"... he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly." Luke 1:51-52
"For the great and powerful of this world, there are only two places in which their courage fails them, of which they are afraid deep down in their souls, and from which they shy away. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ. No powerful person dares to approach the manger ... Before Mary, the maid, before the manger of Christ before God in lowliness, the powerful come to naught; they have no right, no hope; they are judged ... Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger; whoever remains lowly and lets God alone be high; whoever looks at the child in the manger and see the glory of God precisely in [God's] lowliness." -- D. Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger (26)
"Behold I tell you a mystery ... we shall all be changed." 1 Cor 15:51
"The lack of mystery in our modern life is our downfall and our poverty ... We retain the child in us to the extent that we honor the mystery. Children have open, wide awake eyes, because they know that they are surrounded by mystery. They are not yet finished with this world; they still don't know how to struggle along and avoid the mystery, as we do. We destroy the mystery because ... we want to be Lord over everything and have it at out disposal. Living without mystery means knowing nothing of the mystery of our own life, nothing of the mystery of another person, nothing of the mystery of the world. It means taking the world [and other persons] seriously only to the extent that [they] can be calculated and exploited. Living without mystery means not seeing and even denying the crucial processes of life."
-- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger (18), edited, Italics mine
"A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and branch shall grow out of his roots." Isaiah 11:1
"Whoever does not know the austere blessedness of waiting -- that is, of hopefully doing without -- will never experience the full blessing of fulfillment. Those who do know how it feels to struggle anxiously with the deepest questions of life, of their life, and to patiently look forward with anticipation until the truth is revealed, cannot even dream of the splendor of the moment in which clarity is illuminated for them. And for those who do not want to win the friendship and love of another person -- who do not expectantly open up their soul to the soul of the other person, until friendship and love come, until they make the entrance -- for such people the deepest blessing of the one life of two intertwined souls will remain forever hidden. For the greatest most profound, tenderest things in the world, we must wait." Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from God is in the Manger (4)
I was regretting the past
and fearing the future.
Suddenly God was speaking.
"My name is 'I am.'" I waited.
God continued, "When you live in the past,
with its mistakes and regrets,
it is hard. I am not there.
My name is not 'I was."
When you live in the future,
with its problems and fears, it is hard.
I am not there.
My name is not 'I will be."
When you live in this moment,
it is not hard. I am here.
My name is "I am."
(From Helen Mellicost, on the kitchen wall of the Ranch Guesthouse, St. Benedicts Monastery, Snowmass, Colorado)
printed in One Hundred Graces (selected by Marcia and Jack Kelly)
This is a lovely book available inexpensively on Amazon.com.
This last week I enjoyed leading conversations with a number of church leaders on the subject of our calling as Christians. In Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, Eugene Peterson – author of the Scripture paraphrase The Message – describes the spiritual goal at the heart of Christian community.
The image is a triangle. In geometry, there are important relationships between the angles and lines of a triangle. For example, Peterson suggests that preaching, teaching and administration are the visible lines of my own work. However, without the angles – the spiritual foundation of our work together – the lines are disconnected from their reason for being. Peterson applies this image to the role of being the pastor of a congregation. I believe the lesson applies to all of us.
The angles of our Christian vocation, according to Peterson, are prayer – bringing ourselves to attention before God; Scripture – attending to God in the texts of Israel and the church; and spiritual direction – giving attention to what God is doing in the person before us at any given moment.
As Christians in community we balance many tasks that help a church function as a volunteer organization and a non-profit corporation in our day-to-day world. But the church at heart is neither a volunteer organization nor a corporation; the church is a spiritual entity: the Body of Christ, called together by God to be the sacrament of Christ’s healing grace for a hurting world. If we are not paying attention to God in the midst of our work, we are not being church, no matter how successful we may appear to be.
Pursued with intentionality, how might this image change our way of being church? Take for example our gathering on Sunday morning. Who among us has not come to church with a lingering problem or loose end from a project to discuss with someone? What if we set this ‘work’ aside for the work of Sabbath: paying attention to God. The coffee time following church, becomes more than snacks, it is time for relationship. A new person is no longer a ‘visitor’ church shopping, but someone God has brought to this place on this Sunday for a reason. With practice, we might even be able to take this spiritual soul of faith into every day. As we look forward to the excitement of being together this fall, may we pay attention to God: in prayer, in Scripture and in one another.
