Ashes to Ashes

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Ashes, ashes, ashes. Next week is Ash Wednesday the official start of Lent, and this week I am scattering the ashes of my dog Herman at his favorite dog park in Colorado. Ashes, ashes, ashes.

When Herman died last year it broke my heart. He was in my life for 16 years, basically my entire adult life. As I thought about where to spread his ashes, someplace he loved, I immediately thought of his favorite dog park. It is an enormous, fully fenced, off-leash, multi-acre park complete with trails, a stream, toys, and more. When he was young, he would stay as long as I would let him. As he aged, he still pushed himself until my vet started recommending I not let him overdo it so much. He loved it there.

So, this week Kevin's work was taking him to our old hometown, so I decided to tag along to take Herman "home." One of the most surprising parts of the trip was how emotional I became about the simple cardboard box that held Herman's ashes. They weren't just his ashes, they were him. Kevin and I both found ourselves talking about them as we used to talk about him. Do you have Herman? Where is Herman? Let me hold Herman.

As we tearfully scattered his ashes on a hill overlooking the park, in full view of the nearby 14,000 foot-tall Pikes Peak mountain, I was overcome.

Each year as we come to Ash Wednesday I have to do some extra work to make it meaningful for me. I didn't grow up in a church that honored days like Ash Wednesday, and yet I have found there is a wealth of spiritual depth I missed because of it. I have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to things like Ash Wednesday and Lent.

This year, though, it seems clear to me that the famous Ash Wednesday phrase, "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. From dust you came and to dust you shall return," will hold a much more powerful meaning. You see, this week I learned that dirt isn't just dirt. I used to walk Herman at that dog park and thoughtlessly wipe the dirt off my shoes and his paws after each visit. But now I realize that Herman (and many other precious pets) are part of that dirt. Our loved ones, our ancestors, all life on this planet is mixed up in the dirt of our lives. When we place God-lenses on our eyes, it is easy to see how every single thing on this planet--every part of creation--is truly sacred.

I won't be wiping the dirt off my shoes today. I'll let Herman walk with me just as long as possible. I hope each of you are blessed as you continue your spiritual walk today.

Message: A Guide for Those Who will Follow

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This week I received a box of books from the library of Rev. Jim Burns who recently passed away. Jim was a long-time MCC pastor who spent a large portion of his career serving MCC of the Rockies in Denver, and he was involved in a wide variety of leadership roles throughout his career. He was a wonderful man of faith.

I was surprised and honored to get a call from the executor of his will offering to send a small part of his extensive library to me. Books are sacred to all readers, and I think they hold a special place in the heart of pastors. As I carefully unboxed the books, I immediately felt Jim's presence. Jim was an avid reader...these books were not in his library for nothing...he read his books. And that fact was so immediately obvious. Coffee stained covers and pages, boarding passes that had been recruited as bookmarks, dog-eared pages, highlights and notes...so many signs of the brilliant mind of my colleague whose spirit and heart had lingered over these very pages.

As I picked out which ones I would start reading now and placed others on my shelves for later, I couldn't help but consider the ways that these books might someday end up on the shelves of some other pastor, how someday it will be my highlights, my dog-eared pages, and my boarding passes that will be discovered like a treasure map by a friend after I'm gone. While some people love a new book, I have always enjoyed being the second or third reader...able to follow the trail marks of the previous travelers who left behind signposts for the best parts and personal additions to the text in the margins. The bittersweet thought of someone allowing my highlights to guide them through some of my favorite books really stirred in my heart.

As the Spirit was moving in my heart, I started to remove one of those boarding pass bookmarks from one of Jim's books. I glanced at where he was going when he read this book. Chicago to Hartford. July 13. No year. "Huh," I thought, "never realized they didn't put years on boarding passes." I turned toward my trash can to throw away the make-shift bookmark, and then I thought better of it, "No. This book is Jim's. The boarding pass stays." I thanked God for Jim and then decided that I'll mark my place with his boarding pass, and someday in the distant future, I hope someone else will use it mark theirs as well.

Whether it is the notes and marks you make in your books or the memories you leave in the hearts of your friends, do your best to leave a good trail guide for those who may one day endeavor to find their way in this life by following in your footsteps.

Your Fellow Traveler,

Pastor Wes

Happy New . . . You, Yours, Them, Theirs, Us, Ours

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As we continue to work on learning about and honoring the pronouns that all of us prefer when giving identity to gender, it occurs to me that it might also be good to start the year giving greater consideration to the ways we balance (or fail to balance) our attention to "me vs. them" and "mine vs. theirs." One thing is for sure, our culture tells us to look after me and mine, not them and theirs.

