Grieve and Take Heart

Grieve, and Take Heart

By Adam Gray

I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”

John 16:33 NLT

These are the last words that Jesus speaks directly to his gathered disciples. Then he will pray, and when he is finished praying, he will be arrested, betrayed by a corrupt system, and then tortured and brutally murdered by an authoritarian government. Jesus’ words seem to make no sense here. He hasn’t overcome the world, but rather the world is about to crush him utterly.

Today we mourn the triumph of racism, sexism, and homophobia over our hopes of inclusion, affirmation, and equality. We live in a country where most Christians believe my black and brown siblings are less worthy, that my LGBTQIA siblings are disordered rather than glorious, and that my sisters should not shine forth in their full potential to speak and lead. Today we mourn, today we are afraid, today we feel the temptation to give in to despair. But Jesus says to take heart.

It is not that Jesus is denying our grief. Instead, Jesus knows that his disciples will have many trials and sorrows in this world. Jesus is present in our grieving and our fear. What is special here is that Jesus knows our grieving hearts perfectly and still calls us to something better. Jesus calls us to take heart.

If the death and resurrection of Jesus mean anything, then they mean this: that when our hope is dead and buried in the ground – hope for acceptance, justice, equality, and mercy – when the person in whom you put your hope seems utterly defeated, when you’re overcome with fear and hiding in a darkened room, that when all hope seems lost God’s story is not over. In fact, God’s story is only beginning. Jesus’ death was not the end of all hope, but rather the beginning of the renewal of all things.

So grieve today for the death of hope like the disciples did on Holy Saturday. It is right and good to weep and mourn for the brokenness in our world. But take heart, for Jesus has overcome the world. We believe that there is a time coming where Jesus’ perfect government of justice and peace will have no end. That reign of God is coming, and it is already among us in a thousand acts of justice and compassion and truth.

So until that day comes, wait and work for that peace that Jesus promised. Take heart, for our Savior has overcome the world.

Not Straight

By Leah Roberts

I would’ve never guessed that my story from a year ago to today would’ve turned out this way. God is always surprising me, and I hope that never stops. My testimony is not about what I have done, but what God has done and is doing in and around me. The phrase “God is good, all the time” means so much more to me now.

So here’s my story:

I used to think that I had all the answers. When I was a teenager, I knew everything. When I turned 20, I knew everything. When I started studying my bible for the first time, I believed it held the answer to every question thrown at me. Now? I’m 27 and the more I learn about God, the more I realize I know nothing. I understand nothing. And I am in a better relationship than ever with God because of this new humility. Every day that I walk with God my expectations of being mind-boggled by his goodness are always exceeded. My faith grows stronger and more resilient when I allow my heart to be molded into a follower of Christ Jesus, rather than acting out the façade of being a Christian.

Ever since I was 10 years old fitting in was a top priority for me. I didn’t care who I had to be, I was happy being a chameleon. Nobody ever told me to just be myself. That would have been an entirely foreign idea to me. Through high school and middle school I tried on the shoes of every clique school years have to offer. Not only did my entire wardrobe change each time, but also my taste in music, my behavior, and most the profound part to me was my attitude towards those who were momentarily ‘outsiders’ to my small world.

I used to think that I didn’t have any special left inside of me. At the age of 23 when I started to really study the bible and try to understand God a little more I distinctly remember crying to my mom feeling like God didn’t want me. I felt like I was chosen from a very young age and that I had a large calling on my life, but when I began a two-way relationship with God- I felt like I wasn’t enough. I was never told that God really thinks of me. I fell into depression, and it was at that moment in my life that God sent me someone who would be the hands that helped create the circumstances that sent me searching for a deeper relationship with God. My heart began to crave and thirst for Jesus’s presence like nothing and no one else even existed. Thus began the slow, painful, and absolute obliteration of the box that I had put God into.

I was 23 and newly single from my first lesbian relationship. Although I felt that I had finally found a sense of true self, I preferred acceptance. Because of the pushback from the people that I wanted to like me, I made the decision to never go back to that lifestyle – every one I surrounded myself with was so proud of me! I walked around with my head held high. I was on fire for God and ready to change the world. I was accepted again. I was doing bible studies and started running the tech at church. Life was going smoothly. And then something happened like second half of a hurricane after the eye. I was walking down the stairs at my job, my eyes met with hers, and my soul spoke calm, sweet, and profound words that filled my whole being with unexpected hope and love and joy. It spoke “that’s her”.

It wasn’t long before we tore down each other’s walls and lifted each other up. At the time she was everything I ever wanted and also more than I could ever ask for. After a year, we were deeply in love and I wanted nothing more in the whole universe than to please God. I had my priorities straight. But my little book of answers called the Bible and the preacher at my church said that I wasn’t going to heaven if I continued loving a woman. I began to think that I needed to choose between God and the person that I loved. It was the most excruciating and tormenting decision I felt I had to make. After many sobbing prayer sessions, nights spent holding each other like it was our last, and revising the promises we made to each other with our rings, we unwillingly parted ways. With no hope left and open wounds on my soul I clung to Matthew 16:24 and Galatians 2:20. I believed I was taking up my cross and dying to myself in order to follow Christ and be saved. I thought it was working because I was depressed, miserable, and I hated myself. I thought that’s what God was supposed to feel like. Self-loathing and daily denying of any self-identification or desires of my heart. My anxiety went through the roof. I prayed earnestly multiple times every day for some understanding of why He gave me someone I wanted to spend my life with just to take it away. I prayed for my heart to change and to take those desires away completely. I prayed for a man to come save me from my misery.

The most life changing advice came from a friend and mentor who also fully supported me suffering for what I was led to believe was Christ. God does have a sense of humor. She told me to date Jesus. I thought she was crazy but I was in a dark place and was willing to try anything. I began to have the most intimate relationship that I ever dreamed of having, and everything else in life went quiet. When I was lonely, I asked to feel him lay next to me- and I kid you not- I could feel him there. Some days, I laid on the grass in the sun and just basked in his presence. He even would tell me jokes when I got stressed out at work. I’m claustrophobic and I had an 8 hour plane ride to London. The day before I left I pleaded with him to somehow comfort me and keep me from having a panic attack. He gave me the most beautiful and constant vision of these huge wings flying over the plane and the sense of peace that I carried on the plane, the whole week in London, and the travel back home, it was unexplainable coming from someone who is a home-body with social anxiety and a routine centered person. I see now that I was learning who Jesus really was. What his presence and peace feels like. His personality. His humor. His deep, overwhelming, and unconditional love.

A month or so into “dating Jesus” I felt a prompting in my spirit. It was almost as if I were being woken up from a dream. I just felt Him saying “it’s time.” If you know me even a little bit you probably know I am an introvert. I was always safe and comfortable in my own mind. Unfortunately, being an extreme introvert causes a lot of noise and misconceptions within. I know now that it wasn’t that I had fallen asleep, fact was that I let Him take over my thoughts for the last month or so because all of my questions were too overwhelming and numerous. My thoughts before this relationship were too loud for me to comprehend and left no allowance to even hear what He really wanted to say. But when He said it’s time to me, I had not a single doubt it was Him speaking because it only took one question out loud to answer the collaboration of all of my twisted mind’s internal questions, confusions, and misinterpretations.

“For what?”

“to learn who you are created to be… Mine.”

