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Inclusivity Devotional: Wisdom shouts

This devotion was published first in the IGRC for Unity weekly email. IGRC for Unity is a group of Illinois United Methodists who have rejected the Traditional Plan for the United Methodist Church and are working to create a United Methodist Church that is truly open to all. These devotionals will be taken from a text from the Revised Common Lectionary, and will often have a theme of inclusion and welcome.

The Revised Common Lectionary reading for September 12, 2021

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Container_Ship_%27Ever_Given%27_stuck_in_the_Suez_Canal,Egypt-_March_24th,_2021_cropped.jpg

Gospel Reading: James 3:1-12 and Proverbs 1:20-33

When the author of James wrote, “Consider ships: They are so large that strong winds are needed to drive them. But pilots direct their ships wherever they want with a little rudder. In the same way, even though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts wildly,” there is no way that he could have envisioned what happened near his homeland in March 2020. In the early days of a global pandemic and mass shutdown, the enormous ship Ever Given, roughly the same size as the Empire State Building, got wedged in the Suez Canal, devastating global trade. The eyes of the world watched with great anxiety as the ship blocked traffic for six days in one of the most important waterways in the world.

In the case of the Ever Given, the rudder was not enough to keep the winds at bay. The ship got turned in a way the pilot could not avoid and the result was an economic disaster. While the Ever Given’s rudder was not enough, the point is still made: The tongue is powerful. Words matter.

We live in a world full of talking. The cacophony of 24-hour news, click-bait articles, pithy memes, social media ‘researchers’, talking heads on TV, and political maneuvering, feels as if we are surrounded by fire. Foolish words are doing real damage, and as the song of Wisdom declares in this week’s reading from Proverbs, “Wisdom shouts in the street; in the public square she raises her voice. Above the noisy crowd, she calls out.” And yet it feels as if no one is listening.

Last week I shared an image with different petri dishes, each showing the growth of bacteria after breathing, coughing, and singing into the dish with and without a mask. I felt is a was a graphic representation of the wisdom of modern science. I believed it showed perfectly why masks were important, and that no one would be able to argue such a graphic and clear illustration.

As soon as I shared it though, I regretted it. Even as the likes start to count upward, I realized something. People are going to like the image or not like the image, but no one is going to gain anything from it. I was not sharing wisdom. I was sharing my perspective and making it clear that anyone who disagreed with me should feel ashamed for doing so. I deleted the post.

Was this a small step in “taming my tongue”? Maybe. I decided that it was more important to share compassion and kindness. Social media has created a world in which throwing matches on fires is easy. In fact, it is rewarded with little hits of dopamine called “likes.” There is little doubt in my mind that the comments sections have been set ablaze by the fires of hell. Intentionally rigged to fan the flames.

I cannot expect to bear good fruit on the vine of a rotten plant. Instead, I will try to cultivate true relationships. I will share kind words in hopes that wisdom can be heard above the noise. As the world seems to dig deeper trenches and divide along clear lines of demarcation, I will recognize my own tendency to bless God in one moment while cursing God’s image with the same mouth. Like James said, it shouldn’t be this way. I hope a voice of change can start with me.

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Inclusivity Devotional: Ephphatha – Open Up

This devotion was published first in the IGRC for Unity weekly email. IGRC for Unity is a group of Illinois United Methodists who have rejected the Traditional Plan for the United Methodist Church and are working to create a United Methodist Church that is truly open to all. These devotionals will be taken from a text from the Revised Common Lectionary, and will often have a theme of inclusion and welcome.

In this reflection, I offer to you a prayer of illumination. Feel free to use it in your worship setting, and do not feel obligated to offer me credit.

The Revised Common Lectionary reading for September 5, 2021

Gospel Reading: Mark 7:24-37

“Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors,” has been the promise of the United Methodist Church since 2001. For twenty years the UMC has used this as a slogan in billboards, commercials, and websites. Today, if you go to umc.org, you will see the slogan at the very top of the page.

If you are anything like me, you have had misgivings about using the slogan. For many inside the United Methodist Church, it feels like false advertising. The exclusionary practices and policies of the United Methodist Church toward the LGBTQ community makes many wonder if the people of the United Methodist Church truly have open hearts, minds, or doors.

I still use the slogan, but I no longer think of it as a description. Instead, I see it as a prescription. I do not consider the word “open,” to be an adjective. Instead, I express it as a verb.

Today our passage includes Jesus healing two people. In the first story it seems as if Jesus himself is the one who is opened. This is a troublesome thought to many. They will use many dubious explanations about the diminutive form of “dog” to avoid what is clear in this story: Jesus acts in a closed-minded way. Yet this woman – a foreign woman from a foreign land – challenges Jesus and helps open his mind to the Gentile mission.

This is particularly poignant because this comes right off the heels of Jesus criticizing the religious hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Now Jesus is confronted by a foreign woman and he does the unthinkable – he changes. In the second half of this passage Jesus is confronted with a man unable to hear or speak. Jesus takes him aside, gives him a holy wet-willy (not really, but it is shocking how physical this sign is when the previous one was done at a distance).

“Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’” (Mark 7:34). With this word, the man can hear and speak. Despite Jesus’ best efforts to keep this miracle quiet, word about him spreads even more.

These are two stories of opening. First Jesus’ mind is opened. Then the man is opened. Sometimes open is a verb. Sometimes we are called as a church to do the opening. This is where the power of our slogan truly lies. It is our role as pastors, lay people, and Christian ministers all of us – to open up pathways to God’s power. We are to open our hearts and the heart of others. We are called to open our doors. We must always be willing to open our minds.

In my congregation, we say this prayer every Sunday before the reading of the Scripture. It is our prayer for illumination and keeps us mindful of our task as a church: “Holy Spirit, open our hearts to the story of your love. Open our minds to new ways of knowing you. Open our doors to all whom you would welcome.”

