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Josh Radnor – Wikimedia Commons

Note: This article contains spoilers.

In nine seasons of  How I Met Your Mother, we’ve seen the peaks and valleys in the life of Ted Mosby. The series finale created mixed feelings in the dedicated fans.

Realizing some time ago that the mother may be meeting an early demise, I tried to come to terms that Ted’s roller coaster life may not be settling. Instead, I chose to find the broken beauty in Ted’s journey, embracing spiritual lessons to help us find God’s presence in each of our valley-filled lives.

To everything there is a season…
The first scene in season six pans to the sign in front of the church: “to everything there is a season.” Ecclesiastes 3 indicates that being human brings with it many highs and lows: life and death, mourning and dancing, love and hate. This series and specifically the final episode showcases the roller coaster of life. As the themes of new love, divorce, birth and death are weaved into this episode, we are reminded that seasons come and go for everyone.

Every once in a while, God calls us to leave the past behind.
In season seven, Ted and Robin nearly rekindle their romance once again. When Ted realizes that it’s not going to happen, he determines that he needs to make a firm break between him and Robin. Ted realizes any lingering possibility in a relationship with Robin can’t continue if he wants to find happiness.

As the wife of Lot turns into a pillar of salt when turning around to see what’s behind her (Genesis 19), we too can become locked into a moment of life or an unhealthy relationship. When a situations clouds our lives and dominates our emotions, sometimes it’s best for us to walk away. In order to move forward in a new direction, we will take this drastic step, embracing the pain that comes with it. There’s a possibility that God is calling us to find new life in a completely different direction.

Looking for love is often like traveling through a wilderness.
After seeing his closest friends Marshall and Lily find love with one another in their late teens, Ted continues the journey. He even watches his former love marry one of his best friends. At one point or another during these nine seasons, we’ve become impatient with Ted’s story just as we become impatient with our own.  Will Ted find his happy ending?

It’s hard to watch a seven year journey of someone looking for love or achieving a dream. In the series finale, Lily acknowledges Ted’s difficult course in the final episode: “…a man with more emotional endurance than anyone I know. It was a long difficult road… Thank God we finally got here.”

And Ted narrates the same sentiment about his path: “At times it was a long and difficult road. But I’m glad it was long and difficult, because if I hadn’t gone through hell to get there, the lesson might not have been as clear. You see, kids, right from the moment I met your mom I knew I have to love this woman as much as I can for as long as I can and I can not stop loving her not even for a second.”

The Exodus story of wilderness is one that resonates with us no matter what our era. There are destinations along this path, but the journey is in some ways more valuable. In any of our lives, there is no definite “happily ever after.” But there are happy moments embedded into our tragedies, and there is sadness intertwined with our joy.

It’s the people around us in the wilderness that makes life bearable. 
As Biblical stories of exile and wilderness fill our faith, our personal journeys include many people who never deserted us as we traveled through our own exiles. Without dedicated friends like Marshall, Lily, Barney and Robin, Ted’s long exile in the dating wilderness may not have been so bearable. In our own times of exile, who has stood by us or journeyed along side of us?

When it comes to love, never settle. Take the long road.
Song of Solomon 3:1-2 states “Upon my bed at night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer.” The narrator asks in verse three, “have you seen him whom my soul loves?” In this spirit, Ted continues to search for this love on his journey.

Devastating losses of Robin, Victoria, Stella, Zoe and more, Ted continues on his path, until he meets the ideal partner, Tracy. As Song of Solomon 3:5 says “do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!”

More than anything else, How I Met Your Mother is a story of hope.
Christianity as well as other faiths embraces the story of hope even in the midst of the desert. Ted’s story is one of resilience. And sometimes our narratives of resilience need to be told, whether the story is in the sixth century BCE, first century CE or today and whether we are writing it in a book or telling the tale to our children.

Ted’s story reminds us of many of our own paths. We live, we fall and we get back up again. The story of our lives is similar in many ways. We experience extravagant grace and surprising resurrections along the way.

So as many of us are saddened by the ending of this show and devastated on how it ended, know that the human life experience is not one of fairy tales and people living happily ever after, but one of peaks and valleys. It’s a story where God’s love pursues us- no matter where we are in our tale.

Jungfrau der Verkündigung

I was having lunch with a priest colleague of mine today, who reminded me of the significance of today.  “It’s the annunciation,” said the priest. The church calendar remembers the day Mary accepted God’s call.

As Protestants, Mary doesn’t usually receive her due in our arena of Christianity.  She shows up in Advent and Christmas, when the lectionary text includes the wedding at Cana and as Jesus suffers in his final hours.

However, this is a woman who was sure to influence her son.  So very little is said about this woman, but what mother doesn’t make an impression on her children?  I would like to believe that the ministry of Jesus and his strong convictions not only came directly from God but also came from Mary and Joseph.

So the annunciation is the day empowering the life and works of Mary.  It was the day Mary made her choice.  When she was called to birth a savior, she chose yes.  She risked the well-being of her life to carry a baby outside the confines of marriage.  Through her power of choice, she accepted the call to birth a person and, in many ways, a movement.

