The Church: Does It Know What It Wants? I Wonder...

Church Problems

"The problem with the church is the church."

- R. Alan Woods

There was a day when Sunday was a day for Family.  There was a day when businesses were closed on Sundays and it was really a Day of Rest.  There was a day when the majority of our mainline churches were full and were the social and cultural hub of the community, as well as the spiritual center.  There was also a day when the degree we ministers receive, the Masters of Divinity, used to be a Doctorate.  After all, an M. Div is the equivalent of a double Master's degree or a standard Master's followed by a PhD - at least in terms of credit hours.  Along with Physicians and Lawyers, Clergy were The Professionals.

Those days, and a great many of us remember them, are gone; and they've been gone for a great many decades. One of the unfortunate outcomes of this is that Ministry has become a vocation that costs a lot to be educated for and a vast majority of churches that have become smaller can't offer competitive compensation packages.  There is hardly any reason for a young person to consider this line of work anymore.  Especially right after college with looming student debt already on their shoulders, why would anyone in their right mind then take on a four to five year Master's program for a job that is hardly going to compensate them and probably force them to have at least one other job, as well?

Ministry is quickly becoming a vocation that is primarily becoming a second or third occupation for the majority of current seminary students that are then forced to look at the reality of holding down one or two other jobs at the same time just to make ends meet.

I'll be the first to say that I'm one of the lucky ministers out there.  I have been in ministry for 15 years and in that time went from pastoring a small community church in rural Vermont to being the Senior Minister of the largest church of my denomination in central Florida.  Yet even the church I'm serving is half the size that it was a quarter century ago.  Thankfully, we're looking at the reality of our numbers and taking active, constructive steps to reverse the decline and I'm happy to say its working.  Slowly....but its working.

Yet I'm profoundly aware that there are a great many gifted and passionate women and men that are trying to follow their calling into ministry and upon graduating from seminary are finding work incredibly hard to come by.  It isn't because they aren't qualified, nor is it because they don't have amazing new ideas and great energy to bring to the table.  It also isn't because there's a shortage of churches that need leadership, because there are a ton of them out there.

From where I sit, my experience informs me that one of the primary reasons many churches aren't hiring new seminary grads is two-fold.  The first problem is the perception regarding age.  When I graduated from seminary at age 30 in 2000, the average age of a seminary grad was mid to late 40's.  Today its even older.  I've been with enough Search Committees in various capacities to know that many churches that are experiencing decline think that a younger (and often male) candidate will magically turn things around.  The reality is that the vast majority of those entering the job market in this arena aren't younger or male at all.  They are often 2nd or 3rd occupation folks  that are indeed older than most churches perhaps expect.

Upon realizing this reality, many churches (and I blame this on churches being in panic mode) don't give new seminary graduates the opportunity to even interview with their Search Committees.  This is such a complete injustice to new seminary grads that have left jobs, some of them quite lucrative, to go into a 4 to 5 year Master's program and graduate with the debt inherent in such an education; not to mention all the inherent gifts, talents and energy they are eager to share.

When I look at the employment listings for my denomination right now, I grieve for new seminary grads.  Where this is work to be had, there are an over-abundance of small churches that really have no ability to offer a competitive compensation package, and then the few larger churches that are out there won't even look at a new graduate most of the time; unless its for an Associate position.  The smaller churches, then, get stuck in the old mindset that if only they could get someone young with lots of energy, their church will grow again.  But the candidate pool out there is far older than most people realize, and then churches get stuck in long Interim periods as the church can't quite wrap its head around what it needs, what it wants, and who's really out there to come in and help them do it.

This reality coupled with the clergy dropout rate averaging only five years, churches, denominations and seminaries are considering alternative pathways to ordination outside of the M. Div. - specifically considering bringing in Licensed Ministers that have a speciality in a segment of the life of the Church but no seminary training at the M. Div. level.

What this means then is that communities of faith are potentially considering bringing in people to lead their churches that have no education or training in Church History, Systematics, Pastoral Counseling, Communication, Ethics, Homiletics, Church Administration....let alone how to draw healthy boundaries, deal with issues of conflict and confidentiality, being with people in crisis and death, membership renewal and growth....you get the idea.

In my humble opinion, this smacks of desperation and the Church just looks foolish.  Why is the Church, which desperately needs qualified leadership, ignoring a large segment of qualified new seminary graduates while at the same time considering lesser qualified people to lead the Church?  It truly makes no sense to me, and I seriously worry about the future of our churches if this trend gains real momentum.

I would never want someone who had a genuine love for medicine and perhaps had a bit of nursing school to diagnose my children or perform surgery on my wife.  I likewise wouldn't want someone without the comprehensive education, training and experience  of an M. Div. leading my church.  The issues are too complex, sensitive and far-ranging for anything less.

Unless, of course, the Church wants to watch Clergy Dropout rates increase and face an even larger problem regarding leadership and anxiety within the congregation.

Come on, Institution of The Church....you can do better.

Peace,  Shawn

7 Challenges Of Faith and The UCC - A Primer

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As the world remembered the life and legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. again last week, Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, Senior Religion Editor of The Huffington Post, reflected on the foundation of Rev. King's faith.

The framework for his reflection were 7 major tenets of what he identified as central to King's theology and thusly his public ministry.  I found them incredibly compelling - for at their heart these 7 points are superb litmus tests of how one embraces the priority of the social justice aspect of Jesus' own ministry.  

For both the individual person of faith as well as the corporate body of believers as The Church, these are excellent points for personal reflection, Bible Study, Youth Group discussion, sermon series points...you name it.  Particularly for us in the United Church of Christ, these seven points are superb primers to start to help people understand what the UCC is all about.  I invite readers to share this on their various social media outlets as a means to begin to understand more deeply how Dr. King's theology and that of the UCC are very much in tandem with one another.

Here they are:

1. Does your faith encourage an active and prophetic stance towards creating justice in this world; or does it explicitly or implicitly encourage a complacency towards inequality here on earth with the idea that faith is more spiritual than social and that it will all work out in the afterlife?

I know for myself as a life-long member of the United Church of Christ, we hold a strong conviction that we are called to bring about justice for all people in our current day and time in order to truly breathe life into Jesus' prayer for us when he taught "Your Kingdom come, Your Will be done on earth as it is in heaven."  That doesn't speak to passivity as regards lovingly working against injustice against those who are oppressed - in whatever form - but rather working here and now towards a more loving and equal reality for all people.

2. Does your faith affirm the fundamental dignity and worth of all people and reject any claims of superiority, ether explicit or implicit, based on identities including race, religion, sexuality, gender, class or nationality?

Most certainly, The United Church of Christ's position of being an "Open and Affirming" denomination speaks boldly and prophetically to this point: an element of my denomination that deeply resonates with my own personal beliefs and experience of the world.

3. Does your faith encourage critical examination of the context and deeper meanings of teachings and scriptures and is it open to continued revelation of eternal truths that come with new knowledge, instead of a fundamentalism that idolizes the past?

As one of our Congregational founders, Rev. John Robinson said, "I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth yet to breath forth out of His Holy Word."  For we in the UCC, Rev. Robinson's prophetic words remind us that we should always be open to new things being revealed to us on our Journey of Faith.  We will probably never "get it" completely, we must be comfortable living with Mystery at times, and that a life of faith is one perhaps more filled with questions than answers.

