I’ve had several things on mind for my first follow up post to “Why am I still a Christian?” Those several things were completely derailed by the school shooting in Florida. We must do more than pray, but that doesn’t mean we don’t pray. We must believe in more than the new status quo of gun violence, and that means we all need some time searching our souls, engaging in conversations and building stronger bridges between diverse communities in our society. Can our faith add meaning to this dialogue?
Let’s talk about some meaning in life. Growing up in church I remember the Beatitudes as regular Sunday School material, but somewhere along the way to adulthood we seemed to leave that section behind. Other than good material for kids to memorize, I can’t honestly say I recall our giving too much energy to this passage of Jesus stating some of his core values and beliefs about the world. His beliefs about what the world should be.
Blessed. Blessed are… In this short passage Jesus begins a sermon full of pretty radical content with a framework for what constitutes blessing, or what should constitute blessing. Jesus mentions eight things, eight conditions or states of life, which we should view as conditions of blessing. We know what blessing means, even if we don’t use the word except when someone sneezes. Blessing means gifted, having a reason to celebrate, happy, and it is well-wishing, empowering, a desire for someone’s good or betterment. So here they are, the states of life which constitute blessing, from Matthew’s Gospel: 1) the poor in spirit, 2) those in grief, 3) the humble, 4) all seeking justice and rightness, 5) those who show mercy, 6) those who work to keep their intentions pure, 7) all who work for peace, and 8) those who suffer for doing right in the world. There’s a ninth one at the end that usually stands alone in scholarship as it feels far more focused on the audience with Jesus that day than a broader universal blessing. We’ll stick with the generally accepted list of eight.
Can we hear these as value statements? Is this Jesus expressing a worldview? He seems to be reversing the way we think about getting ahead in life, what we want from life and how we share this life together. Too often we trade mercy and justice, peace and rightness for dominance, winning and revenge. Too often we avoid the hurting, close our ears to the grieving and make a wide detour around folks who need us most. These statements of blessing first and foremost call us to lift our eyes from our own small worlds and see more than just our own interests and pursuits. We must look to the people around us in mercy and with humility. We don’t turn away from people in grief or our hurting neighbors. We seek peace, for all people. We desire justice in the world, and we work to make that desire a reality.
Jesus has a clear message and meaning for our lives. His value statements in Matthew’s Gospel show us a picture of people trying to work with God to make a world that’s more livable, more fair and deeply healing. How would my daily decisions and life choices be different if guided by these values? And when I find myself grieving and in need of mercy, what a state of blessing I might be in if I’m surrounded by people who are following this vision of the world? The world will still have grief tomorrow, and human lives will need mercy, humility and justice. What Jesus offers us is a pattern of mind and belief which enables us, invites us, to co-create a world with God that heals and unifies. I want the world that Christ visions for us, wants for us and calls us to help realize.
“In great and small matters cause no harm,
and do not become an enemy instead of a friend.”
Yeshus Ben Sira, Ecclesiasticus 5:15-6:1
“For we are what he has made us,
created in Christ Jesus for good works,
which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
Paul, Ephesians 2:10
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Jesus, Matthew 5:43-48
I’d like to start with a confession, and then an admission. First, I’d like to confess that 2017 was a tough year for me, and I often vacillated between feeling neglected by God and neglectful of God. I was riding the struggle bus, front row. In a tough year like that it’s hard to pray, and I didn’t pray like I wish I had. In a tough year like that it’s easy to let one’s emotional desolation color all things, even the blessings, in a shadowed undervalued light. My admission is that I am still devoted to my Christ, to the call that God placed upon me so many years ago to be a servant of the world and the church. I’m ready to get off that struggle bus and begin again to serve and share life in a close-knit community of faith. But as I started this new year a question occurred to me and continued to feel very relevant for this time in my life: Why am I still a Christian?
It’s not a bad question. I’ve been a follower of Jesus Christ, by conscious choice, since my baptism when I was fifteen years old. That’s almost 33 years… my 48th birthday is next month. For the vast majority of my adult life I have been employed by churches in different positions of ministry and service. I’ve studied Christianity and other religions, and I have had many deep and wonderful relationships in and outside of the church. I have left the church tradition of my youth, pastored outside of all the established denominations, and eventually landed a few years ago in the Episcopal Church. For the last three years I’ve worked for Apple (full-time for the last two years) as a retail store technician, salesperson, trainer and most recently in store leadership. Two years out of ministry and after a rough year in 2017, I’ve been feeling very unemployable in ministry. At this moment I don’t have any firm path or prospect back into the religious vocational calling of my life.
