Finding Faith In Others in the Midst of Tragedy

[A few weeks ago, this was reblogged on my sister denomination, the CRC’s website…in the midst of a move, a lack of internet, a car accident (I’m fine…but my poor car isn’t), and the need for some monastic and re-centering time, I’m now plugged in and grounded again, so here it is.]

And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” and since then has been waiting “until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.” For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying,
“This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds,”
he also adds,
“I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

This past Sunday, I preached on Hebrews 10:11-25, which was the lectionary text. For the majority of my “career,” I have found great value in lectionary preaching, both for its theological and pastoral challenge, but mostly, for the fact that it allows this hard-headed preacher to lay down her insistence on being right for the sake of the perfection of God’s message to God’s people. This text was rather difficult to preach in the wake of a week of violence—violence in Paris, Beirut, Yemen, violence against refugees, black and brown bodies, white bodies, men, women, children, earthquakes in Japan, natural disasters, and ongoing, never-ending verbal violence. A text that offers a litany of “let us” statements didn’t seem to speak to me, and my concern was that it wouldn’t speak to anyone else.

As it turns out, this very text was precisely what a breaking, broken, hurting world and church just might need to hear. Not to heal (as, let’s face it, that’s a much larger project, and not for a single Sunday), but to bind the wounds that are festering, burning, and bleeding after a week of assault and injury and insult.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews encourages the reader that though Christ has gone to the cross for the sins of the world, the work is not done, but rather just begun. This passage suggests that Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection don’t simply end with our approach to worship Christ for going to the cross for us. Instead, this event invites us to renew our commitment to Christ as we leave the altar of his sacrifice.

In a world of iPads, iPhones, billboards, fluorescent lights and 140 character snippets, it is hard to pin down what faithfulness looks and feels like, truly and deeply. The writer of Hebrews understands this. Our passage both affirms the struggle and hope, encouraging us to hold fast to our faith in the promises of God. Most importantly, when we step away from the cross, the new altar established by Christ, we do not leave alone, but are forever accompanied by the company of the cloud of witnesses.

See, faith is not supposed to be a self-isolating journey, but rather one where we are invited into community. That is part of the “let us” invitations Jesus is extending. We are invited to faith in God, not just for ourselves, but in support of one another—when we are struggling, and when we are joyful; when we need a boost in our spirits, and when we need to do so for one another. We are invited into community, not only so that we can give glory to God—the God who gave his only Son so that we could be together again –but also so that we can inspire one another in faithfulness. The cross of Christ is never a source of individual faithfulness, or a competition of “my faith is stronger than yours,” but a communal witness of encouragement and hope.

So come here. Let us come and gather round, understanding that we are called to hold fast to our faith not in isolation, but in community with those around us. Thanks be to God, Amen.

“Red Cup Gate 2015” Keeping Christ In Christmas? (Or…Was Christ there in the First Place and We Have Just Lost Him?)

[Reposted from “The Twelve: Perspectives Blog…Find it here! http://blog.perspectivesjournal.org/2015/11/15/the-red-cup-phenomenon-keeping-christ-in-christmas/]

Let’s get something straight, right off the bat. I love coffee. My morning has not started until I have a cup of coffee in hand. What is more, there is something deeply theological, not to mention pastoral, about gathering around a table with a cup of tea or coffee. There have been times when I have experienced the melting of derision and the meeting halfway over a cup of joe. I have my preferences when it comes to coffee houses, environments, types of brews, dairy vs. nondairy, the ethics of coffee, and the like. Many of my friends do as well. But the type of cup my dark roast is delivered in matters very little to me, as long as I can sit across from someone and leisurely take the time to hear the peaks and valleys that comprise their walk through life.

Christmas is one of my favorite times of year. Last year, I spent it decorating palm trees in San Francisco, sipping on iced lattes. This year, I’ll be again freezing my bum off in the northeast clutching a Starbucks red cup. A red cup, you ask?

This week, Starbucks has become the center of scrutiny for its choice of a plain red cup as its holiday container, rather than its typical ornately decorated holiday fare. According to the Starbucks’ website, the corporation has traditionally used the container to “tell stories with its holiday cup designs. But this year, we desire to usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories.” The solid, simple red and green cups have evidently sparked outrage among many, including many Christians, as they seem…rather un-Christmasy. Nowhere do they bid you “Merry Christmas,” or show signs of good cheer, with some even going as far as to claim that Starbucks “hates Jesus”

While I can understand the frustration of many—not having “Merry Christmas” all over these cups removes the public notion that the “Keep Christ in Christmas” movement fights so hard to preserve. Yet in a way, the simplicity of these cups might symbolize exactly the type of ministry Christ lived. Now, let me back up and justify that statement. I’m not attempting to compare our risen Lord and the largest coffee corporation in the United States. But embracing the simplicity and quietness of this holiday is radical, and is a movement toward inclusivity, as opposed to the exclusivity of writing “Merry Christmas” all over a cup. Christ’s ministry throughout the Gospel displays a radical inclusivity, whether it is the Son of Man sitting with the woman at the well, working on the Sabbath, eating with tax collectors, or healing the man with leprosy. Jesus didn’t print his actions on a stone tablet, stand on a soap box, or write them on a Starbucks Cup (if that had been a thing). Rather, he acted as he saw fit, quietly at times, and publicly in others.

