Hypocrisy on purpose?

I had an epiphany in our Lenten Study.

[Are epiphanies allowed during Lent? Even after 19+ years working at Woodridge United Methodist Church, I still get confused about ecclesial particularities like the seasons of the church year. Which seems silly. I’ve now been working and worshiping in the UMC longer than I attended the American Baptist Church of my youth. Why does my profoundly non-liturgical upbringing still hold such sway? (Well, non-officially-liturgical. I know every body has a liturgy. Some, like my home church, aren’t overt about it. It’s more subconscious.) I suppose the overly strong influence of (church) families of origin upon worship preferences is a post for another day.]

The way this year’s study works is that each week we read the assigned chapter in Brian McLaren’s We Make the Road by Walking, which always begins by directing us to that section of scripture to which the chapter is responding. This third week of the study directed us to the gospel of Matthew, chapter 6, verses 1-18.

As you may remember, the lectionary calls us to read much of those same verses every year on Ash Wednesday. In particular, the part wherein Jesus commands us to pray in secret, give in secret, and fast in secret. We read that on Ash Wednesday. You know, the day on which we put a big ol’ mark on our foreheads? Totally conspicuous, obvious, and the farthest-thing-from-secret? That day?

I’ve often wondered about that odd confluence. I’d say it strikes me as, well, hypocritical. Comically so, in fact.

But in the process of reading those verses a few times, reading the McLaren chapter, and talking about all of it with the considerate folks in our study group, a new thought struck me: what if that dissonance is on purpose?!?

What if the off-putting juxtaposition of that text and that public action is purposefully there to force us to face our own hypocrisy?? We read about praying, giving, fasting in secret then put that big mark on our forehead to show that we’ve prayed and then, quite often, talk about what we’re giving up for Lent. In other words, we often talk with each other about from what we intend to fast.

I mean, really. If that’s not comedy, what is? Perhaps I’ve been too busy taking myself too seriously on that perhaps too-somber day to be able to laugh at myself. It seems so obvious now. It’s so over-the-top ridiculous, I have no idea how I never saw it before. We who claim to follow Jesus are so often also the same ones quite ready to call out the hypocrisy in others…maybe Ash Wednesday is supposed to help us laugh at our own hypocrisy instead. A physical embodiment of humility.

After all, that’s exactly what comedy (at it’s best) is for: bringing down the haughty and lifiting up the lowly.

What do you think? Could Ash Wednesday be the best kind of joke – one in which we literally wear our own hypocrisy on our foreheads, on purpose!? If so, why have I not noticed before now?

Welcome to Parable Club

This Sunday, March 1, through Easter at Woodridge UMC, Pastor Danita and I are preaching a sermon series, The Parables of Lent (aka #ParablesofLent when you tweet, post, & pic about it each week ;-) ). We decided we needed a group effort of some kind in order to help us navigate these tricky stories Jesus loved to tell. But we thought Parable Support Group was a little too depressing. So instead…Welcome to Parable Club!

Before we get this series started, there are a few rules that must be followed here at Parable Club.

The first rule of Parable Club is, You do not talk about parables as if they are Aesop fables. “Fables are short stories which illustrate a particular moral and teach a lesson to children.”

The second rule of Parable Club is, You. Do. Not. Talk. About. Parables. As. If. They. Are. Aesop Fables.

The third rule of Parable Club is, Be ready to laugh. There is almost certainly a joke in there somewhere.

The fourth rule of Parable Club is, to paraphrase Fred Clark, The story is the point. “The meaning of the parable isn’t some lesser, shorter thing to be distilled; the meaning was greater, vaster, too unruly and immense to be contained otherwise.” [read more]

The fifth rule of Parable Club is, Be ready to laugh at yourself. The joke is almost certainly on you (and me).

