Piece of the Puzzle

random musings on whatever...

God is with us

Although some of us might have already taken down our trees, manger scenes, and other decorations, it is still officially the Christmas season. In the church calendar we celebrate Christmas until Epiphany begins on January 6, which is also still about recognizing the light that has come. Sometimes we need these many reminders of God’s presence born into our lives.

What does it mean when we celebrate this child Jesus who was born so long ago? Historically, there isn’t much we really know with certainty about Jesus’ birth. We have the four biblical gospels, but Mark and John don’t even talk about Jesus’ birth and Matthew and Luke differ on the details. And, of course, these accounts of Jesus’ birth, as well as those of his life, death, and resurrection, aren’t really written to give us historical details, but to tell us deeper truths of who Jesus was and is.

Matthew tells the story of an angel visiting Joseph. The angel tells Joseph that there is something special about the baby that Mary is carrying and the angel gives the baby two names: Jesus, which means “one who saves,” and Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” Both names are important statements about who Jesus is, but perhaps “God is with us” better captures the spirit of Christmas.

Christians understand God as having taking human form in a small baby. A baby is vulnerable. A baby needs help. A baby does not represent a vengeful God who comes to crush our enemies. God doesn’t come to us as a violent God, but as a child, vulnerable as we are vulnerable, to be received and loved, not feared. John 3:16 says that God so loved the world that God gave us Jesus. Despite the connection often made between this famous bible verse and Jesus’ death, John 3:16 doesn’t actually talk about his death and resurrection. It says only that Jesus is a gift of love. Jesus is the incarnation of God’s love. Jesus as “God with Us” is also “Love with us.” When we get to wishing people would put Christ back into Christmas perhaps we’re really saying let us put love back into Christmas. I’m ok with that because the world needs a lot more love.

Christmas is ultimately not about Mary being a virgin, or the wise people traveling from a far away land, or angels appearing to shepherds. All of these are wonderful stories which are told to convey to us the truth that God is with us. Our Christmas celebrations invite us to stop and look for “God with us,” to notice the Christ-presence in our own time, to notice where and when Love is born into the world. Take a moment today to look for signs of love within you and around you: a kind word, someone helping a stranger, a special unexpected gift, an act of charity and compassion, sunshine peaking through winter clouds, the companionship of a pet… where do you see Christ in the world? Where do you see love in the world? Stop and look. Stop and listen. For God is with us.

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This reflection was published in my church newsletter on January 3, 2020 and inspired by the sermon, “God is with Us,” from Sunday, December 22, 2019. Audio recordings of most of my sermons can be found at https://phoenixchurch.org/home/phx-sermons/.

What it means to support Donald Trump

If you support Tr*mp you are teaching our children that

  • profit and power are the only worthwhile goals in life
  • it is ok to lie anytime, anywhere, for any reason… if anyone points out you aren’t being truthful, just accuse them of spreading fake news
  • it is ok to grab a woman anytime, anywhere, for any reason
  • it is ok to not pay your debts
  • it is ok to take advantage of other people for your own gain
  • it is ok to do what you want to whomever you want whenever you want
  • it is ok to ridicule and denigrate anyone who criticizes you… if you do something wrong, just blame it on the person who points it out
  • it is ok to ignore the law (and due process and the constitution) if doing so is convenient or profitable
  • people don’t need access to health care unless a profit can be made from it
  • the environment doesn’t matter… if people complain you’re destroying the air, water, etc. then just deny it. They’ll believe it because truth doesn’t matter.
  • people who aren’t like “us” (that is, white, male, and heterosexual) don’t matter
  • gay people (as well as lesbian, bisexual, trans folks) don’t matter
  • anyone born south of the border doesn’t matter
  • corporate profits (thus making the rich richer) are, in fact, the only thing that does matter
  • racism is perfectly acceptable
  • violence is perfectly acceptable
  • putting innocent children in jail is perfectly acceptable
  • if you’re rich and powerful, no one will hold you accountable
  • you shouldn’t worry about anyone but yourself – which is the only reason I can think of that poor or working people would support Trump – he gives them permission to tell the world to f*ck off
So, basically, if you support Tr*mp, you’re a danger to all that is good and moral in life. You’re a danger to our nation.

Also, you can’t espouse the above values (i.e. support Tr*mp) and still claim you follow Jesus… folks like Falwell and Graham should take note.

