Late for Easter

This year at Rainbow one of our high school students is accompanying the opening Easter hymn, Christ the Lord is Risn’ today. I hope she isn’t late, which I say only from personal experience. (My one and only debut as the high school Easter trumpeter wasn’t meant to be. Likely after rehearsal I fell asleep upstairs in a Sunday School room and no one could find me in time for the opening hymn.)  

With time, I’ve become a punctual person, which is a good trait for a pastor, especially on Sundays. And yet, I’ve learned that you can be or feel late for Easter in other ways. One can be on time and even the one with the microphone or solo, and still feel out of key/step, not altogether “there.” In other words, just because you are on time for Easter, doesn’t mean it feels like Easter.  You can know the Easter “notes” and still feel a few beats behind from where you’d like to be or where you think you should be in terms of Easter joy and hope. Again, I say this from personal experience. Pastors, too, can feel late to the Easter party and promise—some years we, too, go through the motions, hoping that the motions themselves will keep us going or just be enough.

This year I don’t want just to show up on time for Easter in a going-through-the-motions-way. I want (us) to be fully awake for what it might be like to live Easter in real time. I even wiped dust off the old trumpet case. I couldn’t squeak out a single note, but that’s ok. Fortunately Abigail has the trumpet covered this year. 

And to those who show up late or not at all, or who choose, instead, to find a comfy couch (or pew) to nap on, that’s ok too. Same for those who will undoubtedly feel as if they are half there, just going through the motions this year. 

Maybe just maybe, you will find yourself hoping, with me, for something different this year. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll find ourselves living the Easter promise, in real time.    

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It came upon a violent midnight

The police and emergency responders were called to the 1400 block of Southwest Boulevard (the same block as Rainbow Mennonite Church) near midnight on December 3. A gathering of teenagers and community members had gotten out of hand and violence broke out. Two teenagers now gone from the world—one killed by gunfire and the other died later after being hit by a car trying to get away. So many teens and families now in utter shock, their lives will never be the same. We continue to meet some of these individuals as they make their way back to the 1400 block of Southwest Boulevard to light candles, cry, and seek to make sense of something absurdly senseless.

We hope and pray that these teens and their loved ones will face the pain and hurt in ways other than taking revenge. And yet revenge is all too often the chosen recourse and as a result, the cycles of violence and retribution go on and on. More teens gone way too soon from this world. More lives forever altered—left behind grieving midnight after midnight after midnight.

Recently during a restless night, I thought about another midnight that Christians sometime sing about in December. “It came upon a midnight clear, that glorious song of old, from angels bending near the earth, to touch their harps of gold. Peace on the earth, good will to all.”

The music associated with this carol is rather maudlin for my taste, but the text speaks truth and comfort to me, especially this year. Too many bullets have been unleashed in schools, homes, parking lots, alleyways, businesses, churches, etc. Too many guns. Period. The glorious midnight song of angels bringing and speaking peace, which I still believe can be found and heard, is too often drown out by shouts and shots.

And so perhaps I will sing (maybe cry?) these words all the louder this year. Will you join in?

“Still through the cloven skies they come, with peaceful wings unfurled, and still their heavenly music floats over all the weary world. Above its sad and lowly plains they bend on hovering wing, and over its Babel sounds, the blessed angels sing.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife, the world has suffered long; beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong, and warring humankind hears not the tidings which they bring. O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing.

The carol ends with a picture of humankind sending back the song of peace and good will to all. So to those who, in the days to come, will come rest and grieve along the road we call Southwest Boulevard, we hope the song of angels will come to you and touch your weariness. And to those of us who continue to worship along Southwest Boulevard, let’s listen too, for how we might let the angel’s song of peace sing through our lives and actions.    

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You may or may not have noticed these yellow ribbons near Rainbow.

They started appearing over a year ago, after a three year old named Olivia died.

You can read about it here and here. Warning: Child Abuse

Olivia’s death, and the ongoing trial associated with her death, has led to an outpouring of love and demands for justice for Olivia. There is an Olivia memorial on Steele Road that is impressive in size and scope, and absolutely heartbreaking.

