Tag Archives: grace

“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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Pulpit Fiction Episode 157

This week in the Pulpit Fiction Podcast, we talk about one of the most beloved of all Jesus’ stories, the Prodigal Son. The word prodigal means ‘wasteful or extravagant.’ We ask the question, which person in the story was the most wasteful? The first son who wasted his inheritance, the second son who wasted is position in the family, or the father who wasted his dignity and place of power?

Rob Leveridge pulled double duty with the Voice in the Wilderness and the featured song. Both were great.

Pulpit Fiction Podcast Episode 157 PF Ep 157 FB

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Suicide: Nothing Separates

This is my sermon from January 24, 2016, preached at Two Rivers United Methodist Church in Rock Island, Illinois. It is about the importance of compassion and care for those that are both contemplating suicide, and for families who have endured it. Any conversation about suicide must begin with the truth that “nothing [not even suicide] can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

If you or someone you love is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call 1-800-273-8255.

Breaking the Silence Series

Mental Health: Silent No More

Suicide: Nothing Separates

Domestic Violence: Call Police, Not Pastor

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Where faith begins

forked pathA long time ago I heard a pastor say, “The Christian faith begins when you realize that you are sinner in need of salvation.” I feel like that is a very sad place from which to start.

I grew up as a kid with an innate knowledge of my own sin. I had no problem seeing where I fell short. I had a clear understanding of my mistakes and shortcomings. I wasn’t a particularly bad kid, but I was a regular source of frustration for my parents, teachers, and my self. For a long stretch of my life I spent every night in bed worried about what I had forgotten during the previous day, and fearful of what trouble was awaiting in the morning.

I had no problem realizing that I was a sinner in need of salvation, but that is not where my faith began. My faith began the moment I realized I was loved by God, no matter what. My faith began when I came to understand that the love of Christ was not just offered to those who achieved. The grace of God was not offered to those that had good grades, were good at sports, remembered to do all their chores, or had in some other way earned it. When I learned that the grace of God was offered especially to those who did not deserve it, my heart was strangely warmed. My moment of conversion was no particular moment. It was the growing understanding that I was loved, and that no matter where I went nor how far I wandered, when I came home my supper would be waiting for me. And it would still be hot.

Once I learned that I was loved, I realized too that I was gifted. There were things that I could do that could be of use. My gifts might not have been the same degree or kind as others, but they were gifts nonetheless. No Pastor, my faith did not start when I realized I was a sinner in need of salvation. I begin from a very different place.

I begin from God creating all things, and calling them good. I begin from Jesus rising from the baptismal waters to hear God proclaim, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” I begin from Jesus telling the lawyers that greatest commandment is to “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength… and to love your neighbor as yourself.” I begin from Jesus reminding people that “when you did it to the least of these, my children, you did it to me.” I begin from “God is love.”

And from there, I move outward. I still see my sin. I acknowledge the many ways that I choose to be selfish over selfless. I choose to ignore the plight of the poor, and I shrink from standing up to injustice. I understand how I participate in sin every day by reaping benefits of a system that keeps me in comfort and others in poverty. I feel the ache of disappointment when I spend my time frivolously, and spend my money unwisely. I feel the sting of pain when I turn away from my daughters, or turn toward them too harshly. I have a firm grasp on my own sin, and maybe that’s why as a pastor I don’t pay particular attention to yours.

When I started from my own sin, I was starting from fear. I was shackled by shame. I was paralyzed by my own shortcomings.

When I start from God’s love, I am opened to my own gifts. I see more clearly where God’s love is not the lived reality, and I mourn. And I act. I am motivated by love, not shackled by fear. I still fall short. I see my mistakes, but I no longer go to bed fearing them. Instead I lay my head down knowing I am loved by God, and tomorrow I will have the precious gift of loving others. Instead of fearing how I will fall short, I have hope for the love I can live into.

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The Gathering

I’m gathered in a group of people. I’m not sure why I’m in this group. There were a lot of us together, and someone came in and put the guy standing right next to me in the other group. Clearly something important is happening here. I must have been chosen for something, but what? I’m not sure what I did to deserve to be here. As people are sorted into the two groups I start to understand, a little. I can see why she is here. I understand why he is over there. But me? It doesn’t make any sense.

overlapping-circles-26633-400x250Now the answer comes. The one doing the sorting stands above us all and says, “You are in your group because of how you treated me.” This makes even less sense. I’ve never seen that man before in my life. I take that back. I’ve seen him – from a distance. I’ve heard of him. I’ve heard people talk about him. . I’ve read about him. I know he’s important, but I’ve never met the man. Rest assured, I would have known it if I had met him. He’s not the kind of guy you can forget. And if I had been with him, I’m sure I would have treated him with the respect he deserves. I’m in my group because of the way I treated him? I still don’t understand what’s going on.

“When you were with the least of my children, you were with me. What you did to them, you did to me,” he says.

And suddenly it becomes clear. All this time I had been in a fog I didn’t see. It was like I was standing in front of a mirror in a bathroom after a long shower. Now, with those words, the mirror has been wiped clean. I can see.

The guy I worked with that drove me crazy. The one who never pulled his weight; who was never dependable. I’m pretty sure he cheated me once…

The man on the street I passed every day. The one with the cardboard sign and an empty bottle in a bag. I don’t know which he needs more, a handout or a kind word…

The women on my computer, the ones that would pop up in mystery emails and advertisements whether I wanted them to or not, whether I clicked on them or not…

The waitress who took forever, who got my order wrong, and didn’t seem to care…

The child who would never sit still. The one who knew every one of my buttons, and delighted in pushing them…

That guy who bussed my table at lunch, but who never learned to speak English…

That guy who was walking toward me on the street. The one with sagging pants and the oversized hoodie. He could have been hiding anything in there…

The child on the brochure, the one suffering from malaria who desperately needed a bed net or some medicine…

The teenager who was hurting, who didn’t know where to turn, who was confused by her feelings and had been told over and over again that she wasn’t worthy of love…

She was Christ. He was Christ. They all were Christ. And now those times that I interacted with them, the times I saw them and the way I responded came rushing back to me. They played before my eyes like scenes from a movie. And suddenly it is so clear. I know exactly why I am in this group.

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He drew in the sand. Godspell Lent, part 3 #tryLENT

This is part three of the Godspell journey in Lent. The theme for the week is Conflict, and the song is “By My Side.”

Part 1: Prepare Ye the Way.

Part 2: Jesus Plays The Clock Game.

heart in the sandHe drew in the sand.

The woman was in front of him. As were the Pharisees and legal experts who brought her to him and the regular crowds there in the Temple.

She was faced with public humiliation and scorn in the very least. Capital punishment, though unlikely, still placed on the table before her. A pawn in a game played by powerful men, the woman has no name. We know nothing of her history. Nothing of her circumstances. We know only that she is a slut, an adulteress, unworthy of being treated as a human, and we know that only because the powerful men say so.

“Caught in the act of adultery,” is what they say. How exactly they caught her is unclear. Was she set up? Was she raped? Where is the man? They claim to be holding to the Law, but the fact is, the men care little about the Law. They use it for their own good. They use it for their own benefit, setting themselves up over and above all others. They aren’t interested in justice. If they cared about the law, then where is the man? Leviticus 20:10 requires that both the man and the woman caught in adultery are to be executed. The alternative is that the woman wasn’t yet married. Adultery laws were based entirely on property rights, so if the woman wasn’t yet completely the property of another, than the man did nothing wrong. Instead, if she was simply betrothed to another man, she alone would suffer the consequences.

And while this sort of inter-gospel speculation is something I usually avoid, I cannot help but see this as a possible part of the story. While the accusers saw simply a woman who could be used in their game, perhaps Jesus saw something else. When Jesus looked at this woman, a woman pregnant and betrothed to another, perhaps he saw part of his own story. This, clearly, is pretty wild speculation, but it is speculation that fits. This whole story is wrought with speculation. There are dependable reasons to think that John 8:1-11 is not authentically John. There is good reason to think it was added later, maybe much later, than the already late writing of the Gospel of John. In most modern Bibles, the fact that this story isn’t found in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts of John is noted. Yet it remains a part of the story. It remains so because it feels like it fits.

In the musical Godspell this story is a turning point. It is a place where the community starts to question. This is where the community starts to wonder. The telling of this story is not done in the third person. It is not acted with frivolity and joy. It is the source of genuine discord, and a lot hangs in the balance of Jesus’ reaction. His response is a part of the cultural understanding of Jesus. Even those that know little of the man know the words that are attributed to him, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” In the musical, there is a moment of tension before the community comes back together. The response to this crisis is the song “By My Side,” a beautifully haunting song that describes the groups resolve to move forward. The song however, ends with Judas deciding once and for all he had enough. At the end of the song, the community was tested by the conflict, and most of them decide to stick with Jesus even if doing so can be difficult. Judas decides to betray Jesus.