Would Jesus want “Merry Christmas” printed on a Starbucks cup? I don’t know. But I try to think of those words and the exclusive implications they might have for some this time of year, those for whom “Merry Christmas” does not seem to apply. For the first time, this new cup design is inclusive and open, without explicit references to a particular faith tradition.

In the run up to Advent and Christmas, what matters most is not a red or green cup and what fills it or where one purchases said beverage, but rather how, where, and with whom one chooses to consume it. The effort spent to purchase a cup for someone in need of cheer and pastoral care is more significant than a pre-printed generic holiday greeting.

So this season, whatever your feelings on “red cup-gate,” perhaps it is just the excuse to initiate a conversation with someone new, to reconnect with long lost friends, or to hear about the other. So much can happen with the help of a cup of coffee, seeing the face of Christ in another, and the movement of the Holy Spirit. And all of that can happen, regardless of the cup’s color.

Wounded Healer

[This is a repost from my writing on the Christian Reformed Church, North America (CRCNA) website. You can find it originally posted here! http://network.crcna.org/chaplaincy/wounded-healer]

Henri Nouwen coined a phrase that is frequently used in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) circles: as pastoral caregivers, we ought to aim toward the goal of being wounded healers, not the walking wounded.

When I hear this, all I can think of is the TV show “The Walking Dead”, but I doubt this is what Nouwen was getting at. He thought long and hard about this deeply theological, scriptural concept.

Over the course of my five units of CPE, this phrase appeared and reappeared. It was not until my final few units of CPE, and then again in my role as a hospice chaplain, that I really caught a glimmer of what Nouwen was getting at. To be the walking wounded hints at the idea of pastors’ wounds becoming a hindrance to their personhood, and their “pastorhood” as well. And in the end, their ability to feel the working of the Divine is hindered. The still small voice of God muted.

Wounded healers are strong in their weakness to borrow the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians. Their scars and wounds are not a hindrance to the furthering of the Gospel and the mission of the church, but rather a source of connection with those in need. As a mentor of mine put it, wounded healers are able to use their woundedness as a source of great and deep empathy, both emotional and spiritual. Wounded healers acknowledge their own need for healing, for self-care in the healing process, and that healing happens over the course of a lifetime, and isn’t just one chapter in life’s book with God.

Why the seminar on Henri Nouwen now? Advent approaches—a period of expectation, of great hope and joy. The holidays are already in the air. It is a period for many where wounds and pains are all the more prominent, and where companionship is more needed. This is the time for the wounded healer’s presence of strength in weakness, empathy in the midst of healing, and woundedness as the starting point for service.

As pastors, people, and children of God, it is our responsibility to acknowledge the suffering of others and have the willingness to sit in the midst of this experience. As Nouwen says, “compassion is born when we discover in the center of our own existence not only that God is God and man is man, but also that our neighbor is really our fellow man.” In this acknowledgment, we come face to face not only with our own humanity, but also see the loving and compassionate face of Christ in another.

As the holiday being to press in, acknowledge the strength, beauty, and power of your role as a wounded healer, as the sharing of an experience, or the sharing of empathy to another. Acknowledge the life-giving nature that the scars you bear, whether visible or invisible, may give not only to you but also to another.

Thanks be to God, as God uses each and every one of us, just as we are, in precious community!

Home…

IMG_0137 IMG_0141 IMG_0157When I was a child, I was obsessed with the show, M*A*S*H. So much so, that I wanted to become a doctor and join the Army like Hawkeye Pierce and BJ Hunnycutt. For most of the 6th and 7th grades, my wardrobe was smattered with shades of khaki, and my notebooks were tattooed with M*A*S*H quotes, and I faithfully got up early on Saturday mornings with my dad to watch reruns on FX. Suffice it to say, I was either pathetically obsessed with these mythical characters designed as a protest to the Vietnam War (despite their portraying the Korean Conflict) or I aspired to have my own opportunity to escape to somewhere foreign.

Little did I know when I was an early teen that I too would have my own foreign escape, though for me, it wouldn’t be foreign but very much domestic, and in the end, it would teach me that the place I desired to be was in a land far far away, but rather very much at home. My journey to San Francisco at times felt like a M*A*S*H-ian foreign assignment, with tents, foreign troops speaking unfamiliar languages and lobbing shells with the intention to maim and harm, and the wonderment of a new climate and culture. But while there, life stood still. Growth and progress did happen, but in the back of my head, a yearning for exactly the thing I never wanted grew – home.

The premise of M*A*S*H is that while many of the secondary characters come and go, Hawkeye Pierce stays for all eleven seasons, despite having accumulated enough points to rotate stateside. At some points in the show, he even goes a bit, shall we say, bonkers, going to the peacemaking conferences, having dreams where he reenacts scenes from his childhood, and is frequently subordinate to his superior officers when he believes the war is unjust (which in the real military, would get him court marshaled). I can relate to Hawkeye’s sense of righteous indignation, having served as a resident in a state hospital and educational system, as a single person hoping to impact change in a large machine, and more recently, having found out that the board certification process shifted around just after my residency began, directly impacting my ability to get a job (yet jobs are required to become board certified).