Why so much yellow?

Olivia, or “liv” as she is often called, loved the color yellow.

I spent a morning recently at this memorial.

And I was left rather speechless, so I’ll let the images and this community lament do the talking.

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Holy week triggers

Every year during Holy Week I try and find ways (not always successfully) of issuing a trigger warning. That’s because the Biblical stories of Jesus’ arrest and trial includes horrific and brutal scenes–unspeakable torture and terror. Those of us haunted by the realities of violence, in varying ways and to varying degrees, are often especially triggered by these scenes.  “Tread carefully,” I tell myself (and other clergy) year after year. 

Holy Week trigger warnings seem especially important this year when many of us have the murder trial of Derek Chauvin on our minds. (Let’s please not call it the murder trial of George Floyd–as if Floyd is the one on trial). The trial is both terrible and important to witness, especially as a white person. (People of color in this country experience and witness these terrible, threatening, life-ending realities more often than any white person can even imagine, and so watching this trial may be too traumatizing for people of color.)  The sounds, the shouts, the sirens, the panicked 9-1-1 calls of that terrible day, coupled with the scenes of the courtroom–the testimonies, the defense, newly released body cam footage, and the anticipation and aftermath of a verdict–it’s a lot to think about for Christians any week, but perhaps especially Holy Week.

So along with issuing this trigger notice, I want to issue this word of hope: This Holy week I hope and pray that those of us who identify as Christians will learn better ways of existing in spaces of trauma. And I hope anyone who attends a Good Friday service will not be subjected to the glorification of suffering, but instead will be brought into a grace that meets us in all of our sufferings, helping us to rise. May God’s unending love meet us all, whatever this week brings. 

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For those of us traveling through the gospel of Luke this Lenten season, let’s take a brief look at Luke 13:31-35:

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Can’t you hear the foreshadowing? Luke, the literary genius, begins to cast an ominous pall over the story. There are references to death, three days (think Good Friday to Easter), and we are introduced to what will become our age-old Palm Sunday liturgy.

Jesus is beginning to feel the stress and weight (see Luke 12 :50). Division, violence, and abandonment are on the horizon. And it didn’t have to be this way, Jesus says. “How often have I desired to gather you as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Luke 13: 34).

The weight of what Jesus is up against, the foxes out to get him–these things are clearly crushing in mind and spirit. He is watched closely and some of his onlookers become indignant by what they see Jesus do and say (Luke 13:14).

And yet Jesus continues to rise above (does this count as a pun?). He keeps people on their toes, often telling stories or parables packed full of whimsy, challenge, grace, instruction, and truth.

And so, as we consider the heaviness of the evolving story, let’s also not overlook the whimsy in chapters 14-15. And in that spirit, I’ll share these (somewhat dated) very short pair-of-bells recordings.

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Getting cross-examined and cross in Luke 11

For those reading through the entirety of the gospel of Luke during Lent, here are some thoughts on chapter 11.

After Jesus leaves the home of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), he begins (or continues) to get tested, cross-examined, and criticized, especially by some in the crowds. In turn, I sense Jesus getting a little testy, cross, and critical!

Even when a woman in the crowd raises her voice and says to Jesus with affirmation, “Blessed is the womb that bore you,” Jesus has a rather sharp response: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” (Luke 11:27-28)

It seems to me the rest of chapter 11, perhaps even the rest of Jesus’ teachings in Luke, hinges on that statement: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”

And all I can say about verse 37 onward is WOAH!

There is a lot of woe talk. Woe to Pharisees, woe to lawyers, woe to anyone everyone who is clean on the outside, but greedy and wicked on the inside. To anyone and everyone who neglects justice and the love of God (11:42), Jesus says, “Woe to you!”

The added detail in 11:44 is rather chilling: ”Woe to you! For you [the religious leaders—Pharisees] are like “unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it.” Equally chilling is what Jesus says to the lawyers v. 46 onward: “Woe to you! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them…For you have taken away the key of knowledge…”

So yeah, is it any wonder that the scribes and Pharisees grew “very hostile” toward Jesus (Luke 11:53)?