4. Does your faith promote non-violence, and believe that war is only to be used as a last choice or not at all? Does your faith confront and reject any teachings that might cause anyone to act with violence or incite rage or hatred towards others?

The UCC defines itself in part as a "Just Peace Church", defined as Just Peace as the interrelation of friendship, justice, and common security from violence and against the Institution of War.

5. Does your faith further interfaith cooperation and empower your ability to feel compassion for the suffering of those who are different from you and see the wider interconnected responsibility of the human family instead of caring only about and for those in your immediate group?

Yes, it does!

6. Does your faith promote social justice and equality as well as individual charity as both integral parts of the Gospel?

Yup

7. Is your faith grounded first and foremost in love, and do you believe that love, not dogma or judgment, is the defining characteristic of God?

From a personal and denominational standpoint, blessedly the answer here is yes as well....and the major bullet points of the UCC's "Still Speaking" initiative speak to this, as well:

- Where God is all-loving and inclusive
- Where the Church of Jesus Christ welcomes and accepts everyone as they are
- Where your mind is nourished as much as your soul
- Where Jesus the healer meets Jesus the revolutionary
- Where together we grow a just and peaceful world

Our work continues....in Dr. King's legacy, and in Jesus' name.

Peace,  Shawn

OMG, Joel Osteen - Speak Up Or Shut Up

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"There's a lot of things...that I don't understand- so I just don't want to preach on it, preach about it"

- Joel Osteen on Homosexuality

I can't STAND Joel Osteen, or any of his ilk.

The Prosperity Gospel, Power of Positive Thinking type of "ministers" out there truly know the Power of Positive Marketing and how to tap into people's vulnerabilities and insecurities.  In so doing, they happen to make themselves incredibly wealthy.

Which, according to Joel Osteen, is precisely what God wants for all of us:

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Hang on....I have to throw up....be back in a sec.....

OK...as I was saying:

My inherent problem with Joel Osteen is that he has no theological education of any kind.  He never attended a seminary, he is not ordained.  And yet he has the attentive ear of millions of people each week; people who struggle, who doubt, who have questions, and who are looking for guidance and direction.

Telling them that God desires them to have that big promotion, that big paycheck, that Mercedes in the driveway of the huge house...is that being authentic to scripture or the ministry and life of Jesus of Nazareth?

In this minister's humble opinion....no.

Seriously, Joel, you sound about as stupid as Fergie:

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God help me...but I digress...

Not only is it not being authentic (or fair) to Jesus' message of genuine Hope and Good News for the poor in the face of despair and oppression, his ministry style of opting out of the tough subjects isn't doing his church membership or the millions who buy his products any kind of pastoral service, either.

If a minister's response to problematic issues regarding how to reconcile scripture with social justice issues, or the suffering of the innocent, or any of Life's profoundly painful issues is basically, "Well, there's lots of things I don't understand, so I just don't want to preach about it," RUN, don't walk, the other way; 'cuz you just know you're getting a load of snake oil wrapped up in a lot of shiny teeth, perfect hair and a great suit.

There are tough questions out there we struggle with.  Innocent people suffer.  Children deal with terminal illness.  People shoot each other in movie theaters for texting their toddlers.  Jobs are lost, wars rage on, people inflict terror and persecution upon one another in all manner of horrific ways that defy the human heart and mind.

In crisis, people often turn to scripture for some sense of comfort, resolution and answers.  Quite often (because the Bible is often incredibly confusing) people then seek a minister or spiritual leader of some sort to help them make sense of what they encounter in the confusing pages of scripture.

In this regard, Joel Osteen is a complete and utter failure because he collapses in the face of real life, tough issues.  Which makes sense if he's going to stay on message and uphold the image he's created for himself.

Yet the message of feel-good, your life is meant for greatness, everything's gonna be all right looks beyond hypocritical in the face of life's brutal realities:

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The tragic reality is that for far too many - especially children - destiny will only and ever mean a life lived in poverty, or in war-ravaged areas, with no access to the things that the vast majority of us are blessed to have.

Life isn't about the blessings God intends for us...rather its about the ways in which we use our blessings for the benefit of others; far too many of whom awake each day to a reality completely absent of anything we would call blessings.

So when someone that bears the same vocational mantle as myself opts to continue to collect massive paychecks in large portion by avoiding preaching about the very struggles and realities that Jesus passionately dedicated his life, ministry, and ultimately his death for, it makes me want to scream.

I get how Jesus felt when he walked into the Temple in Jerusalem and let the Scribes and Pharisees have it with both barrels.

Hey Joel - as a minister that doesn't proclaim to have any answers either but still feels a sacred duty to preach about the tough stuff for the sake of my congregation, here's some of your own advice:

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Are you even listening to the vapid tripe you put out there, Joel?

Oh God....now there's a commercial on for a Benny Hinn healing crusade.  Did you know he has a net worth of $42 million?  I guess he garners more of God's favor than Joel, who's net worth is only $40 million.

I think I'm gonna throw up again....

Peace, Shawn

The Year of The Possible

impossible_is_a_word-32503 This time of year is always a time of Retrospect mixed with Vision for me.  With a new year comes a time of looking back at the past 12 months as well as envisioning what the next 12 months may bring.

A year ago, I was in the midst of a search process for a new church and it was a difficult journey.  I knew I needed to make a change for a variety of reasons, and if you aren't aware of how ministers in my denomination find work, it takes months.  I had been in pretty deep dialog with a particular church and that was where I really thought I was going to be in the months to follow.

Life being what it is, just when I had mentally and emotionally prepared myself for a big change, it didn't happen!  I was ready to move on, and suddenly everything came to a grinding halt.  After months of communication and waiting, I was right back to the proverbial Square One.

Yet my wife and my gut kept saying, "Its going to happen."  I couldn't see how it was possible that we'd be somewhere else come the following fall; but that was what our intuition kept telling us.  But part of me kept thinking, "It's impossible."

Then last spring, completely out of the blue, I became aware of the church where I am currently blessed to be.  We dialoged a lot over the next few months and by summer, we had found that we felt authentically called to one another.  By the beginning of August I was officially asked to join them and by September I left New Jersey and moved to Florida.  Eight long and stressful weeks later, our house finally sold and my wife and young boys joined me in what is truly our dream home.  Now we are all together, I love my job, we love our home, and we love where we live.

I never could have imagined that a year ago.  In fact, I probably would have told you that it was impossible.

I'm also an idiot, because that was an indication of how little faith I had that what my heart was telling me was going to happen was actually true.

The process coming to First Congregational Church of Winter Park, Florida was a real lesson about the Truth of Possibility for me.  I was reminded in very profound ways that even when things seem completely impossible, Possibility is not at all lost.  If I am willing to be patient, to not lose Hope, and to listen to what my heart is trying to tell me despite what my brain knows to be a momentary reality, amazing things await.

But too often we are impatient and we lose hope.  We don't allow ourselves to dare to dream that what seems impossible might actually manifest itself into an amazing new reality that changes everything in positive ways we couldn't even imagine.

But if we continue to have faith, even in what we narrowly deem as impossible, Possibility remains vibrantly alive. This past year taught that valuable lesson in ways I could have never predicted.....and now, Life is GOOD.

As a Follower of Jesus, it reminds me of how often he told people that what they needed most to change their lives was already within them.  When he granted healing to broken people, he would often remark that it was their faith that made them well.  He also vividly reminds us that "The Kingdom of God is within you."  All that we could ever need or be is already within us.

