The Love Mandate: A post for Maundy Thursday

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13: 34-35

No one really uses the word “maundy” anymore in their daily lives. Which is why today can seem a little murkier than some of the other holy days in Lent. We get Ash Wednesday, and Palm Sunday, and Good Friday…but what’s “Maundy Thursday”?

10001453_10151948036261787_1162216634_nThe word “maundy” comes from a Latin word: mandatum. And mandatum means “mandate” or a “commandment.” And when we talk about “Maundy Thursday” we’re talking about “mandate Thursday.” We’re talking about the night before he died, when Christ told his disciples exactly what he expected them to do next.

And if you read a book or watch a movie about almost anyone else, you might think the lead character right about now would be saying something like “avenge my death” or “make sure there’s payback” or “don’t let them get away with this … strike back.”

But this isn’t any other story. This is a story that turns everything on its head. Instead, the mandate that Jesus gives is this:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

It’s not my job to rename Christian holy days. But if it were, I might change the name of Maundy Thursday. I might change it from this word that none of us really know anymore to something we would all understand. Something like “Love One Another Thursday” or “The Last Thing Christ Really Wanted Us to Know Thursday.”

There’s a song that many of us learned as children: “and they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love…and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

It might not sound all that radical…but it is. It’s a song that reminds us of Christ’s true mandate. And it’s still the gauge of how well we are following him. Because, if we take Christ’s word for it, love is more than our mandate as Christians. It’s our calling card.

Prayer

God of love, help us to remember the mandate that Christ has given to us, on this sacred Thursday, and always. And God, may they know we are Christians by our love. Amen.

Lent: Day 22

483800_10151280061801787_100771127_n(Note: I’m posting this a day late, but it’s lateness is due to being very sick. Sorry for any inconvenience.)

Friday afternoon I started to lose my voice. I’d been sick for about a day, but now I was having trouble even talking. By Saturday, my voice was all but gone. As much as I tried to force out words, they just wouldn’t come.

When a preacher loses their voice on a Saturday, the first response is panic: “How will I preach?” “What if I can’t?” “Who will?” I realized pretty quickly that, as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t lead Sunday worship. Or, rather, others realized that for me. My wife was the first to tell me I couldn’t, followed by the chair of my deacons. They were also the first to offer to fill in the gaps, and make sure the service still went off without a hitch.
So, this morning, while my congregation was gathering across the street, I slept in. It was the first time I had ever missed preaching for illness. And, it felt really weird. I wanted to go. I wanted to preach the sermon I’d be working over in my head all week. I wanted to do what pastors do.
But sometimes what we think we are supposed to do, and what we can actually do, are not aligned. And yet, somehow, everything works out. And we realize that while we may be valuable, we are not indispensable. Because, in the end, God provides.
The service went on, the sermon was preached, the people worshiped, and the preacher stayed in bed and got better. And somewhere along the way, the Lenten truth came through: we may think we are capable of great things, but in the end we are able to do even greater things in community. Christ knew that. It’s why he surrounded himself with disciples. And, it’s why he asked his disciples to stay committed to one another later on.
When one needs community, others are always there. Sometimes, even when we don’t want to need them. Learning to accept the strength of community is sometimes hard for those of us who are self-sufficient types. But sometimes that community ends up holding us up (or just sending us back to bed) when we need it the most.