Many of us have been challenged by our own versions of the Syrophoenician woman. We were forced to open up our minds through encountering people who we may have at first considered “other.” Many of us have been opened up by Jesus himself. We were given ears to hear and words to speak by the power of the Holy Spirit. May all our closed spaces be touched by the grace of Christ. When I think of the United Methodist Church, I can’t help but look up to heaven, sigh, and pray, “Ephphatha.” Open up.

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Inclusivity Devotional: Tamar and Simone

This devotion was published first in the IGRC for Unity weekly email. IGRC for Unity is a group of Illinois United Methodists who have rejected the Traditional Plan for the United Methodist Church and are working to create a United Methodist Church that is truly open to all. These devotionals will be taken from a text from the Revised Common Lectionary, and will often have a theme of inclusion and welcome.

The Rape of Tamar, by Estache Le Sueur, wikimedia.

First Reading of the RCL for August 8, 2021

 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 The death of Absalom (who started a war with David because David did nothing to punish Absalom’s brother who raped their sister Tamar).

I played team sports my whole life. Baseball, football, and basketball were my great passions as a kid. Even as an adult I’ve played semi-pro football and church league softball. Now as a parent I coach as often as possible – helping out with my daughters’ softball teams. I think this is why my first reaction to Simone Biles withdrawing from the team gymnastics competition was overwhelmingly negative.

In the immediate aftermath of hearing that she withdrew because of mental health considerations, I was frustrated. I was disappointed that she wouldn’t compete. I was mostly angry on behalf of her teammates. “She let them down,” I said to no one in particular. “They are supposed to be a team. They are supposed to pick each other up.”

My righteous indignation was raised on behalf of three women I had never met. “Michael Jordan never quit on his team,” I thought. “Tom Brady played through injury!” Then I saw a meme that reminded me of Kerri Strug, the gymnast who clinched Team USA’s gold in in 1996 landing a fantastic vault despite having an injured leg. At first, I thought Kerri was the true champion, and Simone had shown weakness.

Then I thought some more.

While I do not want to take anything away from Kerri Strug, I want to recognize something that we should have known then. She should not have vaulted on an injured leg. Strug was a part of a system and a culture that treated the women on the team as commodities that could be traded, replaced, and whose only value was reflected in the scores they achieved.

Since 1996, “many fellow gymnasts who endured the rigors of coaches Bela and Marta Karolyi’s ranch believed Strug was conditioned to push through her pain under an abusive environment where girls were afraid to challenge authority.” (Holly Ford, https://www.nbcphiladelphia.com/news/sports/tokyo-summer-olympics/1996-olympic-gymnast-kerri-strug-praises-simone-biles-decision/2900065/). Strug, Dominique Moceanu, and Mckayla Maroney are just three former gymnasts who have come out in support of Biles.

They were all a part of a system that compelled women to lose their autonomy, erase their dignity, and submit to the desires of more powerful people – often men. It was a culture that devalued questions and demanded obedience – or the girls would be replaced. It was a culture that produced gold medals, and it was a culture that allowed for emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.

Simone Biles survived abuse. She has stated that she returned to Olympic competition in part so that her voice as an abuse survivor would not be silenced. She wanted to hold USA Gymnastics to the fire and not go away quietly. Her platform as the greatest gymnast of all time gave her a power that no other gymnast has had.

Simone Biles became famous for doing athletic feats that no other gymnast has done before. She has four moves named after. She altered scoring systems, and now she has altered cultural systems. By withdrawing, she did something no other gymnast has done before. She stood up for herself. She stood up for the hundreds, maybe thousands of girls who were abused by powerful coaches, trainers, and doctors. She stood up and claimed her own autonomy, not for the glory of USA Gymnastics – a group that helped create a culture of abuse – but for her own self-care.

As I watched the events unfold – tape delayed on NBC – I saw the faces of her teammates turn from shock and disappointment to fierce determination and I realized that Simone Biles owed me nothing. She is a champion in the truest sense of the word. She championed for those little girls in gyms across the country who are pushed too far. She championed for those who suffer from mental health in silence for fear of being mocked or belittled. She is a champion – no matter what color medal hangs around her neck.

And what does any of this have to do with the Biblical texts this week? Very little, unless you read the story between this week and last week in 2 Samuel. The lectionary skips from 2 Samuel chapter 12 – in which David rapes Bathsheba and skips to chapter 18 and the death of his David’s son Absalom. Skipped is a civil war between David and Absalom. Also skipped is the rape of Tamar, David’s daughter.

While the Biblical text is ambiguous about Bathsheba’s rape (Biblical authors did not have the same concept of power dynamics), Tamar’s rape is explicit. She is raped by her half-brother Amnon. It is a violent exchange. She pleads with him – first not to rape her – and then not to discard her. Amnon’s actions are vile. When Absalom finds out, he tells her to be quiet. David does nothing to Amnon “for he loved him like a first born son.”

Tamar – much like dozens of American gymnasts before Simone Biles – was silenced. Yet her actions stood defiantly against her rapist. Wilda Gafney writes, “Tamar proclaims it publicly so that it may be Amnon’s shame and ultimately his death sentence. But she will have to wait years to see justice done. Tamar rips open her royal dress just as her body was ripped open, using that sartorial wound to make visible her vaginal wounds and those of her soul. She cries, not silent tears but a cry loud as the cries heard in battle, the cries of women in labor, and the cries of desperate people to their God. Tamar’s cry holds Amnon accountable – even when their father does not.” (Gafney, Womanist Midrash, Westminster John Knox Press, 2017; p. 215)

Life is messy. It is not always easy to draw easy lines of cause and effect. “Everything happens for a reason” is seldom a helpful way of understanding God. Why did Absalom die? Was it because of Joab’s ruthlessness, David’s ineffective leadership, Amnon’s lust… How far back do we go? Is it because of David’s lust after Bathsheba? Was it because David himself rose to power because of killing Goliath? How far back do we go? 

