Monday, December 2, 2013

Welcome to Advent. Let's Hope.

The caption on the picture on the front of our Table of Grace brochures says “Where Hope is Alive!” It’s a bold statement to make, suggesting that we are a community of people who have not yet given up hope. We live in a world of dashed hopes, a world where one who continues to hope in the face of adversity may be seen as some kind of Pollyanna; or at least completely out of touch with reality. Most of us have mastered the art of dismissing our hopes in advance to save ourselves the disappointment later.

The first week of Advent calls us to hope. Not only does it call us to hope, it calls us to sit with that hope…to hold on to it, until we return the next week to light the next candle. I wonder if we are willing to be that vulnerable, to open ourselves up to hope that we hold onto for long enough to convince ourselves that the thing for which we hope might actually be a possibility.

I wonder if allowing ourselves to hope for better living conditions for the homeless people in our community would cause us to seek God’s guidance in helping to be a part of the solution. I wonder if having the audacity to hope for racial equality in our world would cause us to spend some time getting to know the people who don’t look like us, who we claim to want to liberate. I wonder if hoping that people in a village in Africa might someday have access to clean drinking water would encourage us to spend less on frivolous gifts this Christmas, and send the money we save to an organization that can make that happen. I wonder if allowing ourselves to hope for a government that represents our collective interests would push us into a level of civic engagement that begins to reclaim the voice of the people in the public sphere.

I wonder. And I hope. I hope that deep down, we know that God is alive in our biggest dreams and our greatest hopes. I hope that we recognize that God’s Spirit uses the creative space that hope provides to bring great transformation in our lives. I hope, above all else, that we can remember how to hope like a child counting down the months to a birthday or the days to Christmas; and that having remembered, we will start to live in our hope for days and weeks and months at a time. And perhaps that we will let ourselves believe the word of the Lord spoken through the prophet Jeremiah “For I know the plans I have for you," says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope."

Our hope is a gift from God. Don’t shove it in the back of the closet like the ugly sweater your Aunt Sally gave you last Christmas, or the combination hammer/corkscrew/TV antenna from your mother-in-law. Get it out, use it, enjoy it, let it transform you. I bet you’ll find that it begins to transform the people around you as well.

What are you hoping for right now? I challenge you to hold onto that hope, and allow yourself to think about it this week, maybe even to talk about it. Offer it to God in your prayer time and allow it to creep into your dreams. Let’s just see what happens.

And while you’re hoping, here’s an earworm from the Dixie Chicks…

I hope, for more love, more joy and laughter
I hope, we'll have more than we'll ever need
I hope, we'll have more happy ever after
I hope, we can all live more fearlessly
And we can lose all the pain and misery
I hope, I hope

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Why This Lesbian Pastor Gives to the Salvation Army

I’m really proud of the questions our young people are asking these days. I think if we raise a generation who has learned to question everything, we will have done the world good. So I had to smile the other day when I read a Facebook post of a friend asking for volunteers to do bell ringing for the Salvation Army locally and the first comment was one from a high school student asking an important question about the social service agency. “Is it true that the Salvation Army is an anti-gay organization?” Good question! I’m especially happy about the answer that he was provided, too. The original poster, a director of youth ministry, affirmed his need to know and provided information for him to read and make his own decision.
That, my friends, is how the world ought to work! Instead of getting all hyped up and attacking one another, how about if we look at things from all angles? I’m a lesbian, and I’m quite happy to drop some money in those red buckets when I have it available. Why? Because I believe in the work that the Salvation Army does to improve people’s lives. We are all pretty quick to criticize, but the bottom line is that in most places, they are the ones on the front lines of the war against poverty and homelessness. How many homeless people have most of us housed, clothed, fed, and gotten employed recently?
In addition to being a lesbian who would gladly give my change to the bell ringer outside the grocery store, I’m a pastor of a Christian church. My church is pretty different from the one that meets at the Salvation Army. We don’t believe all the same things. I believe that God celebrates all of the fabulous gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in my congregation (and the straight folks too!). But we do believe some of the same things. We both believe that the love of Jesus was enough to change the world forever. We believe that human beings are made in the image of God, and therefore deserve to live a life of dignity. We believe that a part of our Christian duty is to make the world a better place. We even both believe that the way to transform the world is one person at a time, tending first to the most basic needs like food and shelter, and also to the soul. This is where our methods and understandings begin to differ, in some places pretty drastically. But the bottom line is that while we were agreeing on all those other things, we could work together to get women and children off the streets and out of dangerous situations. We could work together to provide meals to people who are hungry, whether or not they meet the requirements to stay in the Salvation Army shelter. We could work to get men and women into treatment programs that help them to get their life back in order; help them get into employment programs and get back on their feet; and even help with the initial costs of getting somebody back into a housing of their own with rental deposit assistance.
I believe firmly in acting out of our most deeply held religious beliefs. I do it every day, and my hope is that all other people of faith do the same thing. Even if they believe the exact opposite of what I do. To do anything less would be inauthentic. I believe in interfaith relationships and collaboration, not by reducing our beliefs to the lowest common denominator, but by allowing space for those who think differently to express themselves from their viewpoint and act with integrity out of that understanding. Will there be some things we may never be able to do together? Absolutely!
This morning I sat across the table at a local Unmet Needs Committee meeting across from a Major from our local Salvation Army. We collaborated together, and with others, on ways to meet the needs of the most vulnerable people in our community. I’m pretty obviously gay. He didn’t seem to let that change the work that we were there to do. I doubt that we’ll be sharing communion together in a church service anytime soon, but that’s true of lots of folks.
So I guess I say all of this to say…before you get all bent out of shape about pictures that have likely been altered or staged, showing Salvation Army bell ringers proclaiming anti-LGBT hate, consider the purpose behind the bell ringing, and ask yourself if the money you would give would change lives for the positive. I think if you checked it out, you would find that in many communities, the Salvation Army really is “doing the most good.” That’s why this lesbian pastor will gladly continue to support their work.
I’ll give my money to the Human Rights Campaign when I want somebody looking out for things like marriage equality. And when I want my money to feed the hungry two meals a day, 365 days a year; and provide a Christmas for families who otherwise might not have one, I’ll drop it in the red bucket outside the grocery store. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Click here to help.