For me, that says that if I look faithfully deep within, I'll find that if I live out my Divinity and surrender myself to a time table beyond my own, I am able to make even the impossible become possible.

It makes me ponder what amazing things lay ahead in the coming 12 months....and beyond.

Possibility awaits us.  Let us grasp it with Faith, Optimism, Compassion and Hope.

Peace, Shawn

 

 

 

Being "Christian" - What's The Criteria?

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I was having a great conversation the other day with Dr. Lewis Duncan, President of Rollins College here in Winter Park, Florida.  We were discussing matters of faith and he brought up the topic of what it is that defines being "Christian."  It was a great discussion, and it brought up some really great questions.

When we hear someone say they are a "Christian," what does that mean, exactly?  What kind of believer comes to mind when the word "Christian" is used?  Is it a mainstream Catholic or Protestant, or something/someone else?

There is most certainly a good deal of discussion to be had amongst faith traditions in our country about what a "true Christian" is.  I know, for instance, that there are some who would argue that my particular denomination isn't truly Christian, and that our churches aren't "real" churches....whatever that means to them.  I've long since gotten past being offended by such statements, but I still get them.

Christian is a heavy word, and it absolutely means different things to different people.

For me, I go to good 'ol Merriam Webster: a Christian is "a person who believes in the teachings of Jesus."

That's a good start - then what?

Well, that's another messy area: what is the primary message of Jesus' teachings?  Is it about believing in him as the only way to get to heaven (whatever that is means to you)?  Is it about making sure everyone else knows Jesus in the same way so they can be "Saved?"  Is it about living life in a lovingly sacrificial way for the sake of others?  Is it about social justice and being an advocate for those who have no voice - especially the poor and the alienated?  Is it about forgiveness, grace and empathy, or is it about judgement, guilt and fear?

Is it all of them?

I think where people fall on those answers has a lot to do with how they come to their personal sense of faith and what kind of community of believers resonates with them.  I know for me, my life-long experience of church has informed me deeply about a Jesus rooted in Love - a love for all people; especially those society deems as "The Other."

Hence, for me, the scripture that speaks most profoundly to me about what it is to be a Christian is Jesus' "Love Commandment" that appears in the 13th chapter of the Gospel of John.  Jesus lets his closest circle know that from now on, people will know that someone is a follower of Jesus by the ways in which they love others: the way Jesus loved them.  

From Jesus' own words, then: the criteria for being known as a Christian is to be able to love as Jesus loved; particularly the way he loved his closest friends.

So how did Jesus love? With patience, understanding, forgiveness, grace, empathy and without bounds - especially for those whom no one else would love.  We see God's love in and through Jesus' love...and then Jesus bids us to do the same as people who would claim to follow him.

That, for me, is the foundation of all else when it comes to Jesus: that we strive to love one another as he loved those in his life and ministry.  Everything else stems from that central foundation of love...and that one foundation can take a lifetime to build in an authentic and genuine way.  If we take it seriously, it is a daunting and sometimes seemingly impossible task because it calls upon us to love what seems unloveable, and to accept people as they are even when they are vastly different from ourselves on a whole host of levels.

So how about it, Christians?  To paraphrase the hymn, do they know we are Christians by our love?

Peace,  Shawn

The Comfort Zone Of "Us & Them"

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Once again the subject of people's discomfort with homosexuality has gotten on my radar....

And once again I wonder "When is this ever going to stop?"

During Macy's annual Thanksgiving Day Parade last week, one of the Broadway shows that stopped in front of the store to perform a few songs was "Kinky Boots."  The response on social media by certain people was, unfortunately, not unexpected.  For the story, see this link:

"Kinky Boots" Performance Provokes Outrage

Certain people felt that an American tradition like Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade was no place to show America a certain demographic of its population.  Showing our children men in drag left some with "a little less hope for humanity."

Really?

For me it all brings to mind the quote from Ernest Gaines above.  I think most people, by-in-large, speak out in such ways about groups of people because something makes them personally uncomfortable.  We've had guns out in the open for hundreds of years so we're used to them (unfortunately).  The open portrayal of the LGBT population among us has only really been gaining momentum and somewhat relative acceptance in the past 20 years or so...perhaps less.

We all have our personal prejudices about people that make us uncomfortable - that's part of being human.  It isn't the most attractive part of being human, but its there and we're doing ourselves a disservice to ignore it.

But we do ourselves a far greater disservice if we cultivate and nurture it rather than strive to understand it and move beyond it.

The sad thing is that a vast majority of people never get beyond their prejudice to broaden their world view and rather stay in the comfort zone of "Us and Them."    And particularly when it comes to sexual/social mores and things considered by some as culturally taboo, those prejudices can be entrenched all the more.

And yet, from the vantage point of a follower of Jesus, there is no place for an "Us and Them" mentality.  In point of fact, that is the exact opposite of a world fully infused with God's Spirit as Jesus paints it for us....a world of extravagant welcome, of radical inclusivity, and of bold compassion in the face of a world that would have us do and be otherwise.

In Jesus' day, the social media response "Kinky Boots" received would have been about women, or children, or lepers, or tax collectors, or people who weren't Jewish...there's a laundry list of people Jesus shouldn't have had any business dealing with.

And yet he did...and it infuriated people who held their own private prejudices.  Yet God's world as Jesus describes and lives it for us reaches far beyond prejudice and bigotry and enters into the relatively uncharted waters of genuine acceptance, authentic forgiveness and an invitation to ALL around The Table of Life.  Whenever I hear a backlash like I did about last week's performances at the parade, it makes me consider how much work we have yet to do to accomplish what Jesus challenged us to do and be in the world thousands of years ago.

We love to talk Diversity, but we don't walk it very well.  My prayer continues to be that we walk better...together.

Peace,  Shawn 

 

 

The Reality Of The Duality

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This past weekend was a whirlwind of emotions for me.  I had been two months apart from my wife and two young boys as I moved to Florida ahead of them for a new job.  During those months, we experienced a multitude of highs and lows as we journeyed through the stress involved in selling our house in New Jersey and buying a new one in Florida.  When all of it was finally over and done with, and we joyfully moved into our new house together over the weekend, I recall very few moments when I've been that happy.

I awoke this morning to find a small handful of people I know had died over the weekend, as well; one of whom was my age due to an accident.  I currently am holding a number of people in prayer who are struggling with illness - either themselves or with the illness of a loved one.  I am aware of some family situations around me that are incredibly painful for everyone involved, and others who received health news over the past few days that will forever change their lives and the lives of their loved ones, as well.

Life, at any moment, can grant us the most joyful and the most painful of moments.  

I've had reason to reflect on this reality of late for the reasons I just stated as well as a few others, and as a person of faith I keep coming back to the question of how we deal with the powerful duality that Life presents us with all the time: the pendulum-swing from joy to sorrow.  Often the sorrows seem so unfair, so unexpected, so beyond the scope of my ability to understand them.  The joys also seem often underserved, unexpected, and sometimes better given to someone else that needs them more than I do; yet I'm always thankful.

Life right now is joyful for me: I have my family together, I love my job, I love my home and the area in which I live.  I have both of my parents living, and I have an amazing family and extended family.  Life is good.

And yet I am powerfully aware that this can change in an instant.

The older I get, the more I come to the realization that God, while fully present in both moments of joy and sorrow, is not necessarily the direct facilitator of each.  That is to say, God isn't "making it happen" to me; whether as reward or as punishment.

