Follow Your Star

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This week our Advent Book Study groups were focusing on a story about a young man who lived in a wooded area along the shore. He longed for the day that a boat would come along and sail him away on a great adventure. He would drive others crazy always looking to the horizon, longing to be anywhere but here. Only after years of doing this did he look at the trees and begin to see the hull of a ship right in front of him. His boat had been right there in the trees all along. He had just looked passed it.

This leads me to ask you, what people or things in your life are you missing because you are looking passed them...so distracted by something else? How often are we guilty of getting caught up in our cell phones, iPads, or computers? We can spend an entire evening staring at our devices. Maybe TV is your Achilles heel? Sports? Even reading books can cause some to "check out" and escape into a fantasy world.

Of course these things are not all bad. Cell phones have put the entire internet in our pocket. And who would want to tell someone to stop reading books? We all need the occasional opportunity to escape from the stress of the world around us by indulging in a favorite TV show. But all things in moderation. We can take escaping too far and fail to live our lives. We can miss the blessings that are right in front of us.

During the holiday season, sales and social calendars can start to run us, making us long to simply check out...saying things like, "A few more weeks, and things can just go back to normal." This temptation to check out is an important reason to remember that Advent spiritual practice calls us to slow down intentionally, reflect, and wait for the arrival of the Christ-child. I encourage you to make deliberate effort to strike a good balance this Christmas season. I hope you are able to find time to really enjoy friends and family while also making some space for yourself to quietly sit at home and simply enjoy the twinkle of the lights on the Christmas tree. This is truly a holy season. I pray you are able to see all the opportunities to live it this year.

The Journey

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I want to be candid. I am not a fan of the word journey. It's probably because, to me, it has been WAY overused. Still, I find myself using it a lot and every time I do, my insides flinch. My dislike of this overused word, however, has likely kept me from truly appreciating the deep meaning that it actually carries.

When I take the time to reflect on my life up until now, it is very clear that it has been a journey, not a trip or a single destination. One of the things about a journey is that it takes time . . . mostly because the route is often circuitous and filled with detours and delays. Still, it seems that a journey instead of a trip yields the greatest adventures, memories and lessons.

Oddly, most of us don't consciously choose a journey. The course of life events may design a journey for us but we are not notably eager to set out on a journey that will be long and sometimes uncertain. After all, a journey doesn't usually fit into our over-packed lives . . . "ain't nobody got time for that!"

And then . . . a season like Advent comes along and we are invited into the journey of anticipation, expectancy, and preparation. This season has the audacity to ask us to hold off a few weeks to sing Christmas Carols and wait before opening gifts that have been under the tree. God has the nerve to suggest to us that waiting, wondering, grasping, and hoping will make the meaning of the season more precious. Spirit seems to play with us a bit by showing us pieces of the journey all along the way to the manger but leaving us to explore and discover the twists and turns.

Unto us is born . . . an idea, a venture, an adventure, a new job, a friend, a purpose, a challenge . . . but to get to birth these things in our lives, we must first take the journey that prepares us for it. The journey allows each important step to unfold and every unfolding offers a glimpse of what is to come.

Let's journey together, even if I don't like the word.

Giving Thanks

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It is the most rudimentary of all societal rules, the very beginning of learning how to be polite. Little Marcus says, "I want a bite!" 

Mom turns and says, "What do we say?" 

"Pleeease," Marcus shouts. 

"Okay.  Here you go," Mom replies, handing him a small bite. Marcus tears into it and gets that look he has seen before--Mom is not done with him yet. And so, through peanut butter, jelly, and bread (that sprays across the room) comes the muffled response, "Thank you."

One would think that if, from birth, we had parents, guardians, teachers, and others telling us to always remember to say thank you that we would, in fact, remember. And yet, being a person with a consistent attitude of thankfulness is really not as easy as it seems it should be. I think part of this has to do with the human psyche.  We can have 10 people tell us how amazing we are, and yet we remember the comment made by the one person who criticized or belittled us. Likewise, we can go through our day and encounter a hundred reasons to be grateful--our friends, our home, the beautiful sunset, or the taste of a nice meal. And yet we often return home angry because of the bad driver that almost hit us, the rude customer at the store, or the boss that never let up all day.

