Piece of the Puzzle

random musings on whatever…

Category: Spiritual Page 2 of 14

Fostering Life

It is hard these days not to think about the political situation in our nation and world. Every day conversations seem to drift toward our nation’s difficulties even when we’d really rather not go there. Perhaps worse, it often feels to me as if the ability to have rational, grown-up discussions about our feelings, beliefs, and values is disappearing. Every day, the American culture becomes more and more close-minded and polarized. We stake out our positions, often attributing them to our religion and declaring God is on our side. We regularly create an us vs. them atmosphere instead of acting on the truth that we are all in this together – that we really, truly need each other.

Now, many folks think religion should stay out of politics. This view, however, assumes religion is only about getting into heaven after we die. In fact, religion and politics, at their core, are both about how we get along and live with each other as communities in the here and now. Personally, I believe religious institutions should never wield political power but are better suited to the role of prophet, a critic of morals and ethics. Our spiritual views do and must inform our political opinions. We will, of course, still disagree on many things but for Christians who truly try to follow Christ and his teachings, it provides us an ethical basis of love.

In the eleventh chapter of Acts, the apostle Peter tells of his vision about the splits in the early Christian community. In essence, Peter is told in his vision to get out of God’s way, to stop making rules that keep people from a relationship with the Divine. He’s told to stop trying to put God in a nice neat box that conforms to his personal opinions and to stop imposing those views on others and demonizing them. Peter comes to understand that following Christ is to know that God is forever still speaking, that following Christ is to be open-minded. It means opening our hearts with love and compassion to those who are different than us. It’s about building relationships and not walls. The “us” vs “them” attitude goes against the very nature of who God calls us to be as Christians.

Jesus teaches that we will be known as one of his disciples by our love. If love is not the first thing the world thinks of when the word “Christian” is mentioned, then it’s time to ask ourselves if we have strayed from the path. Too often, people hear “Christian” and think “hypocrite.” For all that we preach about love, we so often fail to actually love each other. Instead, we get caught up in whether everyone is behaving as we think they should. We create ways to test and judge each other.

Christian hypocrisy often shows up in our political views. Lately, abortion has been in the news. It is an emotional subject for everyone but, whatever our position, as Christians we need to ask if it is based in love and compassion. I believe it is completely reasonable and rational to be both “pro-choice” and “pro-life.” However, the real point I want to make is that if we proclaim as Christians we are pro-life (and I think caring about the preciousness of each and every life is a very Jesus-like thing to do), then in addition to the potential life of that unborn child are we also concerned with the life of the mother, an already realized, actual life?

Are we concerned about the abuse of guns and our culture of violence?

Are we concerned about making sure healthcare is available to everyone?

Are we concerned about refugee children forcibly separated from their families?

Are we concerned about paying workers livable wages?

Are we concerned about educating our young folks?

Are we concerned about climate change and the abuse of our planet?

Because these are all pro-life issues too!

When we put conditions on our love, when we only love those who think and act like we do, we are putting God in a box of our making and God will not be put in a box. God is a God of the unexpected, putting the last first. God is a God of love without conditions – what we do to the least of these, we do to God. Everyone is worthy of being loved. If we are to be followers of Jesus then we too are asked to get out of God’s way and let God lead. If we are to be followers of Jesus we are to be known by our love. We are to love the whole world whether it be a friend, someone in need, or an enemy. We are called to love as Jesus loved: to embrace the poor and oppressed, to heal those in distress, and to forgive those who have wronged us. It all starts with us: are we tuned into what God is doing in the world, are we following God? Or are we trying to put God in a box, trying to get God to follow us? Each of us is loved by God! Without condition! So let us get out of God’s way, that that Divine love may flow through us and into the world.

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This reflection first appeared in my church’s newsletter on May 31, 2019. the church website can be found at: http://www.phoenixchurch.org.

Gay AND Christian

On June 2, 2019 I had the honor of sharing a few words at an Interfaith Pride Service in Kalamazoo, MI. Here is what I shared:

I have known many people who have struggled with reconciling their religious faith with their sexuality and gender identity. Too often religious institutions have tried to tell us who identify as queer in some way, who find ourselves in the rainbow of LGBTQA, that we should be who we are not. Because of this, many have been driven away from their religion or even abandoned their faith journey altogether.

My story, however, is a little bit different. I grew up going to a sort-of conservative Christian protestant church in northern Michigan. But when I went to college, my religion fell by the wayside. Much of the teaching and doctrine just didn’t ring true anymore and it no longer held a lot of meaning for me. And it really had nothing to do with my sexual orientation.

It was actually finally dealing with my own inability to accept myself as gay, coming out at the age of 30, that I found myself back on a spiritual path. I heard of this group called Phoenix Community Church that had a lot of gay people and some allies and I thought hey, that sounds like a safe way to meet people.