Did Simone Biles quit on her team or did she reclaim her agency? Did she crack under the pressure or did she stand up and champion those who are all-too-often silenced? Tamar was silenced, but Amnon and Absalom were ultimately silenced too. David’s kingdom crumbled, yet God’s love is steadfast and endures forever. For the orphan, the widow, and the alien, for Tamar, and for Simone, God’s love endures forever.

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E and Me Season 2

E and Me 2-1(1)CLICK HERE TO LISTEN

The E and Me Podcast has started season two. Ellie and I have recorded four episodes, and have released the first one. We have all of our recording equipment at home, so we’re hoping to have more episodes this season. Episode 2-1 is about jealousy, and it features our special guest and number one fan: Lucy, Ellie’s little sister.

This is the podcast to help families have important conversations. I hope you listen with someone you love. Don’t forget to search and subscribe on your favorite podcast player.

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#GirlDad is not just about my daughters

IMG_3458Dear girl friends of my daughters,

I feel like I need to explain something to you. Hopefully you know that I love my daughters very much. Since you are her friend, you should know that my love for her is so strong that it spills over onto the people she loves, too. You are not mine, but I love you anyway. It is one of those things that has most surprised me about being a father. I always knew that I would love my girls no matter what. From the moment they were born, I knew that I would do anything to keep them safe, warm, protected, happy, and loved.

What I did not expect is just how much I would love their friends as well. I love it when you come over. I love watching you girls sit on the couch together and watch movies. I love hearing you singing the newest pop hit. I love hearing you giggle about boys and crushes. I love watching your dance parties and choreography.

I’ve long said, “If I love you, I feed you.” That’s why I love taking you out to dinner or making you smoothies. I love it when you sleep over and all pile in the big bed in the spare room. I love making pancakes for you all in the morning. You’re not a nuisance. You’re not too loud. You’re never annoying. There is no more beautiful noise than my daughters laughing with their friends. You’re actually providing me a beautiful gift when you come over. Thank you.

I will always give you a hug if you want it. I won’t put my arms out to you, or tell you “Give me a hug,” because I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable. I don’t ever want you to feel compelled to give me a hug, but if you put out your arms, it makes me very happy. I am an affectionate person. I love to give hugs, but consent is always my top priority. I want you to know that I’m always here for a hug, but only if you want. And if you don’t want to, I get it.

I will always give you a roof if you need it. I know sometimes you are going to go through difficult times with your own parents. If you have an unhealthy relationship at home, reconciliation with your family is always preferred, but my home will always be a safe place for you. This is especially true if you are rejected by your family for your sexuality or if you are gender non-conforming. I don’t want you to ever feel unsafe in your own home. If there is ever abuse in your home, physical or emotional, consider me your safe haven. I will listen to you. I will believe you. I will do what I can to protect you and keep you safe. If you are ever forced out – even if it is because you screwed up – we have an extra room for you.

I think you are absolutely beautiful, right now, just as you are. But I am much more likely to ask you about school, or your favorite book, or you softball team than I am going to tell you look pretty, or complement your hair or your outfit. I think you are beautiful, but I also think our culture puts way too much onto girls about how they look. You are so much more than your looks. Please don’t believe anyone that tells you that you are not beautiful. If I hear you insult yourself, I will intervene. If I hear you belittle your own body, looks, or anything physical about you, I will remind you that you are beautiful. I doubt it will matter much to you what I think, but I will not let self-deprecation go unchallenged. And it may not seem like a big deal, but it hurts me when I see you scratch out your face on Snapchat. The world is better when you are smiling, don’t blot that out.

I believe in you. I believe in your heart, your mind, your abilities, and your compassion. You don’t need a boy to define you. You are valuable, worthy of love, and worthy of affection. That is true whether or not a boy likes you. It is true whether you are single or in a relationship. If you find a boy (or girl) you love, I’ll be happy for you, but you are so much more than what you can offer to a boyfriend. You have a strong mind and an imagination. You have skills, talents and passions. I want to know about them. I want to hear about what you care about. Any boy that says he “likes you” should want to also. Please don’t ever mistake jealousy for love. Jealousy comes from fear and insecurity. Love should strengthen and uplift you, not hold you back. As you get older, you will have more intimate and powerful relationships. Always remember that consent is everything. Don’t let anyone dim your light. And if you are ever in a situation where you feel abused or in danger, I will help.

I will always have my daughters’ back, but I won’t allow her to be mean to you. If you and she get in a fight, I will tell her if I think she is wrong. If you hurt her, I will always be on her side, but I won’t stop caring about you. I have a forgiving heart. My love for you started with her, but it doesn’t end with her. Even if you and she just slowly drift apart, know that I will always have the light on for you. If you come back into her life, I will be there happy to welcome you back, too.

These are all things I hope my daughters know, but I want you to know it too. If you have a great relationships with your Dad, that is awesome. If you don’t, I know that I will never be your Dad, but I am, and always will be, a #GirlDad, so I’ve got your back too.

 

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Inclusivity Devotional 8 (Matthew 5:13-21)

This devotion was published first in the IGRC for Unity weekly email. As the Communications Director for IGRC for Unity, I compose a weekly email with news, resources, and reflections. IGRC for Unity is a group of Illinois United Methodists who have rejected the Traditional Plan for the United Methodist Church and are working to create a United Methodist Church that is truly open to all. These devotionals will be taken from a text from the Revised Common Lectionary, and will often have a theme of inclusion and welcome.

salt

The lectionary text for February 9 is Matthew 5:13-21. This come immediately after the Beatitudes, and serves as the beginning of Jesus’ most famous teaching in the Gospel of Matthew, also known as “The Sermon on the Mount.” I’ve told many people, ‘If you are only going to read three chapters in the Bible, make it Matthew 5, 6, and 7 – the Sermon on the Mount.’