The sixth rule Parable Club is, to paraphrase Amy-Jill Levine, Let your eyes be opened. “Parables tease us into recognizing what we’ve already always known, and they do so by reframing our vision. The point is less that they reveal something new than that they tap into our memories, our values, and our deepest longings, and so they resurrect what is very old, and very wise, and very precious. And often, very unsettling.” [read more]

The seventh rule of Parable Club is, The story is not an allegory. It’s entirely possible not even one of the parable’s characters is a stand-in for God.

The eighth rule of Parable Club is, The story almost certainly has to do with the kin-dom of God on earth. If I tell you the parable is about your disembodied soul escaping this plane of existence in order to reside in some ethereal, Other, non-place, I’m almost certainly doing it wrong. I should probably sound more like this guy:

fight club quote

The ninth (What? You didn’t think this was a completely direct parallel, did you?) rule of Parable Club is, We almost certainly won’t hear the same thing. And not only is that ok, it is as it should be. Parables are notoriously sneaky, slippery, confounding, challenging, funny, transformative, and irreducible. To think that multiple human beings will react to them in the exact same way is either sure folly or extremely arrogant. Or both. We will do our best to be neither of those.

The tenth and final rule of Parable Club is, Whether this is your first time at Parable Club or your 490th, you must ask questions. Parables invite us into in interactive relationship with the storyteller. Parables want us – need us – to be engaged. So think, wonder, listen, dream, imagine, and ask away.

Late to the Lent party #ashtag

Lent started, ahem, five days ago. So might well have read scores of ways to celebrate this season of the church. I know my timelines were full of them the last few days. Still, late as it is, here’s what I’m thinking about…

Lent: that season of the church year during which millions of Christians prepare for the Resurrection of Jesus by giving up…something for forty days. Me? I’m giving up beets. Just like every year. In fact, as far as beets are concerned, I’ve observed a perpetual Lent for, oh, about twenty-five years now. Can’t. Stand. ‘em.

That’s my issue with the standard “give something up for Lent” approach: it is way too easy for it to become an empty ritual, a duty checked off, a way to feel “religious” without really challenging or changing yourself. Lent is a time marked by and for repentance, which means “to turn away.” A time to turn away from that which separates us from the Creator, creatures, and creation. (I know, I know. That formulation reeks of the cheesy, forced alteration so often employed by we preacher types. I gotta be me, I guess?) That kind of turning away could lead to giving up something like chocolate or coffee, depending on circumstances. But I suspect a list such as this one is much more likely to offer something truly worth giving up leading to actual change in our lives: fear of failure, guilt, destructive speech. It’s a terrific list.

Whatever misgivings I may have about that particular Lenten tradition, I find Ash Wednesday to be very meaningful. Worship that day reminds us of our mortality (hence the ashes), is a call to repentance, and an opportunity for a restart. Though there is something ironic about reading Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Matthew calling us to “pray in secret” and then leaving the worship experience with an obvious, visible mark on our head.

That’s a lot of forehead with which to work.

Instead of giving something up, there’s what we might call an inverse tradition: taking something on for Lent. That is, committing to engaging in a spiritual practice (or similar) for the forty days. Hence, the annual Lenten Bible Study at Woodridge UMC. This year, we’re reading Brian McLaren’s We Make the Road by Walking.

What does that even mean?

The title suggests that faith was never intended to be a destination, a status, a holding tank, or a warehouse. Instead it was to be a road, a path, a way out of old and destructive patterns into new and creative ones. As a road or a way, it is always being extended into the future. If a spiritual community only points back to where it was been or it only digs in its heels where it is now, it is a dead end or a parking lot, not a way. To be a living tradition, a living way, it must forever open itself forward and forever remain unfinished – even as it forever cherishes and learns from the growing treasury of its past.

That’s how McLaren prefaces the book. Here’s a brief introduction of another stripe:

I hope these glimpses make you want to read more. I think it is a terrific and thought-provoking book and I can’t wait to talk with people about it. I hope to develop some sort of online presence for this study, but I don’t yet know what, when, or where (but other than that, it’s totally ready to go…).

