Monday, August 28, 2017

Gifts and Grace

Yesterday we read Romans 12:1-8 in worship. Paul describes followers of Jesus as the body of Christ, and being members (as in limbs) of one another. We are attached to one another like your hand is attached to your body. We cannot choose our limbs. They are God-given. So are the other members of the body of Christ.
In 1 Corinthians 12:26, Paul uses a similar image, with followers of Jesus being the body of Christ: "If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice with it."
What a vision! We belong together. We need each other. We suffer and rejoice with each other.
We talked a little bit about what constitutes a member of the body of Christ. Church folks that we are, we usually look at the church as representing the body of Christ in the world. 
So I asked the members that were there: What makes a person a member of the church; what qualities would they have? 
Some of the responses were: attendance, faith in God, financial giving. 
Others were: acceptance, inclusion, unconditional love, serving others, and seeking. 
I'm sure I don't remember everything that was mentioned but I remember being deeply moved and impressed by the responses. We've come a long way!
"Membership" no longer means certain requirements that need to be met in order for someone to be a member. Membership no longer means that some are in and others are out.  
If you practice acceptance, inclusion and unconditional love, if you serve others, if you have faith and/or are seeking, you are a member of the body of Christ. And when you suffer, we suffer with you. When you are honored, we rejoice with you. 
(Anybody else getting teary-eyed?)

We also talked about gifts, based on Paul's statement that "We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us" (Romans 12:6).
For example, I think my gift, given to me by the grace of God, is sharing God's love with people. And languages. 
I asked our kids to share some of their gifts and they were too modest to tell us. Then the congregation spoke up and told them what their gifts were! What an example of building each other up. 
I gave each of the kids a gift box, representing the gifts God had given them, and asked them to literally "build" the body of Christ with it. See the photo for the result. What awesome, gifted kids we have! 
It's ok to say what your gifts are. You're not bragging. You're just acknowledging that God has graced you with gifts. That's nothing to be ashamed of. It's a privilege. And by acknowledging your own gifts you are also acknowledging that others are gifted. So I asked the whole congregation to make a list, either mental or on paper, of their gifts. And I asked them to think about how they can use those gifts to build up the body of Christ.
Because that's why God gives us gifts: To do good. To love. To build each other up. 
Now I'm asking you to do the same. What gifts has God given you, and how can you use them to build up the body of Christ, to be God's hands and feet and face and ears and mouth in this world? 

Take a moment to think about that. And think about it again. 
I will close the same way I closed my sermon yesterday, with a quote by Marilynne Robinson: "If you ever wonder what you've done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God's grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle."

Wednesday, August 23, 2017


This past Sunday we spent a beautiful day worshiping in God's creation. The sounds of birds and children playing, the smells of cut grass and the food everyone brought, breathing in the crisp, clean air and feeling the sun and wind on our skin and in our hair. 
Isn't that what really matters in life: the present moment? Being fully aware of what's going on around you, taking it all in, and enjoying it? That's all we really have, is right now. The past is gone and the future is uncertain. Live in the moment and appreciate what God has given you. Take a moment to give thanks.
We heard a story from the Gospel of John, 5:1-11. It's about a pool of water that supposedly had healing qualities. Every so often the water would stir. When it did, the first person to get in the water would be healed. Hundreds of sick and ailing people were waiting there, wanting to be the first one in. Among them was a paralyzed man who had been there for 38 years. Jesus approached him and asked, "Do you want to get well?"
The man answered how he had been waiting there for 38 years and didn't have anybody to put him in the pool when the water stirred.
All Jesus asked was, "Do you want to get well?" Instead of answering "yes", the man came up with an excuse why he wasn't well.

We talked about excuses that we all make. This is not so much about an excuse to get out of something we don't want to do. This is about making excuses for getting well. Maybe we don't really want to get well?
Jesus said to the man, "Get up, take your bedroll and start walking." And the man got up and walked away.
Jesus doesn't want to hear our excuses. He wants our "yes." And even if we don't give it he will heal us anyway.
We can't heal people like Jesus did. But we can heal our society and our world. 
How do we do that, you ask?
Take your bedroll (your excuses, your fears, your resentment) - and start walking. Start walking the way that Jesus walked. A way of healing and love and courage.
By the way, this whole episode happened on the Sabbath, the day of rest. So when the healed man carried home his bedroll, people started chiding him: "You shouldn't be carrying that on the Sabbath!"
Instead of celebrating the fact that he had been healed they focused on law and order.
Jesus focused on healing. So much so that he put it above law and order. That's what got him in trouble.

