“Peaceful racists”

Some words just don’t fit together.  Like “sweet lemon” or “warm ice.”

Or – “peaceful racists.”

That’s how the organizer of the ridiculously named group “Super Happy Fun America” described participants in the abhorrent “Straight Pride” parade that took place in Boston last weekend.

“Peaceful racists” don’t exist.

Racism is, by definition, violent.

Racism excludes, demeans, ostracizes, and belittles.

Racism robs people of opportunities.

Racism denies people a voice.

Racism categorizes people based on their skin color, ethnicity, or nationality.

Racism refuses to recognize the complexity of human experience with all of its pain, experience, and joy.

Racism keeps people out instead of welcoming them in.

Racism hurts.

There are no “peaceful racists.”

 The poorly attended “straight pride” parade was a weak attempt at mimicking the glorious annual Gay Pride parade which celebrates humanity in all of its diversity. The Gay Pride parade is about widening the circle to ensure everyone can participate; it is a celebration of welcome and inclusion and revels in the vibrant richness of God’s people.

Let’s call racism what it is – despicable.

Instead, let’s live out words that go together well: Extravagant welcomer. Radical includer. Heartfelt sharer.  

And let’s share God’s love and welcome.

God’s Welcome Table

On Sunday we will celebrate communion during worship. Before the bread and the cup are shared, I will say, “Everyone is welcome at God’s table. Whether you have been here hundreds of times before or whether this is a first occasion, whether you are filled with faith or overcome with doubt, whether you are sure of who God is or whether you are searching for even a glimpse of God in your life, you are welcome here.”

Sometimes I use words like, “Everyone is welcome here – old, young, and in-between, gay, straight, transgender, and questioning, people of all races and cultures, all are welcome here.” Each month I wonder how to express the welcome that God offers. God’s inclusion is so broad that it can be challenging to express in words.

How should we describe it? Everyone is welcome here…

–       Those who need forgiveness and those who are seeking to forgive

–       Those who are addicted, those who are celebrating sobriety, those who are seeking to live life one day at a time

–       Those who are angry and seeking solace, those who are worried and searching for reassurance, those who are broken-hearted and feel as if they will never be happy again, those whose lives have been shattered by violence, illness, or loss

–       Those who are parents or grandparents who rejoice in love shared and those who review past moments with an aching regret, worrying about words spoken or unspoken to those they love.

–       Those overwhelmed by the responsibilities of care-giving who wonder if they will make it through one more day, one more meal prep, one more doctor’s visit, one more sleepless night

–       Those who feel permanently, constantly, achingly unwelcome because of their race, gender, or sexuality

–       Those who are overworked and those who are unemployed; those whose calendars are overbooked and those who yearn to fill empty days and hours

Who is welcome? All of us. Us, in all of our variations, differences, and commonalities. Every single one of us – we are welcome in God’s sight and invited to God’s table.

What joy, what relief, what reassurance.

Come and eat.

Taste and enjoy.

Receive the gifts of a loving God.

              This is the message, the Good News, that we – as the church and as individuals – are called to live out every day. We are meant to express and embody God’s love, forgiveness, and new life at work, at home, and in the world.

            Who do you know that needs that message of love, forgiveness, and inclusion?  How can you find a way to convey kindness and understanding?

And be sure to invite them to church sometime – let them know that they are always welcome here.  

The Caring Corner

What do we do about problems with no easy solutions? Every city and town confronts challenges and it is often unclear how to make a difference. During a recent visit to the small city of Newark Ohio (population: 48,000), I was impressed with a group of volunteers concerned about homelessness and addiction. What impressed me the most was their ability to identify not simply a problem to be solved but also recognize people who need help.  

If you go to Newark on a Saturday morning all year long, you’ll see a white pop-up tent on a corner vacant lot across the street from the county jail and the sheriff’s office. Rickety folding tables hold cases of water bottles, sandwiches in plastic bags, and a few grocery items. An assortment of colorful plastic coolers surrounds the table. A few feet away a metal clothes rack displays shirts, sweaters, and jackets gently swaying in the breeze.

