Tag Archives: Holy Spirit

Reflections on #NCCPilgrimage16

This week, my 13-year-old, Mary, shares her thoughts and reflections on this year’s Pilgrimage, a weekend-long worship extravaganza for United Methodist youths. 

I had been looking forward to Pilgrimage 2016 since last year, when I went to Pilgrimage 2015.  The youth conference was only for United Methodist youth and was located in Fayetteville, North Carolina at Crown Coliseum.  The youth could bring friends, which almost all the youth in my small church youth group did happily last year.  We arrived in high spirits and had a joyous time singing and worshipping together with 5,000+ United Methodist youth from all over North Carolina in one place, youth of different colors, languages, and pasts.  I learned that we all made “Pilgrimage clothespins,” which were plain, wooden clothespins with inspirational messages on the sides.  We would then clip them onto the clothing of other people and merge into the crowd, knowing later they would read it and it would make them smile.  Getting clipped was an amazing thing, reading at night encouraging and uplifting messages of hope, love, and God.

This year, I began to count down the days until Pilgrimage 2016.  I was excited, as was my entire youth group.  This year, we didn’t bring friends and instead of a hotel we stayed in a camp.  We were looking forward to arriving at the coliseum for a life-changing experience, as we had last year.  I spent half the summer making Pilgrimage clips, painting them in bright colors and putting brilliant life quotes and Bible verses on the sides.  My buddy and I passed out a few of our clips Friday night, feeling grand knowing we made people smile.

Saturday morning, again, my buddy and I passed out clips, giving away my remaining twelve.  We sat down, ready for the hope of an amazing second session of Pilgrimage.  Instead, we were told that if we had a Pilgrimage clip on our being we would be immediately sent home.  The speaker of this year’s Pilgrimage sessions dished out hate at the clips.  Everyone was told to throw away their clips at the trashcans near the entrances; whether or not everyone did and instead risked their time pocketing the clips, I don’t know.

That evening, when we arrived at the coliseum, the cheerful atmosphere was missing from the entire building.  Everyone was more subdued than normal, not much chattering was going on, everyone in almost a thoughtful silence.  Passing out those clips was tradition, and in fact, taking that away angered many adults.  The knowledge of not being able to do that anymore took out half the joy in Pilgrimage, because with those clips, you knew you’d make someone smile.  We all took our seats half an hour before the third session started.  Once it had begun, one of the Pilgrimage coordinators went onstage and explained why we couldn’t have the clothespins.  A few Hispanic, Latino, and Asian youth groups had gotten bullying pins that said, “I love Trump!” on one side and “Build that wall!” on the other.  One of the chaperones from a Hispanic youth group – Stacy – got up and took the stage.


The beginning of Stacy’s speech was good, explaining how she felt unwanted because of harassing clips her youth group had received and stares that greeted her the day before.  She made mention of how she’d grown up being bullied and understanding how it felt to be an outsider.  In school, she had to teach herself English, because her family didn’t know the language.  During recess, when everyone was playing dodgeball, people would say, “Get out that Mexican girl!  Get her out so she could return to where she came from!”

She explained how hurt she felt as she walked into the coliseum when people were looking at them as if to say, What are you doing here?  You don’t belong here.  However, then she started to make comments, such as how “the message of the red hat and the message of the wall is not the message of the gospel.”  A few youth that greeted her were wearing red Make America Great Again hats, which she found offensive.  “The message of the red hat was not a message of inclusion and welcome; it was a message of disinclusion (sic) and discrimination.”  More of the speech told us that the hat represented a person whose message was unwelcome and discriminatory toward women, Latino, African American, and Hispanic people as well as others.  “And this is not the message of the gospel,” Stacy told the many thousand youth listening.  “So today, we wanted to tell you, if you really believe that the Holy Spirit is here, if you really want to welcome the Holy Spirit, then take off your red hats.”

Being a true American citizen, she had a right to say that.  The freedom of speech is still true, no matter where you are.  But many of us believe that she was speaking to the wrong people.  Here we were, in a place supposed to be a destination to learn more about God and worship together, only the chaperones able to vote, getting politics in our faces.  It seemed as if all us Caucasians were labeled as Trump supporters and racists, even though there were only a few people at fault.  We were labeled as haters towards anyone who is darker colored, and I know that that is not the truth about most of the youth present that night.