And immediately the face of a pastor I had once met with and had some not so good ideas about at one time came to mind –and wouldn’t leave – so I set up a meeting with him. During our second meeting, we talked about my bible study and he faced me with a question that instantly thwarted me into an extremely painful heartbreak that led to many tears for the next few days. We were studying Galatians and he asked me “What is it you feel you have to do in order for God to love you?” I didn’t realize at the time that God was using every situation in my life together in order to tear down, eliminate, and pulverize the walls of what I thought was my theology. This quickly turned into a weekly meeting. This man, who shows radical love to everyone he meets with his bear hugs and wealth of knowledge and desire to not only know God better every day but to emulate Him, and let God be seem in him as best as he can – it confused me. He loved his flock more thoroughly and fully than any pastor I had ever seen or heard of and I was baffled. He spoke of the Bible in ways that pricked my heart and made me bleed because he was so passionate about God’s goodness and showing God’s love to everyone that may cross his path, even when he’s dealing with difficult personal circumstances. It threw me way off, made me weary, but oh so intrigued. His drive and relentless pursuance for Christ-likeness, though, seemed effortless. Whatever it is that he has – I want it. But it also bothered me that it was so new to me. Why is his radical love, forgiveness, acceptance, and peace so foreign to me? I thought my church had all the right answers but I had never felt Jesus oozing from the depths of someone’s soul like I did this man. Even when I did experience God before this, at my current church, it was momentary and jaded.

My search for my true self ended as quickly as it began when God told me that I was about to discover who I was created to be and then he ended that sentence with ‘Mine’. My thoughts immediately shifted and aligned with my experience of what Jesus had been teaching me. I am chosen. I am created by the creator of everything for Himself. I am loved and forgiven by the one and only God. I am adopted into His family, with nothing that can ever separate me from the love of God. I’m special because God loves me and lives inside of me. I’m unique because He has set apart works for me to accomplish. I’m justified by my faith. Any other labels by which I used to use to set the parameters for the ‘me versus them’ of self-identification just seem so insignificant when my eyes are on Jesus. We are all one in Christ.

I used to think that I had all the answers. I was told one time that I was putting God in a box. Sometimes the things that offend you the most are the truest. I used to think that God wasn’t supposed to be fun. I remember going home after the first time I spent time with a group of the women from my church outside of the grounds and had fun, and thinking to myself, I’ve never had fun in a church setting before…is this allowed? I remember when we would go out to eat as study groups the men sat in a different area than the women and I thought that was normal for the family to be split up. I thought that the Christian life was all about giving up all the things that your heart desires for the greater good, that God loved those people more. That thought caused me to stay at a job for 7 years that was daily destroying any confidence I had in my career abilities because that’s what Christians do, right? They suffer, even at work. My God box was so small that I thought my church was the only one that had it right. I looked down on anyone that thought any differently about God than I did and felt sorry for them, closing off any opportunity for me to experience God in any way other than the walls that I was comfortable hiding in. I thought that I had faith, but all I had was deep, ingrained fear and an even deeper, scarred over, and long forgotten desire to be seen and loved. I thought love was earned. I thought God might be nice sometimes but mostly he’s just powerful and angry because we’re shitty people who just keep getting worse. I thought I was being accepted and part of the Christian clique. It was so easy to see division and join the “us” part and point fingers at the “them”. Don’t you see? I was a Christian. I honestly truly wanted to be a good Christian. I wanted God to love me and I wanted to make Him proud. I wanted to follow black and white scripture. But I could only see what I allowed myself to experience, and that my friend was a tiny, tiny box.

Everything makes clearer sense when it’s in retrospect. I’ll never fully understand or even be aware of everything God has done for me, but when the pieces start to fit back together it makes such a beautiful picture. I took my dirty hands off of my filthy mess of a life and gave it to God. I am now a new creation in Christ. I am so incredibly free. I am learning how to harness my ability to walk in others shoes and be able to use that for whatever God has planned for me. I now have a new home called Redeeming Church. When we worship together I finally feel the Holy Spirit moving my heart and filling the whole room. When we hold hands or break bread together I feel like I’m finally part of a real family. God’s family. Like I’m part of something that makes a good and lasting difference in our own lives, in the community, in the world, and in the kingdom of God. There is no us versus them, everyone is truly wanted, welcome, and fully loved regardless of who you are. I feel it’s important to point out that I don’t blame my old church for anything, and I know that God loves them and uses them for good things as well. I don’t hold any negative experience I had there against them. It largely drives me to pray for all God-boxes to be obliterated. It just wasn’t the place that God wanted to reveal himself to me, or where He wanted to put to use the gifts He has given me. I’m now exercising and strengthening my calling of fully loving every person that walks in the door, down the street, at the store, in traffic, at work, and everywhere else because God has poured out his love into me that it just can’t help but overflow. The taint of the word ‘Christian’ has been removed. Jesus still cuddles with me at night, walks with me during the day, and tells me stories that make me laugh. I have opened up my bubble (a little bit at a time) to new people and have made some absolutely wonderful friends. I have learned to love who I was created to be as a child of God. I have fully accepted myself and the fact that I’m not straight and dare I say that putting any further labels on myself is pointless when God tells me I am His and whatever else the world sees is just empty, wasted time. I see God in everything around me and his almighty goodness and love just radiates through me and I have hope and confirmation that it has already and will continue to bring about good fruit in my life and the lives around me. The box that I kept God in has been destroyed and there’s not a single cell in my body or a single voice in my spirit that says to even try to look back. The God I know now would never fit in any box I could even imagine. I am so excited to see what He does and teaches me next. The best part is that I know I will, and I look forward to looking back in another year or five years or 20 years and saying wow, I thought I knew everything then. And while that relationship is over, my journey isn’t. This isn’t my destination, but only the beginning of my story.

Ungodliness

Ungodliness
By Pastor Kali Freels

Ezra 9-10

Tonight, we’re continuing with our Lenten series, looking at the things that God is leading us away from. Traditionally, Lent is a solemn, reflective season during which we contemplate the weight of our own sin as Jesus prepares to bear the weight of that sin on the cross. It’s a time when --as Adam said last week-- we examine our own lives to see what unnecessary things on the periphery have been dialed up too much and distract us from the truly important things. It’s a time when we can turn down the volume on those distractions so we can turn our focus back to God.

Tonight, I’ve been tasked with preaching about ungodliness. What is it? How do we even define it? How is God leading us away from it? It’s a challenging thing to put into terms. But before we jump into the meat of it, I want to start with a story. About 20 or 30 years ago, there was a young woman who grew up loving God deeply. She was at church every time the doors were open and grew into several leadership positions in the youth group. She felt drawn to ministry too, but had been told her whole life that God never called women to be pastors; that was sinful. So --wanting to be faithful to God’s word-- she opted to become a missionary, much to the joy of her home church. She --of course-- went to a private Christian liberal arts college, where she was surprised to learn that so many women in her dorm believed God was calling them to be preachers and pastors; it rivaled everything that she’d been taught about women’s role in the church. So, she committed herself to a quiet, unseen ministry:  every morning, she woke up between 5 and 6 o’clock and walked down to the prayer chapel in the dorm to pray for those “poor, misguided women” who had been so “deceived” as to think God was actually calling them to pastor. She did this every morning for years.

Tonight, we’re going to look at another story of someone who happened upon a community living in a way that he didn’t agree with. It’s a story that often gets overlooked --it’s one that I certainly never heard growing up. It’s from the book of Ezra.

We’re going to be camping out in Ezra chapters 9 and 10 tonight, but before we get there I want to set up a little bit of the context. The books Ezra and Nehemiah are actually on the same scroll in the Hebrew Bible, and the events in Ezra lead right into the events of Nehemiah (which we examined together a couple of weeks ago). The Israelites are still in exile in Babylon, but it’s been a while since the initial Babylonian conquest happened. The relationship between the Israelites and the Babylonians is actually pretty good at this point in time. The previous king allowed (and partially funded) the Israelites to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. When Ezra becomes prominent, King Artaxerxes (the same king who later allowed Nehemiah to go rebuild the wall around Jerusalem) wrote Ezra a letter instructing him to teach the Israelites in the ways of their God, the Hebrew God. The King specifically asks Ezra to do it because Ezra is an expert in the Hebrew Law. Ezra agrees, and takes a group of people to return to Jerusalem. If we remember the events of the initial Babylonian takeover,  only the Hebrew nobles had been taken to serve in the king’s courts-- the impoverished Israelites had been left behind in the demolished towns surrounding Jerusalem. Ezra was returning to teach those Jews.