I also find it ironic that March 25 is not only the Annunciation in the church but the birthday of the mother of modern feminism: Gloria Steinem.

Gloria has spent decades remembering the voices of women, empowering women to make choices for their own lives – including reproductive choices.  Through her time working tirelessly for the cause of women’s equality, she delivered women from the oppressive systems of the past and opened doors to the impossible.  Through her call to leadership, she was the midwife in the rebirth of a movement.

Out of any day of the year, I look at March 25 as the Day of Women’s Empowerment.  From Mary to Gloria to all of us, we are given choices – more than ever before.  This is a day to celebrate our power – a power gifted to us by our Mother God.

So as we wait for the Supreme Court to decide whether corporations can control the choices of women and as we watch more and more states come up with laws that try to control our bodies (including the imprisonment of women who give birth to stillborn babies), let us hope that God sends us new prophets to deliver us from controlling powers that be.

“Beloved Disciple” in the Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene; by El Greco ca. 1580

Many in our society and world use the Bible to tear down women, ensure women have certain roles and use women’s bodies as they please.

They refer to the story of Adam and Eve when noting that women were responsible for the downfall of humans.

They use Eve’s missteps as a way of saying that women should be in pain during her pregnancy or any reproductive issue.

They overlook the part of the story when Lot offers his daughters as sexual goods, and they believe that women’s bodies are not our own.

They look at the story of Jacob and his two wives, or Abraham with his wife and concubine, and they think it’s okay for women to fight over men and for women to make each other jealous.

They take the story of Jephthah’s daughter as a story of obedience instead of a story of child abuse.

They look at David’s sin as having an affair with Bathsheba instead of ogling her and using his power to seduce her. 

They use Proverbs 31 as a way to keep a woman as a subservient type of wife and mother.

They take Hosea’s account of God using “whore” for a woman as permission to call women whatever names they want.

They say that since only men were Jesus’ disciples, only men can be true leaders in faith.

They use 1 Timothy 2 to keep women quiet in faith, giving all power in churches to men.

I don’t know about all of you, but I’m tired of this.  I’m exhausted from having to hear that women deserve pain because of a stories written thousands of years ago.  I’m tired of hearing women called slut, whore and other horrifying words in an attempt to control or demean them.  I’m disgusted at television shows where women fight over a man or continuously bicker with each other.  I do not want to feel less than human or a woman because I don’t have children or I’m not married, and I don’t want to be told that I’m sinful because I’m a female leader in faith.

Instead, let’s join together to use Scripture to strengthen women and stand for their rights.

Let’s remember that Paul recognized Phoebe and Lydia as women leaders in the church every time Christians use 1 Timothy to quiet women.

Let’s take the story of Mary Magdalene rushing out of the garden after the resurrection as a woman being the first one called to share the good news.

Let’s take the story of Proverbs 31 woman as an empowered women who is full of wisdom, takes care of her family and stands for justice in her community.

Let’s take the story of Vashti not as a disobedient wife but as a women who stood up to the patriarchy and her body being used by powerful men.

Let’s take the story of the Syrophoenician woman as one who stood up to Jesus to make sure her family had their needs met.

Let’s take the stories of the woman with the hemorrhage and Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar as ones where women stand up for their reproductive health and rights.

Let’s take the story of Zelophehad’s daughters as one who stand for their financial rights.

Christianity does not have to be a religion that reduces women but can be one that strengthens the lives of women all over the world.  Let’s remember the verses and narratives that empower us as we bring liberating words of hope to women, finding ways to strengthen their body, mind, soul and voice.

From Wikimedia Commons

This post is based on a sermon preached at an ecumenical Ash Wednesday service on March 5, 2014 at Hope Lutheran Church, Cincinnati.

Last week, I watched the movie Gravity.  In the film, Dr. Ryan Stone is on a space mission with about four other astronauts.  A satellite orbiting earth has been blown up, and now the remaining pieces are flying at high speeds towards their ship.  As the initial fragments propel towards them, it permanently damages the ship and leaves three of the astronauts dead.  One other astronaut is alive, and he is able to catch up with her and tether himself to her.  Eventually, however, he knows that the two of them will die if they continue to be tethered.  So he releases himself from her, and she remains on her own in space.

Dr. Stone can’t reach by radio Houston, so there’s no communication to or from earth.  The emergency pods in the International Space Station are damaged, so she can’t use them to return to home.  There are other possibilities to return to earth, but, again, Dr. Stone is working completely alone with damaged equipment.

Dr. Stone is in the wilderness.  It may seem different than a wilderness than any of us have experienced.  On top of this, Dr. Stone has lost everyone she had started the journey with because of the hurling fragments of satellite.  She is completely isolated from any other living thing, any of life’s comforts and the protection of technology.

This level of isolation reminds me of the wilderness that Jesus could have endured for days and nights on end.  The story goes that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness.  Jesus had no supplies, had no friends in the midst of this journey and fasted from basic needs.  Like Dr. Stone, he is in the middle of no where, feeling distracted by tests and disruptions.