In the Gospel of John, the passage plays an important role in seeing what is at stake. The story isn’t about the law or justice. It’s not even really about grace. The story is about the leaders operating under the system that creates winners and losers, and about how Jesus refused to play along. The leaders care nothing about the woman nor her supposed sins. All they care about is beating Jesus. They want to trap him. They put him in a situation which cannot be won. Either he picks to condemn her, which upholds the Law, but jeopardizes him in the eyes of the Roman government, who are the only ones able to inflict capital punishment; or he chooses to let her go, thus making a mockery of the Law. They think they have him cornered. Either way he breaks the law. And how does Jesus respond?

He plays in the sand.

He refuses to get caught in their trap. Instead of seeing a pawn placed in front of him as a challenge, he sees a woman. His answer befuddles those that sought to trap him, and they leave one by one.

In our story of Godspell, this is when Judas had enough. This is the moment it was just too much to take. He wanted there to be a winner and loser, and he wanted to be on the winning side. Jesus, on the other hand, is not on anyone’s side. He is not interested in winning and losing. He was not willing to get caught up in the conflict – at least not in this conflict. He was not going to choose between the Law and grace because this is a false choice. I’m not saying that Jesus avoided conflict. He simply chose to meet conflict on his ground, in his way. He faced the conflict with nonviolence, with the power of grace and forgiveness, and with a will that was in perfect union with God the Father.

He faced the ultimate conflict when he faced the cross. Those that crucified him saw that as the ultimate trap. Finally, they forced his hand. They asked him if he was king. They demanded that he either declare himself King and attempt to rule, or  face death and be defeated. When he hung from the cross they thought they finally had him, but once again, Jesus refused to play along.

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The difference between seeing and sight.

visionNeurologist Oliver Sacks tells a fascinating story about Virgil, a man who received sight at age 50 after spending 45 years totally blind.  His book An Anthropologist on Mars tells a tragic tale about a man who struggled to adapt to his new-found sense.  On the surface, it seems like such a story would be a wonderful, heartwarming story of triumph and celebration.  In reality, Virgil’s story is fraught with confusion, loss of identity, and even health.

At first marveling at the light that he was able to perceive, Virgil was quickly overwhelmed by the confusion of so much light, color, shapes, and movement.  What people born with vision take for granted became difficult, even terrifying.  A bird flying by, even at a distance (for distance was meaningless to him), was more than a little startling.  Making connections between flat shapes and 3D objects was almost impossible (a circle and a sphere were totally unrelated).  The story of Virgil is heartbreaking. His tactile world, that was ordered and in which he was thriving, was shattered.  His identity was lost as he realized he was neither blind nor sighted.  After making some improvements, he suffered a setback when an unrelated illness caused him to nearly lose the ability to breathe.  He almost died, and in the process he lost his job, his home, and eventually his sight again.

It is one thing to have physical ability to perceive light hitting your retina.  It is another process to interpret that light in the midst of the world.  Virgil was never able to fully incorporate the light which was in front of him.  He was never able to distinguish the shapes, colors, movements, and flashes into a coherent vision of the world.  He spent fifty years in world of touch.  He was able to spend a few months in a world of vision, and when the two worlds collided, the result was not pretty.  It almost indirectly cost him his life.  Would he have been able to adapt if given more time? Perhaps.  Was the stress of the two worlds colliding too much for him to take? Did it hasten the progress of his sickness? That certainly seems reasonable.

Virgil’s story illustrates that being able to see is different from having sight.  There is a story in the Bible about sight and blindness.  It is told in the ninth chapter of John.

In this story the man born blind has  no such difficulty adapting.  Instead, it is the Pharisees who cannot cope.  They had a very ordered world.  It was their role in society to keep the order.  They used the Biblical Law to understand what was clean and unclean, what was righteous and sinful, what was in order and what was out of order.  A man born blind was clearly out of order.  Sin is punished with curse.  Righteousness is rewarded with prosperity.

This is how the story begins.  Even the disciples understand the world in this way.  Sin is the only explanation for blindness.  The only question is, who’s sin? So they ask Jesus to clear things up.  “Who sinned that he was born blind, this man or his parents?”  Jesus turns the order upside down immediately.  He gives an answer that is completely out of their expected order, “This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him.”

After the healing, there is much confusion.  The people do not know what to make of this healing, so they take him to the ones whose job it is to answer questions about order.  The Pharisees are baffled.  They are split.  They investigate.  In the end, they cannot understand this new order that Jesus is proposing.  Jesus does not fit into their order.  He healed, which must be of God. He worked on the Sabbath, which is a sin.  These two facts are so starkly in contrast, they cannot make sense of them.  The world of Jesus collides with their world, and the result is not pretty.

When you read Virgil’s story, it is easy to feel compassion for him.  In receiving sight, he was changed so drastically that it was difficult to cope.  It wasn’t just laziness, or stubbornness.  There were physical, emotional, and neurological hurdles that were enormous.  That he didn’t “make it” as a sighted person does not make him weak.

Perhaps we can take a similar amount of compassion to the Pharisees.  Their world was being turned upside down.  They knew what they were seeing, but they couldn’t interpret it in the midst of their world.  They were not able to incorporate the light which was in front of them.  They were able to see, but they never possessed the sight needed to understand what they were seeing.  It is easy to condemn the Pharisees, put black hats on them, and call them the bad guys.

Demonizing is tricky business.  Were they at fault? Sure.  It would be wise to remember though, that Jesus cast out the demons, he didn’t cast “demonhood” on others.  Neither should we.

I think we’d do well to remember that there’s a difference between seeing Jesus, and having vision.  When Jesus comes off of the page, out of the two-dimensional world we so often like to keep him, disruptive things can happen.  When we incorporate Jesus into the world, there can be collision that is discomforting.  Catching a vision of the Kingdom of God knocks us out of our daily existence.  It challenges our preconceived notions.  It breaks our routine.  It shatters prejudices.  Suddenly we’re supposed to be loving our neighbor.  Suddenly we’re supposed to forgive as we are forgiven.  Suddenly all of our instincts of survival and self-hood are replaced by Kingdom instincts of abundant life through selflessness.

It’s a struggle, and it’s a process. We may experience a flash of euphoria when the weight of sin and shame is lifted.  Usually there is more to it though.  It is rare for the scales to be removed, and all understanding to come at once.  Even the man in the Biblical story, though he could see, took time to process what had happened to him.  Even he didn’t open his eyes and praise Jesus, the Son of God.

It’s no wonder that for so many, the vision doesn’t stick.  It becomes easier to be blind, to shuffle through life slowly, methodically, unchallenged by the light.  Turn a blind eye on the suffering.  Turn a blind eye on our own sin.  Turn a blind eye on the injustice, on the first remaining first, and the last being pushed farther and farther down the line.  It’s no wonder so many cannot see

Jesus healed the blind man so that God’s mighty acts may be displayed in him. There’s a difference between seeing and having sight. We are called to do more than see.  We are called to have God vision, to catch the vision of Christ, and see the Kingdom of God.  For if we can see it, we can live into it.  There is a difference between seeing Jesus in a Bible, or in stained glass, or in a movie, and catching onto this vision for the world. When see Jesus, I mean really see Jesus, it changes the way we look at the world. It changes how we look at our neighbor. It changes how we look at a stranger. It changes how we look at suffering. It should also change the way we see ourselves. See the world with Christ’s vision so that God’s mighty acts may be displayed in you.

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Six reasons I share Communion with kids

wine and breadCommunion is one of my favorite things about worship.  It is a ritual ripe with meaning and power.  People ask me sometimes about Communion and children.  I have been giving my daughters Communion since they could take solid food.  Some wonder if their kids are allowed to take Communion, so I offer this as my answer.  As far as I’m concerned, children are always welcome at the table, but I also respect the wishes of the parents.  If there is a new family coming forward, and they have a little one, I always say something like, “Your child is welcome to partake, if you are okay with it. If not, I’d be happy to give her a blessing.”   In that moment, it is difficult to go into all the details of why I invite that child to share in the bread and the cup.  So now I give you these reasons why any child (or any other person for that matter) will always be welcome to Communion at a table over which I preside.