I feel pretty fancy that I installed the donate button on the blog page all by myself. 

Ok, well it really wasn't all by myself.

I needed help.

I had to look up directions on how to do it because it wasn't all that simple. 

That's really the whole point in this post. 

We need help. 

We need your help in helping others and we want to make that simple for everyone to do, therefore we now have a donate button on the upper, left side of this screen. 

So anytime you are feeling gracious or generous, viola! Easy peasy. 

Why donate to Table of Grace? It's simple. 

We are called to provide a safe place for everyone to worship, explore their faith and grow. We are also called to love another and serve those who are in need. 

Food, clothing, school supplies, community meals, cooking classes and so much more. 

So join us in helping make this little piece of the world, called Jefferson City, a better place for everyone. 

Thanks for your help, friends 

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world,; indeed, it's the only thing that ever does." -Margaret Mead 

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Random Christ Spottings

I saw Jesus today. She didn't look anything like those pictures on the wall in the churches I've been in. You know the one, the fair skinned young man with flowing brown hair and strangely European eyes (for a Palestinian), with a white puffy lamb hiked up over one shoulder. Funny that I have long since dismissed that image of Jesus as not realistic, but when I think about seeing Jesus, it’s the first image that pops into my head. Oh, the effects of embedded belief systems…

Anyway, this Jesus was totally different. She looked to be in her mid to late 70s, with short, grey, curly hair. She sat next to a man who seemed to be her husband and they were both wearing a starched white shirt and black bottoms (pants for him and skirt for her, of course). Did I mention that the place where I experienced this Jesus spotting was in the first row of the first class section of an airplane leaving Salt Lake City?

As it turns out, after a second glance, maybe she wasn't ACTUALLY Jesus, but she had me there for a second. It was the name tag that did it. It looked something like this…
The Church of
Of Latter Day Saints
Your Name Here

So you might imagine my surprise when I boarded the plane and saw Jesus there in first class. It was actually much harder for me to imagine that Jesus would be travelling first class than it was for me to imagine that Jesus was a seventy something year old Mormon lady. Either way, it got me thinking a little bit about the ways that we do and do not invoke the name of Jesus Christ in our world.

I've been known to lean to the heretical side now and then in pushing the boundaries of scriptural interpretation. This was recently pointed out when a friend brought me a poster that he stumbled across while on vacation that said “Heretic in Good Company” and listed the names of my cohorts in heresy…some of them you may recognize…Joan of Arc, Origen, Galileo, Jesus of Nazareth, Martin Luther…the list goes on.

So having gladly accepted my lot in life of being a bit on the edge; it seems that today’s Jesus sighting is a good conversation starter (at least in my own mind). So, what if we all, at least those of us who consider ourselves Jesus followers, began wearing name tags that said Jesus Christ? C’mon now, you are perfectly willing to wear the name Ralph Lauren or Tommy Hilfiger. Would the people we meet take us more seriously? Would they dismiss us as two fries short of a happy meal? Would they patronize us? Or would they sit up and take notice, because it might seem that we have something to say to the world?