Like Jesus and like Dr. Stone, is no doubt in my mind that each of us are going to journey through wildernesses at various points of our lives.  Sometimes it will be a wilderness of grief or a wilderness of physical illness.  Other times, it will be one that might be from mental illness like depression or anxiety, and we don’t think anyone else can relate.  As our journey in pain continues, we may isolate ourselves more and more and inflict wilderness on ourselves.

There are some of us who enjoy extended times alone.  But imagine having no source of neighbor as we go through some of life’s roughest moments.  There is no one to talk us down from our anxiety, no one to physically be present and no one to even give us insight on how to make the wilderness more tolerable.

Unlike Dr. Stone and unlike Jesus, unlike what we’ve even experienced in the past, when we endure a wilderness, we don’t have to go through it alone.  We have our neighbors.  And if we keep our eyes open, we may see that God is also present.

This is the joy of the love of neighbor: knowing that we can journey through the good times and rough times together.  We are not alone in a desert.  We are not alone in space.  We are here in the midst of community, part of the body of Christ and part of a covenantal body.   We have others pointing to the presence of God in our midst.

Granted sometimes people pull away from us when we’re in a wilderness.  Or we pull away from others.  Sometimes we feel no one can understand our pain.  And even when we are in the depths of the wilderness, it’s hard to see that God is forever present with us.

I remember that at one point in the movie, Dr. Stone says out loud “I don’t know how to pray.”  The fear of not knowing how to pray could keep us from reaching out to God.  But God doesn’t care what we say or even how we say it, and it doesn’t have to be the most beautifully crafted prayer.  It just needs to be a conversation, because God is already fully present and is trying to let this Divine presence be known to us.

Furthermore, there’s a good possibility that many of us aren’t in the wilderness.  So what if we’re the ones who don’t feel isolated by life’s trials but God is calling us to attend to someone who is?  In our call to love our neighbor as ourselves, were asked to serve our neighbors with an open heart, mind and soul and to exit our comfort zones.  Maybe we don’t know what to say to them.   Maybe we want to place ourselves far away from them because we can’t understand their pain.   Staying far away from someone in distress is easy.  But that’s not part of our call in being a neighbor.

Being a neighbor means placing ourselves in discomfort.  It means speaking to someone we’ve never spoken to before.  It means listening even though we may want to talk, talk, talk and give advice.  It means not running away from our calls from God.  It means keeping ourselves in community, even when we completely do not agree with their beliefs or their life.  And it means entering the wilderness with someone else.

This why some of our churches of different denominations are gathering together during this Lent and focusing on what it means to be a neighbor.  It’s to connect with others at different spaces in their lives as we reflect together during this sacred journey of Lent.  It’s realizing that we have neighbors close to us, and that God is also our neighbor when we are in a desolate space.

In the next few weeks, we’ll reflect on what it means to be neighbor in different situations.  We’ll think about our time as literal neighbors – with those down the street or next door.  We’ll look at our virtual neighbors, how we act online as we comment on posts or pray with others in social media.  We’ll consider what it means to be coworker, classmate, or caregiver as neighbor.  We’ll reflect on being neighbors with other churches or people who may believe differently than we do.  And we’ll place ourselves as neighbors with God’s other children across this beautiful world.

And maybe we’ll see how God is asking us to bring our literal, virtual, coworker, classmate, ecumenical and worldwide neighbor out of the wilderness or sit with them as they endure tragedy.

This Lent, let us find ways to help someone else through their wilderness.  Let us celebrate with others when it’s time to celebrate.  Let us cry with others when it’s time to mourn.  But know that we’re never alone.  No matter what our beliefs, which church we attend or where we live… if we’re in space, in a desert or in our homes… we are neighbors on this journey through the wilderness and beyond.  Amen.

march forthToday, March 4th, the United Church of Christ and other denominations ask us to take a stand and march forth in body, mind or soul in an effort to bring justice to our world.

I march for Endometriosis.

Now, some may think this isn’t much of a justice issue.  To many, it’s another health issue to which only half of the population is susceptible.

Isn’t it just another painful period?  Aren’t periods supposed to be painful?

No.

Wait, didn’t God say that this is a punishment for Eve eating the forbidden fruit?

No.

Endometriosis is an illness when the lining that is usually found in the inside the uterus migrates  outside of the womb.  It can be found on the outside surface of the uterus, the Fallopian tubes and the ovaries not to mention the bladder, bowels and a variety of other organs.  The tissue has been found on the brain and in the lungs.

There is so much mystery surrounding Endometriosis.  They’re not sure if it’s genetic or if tissue is regurgitated into the abdominal cavity.  There is nothing we can do to prevent the disease from starting.

So besides not knowing how it begins, there is no know cure.  Doctors will prescribe birth control pills to control the growth.  If the pain continues, a laparoscopy is performed.  This is the only way Endometriosis is truly confirmed in a woman.  While they are performing the minimally invasive surgery, they will remove much of the tissue growing outside of the uterus.  Often, this will alleviate the pain, but for many of us, the growth begins again, and the pain intensifies.  Doctors will also prescribe Lupron, a drug that will place a woman into menopause for a few months.  The hope is that the Endometriosis is greatly reduced when the periods return.

Hormones have many side affects and no one really wants to have surgery.  I can tell you that it’s difficult to choose between the two.  Yet knowing how hormones wreak havoc on my body, I tend to choose surgery when the pain is consistently intolerable.

I’ve had two laparoscopic surgeries: one in 2003 (when I was diagnosed) and one in 2013.  I feel fortunate that I went over nine years without another surgery.  I seriously doubt that nine years will go by before my next one.

It’s incredible to see this great fight over the coverage of birth control when people with Endometriosis find it as a temporary solution.  Unfortunately, birth control is a “sinful” substance to many, but for a multitude of others, it returns their lives.  It should be widely available for women to use for a number of reasons.

There is one other thing: not all doctors are willing to face Endometriosis.  I’ve had a couple of wonderful physicians who were willing to take my condition seriously.  But women are told that extremely painful periods are normal.  By gynecologists.  And then they are told pregnancy and hysterectomies will cure the disease.  Yet nothing is curative.

So it’s time to stand up, to march and to let women know that painful periods aren’t what we as women should be experiencing.  It’s time to be like the woman with the hemorrhage in Mark 5 and advocate for ourselves.  We’re not willing to have these pains decade after decade when it could have been diagnosed in our teens or early 20′s.  We’re not willing to stand by as this disease takes over our bodies and robs us of our lives.  We’re not willing to let this tissue grow like weeds so that we experience defeating infertility.  It’s time to use everything we can and let our health care providers know when our body isn’t right.

And it’s time for us to stand up to our legislators and let them know to allocate more money in funding for research.

As we march forth today – most of us virtually – let us support one another in our common pain.  Let us support those we love whose pain overcomes their lives.  And let us stand up to the powers that be who can make fiscal decisions, making this disease a thing of the past.

I plan on sending a to my senators and congressional leaders.  Others will be marching in Washington D.C. and other cities all over the world on March 13.  What will you do?

Find contact information for elected officials in the United States HERE.  For more information on the Million Women March for Endometriosis, check out the website: http://www.millionwomenmarch2014.org/.

This post is based on the text Matthew 17:1-9.

Lupita Nyong’o

Tonight, those of you watching the Academy Awards, or Oscars, will see someone nominated for one of her first roles: Lupita Nyong’o.  For those who may not know, she is a supporting actress in the movie 12 Years a Slave.  Lupita’s parents were from Kenya, and she is of Luo descent.

Recently, Lupita was awarded the Best Breakthrough Performance by Essence magazine.  When receiving the award, she gave a very moving speech on the beaming dark color of her skin.

When we see African American women on television and in movies, we often see women who are extremely light-skinned.  Yet Lupita’s skin is darker than most women we see in the media.  Growing up, she was discouraged by her skin color, praying that God would change that part of her:

“I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin, I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned. The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin that I would refuse to look down at myself until I was in front of a mirror because I wanted to see my fair face first. And every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I was the day before. I tried to negotiate with God, I told him I would stop stealing sugar cubes at night if he gave me what I wanted, I would listen to my mother’s every word and never lose my school sweater again if he just made me a little lighter. But I guess God was unimpressed with my bargaining chips because He never listened.”

Eventually, through the slowly changing image on television, Lupita began to see beauty in a very different way.  She said “finally, I realized that beauty was not a thing that I could acquire or consume, it was something that I just had to be… What is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and for those around you.  That kind of beauty enflames the heart and enchants the soul.”  Lupita radiates as she smiles and presents her authentic self wherever she goes.

If we watch the pre-Oscar Red Carpet tonight, we’ll see people who look like everyone else attending.  Most people will be white.  Overall, women are required to be thin.  The ideal is lighter skin, unless you are a pale white woman, and then you need a spray tan.  Men need to be tall.  They are allowed to age a little more gracefully, whereas women in Hollywood are almost required to cover up the gray.

Undoubtedly, we are in a culture where there is an ideal race, gender, sexual orientation, class level, religion and even marital status.  We hold those standards often forgetting that the image of God abides in those who look and act differently than we do.

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, the day we recall the story of Jesus radiating on the top of a mountain.  It also marks the end of Epiphany, a season which begins with the magi finding the light of Christ and ends on a mountaintop with a beaming Christ.  Epiphany is a season that helps us to recall that the light is among us, whether in an infant child, on the top of a mountain or within us, as we are the light of the world.

The definition of transfigure is to “transform into something more beautiful or elevated.”  Jesus, a seemingly ordinary man, has a face begins to shine before his followers.  The disciples present, Peter, James and John, see this overcoming beauty and want to keep “beaming Jesus” on that pedestal or in an elevated state.  But Jesus knew that’s not where he beamed the most.  It’s not where he was the most beautiful, and that light radiating on the mountain needed to be spread around, not just kept far from others.

He radiated the most as he gave dignity to the marginalized, healed the sick and fed the multitudes.  Jesus was his most ideal self when he was serving the children of God.

