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 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 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 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 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.


Wednesday, July 11, 2018

"Halfway to Silence" 

by May Sarton

I was halfway to silence
Halfway to land’s end
When I heard your voice.

Shall I take you with me?
Shall we go together?
All the way to silence,

All the way to land’s end?

Is there a choice?

Perhaps you remember Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood? Perhaps you longed for a closet of sweaters and imagined changing your shoes at the door? Maybe you watched the show growing up, maybe your kids watched it- or maybe you are like me and watched “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” thinking this tamed Tiger, X the Owl, and King Friday seemed oh-so familiar-- only to realize that they were. Mr. Rogers created a landmark program with a singular focus of caring for children, understanding their development, honoring their feelings and inspiring the best in all of us. He began every program the same way: a yellow flashing street light, changing into a comfy sweater, singing the same song... letting us know that we were worth the time to slow down and be together. He started every broadcast with this same ritual, and it launched him into hard topics. His very first national broadcast involved King Friday building a wall to keep the changers out. He cared so much about children that he wanted them to know how to make peace. He explained the hard words like assassination and spent a week on programing about death and divorce. He broached every topic we hesitate to talk about with grown-ups, let alone children. He wrote scripts, produced the show, acted, wrote the songs and learned and studied with the best in child development along the way. He relentlessly pursued the creation of sacred space where the best in humanity could be honored and developed - and I believe he did this grounded in his faith.

Rogers-arguably a busy man-made time for silence and space for God. He may have been busy, but he never hurried. He fiercely guarded his quiet space and honored the spiritual disciplines that gave him life. Before he changed a single sweater or tied one shoe, he awoke every day at 5:00am, slowing down to appreciate silence. Into the silence he prayed the names of friends and family out loud. He prepared to swim, every day moving his body through the water- and just before diving in he sang a song from Taize. One of his spiritual mentors and friends, Henri Nouwen, shared the wisdom of Taize, a protestant monastic community in France that centers worship on singing simple songs and honoring silence. Every morning his ritual invoked the wisdom of his spiritual neighborhood, even as he alone dove into the water, singing “Rejoice in the Lord.” After his swim he changed for the day and weighed himself at 143 pounds...every day of his life (now that is discipline!). Leaving the pool, he walked into the studio and at the door he prayed, “Dear God, let some word that is heard be yours.”

He was intentional and driven, but not frenzied and hurried, “Being quiet and slow is being myself, and that is my gift.” Even the pace of his cadence was slow. One late night talk show host was surprised to find Fred Rogers to be true to life, and Mr. Rogers ever gently named the feelings and gave permission for Johnny Carson to laugh (Tonight Show, 1980). Being slow was his gift. You- the partner in conversation- you were worth the time. He made space for time on his show, not only in the ritual of each broadcast but exploring fast and slow, he countered the world’s bias toward action. His half hour (on the same set for decades) was simple and slow, even making space in one broadcast for everyone to see what a minute feels like by setting an egg timer for one minute (in what would have been considered a crisis in a newsroom and dead air for any other producer). Silence was sacred space, not dead air. In one broadcast, a scientist was helping the neighborhood and all of us hear some fish...apparently noisy fish and even though they had everything set up and all the people and equipment in place and the food to help invite the fish...well, it just didn’t work out. The scientist got any of us would...filling the ‘dead air' time... "Well I’m sure they will be ready in just a moment” or “I guess these fish are not very hungry.” But Fred Rogers saw this as a chance to be patient. He believed “development comes from within. Nature does not hurry but advances slowly.” He slowed things down, and it was his gift. Researchers found its impact; children watching Mr. Rogers had a higher “tolerance of delay”; they could wait and were more patient...perhaps less tugging to get Mom or Dad’s attention (Friedich and Stein, 1973).

We are tuned in to action. We never tell stories about sitting in silence. We tell the stories and they start with “You won’t believe what happened...” or “we were doing this or going here when....” Our stories are actions. We have, as Mr. Roger’s suggests, “a bias toward action.” Even if the silence and the stillness makes all of the action possible...we tend not to talk about it. We never talk about gas stations (unless there is some wild and irregular event ) but they are essential to getting us and our cars where we want to be. We talk about the destination and the journey, but not about the fuel. Our scripture tells a similar story and may have a similar bias toward action. But there are quiet moments if we tune in. Jesus learns from those who went before, sensing God in the still, small voice or burning in a bush. If you take a moment to look at Matthew Chapter 14, and if your study Bible happens to be like some of mine it will give you big headlines. In this chapter, you find Jesus feeding the 5,000 people, walking on water, and offering healing. Verses 22 and 23, these verses about Jesus dismissing the crowd and going up to pray alone are almost lost in the dramatic, big, loud lines. Jesus has gathered thousands of people, teaches them to break bread, and suddenly a small offering turns into bread for everyone, and everyone becomes a neighbor and shares the food they have, and in the end there is more than enough to go around. Jesus sends the disciples off in a boat and dismisses the crowds and goes off to pray, alone in the silence and to connect deeply with God. I sometimes wonder if we would even have this line if it wasn’t so essential for what happens next- Jesus approaching the weary disciples as they sense him coming to them from across the water. But these two little verses deserve a big highlight. They remind us of Jesus pausing, being still and appreciating silent places. I would argue that it fuels his work; the big headlines and the wow moments are impossible without this sacred pause.