Journey Through Lent: Day 16

photoThis time of year in Vermont the weather is unpredictable. Some days the snow falls deeply, leaving inches piled on the front walk. Others it’s warm enough to open the doors for a little while, and the snow on the ground starts to melt. Then temperature drops way below freezing, with biting winds, and the water freezes into ice.
That’s what has happened on our front walk. The snow fell, I shoveled it, and then it melted and froze again. By the time our friend came over for dinner last night, it was a virtual ice slide. So, this morning I went to the hardware store and bought a 25 pound bag of salt. I’m letting it set on the ice now, slowly breaking down the frozenness, and softening the surface. And I’ll go out again in a while and break it all up.
Salt is an interesting thing. It has the power to warm what is ice cold and transform it. It makes me think about all the times that Jesus called his followers the “salt of the earth”. Table salt is relatively cheap now, but in Jesus’ day it wasn’t. It was used for everything from food to preparing bodies for burial, and it was quite valuable. Jesus pointed this out when he reminded his disciples that if salt looses its saltiness, it is worthless. But if it keeps it, it can be used in incredible ways.
For those of us who attempt to follow Christ, we want to be the salt of the earth. But we sometimes don’t realize that being the salt of the earth is worthless if we don’t use it. It’s not enough just to be salt. You have to act as salt.
Denominations like my own, the mainline Protestant ones, have often been called the homes of the “frozen chosen”. There’s a stereotype that we come to church on Sunday, sing our hymns, hear the sermon, and then go out the doors no more alive with the love of Christ than we were when we walked in an hour before. That’s sometimes accurate. But it doesn’t have to be.
What if instead of being the salt that sat in the pews, we put some of our saltiness to good use? What if instead of holding onto the salt we have, we spread it out on the world and let it do its work? What if we took a little of that salt and dethawed our selves?
In Lent, we can choose to move from being the “frozen chosen” to the ones who have been chosen to warm the world. Or, we can just stay put. Salt without any good use. And, eventually, we will lose our saltiness. And the faith we follow will appear to all the world to be worthless. The choice is ours. Do we choose to be the salt? Or do we choose to act as salt?
As I watch the salt on my front walk cut through what has been frozen into place, transforming the landscape, I’m reminded of its power. And I’m reminded of the power of the Gospel in the hands of Christ’s followers as well. As the salt of the earth, we can warm the frozen places. We can unstick the things that are stuck in place. We can make what is hard turn soft, and what is dangerous turn welcoming. And we can change the lay of the land, and ease the way for others.

Journey Through Lent: Day 15

UCC banner at General Synod in Tampa.

UCC banner at General Synod in Tampa.

This morning I was talking to a friend who, like me, is a Southern ex-pat now living in New England. We were talking about how our experiences in the South have shaped the way we have come to understand Jesus, as well as our feelings when we hear the word “Jesus”, for good and for bad.

I grew up hearing “Jesus” used at times as the start of a sentence condemning me. I was not raised religious, but fundamentalist Christianity was all around me. And it was words said by the Christians who surrounded me that led me to believe that the God they loved hated me for who I was.

Eventually though, despite the negative impressions I had of Christianity, spiritual but not religious was not enough for me. I came out and became a committed Christian in 1994, the year I turned 18. Thankfully, I did so around Southern Christian clergy who were minorities in their beliefs that there was nothing wrong with being gay. They taught me that Jesus wasn’t a name to be feared, but that Jesus was a name that stood for liberation and justice and, above all, love.

I often give thanks for the fact that the first Christian clergyperson I came out to, a United Methodist minister from Georgia, smiled, gave me a hug, and told me “I affirm you”. Then he sent me home with a packet of articles written by Biblical scholars explaining why the Bible does not condemn LGBT people, and why God does indeed love us, and why gay people do not need to change.

I know not many LGBT people of my generation and older had that experience, though. And I know that even LGBT youth today still are met with religious condemnation far too often. And while more churches are going out of their way to not put their condemnation of LGBT people out front, in some ways it’s worse. A growing number of churches in New England are being “planted” by Southern fundamentalist groups to spread their version of the Gospel. They’re generally laid back, jeans and t-shirts type guys (always guys…women can’t preach in their churches) who rock out with guitars and talk about Jesus’ love. But dig a little deeper, and the “love the sinner, hate the sin” words about homosexuality always come out. It’s just like the Christianity I knew growing up, except now it hits you when you least expect it.

This, rightfully, hits a lot of people the wrong way. And so sometimes, especially in well-educated New England circles, a person talking about “Jesus” can be a punchline. I’ve been at dinner parties where Christians are the butt of jokes, and religion the venture of fools, and where the host has looked around nervously and said, “oh, by the way, Emily is a pastor”. And then the conversation stops dead and everyone looks at their chicken.

I’d take offense, if we hadn’t done it to ourselves. True, moderate to progressive Christians aren’t the ones in the news talking negatively about women, and gays, and evolution. But we’re also not the ones in the news talking about women, and gays, and evolution in positive ways, either. We’re mostly quiet, apologetic, and unassuming. And we’ve let the good name of Jesus become associated with a social agenda I do not believe he would have supported.

So, in Lent, especially, I refuse to let the name of Jesus be co-opted. I don’t believe I have any more right to Jesus’ name than anyone else. But I also don’t believe I have any less. And so, in Lent, I try to talk about my relationship with Jesus more. I talk about how Jesus has taught me about grace. How Jesus has transformed my life. How Jesus has taught me how to live, and how to die, and how to not be afraid. And I talk about how Jesus has taught me to leave everything behind, and follow him. This is the story of my walk with Jesus. And in Lent, a time when we follow Jesus’s own walk, I choose to tell it.

