Ending the Checklist Checkup

By christopherharte This site also listed by request [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Earlier today, an interview with Jennifer Aniston was broadcasted on the Today Show. She stated to Carson Daly:

“It’s always such an issue of ‘are you married yet… have you had your babies yet?’ It’s just constant… I don’t have this sort of checklist of things that have to be done, and … if they’re not checked, then I’ve failed some part of my feminism or my being a woman or my worth and my value as a woman because I haven’t,.. birthed a child… I’ve birthed a lot of things, and I feel like I’ve mothered many things.  And I don’t think it’s fair to put that pressure on people.”

When interviewing Gloria Steinem back in February, she stated “Being in the public eye, us women come up against this, that our value and worth is dependent on our marital status and or if we’ve procreated.”

It’s not just people in the public eye, Jennifer.

I remember the pressure that starts somewhere around 21 years old. Who are you dating. When are you going to get engaged. Are you planning on having children soon?

Could we please have a little time to figure out what we want?  In fact, can I have a lifetime to figure out my life?

Immediately after college, I ran into the mom of a classmate from grade school. Her son was getting married and “achieved” the privileged position of having his engagement in the local paper. She then inquires “so… when will your picture be in the paper?”

See. No pressure.

Over the years, I’d catch up with high school and college friends after a few months. One of the first things out of their mouths was always “Are you dating anyone?”

I’m really not sure if they were trying to make casual conversation, if they really cared about me or if they were seeing how far along I was in the checklist.

I would grade my life an A on life’s wilderness and a D on life’s checklist.  My life has been about the journey, the people I’ve encountered and the experiences I’ve embraced.  I’ve experienced great things like receiving a master degree, having a one-act play staged, writing for religious sites, living in various areas in this country and being ordained.  But according to the orthodox life checklist of marriage, babies and house, I have accomplished little.

So here I am asking you today.

Please. Pause.

Think before asking single people about their dating lives. If the non-married friend feels like sharing with you, you will know. You’ll may see photos of the new couples on social media. You may hear a former singleton ask if they can bring a date to your party. If the relationship is substantial, you will undoubtedly hear about it.

After a couple is dating for a while, think before asking them when they are getting engaged. Stop making comments along the lines of “When are we going to hear wedding bells” and “Let me know when the date is set.” They may not know and may not be in the place of their relationship to discuss this level of commitment. But all of us in relationships can tell you this: it’s rarely anyone else’s business. It’s between God and the two people who are considering sharing a life-long covenant.  Please pause before asking a divorced friend if she or he is dating again.

After the engagement happens, it’s understandable to wonder when someone will set the date. Some people choose to remain engaged for a longer period of time. Please rethink your comments to the engaged person on the length of their engagement. Maybe they’re waiting until a family crisis is over or until they’ve saved enough money. But they may not feeling like they need to offer an explanation to why the wedding has not happened up until this point.

Once the couple is married, reconsider before asking them when they will have children. Deciding to have a family is a huge decision. It’s not a choice that two people should take lightly. Having children is expensive and has the potential of requiring one person in the relationship to place their career on hold. Furthermore, the couple may be having issues with infertility or other reproductive losses, and they do not need you to remind them of what they don’t have in their lives.

And then, finally, pause before asking when the next child will come along. One child may be enough for a couple. As I mentioned maybe the couple is having fertility issues. Again, if and when the second, third, fourth or seventh child is on its way, they will tell you.

So why can’t we encourage one another from our different life paths? Why must we force people onto a specific life checklist? Right now, is there a piece of you that wants to make the person feel bad for not “completing the list?” Or are you genuinely concerned about the life of the person? Instead, would you be willing ask them how they are doing, what is new in their life or inquire about a hobby/job/etc. with which they are already involved?

There are certainly friendships where asking these questions are normal for the relationships – you are close and talk about many intimate life details.  But if you rarely talk with a friend, why would you ask them so many invasive questions?