The church was started in 1988 by a group of 18 or so folks after one of the founding pastors was fired from his previous church a year earlier because of his sexual orientation. And those brave folks decided that they needed a safe and welcoming place to explore their spirituality, where they could be true to themselves, and they gave birth to Phoenix Community Church.

These many years later I find myself the pastor of that church but that is a whole ‘nother story. When I encountered the church for the first time back in 1996, I found what I was looking for. I’ve met many absolutely wonderful people there through the years. But I also found what I was not looking for. I found God again.

I found a place that accepted me and supported me.

I found a place that taught the truth that God loves me unconditionally, that I didn’t need to change.

A place that encouraged questions and didn’t claim to have all the answers.

A place that even acknowledged, celebrated, and learned from spiritual paths other than Christianity while still maintaining a Christian foundation.

And in the journey that brought me to this church, that brought me back into relationship with the Divine, I found a couple of things that really stand out for me in this intersection where our spirituality and our sexual and gender identities meet.

First, being queer and Christian forces us to question the status quo. To think for ourselves. We can’t just accept whatever traditional doctrine that we’re told to believe.

This questioning and challenging is a gift that queer people give to the church and all religious institutions. It’s how we can learn and grow in our spirituality and in all aspects of life. From a Christian perspective it’s also very Jesus-like. Jesus was always challenging the status quo and trying to make people think.

Second, I learned I have a right to my spiritual identity as much as I have a right to my sexual identity. Queer people are the loved children of the Divine and our inherent, God-given worthiness is not up for debate. If we cannot find a spiritual community where we feel welcome than we do what queer people have been doing for a long time – we create our own. Luckily for us here in Kalamazoo, we already have options.

But, no matter what, no matter what others say, no matter which religious framework we put around our spiritual journey, no matter our sexual orientation or gender identity, let us celebrate the fabulous people we were created to be by this Divine, loving energy we sometimes call God. Thank you for hearing my story.

Who Are You?

How would you answer if a stranger (or a friend) came up and asked “Who are you?” Would you talk about your job or your career? Would you mention your family or maybe say something about your personality? Would you mention religious beliefs or political stances? It’s an important question because it speaks to our self-identity and how we, or if we, find meaning in our lives and that seems especially important in a world where we can wake up every morning thinking, “this is not the world I thought I knew yesterday.” It’s also a question that we sometimes have to confront, whether we want to or not, when we experience major life changes such as losing a job or a divorce. These are experiences that make us question who we are.

Many characters in the Bible are confronted with this question of identity. One such story is when the resurrected Jesus appears to Peter and other disciples over breakfast on the lakeshore (John 21). After all that had happened with Jesus’ arrest, murder, and then resurrection, it would be shocking if Peter wasn’t confused and feeling lost, like he didn’t know who he was or what he was supposed to be doing. It shouldn’t surprise us then that he has returned to what he knew best, fishing. Now, after breakfast is done, Jesus starts asking Peter this one question: “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?” After Jesus’ arrest, Peter had denied three times that he was his follower and now Jesus asks him three times, “Do you love me?” In other words, who are you? Are you my follower or not? If you are then feed my sheep, take care of my sheep… (sheep, of course, referring to the poor and oppressed to and with whom Jesus ministered).

Jesus needs Peter not to be a fisherman but to accept who God needs him to be: the shepherd that Jesus was, God’s hands and voice in the world caring for all of God’s beloved children. Jesus needs Peter to accept his own identity as God’s beloved child, a person of God’s Way of Love. This is who we are also created to be: God’s beloved and divine children, people of God’s Way, people of love. And this is, in fact, an identity which can never be taken away from us. Nothing can ever separate us from the love of God. Can we accept, like Peter, that this is who we are? We sometimes resist, thinking we aren’t good enough. We judge ourselves as unworthy even though God does not. We fail to forgive ourselves for mistakes even though God forgives freely.

Peter was challenged in his encounter with the risen Christ to accept who he was. Encounters with the risen Christ will always challenge us, too: Who are you? Are you not a person of love? Encounters with the Divine are an invitation to be God’s love for this world in which we live, a world desperately in need of more love. “Do you love me? Then feed my sheep,” Jesus says. Feed God’s people, both with actual food to feed the hungry, as well as figuratively to feed God’s people with the message that they too are God’s beloved children, and if we can accept that then no one and no thing can take the love of God from us.

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This reflection is inspired by the sermon, “Do You Love Me?” from May 5, 2019 and originally published in the church newsletter on May 17, 2019. Recordings of most sermons can be found on the Phoenix website: http://www.phoenixchurch.org.

Shouting Stones

If you see an interesting stone on a beach, what would you do with it? Would you put it in your pocket? Or leave it alone? Would you take it home and put it on your dresser or maybe tuck it away in a drawer? Everything and everybody has a story to tell, even that small rock we find on the beach. Where and how was it first created? Does it speak of earthquakes and volcanoes? Or perhaps it tells a story of life, such as a fossilized Petoskey Stone.