Perhaps you, like me, struggle with taking a pause. And maybe....just maybe, the idea of not pushing snooze on your alarm clock at 5:00am is unfathomable right now. But perhaps you could carve out a minute. One minute. Just like Mr. Rogers taught us. Maybe there is space for a little intention. Perhaps as you enter the door of your house you could say a prayer of blessing and gratitude.  Perhaps as you exit your car you could pray for the person you are about to encounter. Maybe you could try praying for your neighborhood as you walk your block. What a difference a pause might make. Consider it; that sacred silence, that pause pregnant with possibilities- it is yours to fuel the next big headline of the day. Fred Rogers offered this reminder to the broadcasting community as he accepted an award: “It seems to me, though, that our world needs more time to wonder and to reflect about what is inside, and if we take time we can often go much deeper as far as our spiritual life is concerned than we can if there’s constant distraction.” And he leaves us with this: “that place of quiet rest where the real you can be ultimately found.”

May we have the courage to seek out our quiet places, our deepest being and value silence. 

May it be so.


Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Coming Out: Moving From Shame to Pride

Guest Sermon by Dr. Barrett Scroggs

I knew I was gay when I was 12. The way the story goes is that I went to my first overnight church retreat and found more than just Jesus. I found someone else too. It was the epitome of an adolescent sexual experience: awkward yet developmentally important. After that experience it still took me 5 more years to come out. Everyone else was okay with it but I wasn’t. I remember my grandmother lovingly telling me that I could talk to my openly gay uncle if I had questions. 14-year-old Barrett was not happy about that recommendation because in my own mind I was straight. I remember yelling at her rather dramatically saying, “I’m not gay.” Who knew… I finally came out of the closet at 17 with little fanfare (the way I wanted). I moved around for college and work and then ended up here in Omaha where I became a part of my first real LGBTQ community. And I lived happily ever after…

Except that’s not where the story ends. The narrative of being a member of the LGBTQ community is not a short story but one that continues across our entire life. It is a journey with ups and downs. We are always growing and deepening in our understanding of who we are. Now I’m biased, my Ph.D. is in life-span human development so I literally geek out about how we develop. One of the tenants of developmental theory is that development occurs across the entire life-span; that we continue to develop from cradle to grave. We cannot think of the LGBTQ experience as one instantaneous moment. We also cannot think of the LGBTQ experience as a trajectory that levels off and becomes stagnant once we are out of the closet. LGBTQ development is a continual process.

One of the major moments of the LGBTQ experience is coming out, when we openly tell others about our sexual orientation or gender identity. I recently watched a video interview with one of the hosts from the new Queer Eye who spoke about how he preferred the term “letting people in” instead of “coming out.” No matter what the language, the coming out moment is a pivotal one. But it is also a deeper experience than I think we sometimes consider. As a researcher I talk about how LGBTQ individuals must first come out to themselves. I mentioned that to one of my best friends who, a few months after, came out to me as bisexual. He spoke about how what I had said stuck with him. He understood what that meant because it had been something he had been avoiding for so long. But now he had the words to really understand what he needed to do. Before we acknowledge our identity to anyone else we must first acknowledge it ourselves. Also, coming out is not a one-and-done experience; but a choice to come out continually; every day. I came out publicly when I was 17 but even in the age of social media there was no way for me to reach EVERYONE with that announcement. And so, every day I have to make the choice to come out again and again. Sometimes it is a big choice like whether or not to tell my new employer about my identity or whether to come out to a new friend. But sometimes these choices are small like whether or not to tell the woman cutting my hair that the reason I’m getting a haircut is that I’m going on a date with another guy. She doesn’t need to know. I won’t ever see her again. But I still have to decide whether I am going to come out in that moment.

Why don’t we come out so easily? Why is it something that we have to consciously think about? Brene Brown would say that it is due to shame. She reminds us that, “we all have shame. We all have good and bad, dark and light, inside of us. But if we don’t come to terms with our shame, our struggles, we start believing that there’s something wrong with us—that we’re bad, flawed, not good enough—and even worse, we start acting on those beliefs. If we want to be fully engaged, to be connected, we have to be vulnerable. In order to be vulnerable, we need to develop resilience to shame” (p. 61). Easier said than done, right?
A few years back I was having a difficult time processing some things related to the death of my mother. She had passed years before when I was 12 but as I say she was “hanging out” and I couldn’t really figure out why. I set up an appointment with my therapist and went to my appointment. Towards the end of our meeting my therapist brought up the possibility that I was dealing with issues related to internal homophobia. I brushed it off and encouraged her to move on…. After all, I was very proud of my sexual orientation and was open with everyone about that. To say nothing of the fact that I was the one paying for this hour. No reason to waste our time with issues I clearly wasn’t dealing with. Months later I realized she was right. My mom was hanging out because of the shame I still felt. I never got to come out to her and somewhere deep inside of me the shame and internal homophobia were brewing. Brene Brown speaks of the negative implications of shame like this saying that, “shame derives its power from being unspeakable. If we speak shame, it begins to wither. Just the way exposure to light was deadly for the gremlins, language and story bring light to shame and destroy it” (p. 67). In order to deal with the shame I was feeling I had to speak it: first to myself, then to my therapist, then to my friends, and now to you. I also think that this story about my mom illustrates that shame sits deep. Shame sits deeper than guilt. Whereas guilt may be in response to a behavior, shame is more about feeling like we are unworthy, that we are somehow less than. My shame sat so deep that I was unable to notice it. I didn’t even realize that it was there inside of me for years.

