Let’s hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, because the one who made
the promises is reliable. And let us consider each other carefully for the purpose of
sparking love and good deeds. Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which
some people have gotten into the habit of doing. Instead, encourage each other.
--Hebrews 10:23-25a CEB
This week in the daily emails from the church I have been sharing reflections on Parker Palmer’s book A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. Palmer asserts that inside each of us is our “true self.”
Philosophers haggle about what to call this core of our humanity, but I am no stickler for precision. Thomas Merton called it true self. Buddhists call it original nature or big self. Quakers call it the inner teacher of the inner light. Hasidic Jews call it a spark of the divine. Humanists call it identity and integrity. In popular parlance, people often call it soul.
Throughout our lives we are forced to become internally divided in order to protect our true selves. We build a wall around our true selves, and sometimes that wall is so strong we lose track of our true selves altogether.
Some children, sadly, need this wall at home. Others do not need it until they get to school. But sooner or later, everyone needs a wall for the same reason, to protect our inward vulnerabilities against external threats.
More than discovering our “inner child,” Parker describes a journey we undertake to discover who we were originally created by God to be. He does not advocate a return to childhood, but rather finding an “adult wholeness” where we are no longer alienated from our true selves and manage a healthy interchange between our inner selves (who we were created to be) and outer selves (how we negotiate a world often hostile to our true selves).
Parker is clear that in order to discover our “adult wholeness” we need “spaces within us and between us that welcome the wisdom of the soul.” We need individual times of solitude and spiritual work as well as communal work in relationships of trust. This is where the church comes in; a healthy church equips us for our individual spiritual work and provides opportunity for communal spiritual work in worship and group study. During this pandemic, we all have had plenty of time to practice solitude and individual spiritual work, but the communal part is hard to come by, especially if you are in an at-risk group.
Even though it may take more effort and come with more frustrations, we neglect this communal spiritual work at our peril. Parker explains:
A strong community helps people develop a sense of true self, for only in community can the self exercise and fulfill its nature: giving and taking, listening and speaking, being and doing. But when community unravels and we lose touch with one another, the self atrophies and we lose touch with ourselves as well. Lacking opportunities to be ourselves sin a web of relationships, our sense of self disappears, leading to behaviors that further fragment our relationships and spread the epidemic of inner emptiness.
This is why even tuning in to PHCC’s Sunday worship livestream is so important. Even with all its inadequacies compared to the usual way of doing things, participating together and taking communion together matters, because we are maintaining our community of faith. Several folks have shared with me that they have trouble hearing what is said in worship—including my sermon—and I am sorry we are unable to improve the audio. However little or much you can get of the service, that you are tuning in with other church folks still matters
Another great way to connect spiritually with one another is happening after worship on Sunday mornings at 10:30 PM. Mike Watson began a Sunday School class via ZOOM video chat originally for the Genesis class, but over the last few months members of other classes have joined in since their usual class is not meeting in person. The discussion and sharing abut one another’s life has been transformative. You are invited to join too!
I know from firsthand experience connecting with ZOOM can be intimidating at first. If downloading the app and connecting via video proves too troublesome, there is the option to simply dial in as if you are on a phone call. Folks won’t be able to see you or you them, but you will be able to hear the discussion and be heard by those taking part. If you can dial a phone, you can be a part of this Sunday School group. Everyone is welcome!
Unfortunately, COVID-19 does not appear to be going away soon, so please do not neglect this essential part of your spiritual life. Yes, sometimes technology offers a poor substitute to meeting in person, but any connection with your fellow church folks is better than no connection. Here’s the information on connecting with the Sunday School class at 10:30 AM Sundays:
to join via the ZOOM app or your web browser enter this information
Meeting ID: 549 438 8847
To dial in by phone, call this number and enter the meeting information when prompted
+1 312 626 6799
Meeting ID: 549 438 8847
I hope to hear you or see you via ZOOM this Sunday at 10:30 AM
Grace and Peace,
If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.
--James 4:17 NIV
In yesterday’s email, I shared about our need for wholeness and the struggles we face in our attempts to avoid leading divided lives. By divided lives, I’m referring to our actions and the outward presentation of ourselves which are in conflict with our true or inner selves and convictions. More than mere hypocrisy, a divided life is a violation of who God created us to be or a desecration of the “image of God” in each of us—what has sometimes been described as the true self, the divine spark or the inner light. I am depending heavily on the writings of Parker Palmer, especially his book A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward and Undivided Life.
