Sunday, December 26, 2010

Let's Stop Hiding

Here is the sermon I preached at First Congregational Church of Fort Worth on Sunday, December 26, 2010:

Let’s Stop Hiding
December 26, 2010

For many, Christmas is a joyful time.  It is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.  In our churches we tell the story and have special activities throughout the season to celebrate and commemorate that glorious event.  Even the secular Christmas is infused with love for our fellow human beings and a wish for peace – both of which are large pieces of the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and teachings

This season, we have done some reflecting on the story through the eyes of Mary and Joseph.  The Bible tells us that Jesus’ birth was heralded by singing angels, shining stars, wise men bringing gifts, shepherds coming to the inn to worship him and much rejoicing.  I wonder, though, if this is how Mary and Joseph felt.  They were in a strange city when it was time for Mary to give birth.  There was no place to stay but the barn at an inn and they were all alone.  Mary didn’t have a mid-wife.  She and Joseph had to bring the child into the world all by themselves, and Joseph probably wasn’t a whole lot of help.  Imagine how frightening that would be.  On top of that God placed a huge responsibility on their shoulders.  God told them that this son was going to be the Messiah, the Savior of the people.  It was going to be up to Mary and Joseph to bring the savior into the world and to raise him until he was old enough to do what God meant him to do – to save the people.  This is HUGE because the Jewish people had been waiting for the Messiah for a long time.  They were waiting for someone to come and free them from their oppressors – the Romans.

Babies are special and they often illicit feelings of joy.  During my chaplain internship these past several weeks, I have had the chance to visit with many new Moms and Dads and their baby or babies (twins, triplets).  I am always struck with a feeling of awe at what a miracle it is and how each of these little, tiny babies are full of potential.  Babies are cute.  Babies are fun to play with.  But we all know that babies grow up with all of the accompanying challenges.  So even if Mary and Joseph were able to bask in the joy of a new baby, it probably wasn’t long before they were hit with the tremendous responsibility they held.  Imagine how frightening THAT would be – to be responsible for the savior of all of their people!

Then the Bible tells us that King Herod heard about the baby who was to become the “King of the Jews”.  Herod was threatened and vowed to find Jesus and kill him.  An angel warned Mary and Joseph and told them to go to Egypt and hide there until Herod’s death.  So they left in the night and went to a place where they were strangers in a strange land – a place where they didn’t know anyone and where the customs may have been very different from their own.  Again, imagine the loneliness, anxiety and fear they must have felt.  Think of the courage this took.  These two young people were responsible for the protection of this vulnerable baby who would someday play such a huge role in the future of God’s people.  It is hard to imagine what that was really like.  Of course, we all know that Mary and Joseph fulfilled their responsibility and Jesus grew up to do his work. 

Throughout his entire life, Jesus was a Jew.  He never intended to start a new religion.  He was trying to improve the faith of which he was already a part and the faith that he loved.  His teachings showed us how to be in covenant with one another and with God.  He taught us the Great Commandment:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  The first Christians were those Jewish people who followed Jesus’ teachings and who found meaning in his death and resurrection.

But there were many other Jewish people for whom Jesus was not the Messiah.  They were looking for someone who was a warrior who would free them from the Romans.  Jesus was not at all what they were expecting, so they didn’t accept him as the true Messiah.  Eventually, the Jewish Christians were forced to break away from Judaism and form their own movement.

Early Christians suffered persecution and we know that they often met in secret.  They had to hide to protect the vulnerable fledgling movement so it could grow.  Even today in countries where religion in general or Christianity in particular is outlawed, the Christians have to hide and meet in secret so as to protect their faith, much as Mary and Joseph had to hide in Egypt to protect Jesus.

Eventually, Christianity was widely accepted, thanks to Constantine and his “conversion”.  And we know about the Protestant Reformation and how there are now many, many different denominations and “flavors” of Christianity. 

For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to group today’s Christians into two general schools of thought.  There are those who believe in following the “law” – often to the letter of the law.  Unfortunately, this can mean their own particular interpretation of the law.  If one doesn’t believe as they do, one is going to go to hell.  I’ll refer to these as the “Followers of the Law”.  The other group is made up of those who focus more on the Great Commandment to love God and your neighbor and they are more tolerant of other ways of looking at things and of other faiths in general.  I’ll refer to these as the “Followers of the Spirit”.