So if shame is what is making things difficult to come out, where does that shame come from? For me, part of it related to my mom. For so many members of the LGBTQ community, myself included, feelings of shame are connected to our history of homophobia and transphobia from our faith communities and our inability to integrate our LGBTQ and religious identities. My own experiences of this led me to research this topic. 10 years ago I had just moved here to Omaha to work at the Rose Theatre and I found myself at Pride. It was there that I first met the folks from First United Methodist Church. Having grown up Methodist, I was a bit shocked when I saw the First Church booth at Pride. I assumed they were there to protest and I was pissed. I walked up to the booth ready to debate with them. What scripture were they going to throw at me? Leviticus? Romans? I built up my courage and approached the booth. I was not met with a debate and instead was met with a bright green t-shirt that said “compassion.” They invited me to come visit church and the following week I did just that. Many of you heard me and my colleague Nate Faflick speak here at the Abbey in April about the concept of identity integration; how LGBTQ folks can integrate and reconcile their LGBTQ and religious identities; and it was thanks to First Church and the Urban Abbey, that I was able to integrate and reconcile my own sexual orientation and religious identity.

With my research, I am interested in what experiences or characteristics make it so that LGBTQ folks can reconcile these identities. I am also interested in what this reconciliation does for the individual. Through our research, my colleagues and I found that people who were able to integrate these two seemingly conflicting identities were more likely to attend church but that people who felt like their LGBTQ identity was really important to them were less likely to attend church. We also found that integrating their two identities made LGBTQ folks feel better about their lives and that the positive implications of identity integration was due to spending time with people in a supportive church community.

So what does this all have to do with shame? LGBTQ folks are so often ostracized by religious communities which pushes them away from that community and that identity. But my research finds that being connected to a faith community is good for one’s well-being. One of the things that Nate and I spoke about when we were here in April was how faith communities could better welcome and protect members of the LGBTQ community. It is our jobs in these safe spaces to make our faith communities welcoming in order to support the well-being off LGBTQ folks.

I have spoken a lot about shame. I have spoken a lot about how shame can manifest in LGBTQ folks and how that is connected to LGBTQ folks coming out to themselves and to the people around them. But coming out isn’t just about moving away from shame. It’s also about moving more towards a place of pride. After all, pride is the opposite of shame. Whereas shame has detrimental implications for our well-being, my research has found that being open and proud about one’s LGBTQ identity has positive implications for our well-being. The more we are open, out, and proud about our identity, the better we feel.

One of my best friends recently sent me the song “Reborn” by Kid Cudi and Kanye West to listen to on Spotify and the lyrics have stuck with me. They say:
Somethin's wrong; I don't know why
Been lookin' for my way out from the storm
Which way do I go?
I'm so reborn
I'm movin' forward
Keep movin' forward

I think these words have stuck with me because they illustrate that movement from shame to pride. The lyrics move from the shame of “somethin’s wrong” and sitting in the storm to a place of pride and moving forward. It also illustrates the journey of finding pride. Just like coming out is not a one and done experience, having pride is not as well. Having pride is a journey. I am reminded that through coming out we are moving forward away from shame to a space of pride. In their book titled A positive view of LGBTQ, Ellen Riggle and Sharon Rostosky (2012) tell us that “the personal growth that comes from cultivating self-awareness and insight is important in the personal journeys of LGBTQ individuals. A sense of growth, of changing in positive ways, and of moving forward in our lives enhances our well-being” (p. 35). Growth. Change. These words remind us of the movement and the development that is constantly occurring. Pride is not a destination, but a journey.

I am reminded of the story of Peter’s denial after Jesus was arrested. The story is told in all four of the gospels and is a story filled with shame. Jesus tells Peter that he will deny him, a revelation which hits Peter hard. How could Jesus think that he would shy away from his pride and hide in shame? And yet, it happens. Just as Jesus said it would. Peter could not have predicted how he would respond in that moment when he was confronted. And in the same way, we cannot predict how we are going to respond each day. As open and out as I am there are still moments when I shrink down and hide. I try and “pass” or at least try and not call attention to myself. I cannot judge myself for those choices. I cannot beat myself up over brief moments when I tip toe to the safety of the closet. Instead, I can learn from them.

So being out has implications for LGBTQ individuals’ well-being. But what else? Why is it important for me personally to be out and proud? My outness begins conversations and I am okay with that. Think of it as my own transfiguration moment. In Mark’s account of Jesus’ transfiguration, we hear that, “Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them…. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.” Jesus had a coming out moment right before their eyes. It was an intentional act that he wanted to share that with his closest friends. He came out, or better “let them in,” on this moment. But what is interesting is that it doesn’t end there. After that, Peter, James, and John continue to ponder what they had just witnessed. “What could this rising from the dead thing mean?” When we come out and express our pride, others are left with questions; with things to ponder.