Verses 13-16 include two famous lines, “You are the salt of the earth,” and “You are the light of the world.” Salt and light, this seems like an odd pairing. One is essential to life, the source of heat, the first step in Creation, and an eternal symbol of God’s presence in the world. The other is on our table at the diner. Salt however, is also essential to life. Some have argued that salt is the primary ingredient to civilization itself. It allowed for the preservation of food and the survival of people in times of scarcity and famine. If it were not for salt, people would have remained nomadic, simply following the food where it could found instead of settling into a place where life could be preserved. Light and salt. One is essential for revelation. The other is essential for preservation. Both are invaluable. Perhaps we can learn something from these metaphors Jesus used.

So many of our culture wars are framed in terms of “us vs them,” “liberal vs conservative,” or “progressive vs traditional.” Instead of framing his sermon in similar terms, Jesus lifted up the salt and the light. Illumination and preservation; these are the building blocks of the Kingdom of God. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ articulation of an alternative way of being, but he is not inventing something entirely new.

This passage reveals that the Kingdom of God is at the same time built upon the foundations of God. The Law is still to promise of God. It is still the way people should live in relation to God and to one another. It is to be preserved, but not in the rigid and harsh ways that some think it should be. The light reveals something new. It reveals the heart of the Law, the relationships essential to the Law, the love that is at the foundation of God’s Law. Jesus came to proclaim something new that is not new at all. He came to proclaim God’s love which is revealed not simply through the law, but in its loving interpretation and application.

And this brings us to perhaps the most important part of the Sermon on the Mount: the audience. Remember who Jesus is calling salt and light. Remember who Jesus is telling “You are essential to life! You are essential to the Kingdom!” The audience came from “Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from the areas beyond the Jordan River” (Matthew 4:25). Jesus did not reserve his teaching to a privileged few. He preached to Jew and Gentile, tax collector and zealot, Pharisee and sinner. He came so that all may have life. All of them – poor, oppressed, hungry, downtrodden, and rejected, they are the “Light of the world.” All of us are the “salt of the earth.”

As we are moving forward as a United Methodist Church, we can remember Jesus’ call to be the salt and the light. We can preserve what is good, what is of Jesus’ love, what is worth preserving for the sake of God’s Kingdom. We can illumine new ways of experiencing God’s love. We can lift up our light of justice, grace, and mercy. We can lift up the light of Christ to those who have been kept in shadows. As we move forward as a denomination and conference, let us be wise in preserving our mission, our Wesleyan roots, and our traditions which are life-giving, and let us carry to the light of Christ to those who have yet to see what true love looks like.

 

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Inclusivity Devotional 7 (Matthew 11:2-11)

This devotional is a part of my effort to create weekly devotional readings based on the Revised Common Lectionary that look at a Biblical passage through the lens of inclusivity. It is my firm belief that the Bible points me toward an inclusive and fully affirming attitude toward LGBTQ people. Some devotions will be more explicitly about LGBTQ inclusion than others.

The lectionary text this week is (Matthew 11:2-11)

John is in prison. He is going to die there. He devoted his life to preparing for the coming of the Mesiah. He was a prophet of God who spoke truth to power. He baptized people in the name of metanoia (traditionally translated to “repentance”). He shouted that the Kingdom of God had come near. Despite his protests, he baptized Jesus. His ministry didn’t end when he baptized the Messiah. He kept preaching about repentance. He kept calling out hypocrisy. He criticized the puppet King for breaking the Law of God, and was jailed for it.

Now when John heard in prison about the things the Christ was doing, he sent word by his disciples to Jesus, asking, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’

Are you the one, or is there another?

Some must wonder that sometimes. Sitting in the prison of oppression and exclusion, John’s question is an understandable one. What if he was wrong all along? What if the one he baptized in the wilderness was just another pretender. Surely if he was the one anointed one of God, he wouldn’t be wasting away in this pretender-King’s prison.

Are you the one, or is there another?

I am sure that many LGBTQ people have wondered the same thing. Surely dark nights of the soul have led to questions, doubt, and fear, but I don’t presume to understand the plight of those whom the Church has harmed with its exclusivity.

Have allies yearning for a more just Church wondered this too? I have devoted my adult life to a Church that I believed in. I knew it wasn’t perfect, but I believe in the goodness of my Church. It was where I was raised. It was where I first tasted grace. It was where I first experienced the love of God and the peace which surpasses all understanding. Yet sometimes I can’t help but wonder, is there another? Have I made a terrible mistake by remaining in a Church which denies the humanity of my LGBTQ siblings?

Jesus’ answer is an interesting one. Like he does so often, he doesn’t provide a straight answer. He simply says, “Go, report to John what you hear and see.”

He does not declare his messiah-ness. He does not reprimand John for losing faith when the going gets tough. He tells him to see for himself. The evidence is there. People see. People are healed. People are restored. This is what Jesus points to.

John’s ministry was about pointing to Jesus. Jesus pointed to the hurting people of the world who were now whole.

Are you the one, or is there another?

I don’t have the answer for the Church. All I can do is look to hurting people who are made whole. The Church does so much good. People are fed. Communities are healed. The Kingdom of God is surely all around. And yet there is still so much harm being done. There is still so much hurt.

I can’t answer the question. All I can do is keep pointing to Jesus. All I can do is to keep pointing to hurting people – some who are being made whole, some who continue to suffer. As of now, there is no other church for me. This is the one who has embraced me and formed me. There is no other, so I will continue to repent and believe in the good news of Christ.

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Inclusivity Devotional 6 (Romans 13:8-14)

This devotional is a part of my effort to create weekly devotional readings based on the Revised Common Lectionary that look at a Biblical passage through the lens of inclusivity. It is my firm belief that the Bible points me toward an inclusive and fully affirming attitude toward LGBTQ people. Some devotions will be more explicitly about LGBTQ inclusion than others.

This is the first Sunday of Advent. For those in many Christian traditions, the time of Advent is the four weeks before Christmas. Each week of Advent is marked with a different theme. There is no standard for these themes, but the most popular is probably Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. Each week Christians focus on one of these themes and light a candle in preparation of the coming of Christ.

