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Temple Gates

Photo by Kelsey Stillwell

A poem by Alyssa Aldape

They’re dead
They’re not divine
They’re not alive they’re just cement and plaster with lead paint.
I believed it because
The unfamiliarity of idol worship is familiar and safe.
At a distance.
Behind their temple gates.

They’re blue and have elephant heads and multiple limbs
God doesn’t need those things
They have it all wrong
We should pray for them and their souls.
Pray that God saves them.

I feel at home around the idols.
They are dead I’ve always known this.
It’s never phased me.

“You must remove your shoes in this holy place.”
It’s not strange- I do this all the time.
Except this time is different.

The marble is just as hot
The hum of holy chants and smell of cheap incense
Loud and pungent as usual.

But then we turn the corner.
To see the room of sacrifice.
The blood of a sacrifice paints the white marble
In hopes of healing and redemption.

My feet just touched the blood.
How gross and barbaric.
But then I can’t help but hum
“Nothing but the blood of goat- um Jesus…”

The  blood of a goat/lamb- not so different.
The God in the Hebrew Bible required atonement.
Required a sacrifice.
This isn’t that different anymore.
The unfamiliar becomes familiar

People lying on the hot marble shout for food and a drink of water!
Worshippers scurry pass
With eyes tightly shut in “meditation.”
In hopes of no eye contact.
Why doesn’t anyone help them?
But then I realize this isn’t so different
From the places of worship in America.

No, the people may not always lay on the church steps and cry out
But we ignore the cries and close our eyes tight in prayer
Pleading to the God of social justice
Yet we plead and rarely act.

It’s not so different.
The mystery hiding behind the temple gates all these years.
I finally see it and what I see is not satanic or wrong.
What I see is something familiar.

Now the unfamiliar is familiar
No longer at a distance or hidden behind rickety gates.
Their images don’t look dead to me anymore.

 

Poem inspired by a McAfee Mission Immersion trip to India in Spring 2014.

rebeccapoem

This Mysterious Search for God

A Poem By Rebecca White

The scent of curry and the noise of chatter in the air,

The men straightly sitting on the left, facing the altar,

The women robed in saris and Western wear on the right,

The children, kneeling in front,

All watching and waiting.

 

If they can just worship,

by singing familiar tunes in unfamiliar tongues,

by preaching through patient pauses, making room for the translator’s skill,

by dancing vibrantly before and for God.

 

If they can just worship,

God will see them.

 

They yearn to meet God, to know God, to be a part of God’s Kingdom.

 

If only they can worship,

in this lively search for God.

 

The feel of the warm air blowing flags of many colors,

Many people moving quietly, sitting silently,

Dogs meandering through garden pathways,

Chipmunks scurrying across grass and stones,

Monks moving in postures of prayer, up and down, kneeling, lying, standing.

 

If they can just pray,

in silence and in solitude,

in kneeling rows of colorful robes,

in motion, sweat dripping from their faces.

 

If they can just pray,

the Buddha will grant them peace.

 

They long for calm and focus, for themselves and for all the world’s people.

 

If only they can pray,

in this tranquil search for God.

 

The thick heat, sweat on skin and hanging in the air,

Crowds pushing inward, tighter, closer,

Loud voices talking, crying, shouting!

All are eager, watchful, urgent in their pressing,

They must get inside, they must get a peek!

 

If they can just offer a sacrifice,

the bright red of freshly spilt goat’s blood,

the cooling freshness of a coconut’s milk,

the brightness of the spring blossoms.

 

If they can just offer a sacrifice,

Kali will help them.

 

They cry for, long for, must have help, for themselves, for family, for country.

 

If only they can offer a sacrifice,

in this frantic search for God.

 

The feel of a ceiling fan against dewy skin,

The whisper of a mosquito net,

The smell of freshly cut mangoes mingling with the stench of sewage,

The sound of laughter on a bumpy bus ride.

They need comfort.

 

If they can just find God,

in the face and heart of a Christian Indian guide,

in the unseeing eyes of an orphaned toddler,

in the kindness of strangers, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Muslim, and Christian,

in the hearts and voices of fellow travelers sharing stories, sharing faith, sharing life.

 

If they can just find God here,

they will feel at home, they will be alright.

 

They long for rest, for the familiar, for something Christ-like.

And, because they looked for God,

through lively worship,

in the tranquil prayer,

among the frantic sacrifice,

within themselves and each other,

 

They found the Presence,

in this beautiful, mysterious search for God.

prayer

I Can Do More: A Lament

August 2014 is a bad month. People are angry. Humans are dying. Cultures are dividing.