When Jesus paraded into Jerusalem to the shouted praise of the crowds on what we now call Palm Sunday, certain leaders asked him to tell his followers to be quiet lest they attract the unwanted attention of their Roman occupiers. Jesus responded that if his disciples were quiet, the very stones of the road would shout out instead! Some stories just have to be told. Indeed, the stones of the earth shout out to us even today. The earth shouts for healing and liberation through forest fires, earthquakes due to fracking, extreme flooding and drought, animal species dying and threatened with extinction, etc. The earth shouts for help, for justice. But I think creation also shouts out of the glory of God in the sunset, in the beauty of mountains, in the peace we feel when we walk barefoot in grass or on the beach, when we touch a tree or smell a flower…

To me, the stones of Palm Sunday shout of Jesus’ entrance to the halls of power, telling us that God is the real power at the foundation of life, not human empire. The stones shout of healing, love, and the sacredness of life and ask us to take notice and join the chorus, to join the procession and lift our voices in speaking truth to power.

We too have our stories, important stories. What do we do with them? Do we hold them up for others to hear? Or do we tuck them away someplace private? What story do you have to tell? What are the truths within you demanding to be told? As the stones might have sung out, let us also sing out and tell the story of God’s glory, the story of the power of God’s healing love in our lives, that in the darkness of the world, we might be God’s light.

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This reflection was inspired by the sermon, “Shouting Stones,” from April 14, 2019, and originally published in my church’s newsletter on May 3, 2019. Recordings of most sermons can be found on the church website: http://www.phoenixchurch.org.

Each of us is a miracle

The story of Jesus turning water into wine is known as his first miracle. But what is a miracle? Sometimes we dismiss miracles by equating them with magic but we might think of a miracle as simply a welcomed event that is unexpected, improbable and not easy to explain. Perhaps we’ve experienced a miracle in our lives. We might know someone that was unexpectedly healed of an illness or maybe something surprising occurred at a time in our lives when we had lost hope and it turned life around for us. There is another way we might define a miracle: a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. I think a miracle is Spirit revealing itself in an unexpected, improbable, unexplainable, or amazing way that results in something good and desirable. It’s God showing up to renew our hope when we’ve lost our way. It’s God taking what we were expecting and turning it upside down.

Of course, miracles don’t always happen when we want them to. Not everyone is healed, for example, and I have no satisfactory answer for why. Sometimes people are tempted to blame the person who is sick by saying “they didn’t have enough faith” or “they just didn’t pray hard enough,” which is, of course, ridiculous. When we hope for a miracle and don’t see one, it can be disappointing. It might try our faith, our trust in God. We might find ourselves wondering where the Spirit was when we were asking for Divine intervention. But, at the same time, I wonder if miracles happen more than we realize. Maybe we just don’t see them or recognize them as miracles. If a miracle is an unexpected manifestation of the Spirit and the Spirit is with us all the time, it just seems like the odds are that more miracles are happening than we think. Maybe when we lose a job the miracle that we might want – finding a new, better job the very next day – isn’t what happens. Maybe the miracle is that we grow from the experience and eventually end up being led in some completely unexpected direction that uses our gifts and talents in new, surprising ways.

We too, as human beings, are manifestations of Spirit. Spirit dwells within us and that is a miracle in my book – unexpected, improbable, unexplainable, and amazing. But we need to open our selves to this miracle that it might act in and through us. Jesus trusted that God would work through him to perform miracles. To open ourselves to the work of the Spirit, we need to trust God. Even when things don’t seem to go as expected, we’re asked to put our trust in the working of the Spirit.

Opening up to the Spirit also means opening up in relationship to each other as the Spirit within us interacts with the Spirit within others. We are meant to act together. We are meant to be in loving, supporting community. The gifts of the Spirit that act in and through us aren’t meant for our personal glory. They are meant to be used in conjunction with the gifts of others for the common good of the community and for the common good of all of God’s creation. The miracle of wine into water required both Mary and Jesus. Jesus seemingly had no intention of saving the party (a communal event) until his mother egged him on. He even objected, “It’s not yet my time.” An objection which his mother simply ignored, instead inventing the phrase made famous by Nike: “Just do it.” Without Jesus, nothing happens. But without Mary, nothing happens either.

But here’s the caution: if we open to the Spirit, our lives are going to change. That’s both good news and a little scary. When Jesus objected he didn’t seem sure about what his mother was asking him to do. He knew it would change his life. It would set his mission and ministry in motion. Never again would he get to be the wallflower at a wedding reception.

Each of us, our bodies, our souls, our gifts and talents, is a manifestation of the Spirit. Each of us is a miracle. Let us not be afraid of taking risks and even failing. Let us look for the miracles in our lives, whether they be big miracles or little miracles. God is always turning our expectations upside down and showing up in amazing and improbable ways. Let us trust and reside in the Holy Spirit, following where the Spirit leads.


This reflection first appeared in my church’s newsletter on February 1, 2019. You can visit the church web site here.

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