Thursday, October 1, 2015

Pilgrimage to the Grotto and a Wet Blanket on Papal Visit: Shared Knots that Need to Be Undone

Yesterday morning, I visited the Knotted Grotto outside the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.  Our Presbytery, given the shared value of personal, corporate, and ecumenical prayers, participated in the project by sending in strips of written petitions to be woven into the sacred installation. 

I am sure the one from our family is located at the very top and out of reach.  Read more about the project here. 

The visit was quite overwhelming.  As I grabbed handfuls of prayers and felt strips of cloth graze my shoulders with each cool breeze, I was moved to tears. 

Prayers to overcome addiction.

Prayers to be delivered from infertility.

Prayers for those battling cancer.

Prayers for peace in war-torn nations. 

Prayers for families.

Prayers for enemies. 

Prayers of hope.

Prayers of lament.

Prayers of confession.

Prayers of thanksgiving.

Prayers in English.

Prayers in Spanish.

Prayers in Latin.

Prayers in Hebrew.

And as I walked in, around, and through the grotto, I lifted a “Presbyterian” prayer for the Catholic Church.

It is no secret, I am fond of much of Pope Francis’ words and witness, especially as he elevates the poor and all who dwell on the periphery.  Pope Francis, as a Jesuit priest, continues to awaken our theo-political conscience and religious rhetoric to the needs of the those so frequently dismissed, ignored, and oppressed.

This is indeed Good News. 

When invited to congress, the Pontiff chose to evoke the names of Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton, each who shared an ethic of justice and compassion rooted in Christian theology- more Good News. 

When Francis preached in both New York and Philadelphia, he reminded us God is in the midst of our cities and dared us to consider our personal call and responsibility within the mission of God. The Pope even challenged the Church to be willing to move beyond the mere maintenance of old institutional structures and systems.

Good News.

When he addressed the United Nations, Francis elevated the value of the planet and proclaimed, “war is the negation of all rights and a dramatic assault on the environment. If we want true integral human development for all, we must work tirelessly to avoid war between nations and between peoples.” 

Good News.

As he stood on Independence Mall, Pope Francis confronted globalization’s temptation to promote uniformity at the expense of cultural diversity critical to our humanity.   

Again, Good News.

I could go on...

Yet, while I want to be a boisterous Presby fan of the Pontifex, there is a bit of a wet blanket draped around pertinent public speeches in front of political figures and landmarks, televised and spontaneous embraces of marginalized persons, and broadcast visits to the incarcerated. There are shadows cast upon the Pope’s concern for those he frequently labels as “on the periphery," reminders that he is so very human.

When the Pope parades throughout our streets, small businesses are left with no choice but to close and absorb significant blows to profit margins; the homeless are driven out of the parkway to accommodate the festivities; social service agencies are shut down; nearby churches (mostly small) are closed for worship and unlikely to recoup financial offerings they depend upon to pay their bills and sustain their ministries.

Women still do not, and likely will not, have equal opportunity within the Church. The Pope has reminded us of this before. 

While commenting, "who am I to judge?," the LGBTQ community are not equally included in conversations about marriage and the family. 

There are infinite and important questions- justice questions- swirling around the Vatican’s (mis)handling of clerical child abuse. 

And moments after I walked out of the grotto, I read two articles about a supposed secret meeting with Kim Davis, the Kentucky County Clerk who conscientiously objected to issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples and subsequently imprisoned.  One article considers this as a cloud over the papal visit; the other cautions us of the potential publicity stunt pulled by Davis supporters and representatives

What happened to the Good News?

Trust me, I wish I could simply walk in and out of the grotto with nothing but optimism and warm feelings about the Pope’s recent visit.  But there are just too many knots woven around the religious institution and papal office that need to be undone. These issues and more cause me great pause.

Maybe that’s why I am a Presbyterian Minister.

But alas, our denomination and institutional leaders have a fair share of knots, too.  Good Lord, I have even more knots. 

This may call for a second visit to the grotto. 

There I will offer prayers for grace, humble pleas that my ordained work, missional witness, and advocacy for those on the periphery of our neighborhoods, nation, and world will not be as scrutinized as those of the Pontiff.  After all, my resume as an advocate and activist will pail in comparison to the leader of over 1 billion of my Catholic sisters and brothers.  I will also lift prayers on behalf of my church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), asking for God’s mercy in the midst of the tangled webs we have woven and the ways we have missed the mark as proclaimers of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

In my return to the grotto, I will also pray for Pope Francis, grateful for the Good News he continues to offer the world, aware he is praying for us Presbyterians, too. 

Maybe this is the way forward for all of us as we work towards the reconciliation of a very knotted world.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Who Do We Say Jesus Is? Reflections on 9/11 and Defining Questions for a Generation in Angst

There are particular moments that define a generation. For our generation, September 11th was that defining moment. We remember where we were. We remember where our loved ones were.  We remember the sense of paralysis as we saw images of two towers bellowing smoke eventually crumble on live television.  We remember the tears, the fears, and the immediate uncertainty about anything and everything. 

We knew life would never again be the same. 

September 11th reminded us no people, culture, nation, or religious community is immune to tragedy, loss, and infringements on our safety and security. 

September 11th birthed an increase in nationalistic zeal, which many call patriotism. 

September 11th planted fertile seeds for new wars hell bent on ending terrorism. 

September 11th fostered a rise in racial-ethnic profiling, deeming suspicious persons whose heritage and complexion originates from a particular part of the world.

September 11th also unified a people around phrases symbolic of a longing for freedom and justice for all…at least all of "us."

"Let’s roll."

"Never forget."

September 11th also hallowed grounds in Manhattan, Pennsylvania, and Washington. D.C.  Monuments have been constructed and annual memorial services are hosted as means to ensure we indeed never forget what took place that Tuesday morning 14 years ago. 

And as I think back to September 11th, 2001, I also remember September 16th.  

On the first Sunday after the attacks, there was doubtful to have been a single empty sanctuary.  Churches were packed as many, even the most cynical citizens, crammed into pews looking for hope, healing, comfort, and a sense of community as we wrestled with all that had transpired only a few days earlier.  

And I wonder, what was preached? How was the biblical story illustrated? How did preachers respond to spoken and unspoken questions sure to be shared by congregants and visitors alike? 

Who did the church say Jesus was in light of the tragic events of September 11, 2001? Who do we say Jesus is fourteen years later? 

This Sunday’s lectionary text nudges us to ask that very question:
"Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, 'Who do people say that I am?'  And they answered him, 'John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.' He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?' Peter answered him, 'You are the Messiah.' And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him." (Mark 8:27-30)
Caesarea Philippi was the northernmost edge of ancient Palestine and under Roman control. In this Hellenistic city, monuments and memorials were everywhere. Familiar symbols, well known to the readers of Mark’s gospel, littered the landscape and underscored the socio-political narrative of the day. Temples were constructed and political leaders immortalized as gods.  No doubt, many saw these symbols and also thought of the pain caused by the very people and events they represented. They didn't forget.

It was in these villages of Caesarea Philippi where Jesus dared to ask his most poignant questions:

“Who do people say that I am?….Who do you say that I am?"

After Messianic declarations by Jesus’ disciples, the prophetic Son of God began to “teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering.” (Mk 8:31).

Jesus pointed the faithful (and often faithless) towards suffering. Unlike those manifested throughout the empire, Jesus identified with those who suffered and laid in the wake of oppression and injustice.  Jesus, much to the chagrin of Peter, invited them to do and be the same, "Get behind me..."

Nearly two millennia later, Jesus’ questions still linger and challenge those of us who would like to identify ourselves as disciples.  Whether in the shadows of Roman temples and oppressive emperors, collapsed towers by way of modern terror, or political propaganda set up on social media and cable news networks, these questions are still our questions.  Who do the people say Jesus is? Who do we say Jesus is?

In light of Syrian refugees fleeing genocide and civil war, whose children wash up on neighboring shores, who do we say Jesus is? 

In light of movements like #blacklivesmatter, who do we say Jesus is? 

In light of increased gun violence and shootings in schools, malls, movie theaters, and on the site of live news broadcasts, who do we say Jesus is?

In light of debates about marriage equality, who do we say Jesus is? 

In light of pervasive poverty in cities and communities near and far, who do we say Jesus is? 

In light of presidential candidates who profess a particular brand of faith, who do we say Jesus is?

In light of immigration and threats of deportation by political campaigners, who do we say Jesus is? 

In light of negotiations with foreign powers and beholders of nuclear weapons, who do we say Jesus is?

In light of broken education systems that create pipelines to even more broken prison systems, who do we say Jesus is?  

