Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Red Letter Day

Today, September 21st, is a red-letter day because it is the Feast of St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist.  Or at least it is on my Church Calendar. On my more secular calendar, the notation is that today is the U.N. International Day of Peace. I have a feeling that both events will go unnoticed by the majority of people today, but that shouldn’t prevent us, as people of faith, to celebrate and draw a connection between them.

The tradition of making important words stand out in red ink started in medieval time, and they became known as rubrics.  For those of you who are real Church geeks, you will know that we also call all the instructions in the Book of Common Prayer about how to offer liturgies are also called rubrics, however in most modern copies of the BCP, they are italicized and not written in red (although I have seen some versions that do use red!).  The practice of using red to signify something important continued with the printing press, and it is a short-hand way on calendars to highlight special days and holidays.  Through the ages, a “red letter day” became jargon for an extraordinarily wonderful day in a person’s life.  Ironically, while most Christian calendars use of red to indicate a feast day, it also connotes martyrdom, an extraordinarily bad day in a person’s life. 

In the case of St. Matthew, as one of the original 12 apostles, his remembrance is a Feast Day, so it is a red-letter day. There is some debate as to whether or not he died a martyr, but since many of the first apostles were put to death for their faith, it is possible Matthew was as well.  Regardless, we should take the time to celebrate a man who, by being open to the Word of God and writing down that message, has influenced billions of people throughout the ages. I know of many people whose first book of the Bible they read was Matthew’s Gospel.  It is a great place to start and an opportunity to learn how to make more of our own day’s red-letter.

Matthew’s Gospel ends with the Great Commission, where Jesus sends his followers out into the world to baptize all believers.  This action is not to be done by force or coercion, but through teaching and relationship.  At the core, that is what the U.N. International Day of Peace is about, being in relationship with our neighbor rather than at war. 

Tragically, too many wars have been fought and lives lost over religious difference and intolerance.  Even now we see this happening with ISIS/L and other militant groups.  This is not the faith that Jesus taught or Matthew shared.  Jesus’s own death at the hands of an intolerant system should indict us all of condemning the other simply because we do not believe what they do.  This is the real work we must do, to love those who hate us, even though we have not done anything specifically to them. 


It will be a red-letter day indeed if we, as the human family, can ever get to a place of real peace in our world.  I don’t think it is impossible, but it is extremely difficult, especially when we have to offer space to the other.  I hope and pray with each day we get a bit closer to seeing each other as brothers and sisters and not enemies, as we are all children on God.  No matter what color we are. 

In Christ,
Rev. Valerie+

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Cowabunga!

A couple of weeks ago, our Minister of Music, Thomas Williams, chose the song “Give me oil in my lamp” for the Gradual song before the Gospel Reading Luke 12:32-40, where Jesus mentions bridesmaids and their lamps.  It was a fun song that I don’t remember singing before, but it seemed that several people at church did.

Well, this week we are supporting the Jesus Way Day Camp from Crossroads being held at our longtime partners in ministry, Christ the King Lutheran Church. Lo and behold – what song do they sing? “Give me oil in my lamp!”  However, like any good Christian camp song, it has a couple of extra verses in it that are a bit different from what we sang during worship.

“Give me wax for my board to keep me surfin’ for the Lord. Cowabunga!”

“Give me gas for my Ford to keep me truckin’ for the Lord. Honk Honk!”

As you might imagine, the kids love the silliness of these verses (and hand motions, of course), but more importantly, they are learning about the joy of faith.  This is critical for all of us in our Christian Formation, to seek and find God’s presence in plain, old FUN! 

Even as adults, with the all serious concerns and responsibilities of life, we need to find ways and make time to just enjoy God's presence. That can be in laughing at ourselves, enjoying children playing, or being in God's awesome Creation.  It is a good reminder to find God's joy in order to balance everything else. 

Day Camp has been a great experience so far.  The counselors from Crossroads have been great with endless enthusiasm, patience and encouragement for the kids.  Their love of Jesus is obvious in all they do and how they interact with the kids.  They want to share the love of Christ – and for camp!

