“I am so angry.”

Have you heard any angry voices lately?  There are plenty of them in the news. The question is – how do we respond?  And what do we do with our own anger or frustration?

Let’s face it – the church does not always do anger well. Our hushed sanctuaries can seem like halls of decorum, encouraging us to practice our “church manners,” while our air waves are awash with politicians, interrupting one another, eager to have the last word.

These noisy newsmakers are amazingly popular, attracting huge crowds and enthusiastic ovations. Fans explain their fervor this way:

  • “He is saying what everyone is thinking but no one dares to speak out loud.”
  • “Here’s a man who speaks his mind.”
  • “Finally, someone who ‘tells it let it is,’ someone who speaks from the heart.It’s as if we are too afraid to voice our own anger and are glad when someone can do it for us. But we don’t need a mouthpiece. We are can speak our own concerns with honesty and clarity.

When Jesus entered the temple filled with money changers, he flipped over their tables in a fury that must have been frightening. Words alone could not express his disgust as he surveyed his Father’s house being tarnished and cheapened. Anger was the appropriate response. It clearly is an acceptable emotion in the Bible – maybe even a necessary one.

How do we follow a faith that tells us to “love our neighbor,” when there are times when our neighbor is just not all that lovable? Saint Francis prayed, “make me an instrument of your peace.”  How can make the necessary changes in this world without giving in to rage?

There is a difference between anger and violence. The Psalmist vents heart-felt emotion. He pours out gut-wrenching cries of anger and frustration, speaking without a filter, not caring who else might be listening, but directing this venom toward God.

He wails:

Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
  (Psalm 137)

He does not ignore his yearning for revenge:

O Lord, you God of vengeance,
                                      you God of vengeance, shine forth!
                                    Rise up, O judge of the earth;
                                      give to the proud what they deserve!   (Psalm 94)

We don’t talk about these texts very often. I have to say – I have never preached on one of these. We don’t teach them in Sunday School. Perhaps our congregations don’t even know these angry words exist. Maybe they believe that rage is an unacceptable emotion in church. Maybe that’s why so many people are turning to those who do not hesitate to express their fear, frustration, and longing. People are looking for a way to voice these complicated emotions.    Angry_face 2

God knows there is enough to be angry about in our world.

God knows there is great need.

But we don’t need crass politicians to be our spokespeople.

We can do it ourselves, taking the psalmist as our role model.

We don’t need to be silent. We don’t even need to be polite.  We can, as the old hymn assures us, “take it to the Lord in prayer.” Those hard emotions – fury, despair, rage – are meant to be a catalyst, to move us to prayer and then to action.

We can pour out our anger, frustration, hurt and disappointment to God.

But here’s the thing – we’re not meant to dwell in our fury. Simply living in anger benefits no one and does nothing to help or improve a situation.

Repeating outrageous accusations and slogans accomplishes nothing.

Instead, we are invited to pour out our anger in the presence of our transforming God. The God of resurrection and new life can lead us to new ideas, alternate solutions, and fuel our energies.

When anger morphs into constructive action it is a breakthrough moment that reflects God’s life-giving grace.

So – go ahead. Be angry.

  • Talk about it
  • Pray about it
  • Ask how God can use that energy to make the positive changes that are so desperately needed.

Use my frustration, God, to be an instrument of your peace. Amen.

Instrument of your peace

 

 

 

 

 

The Church: A Hive of Activity

My husband is a beekeeper. He puts on the bee suit, dons the veil, and lights the smoker to keep the bees at bay. I watch from inside the house.

Nevertheless, I am learning that bees are fascinating creatures. Would it surprise you to learn that the “hive culture” of these tiny insects somehow reminds me of the complex workings of a congregation? It doesn’t matter which denomination or even what faith you belong to, let’s face it – life with a diverse group of people can be challenging. Getting anything done can be a herculean tasks. Congregational life can feel like living with an oversized, slightly dysfunctional family as we attempt to live our faith, care for others, mediate discussions, set visionary goals or simply make the simplest decisions or reach any kind of consensus.       Bee quote 2

What is the bees’ secret?  Over 10,000 of them are crammed into that tiny hive. Yet somehow they manage not only to care for each other and build intricate honeycomb, but also produce delicious honey. Part of their success may be the many different jobs each worker bee holds over the course of its lifetime.  No one gets stuck doing the same task without reprieve.

