Quick Thoughts on the Royal Wedding & Faith

So I watched some of the royal wedding this past Saturday. I’m not someone who is usually glued to the TV watching these sorts of events, but I found myself surprisingly interested this time around. I had some scattered thoughts jump through my head on Saturday and thought I’d share those that had to do with faith.

I’m not going to offer any thoughts on the fashion choices (except to say I wish I had one of those hats to wear that the ladies had; that would come in handy for children’s sermons or as part of my wacky outfits!) So if you want more opinions on the fashion or decor or celebrities at the wedding then you could look… well… just about anywhere else for that.  (I wonder how many  thousands of articles and blogs have been written over the last three days on the wedding?) Anyway… here are my very unorganized and very quick thoughts…

-I admired the liturgy, scripture, and Anglican prayers that surrounded the wedding ceremony for a nation’s royalty. It’s a great reminder for we Americans (who often view religion as something we keep to ourselves) that our faith is not supposed to be kept private. Our faith is a public faith. It should inform everything we do, both in our how we live our personal lives and how we live in society.

-I thought Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, was a perfect choice to give the sermon. With an American bride who is half-black, it was excellent to have a bishop who American and is also black give the sermon. And what a sermon it was. It was definitely different than the prim and proper sermons usually given. As the first African-American to deliver a sermon at a royal wedding, he gave a distinctly different voice to the occasion. It’s a great reminder for all of us in the Church that we always need to be open to new voices that haven’t been heard before, especially those that have been kept silent in the past.

-It was amazing to see how many people came out to support the royal family. Not only were there all of the guests at the Cathedral (which supposedly sits 800) and guests at two separate receptions (I’d love to taste the food and cake they had there!), but there were thousands of people lining the streets to get a glimpse of the royal couple and cheer them on. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have that much support and encouragement behind you. But I do know that it reminds me that for any marriage to be successful, it takes a village. The same goes for raising a family. In fact, the same goes for anything we do. Anything worth doing requires the serious love and support of others, just like the kind the royals have.

-While there was a lot of hype and hoopla surrounding the royal couple, God cares about every couple that gets married. No couple should think that their marriage is not important. No couple should think that God isn’t working in their midst as God is doing for the royal couple. No, God cares about all of our marriages. In fact, if you look at who Jesus cared about and spent his time with, perhaps God cares less about the royal family and more about all those marriages that are broken, failing, or forgotten.

-Lastly, as Bishop Curry said, it’s about love. Marriage is about love, but so is everything we do. As the Apostle Paul said, if we speak in tongues of angels, if we can move mountains with our faith, if we sell everything we have, but don’t have love, it’s worthless. A marriage without love is doomed to fail. Likewise, a faith without love is fruitless. Love is truly the greatest commandment.

Congratulations and best of luck to the royal couple! May God bless both of you and your marriage!

 

 

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What Kind of Legacy Are You Living? Thoughts on the Passing of Barbara Bush

By Rev. Jordan McKenzie

This weekend millions of Americans watched the funeral of former First Lady Barbara Bush, who passed away last week at the age of 92. One of the most popular First Ladies in recent memory, Bush was a woman of many accomplishments. Not least of which, of course, was being the matriarch of a very influential family, as she was the wife of a President (George H.W), mother of a President (George W.), and mother of a Governor of Florida (Jeb). That’s not to mention several other very successful children and grandchildren she helped raise.

As if raising her family didn’t keep her busy enough, Barbara Bush was also active in public life. She was lifelong champion of children’s literacy, believing the ability to read and write could open endless doors for young people. She was also a committed advocate for cancer research, which was due in part to her losing her daughter Robin to leukemia at the age of three. All told she and her husband ended up raising hundreds of millions of dollars for those and other charitable causes. She also made the courageous decision to be photographed holding a baby who had AIDS, which was seen as taboo and dangerous at the time. This proved to play an important part in the country moving beyond the AIDS epidemic.

After I heard about her death (it was plastered as “Breaking News!” on every tv channel), I posted on Facebook that I’ve always admired Barbara Bush. Not that she was an idol of mine or anything, but every time I saw her I was impressed. Somehow, she seemed to be able to exemplify the qualities of grace, faith, and conviction all at the same time. Her passing harkens back to a time that seems to have been lost from our national memory, a time when those involved in politics could have strong convictions and fight for what they believed was right while also maintaining a level of integrity and class. Sadly, today we have too few public figures like Barbara Bush.

When I think of Barbara Bush, I think of how she lived her life. She was a fully authentic person. Or what the educator Parker Palmer calls “an undivided self.” You knew where she stood; there was no hiding it. But her strong convictions were all grounded in a deep concern for others, most importantly her family, who lovingly called her “the enforcer” for her no-nonsense, tough love style.