Life, as they say, happens.

Or as Jesus wisely said, "God lets the sun rise for all people, whether they are good or bad. He sends rain to those who do right and to those who do wrong."  

And of course Ecclesiastes reminds us so beautifully that for everything involved in the totality of the human experience, there is a season.

For myself, I find that my best response to the joys and sorrows of life are reflected in the quote above: when things are good, relish it and be thankful.  When they aren't, find the strength to move through it and beyond it, hopefully learn from it - but don't become a victim to it.  

I find God profoundly in both kinds of moments as a presence of strength, inspiration, comfort and grace.  If I try and find God as "the cause" of each, I find it radically offends my own sense of faith, my image of God and my interpretation of scripture and the ministry of Jesus.

Where do you find God in the duality of your Life's moments?

Peace,  Shawn

Only One Life

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Over the weekend I was watching a series of Q&A interviews from Nerd HQ and one of the participants was one of my favorite actors, Tom Hiddleston.  During the session, he referenced this quote and it really resonated with me: as a Husband, a Daddy, a Minister, and as a participant in this grand adventure we call Life.

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One of the things that has always been True for me is the continuing realization that we have a very finite time to be here with one another.  I think being a parent drives that realization home all-the-more as I see my young boys growing literally before my eyes some days.  Time goes by quickly - oft times too quickly - and too often days and weeks can go by before we realize we haven't taken a moment to stop and consider what we're filling our time doing.

Unless you believe in reincarnation, we really do have one shot at this thing we call Life.  People that seem to embrace Life in a profound, meaningful and purpose-filled way as Tom does seem to have an understanding of this in a way that drives them, motivates them, and inspires them.

Are we leading lives of purpose and meaning that honor this truth, or are we just "going through the motions?"

Are we involved in true vocations, or are we just "going to work?"

Are we embracing each day as a new opportunity to make a difference to someone, or are we just trudging through?

Tom seems to have realized somewhere along his Journey that Life, for all its foibles, struggles and heartache, is more than worth the living; for in the grand arc of a lifetime there is far more opportunity for happiness, for celebration, for reaching out to others and connecting in order to make one another's lives better than there is for sorrow.  

Especially for those of us that live lives of such enormous privilege and blessing compared to so many around the world whose struggles and pains are truly horrifying...how can we not realize that we have only one opportunity to make our mark on the world, on a life, and for the betterment of others?

It need not be doing things on a grand scale - indeed, the majority of us don't have the means or resources to do so.  Yet a hug, a note, a phone call, a simple random act of kindness - these are things that can genuinely make a profound difference in the life of someone that is feeling alone, alienated, cut off, betrayed, afraid...

Remember when it did for you?

Jesus said that unless someone is "born again" we cannot see the Kingdom Of God.  There's many interpretations of what exactly he meant by that, but for what its worth here's mine:  

Unless we have a new realization of this primary fact - unless we are born again into the knowledge that we have one life in which to be agents of Joy, Compassion, Grace, Forgiveness, Empathy and Service - we will never see that this is what the world and we in it are supposed to be for one another in the first place.

That second life Tom spoke of is being born again into the Fullness of Life, and then getting about the business of Living.

Tom, through the sharing of his artistic and philanthropic gifts has realized this...

May we do the same.

Peace,  Shawn

What God "Gives" Us - A Cautionary Tale

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"It's God's will."  "God only gives you what you can handle."  "When God closes one door, God opens another."

Have you ever found yourself saying something like this, or having someone say something like this to you?

These little sayings, as well as the quote above and others like them are too often thrown around with little to no regard for what they actually infer - and that's where I've always had a huge problem.

Firstly, let me say that I get what people are trying to say when they throw sayings like these around: things happen beyond our control, we each have the strength to get through our darkest and most difficult times, and the opportunity for finding new beginnings when all we see around us are imminent endings is always before us.

All true....but:

Why do we need to say that God makes it all happen, even if for our benefit?  What that truly infers as a basis for Belief or Faith really, truly troubles me.  Let me explain:

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I have always resonated with the image of God as Loving Parent; perhaps because I've been blessed with a set of loving parents myself, one of whom is a minister like me.  I, likewise, endeavor to share God's abundant, unconditional love in the way I love my own children (though I'm not always very successful at that, if we're gonna be honest).

So it always begs the question for me: what loving parent, in their right mind, would put their child through pain, loss, disease, divorce, the death of a child, or all the myriad nightmares of suffering that we encounter in the news everyday just to prove a point and make their child "grow?"

It's God's will?  Seriously?  Do we really want to believe in a God that is the architect of suffering and tragedy?  If we do, that opens up a Pandora's Box of the slipperiest of slopes...because taken to its fullest measure, that means that God "causes" cancer, AIDS, poverty, abuse, natural disasters...

All so we can learn something?  All because God knows we can handle it and wants to prove the point?  

That's a cruel way to teach a lesson, and I don't know too many people that would think that was great parenting.

And if I testify to a Faith that at the heart of all things, God is Love...what kind of Love causes suffering just to prove a point?

Does God "give" us tragedy to show us how strong we are and that we can find new beginnings, or does God provide us with the strength and Vision to see ourselves through circumstances we would otherwise deem impossible to survive?  Is God the cause of tragedy beyond our understanding, or is God a reservoir of Hope in the face of such tragedy that is simply a fact of our Human Journey?

The answer we provide for people seeking answers to such questions can sometimes drive people away from Church, away from Faith, and away from any sense of God altogether.

I wish we'd take a little more care when we decide to say things we think are helpful and hopeful in the face of tragedy; especially when we simply don't know what to say; which is often the basis for sharing such sayings in the first place.

What do we really think God is "giving" us?  Let's take a little more care about considering the answer to that question...we might likewise take a bit more care about how we share our understanding of God's love to those who most desperately need it.

Peace,  Shawn

 

Love Isn't Love Until You Give It Away

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Yesterday I was about to leave church when a friendly bunch in our Bell Choir asked if I wanted to walk around the main drag of where I live.  It was a lovely day, there was an Arts Festival going on, we were gonna have lunch together, and best of all we'd be walking around with Wally - an enormously huge Great Dane that is also a Therapy Dog for ill and suffering children.

How could I say no?

When you walk around town with Wally, one of the things you immediately discover is that he's the Star Of The Show.  People just immediately start to ask what kind of dog he is, how old he is, how much he weighs, and most of all....can they pet him?

Wally ALWAYS agrees to the last question without reserve, hesitation or question.  Wally unconditionally allows people to receive from him by allowing anyone and everyone to touch him.  In doing so, in Wally's selfless way of allowing others to receive his big selfless love, people leave feeling a little better.

And for the kids that he regularly visits, they leave feeling A LOT better.  Perhaps even transformed.

There's a few important lessons we can all learn from Wally about the nature of how we share of ourselves in compassion and in love....

- Love, in its purest form, is always selfless.  If it is anything other, it is not Love with a capital "L."

- One of the wonders about that kind of Love is that in selflessly giving it, we abundantly receive it as well.  When we selflessly love, when we give of ourselves without consideration for what we'll get back in return....when we live Compassion without Expectation, invariably we find we, too, are Loved in like turn.

