Raising Voices

There is a priest in Baton Rouge who talks about some of his favorite interactions. Specifically, he says that on the occasions when he is not wearing his clerical collar, he loves to be asked what he does for a living. His standard response: life insurance salesman. Honest. Candid. And not inaccurate.

This past week, six of our younglings and two of our adults have been in Black Mountain, North Carolina at Montreat Conference Center for one of the annual Youth Conferences. Our theme this year considered the ways in which we are called to lift every voice in our work with God’s Kingdom on earth. The messages were eloquent and timely. From raising our own voices to cause change when the system causes harm to seeking out and embracing those voices that have long been silenced – our world is in desperate need of these efforts.

In the church, it is easy to focus on our quest for heaven, a happy afterlife, and God’s power to fix it all in the end. The problem is that is not what God, nor Jesus told us to do.  Frankly, those are meant to be “afterthoughts” compared to the essential work that surrounds us in this time and in this place, on this planet.

In every time and in every place, children of God have been called to champion the voices and lives of those who have been marginalized, outcast, forgotten, and oppressed. In the early days of Mt. Sinai, it was the orphan, the widow, and the alien. When the Word made flesh arrived, the group expanded to include the sick, the children, the poor, all women, those who are labeled in any way, those in prison, and countless others.

It is not that God does not care about all of us. On the contrary, God is drawing our attention to those blind spots we create, asking us to see them, and then pushing us to call out the power structures until no more blind spots remain.

The goal is to expand God’s love, never to limit it.

As we heard this past week, there is much work to be done. And every voice counts – including our youth, who provide a unique viewpoint that only they can see with their set of life experiences.

For those who have been at home, we know that as you have been joyfully praying for us, you have also been as troubled as we have by the events occurring in the world around us. These are not easy times to be people of faith. Nevertheless, that is precisely the life to which Christ has called us.

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu taught us – all humanity is inextricably linked together. We cannot and do not exist in isolation. The Apostle Paul understood this well when he described the church as a human body: we cannot exist without every part. All of us are essential. Especially those parts that we want to forget about (i.e. the humans who we would prefer remained forgotten, subdued, cast-out).

So, here is how we begin: Whatever experiences and questions you have – bring them to church. Whatever gifts you were given and prayers linger in your inmost heart – offer them to the body of Christ. Wherever, whoever, whatever you may feel that you are – you are welcome, valued, and necessary to God’s efforts at Highland and in the world.

May our theme song this past week serve as a prayer for the road of work ahead: We will lift the voice of every person, every child. Lord, our hearts cry out for a world reconciled. God you call us by name. God you weep with our pain. O… Lift every voice.

 

Carried

And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. (Mark 2:4)

Do you have a favorite Bible story from your childhood? Not to be confused with favorite Bible verses because they might not be story-centric – but the stories in scripture are often better than a soap opera. And likely at least one of them spoke to you in a special way as a child.

I do not remember precisely when I first heard this story from the gospel of Mark about the healing of the paralytic, but it was one of the few things I do remember from Sunday School.

The narrative goes like this: Jesus is in Capernaum and a great crowd surrounded where he was staying. A group of people came carrying their paralytic friend on a mat, but the crowd was so immense that they could not get inside. So they went up on the roof, cut a whole into it, and lowered their friend right down in front of Jesus. And it says, “When Jesus saw their faith…” their friend was restored.

In so many of the healing stories, restoration is dependent upon an individual’s faith. Rarely is it based upon someone else’s. But here, in the midst of the fast-pace story of Mark, we find these friends who will do anything to see this one made well.

Even as a child, something about that image spoke to me. Imagine a friendship like that. Were that we all were so blessed with such people around us.

As I grew up, it came to my attention the importance of who’s faith was responsible. Here is why: once we have grown up, gone through some of life’s trials and tribulations, many of us become jaded and lose our faith. Sometimes only for a little while. Sometimes for much longer. The wonder of this miracle is the promise that not only will God be present through those wanderings, but there will be others who can be sources of faith for us.

If you are currently or ever in the future going through a difficult time, may this story of the paralytic encourage you: you are not alone. Even if you lose your faith, God will bless you with others who believe in your midst to draw you back. This is not the end. And you are loved more than you can possibly imagine.