And so, in the same way, when I come out and stand with pride I do it for me but also for those around me. I come out and stand with pride for my friend who learned more about what it meant to be open about his own sexual orientation through watching me. I come out and stand with pride for the middle school student I teach who has never met a queer person before and for the first time is able to empathize with this community. I still battle shame. I still have days when I feel as though I would rather hide in the closet and mind my own business. However, my outness is not just for me. In June of 1990 when Pride meant something different than it does today, a group of individuals passed out leaflets at pride events which said, “how can I convince you…. That everyday you wake up alive, relatively happy, and a functioning human being, you are committing a rebellious act. You as an alive and functioning queer are a revolutionary.” And so, I come out and stand with pride as an act of rebellion. May it be so. Amen.

© Dr. Barrett Scroggs, 2018

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Stay Salty

Dear Abbey Friends,

In both Luke and Matthew, Jesus makes a comment about salt. He wants us to be salty… and not salty with the edge you might find in the Urban Dictionary but salty in terms of faithful. If salt looses its saltiness, it's of no use. Now, of course, a modern scientist might point out that sodium chloride is a very stable compound, and salt really can’t loose it’s saltiness. This is a helpful reminder that the Bible is not meant to replace your Organic Chemistry text book. The point is exploring who we are and how God invites us to be, and so here we are with this image of salt, being the salt of the earth.

Salt in the ancient world is life. It is essential. We need salt to live. In II Kings, salt is added to water to purify. Salt preserves food, extending the sustenance and nourishment. Salt helped fertilize, and of course it made the meal all the more savory. Salt is a partner, it comes alongside. We don’t serve salt on a plate alone… even if it’s pink Himalayan sea salt. Salt is not a solo artist, it comes alongside, it participates, and it changes something to make it more life-giving.

But salt… could loose its saltiness. It was valuable. It was so valuable our word salary is rooted in salt, how we talk about earning a living, sustaining our lives... it harkens back to the value of salt. And just like any valuable commodity, people can do act in ways that are deceptive and unkind. Salt could be blended with something more like chalk or plaster… and lose it’s saltiness. Just like we might lose our saltines, our ability to partner in the world, change it, and make it give life. In the Gospel of Matthew this salt metaphor is connected to the beatitudes, giving a powerful context for what it means to be faithful… or salty in the best possible way. Jesus blesses the poor, the mourning, the meek, the hungry, the peacemaker and more… all the nobodies. All the qualities we certainly don’t find electable. In the Gospel of Matthew this list of blessings is longer and linked to Isaiah’s words. For example, the “poor in spirit” is not a way of making the rich feel more comfortable, and in a way that Luke doesn’t, it is related to a poverty that is so intense the spirit is crushed by the systems of oppression and the flame of hope is just a vulnerable ember about to be doused by water by some Caesar or Pharaoh or CEO or somebody. Being salty is hard, coming alongside the world and being an agent that gives life by seeking justices and compassion is hard work. Most of us get uncomfortable with our own feelings and hard spaces let alone others. Loosing our saltiness might be easy to do… particularly when a lot of our Christian churches probably lost it a long time ago.

This week a blog circulated titled something like, “If your church isn’t talking about immigration you should find a new church.” And that is probably true. But I thought, we have talked about immigration in general, and the separation of families specifically, for the last three weeks. In fact I cannot remember a time in active ministry in the last ten years when we were not working on immigration reform. Three years ago in this very room with this microphone, Sister Kathleen Erickson shared about her time as a chaplain in the for-profit family detention centers. They looked like great Texas summer camps on the outside and were horrors on the inside, and she reminded us that we could have spent less putting each woman and her children in a Hyatt hotel for the same nights. A local lawyer spoke, he volunteered to defend these woman, and he wept openly in front of us sharing how he had lost every case and was certain we were sending these women and children back as a death sentence. We have been working on immigration, and it is exhausting. We have been calling and writing and meeting and learning, and it is hard to stay salty. And that is only immigration, we have been working on human trafficing and domestic violence and environmental destruction and gun violence and countless other avenues in need of desperate reform. It is easy to loose our saltines, to decide it better to stay home and just watch Netflix or maybe move off the grid so Facebook cannot inform you of one more breaking news story that crushes your spirit. I have been feeling pretty tired lately, perhaps you have too… there is a lot of news.

And then I remembered, Bren Brown at the close of Braving the Wilderness asks us to honor our pain and our joy; to celebrate it rather than feel guilty about spending time looking at birthday cakes when there are parents who don’t get to hold their baby tonight. She reminds us that our pursuit of healing for the world is not only about justice but about wanting everyone to live a full and healthy and happy life, we must live that to want it for others. We should celebrate love and give big hugs to family and family of choice, because when we value the gifts before us we can really honor the pain and lose others are experiencing even more. I think this is a way to stay salty. I can plan a Tinker Bell party for an almost five year-old and the joy of this fuels me to work for every parent to be able to do the same. I can listen as she sings “This is my Fight Song!” and the joy of that moment fuels my next call to Don Bacon reminding him, not everyone gets to hear their child sing tonight and I want a world where they do. I want a world where kids go to school safe from gun violence. I want a world where difference is valued, and immigrants and refugees are greeted with open arms. I want earth as it is in heaven; a world where everyone goes to bed safe, loved and well-fed. We are called to this work by our faith. Our faith links us to unlikely blessings and if we are worth our salt, we will come alongside and change the world to make it give life. This week I invite you to pause and cultivate your joy. Pause and find your passion that can keep you salty in the best possible way.