  1. Communion is a means of Grace.  I believe that Communion is a powerful act.  I believe that God is present in the bread and the cup.  In that holy moment of eating and drinking, one can feel the presence of God.  This is at the foundation of my Communion theology, and everything follows from this precept.  God meets people in Communion, so why would I do anything to get in the way of that meeting?
  2. It’s not my table.  One of my favorite things to say during the course of any service is, “This is not my table.  This is not a Methodist table.  This is Christ’s table, and all are welcome.  Come, for all is ready.”  If it is Christ’s table, who am I to guess his guest list?  If Christ wants to meet someone at his table, that’s his call, not mine.  Jesus told a story about inviting guests to a banquet, and one of the most important lessons of that story is that we don’t make the guest list.
  3. There’s no kiddie table.  I’ve always thought of Communion as the family meal, and there’s no kiddie table.  If we consider kids to be a part of the family of God, why would we exclude them from the family meal?  Even at family gatherings where there is a special table for the kids, we always bring food to them too.
  4. No one fully understands what’s going on at this table.  People say to me, “We don’t bring our kids until they know what’s going on.”   My first reaction is to ask that person to explain to me their theology of atonement to make sure that they understand.  No it’s not.  That would be stupid.  We don’t have to pass some comprehension test to be invited to Christ’s table.  My actual first reaction is, “I’m not sure I fully understand what’s going on.”  Yes, I can write about the incarnation.  I can tell you what a Sacrament with a capital S is.  I can tell you about forgiveness, the body of Christ, and sacrifice, but I don’t think I can tell you with any real certainty what happens in Communion.  I believe God is present in the bread and the cup, but there is an element of mystery in the act that is unknowable.  That doesn’t mean we let kids think it’s snack time.  We teach them as we go.  Kids understand the difference between play time and serious time.  They know when something is important, if we tell them that it is.  When I hand a child a piece of bread and a cup of grape juice, I don’t say “this is the body and blood of Christ.”  I tell them, “Jesus wants you to have this so you remember how much God loves you.”  That’s all they need to know.  Sometimes that’s all any of us need to know.
  5. Children might not understand what’s going on, but they have a sharp understanding of what it means to be left out.  That is a feeling I want no child to feel in any church I am called pastor.
  6. Children are a vital part of the Body of Christ right now, as they are, not for what they might become.  I’ve heard many people say that “Children are the future of the church.”  I understand the sentiment, but I vehemently disagree.  Children are the right now of the church.  They are the church just as much as anyone else.  If we only value children for what they might become, or who they might bring with them (get the kids, and the parents follow), then we are not valuing children.  I want to be a pastor of a church that values real kids, not just the idea of kids.  I want a church that loves kids who are loud at the wrong time, who don’t sit still, who make messes when they eat, and ask rude questions sometimes.  Does this mean we don’t provide guidance, or boundaries, or expect good behavior?  Of course not.  It means that we love them as they are, and try to model for them behavior that is life-giving.  We don’t chastise or shame them.  We embrace them for all of their kid-ness.  Children are a vital part of the body of Christ, and I do not believe in treating them as anything less.

So there you have it.  These are six of the reasons why I share Communion with kids in worship.  I always leave the final decision up to the parent, but hopefully all the parents at my church know that when they come, all are welcome.

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I give up

We still get a daily newspaper, and sometimes the only page I touch in the whole thing is the crossword.  I love doing crossword puzzles, especially if they’re not too hard. I can’t even touch the Sunday New York Times crossword.

I like the one in our newspaper because on most days I can fill most of it up.  My favorite part of doing the crossword is when I tackle one big blank part of the puzzle at once after feeling blocked.  In one flash of brilliance the dam is lifted, and a tidal wave of right answers comes pouring out.  Whole sections of the puzzle that were once blocked can quickly come alive once I remember that an artichoke is an edible flower, and that acme is a four-letter word for peak.   Eventually though, I hit another block.

I seldom finish the whole thing.  It seems like there is always some intersection of an obscure town in India and the first name of an actress from the thirties that I just can’t figure out.  I try as hard as I can to finish the whole thing, but almost inevitably, I have to seek help.  But first I have to declare to myself, “I give up.”

“I give up” are three powerful words.  On Ash Wednesday, Christians of many stripes feel compelled to give something up.  Most people give up some vice or bad habit.  The practice of self-denial is an ancient spiritual discipline.  Others, and myself in the past, have poo-poohed the idea giving up of things for Lent.  Many writers have warned against the dangers of going through the motions during Lent, or giving up something superficial that won’t really get to the heart of the matter.

While I agree that the sacrifice that the Lord requires is not superficial, I’m giving up judging others’ discipline.  If you want to give up chocolate, who I am to tell you that you shouldn’t do that?  I know what the Lord requires of me.  Nowhere in mercy, justice, and walking humbly with God does it include commenting on your spiritual discipline.

I haven’t decided if I am going to fast for Lent.  In the past I’ve given up chocolate.  I’ve also done daylight food fasts.  For a couple years in a row I didn’t eat any solid foods between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.  Every year I contemplate doing that again, but haven’t attempted it in years.  Last year I tried to write a note to someone for every day of Lent.  I wish I could tell you I actually wrote 40 notes in 40 days.  I can tell you though, that it was a very rewarding experience.