See, as Christians, we are supposed to be loving towards everyone, not just people with the same skin tone as us.  Stacy judged us in her own stereotypes, taking the little she knew from the few minutes they stayed the first night and running and accusing all of us of being like that, when I know that loads of youth groups there would’ve welcomed her in.  She tried to blame us all for something only a few people did.  You don’t know the past of the youth who wore those hats.  No one in our youth group saw them.  They might have been using them as warmth, given that inside the coliseum was still really cold.  They might not have had much money, so since it was cold around the coliseum and outside, that one hat may have been the only one in their family.  We never know what the inside story about people are until we get to know them, but we often don’t take time to and instead make snap decisions.  Stacy was willing to tell us about her back story, but she didn’t take time to know the stories of others.  We as people have our own opinions, and if we want to wear a hat with our opinions on it, why should we be stopped?  What Stacy did was right in the respect that she did have freedom of speech, but wrong in many respects.

1) Wrong place, wrong time.  She should not have thrown politics into the matter.  She started off strong, but she quickly fell.

2) How many of us youth could vote?  That’s right, next to none.  Again, she shouldn’t have put in politics.

3) She didn’t respect the fact that we all have our own opinions.  Instead, she made a bigger issue out of it all.

4) She labeled us all incorrectly instead of just the people with the hats.  She labeled us all as haters and Trump supporters, not Christian people who would welcome everyone gladly.

I was grateful when our livid youth leader said that we were leaving after the speech was over.  We decided that since the Pilgrimage pins were taken from us, we would make up some and return to church the next day where we knew we’d be accepted lovingly so we could clip these pins on people.  We were up bright and early Sunday morning to get on the road, and we had fun clipping others.  I have made up my mind that every time I visit that church, I’m going to clip a handful of people.  I can also do it at general places such as grocery stores, restaurants, and gatherings.  I can spread love easily through a simple clip.

On a closing note, I believe that our image of what the weekend was going to be was different from God’s plan.  I was really grateful that we returned to church early, because we made many people smile with the joy we shared and the enthusiasm we brought with us at the sheer idea of returning.  Our pastor was absolutely livid, something I’ve never seen before in my life, and she explained that what happened should not have and that there was no place for it in a church setting.  Everyone went out of their way to show us some extra love after the horrible time we’d just had.  We all learned things from that experience, but the most important of them all was just how it feels to be labeled as one thing when only a few people were the cause.  Such as how Hispanic people are all being labeled as illegal, lazy, and/or drug dealers, when I know many who are perfectly legal, have great jobs, and hate the idea of drugs.  We think that Muslims are in support of ISIS, and that Blacks are associated with gangs and ‘hoods.  But really, it’s not true.  There are White gangs as well, and yet we never want to look at them.  What we don’t want to realize is that there are actually only a few immigrants who are illegal, and yet we want to say that every one of them is here illegally and subject to deportation.



Why Do People Hate People who are Transgender?

I realize that, by posing this question, I’m likely opening myself up to being exposed to a large amount of hate and vitriol, but I am genuinely curious.  I have at least one transsexual friend who I share with other friends.  There’s so much hate and violent sentiment directed towards this segment of the population, and I really, truly don’t know why that is.  I’ve heard them referred to as “freaks.”  Really?  That doubly appalls me; while transgender is listed as a psychological disorder in the DSM-5 (which I can see necessary in some cases), still, calling people who are transgender “freaks” is about as sensitive as calling the following “freaks”:

  • An Army vet with PTSD
  • A little girl on the Autism spectrum
  • A woman with schizophrenia
  • A man with depression

Get my point there?

So, please, tell me why people (maybe you, even) hate people who are transgender and wish serious harm or death to come to them.  If you’re going to site scripture, please do so in a way that honors God and respects the Bible (or other holy book, dependent on your faith) with faithful use of scripture.  This includes using the scripture in its context within scripture, but also with respect to historical context.  And for those of you who would dare to say that God hates people who are transgender, please read your Bible all the way through before commenting; there’s only ONE “I hate” statement attributed to God in the WHOLE Bible, and it has nothing to do with the LGBT community.