A Lament for Truth

A Lament for Truth
By Kenneth Arthur

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

Somber suits donned,
we gather to mourn.
Tears caress cheeks
as we face truth:
Truth is dead.

It may have won out some day
but instead we done shot it dead.
Without Truth, there are no
truth-tellers, no prophets.
No Moses to demand let my people go.
No Nathan to hold murderous adulterers accountable.
No Isaiah to stand up for widow and orphan.
The prophets died with Truth.
No Martin to march for justice.
No Harvey to run for office.
No one to lay bare consequences
of power and greed.
No more whistle blowers because
truth has been shot dead,
branded fake, no longer necessary.
No one paid much attention anyway.
We prefer our emperors naked
as long as they strut with confidence
and a fuck you attitude we can mimic.

So we shot Truth dead
and gather to mourn
and wonder if anyone –
politician or preacher,
pipe fitter or paralegal –
has the power to stand graveside
and shout, Lazarus, Come Out!

Reflections on the messages of the Goose

Part 2 — To read part 1 go here.

I’ve already tried to describe a little of what going to the Wild Goose Festival is like in Part 1: What is the Wild Goose Festival and what is it like? Now I want to take just a couple more paragraphs to reflect on the messages of the Goose. I’m so impressed by the big names that come and speak at this festival every year. I can’t say enough about how inspiring and energizing the experience was but I’ll mention a few of my favorite things from this year’s (2019) festival, in no particular order.

The opening night speaker was Otis Moss III. His talk was energizing but to be honest I don’t remember much of what he said. I don’t think that is his fault. He spoke on opening night and so much happened since then it just got pushed out of my brain. I’ve heard him speak before and I’ve always come way impressed.

I also love hearing Barbara Brown Taylor speak. She was interviewed about her new book, “Holy Envy.” I tried to buy a copy the next day in the festival bookstore but it was already sold out. I’ll be buying a copy now that I’m home. She wrote the book as a tribute to students she’s taught as a world religions professor. She writes of their experiences learning about other religions as well as how we can learn from each others’ faiths. Again, I don’t really remember a lot of the details but I was left with the feeling that this is a book I definitely need to read.

William Barber, a Disciples of Christ Minister and found of the Poor People’s Campaign, is also always inspiring. He made a passionate call for a “moral Pentecost” – right here and right now! It’s something we should all be concerned about and consider getting involved with: https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/.

One of the musical groups was the Nine Beats Collective, a world-wide ranging group who gathered to do music inspired by the Beatitudes. Check them out: https://9beats.org/.

In a smaller workshop I attended one of the speakers talked about forgiveness not only being about the “sinner” but also about the victim of the “sin” and the pain of those sinned against. We can’t claim innocence but need to deal with our complicity in others’ pain. That seemed like a point worth hanging onto for further reflection.

Christy Berghoef, Brian McLaren, and John Pavlovitz had a panel discussion on civil discourse vs. prophetic voice. I found it engaging because this is a tension I’ve felt as a minister. I would paraphrase the conundrum like this: Do we work on building relationships with those we disagree with, which might involve holding our tongue or moderating what we say and how we say it? Or do we bluntly tell the truth as we understand it and let the chips fall where they may, even if it may break relationships instead of building them? Berghoef was new to me and I’ve always admired McLaren’s work. I knew of Pavlovitz before this talk but he’s always seemed too confrontational to me. I came away impressed by him. I’m a fan now. One thing he talked about is while he uses his prophetic voice in social media and comes across as a jerk to many, he also tries to engage in dialog with those he angers. So maybe there’s a line here where we can be truth-tellers and still be relationship-builders. I hope so.

Another person who was new to me was Stan Mitchell. While many of the messages I heard over the weekend were energizing and inspiring, his really touched my heart. The weird thing is, I’m not really sure why because what he was saying was pretty much what I’ve tried to preach myself but perhaps presented in a little different (better?) way. Or maybe it just had to do with where I was spiritually and emotionally in the moment. Anyway, what he was talking about was coming from a church where he was taught of his supposed inherent evil and separation from God as a fallen human being. He gave interpretations of the Garden of Eden story and of the Parable of the Prodigal Son to make the point that we are not inherently evil but we are inherently beautiful, good, and beloved by God. Some points to ponder: it’s not sin that separates us from God but shame. When Eve covered up her nakedness in the Garden, it wasn’t because she was bad and she had to be covered before God would come near her but she needed to cover up so *she* would be comfortable in God’s presence. It wasn’t about sin, but about shame. God doesn’t separate from us, but we separate from God. Further, he didn’t like the word separation but preferred estrangement from God because estrangement implies that in our natural state we belong with God. Separation is space between two (potentially unrelated) things. Estrangement is space between two things that belong together. Mitchell didn’t state it, but I think the estrangement terminology comes from the theologian Paul Tillich. Also, talking about the Prodigal Son, Mitchell pointed out that the father in the parable never goes looking for the son who squandered his wealth. But he does go looking for the son that had stayed home but doesn’t come to the feast. That is, the lost one in the parable is really the elder son. There was more to it, but I think it is a point worth reflection. I wish I had a video of this sermon. It really made me think about shame and what shame I might carry with me that estranges me from the Holy.