Volunteers greet people as they wander by. Some cluster in the shade, eager to get out of the blazing sunlight. Others straddle their bikes, rocking back and forth as they chat and stock up on supplies. Some sprawl out on the grass, grateful for a cold drink of water on a hot day.

This is the Caring Corner, a place where anyone can come to receive food or drink. My friend delivers a blue plastic cooler filled with frozen plastic water bottles. The arrival of this bounty causes some excitement among those gathered around the tables. They are anticipating just how good that cold bottle will feel pressed against their foreheads or necks. One of the challenges of living outside is the searing, oppressive heat. The ice will provide a brief respite and then offer cool water to these thirsty souls.

One of the offerings at the Caring Corner is fentanyl testing strips.  This was so far outside of my experience or knowledge base that it had to be explained to me.  Many (perhaps most) of the visitors to Caring Corner are heroin addicts. Street heroin is often mixed with the much stronger drug fentanyl. The testing strip allows the user to gauge how much they can inject to reduce the risk of an overdose.

My immediate reaction was – can’t we cure them? Help them conquer their addiction? The Caring Corner meets these mostly young men and women where they are and addresses their immediate needs. They are addicted, hungry, and thirsty. While I might wish to solve all of their challenges, they just want to stay alive today.

Sometimes we are able to provide a solution. Sometimes we are just helpers along someone’s path. I believe God calls us to meet people wherever they are on their journey and offer whatever help and support we can.

Lights for Liberty

I had planned to go to a lovely outdoor concert last Friday. I was looking forward to sitting with friends, enjoying a precious summer evening, relaxing under the trees as we listened to toe-tapping music.

But then I heard about the Lights for Liberty vigil.

 Gatherings were being held across the country on July 12th to raise awareness of the horrible conditions endured by refugees in detention camps in our country. Inspired by the light held by the Statue of Liberty, we are called into action by the poem inscribed on the monument’s base.  “The New Colossus” by  Emma Lazarus issues a moving invitation.  “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

            I felt compelled to give up my concert plans so I could heed the call of these inspiring words. I wanted to stand in solidarity with hundreds of families who are waiting at our border to apply for asylum. It is not illegal to ask for help. They are simply waiting to be heard. Parents and children are trying to escape violence, terror, and hunger. They are drawn by Lady Liberty’s light of freedom and the promise of this country founded by immigrants. Yet these tired, poor homeless masses are being treated like criminals.

 So I joined dozens of others in a park in Manchester CT to listen to first-hand accounts of recently-arrived immigrants expressing their gratitude for a fresh start. I heard a speaker compare World War II era Japanese internment camps to the refugee holding areas on our border. I joined in the song “This Land is My Land” that celebrates our country that was “made for you and me.”  

And we lit candles. As dusk fell, people of all ages, faces glowing in the flickering light, promised to carry the beacons of hope and determination into our towns, states, and country. I went to the vigil because I believe that is where Jesus would stand – with the outcast, with the suffering, with those on the margins.

There will be another pleasant outdoor concert to enjoy. But the refugees need us now. I was glad to be surrounded by the compassion and strength of those who gathered to celebrate Lights for Liberty. Now I will continue to do what I can to spread the message of justice and liberty for all.

To be confirmed, or not?

I didn’t want to be confirmed when I was 13. I had endured confirmation class with 20 other teenagers for a year, gathering on Tuesday afternoon with our earnest and well-meaning associate pastor. He was an excellent youth group leader but he struggled (or perhaps it was only my struggle) to make the confirmation curriculum relevant and interesting. Mostly we looked forward to the newly-installed soda machine at our church which allowed us to sip our Cokes as we tried to listen to lessons about the Bible and church history.

            At the end of the year, we went on a “decision-making” retreat where we spent time learning about the significance of church membership, the importance of pledging ourselves to faithful living and the value of endeavoring to serve God with all our hearts, minds, and spirits.

            I didn’t feel ready. I wasn’t sure what I believed. I was scared to make a promise to God because what if I couldn’t keep it? 

