Overcoming Mental Short-cuts

In recent days I’ve been taken with FBI director James Comey’s statement about lazy mental short-cuts that law enforcement officers sometimes make. Don’t we all just with less-lethal consequences? It gave me a great springboard for a program at the church to challenge assumptions of race, xenophobia, homophobia, and suspicion of people of other religions – especially in our tumultuous world. So here’s my March newsletter article. Feel free to join in, if you are able to.

Beloved friends,

One of the greatest strengths of our congregation is our ability to maintain diverse perspectives while working toward a common goal. This goal is nothing short of mirroring the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth by living ever more deeply into the extravagant love of God we have come to know through Christ Jesus.

Living into this love comes with great joys and, admittedly, great costs.

In recent months, given events at home and abroad, I have been prayerfully mulling how First Church can respond to the racism, xenophobia, homophobia and religious violence that characterize so much of life today. In our own beautiful country we have to face what FBI director James Comey recently called “lazy mental short-cuts” that lead to the killings by law enforcement of unarmed black men. The chokehold and shooting deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown respectively are two high-profile examples.

We need to acknowledge that these lazy mental short-cuts are made all the time by many, if not all, of us when it comes to race. The same is true of our encounters with people of different religions, economic brackets, national origins or immigration status, and people of non-heteronormative sexual orientations.

The primary question we face is how we can combat these lazy mental short-cuts and the attitudes and actions that flow from them?

Our task in combatting these mental short-cuts is compounded by the horrendous killings of Jews, Christians, Kurds, and Muslims in the Middle East, Europe, and Africa by supporters of ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, and Al Qaeda. I believe they have raised the specter of the greatest evil the world has faced since the holocaust. It’s awfully tempting, as a result, to make lazy mental short-cuts.

We need to be on guard. We can’t afford to remain mentally lazy and lump all Muslims or brown skinned Middle Easterners in the same camp. We can’t lump all of Africa in the same basket. We have to break the cycle of superiority that keeps us from valuing people who are different from us.

I therefore invite you to join me in the following activities:
1.) A reading of James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree this Lent.
2.) A series of sacred conversations on race this Eastertide through Pentecost.
3.) A panel discussion by representatives of the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths on the questions: i) what is the character of your God and ii) what is the highest religious end you wish to achieve.
4.) Participating in the Moral Monday movement being started in Hartford by our friend Bishop John Selders.
5.) Honest and earnest prayerful searching about diversity and how God is calling us to respond to violence.
(Dates for discussions will be determined.)

This is not always going to be easy. We may come into conflict. The mere suggestion of this course of action may well be distressing you. But it’s something we need to do in a spirit of living more fully into God’s extravagant love. How else will we and the world be transformed? How else will First Church truly live into our great mission of mirroring the Kingdom of God here on earth.

I believe we can do this and invite you to participate with me.

Grace and Peace,

Steven

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Losing Faith in Religion

So here’s my dilemma: given the rash of religiously inspired violence over the past few months (not to mention, decades and centuries), I’m increasingly suspicious of religion. My vocation as a Christian minister in the progressive theological tradition of the United Church of Christ values deeply other faiths and traditions and those schools of thought and meaning-making that shun religious faith altogether. I am able to hold a/theism without feeling threatened. Science I see as complimentary to religion. Literary criticism and socio-historical readings add to the experience of holy texts. I carry an awareness of the ways religious leaders and institutions have snuffed out the Holy One they hold at their core, and also the ways they’ve responded in marvelous life-giving ways.

There can be little doubt that religion has the capacity to inspire great good in the world. We see it all the time in acts of kindness, justice, peace, love, compassion, and sacrifice that are inspired by religious belief. Such acts aren’t unique to religion, but they’re often inspired by the intuition that lies at the heart of religion: that holiness or divinity exists beyond the human self that seems to call out the very best in the believer.

Sadly, the opposite is horrifyingly true as well.

There can be little doubt that religion has the capacity to inspire great evil in the world. We see it all the time in acts of terror, injustice, violence, hatred, abuse, and self-aggrandizement. Such acts aren’t unique to religion, but they’re often inspired by the intuition that lies at the heart of religion: that holiness or divinity exists beyond the human self that seems to call out the very worst in the believer.

