Our Flag and Independence Day

Pixabay - american-flag-795307.jpgA few weeks ago I had the privilege of participating in our preschool and kindergarten graduations. Because we have different options for attendance at our school, we have multiple graduation services. I’m not sure if you know this, but one of the civic responsibilities taught to our children is the pledge of allegiance. So, to demonstrate their proficiency as well as their pride in our country the children lead us in the pledge. Thus, I participated in saying the pledge of allegiance four times in two days. Here are the words:

I pledge allegiance to the flag
of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands.
One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

This year, as I said that pledge I had two thoughts.

First, of the rancor that is dividing our country. Some of that division is over the flag, not so much the pledge but rather the National Anthem. I’ve debated with people about this because I strongly believe in the freedom that our flag symbolizes. While I stand and while I recite the pledge, I do so supporting my brothers and sisters who choose to do something else. If saluting this flag of ours is compulsory, then we’ve lost the freedom for which it stands.

My second thought centered on the words “with liberty and justice for all.” These are words of aspiration and I hope that one day, we as a nation will truly reflect the “for all” part of these words.

Meanwhile, as Christian Americans we remember that our ultimate loyalty is to the God who loves us. This love transcends borders. This love recognizes the dignity and worth of every human, even those with whom we might disagree. It is this love that leads me to be a seeker of justice. It is this love that assures me, and us, of God’s grace all those times we are unable to love as we are loved. And it is this love that, when active in our midst, can transform our world.

As we celebrate Independence Day may we do so with thanksgiving for the ideals of the place in which we live. May we also strive to live up to the values that are enshrined in our pledge as well as our constitution. But above all, may we, no matter the circumstances, love and defend our neighbor. For that, my friend is what God commands us to do.

When I was in seminary my preaching professor used to start our classes with song. One song touched me and continues to touch me. It is a slight re-write of America the Beautiful. The re-write, done by Sister Miriam Therese Winter, transforms the song into one of repentance and hope. We’ve used this in worship and will do so July 1.

How Beautiful, Our Spacious Skies

How beautiful, our spacious skies, our amber waves of grain
our purple mountains as they rise above the fruitful plain:
America! America! God’s gracious gifts abound,
And more and more we’re grateful for life’s bounty all around

 Indigenous and immigrant, our daughters and our sons;
O may we never rest content till all are truly one.
America! America! God grant that we may be
A sisterhood and brotherhood from sea to shining sea.

 How beautiful, sincere lament, the wisdom born of tears,
The courage call for to repent the bloodshed through the years.
America! America! God grant that we may be,
A nation blessed with none oppressed, true land of liberty.

 How beautiful, two continents, and islands in the sea,
That dream of peace, non-violence, all people living free.
Americas! Americas! God grant that we may be,
A hemisphere where people here all live in harmony.

“How Beautiful, Our Spacious Skies”, Sister Miriam Therese Winter. Hymns, Songs, Rounds and Refrains for Prayer and Praise. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996

 

God cares. Do you?

Sermon for June 24, 2018 based on Mark 4:35-41 and 2 Corinthians 6:1-13

qrmh6fouqnihdekkaj0ug.jpgLast Thursday I went to Los Angeles to participate in an interfaith religious leader protest. There were probably 250 people of many faiths, with the majority being Christians and Jews. I think there were 9 of us Lutherans. Why would various religious leaders protest? Because not only is justice at the heart of our faith, proclaiming justice to the world is part of our calls.

Right now, we are experiencing a big storm in our land. As we try and navigate I can easily imagine Jesus asleep in the boat. There’s much noise. The waves are huge. And with the wind it’s difficult to do anything. Like the disciples we can’t control the boat. And maybe it seems to some that Jesus is sleeping.

In today’s gospel, the disciples are terrified, so they wake Jesus, saying,

“Teacher! Don’t you care that we are about to die?”