 

Thankfulness, gratitude, is a choice. We choose whether we focus on the frustrating parts of our day or if we choose to remember and focus upon the positive, the encouraging, and the good. This choice does not change the details of our life. We still experience the good and bad, the blissful and painful, the exciting and terrifying. The difference is not in what we endure. The difference is in where we set our gaze.  We cannot choose what will happen today or tomorrow, but we can choose what to focus on. We can choose to look for the positive, to find reasons in each moment to be grateful, and to insist on a positive attitude even when it would be easier to become cynical or jaded.

Colossians 3:15 says, "Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful." In Eugene H. Peterson's The Message,he translates the last phrase, "Cultivate thankfulness." So, in this week when we are mindful of all we are thankful of, I challenge you to cultivate thankfulness in each and every day of your life. Set your gaze on the positive and seek to become a person of gratitude. Cultivate the life you want!

Living History: Reflections on the Rolling the Stone Away Conference

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I wasn't really sure what to expect from the Rolling the Stone Away conference that we have been talking about for the last several months. Part of me wondered if I would just walk around aimlessly as a person who was far too young to be a part of the epic history-making ministry that many of these LGBT Religious Pioneers performed. I kind of wondered if I would feel out of place or out of my league.

I worried for nothing! This entire gathering has been a wonderful inter-generational sharing of ideas and stories. I found myself wishing over and over again that I could call all your bosses, clear your schedules, and transport every one of you into the room to hear just a few of the amazing stories being shared.It felt like every time I turned around there was another "hard to believe it really happened" story about the early days of MCC, or a founding moment in the Catholic Dignity movement, or about the first LGBT person ordained in the United Churches of Christ, the Presbyterian Church, etc. 

The message I continued to receive from all the story-telling was a simple but meaningful one to hold on to: 

God has brought us so very far. We should never fail to remember all God has done. AND, God is not finished yet. There is so much work still to do, still actively being done, still inviting us to engage.

This Sunday we will begin looking to the coming year. In the Christian Calendar, 2017 ends in just a few weeks with the arrival of the First Sunday of Advent (or the first Sunday after Thanksgiving). As we look to 2018, I hope that it will be a year in which we will truly ask ourselves, What is God calling us to do next? How can MCCGSL continue to be a place that does some history-making work for our God?

44 Years and Counting

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This Saturday (Oct. 28) marks the 44th Anniversary of our church's first gathering. To the right is a picture of our founding pastor, Rev. Carol Cureton. She came from Kansas City to St. Louis specifically to found our congregation, and she and our church were originally supported by the members of the MCC in Kansas City.

Recently, I discovered that many of the founding documents of our church are being preserved at The State Historical Society of Missouri. I was contacted by them to come and review those documents and make them more available to public.

Turns out that in the mid-1990s many of the historical files from our early pastors and of the church in general were given to the State Historical Society for preservation, and it was fascinating to read through them. In fact, next year, as part of our 45th Anniversary Celebrations, I will lead a program inviting all who are interested to come and view those documents in person. 

I did take a picture of one document that I'd like to share with you today in celebration of our 44th Anniversary. This document is the letter written by our founding pastor just after the first three worship services were held. My oh my, what an exciting time it was to be at MCCGSL! May that same Spirit of growth and excitement move among us again in the year ahead! 

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Hearing the Language of Christ in Worship

This week I stumbled across this beautiful sung version of Psalm 53. It was performed in Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke) for Pope Francis at the Orthodox Church of St. Simon the Tanner in Tbilisi, Georgia (the country, not the U.S. State), on September 30th. Take a moment to simply listen and meditate to this beautiful acoustic, a cappella music that sounds something like what you would have heard if you had been alive to hear Jesus sing!

Unity without Uniformity and Diversity without Division

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For more than 10 years, my favorite "MCC mantra" is the one that forms the title of my devotional article for this week. No matter who said this phrase first, it has become bigger than any one person or any one congregation. It has come to define how we in MCC value being together-that being together is more important than proving we are right.