We’re holding the session of the study that begins tonight at a Panera bread near the church. That’s new for us, holding a study off site. As with most any new venture, I’m a bit nervous. There are so many variables out of our control! But I really think meeting in a different place will allow us to see and hear ideas that we cannot in the familiar comfort of our church building.

Anyway, here are some resources to learn more about the book and/or McLaren:

A few other videos like the one above, with McLaren walking and talking.

A Facebook community for groups using the book.

Learn more about McLaren, or read his blog.

Have you read the book? Let me know what you think?
How are you celebrating Lent? Giving something up? Taking something on? Something else?

Continuing conversations on race

Yes, the church season of Lent has begun. But today, at Woodridge UMC, we’re delaying our Lenten sermon series on Jesus’ parables so we can continue our Black History Monty sermon-discussion series, “Conversations on Race.” Thus far, the collaboration among our senior pastor, Rev. Danita Anderson, the congregation, and I has been honest, uncomfortable, and – I hope – fruitful.

One of the best resources I’ve found for our this series is the United Methodist Church’s General Commission On Religion and Race (aka GCORR. Yes, it’s true. The UMC loves us some acronyms.) We all know the interwebs can be a real rabbit hole in which it is easy to lose significant time. GCORR’s site is actually worth whatever time you can give it. So. Much. Good. Stuff.

Lots of which can and will help us as we continue to have honest conversations about things that matter – like racism. Here’s a small taste of what you can find at GCORR:

Stereotypes vs. Generalizations 

Stereotypes are a way we attempt to bring order to a large diversity of information.

Stereotypes imply that how a group of people are, believe, and behave is predictable and the same for all members of the group.

Generalizations allow that there is variation among people from a given culture – not all persons will act or believe the same.

Generalizations appreciates differences within culture and between cultures [read the rest]

Subtle Racism, a resource 

Are you familiar with everyday racism, subtle racism, or racial microaggressions? The following “sound bites” are intended to help readers examine the times in our lives when we experience or participate in subtle or everyday racism. Of course they are debatable; that’s the point.

Racism is…

  • A waiter always giving the check to the white person at the table.

  • Someone who blames the ghetto on those who live in it.

  • Calling an Asian-American “brilliant” because she or he speaks such good English.

  • Favoring Civil Rights, but knowing one must look out for property values.

  • Using chemicals on crops in California so they survive the trip to New York, but not worrying about whether the labors working those crops survive the trip home.

  • [read the rest]

25 Things Your Congregation Can Do to Affirm Diversity and Challenge Racism

Things to Know 8

Of course, GCORR isn’t the only one offering good and challenging resources on race in the USA. Here’s a couple others I’ve been looking at recently. (More resources that have influenced our thinking about race, race relations, privilege, and more.)

From BuzzFeed, “14 Words that carry a coded meaning for Black people.”

What you say: “That’s ghetto.”

What we hear: That is a negative thing I associate with blackness and/or the working class.

What you say: “You are so well-mannered.”

What we hear: The way you carry yourself does not align with the way I have been led to believe black people act. You are a rare case.

What you say: “He is such a thug.”

What we hear: He is the n-word.

[read the rest]

Or this from Upworthy, “They liked her because she ‘talked white.‘”

Yes, I know I already linked to this spoken word performance. But it is just so amazing I had to do so again. So if you missed it previously, go watch it now! Or if you didn’t miss it, well, it’s probably worth another viewing just to see what new insight you might catch.

How about you? What are you reading and watching and listening to that can add to this ongoing conversation about race, race relations, and privilege?

