Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A new look, a new name, a new blog

I've blogged as Reverend Mom for ten years now.  When I started, I was working part-time and staying home with my two daughters.

They are now almost 19 and 16.  One is a sophomore in college; the other is a junior in high school.

When I was in college, a professor of mine who knew I was going to seminary called me the irreverent reverend.  It's time I owned those early roots of my call to ministry.

It's time for a new name:  Irrevrent






Go check it out.

I hold many things in reverence, but I try not to take myself too seriously.  Plus, believe it or not, I have a wicked sense of humor.

It's time to lighten up AND get serious at the same time. 






Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Letting ourselves be seen


Mark 7: 24-37
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
September 6, 2015





            Every now and then the gospel writers allow us to see Jesus being fully human. Not just flesh and blood. Not only loving, compassionate, sad, or forgiving, but angry, tired, cranky, impatient, and stubborn. Not only determined and surrounded by crowds of people but wanting to hide and have some privacy, like any parent of young children scrambling for the bathroom and locking the door. Here he’s losing his cool, letting loose with an ethnic slur, holding on to an old prejudice, backing up, trying again, and allowing a sigh to escape his lips as he loosens the tongue and opens the ears of a deaf man. All without social media coming down on him like so much fire and brimstone. Just human. No more, no less, and without shame.


          Being human is something we allow more for ourselves than we do for others, and even then we skimp on the grace. In the Star Trek universe, Captain Kirk said to his half-human, half-Vulcan first officer, “Spock, you want to know something? Everybody’s human.” To which Spock replied, “I find that remark…insulting.” It’s hooray for our side when our humanity shines through our compassion, forgiveness, justice, generosity, acts of great courage and small kindnesses. But when we’re scared or scarred (or someone else is), when we do something stupid or hurtful (or someone else does), we shame others and ourselves, and we shrink the circle of grace.




          Letting ourselves be seen, all of who we are, our goodness and our meanness, our gifts and our flaws or somewhere in between, requires that we be vulnerable. Author Brené Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure”. These are the very things we try to avoid on a daily basis because they can make us feel weak. And yet following Jesus is full of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Or at least it was for the disciples. Lately, the Christian church has become notorious for its certainty, risk-avoidance, and emotional martyrdom.


          It’s not easy for a church to allow itself be fully seen; it’s not easy for we who serve the church to allow ourselves to be fully seen, with our gifts and our flaws, our goodness and our meanness or somewhere in between; to be authentically human. I wonder if this is one of the reasons why we don’t like prayers of confession, why words like ‘sin’, ‘savior’, and ‘salvation’ disturb us, why it’s difficult to listen or deliver a message like this. We’re the proverbial Eve and Adam, naked before our Creator, yet clothed in our shame.


          Shame is something we all have; we fool no one but ourselves if we say there is no shame in us. When someone shames us, we feel as though we don’t belong, that we are unworthy of belonging, and we experience disconnection from others. When we shame another human being, in effect, we are saying they don’t belong, that they are unworthy of love and connection. When we are vulnerable (and when are we not), we are at risk for shame and disconnection.


          And yet, vulnerability is also the wellspring for joy, creativity, connection, courage, love, and the ability to be open, authentic, to be fully seen. Being vulnerable is like walking a tightrope without a net. Still, the church is called to be the net, that place of safety and trust, with appropriate boundaries, so we can be vulnerable without fear, without shame, with our whole hearts.





         We’re called to be the net, but let’s be honest; we don’t always behave that way. Sometimes we let people fall through. Maybe we’re one who’s let someone slip by or we dropped them. Maybe we’ve been one who’s fallen through. Maybe it’s happened more than once, yet we still keep giving church a second chance, feasting on the crumbs under the Table. Maybe there are times we feel alone in a room full of people who profess to care about us. There are some who are not in church for these very reasons.


          Feeling disconnected, feeling alone in a faith community is probably one of the worst feelings, and we can feel shame because of it. How do we speak of our loneliness to people from whom we feel disconnected?


          In the two healing stories from Mark, both the woman and her daughter and the deaf man were outsiders; she, a Gentile, and he, because of his speech and hearing impediments. Jesus would not have met them had he not traveled beyond his homeland, walking a great distance. God calls us to have the courage to allow ourselves to be seen, to bridge the distance, to make the first move and reach out to one another with our whole hearts.