The kids have been getting into the songs, Bible stories, games and water play – refreshing on a hot day. If you would like to see what they have been doing this week, ALL are invited to come to Christ the King on Thursday at 3 PM to see a program presented for friends and family.  Since we won’t have the traditional service celebrating the end of Vacation Bible School, this is your opportunity to see what the kids have been up to this week and enjoy their enthusiasm. 

The Vestry and I thank you very much for your support of this program and others that help support people beyond our congregation, like the Youth Mission Trip, Elijah’s Promise and Christ Church Food Pantry.  All of these are important ways to practice our faith beyond the walls of our Sanctuary.

I will be starting my vacation on Monday and will return on September 13th, ready for joy of the Fall.

In Christ’s Love,

Rev. Valerie+

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Because I Know Jesus

I am always impressed by Christians who are willing to witness to Jesus at work in their lives whenever and wherever.  This happened recently at the Olympic Games during an interview with David Boudia and Steele Johnson, who had just won a Silver Medal in Men’s 10M Synchronized Diving. The reporter asked the pair how they had prepared for this event that has been dominated by the Chinese, who set an Olympic Record Score in the event to win Gold.  In his response, Boudia said something about Jesus, but it was so quick, I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly, something about, “because I know Jesus, it would all be OK, no matter what happened.”  In that moment of heightened emotion, I was impressed he thought about Jesus, but it seemed like a side comment.

Then Johnson responded, and while I cannot quote him directly, he essentially said that, like David, because he knows Jesus, the result of the competition would not change who he was, but it was a blessing and honor win an Olympic Medal for himself and his country. 

Wow. Olympic athletes that do not stake their identities on winning Gold but rather on knowing that Jesus is their Lord and Savior.  And they are willing to testify to that on an international broadcast.  I also noticed, at one point when the camera was panning over to the pair to catch every single emotion and gesture following the results, they were huddled with their coach(es) and trainers, and I thought, “That looks like they are praying.” (This was before the interview.)  Yup, they were. 

Obviously there is a culture within that team (perhaps not the entire US Diving Team, but at least for Boudia and Johnson) that puts their relationship with God first.  I was both impressed and humbled.  
In 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, St. Paul writes, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  I have no doubt that if this team had finished dead last, they still would have gathered for prayer, and while being tremendously disappointed, it would not have changed their dedication to God. Such dedication is seen even when their heads are not bowed and they are not using words, they are praying.  Their dives were prayer.

What would our lives look like if we would make the same commitment to remember, “To God be the Glory” in everything we do?  To me, it takes off the pressure of having my identity contingent on what I accomplish. If I truly and honestly believe that I am a beloved Child of God, anything else is icing on the cake.  Granted, it always feels great to achieve a goal, but it should not define who we are. If our identity is only defined by what we do, when we fail, it can feel like we are worthless. 

That is exactly what our life in Christ overcomes.  We are worthy because we are, not because we do!  I am so grateful for Boudia and Johnson of confessing their faith in such a way to remind those of us who will never be elite athletes that God loves us for who we are, not for what we accomplish.  While those Silver Medals will look splendid around their necks, it does not even compare to the seal of Christ on their hearts – and on our own as well.

2 Corinthians 9:13-14 
Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you.

In Christ,

Rev. Valerie+

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

This Far by Faith

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1

Several years ago, on some road trip, I remember seeing a license plate from Missouri with the inscription, “The Show-Me State.”  Since I was born and raised in New Jersey, I had little to no idea about what Missouri was like or why it would require tangible evidence.  I would later learn that this adage came from U.S. Congressman Willard Vandiver in an 1899 speech, where he said, “I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.”

From the point of view where “actions speak louder than words,” this requirement seems less of a demand than a reasonable request.  None of us want to be taken as a fool or considered gullible.  Promises are great, but until we have hard evidence that the promise is being kept, we will remind skeptical.