I mentioned the fear of conflict as an excuse that many of us use for not getting involved. We don't want to offend anyone and we don't want to become the target of other's attacks. 
After reaching out to a local newspaper about their negative and biased description of a very positive and uplifting experience at the rally against hate in Worcester on August 13 and about the police's involvement I was personally attacked online in a hateful and cowardly way. (Not by the paper! By an individual who has made it his mission to publicly shame people he disagrees with.)
But that's not going to stop me. I'm not going to use my fear as an excuse any longer. 

These are scary times. 
I am German. First generation. I was raised in a culture that had seen happen what nobody deemed possible: That a nation of civilized and good people (a land of thinkers and poets, they call themselves!) would commit genocide in the most perverted way any human mind could imagine. 
I know you don't think this will ever happen in America. Neither did Germans before 1933.
Don't let the haters fool you or intimidate you. 
And don't think there isn't anything you can do.
The 40,000 people in Boston on Saturday, August 19, did something. They showed up, and the so-called "free speech" rally crumbled.
There is lots you can do.
Share this blog on social media sites and email it to your contacts. Go to the next rally or vigil. Maybe even organize one. Donate to organizations that stand up against hate and racism. Follow them on facebook. Call your representatives. Get involved in local politics. Start talking to people.
This is too dangerous to sit silently by for 38 years and then complain about everything that went wrong. People's lives are on the line. 

Get up, take your baggage and start walking.
And pray as you're walking:
"God, help us, help us, help us. Give us courage, wisdom, humility, an open mind, and all the love you have. Show us the way." 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Space for Grace

We all need space for grace! In church, in our families, at work, in our neighborhoods, and, most importantly, in our own hearts.
After the events of this past weekend in Charlottesville, VA, we need even more space for grace. And space for safety, justice, and peace. For every human being. No one group of people gets to choose who has a right to live in safety. 
Every single human being has that right. That is a birthright. A basic human right, regardless of color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, education, physical or mental ability, etc. 
And it's up to us as the human race (and most certainly as followers of Jesus) to protect the safety and well-being of others. 

I was going to share some of my interpretation of Matthew 7:1-20 that I preached on last Sunday. But I'm only going to stress one verse, commonly known as the Golden Rule:
"In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you." (Matthew 7:12)
IN EVERYTHING. Not just in church or on facebook. But in every day life, even when you get frustrated and irritated or you feel you haven't been treated fairly or haven't been heard. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Not "some" others: Your family and friends, your church people, your race, your fellow Americans. "Others." To me that means, ALL OTHERS. Including your family and friends, your church people, your race, your fellow Americans. But also including your frenemies, Muslims, immigrants, people of all colors, and yes, white supremacists. Do to them as you would have them do to you. 
Much, much easier said than done. 
As mentioned in my previous blog post, it starts with me. Or, as Michael Jackson sang in 1987, "the man [I will add: woman] in the mirror." 
Watch his video here:

I was at the rally against hate in Worcester on Sunday evening. I just needed to do something besides pray and put crying emojis on facebook. It was a powerful experience hearing people of different color, gender, religions and races speak and call us as white people out on our responsibilities. It was especially inspiring to see young, high school age! women of color speak. 
And hurtful how they were yelled over by the crowd, "We can't hear you!"
Women's voices are generally softer than men's. High school age students haven't fully developed their speaking voices yet, nor are they used to speaking into a microphone in front of hundreds of people. For some, English wasn't the first language. It took incredible courage for them to stand up there and voice their thoughts. And then for people to shout "Speak up!" was incredibly disrespectful and patronizing. 
Just one small symbol of how we think it's other people's job to make themselves heard. 
No. It's our job to listen. 
Move in closer. Shut your mouth and open your ears. 
Do to others as you would have them do to you. 

The overall theme was LOVE. It wasn't hate or anger or name calling. It was LOVE. Let's stand together in love, they said. Love wins, they said. 
Remind you of anyone you know? 
"Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:30-31)
His name is Jesus.
We call him our God and Savior. 
I think it's time we start listening to him. 