Don’t you care?
That’s been quite the question this week. (And I wrote this sermon before the first lady’s visit to Texas) Don’t you care? How often do we ask this of one another? And of God?

I think the last time that I preached about this story of the disciples frantically calling Jesus “to care,” was at the funeral for Harris. At his service I shared that when I arrive here, he sent me an email. In it he shared a lot of hurt and anger towards our church. In his letter he’d asked me, “don’t you care that I was hurt?” (He had been hurt by the then controversary about same gendered marriage. Thankfully our congregation is now explicit in our welcome of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers.)

I responded to Harris, “yes, I care.” It took a while but we were able to have reconciliation here, with Harris and his church. I am grateful that he was able to worship here shortly before his death. It was All Saints Sunday and I remember the hugs amongst those present. I was beautiful. I was also grateful to be able to preside over his funeral. All because I cared. But it’s not really me…as I live out my call as pastor, I am always reminded that it is Jesus who cared then and who continues to care today.

I am thinking about this this week because we too may have the question in the midst of the storm. Maybe we think that after navigating the call to love our LGBTQ neighbors, we were expecting calm seas. But life does not work that way and we are faced with turmoil in our nation. In the midst of the storm we wonder: Does Jesus care? Does God care? Should we care?

Those at the demonstration Thursday care. All of the pastors I know care. Many people in and out of the church care. But sadly, not all Christians care about children being torn from their parent’s arms. Some actually support this. An acquaintance on mine on Facebook shared a video of a pastor literally yelling about how Romans 13 permits the actions now being taken at the border. The reality is that Romans 13 has been historically misused to justify slavery and the holocaust. I wish that all Christians would care.

Especially because the way we treat others is at the root of the call that we have from God. Each day we need to remember that God loves us and that God’s command is that we love God and we love others, especially our neighbors. But it’s not always easy to love our neighbors…in every situation. Especially when we are divided into political teams. Then we might lose the common good because we only see the team.

But those commands to love are not only for those time it’s easy. No, God’s command to love is for all time…when it’s easy and when it’s hard. I’m pretty sure that most of us had difficulty with loving someone in the last week. I certainly did.

Some of us have problems loving immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants. And others of us had problem loving those who don’t love immigrants…. This is a big division in our country and in the church. Last Monday I shared on a clergy page that I was feeling crappy about the horrible news. I wasn’t prepared for the responses of fellow clergy who described the difficulty they are facing in their calls, when love of neighbor is now controversial and “political.”

For all of us these difficult feelings are like that big storm and we are all being pushed this way and that way as we wonder what to think and what to care about.

Here are the two, no three things I know…

  1. God loves us…and in that love God cares for us
  2. We are to love others…especially those who are oppressed and poor…as Jesus says, the least of these.
  3. Number two isn’t easy…so the life of faith is not easy.

But that doesn’t mean it’s all bad either. I think that is what Paul is describing in his letter. His list of what they go through is both good and bad. That is the reality of life.

He wrote:

3We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger;

None of us wants this. The list continues:

6by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

Life is a mixture of easy and hard. Ugly and beautiful.

All this brings me back to the constant reminder that it is about how we treat one another. When we have hate or when we don’t have empathy we are living against the commandments of Jesus. When we do this as Christians, we are also blocking access to faith because people see us as representing God…or as Paul says, “ambassadors for Christ.”

So, when we are confused in the midst of the storm, we remember that Jesus is indeed present in the world and he is not sleeping. He cares about us. He cares about everyone, especially those who have no power. He calls us to care also because to love is to care. The simple question is then, are we loving our neighbor as God would have us love?

Paul wrote about opening hearts. That is another way to say love. Yes, loving the neighbor might be hard, but it is also the way we are able to experience God’s love in our midst and to share that love with the world.