Blessings,     Janie

 

 

Mash-Up

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea…(Mark 5:21)

Among the lectionary readings, for this past week, is this fascinating healing “mash-up.” The gospel writer included not just one restoration story, but sandwiched a second within the narrative of the first. This is the familiar story of the resurrection of the synagogue leader’s daughter that incorporates the curing of the hemorrhaging woman. Though many ancient writers use the same enclosure device as a literary mechanism, the gospel writer is intentionally drawing our attention to a key theological principle.

Most of us remember the key parts of the story: Jesus is pulled toward the house of a synagogue leader whose daughter is dying. On the way, as a crowd is pushing into all of his personal space, another woman, who was not allowed anywhere near people, uses all the confusion to get close enough to Jesus to touch his hemline. She is healed after many years of continuous bleeding and has a quick interaction with Jesus. Then he finally arrives at his original destination where he shocks the scoffers in his midst by raising the little girl from death to life.

There are many fascinating things happening in this narrative – far more than we can focus on in one quick article.

So let’s consider the reason for the “mash-up” in the first place. Though both stories involve physical healing, there is an additional form of restoration at play in the center story. Surrounded by the girl’s resurrection from the dead, the woman is not only cured of her physical ailment, but also revived from social death.

We must remember that in Jesus’ day, any blood on a person rendered them “unclean” under the laws of Moses. Though men encountered this difficulty, women (due to the realities of our bodies) were hit particularly hard by the restrictions. A woman who is constantly bleeding would have been not only barred from temple worship, but also any form of commerce and every form of human interaction. She was ostracized. Cast out. Unwanted. Unclean. When Jesus heals the hemorrhaging woman, he not only removes her physical illness, but also restores her to true wholeness of life. She could return to life as a full member of the community.

Why does this matter?

Jesus came not just to raise us from death to life in eternity, but more importantly to new life here and now. These stories are meant to draw our attention beyond corporeal death to all the forms of death that plague this world: including social, economic, and bodily illness. We serve a Lord who is not concerned solely with “spiritual matters.” Christ is at work among us, with us, and through us to see fullness of life for all people – here and now. And Jesus calls his followers to continue his work of overturning the powers of this world.

So then, let us remember the twin lessons of this narrative: Jesus cares about peoples’ whole lives in this world (and so should we) and always keep your wits about you, because the next miracle does not have to wait for the current one to finish.

Blessings,     Janie

 

Hypocrites

“…Do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.” (Matthew 6:5)

A few years ago, at a Montreat Youth Conference, the leaders showed us a video of a google search. As many of us know, when we begin a phrase google will try to finish it. So the typer put in “why is the church…” and eventually, “why are Christians…” to which the first fill-in from google was: hypocritical.

Now, here’s the thing about the way google does this – it does not fill in the sentence with ideas that a group of human controllers are thinking up in a random room somewhere. The sentences are finished by the statements that are searched for the most. Which means that there are a lot of people out there asking that question.

Many of us do attempt to live into a life of humble forgiveness to others. We see we are fallen. We admit we mess up and fall short. We know that we are in no position to judge. We try to love as best we can. So why do so many people think that the church is full of hypocrites?

Two reasons. The first is that there are many among us (every one of us included at some point, by the way) who do practice our piety to put on a show for others. We want the accolades of being a “good Christian.” We don’t want to focus so much on all the ways we mess up and want to hide the ways we do. All we want is to be seen as the perfect child of God – that cannot possibly exist. To live this way, goes against Christ’s own principles and does, unfortunately, make us hypocrites.

The second reason is a bit more troubling. When we hear things being said and see things being done that are against God’s purposes – hatred, malevolence, injustice, sowing mistrust, false imprisonment, violence, broken bodies and relationships, just to name a few – and we do nothing, then we are hypocrites. It is an ancient adage from our own and all the Abrahamic faiths, that to see evil and do nothing is to commit evil ourselves.

So yes, unfortunately the world is correct that often Christians are hypocrites. Trust me when I say that I did not enjoy figuring this out anymore than any of you who may be reading this. The good news is that admission is the first and biggest step to recovery.