May it be so! Amen

Rev. Debra

Friday, June 22, 2018

A Note of Gratitude to Rev. Dr. Jane Florence

Dear Abbey Friends and Family ,

Jane Florence is moving from FUMC Omaha to St. Paul’s UMC Lincoln. She has been a driver behind the Abbey’s emergence, and I am ever grateful for her leadership. I came to Omaha for an internship that I didn’t want. I had designed a plan with a different pastor and I was sure somehow this Texas woman appointed to be Senior Pastor was the clergy woman who questioned my fashion choices at a Perkins alumni event. I searched the internet and not one photo of this Jane Florence woman was available. It was a relief the first time I saw her.

I began my internship a month after she began her appointment. She was the first woman Senior Pastor and felt all of the pressure of not messing it up for every woman everywhere. I watched her navigate staff meetings, committee meetings, and community meetings, I took notes and wrote papers. I saw the realities of embodying ministry as a woman. I watched her handle comments and responses, some subtle and some shocking, that no man would have encountered... even in a progressive church... and I witnessed both her grace and strength in these moments. I witnessed her calm and resolved, and I thought to myself, "I would be on fire right now...or crying."

I am ever grateful that I came for internship and had the opportunity to stay. I am a better pastor because of my time with Jane--you see, once I get the hang of something I am often pretty solid at half-ass-ing it. Another Senior Pastor would have let me. I could have gotten by, but she expected the best. This expectation is driven as part stewardship of individual gifts and part stewardship of the church's mission, vision and resources. I came to Jane with a billion ideas... maybe not a billion but a lot of ideas, and not just ideas like can we put photos in the hallway, but ideas like let’s fold "origami electric chairs" at the end of this death penalty vigil, or let’s be Methodist and start a pub church or let’s open a coffee shop church. I find that most Associate Pastors with lots of ideas get two responses from a senior pastor: no with annoyance, or yes with indifference. They are equally unhelpful responses. But I asked Jane questions, and she cared enough to say no when needed to, and yes but keep thinking when needed. She refined ideas, grew them, shaped them, pushed back on them until they were better than they started. She helped make a path way for the important possibilities to find their way through in a powerful way.

As Urban Abbey began, she held a high standard of progress; she pushed, pulled and even protected. I often stopped in with a new idea, another idea, a slightly different idea or the same idea but again… until she consented to the whole unwieldy adventure, which proved to be even more wild and surpassing and hard than anyone could have imagined. Because she demand excellence, our grant application was shared across the jurisdiction as an model for others. I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to start the Urban Abbey, and I am ever convinced that the timing and the involvement of FUMC, The Nebraska Conference, and Soul Desires lined up in a way that, starting it today would be unlikely, if not impossible.

I have grown as a pastor in the last three years. I have developed new skills and better strategies. I have the benefit of coaching and of trying it on my own. It was a hard time on this journey. I wish, and frankly Jane probably wishes, I had developed some of these skills before 2015. Sometimes, it's just time to set out on your own and figure out who you are as a leader, and sometimes changing structures help change the possibilities for all the organizations involved, in this case both FUMC and the Urban Abbey changed. As we graduated into our own church and into a campus ministry, Jane continued to make a difference without holding a single staff meeting. She is the voice that asks, “Is that good enough for the vision?” I think, "Are you going to accept that?" when I see something that could be better, more welcoming, more inviting or more complete. There are a two reminders to me at the Abbey of when I didn’t push, didn’t steward the vision, and decided I didn’t want deal with the reality of pushing. Pushing does not make women likable, ambition and goals make folks want to use that phrase bossy or bitchy… Everyday I see these reminders of moments when I just took what felt easy and didn’t direct the action. They are a constant reminder of speaking up, and they tell me to get brave and take my call as steward of this vision seriously… even if it’s hard. I am convinced that Jane Florence has the biggest OVARIES in the Methodist Church, I have watched her drive toward the vision and I am grateful for the chance. Her voice is woven in the fabric of my leadership, and it is the strand that always reminds me to stand up, expect the best, and work for it… even if the work that is hard.

I am forever grateful and I am a better pastor because of my time learning with and from Jane. I am flourishing, and the Abbey is growing by leaps and bounds thanks be to God, great mentors and courageous leaders along the way.

I would invite you to think of the folks that have helped shape you and pause for a moment of gratitude for their time and teaching.

Your Friendly, Local Abbot,
Rev. Debra

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Controlled Burns

By Maria Walker

When Debra asked me to preach it was a few weeks back, and the temperature had gone from, “Oh my word, will we ever not wear coats or see the sun again?” to “Y’all, this is the armpit of hell.” In the Walker home it felt like the never ending winter had apparated suddenly to go and torture some other climate’s psyche. But the folks in my social and professional circle were hyperfocused on how hot it had suddenly become. I get that Nebraskans like to talk about the weather, but in every conversation? Bless.

So, I was surrounded by talks of heat and the sun and feeling restrained by the burning temperature. I had to ask myself, “Self, is this the Holy Spirit, or climate change?” Which is a question I ask myself more than I care to admit. As a good human developmentalist, I decided the answer was both.

That brings us to our time today. If I am honest with myself, the image or fire and heat has been popping up in my life, particularly my spirituality, for quite sometime now. I recall journaling about my year in review as Joel was listening to bowl games this past December. Of course, I was listening as well (wink), but on the commercial breaks I would reflect on life and I could not shake the image of lighting a fire. My everyday conversations somehow often came to fires and burning brightly and this sense of heat.