When we think of getting ready for Christmas, we often think of decorations, shopping lists, and gatherings. Even if we move to the more spiritual realm, our images of Christmas are usually that of the baby in a manger, shepherds gathering, and wise ones traveling.

There is another element of Advent that we often ignore. Advent is not just about welcoming a baby. It is about welcoming the resurrected Christ into our lives and our world. Advent is as much about preparing for the second coming of Christ as it is about the first. I know that much talk about the second coming is wrapped in scary stories of people disappearing, famine, wars, and destruction. Most of this comes from Biblical apocalyptic literature that has a very specific cultural and historical context that is not meant to be taken literally.

Most applications of apocalypic literature that take the imagery literally, or apply it directly to current events are dangrous and irresponsible. They are nonsense stories of sci-fi fans who want to scare people into buying their books or coming to their churches. Often called “Left Behind” or “Tribulation” theology, it’s mostly nonsense. The Second Coming is about the coming of the Kingdom which will make all things right. It is what we are working toward as people of God, watching and waiting for the promises of peace, justice, and love to be fulfilled on earth as it is in heaven.

The text from Romans 13:8-14 is a reminder that to prepare for Christ, we must first wake up. “You know what time it is,” says Paul. It is time to wake up to what is going on all around. It is time to wake up from old systems of racism, sexism, and homophobia. It is time to wake up from closed-minded religion that does harm in the name of Christ. It is time to wake up to what Jesus actually taught us the first time around – love one another.

This passage tells us that our only obligation is to love each other. “Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the Law.” I have yet to hear a good response to this from those who want to exclude LGBTQ people from full inclusion in the church. How is loving another person a sin?

Some will point to the end of the passage, “Let’s behave appropriately as people who live in the day, not partying and getting drunk, not sleeping around and obscene behavior, not in fighting and obsession. Instead, dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ and don’t plan to indulge your selfish desires” (Romans 13:13-14).

It is an old-fashioned tactic to paint LGBTQ people as fitting directly into this category. There are still many who falsely believe that to be gay is to be immoral, that the “gay lifestyle” is one of promiscuity, sex on demand, and debauchery. They believe that anyone who has a physical sexual relationship with one of the same gender is “giving into selfish desires.”

I agree with Paul that to follow Christ means that some behaviors are no longer acceptable. I agree that it is wrong to give into selfish desires, but there is nothing inherently sinful about falling in love with another person. There is nothing inherently sinful about expressing love through sexual contact. Sex is a natural expression of romantic love. To prohibit a person from sex with someone with whom they have an intimate, romantic, loving connection would be the true abomination. Whether or not sex is an expression of love has nothing to do with the biological parts involved. Sex that is destructive, abusive, manipulative, or coercive is wrong – regardless of the sexual orientations of those involved.

It is time to wake up. For those who wish to exclude LGBTQ people from the full participation in the life of the church, wake up to the first verse of this passage. Wake up to Paul’s reminder that all of the commandments can be summed up with “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Please stop telling LGBTQ people that you love them while you reject the love they feel for another person.

If someone were to tell me that they love me, but that they think the most important, loving, life-giving relationship in my life was an abomination to God, I would not feel very loved. If you think that LGBTQ people are only interested in debauchery and licentiousness, wake up. Instead, dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, and don’t indulge in your own selfish desires to keep some people from the grace of Christ.

In this season of Advent I have hope that the coming of Christ can break the hard hearts of those who cling to their fears, misconceptions, and ill-conceived interpretation of Scripture. I have hope that the light of Christ can overcome any darkness. I rejoice in Paul’s declaration that “salvation is nearer than when we first had faith.” I believe that people of faith can grow and move closer to the beloved community that includes all people. This is my Advent hope, that we may all may wake up to the darkness and put on the weapons of light.

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Stations of the Gospel. Good Friday reflections through Luke.

Begin

Setup: This is the first station. It should be found just inside the door. The rest of the stations can lead through hallways toward the sanctuary of the church. Signs clearly marking the numbers of the stations, and arrows to assist people will be helpful.

Find a copy of Bach’s Magnicat in D Major. It is readily available on youtube. Set it up to play loud enough to be able to hear for several stations.

Instructions:

Playing in this room right now is Bach’s Magnificat in D Major. This triumphal and haunting music was inspired by Mary’s song as found in Luke. The word magnificat is Latin for magnify, which is the traditional first line of the song, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

The piece is about 30 minutes, and will be playing on continual loop.  You may sit and listen for as long as you would like.

Luke 1:39-55

Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands. She entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. With a loud voice she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.”

Mary said

With all my heart I glorify the Lord!

In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.

He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.

Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name. He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God.

He has shown strength with his arm.

He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.

He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.

He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”

Rest One: Baptism

Setup: Place a bowl of water on a small table. Consider saying a prayer over the water, perhaps from the baptism liturgy, or just a simple word of thanks for the water of life and blessing for all who pass through during this exercise.

Instructions:

You are invited to dip your fingers in the water before you, and place a drop on your own forehead. Feel the water, and remember your baptism.

Luke 3:3,  10-11, 21-22

John went throughout the region of the Jordan River, calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins.

The crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”

He answered, “Whoever has two shirts must share with the one who has none, and whoever has food must do the same.”

When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

Reflection

This journey begins where Jesus’ journey began—at the water. The water of baptism is a sign of rebirth. To be baptized is to die to your old self, and to rise out of the water as a new creation.

In the United Methodist Church we baptize infants, not because they are sinful and need to be cleansed, but because they are members of the Body of Christ, and are worthy of being marked as such. At baptism, the Holy Spirit makes a special claim on a person. This is aclaim that cannot be revoked. There is never a need to be re-baptized. The first one counts. No matter what.

From here we will proceed through Jesus’ life, ministry, teaching, betrayal, and death. We will reflect on these things, and may encounter trouble along the way. Know that through it all, your seal as a Child of God is complete. You are God’s beloved.