Since I returned from Pastoral Renewal, I have heard a lot of conversations among our members that seems more focused on agreement (or proving a certain point) than unity. With all the ways that world events and the current political climate are causing folks to retreat into the bunkers of their particular "camps," I want to gently remind all of us who are a part of this family of faith that we hold to a different set of values than those outside our walls.

When we joined MCC (yes, me included), we committed to spiritual community with everyone who has found MCCGSL to be their "place to call home." That is what it means to show one another the radical and unconditional love of God. This means that when we come together as spiritual family, we must exit our bunkers and enter into loving, grace-filled, Christian kinship. It does not mean that we cease having opinions-even passionately held opinions-but it does mean that we keep unconditional love at the forefront. It means that we will agree to disagree sometimes, because we refuse to practice a faith based on uniformity-a cookie-cutter-style of Christianity.

 I know you know this, but I also know that we are surrounded everyday by messages to the contrary. Those messages (from sources like Facebook, the news, other friends or family, and more) urge us to enter our bunkers and fire upon our all those who disagree with us, even our fellow Christian. Today I encourage you to look to the unifier we know as Jesus the Christ and recalibrate your heart once more. Let us continue MCC's long legacy of being a church of love, justice, and healing that refuses the temptation to make an opponent out of anyone who sits next to us in the pew...even when we inevitably find ourselves in disagreement with one another.

 Unity without Uniformity, and Diversity without Division.

I'm Baaaack :)

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Friends, I have to begin by saying how wonderful it is to be back "home." I had a very rejuvenating time away, but as I settled back into ministry here this week, I have really felt how "right" and "good" it is to be back home.

One other note on returning, before I share a devotional thought with you. I want to say a special word of thanks to everyone for keeping things moving along so smoothly while I was away during what was a very rough period of time in our world and city. I am especially grateful to the church board and staff who not only led beautifully and lovingly through those days and weeks, but who also went above and beyond to help make my re-entry smooth. They provided me with pages and pages of detailed updates and a prioritized list of things that I needed to focus on in the next few weeks. I am so grateful for such amazing church family, Board of Directors, and staff team.

Now, by way of devotional thoughts, I want to share one of my insights from my time of pastoral renewal...

As a progressive person, as a caring person, as a leader, and as a pastor whenever anything bad happens in the world I often experience a strong sense that I need to do something to address it. The "male fix-it gene" can also start to run rampant in me, seeking to step in to "fix" something that no one may have ever asked me to address! 

Most of us have some part of this in us. It is not a bad thing. That desire to respond to moments of crisis is part of what led to our evolution as a species. Those who could learn from their errors and change behaviors, survived. (Think of basic lessons like: don't touch a hot stove that burns, don't drink dirty water that made you sick, etc.) We are meant to learn from the things that happen to us and around us, and then we can try to do our best to share those lessons with others so that they don't have to learn them "the hard way."

So while that instinct is always bad, I think mine was in a higher gear than was best for me or others. It was a real lesson in letting go and in trusting others when three tragedies occurred in the world, and it was 0% my job to do anything about it. That was the first time in my life that I had given myself 100% permission to let it go and let others handle it.

While I am certainly not advocating that we all stop caring, stop seeking justice forall, or stop working to make the world the best possible place, I am saying that everyone needs a break from it now and then. And, given all that is happening in the world right now, you might be more due for a break than you realize. I certainly was.

Taking a step back from politics and activism and arguments and on and on, even forjust a few weeks, gives you lots of helpful things. It gives you rest. It gives you some peace. It gives you a chance to evaluate your priorities. It gives you a chance to reflect on your life. And perhaps most important, it gives you some perspective. We can all fall prey to the old adage, "They can't see the forest for the the trees." Sometimes, when we are too close to something, especially something we care a lot about, we can lose perspective.

I am grateful to you, my friends and my church, for giving me a chance to step back and gain some perspective. I pray that you can also find some ways to step back yourself. Perhaps you can turn off the news for a couple of weeks? Maybe you need to stay away from Facebook for a month? For someone else, it might be changing the radio in the car from NPR to some Christian music (or even just silence)? I promise that the world will get along without you for a few weeks, and I also promise that there will be plenty for you to engage in when you are done with your mini-break. 