These are the talking points we have to discuss:  Depression is a disease. Ukraine is in turmoil. ISIS just beheaded an American journalist. Refugee children are detained at the U.S. border. Airlines stopped their Liberian flights. Ferguson, MO feels more like 1960s Birmingham. Thousands of Palestinians have limited food and water. Police aren’t soldiers. Entire planes go missing. Gay Christians still aren’t accepted. Suicide is all too common. Race is still a divide.

Lately I’ve stood in the pulpit thinking about who we are and what we’re doing, and I hear God saying,

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24)

In other words, I’m standing in the pulpit wondering, “Is God satisfied with our worship?” Then I think, “How could God be? I’m not satisfied with it.”

I’m not satisfied with the space I’ve created for parishioners to lean close to the Divine in a month that’s brought so much death, so much separation, so much destruction and pain. I’m not satisfied with my response (or lack thereof) to Robin Williams, Ukraine, ISIS, Malaysia, Refugee children, Ebola, Ferguson, Gaza, Gay Marriage or Racial Profiling.

My response has been yet another solemn assembly, yet another noisy song that does little to alleviate the brokenness we all feel. It’s just a business-as-usual worship service.

It’s like I believe God honors loyalty over anything else, so I keep showing up each Sunday thinking God will be pleased with me.  But who am I kidding? Worship should make others feel the rolling waters of justice and the righteousness of an ever-flowing stream.

Yet our worship is similar to the ancient Israelites’, and our lack of intentionality incubates the world’s brokenness even more.

Worship must be better. It must be built around the things that matter. It must listen to the spirit of God in the midst of the brokenness. It must move us to action. But how?

Rachel Held Evans said in a recent Sojourners blog that we should 1) Lament 2) Listen and Learn 3) Loose the chains of injustice. This is a good start. Our worship needs to grieve the plight of the world. Our worship needs to create space for the spirit to move. Our worship needs to address the craziness in the world.

My soul can’t facilitate another worship service that turns a blind eye to the pains and sufferings in the world. My soul can’t pretend that God’s anything more than frustrated with how I’ve worshiped. My soul can’t read another blog or see another news story and compartmentalize it as if it were a Netflix Original Series, gripping but insignificant to my daily routine.

So I offer this blog as a lament. My Lord and my God, I’m sorry. I can do more. We can do more. You need us doing more.

This article was originally published for ABP/RH Blog.

carol814 088

Fumbling the Bread of Life

By Brett Younger

When you go to a new place you hope that the new people will think you are smarter than you are—or at least smarter than the people at the old place think you are.  Moving is a chance to leave behind every time you dropped something you needed to hold on to, tripped over your shoestrings, or forgot what you were supposed to remember.

Carol and I recently began serving as interim ministers at Santiago Community Church in Santiago, Chile, more than 4,000 miles from any of our old places.  This international, interdenominational congregation is made up of gracious Christians who have never been to a Baptist church—or even wanted to!

I went to worship the first Sunday hoping that our new congregation will think that I am smarter than I really am.  I was concerned about the details of the Lord’s Supper in this Anglican/Presbyterian/Methodist/just-about-everything-but-Baptist church.  After the sermon (which they keep telling me is shorter in Chile) the minister walks to the front, receives the offering plates, holds up the money, says a prayer, calls for the passing of the peace, walks to the table, leads the Great Thanksgiving, recites the words of institution, eats the bread, drinks the wine that is not Welch’s, moves along the railing sharing the bread, circles the choir, along the rail, and around the choir several more times.  I did almost none of this when I was pastor of Mother Neff Baptist Church in Moody, Texas.

The service is going as planned.  I receive the offering (pesos weigh more than you think) and the congregation willingly passes the peace.  But when it comes time to share the bread, I walk towards the railing, stumble just a little, and fumble several pieces of the body of Christ.  If this was a Roman Catholic congregation I would have been on the next plane back to Georgia.

I kneel to pick up the bread of life and hide those pieces under my thumb.  I stand and say, “This is the body of Christ,” and hear the sacred response, “Your shoe is untied.”  This is not what I expect, but it is accurate and explains why communion wafers have hit the floor.  I kneel on the other side of the choir to tie my shoe, a skill that most master as a child.

