Sunday, January 25, 2015

Just Add Water

Text:  Mark 1: 4-11

Some assume the “spiritual but not religious” dislike ritual.

But the legal victory Cari and Kim won on Friday suggests that some rituals are still valued in postmodern America. We’ve been fighting for the right (R-I-G-H-T) for all loving couples to marry. Turns out many still seek the rite (R-I-T-E) of marriage, decades after marriage was declared passé.

The impulse to create and maintain ritual is common to all human societies. It’s similar to our need for art, poetry, ceremony, dance. Rituals—even a simple bedtime routine to help children feel safe and calm—even the corny practice of  “surprising” co-workers with a cake on their birthdays to mark some days as special—even the simplest of ordinary rituals are ways we make meaning, mark time, and form community. They help us pay attention to life and find some semblance of order, which are spiritual practices. Imagine if no day were marked as special, no symbolic gesture were ever repeated with caring intention, no patterns of words or actions ever formalized and taught to the next generation. Imagine life without a set of shared symbols we enact to remind us of our history and values and to evoke emotions like those we feel singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in a stadium with thousands. Sometimes all you need to do to mark a moment ritually is—as some boxed cake mixes direct—just add water.  And a spiritual intent.

Open Table’s website declares that we are “pursuing a vision of church that is rooted in early Christian history yet responsive to today's changing world.” One way we maintain a foothold in the ancient Church while stretching toward the future is by retaining the 2 key sacraments: baptism and communion. I have argued that these Christian rites are especially important to progressives who push the envelope theologically, learn from other spiritual traditions appreciatively, and react to dogma allergically. Sharing rituals with other Christians and within our faith community—rituals that are inherently elastic in meaning—rituals that inevitably evolve over time despite perceived inflexibility—rituals whose patterns point to generous spirituality—rituals that seep into our bodies as well as our minds —sharing ritual in common, I say, rather than theological propositions, is what grounds us.

Our name, Open Table, signals that our gathering at a wide-open table is the core of our identity. What you make of that symbol may be different from what I make of it.  What you make of that symbol on a given Sunday may be different than what you make of it the next Sunday. That’s because rich rituals expand for the needs of the people and the times. Ritual should serve the people, not the other way around. Rituals are a secure anchor whose constancy facilitates our explorations and variations. Rituals remind us that we didn’t get here on our own, so we owe humble gratitude to those who participated in past ritual.

Embedded in our sacraments and scriptures, which are highly interpretable, is the trajectory of Jesus’s ongoing life. If we root our worship life in story and sacrament, if we pass along the Jesus narrative and the Jesus rites, then we can follow Jesus into an unknown but hopeful future. A Jesus untethered to tradition is an empty figure, a balloon let lose in the wind. But let’s not tether him to a committee-generated statement of required beliefs. The United Church of Christ sees creeds as “testaments of faith”—not “tests of faith.” Creeds are less adaptive to changing times than stories and rituals.

And if you think that ritual’s purpose is to keep us loyal to older ways and outmoded ideas, don’t forget that John the baptizer, that wild guy in the wilderness of today’s Gospel story, was using ritual to reinterpret a tradition for subversive purposes.

Our young church has yet to experience Christian baptism together. We haven’t yet enacted together the watery initiation story of the Christian journey. We're likely to have our first candidate/s for baptism soon--probably a couple of babies coming into our church family but also possibly unbaptized adults who request baptism. We intend to retain the essence of baptism while also modifying it for a progressive people. Yes. We get to tinker with baptism if we choose.

A new commentary on the Gospel of Mark suggests Progressive Christians should love the baptismal rite:

“Christian baptism has a bad name among ‘recovering Christians’ and other exiles abused by Church dogma . . . as well as non-Christians turned off by Christian exclusivity and fundamentalist extremism. Nevertheless, even though the 21st century is a postmodern, post-Christian time, baptism is a ritual—perhaps an archetype—that is deeply important to all of humanity, as evidenced by child dedications and naming rituals . . . among all cultures, religions, tribes, and communities. When baptism is not a proof of salvation from hell but is a ceremony of welcoming and initiation, it becomes a primary and universal sacrament” (Raven 47).

How would you reshape the baptism ritual?  Are there words you’d want spoken?  gestures?  symbols to add?

Here’s an example of one change, a tiny but important one, I’ll make. Traditionally the priest or pastor baptizes “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” If you’re like me and don’t want the divine imaged solely in masculine terms, you’ll be glad that our denomination permits us to add to the Triune blessing this phrase: “One God, Mother of all.”