What if congregations encouraged our members to explore new ways to be a vibrant part of this living, breathing community we call church?  Every job is important – everyone makes a difference.

Think about the folks in your congregation. Then picture the bees, doing whatever is necessary to make the hive work. They are

  • Nurse Bees. These nurturers care for the developing eggs, watching over the vulnerable larvae until they hatch. Who takes care of the weak and helpless in your congregation? Does their hard work and vital contributions get recognized?
  • House bees. These industrious workers make the honeycomb and care for the hive to ensure it is a clean and healthy environment for the whole swarm. Picture the folks in your congregation – usually behind the scenes, often unheralded – who simply want to roll up their sleeves and live their faith by doing. We need to celebrate that.
  • “Guard bees” sound ominous until you recognize their determination to ensure the safety of the hive. Imagine previous generations of faithful members who weathered threats like economic strain, deficit budgets, weather catastrophes, and fires. They persevered. They did what needed to be done. Their efforts make today’s congregation possible.
  • Field bees venture out of the hive to search for pollen and nectar which will feed the rest of the hive. These are the hardworking folks who give heart and soul because they care so much.

Scientists are fascinated by bees because of what is known as “hive mentality.” The bees are completely focused on the hive. The tremendous energy they expend creating the honeycomb, storing up honey, tending the larvae and searching out pollen – it’s all to benefit the hive.  “All for one and one for all” is more than a motto – it’s the way they live. Even harsh winter weather can’t defeat them. When the temperature dips below freezing the bees cluster together so the inside temperature remains a toasty 90 degrees inside the hive.

What if congregations banded together like bees? What if we overlooked our differences and ignored petty annoyances and instead pledged to work together as a unit? What if we celebrated our vast variety of gifts and used them to take care of one another and to interact with the needy world around us?

The bees would warn us – loners, those hearty individualists, will suffer and die without the support of a committed community.

The bees are onto something. The church – the Body of Christ made up of unique children of God – can be inspired by their devotion and hard work.

Bee quote

Wrapped in God’s Love

Why does our congregation give away prayer shawls?  This simple knitted or crocheted creations stand out as one of our favorite forms of outreach.  These beautiful shawls are often created in the privacy of one’s home so this is often referred to as a “behind the scenes” ministry.  It is not unusual for me to arrive at my office to find a bag containing a carefully crafted shawl. I often don’t know who stitched a particular prayer shawl and the crafter rarely meets the recipient, but it is nonetheless a personal, hands-on ministry and a testament to caring and compassion.

Every prayer shawl is unique. They come in a variety of shades, sizes, and patterns, reflecting the individuality of the person who took the time to knit or crochet it. Somehow this wide variety matches the needs of the people searching for a shawl for a loved one. When someone arrives at my office, yearning for a way to put their caring and concern into action, they are delighted by the warm colors and soft textures. They often touch the yarn, rubbing it between their fingers, until they say with conviction, “This one. This will be just right.”

We keep a supply of shawls on hand at the church because we never know who will want a shawl and when the need might arise. It might be a joyous occasion like the birth of a baby; we can offer that happy yet tired mother a virtual hug and some comforting reassurance as the shawl drapes around her shoulders.

Just as likely the shawl will go to someone who is enduring a difficult time filled with grief or pain or worry. We enclose a card with the shawl with a quote from Julian of Norwich: “May God’s love wrap and enfold you, embrace you and guide you, and bring you comfort.”

Prayer shawl 3
Cards by Anne

We often cannot solve the problems of others, but we can remind them that they are not alone.

On March 13th part of our worship service will be dedicated to blessing our prayer shawls. In these somewhat dreary pre-spring days, it is a delight to be surrounded by the bursts of colors that the prayer shawls offer as they are ensconced in the windowsills of our sanctuary.