The above quote from Paul to his letter to the Hebrews seems to countermand the demand for evidence.  It brings to mind the scene of “Doubting Thomas” stating he must put his fingers in the holes on Christ’s body before he will believe in the resurrection.  When Thomas does meet the resurrected Christ and he is invited to touch the wounds, he doesn’t, yet he proclaims, “’My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to Thomas, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’” (John 20:28-29)

So where does all of this rhetoric leave us?  For many, the crux of the “problem” of faith is that it deals with something so intangible that it difficult to even express what we do hope for.  And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, there are promises that we think we have been given, such as if I am a good person and follow the rules, good things should happen to me; or belief in God will make life easy.  Crises of faith happen when (inevitably) events happen that are difficult, challenging, even heart-breaking.  In those moments, when what we thought we were promised falls apart, we can begin to question where God is in the midst of all of it.

This is when we need to be truthful about what God did promise, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” (Jeremiah 7:23) “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20).  “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him would not die but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16) There are more, but, as these examples show, we are not promised an easy life regardless of how good we are, but we are promised that we are loved and God is always with us.  Even when we feel far away from God, God is still with us.  The challenge is allowing ourselves to be open to the ways God is with us that are less empirically evident.  God is in the deep breath that lowers our heart rate and allows more oxygen to flow to our brains when we are in the midst of a crisis.  God is in the hug from a loved one “just cause.”  God is in the glories of creation, majestic mountains and roaring oceans, even in what some might call a “weed.” 

Do we choose to pay heed to these things?  Are they not enough evidence to satisfy our skepticism?  Perhaps, but that is why we PRACTICE our faith, because that is how we get better with seeking and finding God.  Indeed, the more we practice, the easier it is to have faith in what is not seen, because we can FEEL God’s presence in the midst of our joys and sorrows, the good and the difficult, the blessings and the heart-aches.  That is the true test of faith.

In Christ,

Rev. Valerie+

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

All is Vanity

Charles Allen Gilbert’s drawing “All is Vanity” is an eerie optical illusion of a woman sitting in front of a mirror which also looks like a human skull, seen here.  The title of this work is taken from the beginning of the Hebrew Scripture book Koheleth (sometimes spelled Qoheleth), or in most Christian Bibles, the book of Ecclesiastes.  This book is part of the Wisdom literature, such as Proverbs and Job, but it rather unique in its dreary outlook on the human experience. Whereas Job eventually receives restoration of his life and faith in God, Ecclesiastes offers no final redemption, only understanding that God is present in the journey and focusing on an ultimate goal denies the importance of seeking God in the first place.

Gilbert’s drawing captures the fleeting pursuit of beauty while summarizing one of Ecclesiastes’ conclusions. Death is inevitable.  No amount of toil trying to avoid it or deny it will make it disappear.  And yet the point is not death, but life and how we go about living it.  Are we stuck in front of a mirror seeking perfection or do we choose to seek God in the mundane and ordinary parts of our lives?  While the answer seems obvious, humans still spend close to $100 billion on beauty products each year – more if you count the cost of the advertising for said products.  That is a lot of toil.

Death is inevitable, and while we do need to be prepared for it, it should also not be our focus.  Indeed, Jesus’s death and resurrection changed death into the start of eternal life.  Meanwhile, this life, the time we have on earth, is precious and important to offer ourselves to God and do God’s will as we can.

A friend of mine was recently diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He is only 50 years old.  It came as quite a shock to him and his family as he has been healthy his entire life.  The life expectancy of those with ALS is 2-5 years, with the latter potion of that time in a body that cannot move.  It comes as no surprise that he is re-evaluating everything in his life – what is important and what it is vanity. He reached out to me to find some spiritual support in the midst of this tragedy.  My heart aches for him because he has so much to live for, and yet the realities of our mortal body are interrupting his life.

I do not believe that God wanted his man to have ALS, or for someone else to have cancer or heart disease or be the victim of violence.  I do believe God is good, yet our concept of “good” is limited by our human experience.  “Good” does not mean we are guaranteed an easy life, only that God will always be with us in the midst of our trials.  “Good” does not mean fair, that we will receive what we think we are due, especially if we are “good.” Yet we are promised that we are loved and loved deeply – it is up to us to trust that love and feel it in the most challenging times.