However, I believe the Gospels give us a story of a Jesus who wasn’t perfect when it came to his perception of others.  Remember story of the Syrophoenician woman (or, as Matthew’s Gospel refers to her, the Canaanite woman)?   His disciples had such disdain for this woman who was greatly concerned for her daughter.  Even Jesus questioned her background and pretty well referred to her as a dog.  In the face of Jesus, she stood up for herself, her value and dignity.  I believe Jesus’ greatest transfiguration was the moment that he could see the Canaanite woman for the beautiful person she was – even though she wasn’t of Jewish descent like him.  In his transformation, he was a light to the Canaanite woman in front of him.

One of my favorite texts in scripture is 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I am fully known.”

On this side of heaven we can’t see people in the way God sees them.  We can’t see ourselves in the ways God sees us.  So we create much heartache in judging others and ourselves through our human eyes.  In every part of my soul, I believe that on that side of heaven, when we can experience God in our fullest, we will see everyone’s best selves.

Maybe it’s time we stop thinking that one type of race, religion, gender, orientation or class is more beautiful and transfigured than another.  Maybe it’s time to stop judging others because God knows every single cell of their body and feeling in their heart.  Maybe who we think is a sinful or lazy person is the individual who God needs them to be right now.  Maybe it’s time for us to embrace what God was saying about Jesus – - that God is well pleased with all of us.

Sure, we all have growing edges.  We all have ways to improve ourselves.  It’s good to be aware of those ways and work towards correcting them.  But maybe what God is requiring of us is to work on ourselves, give ourselves abundant grace when we fall short and look through the lens of God’s eyes as we love our neighbors.

Because God loves us all so much for who are at this very moment.  God sees our ideal selves.

Our flaws could be some of the most beautiful parts about us.  We should look at ourselves as stunning no matter what size we are or what we’ve accomplished in life.  It’s time to affirm that our neighbors are beautiful no matter what their skin color, who they love, what type of work they do, how they identify with gender, how they celebrate the presence of God or how much money they have in the bank.

And in doing so, we will notice others glowing like the radiating Jesus on a mountaintop.

20140214-132924.jpgThis week, I heard of another case where an NFL cheerleader is suing the team for inadequate pay. This time, the cheerleader, Alexa Brenneman brought the suit as an individual as she claims that her pay equals that of $2.85 per hour ($5 less than Ohio’s minimum wage).

Even before this and the suit with the Raiderettes, I was concerned about this practice. When I was in my twenties and in much better shape, I had ever-so-briefly toyed around with the thought of auditioning the Buccaneers cheerleaders. I thought I remember that they made somewhere between $50-$100 per game. But then I read a 2003 article which notes that they receive no monetary compensation for ANY of their work or efforts – except they receive two tickets per game.

I tried to see how much money the cheerleaders make now, but could not find any numbers. But looking at their site now, I see that it even costs $40 to audition for a role of cheerleader. Plus, during the season, they are required to give 50 hours of charity work per season. Furthermore, it doesn’t take into account how much it costs to look the way an NFL cheerleader should look.

The NFL acts like it’s doing women a favor or something…

At the same time, the men are getting paid millions of dollars per season while the women only a couple or few thousand. Or, like the Buccaneer cheerleaders, they may make nothing. Granted, the men are competing in a sport where concussions are expected and life expectancy is short. But when the mascot makes twenty-some thousand per year to sixty-some thousand per year, getting paid a couple of thousand dollars to look good, be athletic and wear barely any clothing sounds entirely and completely off balance.

To hear an individual cheerleader or cheerleading team stands up for themselves is refreshing, especially when their work matters to an organization or corporation. (The Bengals organization makes approximately $1 million off of the work of the Ben-Gals cheerleaders.)

This issue reflects something larger in our society. First Ladies give many hours per week filling ambassador-like roles. Yet they receive no compensation. I often wonder if a First Lady could refuse the role and live a completely private life or work completely in her own position away from the White House. And if a man ever fills the role of “First Lady,” would they reconsider compensation rates?

And then there are many churches where the wife of the pastor is required to fill a role for – once again – no salary. Since stay-at-home parenting is predominantly completed by women, minimal to no thought is given to their compensation package and must rely solely on their spouse’s income.

But stay-at-home moms who are married and have a man taking care of them are heralded as heroes while stay-at-home moms who are single and must live on welfare are called “welfare queens” and “lazy.” I have the utmost respect for anyone who chooses this calling, whether they are married or not.

I clearly remember hearing Gloria Steinem say in one of her speeches that stay-at-home moms should get compensation for their work. And the reason is my next point…

Here’s the big issue: to our society, compensation is equivalent to value. When you make more money, you “matter” more. When you don’t make as much money, you matter less – unless you fill the societal proper role of your gender.

This is the exception: To our society, it’s ok if you make no money as long as you are a woman supporting a man – either his team, his fantasy, his role as leader, his job, etc. Apparently, that is reward in itself.

But what our culture forgets is that women and men are both made in God’s image and all are given gifts to make this world a strong place. When a woman works, her work is just as valuable as a man’s. And while it’s not my calling, even cheerleaders deserve the same respect and validation for their hard work as anyone else.

In reflecting upon this, I remember a story in scriptures that show women standing up for their fair share. Numbers 27 recalls the narrative of Zelophehad’s daughters who want their part of their father’s estate. Moses advocates on behalf of them, and God responds “Zelophehad’s daughters are right in what they are saying.”