The shawls will be distributed throughout the congregation, allowing our congregation to participate in the gift of laying on hands and offering prayers. We will call upon God with names like Gentle Spirit, Encircling God, Loving One. We will depend on God’s healing presence and nurturing Spirit to fill these lovingly made shawls with blessing and strength. We will sing the refrain to Rosemary Crow’s gentle song Weave: “Weave, weave, weave us together. Weave us together in unity and love. Weave, weave, weave us together, together in love.”

Sometimes we are called to witness to God’s presence in loud, dramatic ways. Other times, a reminder that we are surrounded by God’s grace and wrapped in God’s love is blessing is enough.

Prayer shawl 1

 

Bibbidi Boddidi… Black

A recent vacation took me to Orlando. While I was ambling down the pedestrian street of Disney Springs (a collection of shops circling a lake), I came across the Bibbidi Boddidi Boutique, a magical salon where little girls can be pampered and styled into their favorite Disney princess.  Hair can be gathered up into a bun, decorated with ribbons, and sprinkled with “pixie dust.”  Extensions can be woven into a glorious ponytail or allowed cascade down to resemble the flowing locks of Rapunzel, Ariel, Sleeping Beauty or Belle. I have to admit, these little girls were adorable as they twirled and giggled their way along the paths. With the flick of a magic wand, or at least with lots of hair product, they had been transformed into the adventurous, (if often beleaguered), yet ultimately always successful princesses.

But it made me wonder – what’s it like to be a black or Hispanic little girl in the magic kingdom? Maybe the “fairy godmothers in training” (stylists) are prepared to welcome girls with every type and texture of hair. But my initial impression was that only certain girls need apply. The bright pink walls are filled with lily-white examples of female glory, from Snow White to Frozen’s Anna and Elsa.  There is a single African-American leading character – Princess Tiana from The Princess and the Frog (2009).  Could you have named her?  She came on the scene long after my own children were captivated by Disney films so I had to do a bit of research.

What is the image of beauty that a dark-skinned little girl receives when light-skinned heroines are the only ones in sight?

I don’t think Disney is overtly or intentionally racist. Instead, I think that the long line-up of white princesses simply reflects the values and attitudes of a company started in the 1920’s.

Disney has some catching up to do.

I think most of us do.

It makes me wonder what messages churches (and schools, camps, youth organizations, anyone working with young people) send about who is beautiful or powerful or important. Who gets to dream of wishes coming true or a future that includes “happily ever after”?

When churches assure people “everyone is welcome,” how do we get that message across? How are we reaching out to the wide spectrum of individuals who are all part of God’s creation? Who are we leaving out or overlooking or forgetting?

At the start of  racial justice training sessions offered by my denomination, we always read this passage: “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them” (Genesis 1: 27).

We are invited to celebrate the inclusive Spirit of a loving God so we can live together as people created in God’s image .

pixie-dust-trail

Coveting my neighbor’s religion

We know we are not supposed to covet – yearn to possess or have – other people’s belongings.  But what about coveting other people’s faith? Or their faith practices?

I have been a Congregationalist all my life, but I am inspired by the experiences and practices of other traditions and faiths.  I have to admit to a bit of “religious envy” when I think of observances not included in my own.

It isn’t that I want to convert to another faith.

I just want to learn from and maybe occasionally borrow some of the religious practices of others.

Here are some traditions that inspire me:

Namaste – when I go to my yoga practice, we begin and end by greeting one another and honoring the holy within.  We Christians have gotten away from recognizing the Christ, the divine, the Spirit that dwells in each one of us.  When we “pass the peace of Christ” on a Sunday morning, it is an attempt to share the holy with each other, but somehow it not as deeply satisfying as clasping my hands at my heart space, looking into another’s eyes to say “Namaste,” the holy in my greets the holy in you.

Crossing oneself. The Catholics do it. So do Episcopalians. It is a small gesture that somehow offers both a punctuation to prayer and a physical reminder of God’s presence. I find myself doing this at home sometimes when I yearn for a literal “hands on” expression of God’s presence.