            We make it so complicated; we place such high expectations on ourselves and on each other. Jesus said it doesn’t get any more complicated than this: to love God, to love one another, to love ourselves. Everything else hinges on these three things. It’s all about connection and staying connected to each other, especially when it is difficult. For it is love and connection that make it possible for us to be fully seen, fully authentic, fully human, and ultimately realize, we are also fully divine, each one of us an image of God.


         The Rev. Bob Degges, of Bethany Christian Church in Fort Washington, MD, proclaimed in a recent newsletter, “God has created people as mysteries, not as problems to be solved.” You, me, every living soul, we are wondrous, human mysteries. And here at this Table we meet again and again the mystery of mysteries. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. The One who was fully seen, fully vulnerable on the cross can be fully seen in you and me and the gospel lived out in our lives. Lord Jesus Christ, open our lives. Amen.



Thursday, September 03, 2015

Invite someone

Here's our new invitational video for the New Ark.


 


Share it with a friend!

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Getting our hands dirty


Mark 7: 5-8, 14-15, 21-23
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
August 30, 2015



 
 

            Hear these words from UCC pastor and poet Martha Spong, entitled “Dirty Hands”:

They smudge the screen,
leave prints on the doorjamb
with their unwashed hands.

I send them to the sink,
call, “Did y’all  use soap?”

But Jesus says, “Come. Eat.”


            Don’t we all have this rule in our homes?  Wash your hands before you come to the table.  Every time we use a restroom in a restaurant, fast food place, grocery store, or gas station we see the sign:  “Employees must wash hands before returning to work”.  Many places of business have hand gel or foam dispensers for their patrons.  Hospitals depend on it.  We really wouldn’t want any of these folks breaking this rule.  The scribes and Pharisees don’t sound that unreasonable.  Why is Jesus getting on their case?


            Ritual handwashing was more of a human tradition than a commandment from God.  Yes, there were purity laws regarding full immersion as a common practice, but this was mostly in Judea.  Handwashing became a way of imitating the mikvah bath and remembering that what God desires is a clean heart.  The Pharisees and scribes, however, seemed to be of the mind that it would be preferable for these unwashed disciples to go hungry than to eat with them and their dirty hands.  These power brokers have no desire to enable the disciples and their seemingly sinful ways.
 

            I want to talk about enabling when it comes to ministry and helping others.  I’ll begin with a story.  The week before we left for Pipestem, WV, church groups from Monroe, CT and Granby, CT left for their mission trip to work on the Cheyenne River Reservation in La Plant, South Dakota with their mission partner, Simply Smiles.  Most of their work focused around the community center: they continued construction on a large greenhouse and playscape area, as well as the interior of a new home.  


            The pride and joy of the week was a new archery range.  As part of his final project, an Eagle Scout led the construction of the range, including a platform and backdrop screen.  Both kids and adults went through a rigorous series of safety lessons, and before the week was out, the arrows were flying.


 
 

            While the kids were testing out their archery skills, Steven, one of men from the reservation, remarked, “Usually, when something like this gets built, kids would come and set fire to it.  There’d be nothing left in the morning.”  Worried that this might happen to the archery range, my friend Debbie asked, “Is that what’s going to happen?”  Steven replied, “Not now.  Five years ago, maybe, but not now.”


            People have asked my friends why they help those who live on the reservation.  If they can’t get a job or if their house is falling apart, why don’t they move?  If they drink too much or take drugs, why bother building them a safe, warm house?  If they’ve got diabetes and can’t eat right, why plant them a garden and build a greenhouse?


            The reason why the archery range won’t be burned down, but would have five years ago is because of relationships.  Five years ago people who came to help on the reservation were suspect.  Maybe they were do-gooders, come to feel good about themselves and their work and then leave.  Maybe they were going to tell folks on the rez how to live, clean up their lives, disrespect their culture.  Maybe it hurt too much to open up and hope again.