Uncomfortable on purpose

The huge snowstorm that hit last weekend (5th largest in area history!) may have impeded travel, may have been fun to play in, and may have even kept you from attending our worship services. But as bad as the weather was, it could do nothing to dampen the spirit – or dare I say Spirit – in this place. We sang, we prayed, we laughed, we gave – a typical time at the best place to be on a Sunday morning…only likely with more gratitude than usual for a warm, safe refuge from the snow. But not everything was business as usual. Pastor Danita began the sermon time thusly:

This time of sermon engagement has been misunderstood as a time when you get to sit back in the comfortable pews and hear something from that antiquated book, telling you how you should live your life, while all the time you are thinking, ‘What time does the game start?’ or ‘When is lunch?’ Too often some have walked away from the sermon time wanting to express opinions, ask questions, or simply be in dialogue about what was said. Pastor Dave and I agree opportunities for conversation need to happen, so we’re not going to stand for you walking away in silence anymore! The sermon is a time for us to reflect and act together for change, to hear in our different voices and to do collectively what we cannot do alone. Not one time did Jesus say to the disciples, ‘sit back and relax, let me tell you a bedtime story that will lull you into a worthless and non-productive existence.’ Starting today you get to participate!

For you see, last Sunday Pastor Danita and I began our month-long sermon series of conversations on race.

Pastor Danita & me
As you probably figured out, that’s Pastor Danita and me. No idea why I’m not smiling though.

We know talking about race makes us uncomfortable. We know talking about race makes us afraid. We also know that talking about race – real, true, open dialogue – is the way we can begin to break through that fear; the only way we can begin to become comfortable; the only way we can be transformed so that we might participate in the transformation of the world. Finally, we know that such conversations don’t just happen. They almost always need to be curated. To that end, Pastor Danita also shared this on Sunday:

First we want to recognize and acknowledge that we consider this to be a safe space. We will not allow judgmental comments that negate another person’s sense of worth. We will listen to one another and share respectfully. No one gets to raise their voice (except Pastor Dave and I but that’s only in an emergency). We are here to live together, to work together, to pray together, to learn together, and to grow together. We want to be more than just a museum for our denomination. We want to make a difference in the world, starting here and now.

I’m telling you all this because I want you to be proud that your church family is having this much-needed conversation. I’m telling you this so you will be prepared for the next chapter of this conversation happening this Sunday, February 8th. I’m telling you this so you can and will participate in this ongoing conversation. We need you to be part of the dialogue. Again, from last Sunday’s sermon time:

If we don’t learn that it was people just like us – our mothers, our uncles, our classmates, our clergy – who made and sustained the modern Civil Rights Movement, then we won’t know we can do it again. And then the other side wins – even before we ever begin the fight. I invite you to take a listen and then…we’ll talk!

Last week we used the movie “Selma” as our cultural touchpoint and asked what you saw and heard in the movie, how it made you feel, where and when do you see racism and hatred today, and how do we respond to hate.

This Sunday we’re talking about language, about the power of words to hurt and to heal. In the coming weeks we’ll look at the notion of a colorblind society and privilege. Plus, as a way to make tangible the idea that Black history is American history, each week this month, Vann and Barb Harris will display a portion of their vast, fascinating, and often unique Black History collection. But theirs is no look-but-don’t-touch, just-move-along museum collection! Check out their display, hold the items, and ask questions.

There are of course numerous resources to help us engage in these vital conversations. The following are a few that are informing what we present. We invite you to read, watch, consider, question, dream, and prepare.

But I Don’t See You As Asian: Curating Conversations About Race by Bruce Reyes-Chow

Peggy Macintosh’s now iconic White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack

Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation by Jennifer Harvey

Again, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ long form Atlantic article that is especially important for understanding the history of racism, especially regarding housing. Perhaps surprisingly, Chicago is center stage in that history.

The Average Black Girl

Racism in the USA by the numbers

The myth of race, debunked in 3 minutes

Luke 6:27-36

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

James 3:1-12

As you read and watch and consider, what do you feel? What questions arise? What engages you or surprises you?

Each week during the sermon time, we’ll continue to ask questions, offer thoughts, and curate conversation in a safe place. So don’t be shy! We want – we need – to hear your voice too as we strive to grow in our love of God by growing in our love for all our neighbors.

On message

What lessons are our young people learning from us? In what ways are we teaching and sharing the messages they receive?