Now, I recognize that for many folks, the connection of fire and spirituality and religion is…. How should I say this, troubling. When I mentioned to a fellow Abbey member I was preaching today, she asked, “Oh, what is your topic?” I said, “Fire and burning.” She looked a bit confused and said, “At the Abbey? You sure about that?”

Indeed, I am. Fire and burning bones. Another friend of mine asked, “So, is this like hell fire and damnation? Because I have heard those word from your mouth, Maria, but you were not in a church preaching.”  Oh, I was preaching… believe me, but today I am not talking about that kind of fire. That kind of fire evokes fear and anxiety. It's more in line with a raging fire that destroys and burns to the ground. Total destruction.

It's also not the type of fire to be endured for a process of refinement. It is something you can give.

The type of fire that keeps cropping up in my life is the idea of a controlled burn.

Controlled burns are intentional fires set to create change and growth in an ecosystem. Now, I acknowledge am not a fire ecologist. That's a real thing, by the way. I am moving a bit out of my lane here. But hang with me because I think the parallels between controlled burns and living our faith are worth exploring.

I want to note that these burns are actually referred to as “prescribed burns.” Yes, they are an actual way to remedy a situation. Not to evoke fear or the threat of damnation, but to create space for growth and emergence. They are healthy and necessary and desirable.

Let's look at today’s scripture.

Jeremiah 20:9 (NRSV)
If I say, “I will not mention him,
    or speak any more in his name,”
then within me there is something like a burning fire
    shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
    and I cannot.

We hear the message of weariness not from doing too much, but not doing. The not doing creates the risk of the negative outcome, and the same is true for prescribed burns. Not being willing to go there creates a potentially dangerous environment.

The courage to lean into the heat that creates the fire that will create health takes a willingness to risk it.  I would say that not taking that risk is a recipe for danger as well.

See, prescribed burns reduce the risk of fatal fires. They are preventative in addition to being restorative. What would our community look like if we named those areas that could benefit from a prescribed burn? That may be able to grow and flourish with fire treatment? Would having the courage to ignite a spark burn away the restraints that keep people arrested in their pain and the shoulds of the world? Would that fire make space for God’s children, ALL God’s children to experience the joy of life?

I will tell you what I know about what happens after a prescribed burn. The land is healthy and fertile. Wildlife flourish. Biodiversity increases… Sign me up.

The burning fire that is shut up in our bones makes us weary. We cannot hold it in. Incapable of it even.  Fire treatments empower and give energy. Literally.

But these fires don't happen by accident. They require intentionality. Folks are monitoring things to gage the best timing and the best conditions for the most productive burn. Once those conditions are identified, someone has to be in charge of the treatment. Now, when I was doing a bit of research on this topic, I was desperately trying to find out what that person was called. Because that person has to have an amazing title, right? I was disappointed to say the least, but grateful to my friends Brett and Nathan and brother in law Brent for responding to my urgent texts. They shared with me this person is known as the fire manager. Fire manager? Surely that is not enough to capture the responsibility and awesomeness of such a person.

Not satisfied with fire manager, though it is correct, I saught another source for this answer and discovered these individuals are also called the burn boss. Burn boss.  Now that is more like it.

When our burning fire is shut up in our bones, we are weary. When we do not speak the gospel, and as Pastor Debra proclaimed last week, when we are not a voice of question with self and within our community,  and are not willing to be present in hard conversations rejecting absolutes, we are holding in that fire. Someone else is the burn boss. And they ain't calling for any treatments.

What would happen if we became burn bosses? Just imagine, we are all living into the energy that calls us to burn brightly in our community. We burn not to destroy or threaten or intimidate. We burn… and that light shines and makes space for restoration and healing and growth.

Before we go about the business of burning, I think some attention needs to be given to the things that ignite your internal fire.  Many of you know I work in youth development, and we call this spark. According to the Search Institute and the Thrive Foundation for Youth, sparks are “—the interests and passions young people have that light a fire in their lives and express the essence of who they are and what they offer to the world. Identifying those sparks, and pursuing them with the help of deep, supportive relationships, are critical components in the work of helping a young person thrive.”

Sparks insure that young people don't merely get by. They are not simply making it or surfing. Spark helps young people thrive.

The Search Institute goes in to identify that Sparks help young people “to be, and to feel, healthier. They tend to be less depressed, less worried, and more satisfied over- all. They place greater importance on being con- nected to school and making contributions to society, which are factors strongly related to school success indicators such as academic con- fidence and grades.”

Now, even as someone that spends the large majority of her week focused on positive youth development, I do not believe this is limited to youth. Sparking the essence of who we are and what we offer the world is a joy we can all experience. Those positive outcomes offered by the Search Institute in their research can be for you and you and you.

So, what is your spark? What pulls your attention? What keeps popping up in your life that you can no longer ignore? What is the thing you can no longer hold it in? What is the thing that let’s you love yourself and feel the Spirit moving? Knowing what sparks for you is critical in sharing that flame with others.