And so are the NFL cheerleaders. Keep advocating for your fair share.

Falling

smeary fallYesterday, I fell.

Like 99.9999% of the population, I didn’t plan on falling.  I try my hardest to stroll cautiously on the ice.  I though that I was doing pretty well by not falling so far during this treacherous winter season.  But it was only a matter of time until the soles of my boots met a patch of ice in the most inopportune way.

Boom.

Fortunately, having lots of “padding” on my body helped to cushion my fall, although I managed to find a couple of bruises on me this morning.  I didn’t hit my head (thank God), but my face was staring directly into the patch of ice that inhibited my walking.  But after grumbling at the ice for about 45 seconds, I got back up – even though I was a little sore, a little embarrassed and a greatly discouraged.

Like many of you, during the past few days I have been watching some of the Winter Olympics.  It truly amazes me how these women and men on the slopes and rinks can fall down and quickly find themselves back on their feet again.  Even after some traumatic injuries, they return to the ice and snow.  They’ve felt the pain of falling, and yet they aren’t afraid to try once again.

I’m greatly fearful of participating in most of these winter sports.  I would probably fall, and in that fall I would probably gain a concussion or find one of my bones cracked.  I’ve managed to injure myself in one of the three times I’ve been ice skating and still have the scar 22 years later to prove it.  Why would I want to fall, and why would I put myself in any situation where I would?  So I refuse to risk.

But what about the failures that don’t include broken bones?  Our souls are on the slopes even though our bodies are far from them.  I see these spiritual slopes as starting a new business, engaging in a relationship or taking on a new call?  We may not find ourselves with physical bruises, but if we fall or fail, our egos will be bruised.  Our reputations will be scarred.  In many cases, we don’t go back to the slopes of life because the emotional and spiritual pain was way to great the last time we fell.

I remembered when I failed my driver’s test, and when I didn’t get into seminary the first time I applied and when I didn’t fully pass my orals on the first time.  In each of those cases, I thought about quitting.  I thought about laying on the spiritual ground after I had fallen.  But, instead, I got back up.

Whether it was a metaphorical or physical fall, it felt good to get back up.  I was grateful that I was able to rise after all of my falls and fails.

The Bible is full of fails.  Samson failed, and then he got back up before he died.  David failed in his choices with Bathsheba, but then he got back up.  Even Jesus failed in his approach with they Syrophoenician woman.  She corrected him, and he continued with his ministry.  He fell as he was prosecuted by Rome and crucified, but as he rose on the third day, his story spread throughout the land and has lasted 2000 years later.

And our rising back up is sweeter when others give us a hand and we can help others in their healing process.  Rising from failures – physical or emotional – aren’t done in a vacuum.  They are most successful when we can help one another rise from the pits and patches of ice.

So I might not ski down large slopes or attempt the Double Lutz while on ice.  But I’ll continue skiing down many emotional and metaphorical slopes throughout the rest of my life.  Most likely, I’ll fall again, and maybe I’ll experience another powerful resurrection.

This sermon was delivered at St. Paul United Church of Christ, Old Blue Rock Road, Cincinnati on Sunday, January 26, 2014 based on the Matthew 4:18-22 text.

Have you ever just left everything in your life behind, picked up, and started a new life where you believed God was calling you?

In 2007, I did just that.  I resigned from my job in a non-profit to move 1000 miles back up north to complete my Master of Divinity so that I could eventually become an ordained pastor.

Yes, I doubted myself.   Why did 9298846092_9c7edd2af1_bI give up a somewhat decent paying job to enter a full-time degree program?  Will I find that this really isn’t my call?  What happens if I don’t do well as I hadn’t been in a degree program since graduating college 12 years earlier?  Will I make friends in my new location?  But I knew that God said go, and so I went.  It was crazy, or, as they say in 21st century slang “cray-cray.”  Admittedly, I had months to prepare, pack and say goodbye.

And while it was much less risky, in 2011 I moved here to an entirely new area God was calling me.  When you know little about an area and you move by yourself, there’s adventure.  (Let’s face it: there’s always adventure when God calls us.)  When God says move, sometimes there’s nothing else to do but leave what you know behind and move forward.

So as we really think about this text today, we might immediately think that they were also a bit “cray-cray.”  When Jesus walked by Simon Peter and Andrew, then James and John, and stated “follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” they dropped everything without a word.

They just dropped EVERYTHING – the fishing nets and their tasks.  Their homes and ways of life.  Their relationships – James and John just left their father in the boat without even arranging for others to take their place.  The text says “immediately.”  So it wasn’t after hours of deliberation.  It wasn’t after talking with their family or friends.  It wasn’t agonizing whether or not they should do it.  The call of God through Christ was so strong that dropping everything was their only option.  The nets didn’t get mended.  The fish didn’t get caught, but God’s call was answered.

And they didn’t set their affairs in order before accepting God’s call.  For me, at the very least, I would find ways to pack a very large load of things including clothes for every type of weather condition, made sure I had a snack, gum, a couple of bottles of water, maybe a Diet Coke, my cell phone, its charger, my music and enough money on the way. Oh, and probably something to read.  Or three books.  And my iPad.  I would make sure my family knew where to contact me.  And while I’ve left my life in one area to follow the call by God, I still had time to prepare for my experience.  They didn’t have that preparation time.  They just left everything in that very moment and walked with Jesus.