Rest Two: Life and Ministry

Setup: Print this picture, which are available under Wikimedia Commons bread and fish

Instructions

Look on the back page of this booklet. This is a picture of one of the earliest forms of Christian art. The fish, not the cross, was the first symbol of Christianity.

Luke 9:10-17

 When the apostles returned, they described for Jesus what they had done. Taking them with him, Jesus withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida. When the crowds figured it out, they followed him. He welcomed them, spoke to them about God’s kingdom, and healed those who were sick.

When the day was almost over, the Twelve came to him and said, “Send the crowd away so that they can go to the nearby villages and countryside and find lodging and food, because we are in a deserted place.”

He replied, “You give them something to eat.”

But they said, “We have no more than five loaves of bread and two fish—unless we go and buy food for all these people.”(They said this because about five thousand men were present.)

Jesus said to his disciples, “Seat them in groups of about fifty.” They did so, and everyone was seated. He took the five loaves and the two fish, looked up to heaven, blessed them, and broke them and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. Everyone ate until they were full, and the disciples filled twelve baskets with the leftovers.

Reflection

You cannot separate the life of Jesus  from the bread and the fish. One of the only stories that all four gospels tell, it is clear that feeding the hungry was a vital part of what Jesus did. The people came looking for life, and he gave it to them in the form of loaves and fish.

This was so important that the earliest symbols of Christianity was the fish—a reminder of how Jesus responded to those in need. The need today is no less demanding. There remains thousands of people in our midst who are hungry. They hunger for bread, comfort, forgiveness, and fellowship. Pause for a moment and ask Jesus what we can do, but know that his answer may be, “You give them something to eat.”

Rest Three: Prediction

Luke 9:18-23

Setup: A chalkboard or pad with newsprint and markers. This should be placed right outside the door of the sanctuary. This is the last rest station before entry into the sanctuary. Last year, we left the board up for Easter Sunday.

Once when Jesus was praying by himself, the disciples joined him, and he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?”

They answered, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others that one of the ancient prophets has come back to life.”

He asked them, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?”

Peter answered, “The Christ sent from God.”

Jesus gave them strict orders not to tell this to anyone. He said, “The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected—by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts—and be killed and be raised on the third day.”

Jesus said to everyone, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me.

Reflection

Notice this story comes immediately after the feeding. People have noticed that there is something incredible about Jesus. He is clearly a man worth following, but he wanted to make sure they understood the cost. Following Jesus is not just about overflowing baskets and great wonders.

Jesus understood that what he was teaching and doing would get him into trouble with the authorities. He understood that they could not let him live, and he understood that his mission could not be thwarted by their acts of violence. It was not an easy thing for the disciples to hear, and it is clear that while Jesus lived, they never fully understood.

Instructions:

Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” On the chalkboard in front of you, answer this question. Who is Jesus?

Rest Four – Sunday: Entry

Setup: On a table near the back of the sanctuary, leave a couple of palm branches from Palm Sunday’s service and place a couple of rocks.

Luke 19:35-42a

They brought [the donkey] to Jesus, threw their clothes on the colt, and lifted Jesus onto it. As Jesus rode along, they spread their clothes on the road.

As Jesus approached the road leading down from the Mount of Olives, the whole throng of his disciples began rejoicing. They praised God with a loud voice because of all the mighty things they had seen. They said,

“Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord.
Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.”

Some of the Pharisees from the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, scold your disciples! Tell them to stop!”

He answered, “I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout.”

As Jesus came to the city and observed it, he wept over it. He said, “If only you knew on his of all days the things that lead to peace.”

Reflection

This story is usually described as “Palm Sunday.” It is on this day that Jesus entered Jerusalem. Jesus taught the people what peace looks like. It looks like aligning your heart and your actions. It looks like letting go of materialism. It looks like letting go of bitterness. Peace is not an easy journey. The Pharisees wanted to keep quiet in the name of what they called peace, but “true peace is not the absence of tension. It is the presence of justice.” In one moment Jesus is a part of a wave of celebration. In the next, he weeps, for he knows the cost of true peace, and he knows the people will not tread that path.

Instructions:

On the table is the palm branch and the stone. Even while we yearn for peace, are we willing to cry out? What story of justice, mercy, kindness, or sacrifice is within you? Can you hold it in? Will even this stone cry out if you don’t?

Rest Five – Monday: Confrontation

Setup: On another table, place a bowl or offering plate with a few coins in it. This station asks people to leave some money behind. Someone should check it periodically so as to remove the temptation of someone taking money from the unattended dish.

Luke 20:20-26

The legal experts and chief priests were watching Jesus closely and sent spies who pretended to be sincere. They wanted to trap him in his words so they could hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor. They asked him, “Teacher, we know that you are correct in what you say and teach. You don’t show favoritism but teach God’s way as it really is. Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Since Jesus recognized their deception, he said to them, “Show me a coin. Whose image and inscription does it have on it?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

He said to them, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” They couldn’t trap him in his words in front of the people. Astonished by his answer, they were speechless.

Reflection

In the Gospel of Luke especially, Jesus is deeply concerned with our relationship with money. It was after Jesus disrupted the commerce of the Temple that the leaders decided that they had to kill Jesus. Here, he affirms all of their fears.

In front of you are a handful of coins. Those who wanted to be rid of Jesus tried to use money to trap him. It didn’t work. How many of us who follow Jesus however, are trapped by our money? Some social critics have said, “We print ‘In God We Trust,’ upon the god in which we trust.” How much truth is in this statement?

Instructions:

If you so desire, you may leave some money here (the plate will be checked periodically so as large amounts of cash will not be left unattended). Whatever is left here will be given to the church’s Samaritan Fund, which helps local people in emergency need.

Rest Six – Thursday: Supper

Setup: Place chairs around the Lord’s table, leave a broken loaf of bread and a cup (or several small cups) of grape juice. In our setting, the Table was stripped on Thursday night, so this quite easily accomplished.