 

When he gets there, however, he realizes that a large number of Hebrew men married women from all of the neighboring nations. He is distraught, because earlier Hebrew laws dictated that Hebrew men should only marry Hebrew women. He tore his robe and disheveled his hair and beard --making his mourning public-- and wept until the evening sacrifice. When it came time for the evening sacrifice, he prays this prayer:

“I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens. From the days of our ancestors until now, our guilt has been great. Because of our sins, we and our kings and our priests have been subjected to the sword and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hand of foreign kings, as it is today.

“But now, for a brief moment, the Lord our God has been gracious in leaving us a remnant and giving us a firm place in his sanctuary, and so our God gives light to our eyes and a little relief in our bondage. Though we are slaves, our God has not forsaken us in our bondage. He has shown us kindness in the sight of the kings of Persia: He has granted us new life to rebuild the house of our God and repair its ruins, and he has given us a wall of protection in Judah and Jerusalem.

“But now, our God, what can we say after this? For we have forsaken the commands you gave through your servants the prophets when you said: ‘The land you are entering to possess is a land polluted by the corruption of its peoples. By their detestable practices they have filled it with their impurity from one end to the other. Therefore, do not give your daughters in marriage to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them at any time, that you may be strong and eat the good things of the land and leave it to your children as an everlasting inheritance.’

“What has happened to us is a result of our evil deeds and our great guilt, and yet, our God, you have punished us less than our sins deserved and have given us a remnant like this. Shall we then break your commands again and intermarry with the peoples who commit such detestable practices? Would you not be angry enough with us to destroy us, leaving us no remnant or survivor? Lord, the God of Israel, you are righteous! We are left this day as a remnant. Here we are before you in our guilt, though because of it not one of us can stand in your presence.”

After Ezra prayed this prayer, some of the men in the community came to talk to Ezra about what they should do. Ezra decreed that all of the men should divorce their foreign wives and give up their mixed children, because they were not purely Jewish. The men in the community agreed, and took oaths renouncing their marriages and casting out their children.

What happened to the women and children? The text doesn’t tell us. Based on common laws at the time, though, we can make some accurate guesses. Because their ex-husbands were still alive, they were ineligible for remarriage. Because their ex-husbands were still alive, it would have been considered adultery. Because they were women, they were not eligible to own land. Unless they had brothers they could return to, they were shunned into a life of poverty and exclusion.

That much pain and seems to run counter to the God of love and forgiveness that we know and love.

Two things strikes me in this story. The first is Ezra’s prayer. It’s a long prayer, which is uncharacteristic of the prayers in both Ezra and Nehemiah. It’s also odd that God doesn’t reply. In this prayer, Ezra says that he’s quoting scripture. Usually when scripture cites other verses, our Bibles provide a footnote saying where that verse was previously stated. It’s chapter 9:11-12:

“The land you are entering to possess is a land polluted by the corruption of its peoples. By their detestable practices they have filled it with their impurity from one end to the other. Therefore, do not give your daughters in marriage to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them at any time, that you may be strong and eat the good things of the land and leave it to your children as an everlasting inheritance.”

At the end of this quote, however, is no footnote for a specific verse. Instead, there’s a footnote saying that it’s a paraphrase, a combination of a verse in Deuteronomy and a verse in Leviticus. The verse in Deuteronomy chapter 7 provides instructions on how Israelites are to treat people that they have conquered. These instructions include massacring the people they conquered. It doesn’t say anything about how to act when they are the ones who have been conquered. The verse in Leviticus comes at the end of chapter 18, which is a long list of sexual perversions the Israelites needed to abstain from (like sleeping with your brother’s wife, your own daughter, or an animal). It even said that foreigners in their land needed to abide by these same laws-- none of the laws in this chapter say that the Israelites are prohibited from marrying foreigners, but is instead saying all the foreigners needed to follow the Israelites’ laws. Because scripture is hesitant to cite Deuteronomy or Leviticus as the direct source for Ezra’s quote --which isn’t a direct quote at all-- it seems that he’s conflated two pieces of scripture and interpreted them in the light of his own personal prejudice.

The second thing that strikes me in this story is a little more obvious, but just as easily overlooked:  God never instructs Ezra to do anything. Throughout both the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, there is no command from God. There is no prophet speaking on behalf of God, giving instructions to the people. There is no voice from the heavens instructing the leaders of the law. There’s no burning bush carrying the voice of God. In fact, all of the actions in Ezra and Nehemiah-- the rebuilding of the temple, the rebuilding of the walls around Jerusalem-- are done out of the desire of individuals to do those things, even though there are prophecies saying that God cannot be confined to a temple and that Jerusalem will be a city without walls, accessible to all. And it seems odd that God would sanction an entire community to divorce their spouses for no other reason than they weren’t Jewish.

This seems especially bizzare when we look at other stories around this one in the Hebrew Bible. Quite a bit earlier, we have the book of Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite-- not a Jew-- and marries a Jewish man. When her husband dies and her mother-in-law Naomi is left widowed and son-less, Ruth marries another Jewish man to provide for both her and Naomi. Ruth is praised as a loyal companion to Naomi, and as an ideal daughter-in-law. Ruth is also one of the only women included in the genealogy of Jesus, even though she’s not a Jew.

The book right after Ezra and Nehemiah is the book of Esther. This book is about Esther --a Jewish woman-- who is summoned as one of several candidates to become the Persian king’s new wife. She was encouraged by her uncle to hide her nationality so that King Xerxes would pick her. When he does, she reveals that she is Jewish convinces him to stop the slaughter of her people, which had just been sanctioned by the Persian government. Esther’s actions are still celebrated by the Hebrew people to this day. The yearly holiday Purim retells Esther’s story again and again, where she is still celebrated as a hero, even though she married the Persian king.

When we get to the book of Jeremiah, the Israelites are still exiled in Babylon. Jeremiah is a prophet God raised up to encourage the Israelites to repent of their wicked ways and turn back to the Lord. In chapter 29, Jeremiah pens a letter that he has delivered to the Jews in Babylon, which says thus:  

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says.”

Shortly after that, we find the most well-known verse in Jeremiah:  “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

So, why is this story here? I firmly believe that every story in scripture is here to teach us a lesson, but I also believe that lesson might not be written verbatim in the story. If we cherry-pick the story of Ezra, we can quickly make a biblical case against interracial marriage, and we know that’s not God’s heart, especially when we look at the ministry of Jesus and the welcoming of Gentiles. When we look at the story of Ezra in the context of these other narratives, this story becomes a warning. It warns us that we must listen for God’s voice instead of speaking over God. It warns us that good people are harmed when we act out of our own prejudices. It warns us that entire communities are alienated when we act out of our prejudices. It warns us that ungodliness reigns supreme when we act out of our own prejudices.

What is ungodliness? Ungodliness is using God as a means to justify our own prejudices. Ungodliness is using God as a “trump card,” because nothing can top it. It’s the thing we rashly throw down when we know there’s no fair way to win our argument. It’s the thing we throw on the table when we’re fed up and just want people to see things our way. Because --of course-- our way is the right way. The irony is they also think their way is the right way, and they have the same God trump card to throw down, too.