More than anything, we need God's spirit to guide us right now. 

May God bless you with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.

May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom and peace among all people.

May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.  

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really can make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.

And the blessing of God, the supreme majesty and our Creator, Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word, who is our brother and Savior, and the holy Spirit, our advocate and guide, be with you and remain with you, this day and forevermore.

(A four-fold Benedictine blessing, Sr. Ruth Marlene Fox, OSB, 1985)

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Healthy Communication

On Sunday afternoon, August 6, we hosted an Active Bystander Training at Trinity Church: "Creating Safety in Contentious Times"
We learned about harm-doers, targets, and active or passive bystanders. The creators of this program avoid the terms "bully" and "victim" because those are labels. The training addresses situational behavior, not persons. Harm can be done unintentionally, and someone who has harmed someone else with words or actions (every single one of us) is not necessary a bully or a bad person. Nor is a target of harm-doing always a victim. 

We talked about "inhibitors": What keeps people from getting involved? (Factoid: The more people witness an incident, the less likely that anyone will get involved.)
And how can we get involved, be effective and remain safe? 
I cannot present all the content of the program here. I strongly encourage you to register when we offer another training in the fall. This program is appropriate for teens and adults.
Also look on Trinity Church's facebook page for photos of the posters we referred to. 

Two of the main take-aways that I heard from others were:
1 Focus on the target, not the harm-doer, and make sure that the target is supported and knows they are not alone. Ask them before you take any action steps. Even just sitting next to them or engaging them in conversation may divert the harm-doer. 
2 Have empathy for the harm-doer. Understand that they are acting out of a place of hurt, not evil.

I am convinced if we all learned and applied these techniques in every day life, we would make the world a better and safer place, one small step at a time.

On Monday, August 7, I was able to attend a Workshop on Difficult Behaviors: "That Pushes My Buttons"
The presenter based his strategy on systems theory which teaches that all groups of people are a system: Each element (person) in that system has a function and they all interact with and affect each other. So what one person does, says or even feels, affects all other persons in that system (family, church, you name it). 

Churches are either a "survival of the fittest" system, where a few people have power and control and others have no voice and accommodate, or show passive-aggressive behavior. 
Other churches are a "we're in this together" system of equals where all are respected, have access to power, and a voice. 
Needless to say, the latter is a safer and more humane environment. 

Examples of "difficult behavior" are aggressive, critical, controlling, degrading, negative, or polarizing.

We took a closer look at the "buttons" we have that other people push and that make us react with "fight or flight" mode. Difficult behavior triggers reactivity in us because it takes us back to a difficult time in our own emotional history. We might feel we are not valued or not loved, that something is wrong with us, that we have to fight hard to win, that our needs will not be met, that we are alone or cannot handle any given situation.

Instead of trying to control the person whose behavior we experience as difficult (and whom we cannot control), we can get to know and shrink our own buttons, making them harder to push. This can be accomplished by developing anti-buttons: "I am valued. I have power and a voice. I can be myself. I am loved. My needs are being met. I can be alone or with others as I choose. I can handle challenges."

Again, I cannot go into every detail of the program. What struck me is that everything starts with ME (or, as you are reading this: you). How do I react to others' behavior, and why? How can I change my own emotional and verbal reaction? How can I have more compassion for the person that I find to be exhibiting difficult behavior? 

Eleanor Roosevelt said, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." If none of us felt inferior as a consequence of other people's behavior, we in turn would not need to make someone else feel inferior and we would indeed live in a safer and more humane environment. 

Another aspect of starting with ME is asking: What can I do so that we as a church become a place where everyone feels that "we are in this together?" Instead of falling back into the "us versus them" mentality: My supporters and my critics; men and women; Republicans and Democrats; young people and old people; Christians and Muslims, etc. When really there is only an US: the human race. 

At one point during the workshop we were given a few seconds to write our own personal mission statement. This is what I came up with:
"I'm a pastor because I get to inspire, encourage, challenge, empower and comfort people, and help them to experience that they are God's beloved."

Even after having thought about it more, I wouldn't change a thing.

I thank God every day for opportunities to learn and grow as an individual, and as your pastor!