Instructions:

Take a piece of bread off of the loaf. Please, don’t be shy. Take a good piece. Take off a piece that you actually have to chew. Eat it slowly. Taste it. Drink the cup of grape juice. Allow the sweet tang to fill your mouth. Breathe deeply as you chew and as your drink. Read this story as you eat your piece of bread. Really—take a big piece, even a second piece if you want. It’s okay. Remember, it only took two loaves to feed 5000.

Linger here with the bread. Linger here with the story. Hear Jesus’ words and know that YOU ARE THE BODY OF CHRIST. Read them again and know that YOU ARE FORGIVEN.

Luke 22:14-23

When the time came, Jesus took his place at the table, and the apostles joined him. He said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.   I tell you, I won’t eat it until it is fulfilled in God’s kingdom.” After taking a cup and giving thanks, he said, “Take this and share it among yourselves. I tell you that from now on I won’t drink from the fruit of the vine until God’s kingdom has come.” After taking the bread and giving thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”In the same way, he took the cup after the meal and said, “This cup is the new covenant by my blood, which is poured out for you.

“But look! My betrayer is with me; his hand is on this table. The Human One goes just as it has been determined. But how terrible it is for that person who betrays him.” They began to argue among themselves about which of them it could possibly be who would do this.

Post Script

As you were eating, did you notice who else was invited? Jesus knew that he would be betrayed by Judas, and what did he do? He broke bread with him. Sometimes the hardest part of the Gospel is realizing who else is invited to this table.

Rest Seven – Thursday: Denial

Instructions:

Simply read this story of Jesus’ trial. Do not read it all silently. Read Peter’s words, the ones in bold, out loud.

Luke 22:54-71

After they arrested Jesus, they led him away and brought him to the high priest’s house. Peter followed from a distance. When they lit a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them.

Then a servant woman saw him sitting in the firelight. She stared at him and said, “This man was with him too.”

But Peter denied it, saying, “Woman, I don’t know him!”

A little while later, someone else saw him and said, “You are one of them too.”

But Peter said, “Man, I’m not!”

An hour or so later, someone else insisted, “This man must have been with him, because he is a Galilean too.”

Peter responded, “Man, I don’t know what you are talking about!” At that very moment, while he was still speaking, a rooster crowed. 61 The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter, and Peter remembered the Lord’s words: “Before a rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” And Peter went out and cried uncontrollably.

The men who were holding Jesus in custody taunted him while they beat him. They blindfolded him and asked him repeatedly, “Prophesy! Who hit you?” Insulting him, they said many other horrible things against him.

As morning came, the elders of the people, both chief priests and legal experts, came together, and Jesus was brought before their council.

They said, “If you are the Christ, tell us!”

He answered, “If I tell you, you won’t believe. And if I ask you a question, you won’t answer. But from now on, the Human One will be seated on the right side of the power of God.”

They all said, “Are you God’s Son, then?”

He replied, “You say that I am.”

Then they said, “Why do we need further testimony? We’ve heard it from his own lips.”

Rest Eight – Friday: On the Cross

Setup: Lay down a bowl full of nails. I bought the largest ones I could get from the hardware store. They are really better described as spikes.

Luke 23:32-43

They also led two other criminals to be executed with Jesus. When they arrived at the place called The Skull, they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” They drew lots as a way of dividing up his clothing.

The people were standing around watching, but the leaders sneered at him, saying, “He saved others. Let him save himself if he really is the Christ sent from God, the chosen one.”

The soldiers also mocked him. They came up to him, offering him sour wine and saying, “If you really are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” Above his head was a notice of the formal charge against him. It read “This is the king of the Jews.”

One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus insulted him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

Responding, the other criminal spoke harshly to him, “Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die? We are rightly condemned, for we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus replied, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.”

Reflection

There was not just one cross on Calvary. There were three. Jesus was hung next to two nameless men.  We only catch a glimpse of them at this, the worst possible moment. One joins the crowd and insults and mocks the man next to him. The other seeks peace, even in the midst of agony.

One cross gave us a savior. Three crosses gave us a church. Following Jesus does not take away the pain of the world. Our life journey will always be a struggle. We can choose to respond with anger and bitterness, or we can seek grace and healing. Always, Jesus will meet us with forgiveness and love.

Instruction

If you’ve ever chosen bitterness and anger, pick up a nail. Say a prayer of confession. Lay your burdens down at the Cross.

Rest Nine – Friday: Death

Instruction

Hold the nail in your hand as you read. Press it into your hand or wrist. Not hard enough to hurt you, but hard enough to feel it as you read.

Jesus came so that we may have life. He came to tear down walls and divisions which we are quick to build. He came to feed and heal. He came with forgiveness and grace. His power was not war or coercion. It was love. He died not because God needed him dead, but because we could not let him live. The World could not understand his power, so the Romans nailed him to a cross because they thought that would be his end.  They believed that the humiliation, shame, and death that came with the cross would erase Jesus of Nazareth forever.

Luke 23:44-49

 It was now about noon, and darkness covered the whole earth until about three o’clock, while the sun stopped shining. Then the curtain in the sanctuary tore down the middle. Crying out in a loud voice, Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I entrust my life.” After he said this, he breathed for the last time.

When the centurion saw what happened, he praised God, saying, “It’s really true: this man was righteous.” All the crowds who had come together to see this event returned to their homes beating their chests after seeing what had happened. And everyone who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance observing these things.

Instruction

As you leave, stop by the baptismal font. Touch the waters again. Baptism is death and rebirth. There is no resurrection without death. Go forth knowing that through it all, your seal as a Child of God is complete. You are God’s beloved. On that hour on that day, the world embraced the dark. Today is Friday, but Sunday is coming…

The Stations of the Gospel through Mark

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“Spring” fueled by vulnerability and emotion.

spring awakening

Top left, Adam Cerny and Anastasiya Newkirk as Melchior and Wendla. Top right: Aaron Lord as Moritz and Tina Hayz as Melchior’s Mother (and all other female adults). Bottom right: Cerny as Melchior

When I saw Spring Awakening for the first time, I had no idea what to expect. I knew that it was ‘R’ rated. I had seen on Wikipedia that some of the songs have adult language, and that it is about teenagers exploring the very adult themes of sexuality, suicide, abortion, faith, and doubt. I knew not to bring my daughter, but I had no idea what I was in for.