- We live in a world that almost always works on a "Give-and-Take" mentality.  If we aren't going to get something in return, what's our incentive for giving?  As a people of Faith, Jesus bids us to love one another as he loved us...and that means with unconditional selflessness, understanding, forgiveness and grace without any consideration of what we will "get back" for doing so.  There is no quantifiable ROI on sharing Jesus' love.  If we think there is, we're horribly missing the point.

- This kind of Love is THE most profound instrument for Healing, Renewal, Restoration and Hope.  It cannot, CANNOT be kept to ourselves and can only be alive in the world if we share it.  If we don't share it, it isn't Love - period.

Wally brings Joy, Healing and Transformation just by allowing people to touch him.  Imagine what we could achieve if we allowed people to touch us and BE touched by us, as well?

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Thanks, Wally, for being such a vibrant agent of God's love...we're all better for it.

Now would that we would be more like him.

Peace,  Shawn

The Opposite of Need

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"The best relationship is one in which your love for each other exceeds your need for each other."

- Dalai Lama

Have you ever been in a relationship with someone (or something) that wasn't healthy?  I think we all have at some level, at some point or another.  I certainly know I have.

We can all too easily fall into the traps of need and want.  Our consumer-based society prays on that very aspect of our human nature.  We sometimes get convinced that we need something...often things we truly don't need at all.  Just watch TV at 3 am on a Saturday and the Infomercial universe will prove my point. 

That same inherent part of us can also fall victim to relationships with other people that are based on need; also inherently as unhealthy if not more so.  When we are in relationship with others because they feed us in unhealthy ways, that isn't an authentic basis for True Relationship.

Part of the piece of that relational puzzle is that before we can be in True Relationship, we have to be in a healthy relationship with the person in the mirror. The age-old phrase about not being able to love someone else before you are able to love yourself is absolutely true.  If we are genuinely happy with ourselves, we are likewise happy with what we have (and more aptly don't have), and in that calm contentment we find that we really don't need very much at all.  When we are in that kind of space, we can enter into truly healthy, authentic relationship because we ourselves are Whole.

When we enter into connection with others based on true love - the kind of love that authentically respects, honors and lifts up the person and the spirit of the other - that kind of love has no basis in need whatsoever.  It is directed outward, of and for the gift of the other person, and has nothing at all to do with ourselves.  We certainly benefit in a multitude of ways from that kind of relationship, but the benefit isn't the basis upon which the relationship rests.  

In that kind of relationship, based on that kind of love, we find the ability to love based on the inherent value and worth of all people.  We are more readily able to forgive, to understand flaws, to be far less judgmental, and far more supportive.  

As a person of faith, I discern that I am called to be in this kind of relationship with all people at all times.  I can apply this kind of relationship to my family, my friends, those in my community of faith, and those in the world that I will never know and those in the world that drive me mad most of the time.  Jesus loved people this way - in a selfless, outward-focused way - and calls upon us to do the same when he bids us to love one another as he loved us.  In loving this way, he says, people will know we follow him.

When he says, "No one has greater love than this - to lay down his life for his friends" that is not a need-based love.  No one authentically sacrifices out of need.  Rather, we lay ourselves down for others not because we need but precisely because we don't need.  Instead, we offer.  We give.  We reach out.

That's the exact opposite of need.

Would that so many around us, especially our elected officials of late, understand this more profoundly....

Peace, Shawn

A Faith That Goes Nowhere Is....Well...Kinda Lame

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There is nothing that frustrates me more than a static faith; especially a faith based on the life and teachings of Jesus.

What do I mean by that?  Mother T's quote above should give you a hint...

I honor and value those areas of faith that center us on meditation, prayer, and introspection.  In a hectic, stressful world we need those moments of quiet and renewal to refuel our batteries.  Jesus knew this all to well, and it is those moments that we read about in the Gospels when we hear that Jesus went off by himself to pray - usually on a mountain or in the desert - to get away from the crowds and get (as we would say) some quality "Me" time.

There are some faith traditions that value a life of solitary prayer and meditation; a life cut off from the stresses and distractions of the world in order to attain a certain level of peace and centeredness.

I get that.  I honor that.

Yet I'm a follower of Jesus, and that's not what Jesus was all about.  Jesus was about getting "out there", reaching people, touching people, engaging with people, and changing hearts and minds along the way.  In the Gospels he uses the word "Follow" 16 times, and the word "Go" about 150 times per Gospel.  Matthew's Gospel ends with a Great Commission that beckons us to get out there in the world in his name and do something...

Jesus was action-oriented, and challenged us to be and do likewise.

That isn't always easy, or safe, or comfortable.  It means we often have to stretch ourselves, step outside our boxes, push our envelopes, overcome our private prejudices and fears and engage on levels that we might otherwise not; or flat out don't want to.

BUT, if we testify to be followers of Jesus than we can't be content to go to church, enjoy worship, have some coffee and cookies and catch up with friends, then go home and basically leave it all behind until the next Sunday.

Our task, our challenge, our mission is to take what we learn from Jesus on Sunday morning and put it into loving, living action the rest of the week.  Whether that be with our families, our co-workers, the organizations we involve ourselves in, with the familiar neighbor or the stranger.  It is a life of bold, loving service.

A faith in Jesus is not a static one.  If it is, we're horribly missing the point.

Most of what Jesus asks of us are verbs: Love, Forgive, Preach, Teach, Heal, Share, Include, Embrace, Touch, Advocate...

How often do we truly do that?

Follow - Go - Be.  Together.

Imagine the possibilities...

Peace,  Shawn

 

 

In The Face Of Suffering: Being The Work

mother-teresa-poor-childDuring a Bible Study yesterday morning before church, we were speaking about Suffering.  The group was grappling with the notion of how Suffering plays into our notions of what we deem as “fair”, and how - if at all - God plays a role. While we didn’t solve that particular dilemma, one thing was certain: there is a tragically abundant amount of Suffering in our world.  Whether it stems from all the myriad systems of Poverty that are all too real around the world (especially for children), or the ways in which we inflict horrific violence upon one another, domestic violence, suicide, unemployment....the list could go on forever.  Suffering is all around us.

It can be overwhelming.

For myself, I consider myself a Healing kind of person.  I do my best to mend fences, build bridges, speak kindly, act compassionately.  When I see Suffering, I want to heal it.

And yet it seems every morning when I wake up, I encounter a new horror that seems beyond my ability to heal.  How can I possibly when the world is so large, the problems so vast, the pain so deep...

Then our Worship Minister said something incredibly wise.  She reflected on some Eastern teachings that share the thought that we shouldn’t concern ourselves so much on being the Solution, but rather focus our energy on being the Work that can, ultimately, bring healing.  Perhaps not right away, perhaps not by us in our time for those that are presently suffering, but if we don’t focus on the outcome and rather focus on the work of healing, there is the Hope that we can make a difference - one life at a time.

That really resonated with me, and it suddenly made things seem more manageable.  I can’t solve World Hunger, or save every suffering child, or eradicate war...there’s a laundry list of things I can’t do or solve.

BUT....I can be a voice.  I can offer a hug.  I can listen to others and their Journey through Suffering.  I can be present, and I can make a difference in a life.

And if I can make a difference in a life, just one, that’s worth something.  In fact, its worth a profound amount.

Jesus reminded us that “the poor will always be with us.”  There will, in some form, always be Suffering.  Even Jesus didn’t solve the issue of Suffering.