The outcome of religious belief depends on a broad range of individual and communal interpretations of religious traditions and on theological notions pertaining to the character of the deity at the center of the faith, the reason for the religious community’s existence (its ultimate purpose), and the specific ends it is encouraged to seek. Interpretations of religion no doubt stem from a combination of factors, including culture, socio-political dynamics, economic class, education, geographical location, social pressures, and perceptions of history.

Given the increasing intensity of religious violence in the world and the heinous acts being committed in the name of religion – the horrendous evils committed by ISIS, Boko Haram, and Al Shabaab; the attacks in Sydney, Paris, and Denmark; the Anders Behring Breivik attack in Sweden; the killing last week of three Muslim students in North Carolina (though no confirmed as religiously motivated crime); sectarian violence in nations around the world; the war in Gaza last summer; and so many small attacks that barely or never make the news – I am led to question the usefulness of religion. I can see why many people today (comedian Bill Maher comes to mind) completely recoil from and often attack religion. People who claim to be religious have a lot to answer for. No religious tradition is off the hook.

I don’t know what the answer is to religion, and I fear a world without religion. Perhaps the only way forward is for religious people of goodwill and good conscience to stand up more vocally and with greater fervor against the violence and harm being done in the name of their religions. The great challenge in this would have to be that the means of protest would of necessity have to be consistent with the desired end. The only problem is that I don’t think religious people can ever truly agree on the desired end. It’s impossible within traditions, let alone across religions.

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Advent Prayer

Creating God, break in!
As we watch and wait for you this Advent, break in:
Break in where there is sickness and suffering
Break in where there is grieving and mourning
Break in where there is depression and distress
Break in where there is doubt and confusion
Break in where there is hunger and poverty
Break in where there is violence and war
Break in where there is destruction and death
As we watch and wait for you this Advent, break in.

Redeeming God, break in!
As we watch and wait for you this Advent, break in:
Break in where the powerful hold power
Break in where the rich hold on
Break in where the homeless sleep
Break in where the hungry starve
Break in where the workers serve
Break in where the faithful worship
Break in where the people dream
As we watch and wait for you this Advent, break in.

Sustaining God, break in!
As we watch and wait for you this Advent, break in:
Break in where there is love and joy
Break in where there is celebration and praise
Break in where there is friendship and family
Break in where there is peace and love
Break in where there is kindness and mercy
Break in where there is certainty and accomplishment
As we watch and wait for you this Advent.

In the name of your great breaking in, break in. Amen

 

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A Meditation for Advent

The cry of the Prophet echoes through the ages:

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up, and
every mountain and hill be made low.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
(Isaiah 40:3-5)

As we enter the season of Advent, we are reminded again of this call. We work to clear every obstacle that may prevent God from entering our hearts, our church, our world. We know we do not prepare in vain. Even as we prepare we watch and wait for the coming of the Prince of Peace. So we remain vigilant, breathing the words of the Psalmist:

Advent

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,

more than those who watch for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities.
(Psalm 130:5-8)

The hour of our redemption draws near. Let us turn again to the One who created us, the One who unconditionally loves us, the One who promises to set us free of sin and free to love.

Take heart, be vigilant. Prepare the way of the Lord. Wait for the Lord, whose day is near. Wait for the Lord, keep watch, take heart!

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Rest In Peace, Madiba

MandelaVisit

A life-changing moment when the father of the nation visited the newsroom at the Pretoria News and took time to shake hands with each of us. His boxer hands were huge and warm and his eyes were so very kind.

In the days immediately preceding his visit he stood in the Pretoria High Court where the powerful national rugby union was questioning whether President Mandela “applied his mind” to a decision to institute a Commission of Inquiry into their affairs. I was a reporter in that courtroom. As he took the stand the judge asked him to be seated and the president said that he had stood in that court before and would stand until the questioning was over. It lasted the better part of two days.

What impressed me most was that at every break he would come to the gallery and greet the people. Madiba’s love for us overflowed as he touched as many hands as he could. It did not matter what our color was or how we were dressed or what our purpose was for being there. His great big heart was open to all – even to a young white reporter.