I had no idea that I would be treated to one of the most emotionally charged, passionate performances I have ever seen. That was 2014, when the Center for Living Arts presented Spring Awakening for the second time. I was so dumbfounded by the performance that for the first time in my life, I saw the same show again on the following weekend.

This time when I saw it, on Opening Night 2016, I had no excuse to be surprised. And yet shocked I was.

Shock is a dangerous word to use when describing art. There is a lot of art out there that is designed to simply shock. It has little value other than to cause disgust, hoping that it draws eyes in the same way that an auto accident draws gapers.

And while there are moments that can be described as shocking, that is never the point. Yes, lyrics like “totally f-ed” (which is sung with passionate, emotional, perfect articulation of a word that rhymes with ‘ducked’), and “it’s the bitch of living,” might give you a jolt. But the point is not to swear – it is to express a rage that rises under the weight of suppression and finally boils over in, dare I say, a climactic release.

Yes, watching a young man beg his Dad for another minute in the bathroom is a little uncomfortable. But the point is to show that the shame that the adults have attached to sexuality. It is to show that privacy is precious, and sometimes hard to come by.

Yes, watching the female cast explore their (totally clothed) bodies with their hands as they sing “Touch Me” made me feel a little like a dirty old man watching something I shouldn’t be watching. But the point is not to arouse. It is to reveal that there are things going on inside which they do not fully understand. Set up by the agonizing first scene of a girl’s mother unable to give even the most basic information about sex and reproduction to her daughter.

Yes, watching the main characters finally give in to their bodies in a passionate moment in the hay loft could be described as shocking. But the point is not voyeurism. A particular choice made by amazing Director Dino Hayz was made to show that these are two young people who care about each other and are doing something that feels natural and good. They are feeling something real for the first time in a culture that has told them over and over again that feeling anything is dangerous.

All of these moments, and more which I did not describe, are incredibly intimate. There are times in the cozy Center for Living Arts theater that some of the actors are literally inches away.

There’s not a moment that the actors can hide. They are there, exposed, even while fully clothed. They are so vulnerable that it brings you to the edge of discomfort. Some highlights:

Myka Waljasper, singing “The Dark I Know Well,” crushes me. Every time. She puts on the character of Martha like a well-worn coat. In both the 2014 and 2016 versions she sang the song beautifully. In 2014, I remember Martha more as brutalized and frightened. This year, she projects bold defiance to survive in the face of brutality.

Noel Huntley plays one of my favorite characters, Ilse. Her “Blue Wind,” comes right after a heartbreaking bit of nostalgia between her and Moritz. We all wish we could go back to their childhood. Back to a simpler time and play pirates. Ilse, who escaped one abusive home to find only an abusive community, sings of the blue wind of autumn, cold and sad. The misery of a lost childhood is clear in both her song and acting. In doing research for this review, I learned that she is 16 years old, and once again – almost a week after seeing the show, I’m shocked.

I imagine that someday I will see a production of Spring Awakening that does not include Aaron Lord as Moritz and Anastasiya Newkirk as Wendla. Frankly, it will be strange.

Lord’s Mortiz is the nervous, hyper-anxious friend of Melchior. The weight of expectations is too much for him. Lord, reprising his role from 2014, makes it feel as if all of Mortiz’s anxiety travels up through his eyes and oozes into his hair. He channels the pre-1995 punk intensity of Billie Joe Armstrong. I half-expected him to break into, “Sometimes I give myself the creeps. Sometimes my mind plays tricks on me,” from Green Day’s ‘Basket Case,’ which was an anthem of my own youth.

When Newkirk is on the stage, it is almost impossible to stop watching her. From her first scene, when she defiantly tells her mother, “You don’t think that I believe in the stork, do you?” to her last, she reveals the heart of the show. The changes she experiences are the emotional center of it all, and Newkirk carries it well.

Adam Cerny gives Melchior a bright-eyed optimism that I hadn’t seen before. In the story, he is the voice of truth. He questions authority, sticks up for his bullied friend, and sees the world for what it could be. Somehow Cerny is able to make this teenager who is wise beyond his years at the same time naïve and joyful. His emotional scenes with Wendla are believable, and his agony and turmoil in the second act is gut-wrenching.

In the end, all of these performances matter only because of the story. It is a story that needs to be told. It is a story that I, as a pastor and father, need to hear. It is a reminder that winds change, no matter how much we wish they wouldn’t. Faithful begin to question. Boys grow into men. Girls grow into women. Grief heals. Grace abounds. And yes, winter turns to spring.

So we must be ready. We must embrace the change, not with lies or easy answers. We must face the truth of pain and struggle if we are ever to live with hope. In the end, the cast sings of the Purple Summer, when the butterfly sings and opens its wings. The Purple Summer, when we can look out in wonder. The Purple Summer, when we can hold onto one another, and allow grace of new life to flow.

Good art makes you feel. Great art makes you change. The story of Spring Awakening is a reminder that I cannot hide pain of change from my girls. I cannot shy away from the tough questions of the youth I am charged with leading. I cannot be another weight of expectations and judgment upon kids who are already shackled.  I can decide to either be a part of the cold blue wind, or hold onto the hope of the warm purple summer. I choose grace. Purple has always been a favorite color.

Spring Awakening is playing on Friday and Saturday, March 18 and 19 at 7:00 p.m. at The Center For Living Arts, which is located at 2008 4th Avenue, Rock Island Il. Go to http://centerforlivingarts.org for more information. You can go to the Spring Awakening Quad Cities Facebook page, as well.

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