One of the books that has had the greatest impact upon my own spiritual journey and sense of identity is a different book by Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. Until I read this book, I did not trust anything that came from inside of myself. Growing up Southern Baptist, I had been taught that I was a product of a “fallen world” and was utterly corrupt in my sinfulness. As a rather nerdy and unathletic child with a low self-esteem, this negative description of my spiritual identity fit like a hand in a glove. Well, of course I was a sinful mess, because I felt awful about myself anyway! So, I probably bought into this understanding of the wretched state of my soul at a much deeper level than my well-meaning Sunday School teachers ever intended. I learned not to trust any kind of inner voice and depended on sources of truth outside myself for guidance and direction.
Thanks to Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak, I began to understand there was something inside of me, something I had been created to be, that I could trust. He writes:
Vocation does not come from a voice “out there” calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice “in here” calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.
In his writings, Palmer differentiates between the “true self” and what we might call “ego,” “arrogance,” or “vanity.” These latter things are not “true” but merely false understandings of who we are and why we matter. Palmer quotes the great spiritual writer Douglas Steere, who “was fond of saying that the ancient human question “Who am I?” leads inevitably to the equally important question “Whose am I?”—for there is no selfhood outside of relationship.” A healthy understanding of our true selves can only be found with a balance between inner individual work and outer accountability in community.
In A Hidden Wholeness, Palmer moves from discerning one’s true self to creating communities (congregations, workplaces, institutions, etc.) where people’s true selves can flourish. The costs of living a divided life are not paid by individuals alone but by everyone in relationship with a divided person. Parker writes that we grow into adulthood and become alienated from who we were made to be. He says
Dividedness. . . comes highly recommended by popular culture. “Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve,” and “Hold your cards close to your vest” are just two examples of how we are told from an early age that “masked and armored” is the safe and sane way to live. But our culture has it backward. The truth is that the more dividedness we perceive in each other, the less safe we feel. . . The perceived incongruity of inner and outer—the inauthenticity that we sense in others or they in us—constantly undermines our morale, our relationships, and our capacity for good work. So “masked and armored,” it turns out, is not the safe and sane way to life. If our roles were more deeply informed by the truth that is in our souls, the general level of sanity and safety would rise dramatically.
The alienation we feel from our true selves becomes manifest in our relationships with others. Our personal alienation becomes an interpersonal alienation. People who feel alienated from themselves are alienated from others who in turn feel alienated from themselves. Unhealthy individuals create unhealthy communities which helps create unhealthy individuals. It is a vicious cycle: no wonder we need God to save us.!
Parker illustrates what our true selves look like by reminding us of our childhoods. A starting point for getting back in touch with our true selves is asking what delighted us as children? The messages of our culture that demand we stop being “childish” and “grow up “can cause us to lose track of delight, awe and joy. Yet, discovering our true selves is no easy task. Palmer writes,
Occasionally, I hear people say, “The world is such a confusing place that I can find clarity only by going within.” Well I, for one, find it at least as confusing “in here” as it is “out there”—usually more so!—and I think most people do.
He describes his love for C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series of children’s books and uses the children of the novels’ trip through the wardrobe as a positive image of our own experiences of childhood delight. Yet the world they find through the wardrobe is not all paradise; there are trustworthy voices (e.g. Aslan the lion) but also voices of “temptation, deception, darkness, and evil” (e.g. the White Witch). How does one discern between the two? Only relationships of trust provide space for people to allow their true selves to flourish. This is the goal of all healthy relationships.
It is a strange paradox (another subject Palmer has written a book on) that for communities (workplaces, congregations, institutions, etc.) to be healthy they require individuals who act out of their true selves, the image of God inside of them; yet at the same time individuals seeking to act out of their true selves require communities that operate in a spirit of trust and support. One cannot exist without the other. For a church to be healthy, it requires spiritually healthy individuals; and for individuals to be spiritually healthy they require spiritually healthy communities of faith. Both are necessary.
When Jesus said, “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’” he was inviting us to step out of our divided lives. Making the same point, the writer of the Letter of James says, “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” The way out of our divided lives—ways of living that Jesus and the early church condemn--requires individual spiritual work and the work of spiritual communities.
I have no idea what the future of churches in America will look like, but I unreservedly believe that communities of faith that create what Palmer calls “circles of trust”--spaces where individuals can be in touch once more with their true selves rather than the facades they have taken on--will always remain necessary. Churches who make this kind of work their priority will flourish and those who focus on other things will die. They will die, because they are more concerned with external and superfluous things that contribute to rather than lead us away from divided lives. Just as divided individuals lead lives that cannot be described as really alive, so also divided churches are likewise not really alive. One needs only to look at the astounding number of dying congregations and the number of church buildings now on the market for sale to see what happens to churches who live acting contrary to their true purpose for being in the first place.