Journey Through Lent: Day 14

I’m not Catholic, so you might think that the events taking place today in Rome mean very little to me. The tradition that my denomination is a part of broke away from Catholicism nearly 500 years ago. My own family left the church, led by my grandmother, two generations ago.

The new pope, whomever he may be, will have very little direct bearing upon my life.

But I am still interested. And I’m particularly interested in the very unusual circumstances surrounding the end of this Pope’s reign. I’ve heard the rumors of why he is leaving. People say he has been forced out by blackmail, or that something is being hidden. And I do believe that churches, Catholic and Protestant, have at times been bastions of systemic dysfunction. But, I’m inclined to take Pope Benedict at his word on this one. I think he’s just stepping aside because he can’t perform the duties of his office in the manner that it deserves any longer.

That in itself is worth consideration. We sometimes don’t know when to step aside. We are sometimes so filled with our own self-importance, and our own belief that we alone can do things the right way, that we fail to see when we are starting to become ineffective. We are so afraid to admit our brokenness, that we break the things that surround us.

In Lent we are reminded of our limitations. And I think that’s why Lent is so scary to some Christians. No one wants to admit that they are powerless. And no one wants to admit that one day, if we are fortunate enough to grow old enough, we just won’t be up to the job anymore.

I don’t agree with Pope Benedict on a lot of things, but I give thanks for his example today. I give thanks for the reminder he brings to us in Lent that we are fallible, and finite, and that one day we will have to step aside and let someone else take over. It’s a huge gift to give to the church, and especially to we who are clergy. It’s not about us. It’s about something much bigger. Thanks be to God.

Journey Through Lent: Day Thirteen

734901_10100241701604888_144840975_nWhen we woke up today, the snow was already heavy. It coated the window, and was coming down hard. A few online checks told us that the schools were closing (a rarity for Vermont) and that roads were messy. And with that, my wife decided to abandon her drive to Boston and declared it a snow day.

I like snow days. I grew up mostly in Florida, so they weren’t a part of my lexicon. But Heidi grew up in the snow belt of upstate New York. On the rare occasions that school was canceled for snow, she was excited. It was a “bonus day off” when she could read or be with friends or go out and play in it.

I like snow days because I like the idea of having to slow down unexpectedly. It’s like an unexpected sabbath; a break in the calendar that opens us up to spontaneity. Stress seems to dissipate, at least for a little while.

I’ve come to view days like this as a gift from God, and as a reminder that we don’t always set the agenda. Our best laid plans are sometimes rendered useless by forces beyond our control. And in the gap that is created for us, we have the opportunity to create something new. Something that matters more. A memory. A meal. A time for recharging.

In Lent, we can participate in the spiritual equivalent of a snow day. We can slow down our lives just enough that we make room for what really matters. We discard the busy agendas we have set for ourselves, and replace them instead with room for the holy. At first, it may seem like an inconvenience, or one more thing that will distract from our limited time. But, in the end, we will be grateful for giving ourselves permission to enjoy the space. And, if we are really lucky, the change in priorities might just stick. Sort of like the snow falling here in Vermont today.

Journey Through Lent: Day 12

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Daisy, sleeping in the upstairs window last year.

I just got home. When I came down the road, I looked up to the window on the second floor, the way I always do, expecting our cat, Daisy, to be there watching. I knew she wouldn’t be, of course, but for just a second, I forgot.

I did not set out to be a cat person. When my wife and I first started considering dating, Daisy was part of the package. It was not long after that Daisy moved in with me, while my then girlfriend moved into seminary housing that didn’t allow pets. My friends joked that I must really be in love.

The cat and I spent a few months avoiding one another. And then we reached a sort of detente, likely fueled by the realization that neither of us was going anywhere. And then, a funny thing happened, I began to really love her. She was my buddy, and my companion. She sat with me while I wrote sermons, followed me from room to room, and headbutted me constantly until I would pet her.

But this morning my wife and I stood in the vet’s office and said goodbye. Daisy has had cancer for a few months now. It was localized at first, and the vet assured us that her quality of life wasn’t suffering. She said we would know when it was time. And, late last week, we did. I called to make the appointment, and then we spent a few days feeding her all of her favorite things, and saying goodbye.

In the end, it was both horrible and beautiful. Our vet is wonderfully kind and patient, and she let us bless Daisy before she gave her the sedative. We stayed with her the whole time, thanking her for being such a good friend to us. We told her it was okay to go. We told her we loved her. And then, she went home.

The other day I said to myself, “I don’t want to ever get another cat. This is too hard.” But then I realized the hard truth: everything we truly love will at some point or another bring us pain. That’s the reality of life. People, and animals, that we love will die. Or, even worse, they’ll disappoint us. Or hurt us. Or leave us.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love them anyway. Because if we shut ourselves down to love, and to connection with others, we may as well be dead ourselves.