Maybe we should start with a couple of reasons I don’t accept for why I’m still a Christian, after all these years and after so many recent disappointments. Reasons which are not accurate for why I’m still a Christian: 1) “I’m paid to be a Christian.” Nope. No one has paid me to be a professional religious person for over two years. I don’t think that was ever a reason why I was a Christian, but it’s worth mentioning that my paycheck does not depend on my faith. 2) “I have to be a Christian because all other religions are so wrong.” Nope. I’ve been leaning over the years toward something that many would call a form of universalism, though I would not say I’m a universalist. I’m not a Christian because I think that Jesus wins the grand cosmic religious competition, because I don’t think religions are intrinsically in competition.
Why still be a Christian? I’m going to be breaking this into several blogs for while, sort of a Lenten expedition for myself. Yes, next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day! In short I have been looking at a few ideas, answers to my question: journey, experience, meaning and witness. We won’t necessarily take them in that order or hesitate to add to the list. On April 8th I’ve been invited back to the pulpit at St. John’s Norwood to preach, and the Gospel passage that day is from John 20 when the Apostle Thomas touches the wounds of his resurrected Lord. He previously rejected the witness of the women and men who had seen Jesus and demanded his own evidence. In our passage Jesus graciously allows Thomas to feel his wounds and then gives a blessing for all who accept the witness in faith without demanding a touch of their own. Today, we have the question of what to do with this amazing witness. The graphic I chose to include with this blog post is an example of meaning, the meaning that faith can give to words and decisions, to life.
Why I’m still a Christian is also a great question in view of my coming pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine in April, just 65 days away! I will be walking where Jesus walked, and seeing places and landscapes central to the lives of those early witnesses who still speak to us, today. I’m going to blog my exploration of this question to help myself hear my own thoughts, to gain clarity and hopefully to hear from you as well. May God bless your 2018, and may all our efforts to be faithful and authentic be pleasing to God and enriching for us and the world around us.
I had a message pop up in Facebook the other day, my friend Kurt from St John’s had been poking around my blog and reading some of the things I have written on LGBTQ inclusion and acceptance. He correctly pointed out that I was a little out of date… he didn’t say “dude, you’re slacking off,” but he should have. He would have been right.
He also graciously offered me permission to share a short article he wrote this past year for St John’s on what it meant to be asked to help our parish organize a group to march in the annual Pride Parade in DC. He did a great job organizing, by the way… it was my first Pride Parade and I’m hooked.
Here’s the text of his article, and a few Parade photos… please receive it as a gift from Kurt, a brother in Christ, a humble man and a deeply good soul.
Pride Parade Story by Kurt Ellison
It wasn’t long ago that someone stopped me and said, “So what’s the deal with the Pride Parade? Why is St. John’s marching?”
That is no small answer!
As a teenager that grew up at St. John’s, I could tell that we were definitely a church that was not of one mind about the whole gay issue. We had gay clergy, but when it came to choosing a new rector in 1997, St. John’s said overwhelmingly (in its profile survey) that it did not want a gay rector. (Yes, it’s true!)
As St. John’s wrestled with where it was and searched for a new rector, so I was wrestling with who I was – a gay kid who loved my church (and I still do). Living in Chicago as an adult, I found myself at the annual pride parade, and fascinated by the churches that were marching in the parade, and thinking, “Wow, my home church (St. John’s) would never do this!”
Years later, I moved back to the area to look after my ailing parents, I eventually came back to St. John’s and was curious to see how things had changed. Imagine my surprise when Susan Pizza and Sari Ateek eventually asked if I would write a grant for the Norwood Parish Fund to get us to participate in Pride.
I had to think for a while, and pray seriously about it. I was the type of person to watch a parade, not necessarily march in one, much less write a grant proposal, or organize a contingent. In my prayers, I could picture God having a good laugh saying, “HA HA, Kurt! You thought St. John’s would never do this! Now you have to man up!” How could I say no?
I wrote the proposal to the NPF. It got approved (kudos to the NPF folks!). We bought frisbees with the church logo, a banner, and advertised in Crossroads. 25 people showed up to march. We had a blast!
The gay community does not always receive a welcoming message from churches (understatement!). Other churches, while supportive and inclusive are not necessarily putting their message of welcome out there. Marching in the parade tells a whole community that they are welcome at St. John’s. It is a positive risk for the Gospel.
What amazes me still after three years of marching is how grateful people are to see the churches marching in the Pride Parade. All along the parade route we hear time and again, “Thank you for coming!”, and “Thank you, St. John’s!” In 2015 it is no small thing to say, “ALL ARE WELCOME HERE!”
Our pastor, Rev. Sari!
…and the man of the hour, Kurt!
Below is one I took at the Parade in 2016!
Life is a journey and our spiritual life mirrors this with twists and turns and fun developments… a recent fun event in my journey was being confirmed in the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion on Saturday, November 14th, 2015 at the National Cathedral in Washington DC. In the picture with me is Reverend Sari and my new friend Anne, both from St. John’s Norwood Parish.