Now most of the people that I know, Christian or not, would find it a bit blasphemous to put on a name tag that said Jesus and walk around in public. Understandably so. That’s what we were taught. Only Jesus has been and ever will be Jesus, and there will never be another Jesus. Ever. Because that would somehow dishonor God to have a bunch of people running around acting all humble and merciful, loving and graceful, forgiving sins and healing people. I mean really, the audacity of that is just unthinkable, isn’t it?

So, seriously, what if… What if we proudly wore the name Jesus Christ on our chest because we believed in ourselves the way that we believe in Jesus. Okay, so maybe having it say Jesus Christ wouldn’t be so cool (unless you are my Cuban friend Jesus, then it would be cool). Anyway, say for instance that my name tag said “Michelle Christ”. After all, the Greek word Christos actually means “anointed”, and is related to the Hebrew word for Messiah. A Messiah (not THE Messiah) is a savior or liberator of a group of people.

I think it’s safe to say that I’m anointed. I’m called by God to be a pastor to God’s people. I’ve had a whole room full of clergy anoint me and pray blessings over me as I kneeled through 5 verses of “Spirit” on the concrete floor at my ordination service. Not only am I anointed, I hope that in being a pastor to the people who come to Table of Grace, that I’m a liberator too. So I think I’m qualified for the nametag.

How about you? Will you join me in identifying yourself as a christos, an anointed one; or a messiah, one who is about the business of liberating people? I hope you will, all of you, because I know that these words describe you too. Whatever work it is that you have been called to, I know that it somehow involves blessing and freeing those with whom you come into contact.

Blessing and freeing take on so many different manifestations, I can’t even begin to name them here, but I’ll try to list a few. Here are the Christ-like actions that I know some of you are taking: you liberate others by helping them to free themselves from bondage to drugs and/or alcohol; you liberate homeless folks by offering them a meal, maybe a warm place to stay, and resources to help them on their journey; you liberate other moms by encouraging them in methods of natural parenting and breastfeeding; you liberate other differently abled people by being a voice in the community for disability justice; you liberate babies who were born into families that didn’t want them or couldn’t care for them by giving them a home and a lot of love; you liberate others who suffer with mental health issues by being open and honest about your own struggles; you liberate secular homeschool parents who feel alone in a conservative Christian homeschool community by offering an alternative community; you liberate LGBT people who have been told they don’t belong by finding your own place of belonging and service in the church and the community; you liberate people who are lost in desperation feeling like they just aren’t good enough by continuing to offer an encouraging word and a listening ear; you liberate me, every day, by showing me that divine goodness and human goodness exist in an eternal partnership that can and will transform our world.

This is nowhere near all of the things that I see daily in the people that I know, both in the church and out. It is merely a beginning, but it is enough to convince me that you are all anointed ones. You are all working in different ways, within faith traditions and outside of them, to be a liberator of people, a messiah.

So I want to say thank you for the very important work that you do, and instead of you dismissing my thank you, and saying “oh, I don’t do anything”, I want you to receive it and believe it. I want you to make the name tag…your name CHRIST…slap it on your shirt and go look in the mirror. Then say to yourself and whoever is around to listen “I AM anointed! I AM a liberator!” Pat yourself on the back, know that you make a difference in the world, and believe that YOU have the power to change lives, to feed souls, and to bring blessing and freedom to so many people! Now take off the name tag (so your friends don’t have you committed) and get back to your every day, anointed, liberating life. Have a great day, anointed one!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Perspective on the Prodigal

Here we are, nearing the end of lent. One of the lenten practices that I've taken up is preaching on the Psalms in the lectionary, rather than the gospel passage. It has been a good practice, and I have been stretched. Another of my lenten practices, though not publicly announced, was going to be to write more. Alas, I have not been able to work that into my crazy schedule. BUT, I was thankful to have been asked to speak/preach/whatever at another church for their Thursday night Lenten service last night. They have been focusing on the story of the "Prodigal Son" as told in Luke's gospel. They asked me to speak from the perspective of the people in the countryside, the community. So many times, I've read the passage and put myself in the place of the younger son, the older son, and the father; but never in the place of the neighbors. It was a fun exercise. Here's what I wrote: 