I loved Daisy, and my wife, who had her before she ever knew me, loved her even more. She had adopted her from a shelter eight years ago. Daisy had been abandoned while pregnant and abused. Every time we picked up a broom to sweep the kitchen she would grow terrified and run and hide. She had experienced the worst of what humans could do to her. And yet, she found it in her heart to trust again, and to, I believe, love us. Her ability to love and trust again, despite the pain and fear she had felt, is not lost on me.

In Lent I am particularly aware of loss. I am aware that we are preparing for the pain of the Passion, and the loss of Good Friday. But, I am also aware that we are preparing our hearts for what comes next: the triumph of love over the worst that the world can do. And the world can indeed do its worst; and it does. It will break our hearts. It will bring us to our knees. It will take our breath away, along with all we love. And yet, none of those things will have the last word in the end. Because, in the end, love rises again.

I give thanks for “all creatures great and small” and to the Creator who teaches us love through them. Thank you, Daisy. I love you still.

Journey Through Lent: Day 11

Quvenzhane Wallis, copyright Brad Balfour

Quvenzhane Wallis, copyright Brad Balfour

Last night I stayed up watching the Oscars with my wife, and following along on Twitter. One of the accounts I follow is from “The Onion”, an online satire site that I had read since the 90’s. Late in the evening, they posted a tweet about Quvenzhané Wallis, the 9 year old actress nominated for Best Actress for her performance in “Beasts of the Southern Wild”. I won’t repeat exactly what they said, but they called her a name that rhymes with what football players have to do on the fourth down after they fail to score.

I’m not a fan of censorship, and I’m not one to jump on “moral decency” bandwagons. But I’m also keenly aware that the word in question only gets applied to women, or to men who are being mocked, typically because they are not seen as “masculine” enough. And, can we agree that a 9 year old is off limits, regardless? It’s bullying, plain and simple, made even worse because it’s an adult targeting a child. Girls shouldn’t have to grow up worrying about whether adults will be calling them sexually derogatory names, even if it is just for a laugh.

And I know “The Onion” thought it was funny. They’re a satire site. They probably thought they were pushing the limits a bit, maybe even poking fun at culture as a whole. But, really, if your job is to be funny, and you have to call a 9 year old the “C” word in order to get a laugh, then you must really be bad at your job.

So, what does this have to do with Lent?

A year or so ago I listened to an interview with one of my favorite spoken word artists and rappers, Dessa, on NPR. She was talking about her work and the language she used saying, “there’s definitely adult language. In fact, when I came in today, you know, I looked at myself in the rearview mirror and I was like, Dessa, no swearing. You know, we’re doing a radio show and you’re not allowed to use the language that you do with your friends. But there are definitely some words that I avoid. And when I work with other artists, I’ll say as much, hey, I don’t want to appear on songs that use the six-letter F word and the C word for women. And the N word, to be honest, is not a word I use. So I’m real conscientious about those, not necessarily because they’re profane but because I think they forward a really regressive world view that I have no interest in participating in.”

And that reframed the conversation for me. It wasn’t about forbidden words or what you do or don’t say in polite company. It was about how our words can be regressive, and how they can contribute to holding the world back. In this case, the words chosen last night were regressive because they negatively influenced the world that a 9 year old African-American girl has to navigate everyday. I don’t want The Onion to be censored because of that. But I do want us to take notice of it, not because it was a “bad word” but because it was a regressive word; a word that sets our world back.

And that’s the part for me that ties in with Lent. How do we Christians use regressive language? How do we say things that make the world harder for people we should be standing up for in our lives? When a preacher gets in the pulpit and goes off on a tirade against women, they might be using words that no one finds objectionable. It may be perfectly acceptable for coffee hour ofter church. But the language can still be regressive. When a Christian talks about gays and lesbians, they might not use language that causes outrage. But it still can be regressive. When bad theology gets passed off as Gospel, no one might be calling it profane. But it’s still regressive. And being regressive, in my opinion anyway, is worse than saying a word that gets you bleeped out on TV.

And so in Lent, I try to watch my language. Not for four letter words. But for language that is regressive. For language that sets the world back. For language that words against the reign of peace and compassion and justice that Christ taught us was God’s will for us. Our words are our witness, and whether they are camera-ready or not doesn’t matter. But how they change the world for the worse will… and for longer than it takes to say them.

Journey Through Lent: Second Sunday

Pro and anti-gay marriage equality advocates, New York State Capitol, summer 2011.