While I think the effects of her public persona and her advocacy will live on for generations, I believe it will be that influence on her family that will be her most lasting legacy. The people that she loved and raised will always be influenced by her wisdom and wit, as they continue to shape our world. Whether or not you always agree with their politics, through them, she leaves a very proud legacy.

The truth is, all of us will leave a legacy. It’s our choice what kind of legacy. We all have a choice to make a difference in our own way. We all have a chance to leave the world better than we found it. We all have the chance to make those around us better. Or not. It’s our choice.

Yet for those of us who call ourselves Christians this actually is not a choice we have to make, as we’ve already committed to it. We are called by our faith to become people use this “one wild and precious life” (as the poet Mary Oliver calls it), to be someone who God uses to make a difference. Indeed, the real question today is not what choice you’ll make, but what choice you’re already making. In other words, the question is not just what kind of legacy you’ll be leaving when you’re no longer here, but rather what kind of legacy you’re living right now. Are you living up to Christ’s call to make a difference for good today? Are you living that legacy, today? If so, how are you living that legacy?

God bless Barbara Bush and her family. May God comfort them in their mourning and strengthen them in their sadness. And may God continue to use all of us for God’s purpose. Amen.

Baseball, Race, and Faith

By Rev. Jordan McKenzie

Like many baseball fans, I have been eagerly watching the early part of the baseball season. This is despite the Reds terrible start (three wins and fifteen losses, if you’re counting). But there have been some bright spots in the season so far. One was this past Sunday, when Major League baseball celebrated Jackie Robinson Day. It was a special day, with all teams having special festivities and every player from every team wearing the number 42 to celebrate the legacy of Jackie Robinson. Robinson was of course the first black man to play in the major leagues, breaking the “color barrier” on April 15th, 1947.

The story of Robinson was truly a remarkable one. He was an incredibly gifted athlete, who starred in five sports in high school: football, basketball, baseball, track, and tennis. He went on to star in three of those sports in college at UCLA,  later playing two professionally, and becoming a Hall of Famer in one (baseball). Yet while many still celebrate his amazing athletic feats, he is of course remembered today primarily as the man who broke the color barrier in baseball.

As a racial trailerblazer, Robinson endured serious persecution throughout his life. Even before he entered baseball, he was nearly court-marshaled while in the military for refusing to sit in the back of a military bus due to his race (sound familiar?). Then, despite his rare talent, he was banned from playing in the major leagues and was instead relegated to the all-black Negro Leagues. When he finally was invited to play in the major leagues, he was routinely cursed at and spit on by fans, while often receiving death threats as well. Other players (even on his own team) threatened not to play if he played, and other teams said they would strike if they were forced to play against him. When they did play against him, players sometimes intentionally tried to injure him through dirty slides or running him over on the field.

Thankfully there were some players and coaches who encouraged Robinson to keep playing. Perhaps even more important, though, was his deep Methodist faith, which was also shared by the owner of the Dodgers, Branch Rickey, who courageously signed him to play for his team. Many don’t know it, but the influence of the Methodist faith is a major part of Jackie Robinson’s story. As historian Chris Lamb says, “It was the engine that drove and sustained him as he shattered racial barriers on and off the baseball diamond.”

As fellow Methodists, we continue to celebrate Jackie Robinson’s legacy of standing up against racism. Sadly, though, there were two events that happened in the same week in which Jackie Robinson was honored that showed that racism is something that is still with us today and is not simply the relic of a bygone age.

In one incident in, a black teenager in a suburban Michigan town overslept and missed his bus to school. Being responsible, he attempted to figure out how he could get picked up by the bus somewhere else. Unable to track his bus’s route, he instead decided to try to walk but wasn’t sure of the directions and stopped for help. When he knocked on the door and tired to explain that he was lost, the owner chased the 14 year-old away, taking out a gun to shoot at him repeatedly. The home is in a fairly upscale, middle-class neighborhood, which is relatively peaceful and safe. So there was no reason to automatically assume that someone in the neighborhood would be trying to rob or harm the house in broad daylight. Except that the teenager was black and the city is 90% white. At least, that seems to have been the thinking of the man who chased and shot at him, who happens to be former city firefighter.

