Of Trees and Timeouts

by Rev. Dr. Rachel Coleman

In a recent devotional reading, I ran across a detail that I’d never really noticed before. In Genesis 21:33, as part of his growing relationship with God and as a tangible reminder to himself of covenants and commitments, Abraham plants a tamarisk tree. Perhaps this detail stood out to me because trees have been a significant “visual aid” on my recent journey into deeper places of prayer.

One of the disciplines I am trying to incorporate into life is a mid-day “stop and sit.” The goal is simple, just to be present with Jesus in an intentional way, whether any words get said between us or not.

Now that the weather is good, I’m often sitting on my front porch for those quiet moments of intentional presence. Since we live in an urban area, “quiet” is a relative word—the city noises and the buzz of traffic are incessant. However, this is an old neighborhood, so there are huge trees all around. From my porch rocker, there’s a slice of sky visible behind several giant evergreens and summer-green trees. Those trees, with their gently waving foliage and whispers of wind-music, are keeping me focused on just being present and helping to shut out the press of other thoughts and responsibilities. I don’t know about you, but for me it’s really hard to “stop and sit,” to let go of the pressing demands of the day and the chatter of the internal and external voices that insist on being heard. Keeping my gaze fixed on those trees helps me to do that.

I find I’m noticing new things about those trees—the ever-changing shades of green, the hummingbirds that flit in and out of the pines, the squirrel antics taking place in their branches. And right along with that developing “tree attention,” a deepening awareness of Jesus’ presence is also beginning to take shape. Some days he just enjoys the porch swing while I rock, and there’s a companionable silence between us; other days, he speaks a word or two deep into my spirit, and my day is transformed.

I am grateful to whomever planted those trees so many decades ago–maybe they were someone’s reminder of God’s faithfulness, as the tamarisk tree was for Abraham.

 

The Amazing Love of God

By Rev. Jordan McKenzie

As most of you know, I have identical twin boys. Having twins is quite an experience. In fact, I could probably write an entire book on the lessons I’ve already learned in just the first six months of being a parent to twins. But here’s something I learned just today: God is pretty amazing.

I learned that earlier this morning, when I was trying to get myself ready while also tending to the twins. This experience is something in between being suddenly dropped into a fierce battle and rushing into a burning building.

The twins seemed calm enough. There were no problems. So I ran to the next room to get a shirt, only to hear them both break out in screaming. So I ran back to help them. I re-positioned them to see if they wanted to be more comfortable. That didn’t work. So I held them. That didn’t work either. I figured they were hungry, only to realize I needed to make a new bottle downstairs. At the same time I realized one of them had a dirty diaper. What was I to do? Should I try to change one and put the other down? Should I try to put them both down and go make the bottle? Should I take them both, attempt to make a bottle while holding them, feed them, and then change the dirty diaper? It had to be one of the most momentous decisions of my life. (Just kidding… kind of.)

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity (it was probably a couple minutes) I was able to get one baby to calm down. Ah. Yes. He’s happy now. How peaceful. How cute. But then I realized… I still had a second baby who was fighting mad!

I suddenly thought to myself, “How am I supposed to take care of two babies at the same time when one is suddenly happy as could be and the other acts like he just got a root canal? How can I take care of both of them right now when they’re in two totally different moods?”

Then it hit me. I’m having trouble taking care of two tiny humans at the same time. But God takes care of all of us humans at the same time.

That’s totally amazing.

I mean think about it. There are over seven billion people on the planet. All have different circumstances, different issues, different hopes and dreams. Yet we are told that God knows each one of us by name, even knowing the number of hairs on our head, and the words we’ll speak before we speak them. We’re told that He watches over all of us and that there’s no where we can go to hide from Him.

Wow.

How does God keep track of that? Does he have an administrative assistant to help? Does he have a Google doc or an excel spreadsheet that gives a rundown of what’s happening with every person each moment? Maybe He has color-coded binders filled with people’s life stories that help Him keep track of everyone.

Or maybe God can do it because He’s, you know, God.

See somehow God is big enough to care for each of us but also personal enough to care for each of us. That’s how amazing God is.

What else can we do except say thanks to God and praise Him? Perhaps we should join David in saying:

I exalt You, my God the King,
and praise Your name forever and ever.
I will praise You every day;
I will honor Your name forever and ever.

God is great and is highly praised;
His greatness is unsearchable.
One generation will declare Your works to the next
and will proclaim Your mighty acts.
I will speak of Your splendor and glorious majesty
andYour wonderful works.
They will proclaim the power of Your awe-inspiring acts,
and I will declare Your greatness.
They will give a testimony of Your great goodness
and will joyfully sing of Your righteousness.

The next time I’m holding my twins and in my arms and caring for them, I’ll remember that God does that for each of us. That’s how amazing God is. That’s how wonderful his love is. Thanks be to God.

On Roseanne and the Words We Speak

Rev. Jordan McKenzie

By now you’ve probably heard about Roseanne Barr’s Twitter comments and ABC’s cancellation of her TV series.  The story has been all over the news and social media. I write this blog not to add any commentary or opinions on what happened. In fact, I don’t have much to say. Except that the story shows us one thing.

Our words have power.

Simply by the words we choose to say (or not say) we can totally change someone’s perception of themselves, someone else, or a situation. Look at the terrible affects of cyber bullying, where people bully others not with their fists but with their words. Look at how many people have poor self-esteem and walk around totally insecure simply because of the negative things they’ve heard their whole life. Look at how a toddler is influenced by the words he or she hears. What they hear drastically affects the people they’ll grow up to become.

We might not feel like we have a lot of power or influence in our lives, but the truth is that we do. All of us. Because our tongues give us all incredible power and influence over those around us. The Bible says this repeatedly. Proverbs even says that our tongues have the power of life and death!

Of course all of us know this. It’s commonsense that we should watch what we say. But it’s one thing to know it and it’s another thing to really be intentional about it.

So this is a friendly reminder of the very obvious fact that our words do have power. I hope today you’ll use the words you speak to heal instead of harm.

That’s all.

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!

 

 

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. . .