But he, a poor itinerant preacher and healer in an obscure corner of a vast empire thousands of years ago, surrounded himself with a few friends and changed lives; and forever changed the world by being The Work.  And he had nothing.

Imagine what you could do....

Peace,  Shawn

Mid-Day Message On Divinity: YOU - Fully Human and Fully Divine

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 "Jesus reveals in an exceptionally human life what it is to live a divine life, a compassionate life.” 

Donald Gray

I have always found the ways Jesus is often made unaccessible to us frustrating.  What do I mean by that?  Well....

This whole idea that it is a great mystery for the ages that Jesus was 100% Human and 100% Divine at the same time.  What does that even mean?

I understand the part of Faith that says Jesus was human, born of Mary.  He grew up, he ate, he slept, he made friends and he made enemies.  He experienced joy, pain, anger and sadness.  And as is the reality for us all, he died.

I also understand the part of Faith that says Jesus was Emmanuel - God With Us.  In the form of Jesus the world experienced God in all of God's full, compassionate power.  There have been prophets and sages before him and since, but I testify to a Faith that says never in history has there been One that so fully manifested the vibrant, living Spirit of God as Jesus of Nazareth.  If you wanna know what God is like, really like, look at Jesus.

I get that.  I get them both.

What I don't get is why its problematic for people to consider how that duality worked with Jesus, and I don't get it because we embody the same Fullness of God's Spirit in ourselves, as well.  Regrettably, we too often forget that because we don't live lives nearly fully Human enough to begin to live  out our Divinity.  But as Jesus reminds his followers in the Gospel of John, we are capable of things "greater than these" as he described his own ministry.

Jesus knew that we had the same power to love, to forgive, to offer grace, to offer healing and renewal ("Your faith has made you well").  As this week's 50th Anniversary of the March On Washington reminded us again, we also have the same power and passion to fight for Social Justice, to stand as advocates for those who have no Voice, to embrace the rejected, the marginalized, and the persecuted.  He reminded us all the time....and he showed us how to live it.

He showed us by being fully Human.

In doing so, we saw God.

If we authentically lived lives that were fully Human, would we not see God in one another, as well?  To use Donald Gray's quote above, why do we find it so difficult to reveal in exceptionally human lives what it is to live a divine life, a compassionate life?

Maybe because, at least for us church-going folks, the marriage of Jesus' Humanity and Divinity was made a Mystery long ago when it never should have been in the first place.

Jesus was completely Human and completely Divine.

And so are we.

Let us live lives that reflect that Truth.

Peace,  Shawn

Mid-Day Message: Small Acts of Kindness

ImageHow often do you watch the news and feel overwhelmed by the violence, the tragedy, the hunger and disease that seem to be a horrific constant to our every day?

How often do you see the Oprah's, the Bill Gates's, the George Clooney's making a difference with all of their seemingly endless resources and feel that you can't possibly even make a dent in the world's problems because you're only one person with limited resources of your own?

How often do these realities stop us from acting at all?

I know this has been a reality for people in every church I've ever been a part of, and I understand how people feel.  The world's issues and problems are so far beyond me and my little circle of people and life that I have;  can I seriously make any significant change as regards the horrific realities of the world that keep me up at night?

Honestly, no.  No, I can't.  I won't solve the problem of world hunger, or poverty, or homelessness, or prejudice, or......the list is almost as large as the problems themselves.

So what do I do when confronted with such mammoth problems and my inability to feel anything but completely inconsequential in the face of them?  For me, I go to my Faith and the Informer of my Faith, Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus lived in a time no less filled with horror, tragedy and the often violent mistreatment of people than I do.  Yet Jesus, for all his best work, didn't solve his world's problems either.  They continue to this day; and given what he said about the poor always being with us, I think he knew that those problems would persist because they arise out of our being human along with (and too often because of) all of our human faults.

Yet Jesus so significantly touched and changed the lives of people around him, one at-a-time, that he made a difference.  He did it with no social media engine, no vast media empire, no enormous amount of financial resources...

He did it through Compassion, on a one-on-one level, with almost everyone he came in contact with.  THAT made a difference so profound that it literally has changed the world ever since.

If a poor, homeless, itinerant Palestinian Jew from the 1st century could so powerfully change hearts and minds with his small acts of kindness that the world is still challenged and inspired by his life, imagine what we are capable of doing, too.

It only takes Compassion and our willingness to offer it freely to someone.

Why not "make large the world"  with a small act of Compassion in your life today?

Peace,  Shawn

Mid-Day Reflection: Act Without Expectation

My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance, and in inverse proportion to my expectations.

Michael J. Fox

Expectations are tricky things.  Often, we find ourselves doing things out of an expectation that we'll get something back.  Or, inversely, others have expectations of us and are expecting something back from us in like manner.

I reflected last week on a FB post that expectations are often conditional...and that often leads to disappointment.  Very seldom are expectations unconditional and open-ended.

Prayer can fall into that trap sometimes.  Often people pray "petitionary" prayers; asking for something.  If we ask, do we have an expectation for an answer?  Further, do we have an expectation for a specific answer?

Talk about setting somebody up for disappointment.  Far too often, especially if prayer is offered because someone is ill, or somehow at risk; a job or a marriage is falling apart; we want something so badly we make promises to do this-or-that if only we could be granted x, y or z....sound at all familiar?

If we have expectations of answers, then how do we respond when the answer seems to be an emphatic "No?"

How often do people lose Faith, give up on Church, Jesus and God when prayers don't meet personal expectations?

Expectations are tricky things.

If we challenged ourselves to do as Lao Tzu suggests and "act without expectation", how would we be changed in serving one another in such a way?  Instead of doing something with the expectation of thanks or reward, we rather simply did it because it was the right,  the just, the compassionate thing to do?

What if we prayed not for specific requests, but rather to share ourselves fully with the Divine Presence within and between all of us to walk forward through whatever lies ahead - joyful or tragic - and be transformed for the better from it?

What if we truly did act, and pray, and love, and forgive, and be with and for one another without expectation?

Today's a great day to start to find out....

Peace, Shawn

Release

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It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new. But there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful. There is more security in the adventurous and exciting, for in movement there is life, and in change there is power.

Alan Cohen

"Release" - what do you think of when you hear the word?  For me, I immediately think of "letting go."

Alan Cohen's quote above is very relevant to me right now as I'm in the process of having to release myself from a few major things as I transition from one congregation to another and one region of the country to another.

I must release myself from a great community of people.  I must release myself from my known routine, my circle of family and friends, the familiarity of my home and my area, and most difficult of all I must release myself from my wife and children for a time.

The release of the Familiar is often stress-inducing, frightening, and perhaps even risky.  It is just this reality that often keeps people put; even if it meant that releasing the Known would or could lead to an even more amazing Unknown.  "The devil you know is better than the devil you don't" as the phrase goes.

This fear of Release is what keeps people in bad relationships, bad jobs, and bad habits.  Release almost always means Change, and Change is and can be unsettling.

There is also Sadness when we experience Release:  releasing our children when they grow into young adulthood and leave home.  Releasing a loved one when they have struggled with illness and die.  Releasing ourselves from any comfortable "Known" and taking the risk to move forward into the Unknown; even if it means life will be better for ourselves and/or our families.  There is often profound sadness in Release.

There is also what we benefit when we release ourselves from guilt, from fear, from insecurity.  When we forgive, when we let go of that which burdens us and poisons our spirits, we are restored and renewed with Release.

