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Jesus in the Garden: An Alternative Reading of Maundy Thursday

We understand Jesus’ expression of “Father, take this cup from me” as an  expression of his desire to not suffer and to not die “if possible.” But consider that Jesus was then, and is now, a “people person” – he’s all about relationships with other people. Sure, he understood the theology behind what lay in store for him, and he understood the reality of physical abuse, injury and agony that awaited.

So what really pained him, caused him anguish in his soul, was the impending loss of relationship with his friends. The betrayal, denial and abandonment at the hands of his closest friends was humiliating; anticipation of this brought about the deepest of suffering. But Christ the Reconciliator, who came into this world for the purpose of creating relationship, knew the power of forgiveness, that damaged personal relationships can be repaired and restored.

So, why the intense distress in the Garden of Gethsemane? Jesus knew he would never have the occasion to experience life’s activities and blessings, challenges and opportunities with his friends, acquaintances, and yes, strangers whom he had yet to meet. He came into this world to create new relationships between God and humanity, and he was abundantly and intimately successful. To leave these relationships grieved him; he suffered this loss with such intensity of emotion that his “sweat became like great drops of blood.”

Knowing it has to be this way does not really make it any easier to accept. No matter how we reinterpret it, spin it or contextualize it, this kind of loss is devastating. And we understand that.

Wisconsin Delegation Statement

The Wisconsin Annual Conference delegation to the 2012 General Conference of the United Methodist Church affirms the need for our denomination to seriously consider necessary changes to its structure, its leadership development and credentialing processes, its financial stewardship, its faithfulness, and its relationship to the larger global church. We acknowledge and appreciate the hard work done thus far by our bishops and the various agencies and study teams to produce The Call to Action, the Study of Ministry, the Interim Operations Team report, and other proposals for change within The United Methodist Church, but we have reservations that the current recommendations will not produce the intended results.

Wisconsin Delegation Statement.

Neither the time nor place for a baby

December 24, 2011 Leave a comment

Throughout this Advent, I have thought about the meaning of the birth story. That Jesus Christ, the deliverer, our hope and salvation, the King of all Kings, the Son of God, is born in the most unexpected place. It is a stall for animals; dirty, forgotten, isolated – and isolating. He comes at a time (take your pick: mother not-yet wed, government census / tax season, travel far from home) that is at minimum “unexpected,” and definitely inconvenient. This is neither the time nor place to deliver a baby.

These are, however, words of assurance for Christians, and the story of promise for all people: that in the most unexpected times and places we can be confident of the presence of the Lord. He does not shy away from the desolate places and isolating events. He is right there in the midst of all of it, joining the bad to the good, altering our perspective on life’s difficult times so that we see opportunities for growth.

I have a tendency sometimes to think of things as “either – or.” A comment, experience or concept is either right or it is wrong. We do this a lot in the church, judging whether something is “right” or “wrong” according to our understanding of scripture, doctrine or theology.

But I don’t believe it’s really that simple. Actually, I wonder if over the ages humanity has actually made it more complicated than it needs to be, that in fact, it is quite simple.

When Jesus taught us to pray as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, it includes the request that God provide us “today our daily bread.” Physical, edible bread, or spiritual “bread”? Or both? The thing we need to sustain us for this day is a little food to eat and the spiritual assurance of the presence of God. These are the things that sustain us and nurture us.

From the moment of his birth, Jesus’ story communicates to us a holistic understanding of life. His was not a story of irony (aka the King born in a manger) nor necessarily analogy or metaphor, but rather an example of complete and total assimilation. Impoverished royalty, almighty pacifist, divine human. What seems incongruous is coherent. The parts have become one whole.

Maybe this is not an “either / or” world we live in. Possibly we don’t get a choice about being spiritual or secular. We just might be in need of a little more awareness of where we are (and whose we are!). And that’s what’s so great about this day, when we all get a little reminder, whether we are ready for it or not, regardless if this is a good time or place for us, that ‘Jesus is born tonight’. Again.

Merry Christmas.

“Annunciation” A Poem by Denise Leverton

December 21, 2011 1 comment

Annunciation

A Poem by Denise Leverton

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
courage.
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
God waited.

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

____________________________

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
uncomprehending.
More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

______________________________

She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
only asked
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
perceiving instantly
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.

Categories: Christianity, Spirituality

The Summer of My Enlightenment – Part Two

The ministry of compassionate anonymity sits in stark contrast to “selfism.”

Serving this summer as a hospital chaplain, I was often anonymous. I was known by my role, my title, “Chaplain,” not by my name. I was present with another human being in their moment of crisis, their moment of pain, their time of fear, their overwhelming grief. When their experience defied understanding because of their lack of faith, or because of their faith’s rigidity, I was present. When they were without hope, I was present. Regardless of whom they were, their tradition, orientation, ethnicity, or age, I was present.

Among the revelations of this summer experience was recognition of the gifts of the Creator: that what I have described and will describe herein are events and attributes, and most notably opportunities, given by God.

There were moments when I prayed great prayers. There were times when I was speechless. There were occasions when words were not needed.