In light of September 11th, who do we say Jesus is? 

Our response to these questions must not be taken lightly. These are defining questions for our generation.  Our responses to these questions will determine whether we truly have heard Jesus’ call to get behind him and follow as disciples who identify with the suffering among, around, and beyond us. After all, we are called to carry our cross as those who work for the liberty and justice of those marginalized by us all. 

This, too, we must never forget. 

Monday, August 31, 2015

Be Opened: Lectionary Reflections for Back to School Youth and the Rest of Us, too.

"Be opened," Jesus proclaimed in Mark 7:34.

The disciples were pilgrimaging with this prophetic Rabbi when he put his fingers in the ears and touched the tongue of a deaf man with a speech impediment. 

“Be opened,” Jesus commanded. 

Only a handful of verses earlier, Jesus encountered a Syrophoenician woman. This Gentile neighbor ran to the Jewish Messiah and pleaded for the life of her beloved child suffering from an “unclean spirit,” a sure subversion of first-century social mores. She knew her life mattered; her daughter's life matteredUnconcerned about such racial barriers and ethnic codes of segregation, this poised mama dared, even provoked, Jesus to model the same. 

And she was open to a miracle and resurrection possibilities. Her only question, would Jesus be open as well? 

The answer, “the demon has left your daughter.” 

These two healing stories are everything but loose fragments and isolated parables in the building of Mark’s gospel.  Last week’s lectionary highlighted the preface to the narratives we encounter this Sunday.  Jesus challenged the Pharisees and Scribes who had become so obsessed with the letter of the law they were closed to the reality that in Jesus God was doing very new things.
“You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition…You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition” (Mark 7:8-9).
Now we read of Jesus practicing what he preached. The entirety of Mark 7 is a call to be opened to what God is doing all around us, even when it confronts our most hallowed traditions, collective assumptions, and cultural barriers set up to protect and preserve what we (sometimes falsely) believe to be right and good. Jesus' witness pushes us to collapse anything and everything set-up to oppress or marginalize another. 

“Be opened,” Jesus reminds us nearly two millennia later. 

If we are truly listening, we will notice Mark’s account of these healing stories is aimed at us. They dare us to remain open.  They challenge us to hold loosely our truth claims, comfort zones, and social networks as we consider what God may be up to in the very people and places we have previously dismissed. 

Be opened.

Every year for the last four years I have written a letter to students as they go back to school.  These letters are public prayers for those who navigate the hallways and commune in classrooms for 180+ days of the year. 

This year I write less of a letter and more of an echo of the words of Christ, “Be opened.” If we listen carefully, what follows are invitations for all of us. 


Be opened by your neighbor next door, behind, and in front of you, as their life and story are equally as significant as your own. 

Be opened by history learned and lamented, celebrated and grieved. Be opened by how history can transform our collective present and future.

Be opened by the teachers in your midst, who have devoted their lives to spark the imaginations of young people and nurture agents of change locally and globally. 

Be opened by nonviolent means to solve conflict. 

Be opened by forgiveness.

Be opened by faith communities, especially those different from your own. What may God teach you through the convictions of others? 

Be opened by rest, aware you cannot do everything, all the time, every day. 

Be opened by play, reminded life is a gift to be enjoyed versus a task to be completed. 

Be opened by Scripture and new ways of understanding the story we claim as sacred. Welcome others to read alongside you and remain open to the possibility of the Spirit reading you page after page, story after story. 

Be opened by service and opportunities to engage your most vulnerable neighbors. Recognize the stranger not as less rather as equal. 

Be opened by advocacy for those relegated to the margins of your campuses, workplaces, neighborhoods, cities, and world. Dare to challenge the status quo and never cease to elevate the voices from the fringes of society. 

Be opened by art, so frequently the Spirit’s tool for social change and movements rooted in God’s concern for justice and equity. 

Be opened by being wrong.

Be opened by being right.

Be opened by failure. 

Be opened by joy. 

Be opened by tears. 

Be opened by hope. 

Be opened by shared suffering.

Be opened by witnessed resurrection. 

Be opened by the One who was able not only to open the eyes and ears of the blind and deaf, but also a cold and dark tomb many believed would forever remain closed. 

Be opened. 