If we have the courage to Release - to let go - there is infinite Possibility and Hope that our lives can change into something wonderful we'd have never imagined otherwise.  Release is always filled with Hope, and always requires Courage.

And for those of us that look at the world through a particular kind of lens, Release also requires Faith.  I have tremendous Faith that in my current Journey through Release, I will also find abundant Welcome and Newness.  That Faith is what allows me to trust in Release a little bit more; especially when Release is really tough to do.

What are your thoughts on "Release"?  Please feel free to comment!

May we each find the Courage to Release ourselves into an Unknown of Infinite Possibility.  In doing so, may we also find Peace and Blessing.

Peace,  Shawn

 

Transition: Stuck Between Goodbye And Hello

If you’re brave enough to say goodbye, life will reward you with a new hello Transitions happen to us all the time.  We transition from sleeping to waking to begin our day.  Some of us transition from home to work a short while thereafter.  We experience transition when we get married or divorced, when we have kids, when we lose a loved one, or when we move and start a new job.

I'm currently in the latter on that list, and it is an odd time for someone in my vocation as a minister: that time between leaving a current setting and settling into a new one.  My particular vocation usually requires a minimum of 60 to 90 days notice upon transitioning from one congregation to another, and that span of weeks is a myriad of emotions for any minister and any congregation.

On one hand, there is one body of people that is excited and joyful regarding the new minister's arrival.  On the other, there is another body of people that is sad, sometimes angry, often shocked and shaken that its spiritual leader and teacher is going somewhere else.  Oft times they feel abandoned, sometimes afraid for the unknown future of their church that lies ahead.

Both communities of people experience very real emotional and psychological journeys, and they are often profoundly opposite to one another.

And ministers get stuck between goodbye and hello for a span of weeks and are left to try and navigate their way through those vastly opposing emotional and psychological spaces.  That space is for many of us, both clergy and laity, an uncomfortable place to be.

And yet there is a deeply profound Truth that exists for all parties involved that can be embraced in a way that allows for the possibility of a future filled with hope:

The inherent promise of the New Hello.

I often speak of the life of anyone, particularly a person of faith, as a Journey.  That word infers movement and motion, of always heading "towards" a an ultimate destination of some sort.  At times along that Journey we may encounter voices that beckon us to explore new pathways, new horizons.  I always have an optimistic hope that those new places will hold amazing things, and growth will happen in the experience of them.

When The Journey resonates with the voice of a New Hello, and we feel beckoned strongly enough by it, we follow to see where it will lead us.

When churches and their leaders find themselves in such a scenario, the faith-filled promise of the New Hello is one that can be a vital component for everyone.  Most obviously for the minister and her or his new congregation, but also profoundly for the congregation that must now find a new leader.  There is most certainly a sense of instability in the transition of one minister to another; particularly if there is an Interim thrown into the mix that everyone knows won't be there forever.  Yet more transition...

And yet if we embody being a Tomorrow-oriented people of faith, the transition from one minister to another can be experienced as a time of great promise and hope for any gathering of people.  My current setting has gone through tremendous transition over the past six years as it has lost a vast majority of its Matriarchs and Patriarchs, as well as being greatly affected by the economy plummeting in 2008.  It has made tremendously courageous strides to face these realities, and now it is a very solid, vibrant Family-sized church.

My departure at this particular time signals the possibility for a new set of eyes with a new vision for the future to come among them and make something NEW of what we've been creating these past years...something I could never dream of.  Imagine the possibilities!  What incredible hope and excitement there can be about a new vision of the future with a new leader.  If churches can embody this mindset, the transition between leadership can be one of celebrating the time and gifts of the outgoing minister, and eagerly anticipating the beginning of the next chapter yet to be written.

Transitions are always difficult, even when filled with hope and possibility.  The space between goodbye and hello is oft times an awkward and confusing place to find oneself, and there is often both sadness and joy experienced profoundly by all involved.  Often we fear such transitions, and especially churches can run the risk of becoming victims to the fear that the departure of a minister somehow signals the end of that particular church.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  As Elizabeth Lesser so wisely says:

“How strange that the nature of life is change, yet the nature of human beings is to resist change. And how ironic that the difficult times we fear might ruin us are the very ones that can break us open and help us blossom into who we were meant to be.” 

May we all, no matter what transition we find ourselves in along our Journey, embrace the hope of blossoming into who we are meant to be.

Peace,  Shawn

A Question Of Balance, Justice and The Human Heart

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"When Politics and Religion are intermingled, a people is suffused with a sense of invulnerability, and gathering speed in their forward charge, they fail to see the cliff ahead of them."

- Frank Herbert

I'm gonna say it right off the bat: I have a lot of questions here but no answers. I'm in that kind of space on this one - maybe you are, too.

I vividly recall the very first Sunday I started at a new church, and during the announcements I was asked to read a letter to my new congregation on behalf of my denomination, The United Church of Christ.

The letter was about obtaining 100,000 signatures to call for the end of the war in Iraq and then taking it to Washington to share with government officials. The letter is powerfully worded, and most certainly stems from a certain political viewpoint as regards the Iraq War. You can read the letter here:

A Pastoral Letter on the Iraq War From the Collegium of Officers of the United Church of Christ

I remember feeling incredibly uncomfortable reading that letter to my congregation for a few reasons. One was that it was my very first Sunday with a new church, and here I was being asked to share something about which I knew there was a deep difference of opinion. The Letter most certainly is speaking for peace, for an end to bloodshed and violence - particularly bloodshed and violence inflicted upon the innocent during war.

And yet I thought that the language and tone would be troublesome for some politically speaking , and I felt it ran the risk of alienating and angering a certain segment of the church. I knew that for some, this was going to be the church meddling into politics: that the church has no business doing so, and the minister has no right to be political from the pulpit.

I get that. I understand the sensitivities at play when we engage in issues like War, Abortion, Marriage Equality, and Race (just to name a few easy subjects).

But I read the letter nonetheless, while reminding people of our denominational polity that while the national denomination may articulate and express whatever it wishes, it never falls upon the local church to follow the denomination's lead on any given issue. That is part of the complex blessing of our autonomy in the Congregational tradition of the United Church of Christ. Additionally, we are each granted free will to think and believe as we wish. That means invariably we're going to disagree on some things; some of them crucially important and incredibly sensitive. The trick is how we continue to honor and love one another in the face of such differences; and that's not always easy.

People are often drawn to the United Church of Christ because of its Progressive, Liberal stance on theological issues; especially on issues of Equality, Environmental Stewardship, Poverty and Anti-Violence/Just Peace.

Yet look at that list again - all fundamental to the fulfillment of Human Compassion and the realization of God's Presence with us in fullness...and all powerful political issues as well.

They are seemingly impossible to approach from only one perspective while not encountering the other. Religion and Politics, if Religion is being done the way Jesus informed us, are always married to one another. Only this way will the compassionate, love-based Justice of God's Spirit come to realization for everyone.

Yet when we have such a deep-rooted polarization of our political system, married to theological issues like what the Bible really says about Homosexuality that most people are horribly misinformed about, it leads to the worst kinds of ideologies and the breakdown of any kind of healthy dialog.

And that's just between Christians in this country. I haven't even gotten into how we relate to other world religions and ideologies. But that's another blog...