Making sure everything is in place is the way it’s supposed to happen in our world, right?  We’re supposed to have everything figured out before moving on from our secure lives.  But that’s not necessarily the way God works, which makes life extremely scary.

Sometimes, the people we love will drop their rational lives to follow their seemingly absurd dreams.  And in our “logical” thinking we dismiss viewing the situation as God sees it.  In our logical world, following our gut is very much not considered mature.  What we forget is that maybe they are just following the call of God in their hearts.

We think maturity comes with creating six month, one year and five year plans or having arrangements to fall back on.  In that case, Jesus wouldn’t be mature.  He traveled with nothing and spoke things that would make those in power very angry.  In fact, he also encouraged others to give up their planned, thought-out lives just to follow him and the Spirit of God.  His disciples gave up their “normal” lives in order to pursue a higher vocation.  They lived on the generosity of others.  Some may consider the lives of Jesus and his followers irresponsible, but they were being responsible to the only one that mattered: God.

Maybe it’s time for us to stop judging how others our living.  Maybe it’s time for us to just focus on where God is calling us today.

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter what your age or ability is.  Jesus didn’t stand around overanalyzing them on their ages, abilities, life or relationship structures.  Instead, on behalf of God, Jesus just called.  Likewise, God’s going to be calling all of us until our dying day – and then our calling may still continue on the other side of heaven.  No matter what our gifts, God will continue to use them, transcending each of our lives past imperfections and mistakes.  It might be a simple call, one that doesn’t require us to change our lives drastically, but maybe change our way of thinking a bit.  And some will be called to make a huge change in our lives – sometimes at 30 or 40 and sometimes at 70 or 80.  Yet when God calls, God is completely present as God asks us to make changes in our live or head in a new direction.  God never leaves us in the midst of anything, let alone our callings.  As I’ve heard along the way “God never calls the equipped, God equips the called.”  Even if you don’t feel like you have all of the answers to where God is calling you or all of the skills, it may be wise and interesting to go, to drive on this unknown road to see where this God nudging.

Right now, I have a friend who is called by God to make a major change in her life.  So in closing, here’s something I wrote not only for them, but hopefully a note that will inspire you to follow God’s crazy call in your life, even if that means dropping everything.

Dear friend,

Through what you tell me, God has been nudging you, calling you to drop everything and make your way to a new location to answer this call.

Soon, you’ll be heading to a new location.  This call may seem like it’s the last minute, but for some reason, you are moving completely across the country to fulfill your dream.  You are brave.  Not all of us can drop everything to see where the voice of God is calling us.  Most of us cling to the familiar in order to keep comfortable, to stay in safe areas.  Sometimes, that’s not a bad thing unless God’s call is truly pursing you.

It’s scary to do this.  Everything you’ve known in your recent location is left behind.  Don’t look back.  Savor those moments and relationships of the past and keep driving.  You’ll see things along the way that will interest you, distract you and inspire you.  Fill your tank with the things that interest you and take mental pictures of the things that inspire you.  And may God erase the images of anything that distracts you from your mind.

Embrace that this is what God wanted you to do.  Accept that nothing is guaranteed in life.  Let your past be something you learn from but not something that will hold you back.  Let your journey be one of picking yourself up after mistakes, turning to God in your fears and loving each and every minute.

Being made in the image of God, you deserve to be called.  You deserve this fresh new start.  Your past does not dictate where God is calling you.  Stop fishing like Peter and Andrew.  Drop your nets like James and John.  Say a brief goodbye and look west towards your future.  For God is with you each step your foot takes, each mile your car drive and each moment that you breathe.

Blessings to all who discern God’s call in their lives.

IMG_2820One of my favorite genre of movies and literature involves dystopian communities or worlds.  Wikipedia defines dystopia as

“a community or society that is in some important way undesirable or frightening. It is the opposite of a utopia. Such societies appear in many artistic works, particularly in stories set in a future. Dystopias are often characterized by dehumanization, totalitarian governments, environmental disaster, or other characteristics associated with a cataclysmic decline in society. Dystopian societies appear in many sub-genres of fiction and are often used to draw attention to real-world issues regarding society, environment, politics, economics, religion, psychology, ethics, science, and/or technology, which if unaddressed could potentially lead to such a dystopia-like condition.”

I personally love to watch them because, for me, they are a filter, a pair of special lenses which allows all of us to see the gaps in our world.  Dystopian movies are creepy yet challenging.  They force me to analyze where my social status would be in their world and how I can bridge the gaps of injustices.

Last week, I watched the dystopian movie Elysium.  Throughout the story, there are two distinct living places – earth and an orbiting home in space called Elysium.  For those who can afford it, Elysium is a place where the rich live far away from the poor, a place where any disease and most injuries can be healed by a machine.  The humans on earth struggle to stay healthy, and they do not have access to such machines.  The people and corporations on Elysium use the much poorer people on Elysium to make a profit.  The people on earth are kept in check and even treated in a much harsher justice system than on Elysium.