Then I remember that I was supposed to take communion first.  I am now the loser with his shoe untied who dropped the bread and took communion at the wrong time.  I wanted them to think of me as the kind of minister who keeps his shoes tied, holds on to the body of Christ, and takes communion at the right time, but that is not going to happen.

Most of us want the people at church to think we are better than we are.  We would like to be admired, but communion is for people who are not always impressive.  The Lord’s Supper does not depend on us doing it perfectly, because communion is about the forgiveness God gives in the bread of life and cup of grace.  One of the requirements for coming to the table is admitting that we are not as smart as we wish.  We are part of the church because we are imperfect.

Christ’s table is for those who need a place to go when they do something wrong.  We tell a seemingly insignificant lie that threatens to poison everything.  We speak a careless word that haunts us.  We betray someone we love.  We wish our mistakes would fade away, but they keep showing up to remind us that we are not all we hope to be.

We need the church because we need a place to go when we feel empty.  We bend under the weight of unfulfilling routines.  The glories of motherhood give way to baby-related chores that must be repeated with nauseating monotony.  The subject we loved in college becomes a dull job we must keep to pay the bills.  The retirement we looked forward to for twenty years shows up five years too late to be enjoyed the way a fifty-year-old imagines retirement.

The hope of the Christian faith is not that we will get it right, but that God loves us in spite of our foolish ways.  The gospel is not “Be good, kind, and friendly.”  The gospel is not “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”  The gospel is “We fumble the bread of life, and God loves us anyway.”

You and I need the Lord’s Supper because sometimes we trip.  We drop things.  We forget what we should have remembered.  We need a place where we can join with others who, like us, need God’s grace.

This blog was originally written for and published by Baptists Today.

time

Holy Time. Sacred Space.

There are moments in life . . . moments that are weightier than others; they sit in the forefront of our minds carrying wonder.

Infused with meaning, they’re the 3rd-and-short-Todd-Gurley-breaks-loose-for-a-fourth quarter touchdown kind of moments. They’re the gold medal rounds, the first kiss, the announcement that you’re having a baby boy, and the doctor declaring your cancer free. These moments are the engine, the life force that keeps us getting up and moving every morning.

Although marked in time, these moments seem to transcend it altogether. Their memory, their energy is felt . . . far beyond.

The Greeks had a word for this, kairos. Chronos meant the passing of time, but kairos, well that’s altogether different.

L.L. Cool J defines kairos the best in his movie, Deep Blue Sea, “Touch a hot pan, a second feels like an hour. Wrap your arms around the one you love, an hour feels like a second.”

Dr. Loyd Allen picked up on this same sentiment four years ago when he married Noelle and me.  He told us we had all the time in the world but no memories yet. Eventually, though, we’d get to a point when all we had were memories and very little time. He said, “In-between those memories, fill your time with love.”

Kairos moments are memories filled with love.

And also pain. There are other moments in life that sting, that carry with it truckloads of anger and regret. These moments rip the ground right out from beneath our feet. To the point we feel we can’t even stand.

Dr. Walker-Barnes’ diagnosed with cancer. Dr. Gushee’s mother just passed away. You have a miscarriage. Your husband loses his job. Police officers shoot and kill innocent, unarmed black boys. ISIS traps thousands on top of a mountain with no food or water. Refugee children are imprisoned at our borders.

These moments are weighty too, but in a different way. They carry grief, anger, and despair. They’re not life-giving at all. They destroy our hope and they breed fear.

I guess that’s why a few years ago when we hosted Walter Brueggemann he said, “That which unites all humans isn’t love, its pain.”

And Qohelet shares this same sentiment in Ecclesiastes 3 saying life’s rhythm is the balancing of both sides of this kairos divide.

There are times that we are born and then die,
When we plant and then uproot,
When we kill and heal,
tear down and build,
weep and laugh,
mourn and dance,
love and hate,

For every season . . . there is a time. For every season there is a place. And we’re always somewhere on both continuums.

So get comfortable with it. Or pay attention to the fact that you’re uncomfortable with it. But at least name it. Because it’s real. And it’s in front of all of us. We experience the good with the bad. Mountaintop moments as well as valleys. And we can’t control it. We can hardly predict it.

Time unfolds as it will. Life happens.

And we’re just hanging in the balance stuck in the middle of it.

Literally. We’re stuck in the middle of it. As ministers, our place is on both sides of the kairos divide. We’re helping and holding, hoping and healing, praying and waiting, partying and grieving, worshiping and attending.

Our place is to help others see the joy that comes in the morning . . . and to sit with them as they wrestle with the despair that lurks at night. Our place is to provide space for others to feel and experience the Divine . . . and feel safe enough to rise from the ashes of pain. Our place is in the pulpit declaring God’s word. . . and at Hospice whispering words of hope. Our place is in the baptismal waters . . . and the court room at someone’s trial.

For the kairos divide is strong enough to transform someone trapped in sin to feeling the living waters of God’s grace. It’s also able, though, to send loving people, like Robin Williams, into depression and even death.

And there you are. Stuck in the middle. Helping others deal with life and find their way.

I know a recovering addict. He called me the other day and cussed me out. Top down, just ripped me with his language. I shouted over the phone, “You’ve called the wrong number!” There’s a pregnant pause. He quietly asks, “Who is this?” I reply, “It’s Pastor Barrett!” The next thing I hear is, “Shit!” and then he hangs up.

I also know a retired school teacher who’s developing Parkinson’s. She shakes all the time. She pretends it’s not there and gives excuses when her Sunday school class asks about it; she just says its a reaction to her new medication and the doctors say it will go away. She so badly wants to keep her best face in front of her peers. Honestly, she’s not ready to admit what time’s doing to her body.

I know a third person who trumps every sentence you say. Literally. He’s a one-upper. I don’t think he knows he does it; it’s just somewhere deep within his psyche. It’s pretty hilarious. On my worst days I’ll set him up just to see what he’ll say and then secretly laugh about it.

And the truth is, all three of these people come to church looking for sacred space and holy time. All three of them bring the good and the bad and look to me as pastor hoping that I will help them decipher God’s hope for them. They’re hoping I can help them experience something holy.

The world needs ministers translating God’s power, analyzing life’s movements, and listening to the spirit of the living God . . . because life happens, we get out of rhythm, and we need help finding our way.

As ministers . . . our place is in the joy and in the pain. In both places, we experience sacred space and holy time. We don’t always have to see it coming nor do we need to know what to say. Most of the time, it’s best to not say anything at all. But your presence in the good and the bad of people’s lives, is a holy calling.  There’s no excuse for not recognizing it.

Recently, I performed a wedding for a couple in my church community. I didn’t want to do it at first. Weddings take up a lot of your time. And I could already get the sense after meeting with this couple for premarital counseling that it might not be the most detailed of all weddings. With fifteen minutes to go before the ceremony began, it all fell apart . . . the groomsman missed their cue because they were hovering Zaxby’s chicken fingers in a Sunday school room. The videographer decided to do monologues with the bridesmaids and they couldn’t get the mic to work. It was storming and the grandmother was still in the car in the parking lot because she didn’t want to mess up her hair.

But when it finally came time for the vows, there I was, standing in that space . . . ready to experience something holy.

One month ago this week, my wife’s last remaining grandparent passed away. Retired pastor and veteran, he lived to 89 and died of congestive heart failure. In the midst of our own grieving, our own feelings of failure for not making it to his bedside in time, and the agony of knowing he didn’t get to see his great-grandchild one last time, in the midst of all of that, I watched my wife compassionately offer support and council to her parents, siblings and aunt. She was there helping others express grief, shed tears, and sit comfortably with death.

And that’s Qohelet’s message for us today.

He’s reminding us about the nuances of life and how our job is to help people interpret it. We help open people’s eyes to the fact that God’s not causing the cancer or wars or drought or anger. God’s not intentionally destroying just so God can rebuild. God’s not throwing stones just to gather them up. God’s not hating us, injuring us, setting us back or dividing our lands; rather, life is just unfolding. Time is just passing. Plants are being uprooted and then more are being planted. So don’t blame God. Qohelet doesn’t. We shouldn’t. It’s just the rhythm of life.

In other words, God’s not the evil dictator waiting for us to fail. God’s not the manipulative architect designing flaws in the system to test our faith; rather, God’s alongside us helping us experience the holy in the midst of the mundane.

For in the midst of the yin and the yang, the good and the bad, the timely and the unforeseen, sits the presence of God. It’s all around us. And the world needs our help to see it.

When I think about the ancient Israelites, I see a group of people struggling with finding the same rhythm as us. But I also see them systematically doing something about it.

Their laws were built around the notion of Sabbath. Their blood, sweat, and tears went in to building and maintaining a Temple. The idea wasn’t lost on them that if they are to manage a healthy rhythm of life, then they’re in need of holy time and sacred space.

And the idea can’t be lost on us either. If we’re going to help others experience kairos moments, we need to position ourselves to receive them too.

So pay attention when you go to concerts, the mall, the movies, and even church.  Pay attention when you go to ball games, class, family’s houses for lunch and the beach for vacation.  Pay attention when you’re at a cabin in the mountains, a favorite restaurant to eat and in a favorite chair to read.

It’s in these places we find God. It’s in these moments that time is more kairos than not. It’s in these moments we can help others find peace.

I don’t have a tattoo (how’s that for a transition?), but if I did I know what it would be. Have you ever heard of the 3rd century mathematician, Archimedes? He once said: “If you give me a lever and a place to stand, I’ll move the world.”

I’d get that depicted on my body somewhere. It captures something of who I want to be and what I want to be reminded of. It reminds me of my own need for holy time and sacred space.

We all have God-given gifts that can affect change, do good, create beauty, make a difference in the world. That’s our lever. But we also need a solid place to stand. A place not riddled on the fault lines of fear, but rather on the sure shores of God’s grace. A place that we can dig our feet into and use our gifts to make a difference in the world.

That’s the image I’d want on my body. For a long time I used to think McAfee was that place to stand. I was and am still so proud and grateful to work at McAfee. But I used to give it the credit for being my place to stand. It made sense. I’m rooted here. I have a voice. I can affect change.

But the more I think about this image and my own need for kairos moments, the more I realize McAfee’s not the ground in which I stand, it’s the lever that moves the world. It’s the tool.

The place where I stand is something else. Something deeper, something more. It’s the resolute faith that God is still moving and loving and healing in this world. It’s the belief we can find God in both time and space. That’s where I stand. That’s my solid ground.

And I’ll keep using levers like McAfee and the church and blogs and nonprofits to make sure those around me know what God’s up to in this world. I’ll keep using levers to help God create beauty, love kindness and share sacred space. That’s where I stand. That’s where Qohelet is too.

May we be people who stand firmly in both time and space. May we use our gifts to help others find God in the rhythms of life. It’s what God’s calling us to do.

—-

This sermon was oringinally written for and preached at McAfee School of Theology’s chapel service on September 2, 2014.

Missing Gwen

Gwen and PamBy Pam Durso

It has now been a year since that moment on August, 27, 2013 when I learned that Gwen had died. She was my friend. She was my pastor. She was my Panera Bread lunch date, my fellow dreamer, my encourager. And I have missed her, am missing her still.

Over the past year I have gone several times to the cemetery to “visit” her—oh, I know she isn’t there. But my heart is drawn there. In the oddly mysteriousness that is grieving, I have discovered that being in the cemetery brings me comfort. There I have felt free to talk to her, to update her on our church, to share with her about the happenings in my life, and to tell her how much I miss her.

The last Saturday of June—after our Baptist Women in Ministry gathering and all of the events of General Assembly, I found myself driving to the cemetery. I hadn’t been to visit in a while, not since her grave marker had been put in place, and I was eager to see it and to “talk” to her.

I parked where I always park—and walked toward the place where her grave is. But I didn’t see her marker. I walked up and down the row—looking for it. It was nowhere to be found. I moved to the nearby rows. It was not there either. I searched the entire section. I walked to the back section, examining each grave marker, looking for her name. Not there either. Not anywhere. I knew she wasn’t up in the front section, but I went there anyway, searching for her, paying careful attention to the newest grave markers. But I couldn’t find Gwen.

And that was when I started talking to her, “Okay, Gwen, where are you? I can’t find you. Where have you gone? I know, I know where you should be. But you aren’t there. Where are you!?”

When I stopped for a moment, I heard myself saying those words, and I realized that I finally was saying out loud what I had been feeling all year. My heart has called out to her in these hard days of grieving—wanting to know where she is, where she has gone. My faith offers me assurance that she is with God, but my heart still hasn’t figured out what that means. My heart still cries out—wanting her to be here with me.

The next day at church I told my story to her husband, Charles, explaining how I had looked and looked for Gwen but couldn’t find her. He assured me that I had been right about the location. Gwen was where she was supposed to be. But the grave marker had had a mistake on it and had been removed in order to make the correction.

I now know for certain “where” Gwen is in the cemetery, but day-by-day I am learning, my heart is slowly learning, that my friend, Gwen Brown, is with the God she loved, the God she served. Gwen is in a place where she is loved, a place where she is healed and whole.

And I am here—still missing her.

—–

Pam Durso is executive director, Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia. This blog was originally published at bwim.info and can be accessed here.

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