            But I was 13 and not a rebel. The retreat was billed as “decision-making” but it felt more like “decision-assumption.” It wasn’t explained what would happen if we weren’t confirmed.  Would we be cast into eternal darkness? Or – perhaps even worse for a teenager – excluded, shunned? No longer considered “part of the group”?  It didn’t seem truly up for discussion.   I didn’t hear anyone else voicing any concern or notice anyone hesitating about what seemed to me to be an enormous step.  So I went along.

            Our rather intimidating senior minister performed the confirmation, placing his hand heavily on my head and offering a quick prayer. I didn’t feel any different after the service. For the next three years I was very active in church through youth group and choir, going on retreats and enjoying time with my friends. When I graduated from high school, I considered myself a graduate from church, as well.  It would be a long time before I stepped into a sanctuary again.

            This Sunday our congregation will be celebrating confirmation. The parents of our confirmands understand that while they may have been able to insist that their children attend class (and I’m glad they did), they cannot force their child to be confirmed. It is an individual decision based on personal faith.

            I hope that choice is clear to the 11 teenagers who have experienced our confirmation program. While I hope that it was more riveting and engaging than my memory of confirmation, I can’t promise that. But I am confident that I let them know that they are on a lifelong journey of faith exploration. If they aren’t ready to be confirmed now, they should wait. And in the meantime, they can continue to be a valued part of our church family.

            Very few faith decisions are “once and done.” More often, we need to choose daily – sometimes hourly – how to live our faith and say yes to a loving God who calls us to share hope and new life. We confirm our faith by loving our neighbor and treating one another as we want to be treated.

            Our confirmands are making a public decision on Sunday and then will be asked to live that decision out in their daily lives. 

How do you confirm your faith?

What does church look like?

When you envision “going to church” perhaps you expect a quiet, orderly sanctuary filled with well-dressed people quietly listening to organ music.

That was your grandmother’s church experience.

These days, church means so much more. Yes, we are here faithfully on Sunday mornings (join us! Everyone is welcome!). The dress code has relaxed and rarely includes the suit, tie, dresses, and shined shoes that I remember from my childhood. The music might include the organ but will just as likely feature exuberant children, guitar, ukulele, piano, and bells. We do manage to get to “quiet” but only after the deacon patiently – and sometimes repeatedly – calls the congregation to order. There is a joyful sense of community as people of all ages greet one another. They have gathered for respite, reassurance, learning, fellowship, and the life-giving assurance that they are loved and lovable. Through God’s grace, we are forgiven; we can share that hope with others.

How we live out that hope brings us to other church moments. “Church,” thank God, doesn’t just happen on Sunday mornings. Church can be in the orderly chaos of a clothing sale in a huge room filled to overabundance with used clothes. Church means partnering with the high school’s volunteer group FRESH (Family Related Effective Solutions for Humanity) to make a difference in our community. These teenagers are dedicated to combating poverty and hunger in our area and put their ideals to work as they hauled, sorted, and displayed clothes. Residents from local homeless and domestic violence shelters are invited to come for a free “shopping spree.”

“Church” happens in the kitchen when volunteers prepare meals for anyone facing life’s challenges. Church can be delivered in a microwavable container. It can be a warm meal that reminds recipients that they are loved and cared for.

“Church” can take place in our local park when we gather for “Tuesdays at Twilight” for outdoor worship in the beauty of God’s creation. Bike-riding children, parents pushing strollers, fishermen passing by can wander into our circle as we listen to the birds overhead, watch the ducks make a splash-landing on the water, and marvel as the evening sky is reflected in the pond. “Church” happens whenever and however we share God’s love. I believe we are invited to constantly discover new and different ways to be the church in a fractured, busy world. Church might mean Bible study in a classroom and could also be conversations about God, faith, and life at a coffee shop.

How will we do church? We will honor our traditions and we will look for new ways to reach out and connect with God’s people. We will continue to worship together in our sanctuary on Sunday mornings and be open to other times and places where we can learn, grow, rejoice, and serve together.

Church will take many new forms in the 21st century.  Who knows what “church” will look like next!