Grace and Peace,
Whoever walks in integrity walks securely,
but whoever takes crooked paths will be found out.
--Proverbs 10:9 NIV
This week in my e-mails I will be reflecting on the book A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life by Parker Palmer. Palmer is one of the authors who has guided my own faith journey, and I often recommend his writings to people questioning the direction of their lives. In this book, he describes the costs of compartmentalizing our innermost identities and beliefs away from the outward actions and false identities we present to others.
In A Hidden Wholeness, he writes,
Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other. In the process we become separated from our own souls. We end up living divided lives so far removed from truth we hold within that we cannot know the integrity that comes from being what you are.
When our lives become divided, our inner self and real convictions separate from our outer selves and actions, we pay a price and so do those around us.
Palmer provides examples of living the divided life:
He describes how these examples come from something deeper than a lack of ethics. In today’s culture, ethics can become merely an external code of conduct, a “moral exoskeleton” that we can slip off whenever it suits us. Inner integrity is necessary to join our actions to our deepest selves.
Palmer wrote A Hidden Wholeness, about fifteen years ago when the news headlines still featured corporate scandals like Worldcom and Enron, the financial crisis was only beginning to reveal the extent immoral lending practices by the nation’s largest banks would have on the economy, and the clergy sexual abuse scandal was revealed with its horrific consequences for thousands of children. In our present time, things have not become any better. In a world of “alternative facts” where blatant deception is presented as “truth,” our culture demonstrates the consequences of people living divided lives.
Palmer uses the image of a blizzard to describe the confusing times we find ourselves in.
The was a time when farmers on the Great Plains, at the first sign of a blizzard, would run a rope from the back door out to the barn. They all knew stories of people who had wandered off and been frozen to death, having lost sight of home in a whiteout while still in their own backyards.
The blizzard of our culture “swirls with economic injustice, ecological ruin, physical and spiritual violence.” The confusion of our times may leave us thinking there is no hope for things like “truth and justice, love and forgiveness” to guide our lives. Yet, Palmer declares we remain in “the soul’s backyard, with chance after chance to regain our bearings.” The guide rope in our “blizzards” comes in the form of “trustworthy relationships, tenacious communities of support.” Such relationships should happen in a faith community (sadly the often do not), but also come in support groups, faithful work colleagues and healthy friendships and families.
Most of all, our ultimate guide rope comes from the One who created us and in whose image we are made. God knows our true selves, because God knows us best of all. The God made manifest in Jesus Christ does not stand apart from us as a punishing judge but comes near to us offering grace upon grace to guide us back to who we were created to be. As humans, we may always struggle to discover the wholeness God offers us, choosing to live with our actions divorced from our deepest truths, but God remains with us along the way assuring us we can discover ways of being that cause less pain to ourselves and others, new ways of peace and joy.
Grace and Peace,
“The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as
yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” Leviticus 19:34
The report came out this past week that the Department of Homeland Security is advising asylum seekers to ‘learn to deal with homelessness’. Yes, we the people of the United States are putting policy in place that nearly guarantees homelessness for a many of those coming to us as refugees.
This goes so strongly against scripture. As Leviticus states, it is not how God intends for us to treat the foreigner. Yet we are allowing it to become policy. As Christians, we cannot remain silent about this and we must reject such policy, and stand on the principle Jesus taught us:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one
another.” John 13:34
A broader picture of this comes to mind. As we sit comfortably in our reopening churches and try to recapture the days gone by, are we accepting the “foreigner”? Not just those coming to this country, fleeing poverty, war, terror and injustice, but also those just outside our building walls? Don’t we treat those outside our ‘bubble’ as foreigners as well?
In the sermon Sunday, which can be reviewed at our website (parkhillcc.org) or YouTube Channel (Park Hill Christian Church KC) or even on Facebook (Park Hill Christian Church KCMO), we learned of the slave woman Hagar. In a sense, she was a ‘foreigner’. As a slave she had no say in her life. She came from Egypt into Abraham’s family. She was treated cruelly and with contempt, an outsider to the family. Yet God was with her.
Outside our walls there are many ‘foreigners’, many such as Hagar. God is with them and He wants us to be with them as well. In his email message last week Reverend Peeples wrote of Father Gregory Boyle’s message of ‘ripping the roof off’ and how we have become so comfortable in our club house that we have forgotten to reach outside the walls. Isn’t it true, just as on a national scale we are putting policies in place to turn away the ‘foreigner’, we have put practices in place to turn them away from our churches? This is not what Jesus would do.
In fact, we are told.
“… who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” I Timothy 2:4
Jesus came so that all might be saved, including the ‘foreigner’. And what is even more evident, as we learn from Hagar’s story, God is already there. He is with the ‘foreigner’ making a way for them in the desert. We are called to be a part of that, not a stumbling block.
Whether on a national level or at the local community, we must open our hearts and our doors to the stranger. We must step out in faith and trust that the Lord of Lords is going to lead us into a new revival with all those around us. As Reverend Peeples stated, Jesus is already out there, it is time we step out of our comfortable club house and begin welcoming the ‘foreigners’ all around us.
It is time to stop the petty bickering and jealous control of resources and reach out to a world broken and hurting.
It is time to show the love of Christ to all people in real and substantial ways.
The time is now to end the practice and policy of division and to bring together all the people for the glory of the Lord.
Let our voices be heard in the neighborhood, the cities, the nations; we are the people of God and we will move as God moves to protect, serve and honor all peoples, for it is His will that none will be lost.
In my sermon last Sunday, I shared a story from Father Gregory Boyle’s book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. As I have shared in this week’s daily e-mails, Boyle was assigned to Dolores Mission in the late 1980’s in one of the poorest and most gang-ridden parts of Los Angeles. The inspiring story of how this small congregation began to transform the neighborhood around it has been told in Boyle’s writings, documentaries and news stories. They created Homeboy Industries to provide work, education, life skill training, addiction counseling and spiritual direction to young people wanting out of gangs and a better life. Boyle and the congregation did this, because their own mindset changed from viewing the needs in their community as someone else’s problems to seeing the people in their community as connected to the church.
As I shared last Sunday, Dolores Mission began to house homeless undocumented people in their church building. The men slept in the sanctuary and well, the sanctuary began to smell. Boyle addressed the congregation one service and asked, “What does our church smell like?”
Nobody spoke at first, but finally an older man that didn’t care what others thought of him chimed in, “It smells like feet!”
Boyle asked, “Why does it smell that way?”
Someone else spoke, “Because we allow homeless men to sleep here.”
Boyle asked, “Why would a church do that?”
A third person spoke, “Because it is what Jesus would do.”
Boyle asked, “So what does our church smell like?”
The original older man yelled out, “It smells like community!”
Jesus taught us when he washed his disciples’ feet that the Holy Spirit can make stinky feet smell like community. Yet, Jesus’ followers have had trouble from the very beginning right up until the present day remembering our job is to serve others in Christ’s name even when it means things get a little smelly. We have preferred things neat and tidy and built beautiful buildings that become things we serve rather than functioning as tools to serve others. Whether it was healing a woman’s withered hand on the sabbath, his disciples picking grain on the sabbath or overturning tables at the temple, Jesus threw out all religious propriety in favor of caring for people.
Like most suburban American churches, Park Hill Christian Church has done a good job caring for its church building, but it has faltered when it comes to maximizing the building for ministry to its community. Don’t get me wrong, PHCC is better than some churches I could name that treat their buildings like museums never to be disturbed, however, even in non-pandemic times, PHCC has a whole lot of real estate sitting unused a lot of the time. Every church member knows groups, organizations, and non-profit agencies that want to address the needs of the Northland but lack the space to do so. It’s time for all church members to invite those groups to partner with PHCC and for this church to share the fine building it has been blessed with.
Fair warning—opening up your church building to your community means it might start to smell differently. If a congregation of faithful people are open to the Holy Spirit, however, what smells bad at first will start to smell an awful lot like community.
Grace and Peace,
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
--Matthew 5:11-12 NRSV
Over the years I’ve received a steady stream of hate mail. Sometimes the hate mail comes from an anonymous church member slipping a critical note under my office door. Other times the hate mail arrives in my email inbox from a church member with an ax to grind about something I said (or usually that they think I said) in a sermon. My favorite hate mail is the kind that actually arrives in the mail, usually neatly typed from some “Christian” somewhere correcting my theology. Usually this latter type shows up when I have spoken publicly about justice issues, especially when I have spoken publicly as a faith leader about equal rights and inclusion for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people.
I feel I must be doing something right if somebody gets mad, because I’m using my privilege to speak up for people being marginalized or oppressed, because that’s what Jesus did and look what happened to him.
I’m not talking about persecution in the way TV preachers and members of the Religious Right talk about it—as if a secular humanist world is out to destroy their faith. Instead I’m talking about the kind of hate mail that comes when somebody feels their status or beliefs are threatened when groups they condemn are treated like human beings. A lot of folks who call themselves Christian act as if God’s love is in limited supply; if God shows extravagant grace to somebody else that means less for them. Such folks have found their identities in condemning others rather than in receiving grace from God. If something I’ve said or done makes such people angry, then I feel like I’ve done my job as a minister.
Jesus demonstrated compassion (literally “suffering with”) humanity, and that kind of oneness threatens everyone who profits from keeping people divided from one another. This is why Jesus tells his followers to expect opposition and even persecution. People who believe their well-being depends upon other people’s oppression never respond kindly to having their zero-sum game called into question.
In his book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, Father Gregory Boyle tells the story of what happened when his church Dolores Mission in east Los Angeles declared itself a sanctuary church in the late 1980’s. They began providing shelter for undocumented people from Mexico and Central America, and as is the case any time a church truly helps oppressed people, the media showed up. So did opposition.
One day, Boyle showed up to find the words “Wetback Church” spray painted on the church building. He went to a previously scheduled meeting with women of the church, and he told them he would get it cleaned it up. One of the women named Petra who rarely spoke in meetings suddenly took charge.
“You will not clean that up. If there are people in our community who are disparaged and hated and left out because they are mejados (wetbacks), then we shall be proud to call ourselves a wetback church.”
Boyle writes that Petra and the other women “didn’t just want to serve the less fortunate, they were anchored in some profound sense of oneness with them and became them.” He goes on to say that this type of compassion is what Jesus demonstrated. “The strategy of Jesus is not centered in taking the right stand on issues, but rather in standing in the right place—with the outcast and those relegated to the margins.’
I think part of the reason churches are dying in America today and why we are less culturally relevant than ever is because we have played it safe for too long. Once upon a time, your status in your community depended in part upon what church you belonged to. Once church membership was as essential to fitting in to suburban life as belonging to a neighborhood association or a rotary club. Being a part of a church, meant fitting in and fitting in meant security. Yet, such security, safety and fitting in cannot be found when we read the Gospels. Younger generations searching for meaning and purpose no longer want what their parents wanted from a church, and maybe that is a good thing. Maybe our expectations of what a church should be were reflections of a white suburban mindset rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I think it is fair to ask if a church never faces any opposition or persecution on behalf of people who are marginalized and oppressed really a church? If a church really wishes to show compassion for other people the way Jesus did, then it will ultimately cost that church something. There is a difference between charity (where one person gives something they probably didn’t need anyway to someone of less power and means who needs that something desperately) and compassion which says we are one, we are in this together and what we each have we share with one another.
A church that operates with compassion like Jesus understands that in God’s eyes there is no difference between the person serving and the person being served. That kind of radical reframing of power, status and influence upsets people who depend upon such things to determine their own worth. They will not react with kindness but with outrage.
But here’s the beautiful truth that Jesus understood and what he gives to us if we will only receive it: the joy we receive from demonstrating compassion for others far surpasses any hate we receive for doing so. This is why Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you.”
A church that doesn’t receive hate mail is a church that has played it too safe. A church that has played it too safe has missed out on the joy Jesus has promised.
Grace and Peace,
And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay.
--Mark 2:4 NRSV
In my sermon this past Sunday, I shared some stories from one of my favorite books, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle. Boyle is a Jesuit priest who has spent decades working with Latino/Latina/Latinx gang members in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Boyle and the church he serves, Dolores Mission, began a ministry called Homeboy Industries which gives those wishing to leave gang life jobs, life skills training, addiction counseling, mentoring and spiritual direction. Homeboy Industries grew to include a bakery (Homeboy Bakery), a café (Homegirl Café) and a silkscreen and embroidery shop (Homeboy Silkscreen & Embroidery). The inspiring story of this work is told in Boyle’s writings. You can also find documentaries about the story (Father G and the Homeboys and G-Dog) on numerous streaming services as well as many interviews with and speeches by Boyle on YouTube.
This week, I will be sharing from Boyle’s book, Tattoos on the Heart, because I think it offers inspiration for where Park Hill Christian Church finds itself in 2020.
In the Gospels, there is a story of Jesus healing a paralyzed man. Jesus is in a house filled with people wanting to hear his teachings. Some men have a friend who is paralyzed and want to bring him to Jesus but they can’t get past the crowds and into the house. So they climb onto the roof of the house and break through the roof. They lower their paralyzed friend down to Jesus who forgives the man’s sins and heals him.
Boyle uses this story as an image of how all of us as individuals and as communities of faith must expand our understandings of compassion. “In Scripture, Jesus is in a house so packed that no one can come through the door anymore. So the people open the roof and lower this paralytic down through it, so Jesus can heal him. The focus of the story is, understandably, the healing of the paralytic. But there is something more significant than that happening here. They're ripping the roof off the place, and those outside are being let in.”
As a Jesuit priest, Boyle was sent to Dolores Mission in the 1980’s; it was considered the poorest church in the diocese. Could there have been a church considered less likely to have the resources to provide the resources necessary to minister to the overwhelming needs of their impoverished and violence-ridden community? Yet, Boyle says God provided the means for the church to help transform the community around it, once the church began to “rip the roof off” the church and let those on the outside in. Once the church stopped seeing the young gang members as someone else’s children and began to see them as “our” children, God began providing resources to minister to the young people involved in gangs all around the church. Once the church began to see that it was their responsibility to make up for the generations of adults who had failed their children, something changed and God began to bless them with donations, allies, connections with non-profits, partnerships with government, private sector and non-profit agencies that enabled transformation to occur. What had seemed like a hopeless situation was transformed when Dolores Mission ripped its roof off and no longer saw itself as somehow separate from the world around it.
I’m not sure when churches in America began to operate like little islands unto themselves, but whenever it happened, we now are reaping what we have sown. Churches stopped being a part of their own communities; they began existing of and for their own members, little clubs that offered little of value to the world around them. Churches began to care about new members only for the sake of keeping their own club houses alive instead of offering anything to others because it was simply the right thing to do according to Jesus. The result is a whole lot of dying churches.
Sure, churches have tried every which way they can to attract people to come in their doors, but that’s a losing game. The churches with the most shiny objects (the best light show, best musicians, nicest facilities, etc.) attract the most people—but what for? I’m convinced that churches that dare to “rip the roofs off” will find willing people in their communities who want to find lives of meaning and purpose, people who are looking for more than just another shiny object. After all, our culture has no lack of shiny objects for us to get distracted by. There is no shortage of people outside of this church and every church who long for something real to show them there really is a different life possible. Those people will only come to a church when that church really cares more for the people around it than they do for their own membership rolls, annual budgets and buildings. When a church chooses to really love the people around it, God will provide the resources to make that love take concrete form.
Boyle writes, “God can get tiny, if we're not careful.” By that, he means that our ideas of scarcity, our belief that the problems in our communities are too big to change, and our deep down suspicion that we have nothing to offer to others result in us believing in a God who can’t and won’t really change anything. If we dare to believe God is really bigger than we can comprehend, can do more to transform the world that we can imagine and can change our individual lives as well as the lives of others, then God really will provide what a church needs to do the ministry God wants done.
In the Gospel story, people break in to find healing from Jesus, but in today’s world, I believe it is churches who must break out and rip their own “roofs” off to get outside to where Jesus is already at work. It’s almost like Jesus got tired of waiting inside church buildings and went ahead of us out into our communities. Now he waits for us to catch up to what he is already doing outside our church walls.
Grace and Peace,
“At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that
came down from heaven.” John 6:41
“Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh
to eat?” John 6:52
The Jews grumbled, they argued, they did not see with spiritual eyes. These two verses from John are a part of one the most amazing discourses (John 6:25 – 59) in the gospels. Jesus states who he is and what it means to follow him. And the Jews miss the point. Sometimes, so do we.
This passage takes place the morning after Jesus has fed the 5,000 plus. The people wake to find Jesus has left and so they chase him down to Capernaum. They ask when he got there and really are not ready for his response. Jesus knows why they have followed him, not for the hours long teaching of the previous day under the hot Judean sun. They haven’t searched him out for more wisdom. And he plainly let’s them know he knows it has to do with the feeding them physically, not spiritual that they have sought him out.
They blindly argue that Moses gave them manna in the wilderness. Jesus corrects them,
“Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from
heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God
is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” John 6:22 – 23
Yet they miss the point. Then when they demand this “bread of life” they demand a miracle from him. They are unprepared for his statement,
“Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and
whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” John 6:35
Jesus takes it further; he stretches the metaphor to a point of vulgarity.
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.
This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” John 6:51
They argue. In their feeble understanding they believe him to say they must cannibalize him. “Eat His Flesh”. What an impossible thing to hear.
Most of us have heard the theology of this passage over and over. Of course, Jesus isn’t advocating cannibalism, not physically anyway. But on a spiritual level there is much more to this metaphor than just a wafer and glass of juice or wine at communion.
The whole point of this very direct discourse is the taking on of Christ. In this passage he is pointing out that he will lay down his life for everyone and that unless we take part in that we are missing the point. Repeatedly Paul talks of laying down our lives as Christ did, being a servant to the least, so that God might be glorified. In Galatians Paul says,
“For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”
When we come to communion are, we putting on Christ? When we were baptized did, we cloth ourselves as Christ? Each time we take communion we are told, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Are we doing that? Are we feeding the 5000? Or are we just living out an ideal?
If we are truly taking in the bread of life, shouldn’t we also be feeding the poor?
If we are truly taking in the bread of life, shouldn’t we be helping the widow, the orphan, the refugee?
If we are truly taking in the bread of life, shouldn’t we be fighting against oppression and injustice?
If we are truly taking the bread of life, what are we doing for the least of these?
Jesus’ language was harsh in John 6:25 – 59, it needed to be, because as we read further in John 6, it separates those who are willing to follow from those are just looking for a magic worker. John states many disciples fell away. We need to reread this passage again and again and read it with spiritual eyes that are unflinching to the vulgarity of what Jesus suggest in the ‘eating of his flesh’.
We cannot come to the table and partake without understanding what the bread truly represents. If we are to be disciples, true disciples of Christ we must recognize that the eating of the bread is a commitment not just of remembrance, but of action.
We must do it without grumbling or argument. We must fully accept our responsibility to our neighbor. And we must “put on the clothing of Christ” and work diligently in this world to rescue the least of these.
I was in my late thirties before I recall hearing the word “Juneteenth.” I was serving a church in St. Joseph, MO and the African American community in that small city had a Juneteenth celebration each June 19. I recall asking, “What is Juneteenth?” and when I heard the answer wondering why I had never heard of the holiday before?
“Juneteenth” is a shortened form of “June 19”, which was the date in 1965 when the Emancipation Proclamation was finally declared in the last Confederate state to hear it. When Union troops landed in Galveston, TX on June 19, 1865, the Union general made a public proclamation that all enslaved people were free. Many slaveholders in Confederate states took their slaves to Texas for fear of the slaves being freed by Union troops. By the original Juneteenth, an estimated 250,000 enslaved African Americans were in Texas. The celebration that ensued in Galveston after the general’s words inspired future celebrations.
Part of honoring Juneteenth is the recognition that Lincoln declared slaves in Confederate states free as of January 1, 1865, but it took almost two and a half years for that to become known in all the Confederate states. Justice, when it comes to race, is always delayed. Indeed, Lincoln’s proclamation only applied to slaves in Confederate states, and it wasn’t until the Thirteenth Amendment was passed on December 6, 1865 that slaves in Union states were officially freed. The emancipation of slaves in Texas wasn’t settled law until Texas Supreme Court decisions in 1874. Historians and activists today note that real freedom for African Americans has been hard won only in steps through Jim Crow up until the present moment.
I never learned about Juneteenth in any of my formal education. I also didn’t learn about redlining and racial housing segregation in Kansas City and every other American city. I learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. but I didn’t know the history of lynchings across the country including Kansas City. I learned George Washington’s teeth were made of wood, but I only recently discovered some of them were human teeth that came from his slaves. I learned about our Founding Fathers, but I didn’t learn that many of them were slaveholders who believed in brutal violence against their human property. Why did it take so long for me to learn such things?
I believe most white people of my generation and older are having to re-learn American history or maybe un-learn the way it was taught to us. The advances in technology and the small steps towards racial equality have meant more voices are being heard than ever before. I grew up in predominantly white spaces where educators knowingly or unknowingly taught me things like the Civil War was about states’ rights rather than slavery. I visited southern plantations where tour guides refused to talk about the brutal lives of enslaved people. In sum, I learned a “whitewashed” history that failed to reckon with centuries of slavery and state sponsored racism. My learning curve has been pretty steep.
White folks have a choice to make, we can view our new understandings about America’s history as an attack upon our identities, getting defensive and viewing ourselves as victims or we can respond with humility, listening, learning and allowing ourselves to take in painful but ultimately redemptive new ideas.
I grew up with a white Jesus too. My children’s Bible had a Jesus who looked Norwegian! As I grew up and came to understand Jesus was a brown Semitic man who didn’t look like me, I still didn’t understand the significance of a whitewashed Jesus. It wasn’t until I ended up with two black sons and I read to them from a children’s Bible each night at bedtime, that I fully understood how important it was for my brown boys to see pictures where Jesus was brown too. How we tell the stories of our past matters in ways and at a level white folks like me grew up not having to understand, but if we truly wish to love our neighbors as ourselves, we have to re-learn/un-learn history (including our religious history) as we have known it.
An essential part of learning is admitting what one doesn’t know. I admit I have a lot to learn about the history of racism in America. An essential part of being a Christian is learning the stories of other people, I also admit I have a lot to learn about the history of suffering by African Americans.
If you would like to learn more about Juneteenth and participate with African Americans envisioning a new world, there are plenty of opportunities to do so. One good option happens on June 27 noon-1:30 pm. The Greater Kansas City Disciples will offer a Juneteenth commemoration via Zoom. It will include presentations on KC history and a Q&A time. kcdisciples.org
Grace and Peace,
“Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.”
--Exodus 20:8 NRSV
I remember life before I had seasonal allergies. Whatever was blooming had no effect on me; that all changed in my late thirties. Now I get them bad and although Zyrtec is my daily drug of choice, there are some days when I try every over the counter option out there only to get no relief. True confession: prior to suffering allergies myself, I secretly thought people with allergies were making it up and being dramatic; I had no idea how bad it can be.
I recently had the kind of bad allergy day that strikes me only once or twice a year. I was sleepy in the middle of the afternoon and took a nap. When I woke, the pressure in my sinuses was immense—I literally felt like somebody was pumping air into the empty spaces in my skull! I shambled downstairs to have dinner with the family, but my wife took one look at me and said, “Go back to bed. You look miserable.” I skipped dinner and remained in bed until the following morning. I think I literally needed to remain asleep until the air cleared.
This never used to happen to me. It seems bizarre that I would need to just collapse in such a manner. This kind of breakdown makes me want to look up at the sky and scream, “What the heck?” (Except replace the word “heck” with the expletive of your choice.)
I’m a minister, so I’m always looking to find some spiritual meaning out of my experiences, even if those meanings are sometimes forced. So my collapse due to allergies has got me thinking about the idea of rest. Sometimes our minds and our hearts are so full, we need to just collapse into rest. When the pressure gets too great, the best thing we can do is stop, because the very air we are breathing is filled with stuff triggering a reaction inside of us that necessitates halting our activity immediately.
I preach, teach and write about cultivating a spiritual life, but I have to cop to being pretty bad at it myself. I’m addicted to activity. I feel a sense of guilt or shame when I stop and rest. Part of the secret thrill of resting for me is a sense that I am getting away with something. I should be doing “something worthwhile,” I think when I’m taking a nap, binging a TV show or reading a book just for pleasure. Somehow, doing any of these things for its own sake seems selfish or at least misguided. There is always a “to do list” sapping the joy out of pleasurable things.
In his book Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest, Wayne Muller writes, “Our culture invariably supposes that action and accomplishment are better than rest, that doing something—anything—is better than doing nothing. Because of our desire to succeed, to meet these ever-growing expectations, we do not rest. Because we do not rest, we lose our way.”
In the Torah, the first five books of what Christians misname The Old Testament, God commands keeping sabbath, a practice of connecting with the very order of creation which was created in six days and a seventh day of rest woven into it. The sabbath is a day where everything rests—even the hired hands, slaves, animals and land itself rest on the Sabbath. Everything needs rest, a time to worship God and a time to reflect upon what really matters amidst all the activity of our lives.
I’ve heard of people who practice sabbath on days other than Saturday or Sunday. I’ve heard of others that make keeping sabbath a part of their daily routines of prayer and meditation. I’ve even known a few who practiced sabbath in moments of breathing, prayer and meditation which have become an integral part of every day as they go about their daily work.
My own efforts of keeping sabbath look more like a hit and miss, start and stop, and sort of an awkward catch as catch can sort of thing. I’m pretty sure that’s why I end up collapsing sometimes, as if my spiritual self has collected too many allergens along the way and I’m left overloaded and spent. I feel sure there is a better way, and daily doses of sabbath would help in this regard. As I age, perhaps like allergies, things will get severe enough that I’ll be forced to change my ways. I’ve usually found that I’m thick headed enough that I only do what’s good for me after things have gotten bad enough to force me to change.
Joan Boarysenko shares a story about a woodcutter to describe her own tendency towards fruitless activity, “He had an axe that was dull; the blade needed to be sharpened. A stranger came up to him and said, ‘You know, if you just stop working and take time to sharpen that blade, everything would go so much more smoothly.’ And the woodcutter was frantic. He said, ‘Forget it. I don't have time to stop and sharpen my blade. I've got things to do. I've got a family to support.’ And he just kept on keeping on .... Sometimes when I'm sitting at my computer, I remember the story of that woodcutter. And I say to myself, ‘Joan, you might be busy, but if you take five minutes, and you just get up and you do some stretches ... or you take 10 minutes and go out and take a walk ... or if you just take two minutes and close your eyes and do some breathing — you'll come into your center, your blade will be sharp, and the rest of your work will just flow ...’”
Man, I think that woodcutter and I were separated at birth.
Whether you are the kind of person who is proactive and disciplined, managing to care for yourself daily in order to connect with the Divine or you are like me and must be dragged into God’s presence by the painful circumstances of life, I wish you less collapsing and more flowing with the very essence of creation that will nurture your soul and make all your activity purposeful.
Grace and Peace,