I’m Out

What does that mean?  In gambling, it means, “I’m out of this hand or the game.”  In family life, it could mean, “I’m out of the house running errands.”  In the LGBT community, it refers to being “out of the closet,” being open about one’s sexuality and lifestyle.  I’m not saying any of those things.  I’m saying, I’m out of the box.  I’m outside the box.  I’ve known this for a while; it certainly wasn’t a secret to Dean Cogdill, my Divinity School dean.  To this day, I’m still not sure what he saw in me that had him labeling me his “outside the box thinker.”  I really had never thought my cognitive processes were all that different from other people’s.

It was fall semester, 2004, and I was in my last semester of Divinity school.  The last semester is rather anxiety-provoking, because every student in their last semester has to complete a Senior Synthesis paper, a lengthy (save often!) discourse on his or her entire Divinity school experience – every discovery, every growing edge, every field experience, every mission trip…  Everything!  To accompany this epic tome comes the Senior Panel.  This is a closed-door meeting with two professors and that semester’s Senior Synthesis professor, and each student gets to have a say in his or her choice of professors.  I put my choices in – Drs. Jones and Harmon, my professors of Hebrew and Old Testament, and Theology and Ethics, respectfully.  Soon before the panels were scheduled to begin, the list of panels came out and was passed around the room.

It didn’t take long for the mutterings to start.  “Whoa, Sara!  What did you do?”  “Oh, Sara, you’re gonna get it!”  Oh lordy, I thought, waiting for the list to get around to me, how bad is it?  Finally, the list came to me, and scanning down to my name I discovered that I didn’t get either of my choices on my panel.  Instead, I got both deans.  BOTH.  DEANS!  My professor said, “No one else got both Dr. Cogdill and Dr. Powers.”  “Yea.  Lucky me,” I replied.  Truthfully, I was terrified and humbled and honored, all at the same time.

There was history there.  As a Religion minor in the days before the Div school was chartered, Dr. Cogdill was chairman of that department, and, of course, I’d had some classes with him.  I’d had Dr. Powers for one undergraduate class.  In a lively discussion on the role of women in the home one day in Church and Family, Dr. Cogdill had had to get on me about my comportment during class discussions (I guess heavily insinuating that the guy I was addressing was misogynistic wasn’t very mature of me), an incident that, thankfully, he’d forgotten by the time I had applied for Divinity school.

As I sat in the conference room on the day of my panel, I remember the warmth and encouragement flowing from Dr. Hoyle, Dr. Powers, and Dr. Cogdill.  The last question Dr. Cogdill asked me was, “Sara, how will you stay outside the box?”  Um…  Uh…  Duh…  Crickets.  I was outside the box?  Really?  OK, that’s pretty cool, but it’s not something I’d ever done intentionally.  I was still young enough that some parental/family/social approval was a big deal to me.

That was ten-and-a-half years ago, and I am so completely out of the box now with age and maturity that I often forget there is a box filled with so many people.  See, here on the outside, it’s really spacious – not very crowded at all.  It’s great, but getting here can be quite scary.  Sometimes staying here is quite scary.  So how am I staying outside the box?

My heart still yearns to fulfill my ministry calling from so long ago.  As I have encountered more and more people, it has become glaringly apparent to me that we need more love and less judgment in this world.  People don’t need to hear a laundry list of their wrongdoings while we’re thumping our Bibles at them.  They need to hear just a few simple truths:  God loves you.  Jesus has something amazing in store for your life.  I love you.  Focus on that, so sweet, so simple, and the rest will fall into place perfectly.

English: Love Heart rainbow

English: Love Heart rainbow (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Long before the Supreme Court determined that equality for gays and lesbians who wish to marry would be protected under the 14th Amendment, I began to think, Why shouldn’t they marry if they wish?  I mean, so many of them, without marriage, are living together in long-term, committed, monogamous relationships, and isn’t that pretty much what marriage is?  I lose nothing by them having the same civil rights that I do.  It’s not going to negatively impact my faith, my marriage, or my family life.  It simply means that gay and lesbian couples can now be legally happy together instead of illegally (for lack of a better word) happy together.  So…  Since they also have been created in the image of God, just as I have, and since God loves them, just as He does me, shouldn’t they also be welcomed into worship with us and welcomed to join us at the communion table?