There were experiences of spiritual connectivity, moments when I was a conduit between patient and God, because I was present. And there were more times than I can count when I was profoundly blessed, fortunate to be in that particular place at that specific time. Yet in each of those special moments, it was not about me. This is the meaning of Mark 8:35 – I experienced the presence of God in relationship with another person, when I was fully present to that other person to hear their expressed need, disengaged from my own wants and needs.

My relationship with other people, be it my wife, family, colleagues, friends, patients or parishioners, must be grounded in my relationship with God. This, too, became profoundly evident this summer. I had little strength from The Source to minister to the needs of others if I did not care for and cultivate that spiritual relationship each day. I had few resources to be present and listen to people if I was not taking the time to be still and listen to God. In the hospital environment, “self care” was a mantra, repeated frequently. Yes, we half – joked that it was “self care” because no one else would take care of you. But the reality is that we do need to take care of our spiritual selves, nurturing our relationship and understanding of the Divine Presence in our lives, in order to be effective ministers to others, for that is our purpose for being.

This ministry of compassionate anonymity resonates with me. It reflects my understanding of Christ’s call to feed, clothe and care for those among us who are in need.  It embraces social justice issues and ministries, just as it does local programs and services. Yet, one does not need a program or a cause to compassionately and anonymously minister to others. And it definitely contrasts with the selfism of our culture and cautiously, our church. For we do not compassionately care for those who need us in order to get a reward; we don’t do it for ourselves, our benefit, but rather because our neighbor needs us, and we can respond.

Most significantly, the ministry of compassionate anonymity captures the essence of a 21st century life transformed. It’s not about me.

The Summer of My Enlightenment – Part One

I had to travel to the other side of the world to see what was in my own backyard.

Back in May, the Christian churches our group visited in Korea were mission focused. By that I mean that each congregation defined what area of ministry was most important to them and built their programs and services around that targeted focus. Some churches worked to relieve hunger, housing and basic material needs in the impoverished inner city. Another was focused on contributing to a better educational environment, while another adopted social justice as their mission field. In each congregation, fellowship and nurturance were still an essential component of their internal community support, but they clearly defined and articulated how they lived out their discipleship within the larger community.

In China, we learned that there are no evangelism campaigns, no “revivals,” and no televangelists, yet people flock to join Christian communities and congregations. Despite a cultural and political environment where proselytizing is not tolerated, there is a growing awareness of the church and a desire to participate. So what’s the attraction? A simple credo: love your neighbor as yourself. As Christians engage in providing for the basic material needs of their fellow citizens, the recipients of that care and compassion are drawn to the source of that care. “They will know we are Christians by our love” might be the motto of a socially engaged, charitable communion of saints.

In both countries, the disciples of Christ organize themselves around accepting people where they are: where their interests and resources are, and ministering to the Others at the point of their need – be it food, clothing, shelter, education, health care, empowerment or fellowship.

Recently I have read several articles on the “selfism,” as Episcopal Bishop Scott Benhase refers to it, American’s fixation on ourselves. This flies in the face of Jesus’ teaching, recorded in Mark 8:35 (NRSV): “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” A recent article by Harriett Baber in the British guardian.co.uk calls attention to the correlation between a declining Christian church in the U.S. and a growing focus on “self-help” programs in those very churches. And writing in The Huffington Post, author Skye Jethani observes that Americans have extracted from the Bible, and applied to our daily lives, the “Christian principles” that allow us to proclaim ourselves as Christian without committing ourselves to a lifestyle of discipleship. Hear again Mark 8:35, this time from the Message translation: “Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self.

These observations about who we are and what we want as noted above are within the Christian church. We are supposed to be different! We are to be the voice crying in the wilderness to go a different direction, one where the destination is an improved quality of spiritual life, not a greater quantity of life’s things. All too often it seems we have been co-opted, absorbed by the larger materialistic, success – oriented culture instead of maintaining our responsibility to represent the marginalized and serve “the poor” (those with out).

I recently heard a seminary colleague proclaim that he “wanted it all” – success measured by achievement, recognition and material goods. I wanted to share that I once had possessed a lot of “it” and found my self still lacking the quality of life I desired. And I wonder if the mainstream denominations which are moving towards evaluative processes based on “measuring success” by the weekly attendance and offering numbers are institutionalizing “selfism,” becoming culturally compromised and losing effectiveness.    

(In Part Two – I’ll come off the soap box to share the experiential aspect of my summer of enlightenment)

“Neither Death, Nor Life….Nor any Other Creature…”

Thank you to Susan Stabile… writing on her blog, “Creo en Dios! “, she eloquently comments on her powerful personal revelation of Paul’s claim in the 8th chapter of Romans that nothing can separate us from the love of God:

“As I was sitting in prayer, I became overwhelmed with a sense of God’s love and realized in that moment in a way far more profound than I had before that when we say God is love we literally mean it.  That is, I was struck with the reality that love is not a choice on God’s part.  It is not that God can love me or not love me.  God ONLY loves, and my very creation and continued existence is an act of God’s love. There is no me separate from God’s love; without God’s love there would not be me.”

Read her entire post here:  “Neither Death, Nor Life….Nor any Other Creature…”.