So, perhaps the big question is that now I’m home, how do I carry this experience into my every day life. With current events, the plight of children housed in concentration camps by my own government is on my heart… one of many important, emotionally deflating, and often inter-related issues (for example, what’s happening to those children is directly related to racism and the white nationalism espoused by our president). Can I do something about it? How can I use my prophetic voice and my circles of influence to create justice in the world?

My post festival to-do list: 1) find my niche in justice seeking and 2) make time for my spiritual practices that I might get in touch with my inner shame and draw closer to the Holy. Will I do these things? Only God knows for sure what the future holds, but here’s a prayer that the Wild Goose (i.e. the Holy Spirit) will fly before me, leading me (and all of us) into the Way of God’s kin-dom of love and justice.

What is the Wild Goose Festival and what is it like?

This past weekend I was in Hot Springs, North Carolina, attending the Wild Goose Festival. This was the 9th year of the festival and my second time there (I previously went in 2017 while I was on sabbatical). The name of the festival, as the lore is told, comes from the wild goose as a Celtic symbol for the Holy Spirit. This is the Holy Spirit not as the demure dove we normally think of but as wild, untamed, and unpredictable. Now, as I’ve been home less than 24 hours, I want to tell everyone about this wonderfully inspiring experience. I’m going to divide this into two parts. Part one will be about the atmosphere of the Goose (as they shorten it for those in the know) and part two will be some short reflections on some of the messages I heard.

Part 1 – To skip to Part 2 go here. You might also be interested in this article on the Religion News Service site.

The festival is part Progressive Christianity conference and part music festival, all held in a Woodstock-like way. It was created, so we’re told, as an American version of the Greenbelt festival in Great Britain. Since I know nothing about Greenbelt, I’ll just take their word for it. What I do know is that the Wild Goose Festival is a truly energizing and inspiring collection of speakers, talented musicians, and dedicated, progressive Christians and activists. Some folks are well-known names and many aren’t.

The festival runs from a Thursday evening until noon-ish on Sunday. As Hot Springs, North Carolina, is about a ten hour drive from my home in Southwest Michigan, I took two days to get there, driving seven hours, staying in a hotel and then making the final three hour drive on the day the festival opens. The festival is held at a campground so if you want to get the full experience you’ll want to camp with 3000 or so of your new friends. I don’t actually know how many people were there but the number I’ve heard thrown around is three to four thousand. Both times I’ve went, I rented a tent and air mattress from a very friendly lady who does all the set up and tear down and also has a bonfire every night for her campers who want to get away from the big crowds and just sit and chat. Not having to worry about the tent and air mattress, I was able to go with minimal equipment. If you go, don’t forget to take, besides clothes, a water bottle, flashlight, rain gear, and a camp chair (or you can also rent a camp chair from the same lady if you go that route). I ate out of the half-dozen food trucks that were there so no need to lug along a camp stove and food unless you want to. Of course, you may also want to bring a notebook, pen and maybe reading material for the downtime you probably won’t have 🙂 The other thing about camping… there aren’t nearly enough showers or regular toilets for so many people so plan on getting a little ripe and doing nature’s business in a porta-john. That’s part of the camping experience, though. But you will look forward to the Sunday evening hotel stay and a real shower. Also, no vehicles are allowed on site from 4 pm Thursday until after closing services on Sunday. Everyone parks in a huge field across the street from the campground. Cell service is also sketchy on site, we were told. I don’t know because I chose to leave my cell phone turned off and locked in my car all weekend. There is a charging station setup for those who just can’t leave their electronics behind. You can also walk a short distance into town for wifi if you need to.