In another incident, at a Starbucks in an upscale neighborhood of Philadelphia, two black men arrived for a business meeting with their friend, only to realize they showed up slightly early. They both decided to wait to order a drink, instead wanting to wait on their friend to arrive. When one of the men asked to use the restroom, an employee asked them to leave, despite the fact that they had done nothing out of the ordinary. However, after the men said they were just waiting for their friend and didn’t want to leave, the employee called 911, panicked by their presence. Shortly thereafter, six police officers showed up and arrested the men for trespassing, putting them in handcuffs in front of other customers. They were handcuffed and taken into custody despite pleas from several white customers who said the men did nothing wrong.  Many of the white customers also said they have routinely done the same thing at the store—wait for friends or use the restroom without buying a drink— and have never been asked to leave.  Like the first story, the only mitigating factor seems to be race. And to bring this second story close to home, the employee that called the police is from right here in Dayton—a graduate of Sinclair and Wright State. Thus racism is not just a problem somewhere far away, but even right in our won town.

In both of these incidents, the people involved seem to have been treated differently because they were black. Our country has made great strides to combat racism, through the courage of people like Jackie Robinson. But black and brown people still don’t have the same experience as white Americans. They are still often stereotyped, not hired for jobs, or looked at suspiciously because of how they look. Black and brown persons are also subject to higher rates of incarceration and joblessness, even when adjusted for population size and other factors. Even when they are convicted of the same crimes they are given longer sentences and even when they have the same level of education, they are often not hired for the same jobs.

As people of faith God wants us to live in a world where people are looked at impartially, regardless of race or ethnicity. And because we live in a world where that’s not always true—where people are still looked at differently because of race— we have a responsibility to ask tough questions of our society and ourselves. Like how does our society discriminate against persons of color? How do we look the other way at the racial injustice in our society? How do we respond when people make racially questionable jokes or statements that may have racist undertones? Or, perhaps most importantly, how do we have subconscious biases that come out when we see people who look different than us?

These are indeed tough questions, even controversial questions, but they are necessary questions. Because just as Jackie Robinson was compelled to stand up against racism due to his Methodist faith, we are called—commanded— to do the same thing.

The Story that Shapes Us

Rev. Dr. Rachel Coleman

Last week I was at an academic conference, an event filled with many delights—intellectually challenging dialogues, renewal of old friendships and the start of new ones, and display after display of books! (I only yielded a tiny bit to the book-buying temptation.) One brief conversation I had with a respondent to my presentation during the conference has been rolling around in the back of mind since then, so I decided to take it out and have a closer look at it today.

My paper was on the boundary-shattering hospitality of Jesus and the early church. The number one criticism that religious leaders leveled against Jesus was at the very point of his hospitality practices. His critics accused him of “eating with tax collectors and sinners” and they were offended that he didn’t maintain a proper degree of separation from “outsiders” (Luke 5:30; 7:34). “Hospitality” is literally “the love of the stranger” (philoxenia), which stands in stark contrast to the all-too-common “fear of the stranger” (xenophobia), this was a topic that led naturally into conversations about the reality that much of our public dialogue is being shaped by fear rather than love. And the question that has stayed with me is how people whose identity is first “Christian” and only secondarily “American” should be approaching the pressing hospitality issues of our day. This includes, of course, the immigration issue, but reaches beyond it to all contexts where “welcoming the stranger” is at stake.

What has really been weighing heavily upon me is not so much the WHAT of our responses to these issues, but HOW we arrive at those responses. It seems to me that there are two competing stories for those of us who enter these conversations as Christians. One is the great biblical narrative of the God who shatters every boundary imaginable in his passionate quest to restore humanity to a right relationship with himself and who calls the restored ones to live in a way that reflects his character and his radical hospitality. The other story is whatever version of the dominant rights-oriented and anxiety-driven cultural narrative happens to be the common currency of our particular social group. Those two narratives are mutually incompatible at many points, so how does their collision play out?

I fear that in far too many “Christian” conversations about “outsiders and strangers,” it is the dominant story that is allowed to shaped our convictions, attitudes, and actions, with bits and pieces of the biblical perspective shoved into the cracks, distorted to fit into whatever space is available. What if that were turned upside down? What if the radical hospitality of God were allowed to be the shaping story of our conversations about “the other”? What if a biblical perspective were allowed to have the formational power in our approach to “the stranger”? What if theology shaped our responses as citizens? What if we chose to lay aside the dominant narrative at those points where it clearly stands in opposition to the biblical story? How might our conversations be different? I’m guessing that we wouldn’t all come to the same conclusions in terms of civic response to the pressing issues of the day, but what if we shared a common starting point that was grounded in the character and faithful action of the God who shattered boundaries to come and rescue us? Prayerfully pondering the possibilities. . .

Following the Spirit’s Call

By Linda Pelfrey

I am powerfully reminded that when God wishes to reveal his plan to us, it will keep appearing until we say, “Okay, I hear you.” For me, it was the theme surrounding the name we are given. A verse from Isaiah, which says in part, “I have called you by name, you are mine,” kept showing up in my consciousness.