In our denomination individual congregations decide if they will practice infant baptism or adult baptism. Open Table decided to leave that decision up to families and individuals. So parents may choose to have their baby baptized. In which case Open Table will offer a confirmation class when that baby becomes a young teenager. Or parents may want their children to wait until they’re of an age to decide for themselves if they want baptism, and the church will still offer a class when they are young teens, but the teens have the chance to request baptism after that.

While both adult and infant baptism picture an initiation into the life in Christ, they emphasize the faith journey in slightly different ways.  So let me tease out those differences:

The baptism of a baby emphasizes God’s initiative in our lives. God names the child “beloved” and the parents and congregation covenant to support that child in her spiritual development. The sacrament resembles a naming ceremony that gives the child a place and identity in her family and church. The sacrament pictures all of life as a journey with and toward the divine, and the baptismal waters symbolize the birth waters that launch us into life. The theological appeal of this form of baptism is that it emphasizes God reaching out to us in love. But the theological problem with this version of baptism is that it’s not the radical, counter-cultural practice that John and Jesus enacted in the desert among society’s rejects. Infant baptism is not tied to an intentional commitment of the baptized to follow in the radical ways of Jesus. As such, it can become a watered-down (no pun intended) default practice of the majority culture that says you’re part of the club.

In contrast, the baptism of a much older child or adult stresses the human response to God’s grace. The one baptized has chosen this rite and made a deep commitment. It is more a re-naming and renewing ceremony that marks a transition into adulthood or into a fresh start, a forsaking of old ways and commitment to a new path. In the baptism of an adult or teen, water symbolizes the washing away of the old life, a burial of the egocentric self under the waters, and the emergence of a new life.  Here the baptized one shows he or she has turned away from a past in order to follow Jesus. This picture of baptism lacks the sweetness of a baby’s rite; in fact, adults endure a certain loss of dignity to be immersed in water. Unfortunately, the image of washing away sins in baptismal waters can lead to “what-a-worm-am-I” theology. And it emphasize the individual’s rather than the community’s role in the spiritual journey.

This week Richard Rohr shared an online devotional in which he lamented our reliance on words for spiritual experience rather than direct engagement with the nature. He said words have “kept us from mystical experience and the deeper knowing of reality.” Rohr regrets that we “do our rituals inside buildings . . . separating us from the consolations and the discomforts of nature. . . . Prior to the invention of the written word . . . the way God made God's self available was through all of the creatures, seasons, and cycles of life and death. The wondrous nature of the world itself is the universal religion that precedes all later religions.”

While that is probably true, I think ritual might serve as the mediator between religion with NO language and religion with TOO MUCH language. In ritual the stuff of nature--water, fruit of the vine, grain of the field--mediate between our bodies and brains, between our raw experience in the world and our need to make meaning of those experiences. Like art, ritual connects heart and head, body and spirit.

Not a fan of “empty” ritual? I’m not either. But I need ways to empty myself of the constant chatter in my brain and participate in patterns of living and loving that are far older and far bigger than I am. I am glad for companions who join me in these sacred rites and in the revisions we make to them.

God of constancy and God of infinite variety and surprise, speak to us through the patterns of days and the repetition of our rites.  Amen

Raven, S. Theology from Exile, Vol. III, The Year of Mark: Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary for an Emerging Christianity. Frederick, MD: Sea Raven, 2014.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Contemplative Service and the Community's God Prayer

Last Sunday we had a guest preacher. This Sunday we offered a contemplative prayer service: no sermon; instead, we sang prayers, enjoyed silence, meditated on scripture, and enacted our prayers through four prayer stations located around the chapel. Many in the congregation chose to write prayers at one prayer station.  I've combined these prayers and inserted them into today's worship bulletin under THE COMMUNITY'S GOD PRAYERS.  At least two of these beautiful prayers were written by young children. I've copied them exactly as they were written during our meditation time.

January 18, 2015
Second Sunday after Epiphany
A Contemplative Prayer Service

"Contemplative practice [is]a surrendering of deeply imbedded resistances that allows the sacred within gradually to reveal itself as a simple, fundamental fact.” --Martin Laird

“The most dangerous man in the world is the contemplative who is guided by nobody. He trusts his own visions. He obeys the attractions of an interior voice but will not listen to other men. He identifies the will of God with anything that makes him feel, within his own heart, a big, warm, sweet interior glow. The sweeter and the warmer the feeling is, the more he is convinced of his own infallibility.” --Thomas Merton

MUSIC FOR PREPARATION       “Quiet Descending”

*SINGING TOWARD PRAYER     “Holy Ground”    supplemental songbook

WELCOME                                                    Pastor Ellen
WORDS FOR OUR CHILDREN       I Samuel 3: 19
As Samuel grew up, God was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.
SINGING IN THE QUIET       “Quiet Descending”     supplemental songbook

THE PSALMIST’S PRAYER       Psalm 139:1-6;13-18
Voice 1: O God, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit
down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O God, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
Voice 2: Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Voice 1: Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, before they existed.
Voice 2: How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them--they are more than the sand; I come to the end--I am still with you.

CALL TO STILLNESS        “Be Still and Know”       p. 17 in songbook

What might it mean for God to contemplate us?
The community names God’s concerns and joys.

SONG “God’s Eye Be Within Me”         pp. 28-29 in songbook
*GOSPEL READING         John 1:46-50                  
Philip said to Nathaniel, “Come and see.” 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”

PRAYER STATIONS (The people are invited to visit one or more prayer stations. Instructions are below.)
**Praying With God. The Psalmist images God contemplating us. Reread today’s Psalm. How might Divine Love and Justice regard us—seeing our needs and suffering, celebrating our breakthroughs, caring about our inadequacies, mourning life’s unfairness. What might God’s prayer (for ourselves, our world) be? Take the paper and pens provided and return to your seat to compose part of “God’s Prayer.” Then place your contribution to “God’s Prayer” in the basket provided. These individual God prayers will be read aloud near the close of our service. Children or adults may prefer to draw a picture of God’s concerns.

Praying Through Art.  “Come and see,” Philip said to Nathaniel. “You will see greater things than these,” said Jesus.  Seeing the painting No Traveller's Borne by Jess may enable us to pull back from our close-range look at life.  God’s view is even wider than this artist’s, of course, but this replication of an oil on wood painting might put our troubles and aspirations in perspective. Silently unite your heart with the All.

Praying Under God’s Gaze. For many of us, looking into the mirror is not always comfortable. Spend a few moments sitting comfortably in front of the mirror provided and seeing your reflection not as Madison Avenue or popular culture or your self-critical inner eye sees you. See YOU honestly yet tenderly—as a God of Supreme Love sees you. Aspire to self-knowledge, self-forgiveness, self-care, self-actualization, self-growth.

Praying By Giving and Receiving. At Christ’s Table, we give what we can and receive what God always supplies: forgiveness, grace, love, hope. The simple meal from the fruit of the vine and the grain of the field is reason enough for thanks. The memory of Jesus’s God-lit life calls us to express thanks with our very lives.  In faith we see God in and through the bread and cup. Pray as you give your offerings and make your life an offering through this sacred meal.


**THE COMMUNITY’S GOD PRAYER (The pastor reads the collective prayers the community has written--prayers God might pray for us.):

God’s prayer for us is an understanding that it is through the differences between us that we participate in the divine.

You know all of my anxiety. All of the fantasies that are not real but that seem so real. Help me to let go of trying to figure it all out. Help me to know your peace.

You are dearly loved and cherished, forever. There is nothing to fear.  There is nothing you can do wrong, so quit worrying and freely pursue your passion, your dreams, your growing into who you are in me!

Simply . . . learn to love each other without prejudice, pride, or self-interest.

Let them find peace that will love.

May you not turn me into an idol.

May you keep a sense of humor and refrain from taking yourself too seriously.

For ears that are open and hearts that listen. For minds set free from bondage and theory. For the oppressed, that someone would reach out to them. For faith no matter how small. For unity, and resiliency.

That pepole would be nice to other pepole.

Relax.  Open your eyes.  Be thankful.

I am very proud of you. Because God likes that we are ourselves. And he is happy because we can help people.

I see that you want to follow my ways and to do what you see as my will.  This pleases me. I also see that you are anxious about following me perfectly and getting   my will exactly right. You don’t need to worry about that.  Instead, I want you to be still and know my presence in you and let my presence flow through you to others in your world. I’ve loved you since the beginning. Nothing will change that.

I believe God would pray for:
--peace and love among all people without any exception.
--understanding of his word without the nitpicking that we tend to do
--unconditioned love for not only oneself but for every person
--knowledge for his people that you are only judged by the heart and its content.

Pray that my people learn to love unconditionally, that they open their hearts and minds to know that only by love will we have true peace. Pray for understanding of things that are different because everything and everyone is a wonderful creation from God.

Stop - - - being so busy.  Spend more time with me for I will bring you the peace and love and true joy that you have been seeking.

However . . . you can . . . just for a second, a minute, LET GO of your present concern, worry, I’ve got you covered.  Love you.

Be still. Do not worry about mundane matters. You are with me. I will lead you and guide you and sustain you. Focus. Continue.



Sunday, January 4, 2015

Epiphanies: The Aha Moments and the Ahhh Experiences

Gospel text: Matthew 2: 1-12

In anticipation of Epiphany Sunday, I’ve been trying to recall my own epiphanic moments. (Yes, I said "epiphanic,” the adjectival form of epiphany. You’re welcome.) I’ve been reading about what popular culture calls eureka moments (thank you, Archimedes), or lightbulb moments (thank you, Oprah). Many testify to experiences of sudden cognitive or spiritual insights—aha! moments, to use another current phrase. But I must say that, for me, it’s a long, messy series of experiences that eventually shift my consciousness.  And my usual response is an eventual “ahh” rather than an “aha!”

I’m going to share a personal “ahh experience." But first let me invite you to reflect on your "aha! moments." Have you ever experienced some event that suddenly crystalized for you a significant insight? Has an event altered your worldview or shifted your perspective significantly?  


Some of you have endured a low point that suddenly revealed to you the unhealthiness of situation you could no longer tolerate.

For others a quote from a book or a friend or enemy changed your life in a flash.

Sometimes epiphanies spring from disillusionment (the day you realized your father was grievously flawed).

Sometimes epiphanies emerge from fresh beauty and wonderment (the afternoon you saw the Grand Canyon for the first time; the moment you first held your newborn.)

But for me, important understandings about myself and my world form and reform gradually. Fresh manifestations of God seep into my spirit rather than explode on the scene. A star doesn’t suddenly appear to me (to borrow Matthew’s metaphor); a lightbulb doesn’t suddenly turn on (to use Oprah’s). 

If you, too, find it difficult to call to mind that kind of epiphanic moment in your life, that’s okay.  We’re in good company.

You see, Nelson Mandela also had trouble pointing to any epiphanic moment in his life. In his autobiography, Walk to Freedom, he claimed:

“I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people. There was no particular day on which I said, ‘Henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people;’ instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.”
What strikes me about Mandela’s un-epiphany is his description of doing epiphany rather than intellectualizing it. Shifts in understanding matter little unless they change actions. Tradition interprets today’s story as the epitome of epiphany—when wise men outside Judaism received Divine enlightenment because they saw a star, or experienced a journey, or encountered the Christ Child, or all of the above. But readers learn nothing from the text about what new thoughts the Magi began thinking or if their beliefs and understandings shifted. Instead, we learn what they did. They knelt in awe, they shared lavish gifts, and they went home “by a different road” (Matt. 2:12b). Literally that meant they did not report back to Herod and so saved the child’s life. But going home by a different way might mean their life journey took a different turn. They behaved differently after their epiphany. 
If we have experienced an authentic manifestation of the divine—suddenly or slowly—we change our trajectory, we walk forward in a different direction. That’s what the Greek word metanoia means. The KJV translates it in the New Testament as “repentance,” but metanoia signals a radical change in direction.
Mandela chose the new path of liberation and he began walking that road—or making that road—before he even realized what he was doing. 

Sometimes I wish, especially at the start of a fresh new year, that a cosmic event like a blazing new star would startle me into healthier ways of thinking and doing. But as David Anderson says in Breakfast Epiphanies: Finding Wonder in the Everyday, "In all religious traditions, the door to the numinous stands in the ordinary."

The recent suicide of the transgender 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn, and yesterday’s fundraiser in support of LGBT inclusion, and a question from Rosemarie led me to share today my personal epiphany regarding homosexuality.This story is not dramatic. But people sometimes ask me why a straight woman in her late 50s, a pastor raised Southern Baptist in Mobile, Alabama, became an LGBT ally and an advocate for marriage equality.  Rosemarie asked me that essential question a couple of days ago. To tell this story requires me first to confess that I have not always been an ally. That’s something I do repent. I have been a homophobe. I confess that.  And I confess that it took many years before I recognized my ignorance and prejudice.
Unlike my early memories of my own race prejudices, I don’t recall being aware of homosexuality until my late teens. Oh, I noticed that effeminate boys and tomboy girls were teased. But back in my day people I knew didn’t talk about homosexuality. And my conservative church didn’t rail against it—not yet. I’m sure I missed a lot of innuendos in popular culture because I was naïve. But by college the topic of homosexuality was in my consciousness, though I associated it with perversion, promiscuity, even pedophilia. I remember about that time someone threw a pie in the face of Anita Bryant, a beauty pageant winner who sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” everywhere and was speaking out against gays. I think I felt sorry for her when I saw her humiliated on television, but also I was embarrassed by her.
By the mid-80s, as a young mother, the news media reported often on the AIDS epidemic, which was equating in my mind “the gay lifestyle” with danger and death. But I was in graduate school by then and reading more widely, so I was finally realizing there were people trying to live honorable and moral lives who were simply different from me.
In 1986 George and I moved to Nashville to teach at a Baptist college. We joined a nominally Southern Baptist church attended by many faculty friends. Because of this aberrant, often irreverent yet earnest and caring church, I began noticing in the larger culture clear examples of racism, sexism, and, for the first time, heterosexism. I began getting to know the few gay and lesbian church members who were “out” to our church family. I certainly wanted to treat them respectfully, but I didn’t know what to make of gay people who openly identified that way.
I met “Jane” at a church picnic and nearly became apoplectic when I noticed--how could I not?--that she had worn shorts but hadn’t shaved her legs, maybe had never shaved her legs. I couldn’t have been more horrified if she’d had rattlesnakes growing out her ears. I was that shallow and that stupid. But my shallowness was so extreme that even I recognized it. I wondered why hairy legs troubled me more than her homosexuality, which I’d assumed was a sin. I got to know “Jane.” How bright she was and how pained because her preacher father rejected her. What was wrong with ME for turning an issue of personal grooming into a matter of personal morality? How else had I misjudged people or turned a cultural prejudice into a moral matter? 
One Sunday our pastor announced he would offer a class on “What the Bible Says about Homosexuality.”  Well, that’s strange, I thought. We know what the Bible says about homosexuality. I’m sure “Jane” knows it, too. Why make her feel bad? But after careful, gentle teaching over many weeks, our pastor showed us that the Bible didn’t really condemn homosexuality at all. And a wonderful byproduct of that class was my first awareness that the Bible should be interpreted with respect to the cultures that wrote the Bible.
By the time George and I moved away from Nashville in 2002, our Baptist church there had voted to call an openly lesbian minister as our associate pastor and was promptly disfellowshiped by the Nashville Baptist association. When I started seminary in Ohio and joined an Open and Affirming church there, I became part of a group of six dear friends, three lesbian, three straight, who had dinner together at least once a month. From my lesbian friends I heard powerful stories that taught me that churches had often been responsible for terrible hurts in their lives. Christians, I vowed, must redress these wrongs. I started marching in the annual gay pride parade and advocating for gay rights. At seminary I became known as a safe person to come out to for the closeted gay seminarians hoping to be ordained by denominations that do not ordain LGBT people. I started thinking I had a sign on my forehead saying, “It’s okay. You can come out to me.” Sadly, these capable but closeted cohorts were on a track that would eventually, it seemed to me, end in a spiritual and institutional train wreck before long.   
I share this story of my own “conversion” as an example of gradual enlightenment. Entrenched ideas usually don’t change overnight. But even intransigent prejudices can change. From my own experience and from the story of the Magi I suggest two factors that might facilitate our personal and our collective work against prejudice and in support of those needing a bit of illumination.
The Magi’s epiphany and mine were fostered by community.The Bible never says there were three wise men. Some concluded they were a trio because they brought three gifts. The story is clear that there were multiple sages traveling together. They must have talked about many things across the miles. I was like those archetypes of spiritual wisdom in only one way: my spiritual quest was not solitary. Stories were shared with me. Others’ lives were made known to me. Community supported me.
And, like the Magi, I ventured into new territory and encountered difference. When east meets west, so to speak, strangers spark cognitive and spiritual dissonance and fresh perspective. Community is important. But a diverse spiritual community is best. 
I thank God you have found your way here.
Make of us, O God, a diverse community of people who say “aha!” or “ahhhh” together, imperfect people ready to take a different road. Amen