Then my thoughts spread to another group, one that a friend of mine is in:  The BDSM group.  In speaking to my friend, he conveyed that “people like [them]” aren’t welcomed into churches, that churches tend to take a hard stand against them coming in.  Yet, this guy misses communal worship.  Years of being married to a Presbyterian minister accustomed him to the liturgy of worship and the inclusion into the family of faith.  If he misses church, would not others in the BDSM community miss it, too?  So why not establish a church where those other churches shun are welcomed?  Maybe being gay or enjoying some consensual kink is a sin; I don’t think so, but then again, I’m not God, and I’m not ever going to presume to put words in the mouth of the Almighty.  What I do know is, the Kingdom of God is for all of these people, just as much as it’s for the straight-laced, buttoned-down, very conservative people who sat on the pews this morning for worship.  I know that God loves them, and I am also called to love them.  And if the people following these lifestyles are sinning, it is not my job to judge them; the Holy Spirit can condemn them and lead them to repentance if that’s the case.  See, at the very least, these folks would hear the gospel message of sacrificial love and sacrificial living; and at the most, they would be convicted of their sins and make a lifestyle change (whatever the sin might be).  That looks like a win-win, whether you’re in the far-right evangelical camp, the left-leaning evangelical camp, or somewhere in the middle.  Who loses out here?  Nobody, by my reckoning.

Staying outside the box means raising children who also think outside the box, but that’s a post for another day.  Stay tuned.


English: Communion setting at an Evangelical L...

English: Communion setting at an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America worship service: an open Bible, both unleavened bread and gluten-free wafers, a chalice of wine, and another containing grape juice (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s Greek for “fellowship,” specifically, Christian fellowship.  It’s that thing which happens when the Holy Spirit moves among God‘s people, inviting them to share smiles and embraces.  It happened during church today.

Today we experienced worship with Communion coming at the end of the service.  In this particular worship service, we take communion by going up to the front to receive the elements, which we then consume before going back to our seats.  We usually sit on the third or fourth row, so we get to see pretty much everyone from the rows behind us as they return to their seats.  They hug people in other lines or speak to people sitting on the aisles.

I remembered this morning a similar Sunday two years ago, in July.  I’d learned that two women in our Sunday school class had had grandchildren still-born, just weeks apart, and our Communion Sunday was right after the birthday of Sue’s grandson.  I was sitting in this contemporary service, and Sue was sitting behind us.  My family and I went up to receive the Lord’s Supper, and as Sue came back to her seat behind us, the Holy Spirit prodded me, “Go hug her.”

I argued (how many people are surprised by that?).  “We don’t move around like that during Communion!”  “What will people think about this?”  “Mom would have a hissy if she knew I was going to do that.  We just don’t do this.”  To every protest, the Spirit repeated, “Go hug her.  Go hug her.  Go hug her.”  Finally, I decided that obeying the Spirit and sharing mercy were more important than any oppositions I could offer.  I slipped out of my seat and walked around to Sue.  Sitting down beside her, I hugged her while she cried.

In the years since, I’ve divorced myself from worrying about what other people would think about my expressions of worship and love.  This has transferred to my children, too.  My youngest was dancing at her seat today, and when she dances, she puts her whole self into it.  I celebrate that she allows the Spirit to move in her with such abandon, and her father and I encourage that.  We want her to live her life worshiping God with joyful abandon.

How have you stepped outside the box during worship or to obey the instructions of the Holy Spirit?

The Grace of God, part 1

DTB of Dinner and a Suit #9

DTB of Dinner and a Suit #9 (Photo credit: digitaltourbus)

The call came at around 9:30 yesterday morning while I was in the shower.  My phone rang, and my first two thoughts were, Whoever it is can leave a message, and, This is why I don’t like having my phone in the bathroom.  I got out and saw that I had missed two calls, one from my husband, and it was he who’d left a message.  The message was short and alarmingly blunt:  “I just totaled my [work] van.”  What???  Was he OK?  If he was calling, then he must be fine.  When I finally got back in touch with him, he answered the rest of my questions.  He was OK, just had some abrasion burns from the airbag.  It wasn’t his fault.  No one was hurt.  Then he filled in the details.

He was driving to one of his stops, his van loaded with lawn care chemicals (we did the math, and it was about 1000 pounds of chemicals!).  That doesn’t include the weight of the van, his rider, or the rest of the equipment (the tank itself, the hose, his blower, etc.).  A woman in an SUV pulled out in front of him; she admitted herself that she saw the truck in front of him, but not him.  He had about 20 feet to stop while going 55 mph, which made an accident inevitable, even without the load he was carrying.  He t-boned the SUV, and she did two 360s before hitting the white pickup she’d seen.

I found out after the initial call that the woman had her two children in the SUV with her.  Her vehicle was totaled, too.  Her axle was pushed out the other side and her windows shattered.  She’d wisely put her children in the center and passenger side seats in the back, both secure in their car seats.

It was by the grace of God that no one was hurt.  Not the woman, not the driver of the other truck, not her children and not my husband.  Such a nasty accident with no serious injuries.  Fortuitously, there was an ambulance waiting at the intersection right behind the woman which was able to respond immediately to the accident.

Compassion fills my heart for this woman.  Sure, she was at fault; she failed to yield to oncoming traffic, plus she was driving with an expired license.  Her insurance company will have to pay for three vehicles, and her rates will skyrocket.  I don’t know how her husband handled the news, but I hope he hugged her and said, “I’m just glad that the kids and you are alright.  We’ll deal with the rest.”  At some point, it either has hit her or will hit her that, due to her mistake, one or both of her kids could’ve been killed.  I don’t know about this family’s financial situation.  Maybe they’re living deep in debt, paycheck to paycheck, and this will just be another blow?

But, no matter what damaged occurred, the important thing is, there were no serious injuries.  The children were likely shaken and luckily not stirred.  No lives were lost.  That makes it a good day.

Stay tuned for part 2, in which I’ll share the ways God worked through other people to bless me yesterday as the day wore on.

Mary’s Baptism – A High and Holy Day

It was a "High and Holy Day"!

It was a “High and Holy Day”!

The baptism service began with everyone gathering together on the beach at South Wrightsville.  Many friends from church were there, as were the four of us and my dad.  So many other family members and friends – both real life and online were there with us in spirit as they sent thoughts and prayers for Mary and us during this special time in her life.  What an amazing feeling, that sense of communion in the Spirit, unhindered by physical distance!

Mary opted to wear her bathing suit, and she wanted to wear the traditional white over it.  Our neighbor and top kidsitter Shayna had given Mary some clothes that she was getting rid of.  Shayna’s small enough that Mary can wear some of her stuff, as long as it’s not too grown up.  One of the items she gave her was a tunic top, sort of Grecian goddess in style, and because it’s pretty and longish, Mary opted to wear that.  It was a good choice, because it’s about dress length on her.  Shayna and her husband were two of the ones who were with us in Spirit, as they’re on duty with the National Guard currently.  (Mary’s outfit really doesn’t make a difference, but I wanted to remember it for my own sake.)

Our pastor began with a prayer, then we sang the first and last verses of Amazing Grace.  After that, the family members of the four baptism candidates read their faith stories.  First was Steven’s, a man close to my age.  His wife Sharon read his. She got a little choked up in places, for his story was moving, and it was beautiful to see how she’d helped him along in his faith journey.  Then Peter read Mary’s.  I loved how she included by name some of the people who helped her along her faith journey, too, including her maternal grandparents (with such adjectives as “wonderful” and “marvelous”).  Then there were two teenagers who I don’t really know – Steven and Delaney, brother and sister – who were being baptized.  What an amazing day for them, but also for their mom and grandma with them!

First Pastor Eric baptized Steven (the older one).  They walked into the water together and dove into the waves before Eric baptized Steven.  Whatever works, because I was quite sure the water was doing its part of following the Didache by being both “living” and “cold.”

Then it was our turn.  Mary had already told me she wanted us to hold hands going into the water.  As we reached the water, she said, “Come on!” and started running, so we ran into the ocean, laughing joyously.  The water was almost Caribbean calm at this low tide and pretty clear for our oceans.  And, as I suspected, cold.  Mary gave a little scream once when a waved lapped us.  I put my back to the sea so I was facing the shore, raised my right hand and said the familiar liturgy:

I baptize you, Mary, my daughter and now my sister in Christ, in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Buried to your old life of sin…  Raised to new life in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yes, I got choked up, but only she could hear it.

Every church-goer has heard the account of Jesus’s baptism at least once.  After Jesus comes up out of the water, the Spirit descends like as a dove, and a voice from Heaven says, “This is my son whom I love.  In him I am well pleased.”  Stop and go back to read that quote again, slowly.  Can you imagine hearing your mom or dad say that  to you or about you?  How incredible and affirming those words would feel!

So, after Mary came up out of the water and brushed her hair back, I hugged her and said, “You are my daughter.  I love you, and I am so proud of you!”  She made a comment about having a little salt water in her mouth as we approached the beach.  I said, “Let it remind you that we are to be the salt of the earth.”

Pastor Eric baptized the last two candidates, pronounced a brief benediction, then all the kids ran to the water – except for my two.  Oh, my poor three-year-old wanted to get in the ocean soooo badly!  It was killing her being that close and yet, so far away.  A beach trip is in our near future.

It was truly, absolutely, completely a “high and holy day.”  It’s one of those days that I will carry and cherish in my heart always.

Pre-Baptism Reflections

English: U.S. Navy Chaplain, Lt. Cmdr. Lulrick...

Very outside-the-box. LOVE it! English: U.S. Navy Chaplain, Lt. Cmdr. Lulrick Balzora, assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion Fourteen (NMCB-14), prepares to baptize Construction Mechanic Kyle Ellis. Balzora baptized several members assigned to NMCB-14 and NMCB-74 using a 2.5 cubic yard front-end loader bucket as an improvised baptismal. NMCB-14 and NMCB-74 are currently deployed in Iraq supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today is a pretty tremendous day in the life of our family.  This evening, I’ll be baptizing my older daughter, Mary.  She started thinking about what it means to follow Jesus when she was five, and when she was six, she decided to follow Jesus.  However, six is awfully young to make such a momentous decision, so her father and I have instructed her through a three-year catechism period.  We’ve used this time to teach Mary what it really means to follow Jesus.

The last Sunday in April, she decided (with our blessing) that she was ready.  She had two requests:  One, that she be baptized at the beach (part of the joys of living at the coast), and two, that I baptize her.  I’m honored.  And a little nervous.  Baptizing in an ocean isn’t as easy as baptizing in a still pool.  And it’s my first real baptism, though we practiced at the beach last week.  But it’s my daughter, and that’s the important part.

She woke up happy and excited.  Mary’s written and rewritten her faith story until it’s just the way she wants it.  She’s drawn in our studies of the Bible and referenced in some way all the people who have influenced her faith journey, some by name.  There are so many more who she doesn’t even realize, but those were the top ones.  My heart is joyful when I remember all those saints who have loved and nurtured her through her life and journey so far.  My prayer is that each and every one feels a heaping dose of God‘s blessings today.

The Didache says that baptisms are to be done “by immersion, in living water,” and the water should be cold.  Well, 76 degrees isn’t exactly warm, that’s for sure!  We’re Baptist, so we baptize by immersion, anyway, and “living water” is a way of saying “moving water,” like in a stream or river or, well, an ocean.

I’ve moved past my anger, sadness and disappointment over those who have chosen not to be there for this momentous event in Mary’s young life.  They made their choices long ago about the roles they wanted to play in her life, and, frankly, I think it bothers us as her parents more than it bothers her.  It’s a good lesson for us about brushing that dust off our feet.

My aunt had been a “maybe,” depending on things related to a family crisis, and she won’t be able to come.  My mom had an unavoidable, unalterable scheduling conflict and nearly cried when she told me she couldn’t change things.  Mary’s adopted uncle had to opt out of coming based on a wise financial decision.  All sad, but all understandable.  Mary’s disappointed too, but also understands.  (Plus she may get to spend the night with those grandparents, so it’s all cool.)

My dad’s coming.  He’s a minister, doing some pulpit supply preaching and motorcycle evangelism.  He might cry; he’s a strong man, but not afraid of showing emotion.  He’s a man immersed in the experience of strong-willed females, but he adores us all.

My youngest has asked me this week if I’ll baptize her when she’s ready (she’ll be 4 this Summer).  I told her I would.  She told her Dad that she wants him or her Grandpa to “ride her” to the beach on his motorcycle when it’s time for her baptism.  It’ll have to be her Grandpa; her Daddy doesn’t ride.

It’s ridiculous to think about this, but I had the moments of wondering what I’d wear over my bathing suit.  A white minister’s robe is traditional, but not in the ocean; that’s just dangerous.  I’d already decided on white shirt and beige shorts – traditional and practical.  But then I thought about one of my Div School t-shirts, the one that says, “This is a high and holy day.”  And it is.  I’m still going for the white, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is, indeed, a high and holy day.

A Church Full of Sinners

Forgiveness Mandala by Wayne Stratz

Forgiveness Mandala by Wayne Stratz (Photo credit: Nutmeg Designs)

We attended church at my parents’ church yesterday, since we’d stayed with them Saturday night.  It was a great worship experience, but I noticed by the offertory that my parents’ church is full of sinners.

Admittedly, that’s a “no, duh!” statement.  After all, every single church on the planet is full of sinners.  However, at my parents’ church, the pastor and congregants actually realize it. They pray with humble hearts for God to forgive their sins, and everyone from the usher who prayed the offertory prayer to the pastor echoed this sentiment.  It reminded me of the prayers from my home church that I attended when I was growing up.

Hearing these humble, heartfelt petitions for God’s forgiveness made me realize something else.  Our church has no sinners.  Well, we do, and everyone at our church knows we are sinners in need of grace, but you’d never know it if you attended a worship service at our church.  I haven’t heard that we’re sinners in need of forgiveness in a very long time, if ever.  Our pastor gives an invitation that usually says something like, “If you have a decision you’d like to share…,” and maybe he’ll mention something about “Deciding to follow Jesus,” but he doesn’t dare say anything like, “If you need to ask God to forgive you for your sins…”  I guess if he did that, we as a congregation might feel compelled to search our hearts and allow the Holy Spirit to confront us with our own shortcomings, determining that we need to ask God to forgive us of those sins.  In other words, it might dawn on someone that he or she is a sinner and they’ll in turn get mad at the pastor for bringing that realization to light.

It seems that our large, tricked-out, city-fied church could learn something valuable from this small country church in the middle of almost nowhere, and that is, we are all sinners in need of God’s forgiveness.  We have God’s grace, and it’s this grace which allows imperfect us to bear witness to the goodness of a perfect God.  But we still sin.  We still mess up.  We still fail to love God with all of ourselves and we fail to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We still completely miss living the fulfilled, Spirit-filled lives that God wishes for us.  And for that, we need to repent daily and ask God to forgive us.

The Body of Christ Broken for You

The Eucharist - A Great Gift

The Eucharist – A Great Gift (Photo credit: Michael 1952)

The email came on Saturday evening while I was preparing dinner. My husband Peter was using my laptop and said, “An email from Eric [our pastor] just popped up.”

I replied, “To me, or a general email to the church?”

He came back with, “Something about he’s sorry for getting back with you so late?”

It seemed strange to me, because I hadn’t talked with our pastor or emailed him in a while, so when I found a stopping point, I went into the office to check my email.  Our pastor was asking me to help serve communion during whichever worship service we’d be attending.  I felt humbled and honored.  After all, I’d served communion in hospitals and to hospice patients in their homes, but never had I served it in church.

When it came time to serve the elements, I was paired with Pastor Eric, him serving the grape juice, me serving the bread.  During this service, worshipers walk to the front to receive the elements, and each person serving can choose whichever liturgy they want to speak as they serve.  I went with the traditional, “The body of Christ broken for you.”

It was important to me, as I offered the plate of bread to each worshiper, to make eye contact with them.  I registered the woman whose dis-ingenuousness bugs me more often than not.  “The body of Christ, broken for her.”  There was someone with whom I’d had a disagreement a couple of years ago.  “The body of Christ, broken for him.”  Of course, I had the joy of serving many friends, but serving those to whom I’m not particularly close – and, if I were to be honest, don’t particularly like – allowed the Holy Spirit through this simple repast to transform me.