I know I’ve asked the invasive questions, and I’m truly sorry that I did. Sometime, I was uncomfortable of where I was on my journey, and asking the question was my attempt to work through my own insecurity. One time after being asked “are you dating someone” for the billionth time by a good friend from college, I asked her “when are you starting a family.” (Maybe because I was tired of being asked the question by this friend.) She got quiet and said to me, “we’re trying.”

From that encounter I realized that these questions are sacred ones, and we ask them with great care.  Whether it’s extended singlehood, divorce, finances, challenging marriages or infertility, we all encounter struggles in life.

I remember the Genesis story of Rachel, waiting years before being able to marry Jacob, and then struggling with infertility. She watched her sister get married and have children with the man she loved, and had to patiently wait for the time when it was right for her to “complete the list.” And then there was Hannah in 1 Samuel, struggling with the shame she received from Peninnah because of infertility.

Questions like these which seem harmless can bring shame and embarrassment to our friends or acquaintances. Let’s stop the exhausting shaming inquiries. And let’s focus on the beautiful small moments of life.

Baptism by Ice

Yesterday, I was baptized by ice.

Yes, I performed this “remembering my baptism” ritual myself. As the frigid waters ran down my head, face and back, I tried to focus my attention on the hope that my actions would somehow point to a greater cause.

But I couldn’t help it. I still focused on how cold the water was as it ran down my body.

When I first saw this fundraiser and awareness, I thought it was a bit gimmicky. Dumping a bunch of water on our heads: who does this help? Are we talking enough about the disease as we film these videos? Or are people just dumping water on their heads without giving a care to this horrible illness?

And then my little sister nominated me. I couldn’t escape the ritual.

As I continually watched videos of friends and strangers taking part in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, I realized that icy water and a cause are drawing all sorts of people together. We are no longer individuals but connected by this ritual of pouring a bucket of ice and water over our heads in the name of stopping an illness. From Robert Downey, Jr. to Oprah to Tom Cruise, from the child heading into kindergarten to the retiree in their 70’s, and from the famous actor to the local church pastor, we join together to take part in a common ritual and cause.

This ritual became more than a gimmick. It became more than a dare and more than a simple yet widespread fundraiser.

For me, it was a chance to remember my baptism.

As water is poured on our heads or as our whole bodies are immersed in a pool, we experience that same type of connection to others in our faith. That is baptism. As humans and as Christians, we are not alone in this messy life. In the ritual of baptism, we are reminded of grace in community. As we watch a small child or teen or adult experiencing the trickling water across their foreheads, we remember whose child we are. Our messiness as humans continues well after our baptisms but the water will always remind us that God’s grace is present with us as we abide with God and community.

So as we watch our next friend or favorite sports team dump a bucket of icy water as they stand in the warm summer sun, let us remember our connection to the greater Church, our connection to those who struggle each day with the degenerative illness of ALS, and our greater connection to all of humanity.

And let us remember our baptism.

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Shedding My White Naiveté

St. Louis – Maps of racial and ethnic divisions in US cities, inspired by http://www.radicalcartography.net/index.html?chicagodots (Bill Rankin’s map of Chicago), updated for Census 2010. Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Yellow is Other, and each dot is 25 residents. Data from Census 2010. Base map © OpenStreetMap, CC-BY-SA Map of By Eric Fischer (Flickr: Race and ethnicity 2010: St. Louis) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I am white.

I’m not sure that lends me to give my opinions on what is going on in Ferguson, MO.  Yet by living in the St. Louis area throughout my entire childhood and having conversations about race and reconciliation inside and outside of seminary classrooms, I have some passionate thoughts on the subject.

If you live in the St. Louis area as I did in my childhood and throughout college and seminary, you notice that many areas are either white or black.  While there are a few integrated communities, it seems though each race has their designated space to live.

My first residence was in East St. Louis for the first three months of my life.  My parents moved closer to my dad’s work in Belleville.  My grandparents, who lived in my first residence, stayed there for another decade.  Based on what I remember when visiting them, they may have been the only or one of the few Caucasian families still in their neighborhood.