One day, the process of God speaking a theme into my heart came full circle. I felt God at work the moment I woke up.  My spirit was on fire in a way that left me open to hearing God’s voice. I had been invited to attend a conference focusing on the power of the Holy Spirit. After listening to the faith narratives of two remarkable pastors from Cuba, it was time for prayer and laying on of hands.

Here is where my belief was affirmed that God has one twisted sense of humor (in a good way!). As a young woman, I felt trepidation and major anxiety when zealous Christians talked about healing my blindness. So, I experienced a desire to get up and run not walk out of this place. I blurted out to one of my companions: “I’m not going to the altar. I can’t do the ‘laying on of hands’ thing, because inevitably, someone wants to pray for my physical sight.” Then, to my shock, I began to cry. I mean full-on, wrenching sobs which were torn from my being. My heart felt like someone was smashing it against a rock into a zillion pieces.

I babbled something about trauma, and how I felt the misery of all those who have been hurt to the core of their soul by what happens in some churches. Many persons with disabilities avoid church because of how they are treated.  No one wants to be where they feel “less than.”

I struggled to breathe through all the sensation. Sitting with this raw emotion depleted my physical strength, and I started to shake and feel nauseous.

Then, a man I had never met was in my face asking if he could pray for me.  My sarcastic thought in the moment was, “Dear Lord, I guess these folks just can’t miss the opportunity to hit up the ‘blind chick.’” I was raised to be polite at all costs, particularly when someone is chomping at the bit to pray for me. So the “good girl” said, “Yes.”

I was feeling shattered… and kept saying the word “trauma,” repeatedly. He did not know of my past experience with folks wanting to heal my blindness, so, in his Spirit-filled zeal, he asked if he could pray for my sight to be restored. I confess I was “feeling some kind of way” toward God and this random dude. I said, “I’m good with being blind, but you can pray for my spiritual sight.”  I found out later that there was a language difference; still, the gentleman was sincerely trying to hear me. Perhaps he was disappointed that I wasn’t there to have my blindness cured, but he took it in stride.

Here is where everything becomes blurry… one praying person turns into many. This “blind chick” (who has an aversion to physical contact) has hands on my face, shoulders, and of course… my eyes. I never fell into a heap on the floor, but I was encircled by a powerful and healing presence. I will never forget the heat reaching from hands straight into my soul. I pray I do not lose that memory or its power to remind me that God is real and loving.

The Holy Spirit took over, and no matter what the original intent… these prayer warriors were guided to pray for exactly what I needed in that moment. The wrenching pain field—the kind that breaks God’s heart—was transformed into a peace and a cleansing, healing fire.

When I came back to full consciousness, there was a woman standing beside me. She said, “I couldn’t see your name tag, so I asked God for your name.” He told me, “I call her Joy-bringing Daughter.” My response was laughter, because I am many things… but joyful isn’t the word that comes immediately to mind. I have a salty nature, and am often quite irreverent and snarky. I then recalled that the word “joy” had come up several times in conversation with my companions that day.  Also, I had expressed that God is calling me to something, and I don’t quite know what it is. I knew right then that if I listen God will continue to speak his purpose into my spirit.

I learned many lessons that day: God is not without a sense of humor. When you feel called to a path which makes no sense to the human heart, stay on it. God knows what he is doing.

As I walk through the Season of Lent, I keep the eyes of my heart on living out the name God has given to me. Sure, I still chuckle a little at the “joy” part because I am still salty and irreverent. And yet… with all my imperfections and scars, I remain beloved daughter of the Lord.

Stand Up

by Rev. Randy Coleman

We’ve seen it in the news numerous times.  Many U. S. citizens have lived through it and some have even died.

Recently we heard of another mass shooting on a high school campus.  Seventeen young people, including some adults, lost their lives in this one. Parents are grieving for their lost children.  Family members grieve for a lost member. Students and administrators grieve for a lost colleague.  We at Belmont UMC, grieve with you.  We do pray for you, but we will also stand up with you to help end the violence in our schools and our public places throughout this nation.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case.  Sixty cases of gun violence of some type have already been reported in our nations’ schools just this year!  That’s only in two months!  Some of these incidents, like when gun shots were fired at a high school football game in California do not get reported, as no fatalities were recorded.  Even one incident, no matter the results, is not acceptable.

Students across our country are rising up and saying, “Enough is enough, let’s stop the violence.  Let’s do something about it.”  You have heard them speak strongly and loudly in the news or in our nations’ capital to law makers.  They are making their voices heard.  They are planning marches in our cities for March 24th.

