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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A Time to Lose – A Body-Positive Weight Loss Prayer

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-2005-0802-501 / CC-BY-SA [CC-BY-SA-3.0-de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Loving God, Creator of my body-

At this very moment I have a strong love/hate relationship
With the art that you have made,
The shape that you have molded.

Through the stress of everyday life
And delicious foods
And lack of gym time
And probably my age
My body has changed.

It’s not my most ideal self-
Not because of my looks
But because I breathe heavy climbing the stairs
And I’m a bit more fatigued than before.

I admit that I must transform,
To find my balance
To value your creation.

Allow me to see that this transformation
Isn’t about pleasing society or someone else-
This revision of myself is to become the healthy me,
The one that wants to live to 99.

Alter my mind to see that I am beautiful
No matter the girth of my arm or ankle.
(And remind me to stop calling them “cankles…”)
Alter my soul to be happy
And not lean on another cupcake to cheer me up
(Because there will be times when I think I need another cupcake…
We know this about me, God.)

In the meantime…
Lead me not into the temptation of shaming my body.
Help me to cherish each extra inch as long as it lasts on my frame
Because every inch of me is still made in your image.
And may I not duck out of photos
Due to my fear of seeing this version of myself.

And while you’re at it,
Let’s change the way society sees bodies.
Thin, fat, curvy, whatever… it is all beautiful.
Let’s stop this message about getting the bikini body back
Or losing the baby bump in record time.
Let’s savor the moments-
Of deliciousness and balance.  Amen.

Who is a “Real” Christian?

1596I’ve been wondering lately who would be considered a “real” Christian in the eyes of God…

Is it the one who feeds the hungry, visits the prisoner and clothes the naked the “real” Christian – just like it says in Matthew 25?  Or is it the person who believes in their heart and speaks with their mouth that they believe in Jesus the one who is a real Christian -as it is written in Romans 10?

Is it the Christian who believes all must speak in tongues in order to be saved?   Or is it the Christian who understands tongues as speaking in a variety of languages and doesn’t have a special prayer language?

Is it the one who is Baptist?  Or an Episcopalian?  Or Catholic?  Or non-denominational?  Or doesn’t attend church at all?

What about those who believe that the world is 6,000 years old?  And what about those who believe that the universe was created in a “Big Bang” process and humans evolved from animals?  Is the Bible literally true or was the Bible written in certain contexts and metaphorical in certain parts?  Which of these beliefs is needed to be a “real” Christian?

Is it the person who gets in the faces of those marching in a pride parade to angrily tell them they need to repent?  Is it the ones marching in the Pride parade telling everyone that God loves them just as they are?  Is it the pastor who performed a wedding for two men or the pastor who preaches that marriage is only between a man and woman?

Is it the woman who became ordained a few years back or the man who thinks that women shouldn’t speak in church?  Are the “real” Christians protesting and speaking out for the life of the fetus outside of the abortion clinic?  Are the “real” Christians the ones standing at the doors of the clinic, being a loving presence to the women walking inside?

Are the “real” Christians the ones who pray to God in front of the the multi-story cross on the side of the highway?  Or are they the ones who pray to God when they enter a grocery store wondering how to spend their money on food for the hungry?

Would the Christian who believes that Jesus died for their sins or lived to save them be more “right” with God?

Is it the Christian who believes that God has no idea what the future holds or the Christian who knows that God has a plan and that everything happens for a reason?

Do the “real” Christians come from the Democrats… or the Republicans… or the Independents?  Is it the watcher of Fox News or the listener of NPR?

So tell me… who is the “real” Christian?  Which one will be existing with God on that side of Heaven instead of burning in Hell?

Who do you think will be with you in Heaven?  Will it be the ones who think and act like you?

Or could it be all of us?

On Being an “Acts” Church

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

 

This sermon was delivered on June 15, 2014 at St. Paul United Church of Christ, Old Blue Rock Road, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Has there ever been a unified Christianity?  This was one of the questions I was to answer on my Church History midterm in seminary.  From the surface view it looks as if there is and always has been one unified Christian thought.

But then we see the workings of the early church as seen in Acts (which I will discuss more in a minute).  We see the way people were tossed aside as heretics throughout the centuries – like Arius and his followers at the council of Nicea.  Or how about Augustine and Pelagius or Augustine and the Manichaeans.  Or Luther and the Catholic church.

Even in the early days of this country, people were not unified in their Christian thinking.  Those who came to the Massachusetts area did so to escape religion persecution in their homeland, but then imposed their belief on others – leading to some ugly moments like the Salem Witch Trials.  When people didn’t follow their religious formula, they were banished to states like Rhode Island – like Anne Hutchinson or Roger Williams.  By the way, those back in Massachusetts who disagreed with Anne Hutchinson said some pretty mean things about her and gloated when she later miscarried and then was slaughtered.

It often feels like someone has to be right and someone wrong.  So, my question is this: whose version of Christianity is right and whose is wrong?  Could it be that, as long as we could love one another and treat one another with respect, that we could ALL be right and and ALL be wrong?

Sitting in adult Sunday school and other Christian education classes, two confirmation classes and various informal conversations with congregants of this church, I have seen the great span of your convictions and beliefs.  And it is truly refreshing to see how each of you are serious of your faith journeys even though they each seem so different.

God, the Christ and the Holy Spirit are in one way or form parts of your faiths.  You hold your beliefs with such sacredness, and yet, you see it from your own angles.  The church means different things to you.  Salvation takes different approaches.  All of these beliefs spread into other parts of your life and lead to different beliefs on politics, parenting, family structures and more.

And that’s how I see the early church, the Jesus Movement, in the book of Acts.