It was in this spirit, then, that I received the latest letter from the current Collegium almost immediately after George Zimmerman's acquittal at his trial:

UCC Collegium Letter in Response to Zimmerman Verdict

Again, I found myself feeling uncomfortable with the letter in large part because of the sentence towards the end that reads, "We must challenge our lawmakers and court systems that continue to make racially-biased decisions."

To my ears, that was a statement that the verdict regarding George Zimmerman was a racially-biased one; ergo the jury made a racially-biased decision, ergo the jury of six women were, in the majority at least, racists.

That's quite a leap, and not one I felt particularly comfortable with coming from the leadership of my denomination. It didn't show any particular compassion to the jury and the conflicts that may have been playing out within them between what their hearts may have been screaming at them and what the Letter of The Law in the state of Florida said they had to do.

That bugged me. And there was another thing...

I remember the voices of those who spoke of Zimmerman not being a racist in any way, and I just remember thinking:

"What if Zimmerman was nothing but a guy on a gun-fueled power trip?"

What if Race truly had nothing to do with this at all, and it could have been any unfamiliar kid wearing a hood that antagonized Zimmerman? There are plenty of rough-looking Caucasian 17-year olds out there that might arouse the suspicions of an over-zealous cowboy like Zimmerman was that night.

I grant you, the chances are slim....and yet, it gnawed at me. Should my church be so quick to rush to judgments and issue public statements on such emotional issues so quickly?

Am I saying we should be silent on issues of Race, LGBT Equality, Environmental Stewardship, War, Violence, and all the horrific forms of suffering brought about by Poverty?

Of course not. I happen to be particularly proud of the heritage and history of my denomination on key issues of Justice throughout its history:

UCC "Firsts"

My issue is with the Balance, and the language we use to articulate where in that Balance we fall and why. When we raise our voices like the Psalmist, shaking our fists and screaming at God in frustration and despair, we almost always are doing so out of emotion. Jesus showed us such emotion when he observed the corruption at the Temple in Jerusalem and overturned the merchant's tables, and likewise when he wept over Jerusalem. And as Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is most certainly a time and a season for such things.

Especially in the UCC, we tend to fall on the side of risking imbalance for the sake of Justice as we discern it through Jesus' life and teaching. That calls for what we speak of as a Radical Welcome for all people, for willing to be counter-cultural and advocate for those who have no voice or are deemed "The Other", as well as to speak with a Prophetic Voice to the Powers-That-Be in loving criticism when we engage Injustice, Oppression and Evil in all its various forms.

This is a vital part of being agents of God's Spirit in the world if the Love that we know permeates all things is to be allowed to blossom into fullness. I firmly and faithfully stand behind the primary call to live this way; even in the face of profound disagreement with those closest to me.

Yet there is also time for patience, a time for collecting ones Self and gathering all wisdom before speaking or writing; especially when tempers and emotions are running high.

In this world of immediate news and the ability to immediately respond...should we? Can we better help maintain a balance between bringing people to an understanding regarding the absence of and the need for Justice as Jesus informs us, while not in our fervent commitment to seeking Justice further drive a wedge between one another? It only further impedes the ability to reach our desired end. Sometimes I wonder...none of this stuff is simple.

Its easier sometimes to recognize Racism than others. With Oppression and Subjugation, it is clearly recognizable. With language, it is clear to discern. With Profiling and what lies in the human heart, it gets far more difficult to discern clearly; especially when we're trying to look through the fog of our own private prejudices that if we're being honest we all have.

The Face of Evil showed itself that night in Sanford, but whether it was the Face of Racism or the Face of Pride, Ego, and Power that Evil wore that night I truly do not know. All I do know is that a young boy is dead, a family is in grief, a nation is angry and divided, guns continue to be an unnecessary agent of suffering in this country, and laws and those who make them often make achieving a true sense of Justice nearly impossible.

How long, O Lord, how long indeed...

What do you think?

Peace, Shawn

"Greater Things Than These"

1174

"Yes, indeed! I tell you that whoever trusts in me will also do the works I do! Indeed, he will do greater ones..."

- John 14:12

The divinity of Jesus is always an interesting topic to get into with people.  When we start to talk about Jesus as the Son of God, or Jesus as being God, or the mystery of how Jesus is completely God and completely human at the same time, or - even more confusing - how Jesus is the second "personality" of God amongst the Trinity...most folks' eyes glaze over.

That, or they get very persnickituy about the fact that Jesus IS God and there's no other way around it.

For me, being a minister's son and going into ministry myself (what is wrong with me?), the mystery of Jesus' divinity is an ever-unfolding one for me.  As a young person, trying to unpack how Jesus was God, but he was also himself because he prayed to God as "Abba" (Father) and as an entity beyond himself, was a giant headache.  As an adult, it still is.  Yet I grapple with it more and more as an adult, because now I understand that if I take the quote from John's Gospel above as an authentic quotation of Jesus (which I do), then spending all my time trying to figure out Jesus' divinity is, in Jesus' mind, a huge waste of my time.

Why?  Because he tells me that the same divinity that resides within him also resides within me, if I would just trust in that.  Beyond that little mind-blower, he also tells me I am capable of doing things not only as he did them, but also greater things.

WHAT?!?

Yep.  Jesus was trying to help people understand that what we regard as profoundly special and unique to him is, in fact, what is profoundly special and unique about all of us.  The same Spirit that flowed from him and changed the lives of those around him also flows from you and me.  Jesus was trying to help us tap into the amazing well of blessing that is inherent in each of us and start using it.  If we did, and we did as Jesus did, we would be living lives far more enriched with:

- Compassion

- Empathy

- Selflessness

- Forgiveness; especially for those whom I consider an "enemy" and who persecute me

- Patience

- Justice

- Being an advocate for those who have no voice

- Enabling others to tap into their wells, too, and empowering them to live lives likewise

When we do this, and when we do it right, we change lives and make the world (at least our little corners of it) a more loving and whole place.

When we don't, well.....just look around.  The evidence of our inability to grasp this is everywhere, and it always breaks my heart.  How polarized are we?  How nasty do we get on our Tweets and Facebook posts because of differences of opinion on important matters; even with people we don't know?  What passes for "dialog" on television and radio news these days?  No quest for deeper understanding and common ground, but rather whoever yells the loudest and gets in the last word before the commercial break makes the point.

There is no blessing in all of this, there is no Shalom.  There is no indication that anyone even heard what Jesus was trying to share with us about how amazing we are and how incredibly capable each of us is to cure the blindness of the world, to heal its brokenness and help it rise and walk again, and to bring Life into all the myriad places of Death in the world's people and places....

What do you need to stop letting others do to you?  Stop letting them make you forget that you are an agent of the most powerful Spirit that has ever entered into this world and that even though we have the free will to decide whether to use it or not, if we profess to be a people of faith and followers of the one known as Jesus of Nazareth, then he himself tells us that we are capable of greater things than even himself and then dares us to boldly live that Truth in our daily living.

Stop letting people make you feel that you are anything less than an amazing, unique, fully-equipped agent of Grace and Compassion that can make a profound difference in the lives of people around you - both friend and stranger - and start living the powerful Truth that is You.   Imagine a world in which we lived this way.  Jesus did...and he called it The Kingdom of God, and he invited us to be active participants in bringing it to reality through who we are and what we do.

Let's start.

Peace,  Shawn

FIRST CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH OF WINTER PARK

225 S. INTERLACHEN AVENUE

WINTER PARK, FL  32789

407 647 2416

fccwp@fccwp.org