Is it any wonder they ramped up their cross-examination of him? Chapter 11 ends with more chilling words: They waited for Jesus, “to catch him in something he might say.”

Of course what I catch Jesus saying most clearly is this: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” And my, how we still like to maneuver around Jesus’ harsh criticism of greed, pride, and injustice. We probably find ourselves cross-examining Jesus more than we care to admit.

Later this week I’ll post some thoughts on Luke chapter 12.

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Luke 10: 25-37 and doing more than compassion by proxy

Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech

Delivered April 3, 1968, Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters) Memphis, Tennessee.
Dr. King cites Jesus’s “Parable of the Good Samaritan”

In addition to the reflections I shared in this week’s worship video, I now share some excerpts from a sermon preached by Matt Westbrook at Portland Mennonite Church in 2015.

When MLK gave the speech (linked above), it was April 3rd of 1968 and he was in Memphis, Tennessee standing with the city sanitation workers, who had been viciously treated by the city for years with unsafe conditions, discrimination, poor treatment from the white city government leadership, and the recent deaths of two sanitation workers. King chose not to show compassion by proxy, but instead to show mercy–compassion moving the body to action–by standing with the workers in marches and rallies. He made the choice to ignore his fears, emanating from continual treats on his life, and to stand with the suffering sanitation workers as they lay on the side of the road. The day after he delivered this speech, King was killed by an assassin. Compassion in action, mercy, is risky. You know you have loved your neighbors when you both feel the uncomfortableness it generates when you act in the place of the Good Samaritan, and also when you feel the uncomfortableness it generates when you recognize the enemy of yours represented by the Good Samaritan may be quite capable of being a role model in a story by Jesus.

A few other excerpts worth chewing on:

Western, wealthy, yet good-intentioned Christians, removed even from having to travel on Jericho-like roads, tend to prefer to keep their hands clean by personally sending or having their governments send money or pass laws, understanding these actions as creating permanent and lasting positive change. Once the money is given, the conscience is eased because it equates neighborliness with the click of a computer key, the tending of wounds with the wearing of a button, the costly generosity of standing and touching the person in need with the donation to a political campaign.

To be fair, this description doesn’t describe every act of financial generosity or political action–there are certainly exceptions right here in our church. But I believe it does hit a powerful nerve in Western liberal Christian practice. To be even-handed, I could have easily described the approach of a conservative American Christian, who may have seen the wounded man by the roadside and argued that if only the man was armed, he could have properly defended himself, but that sermon is for another day.

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I’m embarrassed to say that I’m already failing in Lent. I have excuses and justifications, but I won’t bore you, the reader, with the details. Nor will I ask for your opinion on whether or not my excuses are justified or weak! Likely the latter.

So, I hope to get back on track with some Biblical reflections next week. For now, please enjoy this little video of children describing Lent. Some real gems here!

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Ashes to ashes we all fall down

We all know some version of the rhyme right?

A pocket full of posies,
Ashes, ashes!
We all fall down.

And we’ve all heard the theory that this rhyme is really depicting death and ruin right?

Well, given our current pandemic, I doubt if anyone wants to think about the 1665 outbreak of bubonic and pneumonic plague, which some believe this rhyme references. Likewise, I can’t help but wonder if anyone is going to show up to our Zoom Ash Wednesday gathering that starts in less than 20 minutes! Who wants to think about our blessed mortality right now?

And yet, I’ll be there, contemplating the the dust or ash that we all become and the opportunities we have to make our ash/dust count.

So everyone, I have to say it: Get your ash at church!

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A Hard 40

I’ve started referring to the season of Lent as the Hard40. It a 40 day sentence (may feel like 40 years to some) of traveling with Jesus as he turns toward Jerusalem and faces the ensuing trial, brutality, trauma, and death penalty. It’s a hard road to travel before we get to Easter. But it’s a road we best not take a detour around, no matter how much we’d like to.

And so, starting on Ash Wednesday, I will post daily thoughts or photos on this site.

I will use this daily Bible reading schedule as the primary compass or jumping off point.

And to kick it off, here is a video for your consideration.

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