One student from Parkland Florida said, “Every kid in this country now goes to school wondering if this day might be their last. We live in fear,” the March For Our Lives website says. “It doesn’t have to be this way. Change is coming. And it starts now, inspired by and led by the kids who are our hope for the future. Their young voices will be heard.”

Some students in Utah have begun a quiet protest where they stand quietly at their desks every Monday for three minutes to call attention to the continuing gun violence in schools. They call their movement the #Standfor214, which indicates the time of the Parkland, Florida shooting at 2:14 p.m. on Feb. 14, or 2/14.  The students stand for three minutes ending at 2:17 p.m., in honor of the 17 lives lost in the shooting.

It’s time to put away our partisan politics on this one and stand up for what is right.  We cannot allow kids to go to school afraid every day.  This is not about Democrats, Republicans or the second amendment.  It’s about safety and protection.  I encourage each of us to get involved in some way.  My wife and I are writing to our congressmen to urge them to put safety first.  We encourage the banning of all assault rifles (they are not needed for civilians); background checks for gun purchases, the raising of the age from 18 to 21 to purchase guns, and proper help for those who show mental health issues.  I know, that will not stop all the violence, but it is a good place to start.  Let’s stand with our young people! Ultimately, let’s follow our Savior, Jesus, who leads the way to true peace.  “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).

What Can We Learn From the Super Bowl? A Lesson on What Matters Most.

Rev. Jordan McKenzie

Last night, tens of millions of Americans watched as the Philadelphia Eagles won their first Super Bowl, defeating the New England Patriots in a thrilling game. As always, it was a media frenzy. Alongside the game itself, the media was abuzz with stories about the halftime performance of Justin Timberlake, the commercials, and the like. But there was also another story that some made light of: the Christian faith of many of the Philadelphia Eagles players and coaches.

After the game when he was awarded the team’s victory trophy, Eagles head coach Doug Peterson began by saying that he wanted to give praise to his “Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Quarterback Nick Foles, when he was awarded the game’s Most Valuable Player just moments later, immediately said that “all glory goes to God” for his performance. Tight End Zach Ertz, who caught the game-winning touchdown pass with just minutes to go, said that honoring Christ was his first goal in the game. Frank Reich, the offensive coordinator for the Eagles, echoed this sentiment, having been a former pastor before entering coaching. Even Carson Wentz, the Eagles’ star quarterback who was hurt and unable to play in the game, credited his faith with helping him get through the disappointment of not being able to play in the game. One article in The Washington Post went so far as to say that the “binding force” of the championship team was the Christian faith that so many of its players and coaches shared.

Many will no doubt cheer on the Eagles’ testimonies of faith. Many others will no doubt roll their eyes, saying that they would like less faith and more football. (After all, thanking Jesus has become a kind-of cheap cliche in such celebrations, something that seemingly everybody does.) But regardless of what people think, there are a couple of important comments to be made. One is a caution, the other a lesson.

First, the caution is that it would be very shortsighted to say that the Eagles won the Super Bowl simply because so many players and coaches on the team were outspoken Christians, as if God somehow liked them more or rewarded them because they are Christians. It is true that God works all things together for the good of those that love him (Romans 8:28). But it’s also true that God gives blessings to the righteous and the unrighteous alike (Matthew 5:45). So while God does work in the lives of those who follow Him, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll let us win a football game or give us good luck when we need it.

With that said, we can learn an important lesson from the players and coaches that spoke about their faith. And that’s this: When it comes down to it, what matters is how we respond in the defining moments of our lives.

Most of us are not professional athletes, but regardless we all find ourselves in moments that define who we really are. We’re at work and can get that promotion we’ve always wanted by fudging the truth on our resume. We have a chance for that relationship with someone we’ve always liked and we might actually be able to have it if we embellish who we are or what we’ve done. We see someone in a position of authority doing something that’s not right, and we have the choice to stand up or be silent. The question is: who are we in those defining moments? Who are we in those moments where we face the pressure or temptation to do something that’s not right?

In their defining moments, these players and coaches continued to be resolute in who God called them to be. They could have made the victory all about themselves. They could have praised their own performances and not mentioned their faith. They could have gone out to party or womanize, like many other players certainly were doing and likely pressured them to do. But instead, in spite of all the accolades and attention, they lived with integrity and didn’t change who they were. They let their faith define them.

That’s the lesson we can learn from one of the best Super Bowls in recent memory. What matters most is who you are in those defining moments.

So, that’s the question. Who are you in those moments? Are you defined by your faith and integrity, or something else?