That video has been making the rounds across the interwebs lately. It’s an incredible performance and a stark reminder that our children and youth are extremely perceptive and they see and hear things we might not even realize we’re sending their way. Sometimes they see and hear things we wish they wouldn’t. Not because those things are vulgar per se, but because we wish they weren’t true about us.

We showed that video to our high school youth group last night. They were especially interested in what causes people, schools, communities to ban books. Of what are they afraid? What do those people and places think will be accomplished by the bans? Don’t they know there are always other ways of getting a book?

Given the summer of Ferguson, #StayWokeAdvent, and the seemingly daily reports of violence necessitating the cry that #BlackLivesMatter, I hope next we’ll spend more time considering the stark, arresting lines in the performance about all those bones upon whom we’ve built the dominant culture.

How about at WUMC? What unspoken messages are we sending? Specifically, what lessons are our physical space teaching?

A few weeks ago we asked our teens to spend time in various parts of the church to see what our space teaches. According to our physical space, who do we say God is? After nearly an hour of scouring our building to find the messages therein, we asked them to narrow their responses.

What is the most important message you found?

  • God accepts everyone every living thing.
  • God wants us to be a blessing to others.
  • That we should be inclusive and share God’s love and message.
  • That you should be loving and caring and respectful.
  • Have faith without fear.

What was the most surprising or most troubling message you found?

  • That we should walk with Jesus rather than following him. That’s surprising because we’re used to hearing all about follow, follow, follow. This felt more like ‘think for yourself with Jesus.’
  • Treat people respectfully even if you don’t like them. That’s troubling because when you don’t like someone you usually don’t want to treat them well.
  • We serve multiple purposes, we have to help people not just in Woodridge but all around the world.
  • Surprising that most of the rooms had messages about money, that we need to give money.

What message you found is the hardest to live?

  • Putting God first.
  • Loving everyone. Because you don’t always like everyone. It’s hard to love those who don’t respect you.
  • Always follow God.
  • Waking up everyday like it’s your last, trying your hardest 24/7. Some days you just don’t feel up to giving your all.
  • Spread the word. Because sometimes we’re shy or afraid we’ll be judged.

“We were taught that It is better to be silent than to make them uncomfortable!” May we continually strive to avoid that trap.

Happy Christmas 2014

Merry Christmas!

It’s my Christmas day tradition to post this Isaiah passage (which is a reading for Christmas Eve worship every year), Lennon’s “Happy Christmas (War is Over)” (the world’s best – and most challenging – Christmas song), and a lighter second song that changes each year. You’re welcome. ;)

Isaiah 9:2-7:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined…For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.

No, not “all the boots of the tramping warriors” or “all the garments rolled in blood” have been burned as fuel just yet. But I do believe there will be a day when both the weapons and the uniforms of war will be obsolete. I think that’s why I like “Happy Christmas” so much: it simultaneously acknowledges the reality of evil in the world and reminds us, with Isaiah, to hope for – and actively strive for – a better future. A war-less future.

Yes, our sisters and brothers in Israel/Palestine, Nigeria, Mexico, South Sudan, Afghanistan, and so many other places, know all too well that war isn’t over. The Prince of Peace wants all wars to end. To worship the babe born in Bethlehem means facing reality, means seeking to end war. But following God in the way of Jesus also means we don’t believe in hopeless! It means we’ve got some work to do.

(Trigger warning: some images involves children, many are difficult to watch.)

Still, childlike joy is also an important part of Christmas. This song has got to be the weirdest I’ve heard in a long time. But that’s what makes it so awesome. Go ahead, just try to refrain from singing it constantly; I bet you can’t! I know I can’t stop singing/mumbling it, much to the delight, and disgust, of my family.

Merry Christmas from the Buerstetta’s to all who celebrate! Happy Thursday to all who don’t! 

Note: Celebrating Sabbath is my attempt to start each week with a reminder of our identity: whose we are and who we’re called to be.