Pro and anti-gay marriage equality advocates, New York State Capitol, summer 2011.

One morning last summer I was working at my desk at the church. It was one of those days when pastoring felt so wonderfully fulfilling and joyful. I had been looking out at the forest behind the church, when suddenly I looked down and saw I had a voicemail on my phone.
 

When I played the message, I was immediately overwhelmed by the anger of the person speaking. A man from town, whom I had met briefly, had recently figured out that I, the pastor of the local church, was gay. He was calling to tell me his feelings about that fact. As his message went on, the venom kept spewing, punctuated only by slurred words. It was about ten in the morning, and I wondered whether he had turned to liquid courage (or liquid anger) in preparation for this phone call.

Curiously, unlike many of the other hateful messages I’d received before, he left me both his name and his phone number, and invited me to call back. I never did, which I sometimes regret. I don’t deliberately expose myself to the anger of hate-filled people, but on the other hand, how sad must one’s life be that you have to angrily call a person you barely know and berate them for who they are? He probably needed a pastor to talk to, but he probably wouldn’t have let me be one to him anyway.

Not taking on the anger of others has been an important part of my spiritual growth. There was a time when a message like this would have been painful. I would have dwelled on it, and let it dictate my mood for days. Now, though I can’t say the bigotry of others doesn’t affect me, I no longer let it control my emotions. I’ll admit that I felt some anger at the man who left the voice mail, but I also felt something much stronger. I felt compassion. And I wished for him that he would find peace; the kind of peace that keeps a person from being so angry at the world that they have to lash out at someone they barely know and don’t understand.

I often wonder what Jesus felt like when people spoke against him. Let’s be clear, neither I nor you are Jesus, but Jesus knew what it was like to be us. Jesus knew what it was like to be hated. He knew what it was like to be the object of anger. And he knew what it was like to be attacked for no good reason. He felt it in ways few of us ever will. But more importantly, he knew what it was to love anyway. He knew what it was to have grace anyway. He knew what it was to hear the worst of what the world thought of you, but to not let it dictate what came next.

In Lent I think about that a lot. I know that peace is possible. A voicemail like this one would have compelled me to a bottle of whiskey in the past. Years later, it’s a reminder that no matter what someone says to me, grace is bigger. I can’t control the anger of others. I can’t make them love me. I can’t make them accept me. But I can choose what I do next. To me, that’s a lot of what Lent is about. It’s seeing the journey that Christ took within himself, free from the judgements of the world outside. And it’s seeing how, in spite of all those things, he was still called to do one thing: to love. And love he did. Even when it cost him all he had known.

I want to be able to love like that. I’m nowhere close yet, but maybe I’m getting better. And in Lent that’s what I pray for: the ability to love others, even when it’s the last thing on earth I can imagine. I love that man who called me that day and said those hateful things. I can’t say I like him much; but I love him. And I love him enough to pray that maybe one day he’ll find enough peace in his heart to love people like me back. Maybe it will never happen for him. But I give thanks for what has happened in me.

Journey Through Lent: Day 10

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Tonight we are starting a new monthly Saturday night worship service at the church I pastor. Since we are in a ski town, a lot of people, especially younger ones with kids, have to work on Sunday mornings to run the ski resorts. So, we are trying to provide another option for worship for them.

I’m both excited and nervous. One of the marks of this service will be that it is less formal than our regular Sunday morning worship. We will have a guitar player instead of an organist. We won’t be using hymnals. And we will be making it deliberately child-friendly. All of this means that worship will be a lot less predictable than normal.

This has caused considerable consternation for some. What will we do without the familiar order of service? What will we do if people don’t know what to do? And, worst of all, what if no one comes?

At every church I’ve ever been to, the fear of the unexpected in worship has always been there. And I’ve wondered why. Why are we so afraid to go off script in worship? Our own lives have unexpected twists and turns every day. So, why does it threaten us so much when it happens inside the walls of a church?

I think part of it is that people sometimes want church to be familiar, and comforting. I’ll admit that I want that sometimes. I like liturgy, and I prefer traditional services. But sometimes worship needs to leave room for the Holy Spirit, too. And when we do that, we might just find that we are making room for new people too.

For me, this has been an important Lenten lesson. I want to be in control. I want to know what to expect. I want to have the details nailed down. But in the end, that’s not always the best, or the most faithful, attitude. Lent teaches us that sometimes we have to give up the privilege of setting the agenda, and we need to let Christ set it for us instead. We might end up not knowing what’s about to happen, but chances are it will be better than anything we could have planned.