His courage, strength, grace, kindness, and mercy touched me deeply and I am so grateful for his example. I’m sure many more had far more profound interactions with Madiba, but for me those two brief encounters encouraged me to step out and step up and act on my dreams for a just and peaceful world.

You are loved, Mr. Mandela, and you will be missed.

In the beautiful words of Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba:

“Go forth, revolutionary and loving soul, on your journey out of this world,
in the name of God, who created you, suffered with you and liberated you.

“Go home Madiba, you have selflessly done all that is
good, noble and honourable for God’s people.

“We will continue where you have left off,
the Lord being our helper.”

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A Chain of Gratitude

Thou that has given so much to me,
Give one thing more – a grateful heart;
Not thankful when it pleaseth me,
As if thy blessings had spare days;
But such a heart, whose pulse may be
Thy Praise.
– George Herbert

As Thanksgiving approaches, I’ve been exploring gratitude with a small group at the church. Through poetry, prose, holy writings, movie clips, and multimedia presentations we have pondered both the abundance of reasons for being grateful and the effects of gratefulness – on the self, on others, on the world, on the Divine.

Gratitude opens the great warehouse doors of the soul, allowing light and love to flood in and out. Gratitude enlarges the capacity to live in the moment – this moment – and to live it well. Gratitude acknowledges the miracle of being and opens the heart to wondrous possibilities. It activates and animates faith.

Gratitude need not be complicated. All it requires is awareness, a growing mindfulness. It is a response that needs to be cultivated over time through simple acknowledgement. The more intentionally one practices grateful awareness, the more the practice of seeing the world with the eyes of blessing becomes possible. And the more we see the world through the eyes of blessing, the more we, ourselves, will be transformed into a blessing.

The practice of gratefulness is so beautifully captured in this moving clip by Louie Schwartzberg:

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To God Alone be the Glory

At the end of each of his compositions the great Johann Sebastian Bach would write Soli Deo Gloria – Latin for “to God alone be the glory.” Playing with this notion in my sermon last Sunday I charged the congregation to work toward giving glory to God and to God alone in everything we do this week. Whether it’s reflecting on the deadlock in Washington, navigating the routines of the day, considering our giving to the church (it is our Season of Generosity after all), or spending time with family and friends, all we do should be underwritten by the postscript Soli Deo Gloria.

Now I can’t claim to be successful to any great measure, but I certainly can testify that my week has been so much richer with this in mind. My focus on blessing others has been more acute and my willingness to celebrate God’s presence more intentionally has held many blessings for me. My prayers seem richer.

It is with this in mind that I offer this beautiful reminder of Christ’s transforming presence found at theworkofthepeople.com

Soli Deo Gloria!

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A Year On

The months have flown by since my last post. I elected not to write as the winds of change made their mark on the landscape of my soul.

In June last year I was called by First Church of Christ, Congregational, 1652 in Farmington, Connecticut, to become their Pastor and Teacher. It meant saying goodbye to the dear people of The Congregational Church of West Medford, where I had just entered my fifth year of ministry. What was in many respects a sad time gave rise to an opportunity to celebrate the progress the congregation had made, a capstone of which was a mission trip last August to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

A testament to the faithfulness of the folks in West Medford, the congregation had been transformed during my pastorate among them into an outwardly focused, mission-driven church that sought in new and exciting ways to rise to the challenges of a new day. I hold them dearly in my prayers as I now minister at First Church in Farmington.

My ministry here is also one of peacebuilding and congregational transformation after years of tumult. Again I have been met by God’s grace every step of the way and am blessed by a community striving toward greater faithfulness and a true Christian identity. God has prepared me well for the challenges I face here and the congregation has offered an amazingly gracious welcome. The progress we’ve made in just a few months is enormous and I’m grateful for the ways God has blessed us.

After goodbyes, changes, and transitions, I am grateful to be able to echo the words of that great hymn written by Horatio Spafford: It is well with my soul! It is well, it is well, with my soul!