-- Grace and Peace, Pastor Mark
In gratitude for my friends, family and colleagues who supported me, for the LA LGBT center's "coming out group" who helped me find my way, and for all those brave men and women who speak for the outcast while people of faith remain silent ...
A Coming Out Letter
Life is a gift and far too short not to claim the life you have been given.
When we lost our marriage, my wife and I were devastated. The apostle Paul, in one of his letters, says that human beings are like clay jars. The only benefit that I can find to being fragile pottery is the chance to have a long, good look at the pieces when we are broken. As I labored to put myself back together, I realized that there was a more obvious form to the pieces than I had been living. I am writing to tell you that I am gay.
Since I was a child, I suppressed my primary attraction in life. There was no room in our culture for my homosexuality to be acknowledged, so I safely packed it away at the edge of my awareness. I lived my life well and as fully as I could. For that I am deeply grateful, but three years ago it fell apart. It is time now to fully claim the life God has given me.
This is not a choice. I had been suffering, suffering for a long time: chronic anxiety, acute panic attacks, painful physical tension, self-loathing, toxic perfectionism. Many suffer these symptoms for different reasons; however, it wasn’t until I let the unacknowledged part of myself be my self, that I realized the burden I had been carrying.
As early as kindergarten, I knew I was different. I blamed myself, made up for it by being the best little boy I could. As an adolescent, I was desperately lonely and didn’t understand why. I never doubted, for a moment, your love for me. I had just never loved myself. Among the LGBT community, I am finally among people who are like me. They are extraordinary people. Being gay is a remarkable gift.
Human beings, in all their complexity, imperfection and beauty are simply a miracle. Each of us is created in the image of God who is Holy, wholly Other. I now understand that difference itself is sacred, a sacrament of that divine otherness. For the first time in my life I am beginning to see that my value lies not in my ability to be the person others would like me to be, but rather in the unique beauty and complexity of my own heart, soul, mind and body.
To use an Old Testament metaphor, the last three years have been all wilderness, but now, at least, I am standing on the shore of the Jordan. I can see my way across. On warm summer nights I swim in its waters. The water is good. I know that I am a child of God.
Ancient Israel met God in the wilderness. As I have drawn closer to myself, I too have drawn closer to whatever it is that we gesture at with the word God. I am a better pastor, a better interpreter of the Bible. The New Testament, after all, is written by folks challenged to live their faith openly in a hostile world. I am Nicodemus, standing in the shadows, afraid to step into the light of day. I am the woman at the well, drawing water alone to avoid the judgement of her peers. I am the blind beggar, healed without asking for the gift or for its consequences. I am Lazarus. Once, dead. Now, called out to new life.
Know that I am well and happy. Celebrate this with me. If you don't know what to say, begin there.
- Rev. Mark Sturgess, Holy Week 2012
In 1958, John Steinbeck – Nobel Laureate and author – wrote a letter to his teenage son, Thom. Thom had recently confessed to falling in love with a girl at boarding school. His father’s letter in response, published recently in The Atlantic, is both charming and wise. As I read it this Christmas season, one paragraph caught my attention:
"There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you – of kindness and consideration and respect – not only the social aspect of manners, but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak, but the second can release in you strength and courage and goodness, and even wisdom, you didn't know you had."
In that paragraph is a lifetime, even an eternity, of wisdom. Twenty centuries earlier, another wise teacher named John wrote a letter to his church. John said, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God … God is love.” I may be naive, but my faith is simple. I believe that the universe, and whatever it is beyond it we call God, exists for the sake of the kind of love that Steinbeck and the New Testament speak.
When I gaze into the manger in Bethlehem I see an outpouring of love, the source of everything good. It is a love that recognizes each of us as unique and valuable, love that has the power to release you in strength and courage and goodness. This is the love the Christ child will live and die to be. Let his life and each of our lives through his, count for the good. Let this Holy Night be a sign of God's infinite love for you: “Long lay the world in sin and error pining, 'Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.”