Lately I feel like I’ve been drawn to reading the book of Acts.  Acts was written by the writers of Luke, so it’s basically Luke volume two as the two books together are known in the theological community as Luke-Acts.  It reflected a time when the disciples were trying to figure it all out after the earthly ministry of Jesus.  The Holy Spirit helped to give them the strength and courage they needed to be the leaders they needed to be in the early church.  But there were differences in the early believers.  There were the Jewish believers who thought that their traditions and law were necessary in this new figuration of faith – and this included dietary laws and necessary circumcision on the males.  But then the Gentiles came in – and the Gentiles did not have this same faith background or the same traditions.  So dietary laws and circumcision were not on their radars as they embraced this new faith.  There were challenges in reconciling these major differences.

And yet, even in their difficulties to reconcile the differences, they journeyed together in this Jesus Movement.

The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary on the book of Acts states:

“Acts was written to consolidate disparate (or dissimilar) faith communions.  Luke’s irenic spirit (a spirit that reconciles different beliefs in peace) is no doubt an idealized feature of his theological vision.  At the same time, his ecumenicity (or yearning for unity) is never divorced from the hard pragmatics of the first church’s mission of the world.  A religious movement that lacks solidarity within its diverse membership will be ineffective in advancing its claim.”

Languages and traditions are the differences in Acts 2.  Remember the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11)?  As they tried to build a tower as high as heaven, God scattered them with a variety of languages.  Acts 2 is what I believe is the other bookend of that story.  They have different languages, different experiences and different ways of acting out their faith, and here the Holy Spirit comes along and helps them understand one another even with their differing words and traditions.  The Holy Spirit opens them up to comprehend what others are saying and how they express themselves.

And that’s what we need for the Holy Spirit to do with us and with our society today.

Is it bad that we think or believe differently than one another?  Our society makes us feel like we should live in an “us versus them” world.  There are two primary political parties – both who rarely want to talk with one another, a situation that is becoming toxic for our country. It’s becoming dangerous because people see that sentiment of leadership not working together, and those in our country on every level feel like they don’t need to as well.  People of various Christian traditions won’t often dialogue with people who profess a different set of beliefs because they feel they hold the only “truth.”  We feel that there needs to be a winner and a loser in each situation.  But what if we don’t need a winner and loser?  What if God is so much bigger than this – that God can hold paradoxes?  What if both sides could be right – as long as both sides are loving to God, neighbor and self?  Could we live in that wilderness space of grayness and  uncertainty?  Might we ask how God is working with us in that space of ambiguity?

Here’s the one thing we rarely speak of in our churches or from our pulpits: no two people think or believe alike.  We go about our days believing every Christian has or should have a clone belief structure.  We don’t validate is that there is a diversity of Christian beliefs.  Each person is influenced by life experience in such unique ways that they experience the Divine – the Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit in their own context.

Chances are, the person sitting next to you will have a belief or two different than you.  Frankly, I don’t think Christianity and the Church acknowledges or encourages this enough.  Maybe people don’t think anyone will accept them for naming an unconventional belief.  So we keep quiet about this instead of being our authentic selves.

It’s what I like to call the Stained-Glass Elephant in the Sanctuary.  I’ll explain that a little further.  It’s an elephant in the room – something we don’t talk about.  And congregations are like a stained glass window.  Each person within the congregation is a different sliver of tinted glass.  When the light of Christ shines through the multi-color window, a beautiful array of color falls upon the carpet and pews of the sanctuary… and in our communities.

If all the colors in the window were alike, the beauty would not be so great.

So let’s embrace the idea of an Acts church, a stained glass church – a church filled with a variety of beliefs and traditions, a church that has members who speak a variety of unique perspectives, a church that pulls the Holy Spirit into its life process so that we can understand one another for where we are at.  In being this Acts church, we will embrace the differences between us and come together in sharing the good news of God’s love and grace with everyone around us.  Amen.

My Escape Route

Image0009In front of my television I sit, ecstatic that a new season of Royal Pains begins again.  I soak up the scenes, excited that the story I’ve been following for five years is back on the small screen.

Prior to turning on the television, I watched a few classic episodes of Private Practice.  It was season two, and Naomi was running the practice into the ground, Charlotte and Cooper begin to date and Taye Diggs is, well, Taye Diggs.

And then I focus on the smooth taste of peanut butter fudge in my mouth and the Diet Coke bubbles dancing upon my tongue.

I think about all the people and places I could visit.  I talk on the phone to the people I love.

And in doing so, for small periods of time, I forget.

I forget that another shooting happened today.

I forget that two shootings happened today.

I forget that this is the third or fourth or five mass shooting in the past few weeks.

I forget that a mass shooting could happen wherever I was… wherever my family and friends were.

For just a little while, I forget.  And it’s because I have the luxury and privilege to forget.

Throughout this day my anger rose as I heard the statistics.  Seventy-four school shootings since Sandy Hook.  Forty-six THOUSAND dead from shootings since that horrific day in Newtown.

When will it end?

We express our concern over current gun laws.  We express concern that the entire system is broken – whether it be the legal system protecting domestic violence victims, programs for severely mentally ill people and the way unhealthy people access weapons and ammunition.  We voice our concern that our society is violent, obsessed with fear and shoot-‘em-up fanatics.  We see how people feel entitled because of their privileged race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and we want people to hear how their entitlement is the equivalent of bullying – whether it’s misogyny, homophobia or racism.

But no one listens.  Nothing changes.

And 46,000 more people are dead.

So now I return back to binge-watching second season episodes of Private Practice… at least until tomorrow when I regain my resolve and strength to stand up for liberty and justice for all once again.

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? ”  – – Habakkuk 1:2