I remember people often talked about this fear that the people of East St. Louis were going to “move up the hill” to Belleville.  People continued and still continue to move farther away from Belleville’s West End because of this fear.

I’m guessing other areas of St. Louis experienced white flight similar to this.  Is it because people assumed racial minority equaled dangerous?  Or did people continue to hold on to their racism from the 1960’s?

When I entered seminary in my thirties, my friends of color would talk about their fears of living in Webster Groves.  I couldn’t understand.  To me, Webster Groves was this safe suburban community filled with large homes and prestigious schools.

But that wasn’t the experience of my friends.  One told me “I couldn’t go running at night.  I just can’t do that – someone will think I did something wrong.”  She told me that our black classmates and friends feel that they would be pulled over by police based upon the color of their skin.  And then she said something to me that really opened my eyes: “I can’t fully be a whole person in Webster Groves.”

When you live in privileged areas, only some people are given the rights of being made in God’s image.  Others have to embrace a lesser form of personhood.

Hearing the words “white privilege” for the first time made me completely uncomfortable.  As a woman I don’t feel extremely privileged.  Sure, I may not be as privileged as another white person based on my gender or socioeconomic group.  There are times that being a woman does not make life easy – especially when it has to do with bodily safety.

But I am privileged beyond what I will ever realize.

I can drive in suburbs and never wonder if I will be pulled over because of my skin color.  I will be treated with greater respect at stores.  People will not assume I will cause trouble because I am white.

Some time later, I took a class on race and reconciliation.  There was one day where the conversation became extremely heated.  The pain of what was happening in predominantly black neighborhoods and the discrimination to our sisters and brothers all over St. Louis was expressed very explicitly that day.

That day still remains at the forefront of my memory, especially when watching these events unfold in Ferguson.  I recognize the pain as many march on the streets.

From all of these conversations, it was like I took the “red pill” in the movie The Matrix.  I can’t unsee the systemic racism that exists in our communities.  The flame of justice and peace that was ignited in seminary continues to burn brighter within my soul as I watch news reports of North St. Louis County.

All I can assume is that these acts of protests, riots and looting stem from this deep systemic pain.  As a white person, I can’t accurately represent their pain.  But from the gift of many conversations, I know it’s there, and they have every right to voice their deep anguish.  When people face discrimination, violence, a disproportionate number of incarcerations, lack of quality education programs as well as adequately-paid employment options, food and basic needs, there’s less hope in their communities.

As a Caucasian, I can tell you that we don’t experience what minorities and marginalized people experience.  All we can do is try our best to point to injustices that linger in our communities.

What I’m writing here is intended for a primarily white audience — to share my story of privilege awareness.  As Caucasians need to start to do our best to see it from a different angle… not from our comfy suburban coves or up on hills away from “those people.”

When a family of color moves into our neighborhood, let’s not contemplate moving to a “whiter” area.  Let’s invite our neighbors over for coffee or dinner and begin to build the relationships.  When you see the looting on TV, don’t just focus on that one piece of the situation.  Instead, focus your eyes on the people who are trying to pray over the communities and lead communities to peace.  Listen for the people who are trying to bring all sides together for dialogue, and join those conversations.  Notice the people who are trying to stop looters and clean up the messes a few hands have made.

And let’s spend some time with our friends of various background.  Maybe we’ll hear the deep pain that resides within them from discrimination.

These are baby steps, but we need to start somewhere.

I believe it was a matter of time before this happened to a community in St. Louis.  The people of color in St. Louis have been living in pain that many of us will never understand in our lifetimes.  As a white person, I don’t know how to support them as I should, and I know I will fall short.

I will continue to make mistakes.  You will continue to make mistakes.  We’re human.  But how can we be better the next time?

When we misspeak and return to our privileged ways, we need to stand back up and continue to try to bring about God’s kingdom of peace and justice.

And I will say this: I don’t want to hear that the people who are expressing their anguish should be “whipped,” and please stop calling them “those people.”  They are part of all of us – part of the Body of Christ, part of God’s creation.  No matter what our color, we’re made in God’s image.