You see, the body of Christ was broken for those I like and those I don’t like.  Jesus says in Matthew 5: 45 that God makes the sun shine on the good and evil alike, and God sends the rain on the good and the evil.  Isn’t that a humbling thought!  That neighbor you don’t like with the pretty flowers in their yard or the thriving garden?  God gives that person the things to make their plants thrive just as God does for us.

Then action follows message when Jesus had his Last Supper with his disciples.  He declared, “This bread is my body, broken for you.”  Soon after, his body was broken for all of us.  It doesn’t matter who we like and who we don’t like.  Truth of the matter is, the body of Christ was broken for all of us.

This truth shone anew for me today as I offered this element of the Lord’s Supper to my fellow travelers on this spiritual journey as we follow Christ together.  And as this simple truth shone, so did I.  This is good news!!!  The body of Christ was broken for all of us, and what joy there is in knowing that his brokenness heals ours.

The Restoration and Reconciliation of the Christmas Story

Cover of "The Christmas Story: From the K...

Cover via Amazon

It is sometimes amazing how the Holy Spirit can speak so loudly through a memory or a stray comment.  We’re all familiar with the Christmas story – man and very pregnant young virgin woman going to his hometown because of a Roman census.  The town is swollen with people and there’s no place for them to stay, but one innkeeper offers the use of his stable for their stay.  She delivers her firstborn son who she names Ye’hoshua, meaning “God saves.”  (Jesus is the Greek version of this Hebrew name.)  We know about the shepherds out in the fields, angels telling them the good news of the birth of a Savior and their enthusiastic response.  We know of non-Jewish magi, men who read something new and different in the night sky and responded to this heavenly message.  After year upon year, Advent after Advent, the story risks getting old and stale, or, worse, subjugated under an avalanche of pre-Christmas sales, buying sprees and credit card debt trying to buy some Christmas peace.

Every now and then, though, the story gets shaken up in a way that allows us to see it in new ways through different lenses, and once more we remember, embrace and empathize with the characters, rejoicing with the angels and celebrating with the simple, dirty, ecstatic shepherds.

In her book Feminist Theory and Christian Theology, Serene Jones recounts the story of a Christmas pageant at the community church she attends.  Various members from the congregation were invited to participate.  Jones tells how Reggie, the homeless man who often slept on the steps of the church, played the part of the innkeeper.  Joseph and Mary walked down the aisle (with a live donkey) toward the innkeeper and Joseph says, “We need a place to stay.”

The innkeeper opens the door and says, “Come on in!”

Believing that Reggie had forgotten his line, “Joseph” repeats, “We need a place to stay.”

Reggie says, “I heard ya.  Come on in!”  The homeless man was not going to turn away anyone in need.

I saw half of a news article on the back of something my mom had sent my daughter (you can read the whole article here) about male inmates in a Wayne County (NC) prison enacting the Christmas story.  The director of this production is a lifer, in for murder.  Joseph was played by a man serving time for breaking and entering.  The audience would be small, made up of other inmates – some Christian, a Messianic Jew, Muslims, mostly atheist, some very hard-hearted.  The article tells how the director wrote this play eight years ago, thirty years into his life sentence.  What’s the point?  It’s a display of caring.  We don’t often think of convicts proclaiming, “The Savior is born for you!”  A small number of inmates strive to warm cold hearts, share the good news of the birth of a Savior who came even for them, or, at the very least, elicit a chuckle from men who seldom even smile.  The Christmas story becomes a story of reconciliation between God and sinful humanity.

These two examples show how, when the “most of us” are running around frantically blowing wads of money on the latest gadgets and toys to give to people, the Christmas story starts with “the least of these.”  Dirty, stinky shepherds.  Homeless men (“I was homeless, and you gave me a place to stay.”).  Murderers, robbers and drunks (“I was in prison, and you visited me.”).

As we enter 2012, may our hearts be constantly open to the speaking of the Holy Spirit, even as her voice so often comes to us through the “least of these.”