I don’t know if any of you have been to first century Palestine, but I hear it’s a different world than this one in which we live. In a Jewish community such as this one, people held tightly to codes of honor and shame, and to the demarcation of clean and unclean. This son, this selfish one, who had dishonored his father by having the audacity to ask for his inheritance early, by walking away from his home and family, and heaven forbid, traveling to a foreign land <keep in mind that in this context, foreign does not imply exotic as it might for us here today, rather it implies other, different, wrong, and scary>.  This boy might as well have SHAME and UNCLEAN written on his forehead and any other exposed part of him, so that good, observant Jewish people might know that if they see him, they should run the other way. Jesus sets this story up to let us know that this son has committed the worst kind of sin, against God, against his family, and against his community. Today, we hear the story from the perspective of a neighbor, a member of the community who was invited to join in the celebration…
It’s not often that somebody just throws a party around here, right out of the blue. So imagine my surprise, when one of the young servants of the rich guy down the street came running down the road shouting, “come one, come all, it’s a celebration. The master has ordered the fatted calf to be killed. It’s a party to beat all parties. Gather your wives, your daughters, your sons, and even your servants, and come join in the celebration!”

Well, who can resist such an invitation? So I did it, I gathered all the members of my household and a couple of our best skins of wine, and off we went, heading to the party, all the while wondering what could possibly warrant such an extravagant, unplanned celebration. There were many people already gathered when we arrived, and the house was all a buzz, so it was a while before we saw him.

He looked different, more worldly, less proper, he LOOKED like a foreigner. What a disgrace! I once considered him an excellent prospect to marry my youngest daughter. Now I see him as a threat to our community. I heard he worked among pigs, for God’s sake, the worst kind of unclean there is, you can’t just wash that off. It is a filth that goes all the way to the soul. Only a miracle from God can cleanse the soul of one who has strayed so far.

I find it hard to celebrate, difficult to loosen up. The music was lively and people were dancing. What was wrong with them? The wine flowed freely, and the food...oh, the food. Killing the fatted calf? This is a luxury reserved for only the most decadent occasion. It’s something big, something worthy of a gathering of the whole community. 
 Oh, I get it. It’s like when a woman is caught in adultery, and we take her into the town square and everybody comes out to watch and participate in her punishment. There’s a place, alongside the road on the way into town, where you can pick up the best rocks. I didn’t realize that’s what this was. I didn’t pick up any stones along the way. That’s ok, we’ll just watch, there are a lot of people here, I’m sure others came prepared. I’ll just stand back a little with my family, taking the time to make sure that the lesson really sinks in with them. You just don’t dishonor your father, and take off into distant lands, squandering away his money, bringing dishonor to his name, living a lewd and careless life. There are consequences, and today, we will witness those consequences. I’m glad the family saw fit to feed the crowd first, that was an added touch of class that we don’t usually experience at these, um…events.

After a while, when it seems like most of the guests have arrived, the master of the house came to the center of the house and asked everybody to gather around. He had been absent for a while, some say that he was outside consoling his oldest son. Maybe he was embarrassed, feeling like his own honor had been stripped away, a sort  of guilt by association. Or perhaps he loved his brother just enough, that he was distraught about his upcoming public punishment. Whatever it was, that boy never did come in and join the party.

So, here we are, gathered in the great room, the father calls his son over to him. It wasn’t until now that I noticed that he is wearing one of his father’s robes, his sandals, and even a family ring. I have to say, I’ve never seen this done in quite this way. It reminds me of the stories that I learned in synagogue growing up. Who were those guys…Shem and Japheth, took a robe and covered their father’s nakedness to regain his honor and save face for the family. But wait, there are other stories about covering nakedness that I recall, that aren’t so much about damage control, as they are about bestowing honor as if it is deserved.

Yes, it’s coming to me, I recall now that in Exodus, there are elaborate instructions for making a robe and adornments for Moses to put on Aaron, to show that he is chosen, anointed, ordained. I’m just not sure that story applies here. What was the other one? Oh that’s right! It was the prophet Ezekiel, speaking as God to God’s people, saying I see that you are old enough to be loved, to be in relationship with me, and I wrap my robe around you, to cover you and make you mine.

I have to say I don’t really understand what is going on here. The actions that are being taken, the words that are being used, are familiar. But they aren’t the words and actions of punishment and shame. They are the words and actions of forgiveness, grace, mercy, and the unconditional love of a father for his child. The words that father spoke still echo in my head today. “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. Let us celebrate!”

The words play over and over again in my head, along with the words I spoke myself. Only a miracle of God can cleanse the soul of one who has strayed so far. Dead and alive again. Lost and now found. A miracle of God. A soul that has been washed clean. A broken family that has been made whole. Praise God from whom all blessings flow!