Once spark is ignited, how do we keep the flame burning? Oxygen breathes life into fire. Knowing what breathes life into you  can be key in sustaining the burn of your flame. As I mentioned earlier, fire talk has been a part of many of my conversations over the past few months. I recall a conversation I had with Joel about burn out and burn down. He pointed out to me that burn out and burn down are two separate things, but we may here the term burn out more frequently. This concept of our flame extinguishing from exhaustion is burn out. It's real, and so is burn down. Joel explained to me that he sees burn down as having the spark, but the fire has not been given the oxygen it needs to burn as well as it could. We can see there is a light, but it is not able to grow or share its energy. I believe communities like the one here at the Abbey can be a source of oxygen for our fires. Maybe it's an activity or some form of recreation that is your oxygen. It can be a physical space. And it can a ritual you keep with yourself. Sparking your flame and being your burn boss is nothing without the oxygen that breathes life into the fire.

Experiencing spark safely requires we not go at this alone. The burn boss has a team that monitors the fire and makes a pr scribed burn successful.  Who helps fan your flame? With whom do you experience deep, committed relationships that help you burn brightly or help you stay safe as you take the risk? Because  Remember, fires can get out of control… Let's not be naive about that. A team that is with you can help you boundary up. Those helping to fan your flame can keep the focus on the targeted area that best benefits from the burn. Be the burn boss. Be a teammate when others are burn bosses. Breathe life into sparks and fan flames for one another.

Because allowing the fire shut up in our bones to burn not only prevents our weariness, it sets our world a glow. We can burn away those things that are preventing our growth, and create a source of light to energize all of humanity.  That fire inside you may be the size of a match head, or a single candle. It may be the size of a brightly burning campfire. Whatever size it is, name it. Claim it. Be your burn boss. Energize others with your flame. Create a space of flourishing growth. Give light to the world so that we may all burn a little brighter and know the warmth found with speaking God’s love to humanity. May it be so. Amen.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Beyond Orthodoxy… Even a Progressive One

Mark 2:23 - 3:6
23 One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26 He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” 27 Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

3:1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4 Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

This is a great story. I think we love moments like this in the Bible where Jesus is his most Jesusy self. He is upsetting people so much that two groups who don’t usually collaborate are working for his destruction, the religious establishment and the current political administration… working together… can you imagine that. And all because of a simple healing. We love watching him go rogue, that hippy Jesus healing on the Sabbath, it seems like a no-brainer, why wait to heal a man. This and other stories we love are always making the Pharisees look so inept and selfish; like they are heartless, power-hungry, regulation-loving jerks… to put it nicely.

We are probably not the first folks who love telling and reading stories like these with zeal. This is why, on more than one occasion I have heard adults say some variation of, “Well, Pastor, the Jews just liked rules, and we don’t need rules. We have Jesus, and we have love.” They say this to me like Jesus invented love and like Christians have not been making all kinds of rules and judgements for 2,000 years. They say this like we didn’t have an inquisition or blue laws or people excluding gay people or women or a host of other suboptimal moments in our Christian history. This trajectory, unchecked, has launched us into a shameful and sinful history of antisemitism for which we would do well to actively repent and help our fellow Christians study this faith with a little more depth and care. We read this passage and we somehow forget that Jesus is a Jewish man in conflict with the religious leadership of his own community, out of love for them. We read this and forget that these practices made him who he was and is to us today. We read this passage and, most dangerously, we forget that we probably have more in common with the Pharisees than we do with Jesus.

We are only two chapters in to the Gospel of Mark, and our readings today are part of a larger pattern. Jesus is in conflict with the religious authority, first for hanging out with sinners in general and tax collectors in particular, then his crew is not practicing the traditional fast… even John the Baptist’s people are practicing the fast right, and now he is raising the stakes by working on the sabbath and not only that… in the midst of his conflict, he is comparing himself the the greatest King in the History of Israel. The conflict is intentional, and if we were the Pharisees we would be annoyed too.

Jesus heals on the Sabbath. When we read these healing accounts we get caught up in the methods, it's a miracle to us because we don’t understand healing in the same way. This is my continual PSA on healing miracles: We should think of it as a different technology and open our eyes to the more challenging miracle about where and when. Healing happened in temples, the same things that Jesus does in the streets happen in the temples. There are ancient reviews... imagine Yelp reviews on stone tablets about healing. People who can’t see recover sight, and people who struggle with movement are able to walk, and people with skin ailments find healing. We shouldn’t assume ancient people are stupid and don’t understand when their body feels better. The thing that is a radical is not the method but the time and place. Jesus healing a man in the synagogue like a rogue MD setting up a free clinic in the lobby of the Med Center. Which would not go over well… I assume. It would be an epic scene even today. You can imagine it, some hippy in the lobby, and the resident calls the Chief of Surgery, Dr. McSmarty and the Chief of Medicine, Dr. McSteamy, and they have an epic debate; nobody is sure about this hippy’s license or who is liable for malpractice and if he is taking insurance and why he didn’t set up an appointment for a non-emergency on Monday like a normal doctor. It would end in an arrest, and Jesus would be banned and barred from the hospital. If they haven’t already, Grey’s Anatomy should make it an episode.