Merry Christmas, - Pastor Mark
Henri Nouwen has written that ministry is receiving God’s blessing from those to whom we minister; in the midst of serving we are blessed with passing glimpses of the face of God. The most humbling gift I have experienced in the practice of ministry is being called into moments in people’s lives that can only be described as holy. These experiences have affirmed my faith in the fundamental witness of Scripture that God is Holy and God is With Us.
Early on a Saturday evening, two days after we celebrated his fiftieth birthday, I received a call that John had died. He was a free-spirited Texan, a grade-school teacher, with a devoted wife and three middle-school aged children. Throughout the four years I knew John, he was in and out of chemotherapy for cancer that had metastasized into his lungs. I heard a pastor once say that the mystery of life includes our death. Ministry at the time of death is one of those mysteries into which I am invited, undeserved, that is as sacred as it is difficult.
When I received the call that night, I drove to his home immediately. The cries of John's grieving children echoed throughout the house and are seared into my memory. When the time seemed appropriate, I gathered his children, wife, and immediate family; we held hands in prayer and surrendered his spirit to God. I waited with them for the morticians to arrive, escorted the body to the van, and said good night.
For me, the word “holy” means that God is utterly unique, set apart from the world of our common sense. God is beyond our imagining and beyond our words. Yet Scripture teaches that our Holy God is also with us. If God is with us, sacred moments in our lives should be plentiful. They are, extravagantly so: an astonishing live performance of Beethoven’s ninth symphony at Disney Hall; dolphins dancing in the surf on Easter morning; a choir member offering a heroic solo the Sunday after she had been diagnosed with cancer. With Anne Lamott, I believe that we can look for encounters with the holy by searching our lives for moments of wonderment, when the only possible response is silence or a breathless “wow.” These moments are the fingerprints of God upon our lives. That is not so difficult to grasp; but sitting alongside a father's lifeless body with his grieving children … where is God here?
The insight has not come easily. Only now after 11 years in the practice of ministry am I coming to trust in it, and then only after spending year after year bearing witness to the passion of the One we call divine. John's was a fractured life in ways dIfferent from mine. Yet in the days ahead, as I spoke to the family and presided over the largest memorial service I had ever seen, I recognized that he was dearly loved. His life, my life, your life, each and every life is a gift of God. Beloved.
Human beings in all their complexity, imperfection, and beauty are simply a miracle. The breath of our Holy God graces each one of us with infinite value; but more than this, I believe that if we listen closely, we can hear in the moans of the sick, in the lament of the outcast, and even in the cries of a grieving child, the very voice of God who chooses not to be a distant other, but chooses to save us by suffering with us even unto death.
Seared into my memory are the cries of John's children that night, but in them I hear the voice of God: I hear Jesus weeping with Mary and Martha over Lazarus; I hear Christ’s dereliction in Gethsemane and his excruciating suffering on a cross; I hear God’s joy at our birth and God’s grief in the midst of our loss. Holy & with, almighty & vulnerable: I don’t understand it, but I know it to be true. In the end the only help we can offer one another is our solidarity, our vulnerability, our presence. Some call it love. This is what God offers us; and if we have the courage to turn toward the awe-inspiring love through whom we were created, the suffering love through whom we are made innocent again, we might just be able to accept the gift, know that we are beloved, and call it grace.
Last Sunday I interpreted Jesus' famous words from John 14: "In my Father's house are many dwelling places," as words of comfort for the living: know that in the heart of the God there is enough room for you. The key to being at peace and helping others to be at peace is the knowledge that we are welcome in this world. This poem by Mary Oliver speaks to me in the same inviting voice as it approaches its closing line "over and over announcing your place in the family of things."
Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things."
as printed in Kevin Young, ed., The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief & Healing (New York: Bloomsbery, 2010), 251.
When Christians speak of God, we often do so with far too much confidence in ourselves and far too little reverence for whatever it is we gesture at with the word God. This brief quote by Karl Barth is an important reminder for us all.
"As [servants of God] we ought to speak of God. We are human, however, and so we cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognize both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give God the glory."
Karl Barth, "The Word of God and the Word of Man," 186.