Once we realize that it is not just others of our brethren living in hypocrisy, but we ourselves, then we can begin to change. We can become more aware of what we do and say. We can intentionally pay attention to what is happening to others. We can live out our faith and belief in Christ by living as Christ did. As much as we must stand against evil and injustice, we must also find new ways to stand for love, hope, peace, compassion, justice, truth, wholeness, reconciliation, courage, learning, care, rebuilding, renewing, recreating.

Though the road may be long to the world seeing that the church is always trying to overcome its hypocrisy, and that the body of Christ is truly doing many good things – we have to try. It begins with you and with me. Through our prayers. Through our words. Through our actions.

May we live for Christ and may others find Christ alive in us.

Blessings,     Janie

ASK

“So I say to you, ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (Luke 11:9)

There is a persistence to God’s Kingdom.

On the one hand, we see how God is consistently seeking after us. The Creator asks us to become remade again. Christ searches for us from the heights of the mountains to the depths of Sheol. The Holy Spirit knocks on the doors of our hearts and begs us to become who we are meant to be. This is true for us as individuals and as a community.

For as the Triune God is doing these things among the faithful, that same God is in the world stirring a ferment that will transform everything. It will flip the world upside down. And as one of my colleagues reminded me of the quote a couple of weeks ago: that change will “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

There is a persistence to God’s Kingdom. It does not stop. It does not wait. It does not sit idly by while we are making our own decisions.

But our participation in it requires the same persistence on our part.

God may be nearby waiting for us to willingly enter the fray, but once we accept (even if we have to do so every single day anew), we are invited into that same fervor. God’s Kingdom work will take root in our soul. It will very likely turn everything we’ve ever known upside down.

Because becoming those who ask for the work, search for the opportunities, and knock on the difficult doors – it makes us something different than the world tells us to be. Our lives, our prayers begin to more clearly mirror God’s own purpose. The world will not be comfortable with that. And that is okay.

For in asking, searching, knocking – in seeking God’s Kingdom, we will be living as we were intended to. Living into our creation in the image of the Triune God. The beauty of that work will come when we see that same image come alive with the excitement of the Kingdom in others. Just imagine what the world will look like when we all find that same persistence alive in us…

So, as you say your daily prayers and seek to live as Christ’s followers, be persistent in your A.sk S.eek K.nock. You will find that the Kingdom is all around you.

Blessings,     Janie

Hope & Light

Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:24-25)

Someone suggested to me this past week that we do not need hope as Christians – for we have a surety of Christ’s salvation. Perhaps. For many of us, we do not need hope in that sense.

However, all of us need to live into the hope the Holy Spirit does give us: a hope for a better world, a renewed life, a remade mission. This is the unseen hope to which we cling and for which we wait, as Paul so eloquently puts it.

Towards the end of my sermon this past weekend, I stated: “The good news is that there is still new life available and ahead of us. God is not finished with us yet.”

What a blessing that good news is! Think about – wherever we are right now, whatever we’ve been through, whatever we are going through – the best is still yet to come.

I know, for me personally, there are many days when I need to hear that good news stated again and again. Life get busy or messy or challenging and it feels like the struggle will never end. One promise of God is that God is with us in all of these things, in the muck and mire of life and on the mountaintops, walking with us through it all.

However, there is the promise beyond mere survival and subsistence. There is light at the end of the tunnel (and no it is not just a freight train headed our way). The light will get brighter. The tunnel will end. And there is more beyond the tunnel where the light resides – new life. Fuller life. Joyous life.

Though we often focus on these promises as individuals, they are also for us as a group. The body of Christ has matchless promises throughout scripture that God will be with us. God is working among us. God is not finished with us yet.

This year marks the 35th year since our charter at Highland Presbyterian Church. It is a time of rejoicing in and remembering all that we have been and done. And it is a time to seek new hope for the life that God has placed ahead us. God is not finished with Highland and there is new life on the way. May we all find the patience we need to wait for that hope’s coming and the courage and energy we need to make it a reality.

Blessings,     Janie

 

Teach us to pray…

One of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name…” (Luke 11:1b-2a)

Far too often in our world, today, we get so focused on praying “correctly” – with the right words, exact phrases, and specific nomenclature – that we miss out entirely on how Christ has invited us to pray.