Mezuzah – We have a mezuzah on our doorway, a small wooden box containing a tiny scroll with the Shema prayer: Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources.   Mezuzah

The mezuzah honors my husband’s Jewish upbringing but also reminds me that God’s presence goes with me as I enter into the world in the morning and arrive back home at night.  I  love the idea of praying as I go out and as I come in, that physical reminder that God goes with me

 Praying five times/day.  If you take the time to listen to the haunting and beautiful call to Muslim prayer  you will hear the words,

  • “God is the greatest,” sings the imman,
  • “I bear witness that there is no other deity beside God.”
  • “Make haste toward prayer.”

I love the idea of interrupting my busy day with the reminder of God’s presence and the invitation to pause and receive the refreshing Spirit of God.  It is too easy to allow an entire day – or even days – go by, filled with tasks and to-do lists, but not with the awareness of God.  If listening to a call to prayer from a minaret is not part of my Christian tradition, what method can I use to remind myself to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16)?

Shabbat at home – another powerful Jewish practice, bringing our faith into the home with prayers, lighting candles, songs, and sharing.  What a powerful way to share faith and to pass along traditions, values, and learning to our children.

The season of Lent invites us to develop and deepen our spiritual practices by celebrating our own while also honoring others. I can learn from others even as I honor my own Christian tradition.

What spiritual practices will you incorporate into your life to remind yourself of God’s presence with you, every day?

Lent

 

 

God is in the Forgiving Business

What are your childhood memories about Ash Wednesday?

I grew up in the Congregational tradition and don’t have remember anyone talking about Ash Wednesday or even Lent – at church or at home.

I was vaguely jealous of my Catholic friends who seemed to spend hours discussing what they might “give up” for Lent – candy? Ice cream? TV?  What would be an acceptable – but also sustainable for 40 long days – sacrifice? They talked about the challenge of abstaining from meat on Fridays. And then of course there were the ashes – more than slightly embarrassing to the middle school crowd. It was agreed that going to church after school was much preferred than walking around the halls with a dark smudge on your forehead.

But for this bland Protestant, Ash Wednesday came and went – no church service, no sacrifices, no ashes.

These days as a Congregational (UCC) pastor, it is my privilege to help lead a community Ash Wednesday service with two other congregations. It is a pleasure to worship with one’s neighbors but honestly, we also come together out of the realization that this particular service is often not well-attended. It is one of those days when we are grateful for Jesus’ reminder that where even two or three are gathered in his name, he promises to be present.

Why do so few people carve out time for this mid-week service? Partly it’s logistics. Society does not mark this occasion.  No one gets time off for Ash Wednesday. Families’ hectic pace of juggling sports and after-school activities does not slow down for this religious observance.

Partly I think it’s the ashes. Who wants to be reminded that “from dust you came and to dust you will return”?  The season of Lent has gained the reputation of being a dreary requirement that one must grudgingly endure in order to finally reach the glorious celebration of Easter.

And yet – what if we tried to re-set our attitude about this season of reflection and penitence? What if instead of regarding Ash Wednesday as a guilt-inducing reminder of all we have done wrong, we come with gratitude to God who can free us from our mistakes and release from the burden of remorse?

God is in the forgiving business.  Ash Wednesday, even in its quiet solemnity, can be a celebration and recognition of that.

Ash Wednesday reflects a simple truth. We all sin. We hurt others and we hurt ourselves.  We damage the earth.  We waste time. We get caught up in mindless activities while people close by and far away suffer.  We do things we shouldn’t and don’t do things that we should.

Here is the Ash Wednesday response to that.

  • Don’t wallow in guilt. Wallowing never did anyone any good.
  • Instead, give those sins, mistakes, and regrets to God.
  • Together, we can pray the words of the psalmist

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
(Psalm 51)

 

Psalm 51

The burdens that weigh us down can crumble like ashes and blow away in the wind. Our past mistakes are absorbed by God’s love so something new can grow.

So this year, maybe you’ll want to try an Ash Wednesday service. Dare to be vulnerable enough to confront your need for forgiveness. Rejoice that God wants to hear our prayers. God welcomes each one of us just as we are today.

Ash Wednesday offers the relief of forgiveness, the promise of being able to start over, and the possibilities implied by a clean slate.

What a gift.Psalm 51 12