This year I feel ready to give up.  Giving up is an easy thing to do sometimes.

I feel weary, and I don’t think I’m alone.  I feel weary of a world torn by violence in Central Africa, Syria and Venezuela.  I feel weary of impending war in Ukraine.  I feel weary of divisive politics.  I feel weary of debating.  I feel weary of a long and brutal winter that just won’t relent.  I feel weary of social media, being bombarded every day by this post, this article, this meme.  I feel weary of my to-do list, which seems to be growing faster than I can check things off.  I feel weary of reacting harshly at my daughters when they don’t deserve my ire.  I feel weary of the  laundry pile in my basement, the paper pile on my desk, and the snow piles on the street.  Pile after pile seem to come in wave after wave.

And now Lent comes and I’m supposed to give something up, and I can’t pick just one thing.  So I give up.

Pass me the ashes, I give up.

I give up my plan.

I give up my power.

I give up my ability to affect change.

I rub ashes on my head, and mark myself “given up.”  Weary. Tired. Defeated.

I remember that out of dust I was formed. To dust I will return.

I give up.  I confess my failures. I examine my shortcomings.  I reflect on the ways that I cannot do it all.  I resign myself to God’s will, not my own.  I remember that I will die, and pain and suffering will remain, but I will have lived.  I will live without the need to be right every time.  I will live without the need to follow my plan, without the need to check every box, without the need to fix everything.  Out of dust I was formed, and to dust I will return, but in between I am going live.

I am going to live.

I fall on my knees and cry out to God, “I give up.”  God smiles, embraces me and says, “Finally.  Now, allow me…”

And suddenly the dam is lifted, and a tidal wave of grace comes pouring out.

The fast I choose is justice, mercy, and kindness.  Not because my actions will solve the world’s problems, but simply because God is.  God is justice.  God is mercy. God is kindness. God is love.  This same God took a pile of dust and breathed life into me, so how else can I live?

I can’t solve the world’s problems.  I can barely finish my laundry.  These ashes are a reminder of my own mortality.  These ashes are a reminder of my own shortcomings.  These ashes are a reminder that God took ashes and formed something that I could never form.  God provides answers I could never know.  God provides paths I could never find.

I give up. I get up with God, and I feel fine.

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A table for one.

Table for OneI’m an introverted person.  One of the distinctive marks of an introvert is that they don’t mind going to a restaurant and asking for a table for one.  Don’t get me wrong, I love eating and being with people.  I love a good dinner party, or going out to eat with friends.  I also enjoy a meal by myself.  I enjoy the calmness of a table for one.  There are no social expectations, no awkward silences.  There might be a book, or a crossword puzzle, or a legal pad and a pen.

I enjoy a table for one.  It can be a space for reflection, meditation, or even prayer.  Sometimes though, it is not…

God “prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies,” reads Psalm 23.  What if it is a table for one?

What if the enemy is within?

I’ve sat with myself on dark and lonely nights.

What if the enemy is my own apathy?

I’ve walked by pain, turned a blind eye to the suffering of my neighbor.

What if the enemy is my own comfort?

I’ve chosen to settle for the inertia of inaction over disrupting the status quo.

What if the enemy is my own pride?

I’ve avoided the one that hurt me. I’ve held onto bitterness, even when the taste in my mouth was too much to bear.

What if the enemy is my own fear?

I’ve walked away from persecution, and participated in unjust systems for fear of the wrath would be turned onto me.

So Jesus, what then?

You tell me to love my enemies.  Am I to love my enemy when the enemy is looking back at me in the mirror?

I know the answer.  I’ve sat at that table before.  Still, God meets me there.

I sit at the table in the presence of my enemy, and can only confess to my God and myself the times I have fallen short.  I sit with myself and have no choice but to forgive, so I may be forgiven.  I sit at my table for one and am confronted with the  profound absurdity of the gospel.  There is good news in sitting at the table for one.  

There is confession.  There is forgiveness.  There is grace.  There is bread for me to eat, and a cup overflowing.  There is oil being poured out on my head with such exuberance and abundance it seems shocking.  There at the table for one I learn that goodness and mercy are following me.  No, they are doing more than following me.  They are pursuing me.  Actively, purposefully, God is pursuing me.

Goodness and mercy are pursuing me, even when I flee.  Goodness and mercy are pursuing me, even when my apathy and my comfort and my pride and my fear seem to get the best of me.  God is pursuing me, and sometimes it is only at a table for one that I pause long enough to sense it.

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