I learned a lesson that day that has been with me ever since. My God, the One whose laws I strive to follow, the One whose praises I sing, and to whom I cry out in my time of need; THAT God, MY God, does indeed work miracles. How could I not celebrate with shouts of joy and a dance of praise? You and I, who are sometimes lost, are found, over and over again. You and I, who wander off into the land of the dead, failing to live in the abundance and simplicity of the life that has been given to us, are brought back to life, over and over again. You and I, whose souls get dingy and dirty from the influences of the world around us, have been washed clean, each and every time we have chosen to turn back to the light.

I am changed, I am made new. These things that were foreign to me, grace and mercy, compassion and unconditional love; they are contagious! Not only did I feel a change in myself that day, but I saw it in my neighbors. This display of forgiveness, this restoration, has given us all a renewed sense of hope and expectation.

I pray that it will catch on for you too, there is nothing more glorious than celebrating with God and neighbor the victory of life over death, wholeness over brokenness, salvation over shame. May God’s Spirit so fill your heart with grace and love, that there is no longer room for judgment and division. May you live today in the knowledge that God’s mercy can and will lift you and ANYBODY else who desires, out of the pit of sin and despair, to be restored to your rightful place of honor, a beloved child of God! This is my story, and this is my prayer. Amen. 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Traveling Table

Tonight I got out my handy dandy communion kit, a gift from my favorite mother-in-law, and I went to visit someone in the hospital. I carefully (and prayerfully) prepared it before going, tearing the bread, real bread, not styrofoam wafers, and putting it in the little container. I counted the pieces as I tore, knowing that I was going to serve one or two, and myself, but somehow feeling like maybe six pieces would be enough. I poured the grape juice from the big bottle into the fancy little flask, wondering if the nurses might think that I was smuggling in vodka or something. I suppose I should add that the patient I was going to visit is currently in the behavioral health unit of the hospital, so the items brought in and out are under great scrutiny.

As we entered the unit, I introduced myself as a pastor to the nurse who greeted us and I asked if it would be okay for me to bring in the communion elements and serve communion to the person I came to visit. The nurse indicated that she thought it would be okay, but that she needed to ask  somebody else. From down the hall, I heard bits and pieces of the conversation and watched the person in charge (presumably) look down the hall at me. Then I heard her say something that sounded like “why not, they could probably all use it.” Well, ain’t that the truth? They could all probably use it, as could we. You, me, the nurses, the visitors, it seems that we could all use a little bread of life and cup of blessing today, and everyday really.

After chatting with the person I came to visit, serving her communion, and praying with her; we went out into the common area. I expressed to one of the other ladies sitting there that I had prayed for her at the request of the person I was speaking with before. She began to tell me about her conversation with the hospital chaplain that she had spoken to a few days back. She said that she had asked if they might be able to bring her communion, and they told her they didn’t really know the schedule for communion for the week, but they might not be able to get it to her while she was there. She seemed sad about that, so I said “I brought communion and I would be happy to serve you”. Her eyes lit up and she said “yes, but I’m not Catholic”, I replied “that’s okay, neither am I”. We left the common area to find a quiet place to talk, share communion, and pray together.

Our talk revealed that we have much in common; our denomination, faith journeys, kids, previous marriage, coming out, homeschooling…it was odd, really, how much we shared in common. We easily chatted about the day to day activity of God in our lives, and what it means to have an amazing church family. We talked about the blessings of big churches and small churches, liberal churches and conservative churches, and the way that we have seen God present and working in all of them.

While we sat chatting, a young lady kept walking by, as if she wanted to say something, but hadn’t worked up the courage yet. Finally, she asked if she could talk to me. As we sat down together, she said “What do I do, I don’t know if I tell you what’s wrong with me or what?” She shared what she felt were her demons, the things that had gripped her and wouldn’t let go. They were fears and hurts and physical pain all rolled up into something that was taking over her life. We prayed and we shared communion. Then visiting hours ended and the nurse came to escort  me out.

Six pieces of bread. Three beautiful people, each willing to let me in, to share their lives and share communion with me. A call from God to invite the people to the table and to bring the table to the people. How blessed am I?

At Table of Grace, we talk so much about our open table, the fact that anybody can come. But tonight I am reminded that the table is not just open for the sake of having people come to the table. The table is open as a means of opening our lives to one another and to God. What a beautiful, sacred, scary gift it is, the responsibility to bear one another’s burdens, to face one another’s demons, to live life together. Every week at Table of Grace, when I serve communion to the people in our congregation, I am humbled and honored to be allowed to share such a deeply personal and spiritual moment with people. Tonight, after having taken communion out, in my handy dandy communion kit, I feel all the more privileged to be able to share God with God’s people through bread and cup. Thanks be to God.