It is important that we all give attention to ourselves...our well-being, our physical and emotional health, etc. Any attempt at giving attention to others will be thwarted and undermined if we fail to attend to ourselves in these ways. But where is the line? When do we cross over into selfishness, false pretense, and greed? How many material things is enough? When have we done enough self-care? What crosses the line between healthy self-esteem and arrogance?

I certainly don't pretend to know the answers to all these questions, except to the extent that I am trying to understand them in my own life. What I do know is that our obsession with the self threatens our ability to have empathy for others and be of true service to them. So what do we do with this? How do we reflect on our own tendencies to overlook "them" because we are so entangled with our own needs and desires?

One of the things I am challenging myself to do is take a deeper look at an old quote I've seen a million times: "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but rather, we are spiritual beings having a human experience." It occurs to me that I can get caught up in paying so much attention to my human experience that I forget to nurture my spiritual nature! In my life, once that happens, I am no longer authentically "tuned in" to the experiences of others.

Ultimately, this is not a pronoun issue is it? More accurately, it is an issue of working as hard on our spiritual being as we do on our human experience. The imbalance of these adds to the mess in the world, but the balance of them is a true miracle. I invite you to join me in the search for our authentic spiritual selves as a way to do our part in making the world a better place for everyone.

Happy New Year!

Hope for the New Year!

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Christmas presents to us an opportunity afresh to be born within the Good News - that God entered the world as a baby to reset what has been broken. Upside-down divine logic sends God to live and die as one of God's own creations in order to save and redeem them. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus's first act of public ministry is to proclaim that his mission is to "bring good news to the poor, proclaim liberty to the captive, sight to the blind, release those imprisoned, and proclaim the time of God's favor." This time of God's favor, a year of jubilee, was not something Jesus made up but was a known concept to the hearers of Jesus's teaching. The idea of a jubilee year comes from Leviticus, a Hebrew Bible book of laws and regulations. At the end of seven seven-year cycles (7x7=49), the fiftieth year is proclaimed to be the year the slaves are sent home again to their families, captured properties turned over to their original owners, and all debts forgiven. Jubilee makes space for all of us to experience life-giving renewal in our ordinary, day-to-day lives.

I am so longing for a jubilee year. I long for our world to moved to act against injustice in any form. I long for those I love and care for who are imprisoned (literally and metaphorically) to be free. For many of my millennial peers who are ensnared by mountains of debt and for end-of-career age people unable to retire because of debt, I long for debt to not be the measure by which we are forced to order our days. I know I'm not alone in these longings. I hear many in our congregation express specific anxieties and general worries about the future.

Metropolitan Community Churches is entering the fiftieth year of ministry as a denomination, and I pray that as a church body rooted in the values of salvation, community, and Christian social action that we take seriously what jubilee might mean for us. This Sunday's sermon will discuss our shared history and explore what jubilee might mean for us as individuals and church community. I pray we can join together to proclaim next year as the year of the Lord's favor and feel the security and hope that Christmas assures us.

Blessings,

Tori Jameson

Christmas Countdown!

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This weekend marks the beginning of the final Christmas countdown both here at the church and for all of us who still have some Christmas shopping to do. I hope that you will take advantage of all the wonderful programs that are coming up in the next 7-10 days. From Christmas Choir Concerts to beautifully sung "Silent Nights" by candlelight, there are going to be some wonderful opportunities to embrace the Spirit of Christmas.

More than just an invitation to a nostalgic or cheerful holiday moment, I want to make sure that you know that these events (and really all our programs throughout the year) are really opportunities to connect with our family of choice and our family of faith.

This season has been one in which several people I know and love from our church and in my personal life have faced serious health diagnoses. These scary words from the mouths of men and women adorned in white coats instantly changed the nature of this holiday season. For each of these folks I am thinking of, every moment deeply matters. I can see this in the way they are moving through this season...taking nothing for granted. 

Really, we should all do the same. Why do we ever hesitate to say, "I love you?" Why do we sometimes let words of thanks and gratitude get caught in the backs of our throats? For some reason, it can be very hard, even at the holidays, to express how we truly feel. Maybe it is because we equate feelings with weakness or maybe we sometimes struggle to know how we are really feeling. Whatever it is, I encourage you to show up for these precious holiday moments by giving the people you love the gift of being fully present. Make this a part of your work gatherings, family gatherings, and family of choice gatherings. Make this a part of your gatherings with the family at MCC for music, Santa, and Christmas services of various types so that we can share in your fully-present Christmas.

I pray blessings on all your holiday gatherings over the next 10 days. May they be blessed by Christ and be a blessing in your life and in the lives of all those you love.

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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