Traumatizing the Children

Each week, in our Sunday worship service, we have a time for a Children’s Chat. Yesterday, we didn’t have any children. For our small congregation this occurs about once a month (last week we had 10 children, which is also a monthly occurrence). Anyway, I often will just skip this time with the children. But yesterday I opted to talk about the children. Other children. Children who are being traumatized. I didn’t write down my comments, so I don’t know exactly what I said, and how, but here is what I was thinking.

We have a crisis at our border today. Our government has decided to take children away from their parents, as a “deterrent” to other migrants (many seeking asylum) who might try to make their way to our country. We’ve been praying about this for a few weeks. But now we must act. I urge each of you to speak up. Write to our representatives. Voice your concerns at all levels. We cannot be silent on this.

This morning, as I drove to join a group run, I listened to the news and heard a pediatrician speaking about the trauma that is being visited upon these children (and their parents). This trauma has the very real potential to cause life-long problems for these children. Trauma actually affects developing brains. To make matters worse, we are hearing stories of little children taken from their parents and being placed in strange surroundings, sometimes in cages. These children may be provided food and shelter, but they are not receiving nurture. Apparently there is a policy that “shelter” (more like prison) employees are not allowed to touch the children. Being deprived of comforting touch is heaping additional abuse onto these traumatized children.

As I listened to this, I visualized the scene at our preschool on those first days of school each year. This is when little ones are oftentimes separated from their parents for the first time in their lives. It’s an important developmental step, but it is hard. So, the sound that often comes from the school those first few days is of children crying. Not all children cry, but once in awhile one child crying will cause them all to cry. Sometimes the parents cry too…and the teachers often have to encourage the parent to leave.

Not much formalmteaching happens those first few days. But there is a lot of comforting. (I think the teaching here is to learn that mom or dad will indeed return and that all will be well.)

At this point in my talk, a retired preschool teacher interrupted me with the question:

“And do you know what we tell those children?”

“What?” I respond.

“We tell them that mommy or daddy will return very soon.”

She was emotional as she shared this.

The children who are being taken from their parents have no idea when or if they will be reunited with the parents. Can you imagine this?

This policy of separating children from their parents is evil. Yesterday, I was at a loss of words beyond this recognition of the evil of these actions.

As people of faith, we are called to love our neighbor. We are called to welcome the stranger. We are called to care for the children (in fact Jesus gives dire warning against those who would harm children). We are called to all of this by a God who loves us immensely. It is this love that should, and indeed can give us the power to use our collective voice in opposition to what is happening.

Please speak up.

The Running Skirt

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My first half marathon. I wore this running skirt until it was “falling off too big.”

A few years, and many pounds, ago I couldn’t wear shorts when running. My legs were too fat and the material would bunch up between my legs. That was definitely not comfortable. I also wasn’t fond of leggings because, well, they just showed those hefty thighs rubbing against each other.

 

One day, while browsing through the running clothes section of my local REI, I discovered a running skirt. Basically a skirt over short tights. That was the solution. I wore running skirts throughout most of my weight loss journey. I also grew to dislike those running skirts, because for me they represented the reality that I was trying to cover up that which cannot really be hidden.

img_0366
These were my first running shorts.

When I lost enough weight that I could wear running shorts I was ecstatic. I vowed to myself that I would never wear a running skirt again!

 

Of course one should never say never. Right?

A couple weeks ago a friend gave me a coupon to use at our local Lululemon outlet store. I’d never worn these running clothes, so with my 25% off I checked it out. I bought some awesomely comfortable shorts. Also, much to my surprise, I saw a skirt…yes, a skirt…that I thought was cute. I tried it on, liked it, and bought it.

So much for never wearing a running skirt again!

 

ijflal55qipwegyxvt9qw-e1528990184765.jpg
Cute and comfy…my new running skirt! I kinda like how my legs look here too.

That Weight Struggle – Weekends

Pixabay - directory-466935Can you relate to this?

You wake up on Monday morning, ready to start a new week. You are determined to eat well, exercise well, and do whatever else is necessary to care for your body. Before doing all that you step on the scale.

Holy #@&%!!!

How did that happen? You think back to the previous week. You ate healthy. You slept relatively well. You exercised (and if you’re like me you exercised A LOT – 9 hours, 36 minutes, and 37 seconds to be exact for me last week). How in the world, then, can the scale say that you’ve only lost 1 pound…or stayed the same…or, horrors – gained weight?

So, my friend. How was your weekend? Did you let loose? Maybe eat an extra slice of pizza (or the whole thing?)? Did you have some beer or wine or a margarita or a combination of the above? Did you have snacks out on the counter that you noshed on all day, thus mindlessly consuming calories to replace all those you burned?

This all seems so frustrating…so depressing even. Especially if it becomes a regular Monday morning experience (or any other time you step on the scale). One option is to just step back from the scale. After all it is just giving you a number and that number shouldn’t define you. The challenge with this approach is that it might allow those of us who struggle with weight gain, or maintaining weight loss or just staying healthy, is that we ignore the warning and continue in our present unhelpful behavior.

Pixabay - hands-423794
Maybe we should do this!

So what should we do? As one who struggles with this and is sometimes very afraid of gaining back my 80+ pounds lost, here are a few suggestions.

  1. Love yourself! Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t think that you are a failure. Just understand that you are human and that you make mistakes. Also understand that you are worthy of love – in fact God loves you unconditionally – no matter what you weigh and no matter how much you struggle. It’s very hard to take care of ourselves when we don’t feel worthy of such care.
  2. Remember each day is a gift. Don’t stress about yesterday, but rather look at today (whatever day it is) as a new day that you can live to the best of your ability. Yesterday’s mistakes don’t have to define what we do this day.
  3. Think about a different approach. Weekends are fun. Gathering with friends and family is fun. Having the occasional drink and treat is fun. We should be able to partake in life and in those goodies that surround us. But that doesn’t mean we need to mindlessly eat and drink. So, make a plan to pay attention. Eat that yummy food…but only if you actually slow down enough to taste and enjoy it.
  4. Don’t forget that exercise! Yes. Exercise. Do it daily. Be like me and run marathons! Or, if that sounds like too much then opt for something more manageable, like 30 minutes of something a day. We can all find 30 minutes!
  5. Sleep. Are you getting enough sleep? When we’re tired we tend to overeat. When we’re exercising and not sleeping, we’re not recovering well either. Get your sleep. Your body and mind will thank you.
  6. Hydrate. I find that I’m tempted to eat when I’m thirsty. Sometimes a strategy is to drink water, wait, and then decide whether to eat that treat that is before you.
  7. Find a mantra. I started this list with the instruction to love yourself. I end it with the encouragement to find something encouraging to say to yourself when you are facing temptation. I often forget this. I often fail to speak nicely to myself. This week my mantra is, “I’m worth the effort!”

These tips have helped me in the past and continue to help me now. I’ve shared that I’ve lost a great deal of weight and that I don’t want to re-gain it. I know the statistics that a majority of people do exactly that. In fact, I’ve done that at other times. What’s different now is that I’m an athlete…but still the struggle is real. Hopefully these tips can help you too.

RCE - Raleigh Farmers Market 6
This is a beautiful photo of some very healthy food!

Protective Love

With permission to use this personal sermon, I’ve changed names to protect privacy.

I don’t remember exactly when this occurred, but my best guess is six years ago. It was definitely in June (or maybe in May). I know the time of year this because it was a graduation party. Another church member, Juanita, and I went as guests of the graduate, Mark, who’d just received his Master’s in Public Policy,

Except for Juanita and Mark, I didn’t know any of those gathered for the celebration (not always the easiest thing for this introvert!). We met Mark’s grandparents and chatted with then over dinner. Boy were they proud of their grandson that day!

Eventually Mark wanted us to meet his mother. She was in the living groom, seated in the middle of the sofa. I don’t remember who or how many people were around her. All I remember is that she looked serene or even regal as she sat there. AND she wasn’t interested in meeting me. Maybe Juanita , but certainly not me! This was my first encounter with Mary.

Why? Why would the mother of someone who’d become a friend have such a negative reaction to me?

Well, we need to back up a bit. Juanita and I were board members at the local nonprofit where Mark worked. That’s how we knew him.

Mark had also been talking to me about matters of faith. He told me once that as a child he’d felt the Call to become a priest. But as a young man, he instead spent some time in a futile effort to prove to himself that God does not exist.

Why? Why would someone who felt that Call to ministry turn his back, or at least attempt to turn his back, on God?

The answer to this question is, also ironically enough, the answer to the question as to why Mark’s mother rejected me at our first meeting. You see, the church had hurt Mark deeply. Just as the church, through the years, even centuries, has hurt countless people deeply. How? By rejecting him because he is gay. By telling him and others that they are condemned solely because of who they are.

Tragically, many Christian churches continue to do this. Mary knew of this rejection. She also knew that I was a pastor. Thus, I posed danger to her son. I represented those who could reject him…those who could harm him. This by the way is something I’ve experienced with others as well. I remember being a new neighbor at a neighborhood gathering. I was introduced to other neighbors as, “This is Nancy, she’s a pastor, but she’s nice.” There’s a lot of history in that “but.” As pastor, I represent what, for some, has been a place of deep hurt and rejection. Mary had no desire that day to know me.

From today’s epistle:

“So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” (2 Cor. 4:16).

Here the apostle Paul is writing about the resiliency of what is within…not because of, or through, our own efforts but through the love of God. It is a beautiful and comforting idea. But sometimes that inner nature is undergoing a battle that cannot be seen from the outside. We see that this week in the tragic suicides that are in the news.

Sometimes, what is within and given to us by God is distorted and destroyed by others. If you hear the words that condemn you in the name of God, words like, “God hates f—,” then it becomes difficult to hear anything else.

Mary, as the loving and caring mother that she was, feared for her son. She feared his responding to God’s call on his life, not because she feared God, but because she feared people who claimed to speak for God.

Eventually though, she began coming to Our Redeemer. She was very helpful when we were trying to get a Spanish language worship service going. We used to have lunch after the service. She would tell stories. She would tease. She would laugh. I loved her sense of humor and her laugh.

When she contemplated joining Our Redeemer, she shared her concerns with me. Would the Lutheran Church truly be a place that would love and care for her son? Would he be hurt? Rejected? We talked about these things. She decided to join, just in time to vote! So, she was one of the members who voted that day in August a few years ago to make us a Reconciling in Christ congregation. This in Lutheran speak means that we are fully and explicitly welcoming and affirming to our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. The vote was nearly unanimous.

A little over a week ago, Mary departed this world. She had been hospitalized for 14 days. I am so thankful that I was able to see her the day before she left us.

More from today’s epistle:

“For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but a what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” (2 Cor 4:17-5:1)

These earthly tents that we have, our bodies, don’t last forever. They fail us. We fail them. We get frustrated with them. We sometimes abuse them. Some of these earthly tents last longer than others. Sometimes we wonder about life. About why some people leave us so early. And why some don’t. The one thing that we can all know is that we too will depart this world. The death of a loved one is always painful. And death is also a reminder that each day we have is a gift.

Living each day as that gift means living with the hope that is within us. Living each day as that gift means living in such a way that we are fierce protectors of those we love. Mary taught this by the way she lived with love for all her sons. For this I am thankful. I am also hopeful, because living as fierce protectors of those we love is our Call from Jesus. May we respond to that Call from Jesus to love and protect our neighbor as fiercely.

 

 

Where’s Jesus? Part of My Sermon for John Chapter 3:1-17

Where’s Jesus? I’m reminded of a dumb joke, or what I’ve always thought was a dumb joke. The thing is, I keep remembering it. Here it is.

A mom was having problems with her two young sons. They were misbehaving, probably in the same manner that all children misbehave. But the mom was frustrated. So she asked the pastor to help. This (male) pastor agreed to go and visit and talk to the kids.

Once at the home, he decides to first talk to the youngest boy, leaving the older sibling to wait in the bedroom. In the living room with the young boy the pastor asks, “where’s Jesus?” The boy doesn’t know how to respond so he says nothing. The pastor repeats the question, raising his voice a bit, “where’s Jesus?” Confused and becoming nervous the boy continues in his silence. The pastor then, in his most loud and authoritarian voice, repeats the question, “where’s Jesus?”

At once the boy flees, running to the bedroom shared with his brother and diving under the bed. The older brother asks, “what happened?” To which the younger brother replies, “someone stole Jesus and the pastor thinks we did it!”

The part I don’t like about this joke is that it is so disconnected from the idea of child discipline. What, I ask my logical self, would the pastor have been trying to accomplish? But, in thinking about the question, “where’s Jesus?” this particular joke always comes to mind.

Where’s Jesus? Somebody stole him…

We laugh at the idea that someone would have the power to control Jesus’ coming and going. Or do we? These days it doesn’t seem to be so funny. At least the idea of Jesus seems to have been stolen. Stolen and replaced with a fake, plastic, moldable Jesus. This Jesus says whatever those who seek power in his name want him to say. This Jesus doesn’t really care about moral behavior if it gets in the way of the quest for earthly power. It’s interesting, this quest for power though. Because some who use it also try to make God into someone completely powerless.

644188_526552814037754_1413004826_nHow else to understand that meme that goes around after every school shooting…and every other atrocity that happens? This week I saw it as a photo of a t-shirt. It’s supposed to be a letter to God, along with God’s response. Here it is:

There is so much that is wrong and harmful in this.

First, the “God is not allowed in school” argument is referring to prayer. Compulsory prayer, led by a person in authority is not allowed in school. But any person can pray. Why not compulsory prayer? Because everyone is not of the same religion and even people of the same faith might have different interpretations of that faith. On this Memorial Day weekend we remember those who died fighting to defend freedom…freedom of religion is part of this freedom.

Second, the God of this meme is vindictive. The implication is, “I would help you but…” How else can you describe a God who would have the power to stop the violence but chooses not to.

Third, it blames people for supporting freedom of religion but then absolves those responsible of committing crimes with the misplaced logic that “if only we had organized prayer every day there would be no violence.”

Fourth, if the problem is that God is not allowed to be in school – through prayer – then we don’t really have any responsibility in the matter.

Last, and most importantly, it assumes a great arrogance in the human ability to dictate to God, where God can and cannot go. The God I know is more powerful than that.

Can we control where God goes? Is it then like the story of the children…Jesus is missing and they think we took him?

Where’s Jesus?

Right here in this world. Sent by the father because of love for the world. In fact, he was sent by love for the world, not to condemn it, “but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (3:17). This is not because of anything we did, or could do. Jesus is here because of God’s love for the world.

This is what Jesus told Nicodemus during his late-night visit. It was a late-night visit because Nicodemus was afraid of what the other leaders would think of his associating with someone who’d just violently thrown people out of the temple…people who’d been abusing religion. Who’d made it a method of gaining wealth and power. Nicodemus didn’t understand.

I wonder how often we too are silent because we desire the approval of others…or fear their reactions. As I wonder this, I am increasingly convinced that now is the time to speak up. To counter the dangerous, hateful, and harmful depictions of God. I understand the fear. But I also see a need to speak up, especially for our neighbors.

Nicodemus visited in the night out of fear but later, after Jesus had been abandoned to a lonely death on the cross, Nicodemus was one of those who cared for his body. He had experienced the love of God through Jesus and it changed him. How might that love change us? Will we share the love that we’ve received to a world that is need of experiencing it? I hope so.