            Instead people on the reservation were asked “What do you need?  What would you like?  What do you want?”  So they built a house for a man who drinks too much and a few other houses.  Every summer there’s guitar camp for all ages, and everyone gets a free guitar.  On Wednesdays anyone can come to a community dinner or breakfast.  Each morning there’s a Walk On at the school track.  In the spring not only does the community garden get planted, but anyone who wants to can take a garden class and learn how to start their own vegetable garden.


            Even so, none of this guarantees anything.  Many folks still drink too much, abuse drugs, and use violence to solve their problems.  Some still take their own lives, unable to see any other way out of their pain.  My friends arrived the week after a 15 yr. old girl took her own life. 


            When we’re worried about enabling someone, what we’re really scared of is being vulnerable, of being hurt, being used, of not really being able to help someone, being powerless.  There’s an old proverb:  Love me when I least deserve it, because that’s when I really need it.  Love is not love when it involves a quid pro quo or an expectation.  Last night I heard a song lyric: “Did I make myself weak so someone else could be strong?”


            Worrying about enabling can sometimes disable ministry, and ministry is all about relationships—imperfect, human relationships.  Life and love and following Jesus—all of it is messy.  We’ve made and we’ll continue to make mistakes, but the mistakes are a sign that at least we’re trying.  As for being hurt, being used, that’s why we have Jesus so we can keep learning how to forgive seventy times seven, to forgive as we have been forgiven, receive our daily bread, ask that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, lead us not to the time of trial but deliver us from evil.


            All of us have dirty hands on this one.  If we’ve loved someone, helped someone, we’ve left our share of grimy smudges; our fingerprints are everywhere.  What matters is our hearts, and what’s in our hearts when we’re asked to give. 


            We need to let go of the outcome.  We can pray this prayer:  “O God, you know what this person, this situation, this community, this world needs today.  You know what is needful for this person to do what you would have them do, to be the person you would have them be.  If I am needed, I am here.  I trust you, God.  Help them to trust you.  Thank you, God.  Amen.”


            Ultimately it’s about enabling God to do what God will do.  God works through connection and relationships.  And what God does is love, unconditionally, without limit, fully and fearlessly.  O God, use us to be a part of your fearless work of grace.  Amen.


Thursday, August 27, 2015

Waiting for the gift


John 6: 56-69
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE 

August 23, 2015




This is the fifth Sunday we hear Jesus telling his disciples that he is the Bread of life, that if we eat his flesh and drink his blood, we will have eternal life. Jesus is the stuff we need to be fully alive. The Catholic and Protestant scholars who put together the lectionary readings wisely knew that it would take at least more than one hearing of this particular word in order for it to sink in. Jesus says it himself: “Does this throw you completely?” In other words, you think this teaching is hard to understand? Or in the NSRV: “Does this offend you?” What would happen if we saw the Son of Man ascending to where he came from? Would that make it easier to believe, if Jesus did something supernatural, right in front of our eyes?



            

It helps if first, we don’t take Jesus literally but we do take him seriously. Just as when God said God would write words of love and commitment on human hearts, it didn’t mean God would engrave them with hammer and chisel. So too Jesus isn’t recruiting an army of cannibals, vampires, and zombies. I like Eugene Peterson’s use of the phrase ‘make a meal of me’. Jesus says, “In the same way that the fully alive Father sent me here and I live because of him, so the one who makes a meal of me lives because of me.”



Usually when we say someone ‘makes a meal’ of something, it means they’ve spent more time and energy than what is needed.­ “I asked for a few bullet points on the subject, but she made a meal out it.” Funny thing is, that’s precisely what Jesus wants us to do with him. Jesus doesn’t want us to sum him up in a few bullet points or sound bites. He doesn’t want us to skim the surface; Jesus wants us to go deep, to make a meal out of him, to take him seriously, and become alive through him.

 


But even then, it’s not a guarantee for faith, for trust, for going where Jesus is going. And so we need to hear this message not just once or twice but over and over again, because trusting in Jesus and having faith that can carry us forward is no easy thing. Sometimes we try to muscle our way through, soldier on, will ourselves (and a few other people) headlong into the fray of living. Other times we turn around, head the other way, leaving Jesus in the dust. After all, he can be one frustrating dude. But Jesus tells us that none of this works. Muscle and willpower can’t make faith happen. We can’t come to Jesus on our own. Jesus says we get to him only as a gift from God.



The journey of faith is not a linear one. Like life itself, faith ebbs and flows, up and down. Sometimes the ebb comes with a wicked undertow, and we get thrashed about. Sometimes we wait a long time for the flow of faith to return. Some of us may still be waiting for it to return, wondering if it ever will. If faith is a gift, why must we wait for it? If God’s grace is unconditional, why doesn’t it flow freely? Why can’t we feel it all the time?



Near the scripture in your bulletin, draw a wavy line. On that wavy line, put an X where you are right now in your relationship to God, with Jesus, in the Holy Spirit, however it is you relate to the sacred in your life. Are you at the top or the bottom of the wave, ascending or descending somewhere in the middle?



The bottom of the wave is the hardest place to be, especially when we can’t see the upward slope that’s coming. Or maybe we’re on that upward slope, but it feels like Sisyphus continuously rolling that heavy boulder uphill. We’re muscling our way up the stairway to heaven. Maybe we’re coasting on the downhill. It’s hardest when we’re waiting: waiting for something to change, something to happen, something to feel different.

 


I don’t know about you but I stink at waiting. At least it feels like I’m no good at it. I get frustrated. I cry but probably not as much as I need to. Sometimes I rail at God because she’s the only one who’ll let me. At some point I despair because being powerless is just unacceptable. When it gets bad, there are times I have turned to poetry and I write it out.  This poem is from a few years ago while I was searching for a church.




The Waiting Room



Random.

Capricious.

No guarantees

whatsoever.

You sure you want this?

You might not

even get what you need.

Your best intentions

won’t matter.

Your actions will

be like atoms colliding

in a galaxy

you may have the luck

to live in.

Others will offer

what they can:

in God’s time,

if it’s meant to be,

but they can’t always wait with you.

You will look to blame

someone

but find only yourself.

Whatever it is

you can’t forgive

set it down like a stone

or hurl it into space.

Gravity will turn out

to be stronger than

you are and infinitely

more patient.



Way to bring down a room, huh? Can you hear the anger in that? Have you ever felt like that? What are you waiting for right now? Where in your life are you having difficulty being patient? Where do you need God to show up? Write it down near your wavy line.



So how do we stay connected to the holy, to God, when we’re not feeling it, when we’re waiting for God to show up, when we’re in the ebb, waiting for the flow? When the rest of Jesus’ disciples heard that they needed God’s help to get to Jesus, they left. But the Twelve stayed, saying, “Where would we go? You have the words of real life. We’ve already committed ourselves, confident you are the Holy One of God.”



The Twelve gave Jesus their unconditional trust. We talk a lot about the unconditional love of God. But we don’t talk about offering God the same. Not blind faith, but unconditional trust and love. We can love God, trust God, even when we’re in the ebb, even when Jesus is teaching something we don’t understand, even when the well of the Spirit feels as though it has run dry. 


 


One way we can do that is just showing up: showing up in prayer, in reading the Bible, serving and giving, and yes, coming to church for worship. It’s like any other love relationship. We may not always feel loving, but we show up anyway and do the loving thing. We trust that the way things are now will change, because change is the way of all things. What ebbs will flow again. One of the major themes of the Bible is how God shows up again and again for God’s people, especially when they think God has given up on them. The other major theme? God never gives up on God’s people.



Lately, in the morning, I have been praying this simple prayer: “God, you know what I need for today. You know what is needful for me to do what you want me to do, to be who you want me to be. I trust you. Thank you, God. Amen.” How have you been showing up in your relationship to God? Write down one or more ways you can show up daily in your relationship to the holy, to the sacred in your life. Then commit to showing up every day this week, with God’s help. And let’s all not be too hard on ourselves.



The life of faith is simply this: We can’t do it, life, loving, forgiving, making peace, creating justice, without help. At the very least we need each other. So while we’re waiting, we might as well wait with each other. Which means maybe we’ll learn to trust each other, lean on one another, realize we’re not alone.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.