In order to even begin thinking about moving toward godliness, we have to surrender our prejudices. We have to surrender our disdain for being wrong. We have to surrender our dislike of people who are different from us --who believe differently than we do. We have to surrender our loyalty to our political parties. We have to surrender our idea of what a just society looks like. We have to surrender our preconceived notions of what good Christians are. We have to surrender all of our ideologies, else we run the risk of missing God’s will altogether.

You see, when the elders wanted to rebuild the temple earlier in Ezra, the younger generation wanted to help. The elders in the law forbade the younger generation from helping and sent them away. When they finished building the temple, they were so busy celebrating the fact that it was put back together that none of them noticed that the presence of God wasn’t there.

When Ezra finishes finalizing all these divorces, he’s too busy celebrating the “return to morality” of those men that he’s completed neglected the fact that they just broke countless laws in the hospitality code about how the Israelites are to welcome foreigners and care for widows and orphans, that they were obligated by law to treat them as kindly as they treated family. It’s reminiscent of Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

If we cling to our prejudices, we miss God’s will. When we surrender our prejudices, then and only then can we hear God’s voice.

I want to go back to the story that woman I mentioned at the beginning of my sermon tonight. Eventually, she stopped telling God what was wrong with those women who felt called to the pastorate and started listening for God’s heart. Only when she laid down her prejudice did she realize God was calling her to the pastorate. That woman is Dr. Julie Pennington-Russell, one of the most well-known pastors in Baptist life today.

We can’t begin to surrender our prejudices until we stop talking and start listening. I believe that if Erza had stopped talking long enough to listen for God’s voice in that prayer, he would have heard something different. When we stop talking, we can instead fix our eyes upon the life of Jesus, the one who perfectly models a godly life. When we shut off the cacophony our prejudices fill our hearts, we can listen to the compassion in Christ’s teachings and model our lives after that. But we have to be willing to surrender our prejudices.

Are you willing to surrender yours?

 

 

Without Love

Without Love

As a minister on Ash Wednesday, I know that I should probably say something solemn about the beginning of Lent, the weight of sin, the cost of grace, and the process of reflecting upon the impending sacrifice of Christ. I should be prayerfully considering what to give up for Lent (knowing that my small sacrifice will never compare to the ultimate sacrifice that Christ gave us) and encouraging my congregation to do the same. I should be preparing to don my forehead with ashes and spending the next several weeks repenting for my various sins, knowing that my sins (along with the sins of all humanity) put Christ on the cross.

But today’s also Valentine’s Day, and I am completely enamoured by love.

I woke up this morning by giving my wife of three months a kiss on the forehead. I then snuck into the kitchen to make a special breakfast (not one that anyone who’s fasting from sugar this Lent could have enjoyed). After breakfast, we excitedly exchanged gifts because we couldn’t wait until this evening. I opened her card to me and teared up at her expressions of her love toward me and her deep understanding of my personhood. She then opened my gift (a book in which I had written various things I love about her).  Her reaction was similar to mine:  teary-eyed, smiling, glowing. We smiled, embraced, and then started our work day. Starting the day out with love has made it immeasurably better. 

That’s how love works, isn’t it? When we know that we are deeply loved and understood by someone, it fills us with joy, peace, and compassion. It steadies us, fills us with light. It fills us with calm to be seen and affirmed for who we are. And that sense of peace inspires us to show that same compassion to others. It’s a much better motivator than guilt or shame.

But why talk about love on Ash Wednesday? Well, because the sacrifice of Christ was birthed out of love. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). If Christ’s sacrifice was a sacrifice just for the sake of offering a sacrifice, then the action is hollow. If we do something just because it’s “the thing we’re supposed to do,” it’s empty. Paul had some good words on this subject:

“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

If I have all of the musical giftings of the cherubim and seraphim, but do not have love, my melodies are empty words. If I participate in charity and feed the poor only for the feeding’s sake, but do not have love, all I’m serving is cheap grace. If I write the most eloquent statements of faith, but do not have love, all I have are cold words on a page. If I call out all the sins of others and call them to repentance, but do not have love, then all I offer is judgement and condemnation. If I quote Bible verses to win an argument, but do not have love, all I have are cherry-picked sentences and broken relationships. If I use “God’s will” as my excuse for pushing my own agenda onto others, but do not have love, all I have is abused trust.

None of our actions do any good if they aren’t birthed out of love.

As we go into this season of Lent, I encourage you to remember this season exists because of Christ’s love. Christ loved us --all of humanity-- enough to sacrifice greatly on our behalf, and that is a gift to be taken seriously. So yes, give up something for Lent; sacrifice your chocolate for a season. But I would also encourage you to add something to your Lenten journey. I would encourage you to ask yourself what it would look like to love boldly, with the same boldness that Christ loved those society said he shouldn’t. How can you better express God’s love for others during this season? How would Christ call you to deeply affirm the personhood of those around you, the same way Christ has affirmed your own personhood? 

If we don’t have love, then we have nothing.

True Shalom

 

True Shalom

First Reading

            Our first reading comes from Isaiah 40:1-5:

Comfort, comfort my people,
    says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
    that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.

A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
    the way for the Lord[a];
make straight in the desert
    a highway for our God.[b]
Every valley shall be raised up,
    every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
    the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
    and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Introduction

            These past few weeks, I’ve led a small group where we’ve studied the history of the Hebrew people. We’ve talked about the patriarchs and matriarchs—Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel. We’ve talked about the time that the Hebrew people were in Egypt and the Exodus from captivity and journey back to the promised land. We’ve talked about the time of the judges and the settlement of the monarchy. We studied Saul, David, and Solomon. And we studied the breakdown of the monarchy into two kingdoms and the further breakdown of society and morality. This past week our topic was the Babylonian exile, which is where I want to start tonight.

Historical Context

            The people of Judah continued to sin against God. They were idolatrous and rebellious. They practiced exploitation and held false alliances. They neglected the poor and the foreigner. God sent prophet after prophet to call the people to repentance, but the people paid no attention. They kept living in rebellion against God’s commands. And God wasn’t going to stand for it.

            God decreed that Judah would be punished for her sins. And the Hebrew people were taken into captivity. They were forced out of the promised land into a foreign land. The Babylonian army conquered Judah, laid waste to the city of Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple.

            They spent the next 70 years in captivity in Babylon, longing to return to the promised land. It was during the exile that much of what we have in the Old Testament was written down—prior to that they had been an oral tradition. The Hebrew people began to write down their history because they feared that later generations wouldn’t know their story. They wanted their descendants to know the laws and the ritual practices.

During the Exile, the Hebrew people kept hope of returning to the promised land through prophets like Ezekiel. They lamented over their past sins and kept their gaze fixed on Zion. They were afraid that their Exile would be permanent, that the covenant was broken.

Our earlier scripture reading tonight comes at the brink of the end of the Exile. With God speaking comfort literally to the heart of Jerusalem. The people have paid for their sins and they will be blessed.

The Babylonians were defeated by the Persian Empire and the Persian emperor, Cyrus, decreed that the Hebrew people could return to Canaan. Not only did he allowed the Hebrew people to return, but he also paid to rebuild the Temple.

So the people of Israel were able to return to Canaan, but had they learned from their time in Exile? God had restored them to the promised land, but would the Israelites listen to the teachings and wisdom of God’s prophets?

From Psalm 85:

You, Lord, showed favor to your land;
    you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
You forgave the iniquity of your people
    and covered all their sins. …

I will listen to what God the Lord says;
    he promises peace to his people, his faithful servants—
    but let them not turn to folly.
Surely his salvation is near those who fear him,
    that his glory may dwell in our land.

Love and faithfulness meet together;
    righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Faithfulness springs forth from the earth,
    and righteousness looks down from heaven.
The Lord will indeed give what is good,
    and our land will yield its harvest.
Righteousness goes before him
    and prepares the way for his steps.

The Israelites confessed their sins and were able to return to Canaan. They were able to rebuild the Temple. Life went on. But did they learn from their time in exile?

            Overwhelmingly, no.

            The Israelites came back to Canaan and rebuilt their society modeled after the time before the Exile, which allowed the systemic injustice to continue. They continued to neglect the poor and the foreigner. They didn’t learn from their past mistakes.

            They had confessed their past sins and claimed that they were repenting, but they didn’t let what they had learned transform their lives. They paid lip service to repentance without actually repenting.

Cultural Reflections

Repentance requires action. It’s more than just saying “sorry.” It requires learning from the past and taking steps to insure that injustice doesn’t happen again.

This past week, Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, spoke out about the history of discrimination against LGBT people in Canada. He recognized the history of the systemic oppression, criminalization, and violence toward LGBT people in Canada. And he apologized. He apologized for the harm that people in the LGBT community had experienced. His apology was both personal and corporate. He expressed his hope that by talking about these injustices, taking steps not to repeat them, and writing the wrongs committed—that healing can begin.

And his apology went beyond mere words: he is taking steps to right the wrongs of the past. He’s proposed a bill to expunge the records of people who had been arrested under explicit LGBT discrimination laws. He’s proposing spending government money on paying reparations to those who were discriminated against in hiring and promotion. He isn’t erasing the past—he insists that we must remember the past if we are to learn from it. But these actions are a start toward creating a more just society. Trudeau’s apology is what true repentance looks like. For repentance to be real, there must be action to correct injustice.

Israel had let their greed for money and power hinder their relationship with God and they spent seventy years in Exile. But still, they didn’t learn. They said that they were sorry, but didn’t truly repent. And they were conquered again. The Temple was destroyed again. They didn’t learn from the past.

We live in a world that values wealth and power above everything else.

Instead of learning from the atrocities of the past, systemic injustice continues throughout our country. Oppression and discrimination are in our judicial system, our education system, all the way to the highest levels of our national government.

The news this past week has been filled with disturbing events:

·      A travel ban that targets predominately Muslim countries—there by discriminating against refugees, students, and vacationers because of their religion.

·      Reports of sexual misconduct continue to increase—senators, actors, news anchors, presidents, etc. And it seems that the US holds news anchors and actors to a higher standard than those who run for public office.

·      The reduction of National Park land in Utah for land developers.

And the news stories continue every week.

Laws continue to discriminate. Police officers continue to use excessive force. Women still face discrimination in the workforce. LGBTQ people face discrimination at home, at work, in school, and in other areas of life.

While there is no justice, there is no peace.

Only when we truly repent will we truly experience peace. Only then will we have what the Hebrew people call Shalom.

Shalom

            The Hebrew word Shalom is often translated simply as “peace.” But it means so much more than that.

“Peace” simply refers to the absence of conflict. And translations that render Shalom as “peace” do a disservice to what the word actually means.

Shalom is better translated as “wholeness,” “soundness,” “welfare,” or “to be complete.” A modern word that captures these ideas is “justice.”

There is no Shalom while injustice reigns.

As long as oppression and discrimination exist, there is no Shalom.

As long as racism exist, there is no Shalom.

As long as sexism exist, there is no Shalom.

As long as LGBT people are disenfranchised, there is no Shalom.

As long as systemic injustice remains, there is no Shalom.

We are called to repent of these injustices and to work toward justice.

True repentance requires action—that’s when justice happens. Only with justice is there true Shalom.

Repentance is Action

            Repentance requires action.

            It requires that we work toward making things right.

            It means repenting when tragedy strikes and working to make sure it never happens again.

            It means going beyond saying “thoughts and prayers.” When we express our “thoughts and prayers” without meaningful action, all we have said is nothing but empty words.

            Expressing our “thoughts and prayers,” is passive. But repentance is active—it means working toward a better world. A world where everyone is truly equal, where discrimination is no more, where injustice was a thing of the past.

            Imagine what the Gospels would have looked like if Jesus hadn’t worked toward justice. Imagine if he had offered “thoughts and prayers,” instead of healing those who were sick and neglected by the rest of society.

            Imagine how different the world would be if we were called to just offer our “thoughts and prayers” instead of following the radical way of Jesus.

            We are a people of waiting. The Israelites waited in Egypt for over 400 years. Moses waited on Mount Sinai for 40 days. The Hebrews waited for 40 years before entering the promised land. They waited in captivity in Babylon. They waited for generations for the Messiah, but when he arrived they didn’t recognize him. And we continue to wait for Jesus to return. And while we wait, we must work toward Shalom.

New Testament Lesson

            So what does this have to do with Christmas?

            Let me tell you what Mary said after she found out she was going to give birth to the son of God. What did Advent mean for the mother of Jesus? Here now these words from Mary, the mother of Jesus, from Luke 1:50-55:

His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
    just as he promised our ancestors.”

            Mary knew that the coming of the messiah wasn’t going to be easy. The coming of messiah was going to change the world. The coming of messiah wasn’t going to bring about peace the way that we tend to think about peace and quite. The coming of the messiah meant the coming of Shalom, the coming of wholeness.

            Shalom is still coming, but we have to continue to work toward it.

Conclusion

            We have been chosen by God to be instruments of Shalom—to bring peace to this world. And getting there is going to be hard. It is going to require work.

We must overcome hate with love.

We must overcome oppression and discrimination with inclusion.

We must end injustices in this world. We must work toward justice.

We must work toward Shalom.

            To get to Shalom, we must repent. We must take action to end injustice. Only then will we make progress toward Shalom.

            As we continue through this season of Advent, let us remember our past and learn from it. And let us work toward peace in this world. Achieving true Shalom is a difficult journey, but its possible together.

Bright and Beautiful Clarity

Some moments burn so brightly that they illuminate the path of your entire life. 

This weekend is one such moment. I’m in Oak Ridge, Tennessee to officiate the wedding of my dear friends, Kali and Haley Cawthon-Freels (that’ll be there names after today, anyway). In the sanctuary today, I’ll have friends from when I was still a Southern Baptist Pastor who have been on the journey with me for a long time, friends from my seminary years in Atlanta who bore with me and challenged me as I undertook a personal and theological transformation, and friends who have only joined me in the journey as we’ve set out on the new adventure of Redeeming Church. Today is so clear: I was always headed here.

This community, that will assemble today to witness Kali and Haley’s covenant, is a glimpse of the church we’ve been waiting and working for.

Here, petty prohibitions are replaced by values that shape our whole lives.

Here, diversity is celebrated rather than feared. 

Here, thousands of dollars and thousands of miles are poured out in love to support those who were told over and over again that they would never be accepted as their true selves. That lie is dead here, replaced by the truth that everyone is universally welcomed and unconditionally loved in the family of God. 

These women, who have been kept at the margins by those that fear them for almost their entire lives, will be centered and celebrated today. The last will be first in the kingdom. They who have been told that they were unwelcome at the table will now be given a seat of honor. We will clap and whistle and shout and  we will look upon God’s fearful and wonderful creation and reprise the blessing of creation: we see that it is very good.

Kali and Haley, burn brightly today. Show us where we’ve come from, and show us where we’re going.

We love you. 

 Pastor Adam 

Reflections on the “Nashville Statement”

By Pastor Kali Freels

“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom:  she and her daughters were arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” -- Ezekiel 16:49

In a week full of unthinkable tragedy, one would hope that the faith leaders of this country would implore their congregations to care for the widow and the orphan, those whom scripture calls us to care for time and time again-- and some have. But the biggest names in evangelical Christianity have instead chosen to use their voices in much more harmful ways. They released a statement that will undoubtedly be used in the days to come for violence and discrimination in the name of Jesus, the One who is all loving and welcomed all.

Some observations:

  1. They approved the publishing of such a divisive document during a week of disaster and tragedy. Instead of allocating their resources to help those in our country who are enduring much suffering in the aftermath of hurricane Harvey, they are advocating for donations for themselves so they can widely disseminate this document. Many of the initial signers have been known to publically state that natural disasters are “God’s judgement upon that city,” so perhaps we should not be that surprised by the timing of this document or the fact that they are asking for money for themselves, not for Harvey survivors.

  2. A large number of Southern Baptists signed this document. For those unfamiliar with Baptist history, Baptists have always believed in the right of soul freedom-- the freedom to recognize that the Holy Spirit speaks to each of us differently. Because of that belief, Baptists of all stripes have always been a non-creedal people because creeds would put limits upon how people could interpret the Spirit. They can call it a “statement” or a “manifesto” all they want, but those Baptists are going to have to deal with the fact that they sacrificed their convictions as a non-creedal people in order to put limits on how other people interpret the Holy Spirit speaking to them.

  3. It isn’t based in scripture. Outside of the preamble, they quote no scripture references to back the affirmations/denials in the articles. Considering this is a conservative “evangelical” document, one would expect that they would have gone through great lengths to provide scriptural evidence for each article. They didn’t even try. The lack thereof only demonstrates that they couldn’t force scripture to back beliefs as harmful as theirs.

  4. It’s contradictory. In one article, they waste no effort in stating that God only creates people as male or female-- only two ways. In a later article, they state explicitly that Jesus said that some people are born eunuchs-- outside of the male/female binary. By stating that God creates eunuchs, they are stating that God creates people who are neither male nor female. They are trying to have it both ways, but they are failing.

  5. It’s dishonoring to God. They state several times in the articles that “choosing” to express gender in a way that is not explicitly “in God’s perfect design” is disrespectful to God. They also --in no uncertain terms-- say numerous times things that God does not do and things that God does: ex.  God does create people as male or female; God does not make people transgender. Saying that you know exactly how God chooses to interact in the world is dishonoring to God because you are putting limits on what God can or cannot do.

  6. It goes against the heart of evangelicalism. As a progressive evangelical, I know that telling people of the good news of Christ is central to evangelical belief. But I also know that people aren’t compelled to listen to what you have to say about Jesus if you start with words of condemnation. These are words of condemnation, not love. With every statement like this they release, they lose their claim to the evangelical title.

This is a hard document for LGBTQ+ Christians to see at this tumultuous time in our country, but we’re a strong people. We’re strong because we keep faith in Christ regardless of what others have to say. Stay strong, my brothers, sisters, and non-gender conforming siblings. We know that love wins.

 

Searching for Peace

By Pastor Kali Freels

In light of the events at Charlottesville, VA, I’ve heard so many people (mostly Southern white conservatives) say that what we need right now is peace. We see the violence erupting in the streets and around Confederate monuments, and they are call for peace, passivity in response to the violence. At the heart of it all, I think their cries for peace are well-intentioned:  they don’t want to see any more people get hurt. But I think we have a skewed understanding of peace. When they say “peace,” they mean,”stop saying these things publicly.” When they say, “peace,” they mean, “don’t engage the hate.”

Peace doesn’t come from avoiding or ignoring conflicts; peace only comes after the conflict is resolved.

Jesus knew that fact, which is why he did not sugar coat anything when he told the disciples of all the pain they would endure as his disciples:  “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Matt 10:16-20). Later in that same passage, Jesus tells his disciples that he did not come to bring peace, but in fact came to bring a sword. That (as prophesied in Micah 7) the coming of this Kingdom would “turn men against their fathers, daughters against mothers.” In order for Jesus and his disciples to spread the gospel of hope throughout the land, they would have no choice but to confront the corruption in the synagogues, the corruption in the government, and the corruption within the hearts of the very people they spoke to (even the corruption within their own hearts). When purity meets corruption, conflict is inevitable because two things so different from each other clash. Nevertheless, that conflict has to be resolved before peace can descend.

Conflict resolution is hard and uncomfortable, and goes against everything I learned as a white woman growing up in the American South. I (along with so many other white Southerners) was taught that you don’t confront people that you have an issue with. You put on a fake smile, nod politely, and then try to figure out ways to avoid seeing that person in the future (while bad-mouthing them in our inner circles); we commonly called it “not stirring up trouble.” It was an outward appearance of politeness with an inward posture of disdain toward that person. That “lack of conflict” between you and the person you act polite toward is what we’ve labeled peace… and that’s the farthest thing from peace. The conflict is still there, bubbling underneath the surface until it erupts in a rolling  boil of anger, envy, and malevolence. It’s a fake peace, and it’s just as bad (if not worse) that the initial conflict.

White conservatives in particular are uncomfortable with the current racial tensions because movements like Black Lives Matter are doing exactly the opposite of what we were taught:  they’re facing the conflict head on. They’re demanding that their side of the story be heard. They’re acknowledging that they’ve been wronged and they want to create a space for equal footing in our society. They will keep demanding white people’s attention until we give them the common courtesy of a conversation--a shared opportunity to create space for reconciliation. And that’s on us. They’re calling for our attention--it’s long past time for us to engage the conversation and search for peace together.

Peace will never come until racial conflict--racism--is resolved. In order for us to resolve this conflict, white Christians have to engage this conflict head on. We have to be willing to place our prejudices aside and humbly listen to and learn from life experiences different from our own – lay down our privilege, and take up our cross.

 

Surprised By Kindness

By Pastor Kali Freels

The past two weeks have been a blur of travel, community events, and national gatherings for me and many in our little church. The last Sunday of June, our church hosted a booth at the St Pete Pride Festival. We were one of hundreds of exhibits, exposed for the tens of thousands of people gathered. It was an event unlike any I’d ever seen.

For the first hour or so, most people gave us the side-eye of uncertainty. We’re a new church; therefore, we don’t have a reputation yet. While Haley and I were both in the booth, we didn’t have anything on it that explicitly said that we’re a LGBTQ+ affirming congregation. Once we tacked a few rainbow flags to the outside and hung my “Gay Female Pastor” sign (under which Haley and I rotated shifts), countless people stopped by to ask questions and get information about our faith community. 

One particular interaction stands out to me. A group of four people hurried over to our table, and one woman looked at Haley, asking, “Are you the gay female pastor?” I piped up and said, “It actually applies to both of us, and we’re engaged.” She and her friends started to excitedly talk about how refreshing it is to see so many LGBTQ+ friendly churches here. She explained that she and her friends are part of an affirming Pentecostal congregation north of Largo, at which point I had to interrupt out of shock, “You all are Pentecostals?! That’s awesome! When most people find out we’re Baptist--” She nearly fell over, “Shut the f*** up, you all are BAPTISTS?!?!?!” We laughed about the interaction, exchanged business cards, and they went off to explore the rest of the festival.

While initially funny, there’s much to examine in this interaction. We were both surprised--shocked, even--that one another’s congregations affiliated with denominations that have historically been non-affirming. We were surprised that churches affiliated with each denomination chose to embrace a more open, welcoming, joyful mindset. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again and again: when kindness from Christians surprises people, it means there’s a problem. 

As I attended the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly last week, I was reminded of how the truth of those words stung. In them, there is hope because individuals choose to go against the status quo and offer love instead of indifference or disdain, but it also means the larger bodies those individuals represent are not reflecting those same virtues of love and respect.

I was surprised by how many church representatives came to the unofficial and offsite LGBTQ+ inclusion meetings and by how passionately they spoke about making our churches safe spaces for all marginalized groups. When kindness from Christians surprises people, there’s a problem.

I was surprised by the number of older Christians who approached me throughout the conference to express gratitude for the work our congregation is doing around LGBTQ+ inclusion and how hopefully we make them for the future. When kindness from Christians surprises people, there’s a problem.

I was also surprised by how people from non-affirming congregations--clergy and laity alike--talked about love. “I love you, but I can’t understand how you got to that conclusion (LGBT affirmation) from the scriptures.” “I love you, but I can’t agree with the life you’re living.” I’ve heard those phrases before from friends and family who aren’t to a place where they can affirm me as a gay woman, but it wasn’t until this week that I was able to place a finger on why exactly those phrases stung. Every time you end the phrase, “I love you,” with, “but…,” you’ve made your love conditional. Anytime a congregation ends the phrase, “I love you,” with, “but…,” it’s made their love conditional. Anytime pastors end the phrase, “God loves you,” with, “but...,” they’ve made God’s love conditional. The moment we start preaching that--out of Christ’s compulsion--our love is conditional is the moment that we need to step out of the pulpit, because we’ve bastardized the gospel – trading Jesus’ unconditional love for a hermeneutic of cultural anxiety.

When kindness from Christians surprises people, we’ve got a problem. When kindness from Christians surprises other Christians, however, it’s much worse: if we don’t even expect other Christians to show kindness to one another, how can we expect ourselves to show kindness to those outside the church?

We’ve got to start living such radically loving lives that people both inside and outside of the Church are not surprised when a Christian is kind to them. Kindness from Christians should be the expectation, not the exception. In Jesus’ command to “love our neighbor as ourself,” he gives no conditions concerning when we get to opt not to love others, nor on how we get to limit the ways in which we love them. To quote the composer Lin Manuel-Miranda (who may well have given us the most accurate paraphrase of the gospel to date), “Love is love is love is love.” 

God of Love, may we have the courage to lay our own prejudices and discriminatory notions aside so that we can show love in its purest form. Amen.

Giving.

Love your enemies.

Bless those who curse you.

Do good and pray for those who hurt you.

Lend without expectation of repayment.

These actions seem like exactly the opposite of self-preservation; they seem like an efficient way to exhaust spiritual, financial, and emotional resources. It seems like a great way to let the systems of the status quo trample you yet again.

How will change come if we are always turning the other cheek? How will someone find rock bottom if we are always lending without expectation of repayment? What will we do when we’ve given everything away and our faces are black and blue from cheek turning?

To be honest, I don’t know. All I know is this: Jesus steadfastly refused to use his power against those who would murder him, and instead allowed himself to be murdered – and Jesus changed the world. Jesus changed the entire course of history.

Here’s the real question, the deep question, the question that sometimes keeps me up at night: Do we trust that God loves us enough to overcome the pain of loving our enemies? Do we trust that God has blessed us sufficiently to offer those blessings to people who only offer curses in return? Do we trust that God will be sufficiently good to us so that we’ll be able to be good to people who use us? Do we trust that when we lend, and give away our jacket and our shirt, that God will still provide everything we need?

If we lay down our privileges and take up our crosses, will God be enough?

Who Do We Welcome?

By Pastor Haley Cawthon

Who Do We Welcome?    

Recently I went with several members of Redeeming Church to the Florida Holocaust Museum. Walking through the museum, seeing the artifacts, and hearing the stories of survivors was deeply moving and heart wrenching. It’s one thing to read about the Holocaust in books, but seeing the artifacts—the shoes of a child, a prisoner’s uniform, Star of David patches, a rail car that carried people to concentration camps, and so many more—brings the horrific events closer to home.

As we walked through the museum, one display in particular caught my attention. This display was on the 1939 voyage of the MS St Louis. The St Louis was an ocean liner that sailed from Germany to Cuba carrying over 900 Jewish refugees. These refugees had their paperwork approved and were looking forward to a new life away from the persecution they had faced in Germany. When they arrived in Cuba, however, they were not allowed to disembark because, while they were in transit, legislation had been passed that cancelled any visas previously approved and Cuba wouldn’t accept the refugees.

The ship’s captain then turned his attention to requesting asylum for his Jewish passengers in the United States. But again, the refugees were turned away. The US was afraid that accepting the refugees would be a political disaster—that there would be a backlash from Germany and her allies. Additionally, many members of both the government and the general population held anti-Semitic beliefs. In the US, Jews faced judgment from fellow Americans because of their religion. The American public largely looked down on the Jews and thought of them as second-class citizens. Anti-Semitism in the US ran rampant in society. The US government let their prejudice dictate their response to the Jewish refugees seeking asylum.

Instead of honoring the Statue of Liberty’s plaque—“ Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—the US government turned it’s back on a group of people seeking asylum from a regime that sought to end the so called “Jewish problem.” They put politics before hospitality. They put America’s so called interests before the wellbeing of vulnerable refugees seeking a safe haven.

After being denied entry into the US, the St Louis was forced to return to Europe. Knowing the persecution that his passengers faced in Germany, the captain refused to return them to Germany and docked in Antwerp, Belgium. Eventually, the refugees found asylum in the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Those who found asylum in the UK were safe, but those who went to France, Belgium, and the Netherlands soon faced danger once again with the Nazi invasion of those three countries. Not all of those Jews survived the war.

As I read this display, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between what happened with St Louis and the current refugee crisis. Just as the Jewish refugees on the St Louis fled Germany and sought asylum, the Syrian refugees have fled a war torn nation and seek asylum, hope, and peace.

When we deny the entry of refugees out of fear, we are repeating what happened with the St Louis. How many of those refugees will die because we denied them asylum?

Christ commands us to love without reservation. We are to welcome the foreigner. We are to offer hospitality. We are to be a community that welcomes the weary and the hurt. We are to welcome the lost and the lonely. We are to welcome.

Denying asylum to refugees does not follow Christ’s commands. It ignores Christ’s commands.

So, who do we welcome?

Let us follow Christ’s example and be a refuge for those others turn away. 

Whoever you are—regardless of race, creed, sexual orientation, gender, nationality, political affiliation—you are welcome here. You are welcome into the community of Christ’s love because Christ loves all and accepts all just as we are.

 

Can You Hear Me?

By Pastor Kali Freels

When I was in highschool, I participated in color guard of the marching band, dancing with flags, rifles, and sabres while the band played during the halftime show at football games. Each halftime show centered around a theme – jazz, historical events, myths and legends. If you can imagine it, it can be a show. One of my favorite shows my high school marching band did was “Flight of the Phoenix.” Through the music, flag colors, and choreography, we depicted the life cycle of the fire bird:  life, death, and resurrection from the ashes. While the band played music inspired by that theme, the color guard members were miniature phoenixes. Our costumes were various shades of red, including the red feathers in our hair. But even with the themed costumes, it was hard for us to really look like phoenixes. How do we portray the life of a phoenix to our audience?

We asked our instructor and his answer surprised most of us. “You are the performers to the deaf. They should be able to look at how you all perform and know what the show is about, even though they can’t hear the music.” We had to move like phoenixes, nimble and light on our feet, like we were flying. We had to be sorrowful when the phoenix died and spry when it came back to life. Looking like phoenixes wouldn’t suffice; we had to be phoenixes.

And just like a red costume doesn’t make you a phoenix, looking like Jesus isn’t enough. We have to express Jesus in our actions, so that even those who can’t hear our words will see Christ. We have to speak the love of Christ so that even those who can’t see our actions will hear Christ. We have to share Jesus in our embrace so that even those who can’t see or hear can feel Christ in our touch. Looking like Jesus or sounding like Jesus won’t be enough; we have to be like Jesus.

We live in a time when we don’t listen each other. We stand on opposite sides and shout our opinions at each other instead of embrace one another with God’s love. We’re so busy yelling that we’ve stopped showing love in our actions, reserving all our energy for raising our voices instead of dialoguing with one another. We’ve become deaf to one another, so caught up in the theology of pointing fingers that we’ve forgotten the Christ that told the self-righteous to drop their stones.