First Church of Christ, Congregational, 1652 in Farmington, CT

First Church of Christ, Congregational, 1652 in Farmington, CT

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On Being Green

It was Kermit the Frog who once sang, “It’s not that easy being green.” I quite agree. The bright red stoles of Pentecost have been neatly folded away. The white and gold of the 50 days of Eastertide deserve good rest after adorning the sanctuary since replacing the dark shadows of the Paschal Triduum. The purples that guided our imaginations in Lent won’t be seen again until the first Sunday of Advent.

Liturgically we’re on the cusp of the long season after Pentecost known as Ordinary Time. It’s the second and longest period of Ordinary Time in the church year. The stoles on the lectern or draped over the preacher’s shoulders will be green for the 24 weeks that follow the white of this week’s Trinity Sunday service. It’s a long season that encompasses the bright greens of June, the lush dog days of summer, the first cool nights, and the glorious tapestry of fall. It can seem like a long, unexciting season for those of us who don’t celebrate minor feasts for saints or other commemorations. Ordinary Time can come to seem a little, well, ordinary. Yet it is in the ordinary where the extraordinary can come to light.

Kermit reminds us that while it’s not that easy being green, “Green’s the color of spring, and green can be cool and friendly-like, and green can be big like an ocean, or important like a mountain, or tall like a tree. When green is all there is to be, it could make you wonder why. But why wonder? I’m green. And it will do fine. It’s beautiful.”

Joan Chittister frames the essence of Ordinary Time this way: “Like an echo off a mountain that ripples and repeats itself down the valleys of life, the Sundays of Ordinary Time stand as a stark and repeating reminder of the center of the faith. Each Sunday, remember, is a feast, a little Easter, in its own right. Unencumbered by the overlay of any other feast, they carry within themselves, stark and unadorned, the essence of the Lord’s Day. Each of them is Easter, a return to the core of the faith, the center of the church, the call of the Christian community that ‘Jesus is risen.'” (The Liturgical Year, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009, p 185.)

Imagine what the church will become if we used Ordinary Time as an opportunity to return to the core of the faith, to get back to the basics of what we have come to believe. Imagine how much more meaningful Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany will be. Imagine what Lent, Easter, and Pentecost will come to mean. Imagine, if you dare, how your life will be transformed when you more fully live the commitment that Christ is risen.

So let’s heed the wisdom of Kermit and Chittister and live into what’s special about being green. Let’s celebrate Ordinary Time in a way that opens our hearts and minds to the extraordinary presence of God in the world. What a tremendous gift Ordinary Time promises to be!

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Thoughts on Sabbath

At our weekly Commune service last night I offered reflections on keeping the Sabbath. Using a beautiful translation by Everett Fox of the Torah we remembered how, after God looked over the world and declared it “exceedingly good,” God rested on the seventh day. God blessed it and hallowed it, and ceased from all work on it. We then read the commandment: “Remember the Sabbath Day, to hallow it. For six days you are to serve, and to make all your work, but the seventh day is Sabbath for YHWH your God.”

I then asked the community to reflect on how well they’re honoring the Sabbath. I invite you to do the same. Do you take time to simply enjoy the company of your family and friends and take time to rest? Or do you find yourself working, worrying, shopping, or in a vegetative state in front of the TV cursing the Sox (Red or White) for another loss?

One of the loveliest descriptions I’ve read about keeping the Sabbath comes from Abraham Joshua Heschel. He writes in The Sabbath (a truly marvelous work): “The art of keeping the seventh day is the art of painting on the canvas of time the mysterious grandeur of the climax of creation: as He sanctified the seventh day, so shall we. The love of the Sabbath is the love of man for what he and God have in common. Our keeping the Sabbath day is a paraphrase of His sanctification of the seventh day.”

The Sabbath is not something we honor simply to give ourselves an excuse not to do work or to do things we otherwise would not do. The Sabbath is a gift from our Creator – a gift of love whereby we get to take time to intentionally reflect on and enjoy and participate in God’s beautiful creation. Sabbath rest should be blessed rest that leaves us renewed and ready to face the opportunities and challenges presented on every other day of the week. By honoring the Sabbath we honor God. By honoring the Sabbath we participate in the Holy in a way that our regular work does not often afford. So let’s make every effort in the weeks to come to try to develop Sabbath practices that enrich and enliven us.

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