We can see how Jesus would be infuriating. There are reasons for regulations. I personally like knowing my doctor has a license to practice medicine... you probably do too. We can see why the Pharisees are asking questions about Jesus disregarding the Sabbath and the guidance of generations before him. The Sabbath is about rest; even his disciples deserve a rest. Rules and guidance and practices and regulations have purpose, they help us organize our lives, they keep us safe, and they give us a foundation upon which we can thrive… most of the time. But Jesus pushes the religious leaders further. He reminds them that structures can sometimes become rigid and constricting, calcified and frail. Regulations can become agents of harm, even when they were created--like the religious observance of the Sabbath--to give rest and renewal and life. That is why we have to push on institutions sometimes and ask hard questions, because sometimes there is need for change. That’s where Jesus is so much trouble, he pushed on the whole system. He questioned if a religious practice made the faithful indifferent to human suffering. He asks, how do we give life or deal death? How do we, even in seeking the Holy, distort God’s love? I suspect most of us would struggle to answer Jesus.  

When I think of these questions, I am quick to think of some loud Christian voices. I have felt particularly frustrated with the voices that dominate the Christian narrative in our country… for a long time, but even more so since they seem to be so connected to real power these days. This week, I listened to the sermon of the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Dallas, he is a frequent guest on Fox News and a pal of our current president. I have struggled with many of his pronouncements over his tenure in this powerful pulpit, particularly when I lived in Dallas and this church was an epicenter of hurt and what I would label “hate speech” toward LGBTQ+ folks. This week, I thought it would be fair if I actually listened to his sermon and tried to move past soundbites. He was preaching a sermon about angels, literal angels, dealing death or mercy or judgment or protection with weapons. It was a 40 minute sermon, and I admit I only made it four minutes, but somehow in the first four minutes he managed to point out that Christianity is superior to Judaism and every other faith, he named Jesus as more powerful, and us all as superior too. Like Jesus was into chanting, “We're #1!” and the disciples carried foam fingers around Galilee. He should have played, “We Are The Champions” in the background… he surely has the staff and logistics to do so. He did all of this, and it wasn’t even the main point of his sermon, just like a PSA about how Christians are ranked on top and better than everyone else.

His sermon this Sunday is titled, “America is a Christian Nation,” and I would argue that if that is true, we are failing. He will stand in his elaborate sanctuary, holding a Bible, and name a Christianity that will feel foreign, at least to me. I look at his title and I ask, “Is this a Christian nation when our leaders say taking a baby out of his mother’s arms is a reasonable strategy to deter immigration and just a matter of policy? Is this a Christian nation when access to health care is more privilege than basic right, and our for-profit prisons are having record profits? Is this a Christian nation when we love guns so much we sell them to everyone in the world, and in 2018, our schools proved more dangerous than military combat zones? Is this a Christian nation when eight white nationalists are openly running for office on a platform of hate? I have some expectations about what would make us Christian, and I don’t even think Jesus would want us to claim any nation as a Christian nation as much as he would want us to claim a path of peace and justice.”

It’s not hard to make a list of all the things that would define us as Christian… like, well, for starters you can’t walk around with signs that say God Hates… well… anybody. You should fight for health care for all people, you should advocate for public schools and better teacher pay, and you should take public transit, and you should only buy organic vegetables from local farmers and probably never shop at… well just about anywhere… forget shopping--that’s so complicated, we need a whole separate list. It becomes really easy to start a list and make an orthodoxy… even a progressive orthodoxy. And then do what they do… say who is in and who is out. Who is and who is not a Christian.

But the thing is I know how that feels, maybe you do too, when someone says, “You’re not a Christian.” I have had plenty of people question my identity as a Christian, some random and hurtful, and some professors and careful. And during seminary, I did too. In fact, a few weeks ago when I sat down after a sermon and Lila, in annoyance, said, “Mommy, why are you always talking about Jesus at the Abbey,” I wanted to send the quote to two professors in particular and say, “See!” It was probably one of the biggest validations I could have received about this Christian Identity I seek to carry.

When I was in seminary, Dr. Marjory Proctor-Smith listened to my questioning and she said, “Debra orthodoxy is a tool of oppression.” Orthodoxy is a tool of oppression; those lists and stories and right answers and creeds didn’t get to define me. They were tools for shaping and exploring, not limiting and controlling. Those tools are man made (usually literally man made). They have agendas sometimes, they can box us in right where we are not too dangerous or too lively. She freed me from orthodoxy, and it was liberating, and it was more work. Lists are easy, seeking is harder.

So what do we do if we can’t throw a list in someones face or etch 10 Bonus Commandments and put them outside First Baptist Dallas… you know for fun? I believe we are called to look to Jesus in this moment. He is constantly brushing into the dominate faith voices of his day, and rather than proposing a new orthodoxy, he is a asking questions. Asking about the practice of the Sabbath that deals death or gives life. We need to engage these questions in our own lives and in the life of our community. We need to speak up and say, “I am a Christian, and I believe we are called to welcome the refugee and the immigrant. It is a part of my faith.” I believe we are call to stand up and say, “I read the Bible, and I read that Jesus told Peter to put his sword away, and Isaiah wants to turn weapons into farm equipment.” I believe we can and should be voice of question and we should be ready to be in hard conversations and name where we are coming from. I believe it is up to us to reject absolutes in favor of conversation and compassion, to acknowledge the shades of gray and make room for depth over bumper-sticker statements. It is up to us to get serious and ask the hard questions of ourselves and our community daily: What gives live?

© Rev. Debra McKnight, Urban Abbey