In a world that is becoming increasingly deaf to one another, we must share Christ’s love so that even those who cannot hear us know what the message is about.

A Place to Belong

By Pastor Haley Cawthon

We all want to have a sense of belonging. We want our family and friends to accept, love, and affirm us for who we are.

But that’s not always the case.

Growing up, I felt out of place in my family and with my friends. I didn’t fit into the mold that they wanted me to be. I was nerdy. I was shy. I was gay. None of those things would ever be okay.

The one place that should be a place of belonging for everyone—the Church—wasn’t safe for me either. Being gay in that community was not an option. They denied the existence of gay people; there were only those that “struggled with same sex attraction.” And so, I stayed in the closet, hoping that one day I could actually be 100% me and feel like I belonged—in my family, in the church, and in the world. My hope for a community that accepted, loved, and affirmed me seemed impossible. 

That is, until I went to college. I came into a community where for the first time that I can remember, I felt like I belonged. While I didn’t come out during my undergraduate studies, I was able to begin processing my sexuality for the first time in a healthy way.

Then I did something crazy: I went to seminary.

I went to a place that encouraged me to study the scriptures for myself. That encouraged me to find my own voice. That encouraged me to love, not judge. That encouraged me to rethink the fundamentalism that I grew up with. That encouraged me to accept who I am as the person that God made. 

Seminary gave me the place and community to really delve into what the scripture says (and doesn’t say) about LGBT persons. 

Throughout my time in seminary, the people there gave me a community of fellow believers who supported me, who loved me, and affirmed me for who I was instead of for who they wanted me to be.

Coming out has still been hard. It meant being shunned by people that I love. But it also meant finding peace in who I am. Best of all, it has meant the opportunity to partner with Adam, Kali, and the congregation of Redeeming Church to found a place where others can find Christ’s welcome and peace as well.

My hope for Redeeming Church is that we embody the love of Christ. That we become a place for those who have longed to belong to a faith community, but that have nonetheless found themselves without a seat at the table.

Regardless of who you are, you are welcome here. This is the welcome of Jesus.

Childish, Troublesome Jesus

By Pastor Kali Freels

Sometimes, I like to imagine Jesus as a child. Not the baby we imagine on Christmas, and not the 12 year old we see in the Gospel of Luke, but a child. Like a 5-7 year old. At that age, he’s to the point where he can run, jump, and laugh. He can ask people how they’re doing (and maybe be present enough to listen to a response). He’s starting to think critically about the world. We don’t have any stories about Jesus’ childhood, but we can probably guess his temperaments based on the stories we have from his adulthood. 

Honestly, I think Jesus was probably an extremely annoying child. Sure, he was probably kind and gentle-spirited, but I think he was exceptionally inquisitive. I can imagine Mary and Joseph trying to answer Jesus’ many questions, doing their best to make sure their son, the Son of God, knew everything he needed to know in order to be a proper Jewish man. “Mom, why do we eat animals with the cloven hooves, but not pigs? Why do you never cut your hair? Why do we post scripture to our doorpost? Why? Why? Why?” We all know that child. Eventually, we can’t answer their Whys with anything except, “because that’s just what we do” or, “that’s just how it is.” Nothing seems to satisfy their endless questions, and I think Jesus was the same. 

I can imagine Jesus asking questions while walking to temple with his parents. “Why are only Jewish people allowed in temple? Where do the Gentiles worship? Why don’t we worship with them?” Mary and Joseph exchange surprised and slightly anxious glances. Mary replies, “Because we’re Jewish and they aren’t. That’s just how it is.”

I can imagine Joseph taking Jesus out of the city to get more lumber for the carpenter’s shop. As they walk, Jesus looks up to the horizon and sees a small group of tents just outside the city. He can see people milling about, several in obvious pain. Troubled, Jesus looks up at Joseph and says, “Father, who are those people, and why are they outside the city?” 

“They’re lepers, Jesus. They have to live outside the city.”

“Why?”

“Because they’re unclean.”

“Why?”

“Because their skin is diseased.”

“We should help wash them so they will be clean.”

“We can’t, Jesus.”

“But why?”

“If we touch them, we’ll become unclean and the temple officials won’t let us worship in the temple.”

“But didn’t God make those people too?”

“Yes.”

“So shouldn’t we care for them? Surely, they must be hungry. And thirsty. Father, we must take them something to eat and to drink.”

“We can’t, Jesus. They’re lepers. We can’t touch unclean people.”

“But why?”

“Because that’s just how it is. That’s not what we do.”

Jesus was a rebel. As an adult, he touched the lepers when he was told not to, welcomed Gentiles into the fold, and dined with tax collectors and prostitutes. He didn’t sigh and say, “That’s just how things are,” and ignore them; instead, he told the story of the Good Samaritan and told us that those people are our neighbors and we should love them all the same.

And maybe, just maybe, that’s why Jesus welcomed the little children. Maybe that’s why he allowed them to come and interrupt his teaching, even though “that’s not how things were done” so that he might teach those around him a new way to see the world. Maybe he knew that they were just as inquisitive as he was when he was a child, just as dissatisfied with “That’s just how it is” responses to injustices in the world. Maybe they would grow up to be just as called by God to make a difference, to shift the norm from exclusion to inclusion, from barriers to shared space, from segregation to integration. He could see the curiosity in their eyes, along with the innocent will to do good.

Maybe that’s what Jesus means when he says we must be like little children in order to inherit the Kingdom of God. Instead of being a passive people, we are to be an inquisitive people, a people who always asks, “Why?” Maybe we’re supposed to love people with the innocence of a small child ignorant to the rules of what makes a person “clean” or “unclean.” Maybe we’re supposed to knock down those social boundaries with the determination of a child who doesn’t know what failure is.

We are in a unique time in the life of Redeeming Church. In the next few months, we will have the chance to shape the personality of this church, from the ministry we do in this city to the worship we offer God in our gathering spaces. In these few months, we will choose how this city knows us. It will be tempting to only communicate with certain people because “that’s just how things are,” or only do comfortable things because “that’s just what we do,” but I believe God has called us to something better than that. Christ calls us to push boundaries so that all might experience the Kingdom of God here and now. We are to be a people that looks past social norms to enact the coming of a Kingdom that makes no sense in our culture:  a Kingdom where all are welcome as family, regardless of whatever label society has placed on them. And so, we welcome our neighbors into the fold with the excitement of a child seeing someone she loves. Because, as children ourselves, we know the only label that matters is Child of God. 

The "Redeeming" in Redeeming Church

"Redeeming Church" might strike you as a strange name for a congregation. But choosing to name our church with a verb instead a group of nouns (First Baptist Church) is an intentional statement about our hope for the work of our congregation. Primarily, it means two things to us:

First, it speaks to the fact that Jesus is always redeeming us and always redeeming the church. Every day, God is exchanging the brokenness of our lives and communities for the mercy and healing of grace. God never gives up on us, and we believe that one day God will make all manner of things good, right, just, and whole again.

Second, "Redeeming Church" speaks to the reality that the church has been a place of condemnation instead of love for too many people, a place of rejection instead of welcome, a place of disappointment instead of hope. And while we don't have any illusions about the fact that we will fail and we will disappoint, we hope to be humble and transparent enough about those failures that even our brokenness is an opportunity for a healing expression of Christ's mercy.

We will be a church of faith, living in steadfast commitment to the reality of Christ's love and salvation, even when we can't see how it will all work out.

We will be a church of hope, announcing and working for the coming kingdom of God, even as we recognize the kingdom of God which is already among us.

We will, most of all, be a church of love, endeavoring to love in the unlimited, unconditional, life-changing and world-changing way that God loves us.

Christ is redeeming us, and we labor with Christ for the redeeming of the world.