And for those of us not in the midst of such challenges, we need to be present and supportive, especially when it is difficult.  These are the moments in our journey where God works through us, inviting us to focus on the other rather than our own vanity.  It is a time to offer love as we are loved – fully and unconditionally. 

In Christ,

Rev. Valerie+

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Multi-media Evangelism

As technology becomes more accessible and user friendly, it is important for us in the Church not to eschew it out-of-hand, but engage with it in appropriate and helpful ways.  Indeed, we have been doing that at St. Barnabas over the past month or so, using our projector to show images relating to the Scripture readings and saving paper by projecting the prayers of the people.

The Episcopal Church (that international entity that we are local outlet of) has also embraced a new age of sharing our stories by producing some excellent videos of ministries of the Episcopal Church.  I invite you to take a few minutes and view some of them for yourself and see the creative ways faithful people are engaging in the world today, sharing Christ’s love and hope with all. The videos can be found here.

I mentioned reading Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy a couple weeks ago.  You might be interested in a conversation our State Senator, Corey Booker had with him a couple of weeks ago about his book and work. You can watch the Facebook Live event here.  It is a bit long, but well worth the time.

Please let me know what you think of these videos.  I hope you find them as inspiring as I did.

In Christ,

Rev. Valerie+

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Prayer for the Human Family

Unfortunately, I did not see the video from our Presiding Bishop, The Most Rev. Michael Curry, before worship this past Sunday morning so I was not aware of his request that we offer prayers for our country and ourselves.  While we did pray, it was not quite as elegant as the one suggested by PB Michael.  Granted, God does not judge prayer on style, but because it is so fitting, I’ve reprinted it here for your edification and use:

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP p. 815)

It has been an emotional week, first with the initial traumas and now with mourning.  My own emotional state has been uncomfortably stretched.  While I don’t intend this blog to be a format for book reports, it is important that I mention that my reactions to the recent shootings have been greatly affected by reading Ta Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me. Even though Mr. Coates and I are around the same age, that is about the only thing we have in common.  His experience of the world, especially the United States, is so different from my own that there seems to be an impassable chasm between us – which is his point.  Being who I am, I want to bridge that gap, change the circumstances, create a new world that changes that reality.  Part of that desire is driven by my own place of privilege, which is hard to reconcile and even harder to know how to move forward.

The truth is I will never know what it is like to live as a person of color in the US. While I have experienced a very limited amount of discrimination because of my gender, it in no way compares to the systematic racism that pervades our common life.  It is time to be honest about white privilege and not be defensive, but rather use that power to affect real change.

I am thrilled to be a part of an interfaith group of clergy in Middlesex County that is beginning to organize ourselves with the help of Faith in New Jersey, a community organizing group dedicated to helping grass-roots initiatives seeking social and economic justice.  Religious organizations have been very good at offering charity.  We follow the mandate from Jesus Christ himself to feed the hunger, clothe the naked and heal the sick.  However, so much effort goes into those activities that there is usually not enough time and energy left to offer the prophetic voice to the system that created the need for such charity in the first place.  Our intention is to educate ourselves on the system and see where it is failing to do the work it is intended to do, and then change the system.

One of the foundational truths of our country is the separation between Church and State, but that does not allow the Church to abdicate its place in society.  Rather it calls the Church to offer the prophetic voice when the State does not fulfill its intended purpose – creating and maintaining a just society.  The Church’s moral and ethical motivation is grounded in Jesus’ summary of the Law, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  Regardless of your political affiliation, this is our firm and common foundation.  If the system, intentionally or unintentionally, treats our neighbor as less than ourselves, it needs to change. 
 
In the weeks and months to come, I will let you know more of what Faith in New Jersey is doing and how you can be involved to help affect such change.  I hope you will be willing to engage in this endeavor in order to help to create a more just society and, indeed, seek the realm (kingdom) of God.

In Christ,

Rev. Valerie+