Sometimes we think that prayer is a chance for us to order God like a fast-food menu. Other times we think that prayer is an opportunity for God to grant our utmost desires and wishes like a genie. Still other times, we think that if we just pray hard enough, everything we want will come to pass.

There are, in fact, scripture passages that explain how we arrived at these conclusions. However, frankly, they are quite often cherry-picked and do not take into account the bigger picture.

I may have mentioned it before, but a wise mentor of mine once suggested that there is always an open channel of communication between us and God – prayer is just those moments when we pay attention to it. Contrary to popular experience, prayer was never intended to be a one-sided conversation. Not only are we to pray to God, but we are also meant to listen to what God is saying, too.

True prayer can be everything from pleading cries to joyful shouts to silence. All are correct when they intentionally acknowledge that open connection between ourselves and God.

Nevertheless, the prayer that Christ taught us gives us a unique opportunity to see the true purpose of our communication with God fulfilled. That purpose is to transform us. Shape us. Mold us. Fashion us into a greater mirror of God’s own likeness. Why does this prayer do this? Because it gives us major layout of God’s greatest desires for our life together.

We are to address our God in heaven as a parent with whom we are in deep relationship. We are to give honor to who God truly is and look for God’s reign in us, among us, and through us. We are to work with God to gain what we and all the Creation needs. We are to beg forgiveness even as we offer forgiveness for which others have never asked. And we are to live in hope that God will be with us no matter what may come.

That is how we build healthy relationships – with God, ourselves, and others.

The words of the Lord’s Prayer are not necessarily the “correct” words, but they do give us a glimpse at God’s bigger picture. They provide a beginning to the path of true-two-way communication with God. They aid in God’s work of shaping us into the heirs of Christ we already are and are meant to become.

So keep praying – in all the ways to which you feel called. Consider how you might better listen to what God is saying during your prayers and in your prayers. And then you will truly begin to see who God really is and who we are meant to be.

Blessings,    Janie

As Christ has taught us…

 

Every week, at some point in worship, we pray the prayer that Christ has taught us… together. It is the same words the English-speaking church has used for ages, even if we do debate about one particular line’s translation. Yet, when we say the words each week, do we stop to think about their meaning? Do we really mean what we say – do we want God’s Kingdom to come? Or God’s will be done, even if it means we have to give up our own control?

Like many things in our life, when we continuously say or do the same thing repeatedly, without introspection, we lose something in the practice. We forget what we’re actually saying. And often we are simply going through the motions.This summer, we are going to endeavor on a sermon series that will hopefully snap us all awake.

Each week that we partake in this sequence, we will examine one segment of the Lord’s Prayer in depth. We will consider why we pray about a kingdom, why we are saying we will forgive others, and even whether it is really debts, trespasses, or sins. By the end of the next few months, our prayer is that God will enliven our speaking of the prayer that Christ did teach us to say.

Keeping all of that in mind, as we prepare to enter into this practice together, I invite each of you to consider what you do know about the Lord’s Prayer. What have you learned about what we say over the years? In addition, I hope you will think through these questions as well:

  • What is the “right” way to pray? Why?
  • What are some prayer practices that you know about?
  • How do you pray?
  • What does the Lord’s Prayer have to do with our other prayers?

I will also be thinking through my own answers to these questions as I prepare for this series.

As the heat envelopes our city, we hope that you will come inside and cool off for a while as we look at this central practice of our life of faith. And maybe even bring a friend with you – you never know what insights we can gain as we all worship together.

Blessings,     Janie

Imago Dei

Several years ago, now, I carved a Celtic Trinity knot into my pumpkin on Halloween. (Being a proud descendant of the British Isles, I have always enjoyed Celtic knot work and its symbolism.) After finishing my attempt and placing it with an illuminating candle outside our front door, I took a snapshot of my work. And then I published it on Facebook with the challenge: “100 Jesus points to whoever can tell me what this symbol is.”

Members of my youth group at the time guessed several different things, because they wanted to gain the bragging rights for winning (since Jesus points aren’t actually a thing). Then one of them answered: “The Imago Dei.” And I was floored.