I believe that the “Followers of the Spirit” have been hiding and I’m going to illustrate why I believe that.  As many of you know, I came to Christianity just a few years ago which means that I grew up outside of the Christian faith.  My perception of Christianity for much of my life was based on what I heard and experienced.  As a child and a youth, I had peers who would tell me that I was going to hell because I wasn’t a Christian.  I often heard this same sentiment through the media.  There were, and still are, protestors who hold up signs saying things like:  “God Hates Homosexuals, Liberals, Feminists, Pro-Choice, etc.”  You can fill in the blank.  How sad it must be to worship a God with all of those rules and who would hate you if you did the wrong thing.  But that’s what is out there.  Many of my non-Christian friends can’t understand why I converted because that’s all they see of Christianity as well.

Why did I convert?  I entered seminary intent on becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister.  I also entered seminary with the vow to approach Christianity with an open mind.  There are so many Christians in the world; there must be something more to it than the hateful, bigoted rhetoric we hear so much of the time.  Much to my delight, I found the group of Christians who are “Followers of the Spirit”.  Where have you all been?  Why doesn’t the world hear more from us?  What are we hiding from?  We can’t be hiding to protect a vulnerable child, as did Mary and Joseph, or to protect a vulnerable movement as did the early Christians.  Just why are we hiding?  What are we trying to protect?  If we keep hiding as we have been, Christianity and perhaps the future of our country or our world will be informed more by the “Followers of the Law”.  Oppression will continue as those groups who the “Followers of the Law” have pronounced to be hated by God will continue to be identified.  And since God hates these groups, it will be OK for others to hate them as well and to treat them as second class citizens or worse.

We need to stop hiding.  We need to let the world know that God is a loving and accepting God.  We aren’t all the same – even in our faith – and that is OK.  Diversity is a good thing.  Look at all of the wonderful diversity in the natural world which is a part of God’s creation.  We can love each other and treat each other with respect even though we may not agree on everything. That is the key to a just and peaceful world.  We are all children of God – every last one of us – and God doesn’t make junk. God would be a very small God if there was only one way of believing and everyone else was doomed to eternal damnation.  God is much, much bigger than that.

We need to come out of hiding and start working to eliminate oppression in the world.  I believe that the Kingdom of God is something to be achieved here on Earth.  It is a world where everyone has equal access to resources – food, water, shelter, safety, education.  It is a world void of oppression where everyone has an opportunity to realize his/her God-given potential.  It is a world where we all love our neighbors as ourselves.  This is what the “Followers of the Spirit” can teach the world.  As Christians, it seems to me that those of us who are “Followers of the Spirit” have a responsibility to advocate for and protect those vulnerable groups who are hated by the “Followers of the Law.”  Let’s come out of hiding and start teaching and doing!

Of course, there are pockets of Christians who are “Followers of the Spirit” who are already beginning to do this.  Our own congregation identifies itself as being “open and affirming” as do many other UCC congregations.  Likewise, we’ve had some training and conversation about being open and welcoming to the mentally ill.  But so far, it seems that it has been all talk.  What are we actually doing  about these things?  Perhaps this is something to reflect on as we work to define who we want to be as a congregation in the future.

We can also team up with other groups who are working for the same thing.  To try to make significant change as an individual is almost impossible.  More can be done when a congregation works for something, but even more can be accomplished if several congregations and groups of like-minded people come together to work for a common cause.  There is power in numbers.  One of the things we here at First Congregational have been looking at is taking part in the Room at the Inn program in cooperation with South Hills Christian Church.  This is a good place to start working in cooperation with other groups.  Perhaps that is something we can do this next year. 

I recently attended a conference on Emerging Christianity, and this idea of coming together is one of the themes that I picked up there.  Churches and denominations are going to have to change in the future to survive.  People are not going to be interested in coming to church to serve on committees and work to keep up old buildings that are often not fully utilized.  Instead, folks are going to be more interested in coming together – perhaps even in informal environments – to talk about theology and to share their faith journeys.  It looks like ecumenicalism is going to be part of the wave of the future – especially for folks who have open minds and who are interested in hearing different ideas.

Perhaps the “Followers of the Spirit” have been hiding to somehow protect the Great Commandment.  Perhaps that idea has been vulnerable to being overtaken by the Followers of the Law.  But it is now time to come out of hiding and find each other and work towards realizing the Kingdom of God here on Earth. 

Jesus planted the seed of the Great Commandment.  It is now up to us to help it grow and become a healthy and strong force in the world.

Let us pray:
O God of the Poor and Endangered Ones
Whose children are the prey of the Herods of this world
Be our Emmanuel, God-with-us, a Spirit of Courage
For those who must flee to safety and opportunity for life.

O God of the Poor and Endangered Ones
Whose children are the prey of the Herods of this world
Be our Jesus, Savior from the power of sin, a Spirit of Peace
For those who work for Justice, and an end to the violence.

O God of the Poor and Endangered Ones
Whose children are the prey of the Herods of this world
Be our Wonderful Counselor, a Spirit of Hospitality
For all who welcome the stranger and offer a sanctuary of Hope.

All this we pray in the Name of the One who loves us, calls us each by a precious name and send us forth to spread the Good News.


Sunday, September 26, 2010

Anxious Anticipation

Tomorrow I start in the extended Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program at Harris Methodist Hospital.  My classroom work will be at Harris Methodist Downtown and my practical will be at Harris Methodist Southwest.  One thing we were told to do before starting the program was to try to identify those things that we are anxious about.  Here is my list:

  • I'll get lost (hospitals are big and seem a lot like mazes)
  • I won't know what to say
  • I'll feel really awkward and won't know what to do
  • I'll say the wrong thing
  • I won't be able to pray out loud without stumbling all over myself
  • I'll be too empathetic and will get too emotional
  • I'll get sick and won't be able to get in all of the required hours
  • I'm not sure how I'll handle being with someone when they die - that is new for me
  • I won't be able to remember conversations well enough to write a verbatum
  • I'll be intimidated by the doctors and I'll have trouble asserting my authority

Well - that's all I can think of for now.  That is certainly enough!  Some of these are probably things that everyone worries about and once they get into the program they become non issues.  But others may not be so easy to dismiss.  Time will tell how this turns out.  I am fortunate in that the supervisor for the classroom work used to be my spiritual director.

I am anxious, but I am also anticipating that this will be a valuable growth experience for me.  Who knows, I may find that this type of work is something that will call to me.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Sad Leaving and a Happy Landing

Last year in June I had to leave the Unitarian Universalist congregation that was my church home for over 7 years.  The minister of the church resigned because of budgetary issues and since I was a ministerial candidate, the head of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee told me I had to leave as well.  He said it was because there couldn’t be any kind of perception that I had been antagonistic or that I was waiting in the wings to take over for the minister after he left – even though I hadn’t been doing any of those things.  In fact, I was one of the biggest allies for the minister.

So I had to just disappear.  I am still very sad about that.  I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.  I wasn’t able to give a goodbye sermon or even just publicly say goodbye.  There was no goodbye reception, even though the congregation gave a big goodbye reception for the minister.  It’s almost like I had never been there even though I gave my heart and soul to that place for seven years.  I just had to disappear – there hasn’t been any closure.

I have very mixed emotions about my leaving.  I loved the people there and I miss them.  I suppose it is petty and selfish (I am human after all) but I must confess that I am upset that there wasn’t any kind of goodbye party or reception for me.  I did so much for that church and there wasn't even a public acknowledgment of all that I had done - not even for what I had done during my year of supervised ministry.  It makes me feel like all of my efforts were unappreciated, even though I know that is not true.  It’s just a very sad thing and I am still grieving the loss.

But God has a funny way of working.  That incident forced me to really think about where I want to be.  I had been thinking about leaving Unitarian Universalism and exploring the United Church of Christ.   My having to leave the UU church gave me the push I needed to explore other options.  I am now involved with a wonderful United Church of Christ congregation and I have found a home with that denomination.  This was a significant change since I had been a life-long Unitarian Universalist.  Now I am well along the path to ordination in the United Church of Christ tradition.  I have learned to embrace Christianity – I have been baptized – and I know that I am now where I was meant to be.

As the old saying goes – when one door closes another opens up. 

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Liminality - that space between what was and what will be...what came before and what comes next.  It can be a very uncomfortable space or it can be a time for grounding, recharging, dreaming and discerning.  I am in such a state right now - between the near end of one career and the beginning of another.  What will my future ministry be?  This is a period of discernment and I ask God to help me keep an open mind to the options and possibilities.

Last night in our Sacred Conversations group we talked about some songs that spoke of the in-between time and of being on the edge of change.  One metaphor used was that of the time between night and day - light and dark - and standing right on the edge.  I feel like I'm nearing that edge but I'm not quite there yet.  The vision is not clear - clouds are in the way.  Sometimes the clouds cover my entire vision of the future and I feel like I'm groping in the dark.  Then the clouds move around and I can make out bits and pieces of the future.  Other times, the clouds are almost gone and I catch a glimpse of what I can become.  Then the vision clouds up again.  The clouds keep moving around revealing possibilities and then covering them up only to reveal other possibilities.

Faith is believing that I will make it through the liminal times and that I will be able to discern what I am meant to do - what God wants me to do.  No need to panic.  I can rest in this space with a sense of wonder and anticipation.

Dear God - I ask that you walk with me during this liminal time.  Help me open my mind and heart to all of the possibilities that you set before me.  Grant me the wisdom to discern the path that I am meant to take.  Amen.

Monday, August 16, 2010

My Mother - A New Relationship

My relationship with my mother was very strained while she was alive.  As I was growing up, she said many things to me that caused me a great deal of pain and anguish.  I've had to work hard to overcome the resulting emotional fall-out and behavioral issues.  I have come to realize that perhaps the things she said were not out of a desire to hurt me.  Rather, it was a misguided attempt to help me learn and grow.  Perhaps she didn't know any other way.  I wish I could have had a better relationship with her, but that was not to be.

Mom died rather suddenly about 3 years ago.  I thought that with her passing, my relationship with her would end.  But that's not exactly true.  I think about her sometimes and even have conversations in my mind with her.  Does this mean I can "feel" her presence?  I don't really know.  Perhaps.

I have a friend who calls himself a medium - someone who can contact the dead.  It used to be that I considered all such things to be utterly ridiculous, but I have since changed my mind and I now keep a fairly open mind about paranormal phenomena.  There is a lot about life and the universe that we don't understand, and probably some of it we will never understand.  The fact that we don't understand it or can't prove it, though, does not mean that it isn't real or that it doesn't exist.

So the other day, I asked my friend if he would try to contact my mother.  He concentrated for a few minutes and then said that he could sense her presence.  He then proceeded to tell me things about myself as a child and my relationship with my mother, then and more recently.  These were things that he would not have known, but he was dead on!  And I don't consider these to be things that are "normal" or that he could have been successful with a lucky guess.  He also told me that my mother doesn't hang around me all of the time, but she checks in every now and then to see how I'm doing.  That would make sense - there were four of us and if she (or her spirit) really is keeping tabs on us, she would have to make the rounds!

Somehow I find that comforting.  I would like to think it's true.  Maybe it is - my friend did know some things that he should not have known.  I can't explain that.  But even if it is not true, my mother lives on in my heart and in my memory.  I can continue to "talk to her" and I can continue to build a relationship with her.  It's a different kind of relationship than what we would have if she were still alive, but it's still a relationship.  Perhaps it's a relationship worth pursuing.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Lost and Found

What does it mean to be lost?
What is it to turn one's back on God?

I have been lost.

Denying who I am
Trying to squeeze into a mold that doesn't fit
         Made for me
         By someone else
         In someone else's image
Ashamed because I can't fit.

Running away
        Trying to flee from the true self within
        Who is so desperately wanting to come out.
If I run fast enough maybe I can lose myself.

Faster and faster
Turning my back on God.


Something urges me to stop for a moment
        I hear God's voice
        Asking me to turn around

And as I turn, my inner self begins to appear
        Very timidly at first
        Then more and more boldly
And she is smilling!

I start running towards God
Faster and faster.

I am found.

Saturday, August 7, 2010


Life is full of choices.  I am where I am in part because of the choices I've made.  I've made some significant choices in the past decade.   I chose to seek help from a therapist to work through my issues.  I discovered that I can choose NOT to be like my parents and instead choose to be the kind of person that I want to be.  I chose to get out of an unhealthy marriage, even though it was hard.  I chose to pursue my dream of attending seminary and training for a second career in the ministry.  I chose to leave the Unitarian Universalist tradition when I felt that it wasn't feeding me appropriately.  I chose to join the United Church of Christ tradition and to become baptized.  I chose to see a nutrition therapist and an eating disorder therapist because I have an unhealthy relationship with food.  I chose to seek help from a specialist in treating my diabetes.  I chose to seek help in dealing with my depression and am now on an anti-depressant that seems to be working quite well.  I chose to be more proactive in finding an intimate relationship by joining a dating service.  I don't know if we can choose to love ourselves, but I can choose not to engage in negative self talk anymore and I can choose to be more ready to acknowledge and appreciate my good qualities.  Perhaps that will lead to true self-love.

I am now choosing to start this blog.  In a few weeks, I will be embarking on another journey in spiritual leadership and I will be working on my spiritual life.  All of my choices have been made with the ultimate goal of becoming a complete human being and this latest choice is at least as important as any of the other choices.  I expect this adventure with my spiritual self will provide a lot of material for blogging.  Stay tuned!