Yet all the while, like Hawkeye, homesickness grew like a burning hunger, and by the end of residency, with no employment or board certification on the horizon, I knew home was where I needed to be – where God needed me to be. The very last scene of M*A*S*H is perhaps the most beautiful in that Hawkeye leaves on a chopper, while BJ drives away on his motorcycle. Meanwhile, on the hillside, someone, presumably BJ, has written “Goodbye” in white rocks. Both know that they are parting ways, and finally able to nourish the gnawing hunger that has been eating away at them after many years away at war. For me, coming home felt ominous, and yet, it was exactly where I needed to be, as when I came home, I was greeted by God, and by Call.

San Francisco was a year of discernment, a year in the wilderness, a year for growth, breaking, shaping and molding. But perhaps most importantly, it was a year of going away to learn that I was supposed to be in the very place, with the very people I had been so eager to leave behind. And in returning, I would emerge from the wilderness place an entirely different person in relationship with God, and with others, only to discover that the spinning I was feeling in my call would change and evolve as well.

With all this said, I have taken a new Call, and one that doesn’t check all the boxes I desired, but does indeed check all the boxes that I believe God has for me, and I believe that is what is most important. When I began my fourth unit of CPE, I wanted more than anything to be back East, near “my people” (aka near my clergy support people, my cardiology team in NYC, and just close enough but far enough away from my family), and to be a transplant chaplain. And as God would have it, eight weeks from the end of CPE, I am none of those things. But I am something so much greater. I am a hospice and home care chaplain, and as many have testified over the past two weeks as this call has quickly developed, “this call is perfect for me.” As I view it, call is a spiritual union between God and two parties – the minister/chaplain and the people calling her/him, and over the course of the last two weeks, many people close to me, and even some who barely know me oddly enough, have affirmed the Godly perfection of this call, despite the fact that it checks almost none of the boxes I had desired initially. At first, it was part time, but then became full time after our first meeting together. It is rather suburban-rural, and a bit further way from NYC than I might love, but I have fallen madly in love with the place and people. I won’t be a transplant chaplain, but I will be working with amazing residents and families who have already touched my heart, and I have already seen and felt God through the Holy Spirit work in ways that indicate this is exactly where I am called to be for such a time as this. To fully give myself over to a place in service, just as Christ gave himself over in service to his disciples and to the world for the sake of HIS CALL.

I remember when I was a candidate for ordination, and my mentors were describing what call felt like. For some, images or stories related to a particular call would reoccur over and over again, as if God were trying to insist on the certainty and perfection of a particular place. For others, close friends, family members or mentors would affirm a person’s call over and over again until God’s still small voice would ring true and feel right. This resonated for seminary, my call in California, and now, again as a full time staff chaplain.

Clearly there will be struggles, hardships, and difficult moments – just as Hawkeye and BJ faced their own from time to time, whether physical, emotional or spiritual. But as I have always said with ferocity, if God calls, certainly He will equip me for the journey. And by His grace, He will always be there, as shepherd, guide, mentor and companion. Not only for my sake, but for the sake of all those whom I will walk alongside.

Thanks be to God for wilderness periods, for breathers in the darkness, for 3000 mile moves, and foreign assignments. But most of all, for random APC postings and email leaps into the freefall, as that is how I ended up with the next chapter of my ministry life, and I absolutely can’t wait to embark upon it. Ready or not, here I come!

For All The Saints

Today is All Saints Day, and for many, including my dad, it is a monumental day in the church year. Celebrated in the local church, it remembers those Saints who have died, both past, and in the last year.

On this Sunday, my dad remembers that he again died to Christ a second time. For him, it is a tender and significant remembrance marker of when he became an adult Christian, despite having been raised and nurtured in the church by his parents. This day allows us as a Church to remember all those who have left us, and in the process, also to remember that moment or moments when the Holy Spirit captured our hearts and called us to the service of the Church.

My home church’s contemporary service, The Gathering, will celebrate communion today. Maybe at your church too, many will come to Christ’s Table to be nurtured, fed, and made whole. At the table this Sunday, not only will we gather to remember Christ, but we also will bring with us the names, memories, and love for all those who have gone to feast in glory in the company of the Holy Trinity.

As a child, I remember on this Sunday the singing of “For All the Saints,” a hymn written by an Anglican Bishop, first printed in 1864. Though the hymn has eleven stanzas, the one that stands out to me most is the seventh (which wasn’t sung frequently, if ever):

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one, in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

This stanza speaks to the saints who spoke different languages, celebrated with different sorts of loaves and cups, and held to different confessions. Despite these differences, they are one—all created in God’s image, all beloved in Christ, all blessed with faith by the Spirit, all believing with the same heart, and all were gathered numerous times at Christ’s Table, just as many of us will be today.

May we, this Sunday, remember all the Saints, their contributions to the Church and God’s Kingdom, and may they be inspirations and guideposts for us as progress-makers in the days and weeks, the years and decades to come. Amen.