Thanks to fellow Presby, Mihee Kim-Kort, for featuring the litany in her Podcast, "This Everyday Holy": 

A great Podcast that brilliantly engages the story of the Syrophoenician woman:
LectioCast: Entrusting Ourselves to Abundance and Generosity

See also a recent reflection from Jill Duffield of The Presbyterian Outlook: 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Technology as Sacramental: A Means of Grace, Prophetic Witness, and Community Formation

I remember my ordination service vividly. 

Probably because it was this past February. 

Also because I was able to preside at the Eucharistic table and serve communion to family, friends, and neighbors who joined in the celebration. 

The opportunity to break bread and share the cup was what I most looked forward to as an ordained Teaching Elder and, more preferred, Minister of Word and Sacrament.

In seminary and throughout my theological studies, the sacraments were taught as a means of grace.  Presbyterians are also apt to affirm the ordinariness of the elements, a visible sign of an invisible grace. Water. Font. Bread. Cup. Wine. Juice. 

Ordinary. Common. Everyday. Tangible. Not much has changed in nearly two-thousand years of Christian tradition and sacramental practice. Theological nuances of the practice have varied; nevertheless, we still use the same basic elements. 

And these elements point beyond themselves.*  They point to the God made known in Jesus Christ and the Spirit who calls and sends us all into the world as embodiments of the very means of grace that drench our heads and nourish our bodies. The sacraments are simple reflectors.

These liturgical elements, in a certain sense, were also ancient and sacred technologies of the church. 

I once stumbled upon this definition of technology:
technology, n. the mediums and/or tools used to apply knowledge of something [or someone] of significance for real and practical purposes.
As the real and practical mediums of bread, wine, and water are used to apply the knowledge of and bear witness to the Crucified and Resurrected Christ, the sacraments serve a technological function. 

The ordinary also becomes holy. 

In the Digital Age, might this be the framework in which the Spirit invites us to view the everyday mediums of social media, digital devices, on-line platforms, and new technologies we hold in the palm of our hands or upon our laps? As twenty-first century disciples of Christ, the witness of the early Church dares us to consider not only the sacraments as technological but also the technological as sacramental.  We are nudged to consult all available mediums and tools within reach to apply our knowledge of the One who gathers us at font and table and sends us from these sacred, technological spaces.  
“The church can’t change her response to Gutenberg’s printing press, the radio, or the television; they are forever fixed in history.  But at the onset of this digital revolution, her response to New Media is wide open.  The world is waiting and listening in the virtual sphere.  Will the church remain silent, or will her voice be proclaimed from the roof tops (and the laptops)?  Will she plunge the message of Christ into Facebook feeds, blogposts, podcasts, and text messages, or will she be digitally impotent? If the Church’s promotion of evangelization, formation, community, and the common good is to continue throughout future generations, she must harness these technologies and utilize them well."

The Christian church continues to wrestle with how to engage the digital revolution of the last 25 years.  Especially since the advent of social media and on-line networks, we are more connected than ever before. New and innovative technologies are more accessible than at any point in human history, being used for both good and ill. 

Think of all the hashtags that have birthed social movements through open-source rhetoric. Think of all the Facebook posts that have perpetuated various forms of hate speech and slander. 

As a result, many church leaders and members of our congregations become admittedly overwhelmed, overly indulged, or even dismissive of new technology and media. Our on-line world creates unique challenges for congregations and related pastoral care as we live into the emerging cultural realities. 

Nevertheless, we must not throw out the baby with the bath water.  Instead, we must regularly ponder which forms of new technology our congregations and ministries will use and how we will use them as means of grace for practical purposes of loving and serving our local and global neighbors.  We must be willing to view various forms of technological innovation not solely as evolving distractions, although aware of such possibility, but as redemptive opportunities for community formation, social advocacy, prophetic witness, and proclamation of the Good News. 

In so doing, the ordinary technologies we apply become sacramental platforms versus trendy widgets void of broader meaning. They are able to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth, pointing beyond themselves and towards God’s dreams for a world made new and right again. That’s what our earliest ancestors of the faith did with bread, cup, and water as they went viral with the Good News of Jesus Christ. 

May we be at least as technologically innovative as they were two millennia ago.

Where have you seen technology as sacramental?  #sacredtechnology

A great resource: 
The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World by Keith Anderson

*"We cannot celebrate and receive the sacrament ordained by [God] without looking beyond the sacrament as such and finding [God] in the sacrament" (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 p. 50).