 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Be the Bread



John 6: 51-58 
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
August 16, 2015









You’re hungry. You want something right now. You’re lacking in some way. This is the assumption of most advertising. We’re wanting. We come out of the womb wanting. Even though we might not need whatever is being sold, just the very act of putting something in front of us can create desire. So we listen and look. Sometimes we are entertained, yet we are not filled. In fact, we may want it even more.


Jesus said, “Follow me.” But we also follow Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit, Mashable, Jon Stewart, Donald Trump, Oprah Winfrey, Weight Watchers, the Wall Street Journal, numerous news outlets, and any other number of gurus to help us with our hunger.


What do you want right now, what do you hunger for? Are you tired, wish you could go back to bed? Is your stomach rumbling? What are you thinking about, where’s your mind right now? Is there something weighing on your heart? Do you want a drink or a smoke? Are you restless or worried—restless or worried about what? Does something hurt inside? Write it down in your bulletin, somewhere near where the scripture is printed.


Often these hungers are substitutes for what really lights our fire: knowing who we really are, where we belong in the world, what our purpose is.


It seems almost tasteless to speak of hunger in these terms when millions of people don’t have enough to eat. How dare we afford ourselves the luxury of these existential hungers. But we who are indeed rich need to get our spiritual act together in order to help feed the world, both physically and spiritually. In our mostly middle to upper middle class suburban culture, what we once needed in order to survive—food, shelter, clothing, relationships, education, a source of income—have now become things we want in order to feel satisfied.


But being satisfied is a loaded gun in a culture built upon the concept of wanting but not always getting more. We’re wanting on the inside, and there’s a whole machine at work with the response, “You can have it all. Here it is.” We are surrounded by advertising: on the radio, television, newspaper, billboards, and now every page we look at on the internet. It’s become a habit to fill our internal emptiness and despair with external answers. Hungry? Here’s some fast food. Tired? Here’s the best bed you’ll ever sleep on OR here’s a pill or a snack or whatever to give you energy. Overweight? Here’s a buffet of diets to choose from. Have a want with no name on it, just some gnawing desire inside you that you can’t ignore? We’ll come up with something (or many somethings) that we’re sure will seem to fill that aching hole inside you. 

https://marcuswing13.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/advertising-billboards-004.jpg

And what is that aching hole? Often our hungers are open wounds in need of healing. Needs that never got filled. Feeling like we’re not enough. Not knowing who we really are. Not knowing why we’re here, what’s our purpose in this life, and feeling like we’re running out of time to find out.


While I was on vacation, I was living the life of Riley. I don’t even know who Riley is, but I know it means I was taking it easy, detached from my usual life. For three of the four Sundays, I didn’t go to church. I slept in, ate a late breakfast, did a little work in the garden, went for a walk with my husband, spent time with my family. Which seemed reasonable, since for me, church is my work, my vocation.


Last week I thought it would be a good idea to go to church, to sort of ease back into the practice. I went to
Saints Andrew and Matthew Episcopal Church in Wilmington, a church I admire for its ministry to their neighborhood.


The supply preacher, a Lutheran pastor with Episcopal chops, preached on the lectionary: previous verses from the gospel of John about Jesus being the Bread of life. As I listened to his words, about how God promises through Jesus that God will be with us without telling how, just that God is indeed with us, tears began to roll down my cheeks. And they kept coming, through the end of his message and into the liturgy for the Eucharist, as I got on my knees and said the familiar words, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”


I realized I had been hungry for church, not just for words of forgiveness and promise but how these become the very food that sustains me.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. I don’t know how this is supposed to happen. That’s why we call it the mystery of our faith. But I know it has happened in my life. Time and again God has reached into my life of dead ends and raised me up. When has God reached into your life and raised you up? Write down a few words about that near the scripture. If you think God has not reached into your life and raised you up, think about the people who have loved you no matter what. Write down a name or three. Maybe one of them is in this room.

And when I doubt if it’ll happen again, I need to not only hear those words of promise but eat the bread and drink the cup that bears that promise. What does Communion mean to you? Whatever it is, write it down. Even if it’s a question mark, write it down.


Now look again at what you’re hungry for, what you want right now. Are there any dots to be connected there? From your hunger, what you want, to what God has done in your life, to this Table?