Most of the folks seemed to be either “main-line” protestants or evangelicals who’ve grown away from conservative theology. It’s a great mix of old and young, queer and straight. I’m encouraged that so many (the majority?) of the folks seem to be from the South. Living in the Midwest, I think we get a skewed view of our brothers and sisters in the South and start to think they’re all conservative fundamentalists. That’s just fake news 🙂 Loving, welcoming Christians are everywhere! Of course, you’ll also find people at the festival from the East and Midwest and all over, really. The festival could use a little more diversity, though, in that it was mostly white folks. People of color were well represented on the main stage as far as speakers and musicians, but the audience, although there were people of color too, was mostly white.

The festival begins on Thursday evening with some music and an opening speaker. This year the opening speaker was the very dynamic Rev. Otis Moss III from Trinity UCC in Chicago. After he spoke, a band did a set. Each night after the evening band(s), there was also Beer & Hymns. Not so much my thing, but for many Beer & Hymns is one of their favorite events. It’s just what it says: you get a beer from the beer tent (or not), walk 20 feet over to another tent and sing your favorite hymns with a bunch of other people.

Mornings at the Goose begin with a key-note speaker and more music. Friday this year, the speaker was Diana Butler Bass and Saturday it was Rev. William Barber. Barber in particular is one of my favorites. After the key-note, there are more well-known speakers on the main stage until noon but there are also other seminars and workshops going all day. One tent, the Cafe, is setup for musicians to play all day long from 10 am to 6 pm so that’s about 16 different acts over two days in an intimate setting. I really enjoyed just popping in a couple of times over the weekend to soak up some music from people who I never heard of before but who were really talented. There are also 7-8 or more other tents where workshops are run in one hour blocks during that same 10 to 6 time frame as well as another tent they were calling the Convo Hall where folks were gathered in smaller, more conversational meetings. So, basically, if you do the math, there is so much more going on than a person can possibly participate in. You have to pick and choose and just give up your schedule to the Spirit (or the Goose?). The workshops and talks are led by a wonderful mix of people who you might consider famous as well as dedicated and passionate people you’ll be hearing of for the first time. There’s also a book store tent that sells books from all the different speakers and presenters. Musicians also usually have merchandise at the bookstore or at their performance(s).

Some of the talks I heard:

“A Bold New Religion Called Love. Period.” – Jacqui Lewis

“Holy Envy” – Barbara Brown Taylor being interviewed by Sojourner CEO Rob Wilson about her new book

“Doing (Responsible) Theology in the Age of Trump”

“Reverend Sex and the Gospel of the Erotic”

“Why Would Anyone Still Be a Christian?”

“The 701 Club with Helen Holy” – satirical comedian

“Best Practices for New Writers” – Barbara Brown Taylor and Brian Allain

There were dozens of other things going on that I missed because not only are things happening at the same time but I also made time for eating, napping, book shopping and taking in some of the music.

Friday and Saturday evenings were all about music. The main stage takes a break starting at 2 pm as they work on mic checks and getting things ready for the evening. Beginning at 6 pm and going until 11 pm, different music acts are featured. Someone performs a set on the main stage and when they’re done someone else performs on a side stage while they get the main stage setup for the next act. This way, you pretty much get constant music for those 5 hours. The big headliner on Saturday this year was Beth Nielsen Chapman, who was about the only music act I had heard of before (but they were all great). And, while all the musicians were within the ethos of Progressive Christianity, some were overtly religious acts and many weren’t. The only bummer about the music was that both Friday and Saturday they had to shut the main stage down for a while as thunder storms rolled through. It caused only a delay on Friday but it cut Chapman’s set short on Saturday.

Sunday morning happens all on the main stage as the festival wraps up. It began with a panel discussion with Brian McLaren, Christy Berghoef, and John Pavlovitz about “Prophetic Voice or Civil Discourse,” followed by a message by Stan Mitchell (who was unknown to me but now I’m a fan) which I found particularly moving, and ending with a message by Yvette Flunder – all with a little music thrown in here and there. I actually left before Rev. Flunder was done speaking. Her message was great, but at noon she was still going and I was ready to hit the road. I did miss closing communion by leaving early. If you bring enough camping gear that you need to bring your car to your camping site to load up, then you’re kind of stuck and can’t leave early (but maybe that’s a good thing). They don’t let cars on site until after the final service is finished. And, although I left early, I left fully energized and looking forward to next year. Yes, I’ve already bought my tickets for 2020!

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