This weekend, we will celebrate Trinity Sunday – one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith. We confuse the “perdition” out of our other Abrahamic brethren – for how can you have One God in Three persons? Even within the bounds of our own tradition, many of us look at the concept of the Trinity and scratch our heads.

Though the word has no biblical root, the concept was “ordained” early in the Christian faith as an answer to those who would make Jesus one of two deities (God the Father and Christ) or those who would make Jesus not even a true part of God.

The scriptures do, however, give some backing to this concept. For one, there are the three visitors who come to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis – the three meant to represent our One God. Secondly, throughout the gospels, Jesus refers to both God the Father and the Holy Spirit as modes of God’s own self; not to mention how Jesus is identified as God’s own revelation. And then, there is Genesis 1.

In Genesis 1, it is quite easy to see God the Creator visible. There is also the “Spirit” or “Breath” of God hovering over the waters. This is where it gets a little tricky to explain.  Two out of three members of the Trinity are relatively obvious. So where is Jesus? In John 1, it states: In the beginning the Word was with God. In Genesis it looks like this: And God spoke. That is how the Jewish Christians learning from John’s gospel would have understood what he suggested, connecting the Christ back to the very beginning of the creation, when God created everything through God’s Word spoken.

And now that you are all thoroughly confused, here is why this matters: The essential reason the Trinity has remained as a central concept in the post-modern world is not because it is a nifty trick of dogma. Instead, it is because it is a paradigmatic way to explain our understanding of who God is.

Our God is perfect community, communion, relationship. Augustine of Hippo described God as “the Lover, the Beloved, and the Love that unites them.” And we, humans, were made in the image of that Love.

The reason why that youth, all those years ago, had confused the Trinity knot with the concept of the Imago Dei is that every time we studied the Trinity, for which we used the Celtic image, we talked about what it means to be made in the image of such a community.

It means that we are made to be loved and to love. God created us to expand the Love already at work in God, so that we might love God and love one another. That is what Trinity Sunday means for us. It is a time to remember in whose image we were made and called good. It is that Sunday every year when our creation in the Image of God (Imago Dei) gives new birth to our calling as bearer’s of God’s work and word.

As we approach our Triune God this Sunday morning in worship, may you be filled with the strength of the bonds through which we and God are all knotted together, so that you use them to embrace the whole world into God’s beloved image.

Blessings,     Janie

Ablaze

One year, several years ago now, my youth group had the year-long theme of “Catching Fire” – thank you Hunger Games. We focused on all the stories about fire throughout the scriptures, from the burning bush through to Pentecost. One evening, as we were going around the room praying at the end of our meeting, a young man prayed, “That the people of [country] will catch on fire.” Giggles immediately ensued. And yet, we all knew what he meant, however it may have come out.

As followers of Christ, it is our job to set the world on fire. Not in the physical fire sense (Rob Stewart, I hope that you will forgive me). It is, however, our job to let the light of Christ so envelope our lives that it spreads like wildfire to all around us. It is a light that brings truth into the open that justice may take hold. It is a light that brings hope in the darkness that those in peril may know that this is not the end. It is a light that brightens hearts with a  love that is stronger than death and a passion more fierce than the grave. It is the light of a candle glowing in the windowsill offering hospitality, welcome, and family. That is the fire that comes at Pentecost: God’s Spirit of light to set the world ablaze… through us.

Among the ancient symbols used by Christianity is one that is a fitting choice for Pentecost and all life for followers of Christ: the Phoenix. A phoenix was a mythical bird who would grow until old age and then spontaneously combust. From the ashes of the old, that same bird would be reborn.

My friends, we are the ones who were drawn from the dust and in Jesus Christ we have already received the wonders of rebirth into the Kingdom of God. Unfortunately, we are also still humans living in a fallen world. Things do break. Structures do not always last. Life hits its roadblocks. But the Church, God’s Church, will always rise from the ashes to new life, even when many feel that all hope is lost.

As we head into the season of Pentecost this weekend, celebrating 35 years of ministry together, I want us to rejoice and give thanks because, though our history may be glorious, our best days are still ahead. God is already there, leading us into the path that is waiting. Join me as we begin to take our first steps into God’s future and rise like a phoenix outshining the breaking dawn.

Blessings,     Janie