The obvious and only real choice today: the first – and still the best – Christmas song. Yep, Mary’s Magnificat. That is, the song Mary sings as she visits her relative Elizabeth, who is also pregnant. We are still striving to bring Mary’s radical vision to life.

Luke 1:46-55

Mary: My soul lifts up the Lord!
47 My spirit celebrates God, my Liberator!
48 For though I’m God’s humble servant,
God has noticed me.
Now and forever,
I will be considered blessed by all generations.
49 For the Mighty One has done great things for me;
holy is God’s name!
50 From generation to generation,
God’s lovingkindness endures
for those who revere Him.
51 God’s arm has accomplished mighty deeds.
The proud in mind and heart,
God has sent away in disarray.
52 The rulers from their high positions of power,
God has brought down low.
And those who were humble and lowly,
God has elevated with dignity.
53 The hungry—God has filled with fine food.
The rich—God has dismissed with nothing in their hands.
54 To Israel, God’s servant,
God has given help,
55 As promised to our ancestors,
remembering Abraham and his descendants in mercy forever.

Magnificat pic

Note: Celebrating Sabbath is my attempt to begin each week with a reminder of our true identity: whose we are and who we are called to be.

I find these word from Isaiah doubly good as they are the ones Jesus references, according to the gospel of Luke, in his first public speech. In other words, this text from Isaiah also serves as Jesus’ mission statement. We who would follow Jesus’ Way in the world must make it our mission statement as well.

Isaiah 61:1-2a

The Spirit of the Lord, the Eternal, is on me.
    The Lord has appointed me for a special purpose.
He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
    He has sent me to repair broken hearts,
And to declare to those who are held captive and bound in prison,
    “Be free from your imprisonment!”
He has sent me to announce the year of jubilee, the season of the Eternal’s favor.

I like you and nothing more #StayWokeAdvent

Like John so long ago, and Isaiah even before that, the voice came to me out of the wilderness. (You know, for values of ‘wilderness’ that include ‘bouncing off a few cell towers.’) “Hey Pastor Dave, we should play ‘Nothing More’ in church sometime soon. With all the horrible things in the news lately, it’s important to remember that how we treat each other is very important. Just a thought! :)”

Don’t sell yourself short, there’s nothing ‘just’ about that thought; it’s spot on. So this time the young woman birthed an idea rather than a child.

This week was our final Wednesday Night Live (youth group) gathering for the calendar year. With what message should we send them off? How might #StayWokeAdvent continue and even grow into #StayWokeChristmas or #StayWokeNewYear?

Here’s our first answer:

Do you like you? Cause I like you.

God’s incarnation into the world as a baby is God’s act of solidarity with humanity. The Incarnation shows just how much God loves you and me and everyone. God loves us all so much that God became one of us. In the Incarnation God opens up the eternal, mutual, loving relationship of the Trinity to invite us all in. We know God loves us, for God is love.

But I think it is more than that. I think the incarnation also shows us that God likes us. (Obviously there are some things that God does not like. When we hurt each other, when we oppress one another, when we fail to feed the hungry or visit prisoners or welcome immigrants or…) I’m convinced God does not look at us the way we might look at a crazy uncle and say, “Well, I love him because he’s family, but I don’t like him.” No, for God to dwell among us as one of us must mean that God likes us as well as loving us. And that is a message too many of our young people – especially our young women – need to hear in order to counteract all the messages telling them they aren’t good enough, aren’t pretty enough, aren’t skinny enough, aren’t white enough.

Our young people, and probably all people, need to be reminded that God loves us; God even likes us.

Having established who we are and whose we are – God’s beloved and liked children – we’re free to respond to the world with love. We’re prepared to let God’s light shine through us into a world that desperately needs light and life.

That song is a great reminder that treating each other well is the only way to truly demonstrate that #BlackLivesMatter; the only way to truly show the peace, hope, love, and joy of the season. Nothing more will do.