Yesterday, the lectionary text was Jesus encountering the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15).  Her ethnicity and set of beliefs led Jesus to group her with the “other.”  She called Jesus out on his moment of discrimination, and he changed his view of her and his process of ministry to those outside of the Jewish faith.

Let’s be like Jesus, the one who taught us how to set aside our prejudices and love our neighbors unconditionally.

 

 

Robin Williams, What Dreams May Come and Psalm 139

Robin Williams. By John J. Kruzel/American Forces Press Service (Americasupportsyou.mil article) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Like many of you right now, I’m processing the death of actor Robin Williams.  His comedic timing and infectious energy permeated our hearts.  Reading many status updates in the past two hours, I see that this one death has left a very large hole in our culture.

It breaks my heart that someone who brought joy to thousands of others has endured a silent struggle with mental health issues.

In remembering his life, we tend to recall lighter comedies like Aladdin or Mrs. Doubtfire or significant mentor roles like Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society or Sean McGuire in Good Will Hunting, overlooking some of Robin’s performances in lesser known roles.

In 1998, Robin Williams led the cast of What Dreams May Come, a feature film about a man who risks his soul to rescue his wife, Annie.  His character loses both children to a car accident, and then Chris himself dies in a similar manner. His wife cannot escape her depression.  She commits suicide to escape her life of pain.

On the other side of heaven, he hears that his wife decided to take her own life and that she is confined to hell.  Determined to be reunited and rescue her from her self-imposed eternal damnation, Chris sets out to explore each layer of heaven and hell to find her.

He uses every bit of his afterlife energy, and in her own Sheol, a shadow-filled underworld, he finds her.

Many in our society believe that people who kill themselves bring upon themselves eternal damnation or a self-imposed confinement to hell.  Yet I believe that God is much like Chris in What Dreams May Come: searching for us, sitting with us in Sheol and helping us find a way out.  God knows that mental illness is just that: an illness.  And God never abandons us no matter what illness and no matter if we are barely thriving on this earth or barely existing in the afterlife.  God’s pursuing love is chasing us on every level of the afterlife to help lead us to heaven.

Psalm 139:7-12 says the following:

“Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.”

And that’s where I believe Robin Williams is: with God.  That’s where I believe all people who commit suicide are.  There is no afterlife hell for people who struggle with mental illness and commit suicide.  God’s grace is bigger than any condemnation or judgment.  God knows of Robin’ pain, and God is doing everything that God can do to be with him right now – from Sheol to heaven and everywhere in between.

Many people including some of you reading may be contemplating suicide because the pain feels too great.  However, there is help and hope if you struggle with depression or other mental illness.  Your life is valuable to many people.  Visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website at http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ or call (800) 273-TALK (8255).  

Everyday Apocalypses

From the lips of the doctor
came the earth-shaking gong
of terrifying news-
only days, only months-
unending, unceasing, unrelenting pain.

Gazing at the fresh grave of a spouse
or partner
or friend-
tomorrow doesn’t matter.

One line, not two
on the pregnancy test
for the seventh month in a row.
The empty womb weeps.

In the words
separation
divorce

his house has been destroyed.

As we wait for Jesus, or zombies, or the rapture-
water turning to blood, planets colliding-
we meet our demise in the quiet of everyday.

 

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In God’s Eyes

In God’s Eyes

Yes, God is the God of romantic gestures, of boomboxes overhead as music plays at dawn to woo a lost love. God is the God who would hold the boombox outside of our window to draw us to Her or Him. Continue reading

A Prayer for Those Embarking on the Citizenship Interview

By National Park Service (National Park Service [1] [2]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

God of all citizens and residents and aliens and visitors,
The excitement pours out of the hearts of those who desire to make this home.
The nerves jump as they wonder what the future holds
And the time to interview gets closer and closer.

May rocky nerves be smooth as pebbles
And may their vocal chords vibrate coherent answers.

God, you walk with us on every path
From the northern border to the southern states
And on both sides of the equator.

You are everywhere.
You are here.

So on this path today-
As information is asked and given,
And tests are taken,
And worries are high,
And butterflies wrestle in tummies-
We know you are there drawing the very best out of us.

Whether we are citizens or visitors, aliens or residents,
Call us to serve our communities, nation and world
with integrity, passion and love.  Amen.

Dedicated to my mom on her citizenship interview today, July 10, 2014.

Mental and Spiritual Assault: My Story

By Gowri Sankar (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

TRIGGER WARNING

Notes: Names have been changed in this story.  The following experience is a deeply personal account.  I felt the call and the need to share this as others may be experiencing similar abuses and to reach out to those who may need to know they are not alone and their experience is valid.  While most of my posts are not quite so deep in tone, this one reaches to the messy places that many of us experience.

Growing up, I was a good girl.  Being the people-pleaser that I am, I chose to hang out with the “good” kids, joined the “good” organizations and collected experiences in churches like one may collect baseball cards.  But as I found out, my naivete was not an asset in my life like many would think but one that led me to some soul-stabbing experiences.

Now, my brushes with faith-based abuse span multiple decades and situations.  Whether it was peers in my tween years or a pastor attempting to coerce me to see things his way, I’ve accumulated the scars from spiritual abuse.

I realize that after hearing of various instances where people have used their “good Christian” powers to defame the name of the faith and manipulate people in the process I had to tell my story.  I speak my truth to make sure others aren’t going through similar situations and to recognize a person who feeds off of mind control.

*****

Like most interesting stories in my life, I was nineteen years old.  Only days away from beginning my sophomore year of college, I had become a member of the orientation team.  We spent time over the summer and a day or two before the official move-in date to prepare for orientation activities.

The evening before move-in, a few of us went to eat, relaxing before the restlessness began.

I decided to get a ride back with Glenn.  Two years ahead of me in school, Glenn was very popular with the faculty, staff and students at the college.  He was beyond brilliant, and his girlfriend, Carol, was a talented artist.  What attracted many people to Glenn was the devotion to his faith – a devotion that seemed authentic when we met.  I suppose knowing that he was a “good Christian” was what drew me to him as a friend.

After departing the eating establishment, Glenn requested that we stopped by his mom’s house to pick up something he had left over the summer.  No problem, I told him.  After he emerged from the house, he got back in the car.  But we didn’t leave right away.  We began talking.

Glenn told me all about his childhood.  The conversation went deeper… and deeper… until he threw out a significant piece of his life story.  “My father was an alcoholic,” he told me.  “I haven’t told anyone… not even Carol.”  The heartwrenching information he handed to me privileged me beyond anyone else he knew.

We began driving back to school – a fifteen or twenty minute drive.  For the entire ride, the discussion remained deep.  As we stopped at a light only a block or two from the campus, he divulged his “true” feelings.

“I like you, Michelle.”

We pulled onto campus.  After this statement, I couldn’t let this conversation end.  “Come up to my room and we’ll talk more.”

I always assumed I was safe around Glenn.  He was a Christian.  We had spent much time together in the past.  He was against drinking and pre-marital sex and all of the things I was told were wrong.

So I walked up the two flights of stairs to his room.  And we started talking.

He told me how much he liked me, that his girlfriend Carol or my former boyfriend (his best friend) never knew.  In fact, he said they shouldn’t know.

The next three hours were a blur.  But for those three hours he had a hold on my mind.  No person since then has ever had a hold on my mind with that intensity.  To this day, I can’t explain it, but my mind was not my own.

Most of that time, he was telling me how much he liked me, and kept wanting me to tell him too.  I never had thought of Glenn in this way, so it wasn’t automatic for me to say this to him.  I thought of the impact it would make on Carol and even my former boyfriend.

I was in a state of confusion.  Part of me wanted to bolt out of there.  Part of me felt guilty leaving him after he had shared such “heartfelt” emotions.

“You can leave if you want to.  I’m not stopping you,” he said.  But I couldn’t leave.  Something between his words and my thoughts was stopping me.

Like I said, I don’t remember much from those three hours.  One thing I do remember was him getting close to my face and asking me “You trust me don’t you?”  It seemed to me like he was about to kiss me on the mouth.  Yet he kissed me on the cheek.

No.  I didn’t “like” him in that way.  He was just a friend – my friend Carol’s boyfriend.  Glenn was someone I was never attracted to before this particular day.

Worn down from his request, and doubting my true feelings, I told him what he wanted me to tell him.

I finally admitted something that really wasn’t true, something that he had planted in my head.  At that point, he no longer indicated that he was interested in me.  In fact, the conversation changed.

“Michelle, you can’t tell Carol this.  This would absolutely hurt her!  Pangs of guilt began to swirl around in my head.  What about Carol?  What did I just do to Carol?

He pinned all of those feelings on me.  He pinned the entire experience on me.

He just wanted me to say it.  He wanted to be the one who could manipulated me to say it.  “Tell me you like me.”  Glenn got me to change my mind.  He played with it so long, that it was out of my control.

Finally, the experience ended.  I headed to my dorm room.  It was 3 A.M., and I had been mentally and spiritually assaulted for three hours.

I walked down to my dorm room and couldn’t fall asleep.  My heart palpitations kicked in.  I dozed off and woke up for the next few hours.

And as I bumped into Carol the next day, I felt the pangs of guilt again.

*****

Until years later, I never realized that he was the one who intentionally abused his intellect and power to control my mind for one night.

I’ve never been physically raped, but my mind felt that it experienced its own type of molestation.  It’s an assault that I’ve told so few people about, mostly because I doubted its validity over the past two decades.

After this experience, I saw how Glenn treated his girlfriend, casually placing her to the side as he also dated another girl.  All of the young, innocent Christian girls flocked to him.

It was quite cultish.

When Carol was interested in dating another guy, usually one of my friends, Glenn would reel her back in to his control by telling her “he’s not a real Christian.”

Obviously, Glenn said this because he’s the ultimate authority on “real” Christians.  Carol would always believe Glenn.

Over those years, I’ve read how Glenn has become a youth leader in the Catholic church, and I wondered how many people, especially young girls, he treated this way.  I know of at least one friend who was similarly assaulted by Glenn, so I’m not sure if this abuse continued well past college days.  I’ve been concerned that it has.  He became this authority with the youth.  Glenn towered over all of them physically and spiritually.

This experience with Glenn may have been the beginning of my exit from the church.  Removing myself from this group of friends, I was able to see his manipulative nature.  I became angry.  As I continued to have more and more negative experiences with Christians and the church, I associated this hypocrisy with the church and God.

But it wasn’t God.  And it wasn’t the church.  And I found my way back after a few years to church and, eventually, entered ministry.

I learned the hard way that just because someone calls themselves a Christian, is against pre-marital sex or doesn’t drink does not mean that they will not abuse you.  Just because you haven’t been physically or sexually assaulted doesn’t mean you’ve haven’t been emotionally, mentally or spiritually assaulted.  People will use any means to control your life and your mind, including hiding behind the title of “good Christian.”  I’ve become extremely skeptical of the label “Christian” even though I’m a Jesus the Christ follower myself.

There’s no way to report someone who has manipulated your heart, mind and soul.  Yet I can find healing by telling my story in hopes that it helps anyone else out there who may have been a victim of mind assault.  Please do not stay in a situation where you believe someone has a hold on your head or heart.  Do not stay if they make you feel guilty for a situation they created or they pin their feelings onto you.

May you find the peace of God, the courage of Christ and the strength of the Spirit as you find your own true path to your authentic feelings and faith.  Amen.

 

 

The Great Patriotism Divide and Our Churches

I love our country, I love being an American, and I think the United States is a truly beautiful nation.  However, I am a firm believer in the separation of church in our state, and the state in our churches.  I believe that both should cross each other very rarely.

Now, without a doubt, those of us who are Christian leaders should be praying for the health of our nation.  We should be praying for those in power, no matter what party they are.  We should give thanks for the people who have positively shaped this country for what is now is – remembering those who stood for “liberty and justice for all” over the past few centuries.  We should remember those who serve this country and the people within this country – from our service members to our teachers.  Even thanking God through the singing of “America the Beautiful” makes sense to me.

But what is the correct amount of patriotism for us to have in our sanctuaries and embedded in our worship experiences?  And when do we set the patriotic fervor aside to hold our nation accountable for its shortcomings?

When I see Jesus, I didn’t see someone who celebrated Rome.  He challenged both faith communities and the state.  Rome was intimidated by this Jesus; otherwise he wouldn’t have found execution by the Roman state.  Sure, I believe Jesus acknowledged our duty to the state when he told us to give to God what is God and Caesar what is Caesar’s.  But never at any point in the Gospels or other scripture texts does it indicate that he sung songs to celebrate Rome or celebrated its symbols in any fashion.

On one hand, my faith and call dictate that we should hold the state accountable similar to the ways Jesus held the systems accountable in his day.  We should raise up the needs of our country’s people with the passion of the Hebrew prophets.  As a spiritual leader, I have a responsibility to explore this perspective with those I teach.

On the other hand, my faith and call mandate that I hold the hearts of those who value our country and its symbols.  As pastors, we have the responsibility to value the places where our congregants are – both as individuals and as a community.  While every church is different and approaches the patriotic holidays with various amounts of excitement, taking into account their pastoral needs is part of our jobs as clergy. In our churches, our congregants want to hear patriotic songs.  They want to see this country’s flag.  They want to cherish the state in which we live.  As we get to know our congregants we may see that this need is deeply rooted in their souls.

Some of us pastoral leaders do not understand the draw to such patriotism in our worship.  I can tell you this: many of those who want the patriotic elements of worship have pure, beautiful hearts and truly see God’s presence interwoven with our country.

But not every faithful Christian and American feels this way.  For those of you who are reading this who may wonder why spiritual leaders and others do not want patriotic elements in worship, it’s because we believe our focus is on the God of every nation, not just ours.  We believe that the state and its symbols have the potential for becoming another god or distracting us from ours.  And we believe that it’s our place to be prophets in this country, making sure to stand up for the “least of these.”

So many of us church leaders wonder each year, how do we handle the balance of being like Jesus who challenged the broken systems AND the caring for the pastoral needs of our fellow Christians who have pure love for this country?  How can make sure the only god in worship is our God and that the flag and country still remains “under God”?   How do I balance your beliefs and needs with my beliefs and needs?

Within our worship service, could we sing of our love for our country, pray for the needs of our country and world and acknowledge where our country falls short?  Could the sermon celebrate our passion for our country while still challenging the Americans in our pews to do justice?  Can we love ourselves for where we are today AND continue to strive even more to take care of the widow, orphan and aliens?  Can we remember that not everyone is equal and that “liberty and justice for all” is still a dream?

I don’t believe it’s a sin to love our country and state this in front of God.  But I do believe its a sin if we love our country more than or at the exclusion of loving God and our neighbors.

I believe there’s a place for all of us in our churches.  Let us remember the God of the prophets as we celebrate with joy our pluralistic nation.  May we remember that God wants the United States of America to flourish, to be a place where the least of these have a voice and justice.  May we remember that our country has its special gifts but also has its weaknesses too.  And may we remember that God wants all nations to be a place of justice and peace.

A Mid-Summer’s Prayer

God of the sunshine, the warm summer breezes,
And God of the strong storms and hot afternoons,
We ask that you quench our thirst on our arid days
And keep us cool when the sunrays are too wearing.

In the midst of our vacation,
May we not worry about returning to work
But value this very moment for all that it is.

May our travels be safe and our health be well.

We thank you for late evening sunsets.
And lightning bugs.
And cookouts with friends we see only in the summer.

As the days get shorter, may we find our joy in whatever the season. Amen.

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