigrants and people outside of the law were allowed in the temple. Contrary to some of our modern imaginings, they were included in the life of the community even if the relationship was strained and complicated. But Jesus is taking a step closer...perhaps seeking them out, longing to sway, organize with them, include and love them...or at the very least enjoy their dinner company.

We are invited to be part of this story - just like Jesus invited the Pharisees when he said, “Who among you having a hundred sheep?” We as modern people don’t often deal in sheep every day. And so it’s important to remember that Jesus is presenting a person of means, the woman with her 10 coins has a lot of resources...probably like the women who funded Jesus’ ministry. Owning 100 sheep means owning a large flock. Jesus is talking about one with enough seeking out what is lost or missing; not out of desperation but out of abundance. The owner of the sheep realizes one is missing, sets out to search, recovers the sheep, and brings the flock back to completion (or makes it whole again). The woman with the coin lights the lamp, gets a broom, and goes to work searching. And both of them at the end invite friends to rejoice. Which is code for party...and hopefully they killed the fatted calf rather than serving lamb chops. Regardless ofthe menu the point of “rejoice with me” is extravagant celebration in honor of finding what was lost.

Fred Rogers loved this text and imagined God as the searcher, looking for us, no matter the cost or duration of the search, no matter the place or state in which we might be found. He said,“God continues to try and find us.” And like the woman and the sheep owner, “God never gives up. God looks for what is best in us, not for what is worst” (Michael Long, Peaceful Neighbor, p. 29). Some people throw this parable around to talk about sin, and sinners needing to repent. But a sheep needing to repent for just being a sheep is sort of where the allegory breaks down. And maybe that was part of what Rogers liked about it. Rogers disagreed with the self-righteous religious leaders who built up walls between any person and God, set limits on God’s love, or suggested that people needed to anything to be worthy of God’s love. Once he was walking from his morning swim to the studio when a person, trying to convert his co-workers and get them to repent, recognized Fred. He pulled him in saying, “Tell these people there is only one way to God.” Fred Rogers’ responded, “God loves you just the way you are” (Alen Borsuke,“Everyone’s Neighbor,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 20, 2001.).

God loves you just the way you are. To Fred, God was not judge and jury, not a sentencer of damnation. God was the Great Appreciator. His radical notion of love and grace opposed a popular Christianity that built barriers, questioned worthiness and utilized fear. In contrast to Fred Rogers, Billy Graham was preaching a message with a lot of ifs and buts about God’s love. God loves you, but God would love you more if you confess your sins. God loves you, but would love you more if you seek forgiveness and would really, really love you if you would accept Jesus as your savior and then God would love you enough to let you out of a tortuous pit of eternal damnation. Rogers was wary of this theology, the fences it made, and the limits it placed on God’s love. “God the Great Appreciator cannot help but find us good, valuable and lovable...When we hear a word that we are not lovable, we are not hearing the word of God” (Long, 31).

Rogers believed in a radical, loving God. The Great Appreciator, loving us as we are. He preached that we should all come and be loved and we will grow from there. This growth might be like metanoia...the Greek word for repentance. But this is not repentance or transformation or a turning  towards God born out of fear of God’s punishment and wrath. This is born out of God’s great love. We are so loved that we can grow. We are so valuable that we can heal our broken spaces and honor the wounds in the world. Can you imagine the world if our faith began from a place of love, singing songs celebrating God the Great Appreciator rather than “A mighty fortress is our God”? This theology makes people nervous and it should. It might seem oh so sweet and kind on the surface but if you really think about it, it requires a lot of us. We get God as judge, and we are pretty judgmental. We get having to earn our worth, we get scary Santa Claus god that needs us to check off the right boxes...that is the currency of the world. God the Great Appreciator - we don’t get that so easily. We have a hard time with our own worth and value. We have a hard time loving ourselves, let alone loving anyone else...at least very well. God the Great Appreciator asks us to love radically. To be like that woman searching out what was lost and celebrating. To be like the shepherd setting out on an adventure to find what was missing. To love ourselves and to love others just the way they are changes everything about the way we live and work and care for one another. 

May we have the courage.