As I watched the movie Elysium I wondered: Would I be on Elysium or on earth?  What would happen if everyone on earth had the same privileges as the humans on Elysium?  What would happen if people on our earth had the same basic privileges?

Another dystopian tale is The Hunger Games trilogy, and some of us went to see The Hunger Games:Catching Fire film in December.  In this story, their country is divided into 12 districts plus the capitol.  The people who live in the Capitol are not required to enter the games; however, the games are entertainment for them.  They live in excess with flowing food, entertainment and drink.  Their clothing and makeup style is surreal while those in the districts live in poverty and must fight to stay alive.

The Hunger Games makes me wonder: Which district would I live in, or would I live in the Capitol?  What would happen if everyone in the districts earth had the same privileges as the humans at the Capitol?

In our society, we think we’re so far ahead of the curve but there are so many “isms” like racism and sexism that keep the playing field far from equal.  I’m still getting to know the racial climate of Cincinnati, so I’m going to speak to my experience in St. Louis.  The areas of north city and north county are predominantly African American while the areas of south county and west county are predominantly white with west county being wealthy white people.  White flight still happens.  People fear when others of another color move into their neighborhood.  Instead of getting to know their neighbors, they only see color.

East St. Louis, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, was known for the white flight back in the 60’s and 70’s.  When I’ve driven through parts of East St. Louis in the past few years, it feels like it’s another country – one ravished by war and poverty.

Furthermore, my friends at Eden Seminary felt uncomfortable going off of campus as people of color were often pulled over in Webster Groves.  Even Webster Groves had unofficial segregation: a predominantly white area and predominantly African American area.  As I am white, segregation and discrimination wasn’t something that I experienced, so all seemed fine from my position.  By my seminary friends sharing their experiences and their fears of simply stepping off campus, my eyes opened to the area’s dreadful reality.

As this is the remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, opportunities open up for us to reflect on racial justice issues.  I know this time of year gives me pause to ask myself how I could better stand up against unjust systems.  While I may not be intentionally a racist, I must still ask in what ways do my thoughts and life choices hurt people who are racial and ethnic minorities?  Are there things I could do to stand up against these unfair systems?  How are my sins of neglect and indifference hurting my neighbor with less privilege and the Body of Christ?

I thank God that in every generation, we have people who are willing to be prophets, to teach us how to better treat our neighbors.  They are willing to stand up to the unjust systems even to the point of death.  Of course, we have Jesus the Christ, the one who taught us how to love one another, how to risk when our surroundings are full of injustice and how to give dignity to the expendables in our society.

The prophets of the Hebrew Bible stood up for the poor, widows, orphans and aliens.  Throughout time, we’ve had people risk life and reputation to stand up for what they believe.  Recently, these modern prophets include Mahatma Ghandi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. whose birthday we celebrate this weekend.

Granted, because of the leadership by people like Martin Luther King, Jr., official segregation washed away with the Civil Rights Act.  Separate water fountains and restaurant counters ceased.  Schools were integrated.

But there’s still unofficial segregation as we see when areas are predominantly inhabited by one color or another, or when the poor must choose between medication and food or when women make nearly 30% less than men when working, segregation still happens.

Yet the story is not over.  There is still hope, a hope that Jesus saw in his lifetime and a hope that King preached about right before he died.  King closes his final sermon by saying the following:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Deuteronomy 34 is the text in which King’s speech is referring.  The day before he is assassinated, King gives this speech in support of sanitation workers who were striking in Memphis.  The end of the speech is haunting.  King is resonating with Moses at the end of Moses’ life.  Moses never makes it to the promised land, much like King

Instead, it’s Joshua who leads them to the promised land.

Just as King was like Moses, are we called to be like Joshua – leading people to the promised land?  Are we the ones called to be a true prophet and risk our lives to make sure all in our society have equality and dignity?

When I was thinking of a title, I originally decided to go with “Still on the Mountaintop.”  But I was wrong.  We’re so much farther than the mountaintop.  We’re miles past the mountaintop.  But we still have a ways to go to see a true new heaven and new earth, an actual promised land.  And when people will stop being abused or murdered because of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexual orientation, then we’ve gotten to the promise land.  We will have created the Kingdom of God of which Jesus often spoke.

Let’s learn from our history – whether it’s the history of this country or the history of humanity.  Let’s even learn from these crazy fictional dystopian stories by realizing that some people will always try to suppress the rights of others.  Humans often feel like someone needs to lose in order for them to succeed.  Maybe if we try to help all people succeed we will find our own success.  As it says in Jeremiah 29:7 “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

That’s the type of vision King had for us and that’s the type of vision Jesus had for all of God’s children.  There are no segregated neighborhoods.  People aren’t arrested or pulled over based on the color of their skin.

So here’s our challenge today – working together to usher in the new heaven and new earth that’s mentioned in Revelation 21.   We are called to usher in the promised land where all live together in love.  Let us seek the welfare for all of the Body of Christ.

Can you see this promised land?  We’re so close now… Close your eyes and listen to the Spirit of God inside of you… you will find it.

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