This message really hit home for me on the last night of my pastoral renewal time. I chose to end that month by watching the movie version of The Shack for the first time. I'd read the book years ago but never made it to the theater to see the film. In the movie, one scene stuck out for me. Jesus and the main character, Mack, had just had an interaction in which (like the biblical Peter) Mack was led by Jesus to walk on water. They walked all the way across a lake together and had a great conversation on the shore. As they wrapped up, Mack turned to walk back to the other side and walked right into the water...sinking to the bottom just like normal. He turned to Jesus with a look that said, Why isn't this working? Jesus said to him, "This usually works better when we do it together."

My prayer as I return to active ministry with you is that we will keep our perspective as broad and clear as possible, which can always come back to one simple test: Are we doing this on our own, or are we following the example of Jesus? As the film said, life usually works better when we do it with Christ.

The Tipping Point

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Some years ago, I read Malcolm Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point.  He gives example after example of how products and ideas have found a "tipping point" that led them to huge success and/or exposure.  In many ways, the ministry of Jesus was that way.  It only lasted for 3 years but seemed to build epidemic following. Gladwell would identify this phenomenon as contagious - one that led to an epidemic that has lasted through the centuries.

When I ask myself how we, as people of faith, might find our own tipping point, I admittedly feel discouraged.  Why?  Because everywhere I look - at the fundamentalists or the liberals and everyone in between - I fail to see contagion around the message of Jesus.  I fail to see a message that is spreading in epidemic proportions in a short period of time. I fail to see what Gladwell would call translation.  In short, I fail to see Christians living a life that others would want and would find life-changing. 

In a world where racism, name calling, suspicion, violence and hate are contagious on a regular basis, the message of Jesus is incredibly relevant but has not been contagious.  Why is that?  Perhaps, as those who follow Jesus, we need to seriously consider whether our lives reflect the life of Jesus enough that we become part of the tipping point. We have been called . . . so who will we be?

Here's to tipping . . .

Reflections on September 11

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September eleventh, sixteen years ago, was the first day I can recall where I could see and feel everything I thought about life shift. I was in tenth grade, in a civics class, when the first tower was hit and I watched the rest unfold live on CNN. 

On Monday, I spoke with a group of students from Ferguson Middle about that day, and what they thought had changed about life in this country since. They honed in on security and, speaking from their life experiences in the last three years, the tendency of police to escalate existing tensions into violence. 

The conversation continued like this: That terrible day exposed the racism and fear that already was present in our nation. Then, in the name of fighting terrorism at home, this newly unfettered racism fed suspicion and profiling of persons with brown and black skin, and doubly so persons with covered hair and long beards. Further influenced by real fear, some liberties were given over to the siren song of increased security. Therefore, guided to find terror at home and empowered to root it out of local schools and in our neighborhoods, we found what we were taught we ought to seek. And if this state of fear hasn't discovered much in the way of backyard terror training camps, it has - in the last decade and half - found targets in black young men with pockets of skittles or walking a few too many steps off the sidewalk and in protesters who raise questions about the state. 

That's where the conversation ended for the kids - and many in our church community, workplaces and neighborhoods - because of the experience of being marked simply by the skin they walk around in and the neighborhoods their houses occupy. 

At the time I write this, the city sits on edge, waiting for release of the Stockley verdict. No matter what the outcome is, activists of many stripes are preparing for action and the state is preparing a response. 

Restoration, our theme in September, does not mean in this context a return to a Mayberry-esque unity under the banner of patriotism, but rather a renewal of the gospel call that God is for all of us. The kin-dom of God is a kin-dom grounded in God's inclusive love that excludes no one. 

Inclusive love is grounded not in inaction but an active pursuit of a community where everyone, and especially those whose experiences inform a sense of marginalization, has a safe place to belong, grow and be loved. May restoration, a return to following the movement of Spirit, guide you this week into doing the work of enacting inclusive love, be that in voice in the streets or in a choir, painting rocks or other artistic means, in your home over a shared meal, and the myriad other ways you are being called to live out this gospel.