Jesus said, “I am the living bread.” As in, “I am who I am.” The God whom we do not see, but we do get to see what God is doing and being and becoming. Jesus, the one who lives in God, who lives the message, who is the message, is the living bread, that which does not satisfy but sustains, always leaving us hungering for more…and there always is more.


But it doesn’t end there. We are made in God’s image. “I am who I am.” You are who you are. “I am the living bread.” You are the living bread. “Do this in remembrance of me.” Remember who you are. When we partake of the living bread, it becomes a part of us; we become a part of the living bread. Whenever we feast of God’s good things, they become a part of us. “We are what we eat.” We are what we consume. Are we merely consumers? Or are we hungry for something else? Something that not only sustains but transforms us into living bread for the world. I once read, “Life is the Mass. And you are the Eucharist.” Life is worship and being in the presence of God. We are the body of Christ, living bread for the world. Be the bread. Amen.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

It's only a closet


Psalm 85: 8-13 
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE 
July 12, 2015 
Build-a-Block, Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake


        It was 1988. I was in Baltimore, MD for my first mission trip. I was a seminarian at Hancock United Church of Christ in Lexington, MA. Each year the youth group traveled to a different destination and worked with a variety of mission partners during their April break. This year it was Habitat for Humanity, before they changed the age limits of volunteers. We were assigned to work on a row house in one of the poorest sections of Baltimore. Many of the row houses were empty and condemned. Habitat had purchased a number of them to gut and renovate. Our task? Sheetrock the interior of the house.

        Did we know what we were doing? Sort of. We had some direction and guidance but we were pretty much left to ourselves. The only power tools we had were electric drills to fasten the sheetrock to the wall studs. We cut the sheetrock with X-Acto knives. Let’s just say our technique was not always so precise.


        One group was given the job of putting sheetrock in a closet. The trouble was, the closet was on the second floor, over the stairs. The floor of the closet was sloped upward to the back wall. It made for some interesting angles to measure and cut, let alone then put into place. We also had a limited supply of sheetrock and had to make due, even with mistakes.


        The left back corner of this closet was cut just a bit too large for the space and shattered the bottom corner of the sheetrock when it was shoved into place. A finger-sized piece of sheet rock broke off and with it, dashed the morale of the group. Their hearts were in this full-weight. They knew this would be a warm, safe home for a family. They wanted to leave their mark on this house but not in this way.


        One of the group ventured, “You know, it’s only a closet. Once it gets painted and someone starts hanging stuff in here, no one will even notice it.” So the piece was put into place with a light layer of joint compound and that was that.


         But then other small mishaps would happen, none of which I can recall. But I do remember the same wisdom applied to the closet would be used on whatever inconvenience or frustration at the moment. Again and again the refrain was used, “It’s only a…”. It’s only a sandwich. It’s only a t-shirt. It’s only a dollar. It’s only a traffic jam.


         We realized that we could apply this wisdom to many disappointments and add some levity and detachment to just about any situation. And that it was our privilege that allowed us to do this. The only exception was God. We found we couldn’t say “It’s only God” or “It’s only the Holy Spirit” or “It’s only Jesus”. It would be like saying “It’s only love” or “It’s only justice” or grace or peace or righteousness or faithfulness. The word “only” can mean “merely” or “barely” or “no more than”. But God’s grace is extravagant, unconditional, infinite. God can’t be contained in box or a closet.


         What we don’t hear in the reading from Psalm 85 are the beginning verses, words of longing and despair over the plight of God’s people, interpreted as God’s anger. What we do hear is that, despite the despair and longing, God’s people still have hope that what was lost will be found: steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, righteousness and peace will kiss. They trust that God will make a way out of no way: God will give what is good. They know it to be true, that no matter what they have done that caused them to feel separate from God, God is not separate from them: righteousness goes before God and makes a path for God’s steps—God’s steps toward God’s people.


         God’s people were always and still are on a mission trip. God leads, we follow. Sometimes we get lost. It’s not always easy working together. Not everything goes the way we hope it will. But God’s hopes are full because we’re still together at the end of the day. For God will never say, “They’re only my people”. Thanks be to God. Amen.