It was also an intentional move, not an accident. I’ve been looking for a Christian faith tradition for the second half of my life, even making a short-list of fellowships to explore and question, and we ended up choosing the Episcopal Church for many reasons. I’ll describe three of those reasons here, things that the Episcopal Church stands for and some deep blessings of being around this tradition.
The Middle Way. In my life as a Christian and a Pastor I have often found myself holding the center among a variety of people and viewpoints. I have pastored a community for many years that included conservatives and progressives, Republicans and Democrats, many ethnicities, differing sexualities, beautiful colors, varied traditions and diverse backgrounds. I was intentional about trying to make all welcome and keeping them respected and I called it a sacred tension of doing life together in our diversity. I’ve found the Anglican Communion to have already named this: the middle way. With a foot in both the Catholic and Protestant traditions, and a diverse family of people, the middle way is that path of unity and shared dignity without a forced conformity or loss of vital historicity.
Tribal Without Tribalism. Our family has been blessed to find a balance of openness and identity in the Episcopal Church that I describe as being tribal without the tribalism. We have an identity as a group, a faith family, without needing to judge or exclude others. We have a belonging system, which is important, without needing to also draw bold lines of division and keep others from our Table or our full welcome in worship. As a guest dropping in often over the last decade I was able to find solace in the Rites and share the Eucharist with this communion of faith long before my confirmation. I am so thankful for that gift through the years.
Living As A Communion. I’ve been a prayer book collector for many years, and the Book of Common Prayer has been one of my favorites. I didn’t know that it’s existence represents one of the central ideas of the Anglican Communion, that instead of being in joined in fellowship because we all think and believe exactly alike, we are one because we pray together. This resonates with me as both a foundation of unity and peace in our life as a communion and in my daily devotional practice. We are one in our mutual reaching out to God.
I’m not here asserting that the Episcopal Church is the best faith family for everyone, and I have no interest in any my church is better than your church competition. I just want to share what a blessing it has been to find my tribe and be welcomed therein. It’s been an interesting journey for our whole family and we are excited about the coming years with the church. And yes, the cool Episcopal shield is probably going to be my next tattoo, but we’ll see. =)
This morning I am tired, and in my fatigue I turn to prayer with one of my favorite saints: Christopher. His name means Christ-Bearer. As the stories of saints go, his is an ancient and beautiful story of finding the will, the strength and the opportunity to serve.
Christopher sought the greatest King to whom he might pledge his strength and battle valor… he found instead a gentle King who called him to serve the weak and the needful. I begin my prayers today with the hope that I could be deeply reminded that my strength, when spent, belongs to the needful around me. I pray that my will is brought together with opportunity to be a servant like Christopher.
Christopher was a convert to Christianity in the 3rd century; he was a violent warrior who wanted to serve the mightiest leader he could find. When he discovered that others pointed to Christ as such a leader he went in search of more knowledge about Jesus. A gentle hermit taught him of Christ and set him on a path of dangerous service to local villagers, not a service of killing or violence, but a service of strength and protection. He would carry them across a river that was to strong for them to cross on their own. He did this service faithfully, and one day is said to have carried Christ himself across the river.
It would be a terrible loss to get too caught up in only trying to find the historical Christopher. You will have to sort thru various names, traditions and stories. He has interesting iconography, almost always holding a staff, most often carrying a child, and even sometimes having the head of a dog. (Say what? That would be just my luck if I have have an icon, lol.) Who martyred him? Where did it happen? Why did it happen? These are probably not going to be discovered to an historian’s satisfaction. You’ll also discover that he’s been dropped from many calendars of saints, mostly because of the lack of concrete evidence for his story. But an ancient story of faith leading to service instead of fighting? An ancient story of faith leading to the strength to serve instead of seeking to dominate and to make demands? It’s a needed story for our times.
St. Christopher is often considered the patron of travelers, and the prayers around him reflect that affinity to travel. I’ll end with a prayer that invokes Christopher’s strength and dedicated service, a prayer for the day…
Grant me, O my God, a watchful eye and willing heart.
I would be a willing servant to all and an enemy to none.
You give all people the gift of life, and I pray my actions and words honor that gift.
May all who share this day with me receive only blessings for our time together.
Teach me to use my strength, my will, and every opportunity, to serve others;
help me to slow down and to turn from myself to see their beauty and value.
Give me the strength, the will and a calling to serve, such as you gave to St. Christopher,
and therein help me to follow this epic example of a living and a serving faith
which uses each day to protect and enrich this world for others by sharing your peace.
I beg these things through the graces of Christ, our Gentle King. Amen.
Links about St. Christopher: