Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Gifts of a Changed Perspective

“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son,” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that time on, this disciple took her into his home.” -- John 19:26-27

I remember praying I wouldn't be asked to preach this text for a Good Friday service. Of all the seven last words of Jesus, this was a passage I feared. Not only did it not seem sexy enough (yes, there are passages that are sexy, therefore making them easy to preach), but it didn't seem to offer kindling to get a good fire started -- or so I thought. Besides, how could I relate to this passage. I am not a mother nor a wife. I am a no children having, single, never been married preacher and in no way can I relate to the Jesus/child/parent dynamic -- or so I thought. So with hesitation, "fear and trembling" and in obedience I accepted the challenge to deliver a message, only to be surprised at what Jesus revealed. I did in fact understand the feelings that can rise up when the one you depended on being there is no longer there. I did understand the anxiety around the thought of being alone for the rest of your life. I did understand the feelings of not wanting to go on or knowing whether you can go on and how to go on when your life is torn apart. As a single, never been married, no children having woman, I guess I really could understood the absence of a family and the fear of not having one.

Jesus was Mary's son, yes, and he was also her family. Jesus was John's friend, yes, and he was also his family. And in a compassionate expression of selfless love, Jesus introduced them and "gave them" to each other so that they would be each other's family. Jesus handled it, in an unexpected way. He covered their silent fears and concerns of loneliness and aloneness in one fail swoop. He sent the message that bloodlines don't necessarily bind us. It's the love lines we have with each other that matter. It was a point he made to the disciples: "And they will know that you belong to me by your love for each other. In other words, it is our act of love and acceptance and embracing of each other that speaks the language of family. Jesus' action is a reminder of what he does for all of us -- loves us so fiercely by adopting us into his family and connecting us to others who share his call to love beyond traditions and societal and familial boundaries. He reminds us of what it means to be our brother's and sister's keeper. He reminds us of what family looks like and what its members do -- they care for each other.

In this holiday season I was reminded of this gift of family through this passage. I was reminded of the many times Jesus has turned me and others over to each other and sealed us as members of the same family. I was reminded, in the moments of loneliness, that I am, in fact, not alone, but a part of many families. Last year this time, I became part of one of my college sorority sister's family, who happened to live two streets over from me. And as I type this, I am with another one of my college sorority sister's and her husband and family for the holidays.While it is still my desire and prayer to have the gift of my own immediate family -- outside my mother and father -- I will and do appreciate and enjoy those who have been given to me, from my days in college, my work in Vidalia, Ga., in Thomasville, Ga., Tallahassee,  Fla., at the Tallahassee Democrat, in Atlanta, in seminary and at Candler School of Theology. I have become part of a family with some friends of the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, though my associations with other clergy sisters, my own church, Harris Chapel and through friends of friends. What a gift to be given!

What a beautiful present in this season of Hallmark commercials, movies and holiday billboards that can sometimes taint our mood, cloud our perspective and leave us feeling as Mary and John -- that love is gone and we belong to no one and no one belongs to us. What a beautiful sight, when in those times, Jesus, in his surprising, unexpected way, commands us to look around to see who is among us and who is with us and what we have been given. He invites us to change our perspective. So, we turn our head ever so slightly and see the faces of many friends who have embraced us and welcomed us as family. How glorious it is that in those faces, we see Jesus and are reminded once again, like insurance, He's got us covered!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Silence . . . a feast for champions

Over this next year, I and our church Harris Chapel UMC are joining in with our Bishop Ken Carter to study a chapter each week from the Gospel of Luke and Book of Acts as a part of our spiritual practices in 2014. It is our hope that we grow deeper, wider and stronger roots through our weekly study and have a better understanding of the life and ministry of Jesus and that continued life and ministry as revealed in the early church. This and upcoming blogs are in response to how I have experienced the weekly scripture.

LUKE 1:20b -- "But because you didn't believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen."

I have a church member who reminds me quite often of a statement I shared once in a sermon: "Sometimes, talking is overrated."

Isn't that the truth.

More and more, I am beginning to take this to heart. Last month, during our church fast, I felt a call into silence and to make silence more of a discipline this year. I had just finished reading Lamentations 3:22-26 and it was that last verse of Jeremiah's lament that I kept being drawn back to: "It is good to wait in silence for the Lord's deliverance". I hadn't really paid attention to that verse before. I hadn't taken notice of Jeremiah's message of the feasts we need to have often -- feasts and meals of  silence.

Oh the things you learn in silence. The things you see. The things you hear.

Jeremiah used the language of  "good" to describe a prescription for living and in this text he was particularly speaking about a way of being when you find yourself under attack and under siege. He suggests moving into a foxhole of silence until the bullets have stopped flying and the enemy has been captured and overthrown. He suggests we just let the Lord handle it -- "wait in silence". And when it's all clear, we can once again emerge. Victorious.

Not a bad warfare strategy!

But this Luke text handles this feast of silence differently. Jeremiah's silence is self-imposed, unlike Zechariah who wasn't invited to simply, "Be Quiet and Listen" or to "Stop Talking", he is just silenced! The angel of God picks up the remote control, presses the mute button and keeps it on mute the entire length of his wife's pregnancy. For nine whole months, Zechariah is not able to say one word. How he must have felt, particularly if he was a talker. The thoughts that must have been going through his mind: "What in the world has happened?" "Am I really not going to be able to say anything for nine months?" "How is this going to work?" "Really!?"

I remember my own experience with silence. It started with a silent retreat in 2008. It was a part of orientation at Candler School of Theology where I would earn my Master of Divinity degree. And truth be told, I didn't really comprehend or understand what the silent retreat would entail. Let's just say, I saw silent on the email invitation, but I wasn't thinking silence -- certainly not silence for 3 1/2 hours. I thought I would lose it. I was a talker and I knew it. To engage in silence was a challenge. It was an act of surrender that made me nervous. Vulnerable. I later wrote about it:

"I'll admit that first, it felt kind of strange, as though someone had lowered a muzzle over my mouth or cut off my air passage. The fact that I was forbidden to talk made me want to talk more. And you know I finally did -- briefly, after I tired of the head nods and smiles at lunch that took the place of "thank-you's" and "hello's" and "how are you's?" I just couldn't take it. So, I leaned over to the young lady at the other end of my table and whispered, "Hey, did you get your computer configured, yet?" But not before I had heard the small still voice of God whisper in my ear "I love you and no good thing will I withhold from you." So I shut up and continued to sit in silence. And good thing too, because I would have missed what God had to say."
Sometimes we have to be silenced in order for God to do work that does not need our interference. Sometimes we talk to the point where we speak up doubt that negates the workings of faith. Sometimes our constant uttering gets in the way of God getting all the glory. Clearly Zechariah was struggling in his faith. He had trouble wrapping his head around this message of he and his wife, who were up in years, as parents. He had difficulty, like many of us, digesting that his prayers had actually been answered, after all these years, after the many offerings of petitions, at an age where they likely would look more like grandparents than parents. Zechariah, like us sometimes, struggled to believe that dreams and wants and desires of years past were actually coming to pass. "How can I be sure of this? My wife and I are very old." Poor Zechariah just wanted a little assurance. Don't we all?
And interestingly enough, the imposed silence provided that for him. God had Zechariah's undivided attention. Of course it would have been easier if he would have just believed the angel that appeared from out of nowhere. Sometimes the situation requires other measures. Oftentimes, there is a larger purpose we can’t see. One of the purposes may be how we as children of God react. News and situations will test who we are in Christ and point to where our faith lies and what we truly believe. Zechariah needed faith strengthening. And that required him to be in a posture of simply listening, a practice we often fear because of what it will bear out. In silence, we will no doubt come face-to-face with some things, likely our self and some truths. But more often than not, we choose to turn up the world's volume than hear the still small voice.
German theologian and scholar Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book "Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Christ", shares that “Right speech comes out of silence, and right silence comes out of speech." Sometimes we need to silence ourselves so that we become self-aware. When we are unaware, our subconscious can speak with words for the purpose of making an impression, with a determination to put someone in their place, for the purpose of competition, maintaining or taking control and manipulation. Proverbs 10:19 says it best, "with lots of words comes wrongdoing, but the wise restrain their lips." 

The wise recognize silence as a gift and an incubator for spiritual maturity. And in this Luke text, it becomes an incubator for boldness. Zechariah lives into Bonhoeffer's understanding of silence as "nothing else than waiting for God's Word and coming from God's word with a blessing." Zechariah emerges from his feast of silence with a bold spirit that begins to prophecy a word of liberation and freedom. He speaks not only to himself, but the community as well. "Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. . . . Bless the Lord God of Israel because he has come to help and has delivered his people."

Blessed be, indeed. It really is "good to wait in silence for the Lord's deliverance."

Monday, June 3, 2013

Responding to calls. . . .returning to first loves

This blog was supposed to have been written and posted on 12/21/11. Today, I revisit it after being asked  by my UMC Bishop Ken Carter, of the Florida conference to think about my discipleship journey and take notice of how God has been working in my life. This is an account of part of that journey and the lessons that emerged from one encounter.

She walked down the aisle and said somewhat quietly in my ear, "I. Am. Mary."

I was shocked!

I had just finished preaching the third sermon in my series "Who ought we to be? taken from 2 Peter 3:8-15a. It was Advent season and we had begun to explore lessons we could take away from John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary. On that Sunday, we were discussing Mary. Not the Mary of my Catholic school upbringing, mind you, where I was taught to pray to her, worship her, and praise her and left wondering if I could ever live up to her obedience ideal. No, the Mary, I preached that Sunday was a Mary very much like me, flawed, disoriented and groping to understand what in the world was going on. The Mary I introduced was the single-mother Mary. The Mary who had a child out-of-wedlock Mary. The Mary who was almost abandoned by her finance Mary -- oh the thoughts that must have been running through her head. The Mary I introduced was the Mary who was likely the subject of rumors by the village gossipers. The Mary who pressed on in her faith journey, despite her lack of understanding and was still called and able to be used by God.

I didn't expect the sermon would call anybody or invite anyone to respond. Largely because I wasn't sure it was even a good sermon or I could be used in that way. But yet, this woman came with her confession that Mary's story resonated with her and called out to her. Bits and pieces of Mary's story was her story.  On  my sixth month at Harris Chapel, my very first appointment, God moved in spite of me and my insecurities. God moved although we hadn't spent quality time. God moved although I was still grappling with the title of being pastor and didn't feel the most confident that I was off to a good start of becoming an effective pastor. God moved even though I was still uncomfortable  and would even forget sometimes to offer the invitation.

I had been working and working so trying to "prove" -- at least feeling as though I needed to prove -- to my new congregation that I was worthy of being their pastor, I left little room and space for God to be with me on this new journey to lead me, guide me and teach me. I left little room for God to be God. To surprise me. Her confession refocused me on my calling and exposed how I could no longer shirk back from it and downplay it. I had to get myself together -- wrap my head around the gift of being called! I had not done that. I had not yet accepted what others seemed to celebrate -- that I had been given a personal invitation to make personal introductions to the lover of our soul. I had been assigned a mission that was mine to carry out. On that day, God made it quite clear that I was trusted to preach and speak about God. God trusted and trusts me. And I had to learn to trust God! I had to learn to follow.

That young woman's courageous walk to respond to a call that she could only hear showed me how I had had not been as attentive to the one who called me. If I were ever going to be the pastor and disciple God intended, I had to invite God to be a part of the process. I had to be just as intentional about seeking God in my ministry to do my ministry as I had been intentional about telling everybody else to ask, search and knock.

That Sunday, the young woman who came down the aisle might have seen the invitation as being just for her, but I really think it was an invitation for me.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Say What!!!

"The Spirit helps us in our weakness for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God." -- Romans 8:26-27

I've seen this scripture before. Listened to it. Read it. Shared it. But not until today did I really hear it. And all of a sudden I started rejoicing. I felt as though a weight had been lifted. (Sigh). In black and white, loud and clear, I got the message: I don't have to know it all . . . have all the answers or even know all of God's language to communicate. That there is something on the inside of me, alongside of me, something within my spirit that steps up when I become tongue-tied and feel my inadequacy and says 'I got you' is simply a RELIEF!

It's a gift, really. I'm cheezing right now at what seems to be such a simple understanding of this passage: I have my very own translator!

How refreshing, particularly when you are the Pastor and oftentimes, expected, counted on, depended on to provide the answer or have a response. When you're the one who is expected, counted on, depended upon to pray at every gathering! When you are the one who without a doubt spends countless hours with Jesus, countless hours doing little else than reading the Bible, countless hours sitting in solitude and meditating. (Yeah, right!) Under this assumption, why wouldn't you be expected to engage in lively conversation, battle on behalf of, and petition for. But alas, there are many times I am not up to the task . . .my mind is confounded. . . my thoughts are a jumble of mess . . . my mouth is as dry as a desert . . . and I have difficulty praying.

Yes, sometimes the pastor/preacher is speechless.

I confess there has been many a Sunday when I have stood before the congregation waiting to hear, turning over in my mind what I should say . . . upset that I didn't remember that great passage of Scripture I wanted to include in the prayer. . . begging the Lord for guidance. . . pleading for God to give me a hint of the concerns in the room. . .only to hear: 'Juana, just speak! Just talk to me! I'll tell you what to say' And like a flowing fountain, the words begin to come. It's as if on cue, the Spirit steps up and takes it's position and makes clear what needs to be said, right when I have struggled and wrestled enough to exhaustion to compose something that would sound proper and profound and intelligent. And like a boxer with no more fight left, when I do finally surrender, true heart matters speak.

I learn later from my members the words that are shared are the words that many wanted to share as well . . . words of affirmation they needed to hear . . . words of healing that allows all of us to surrender unto the Spirit that had been saying all along, 'Turn it over to me. Let me translate the language of your heart to the lover of your soul.'

Why I have struggled . . . continue to struggle at times with these matters of trust and surrender, I am not quite sure. It may have something to do with my will and desire to say the right things, do the right things and be right. It may be because I have reverted to my 2-year-old self, who rejects help and assistance in an effort to "show you" I can do this on my own. I can be independent. I'm a big girl now. Ah, this is exactly why the Spirit steps in. My toddler self is not aware of all the in's and out's of the stages of maturity -- one of which is knowing when to surrender the 'will'.

Each day on this journey, I am learning to surrender the 'will'. My growing edges are becoming clearer and with each assignment I discover I've been working way to hard and too much. I have a personal translator who's always on the job and "knows more about me than I know about myself and my pregnant condition. So, today I choose to stop fighting and allow my personal translator to do its job, cause it really does take the pressure off.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Strip me bare . . .

"Lord, strip me of my desire to be a people-pleaser!"

That was the prayer I prayed earlier last week and one I asked a friend of mine to pray on my behalf. I never thought of myself as a people-pleaser. I like to think that I've always been a person bent on doing her own thing, not caring what people thought or think of my decisions or what they think of me. I like to think that I have danced to my own tune, whether it was popular or not. But since becoming a pastor, I've noticed a struggle has begun to ensue. I've noticed a wrestling within myself to be approved. There, I said it! Called it out for what it is -- a sticky web you can't break free from once you get entangled in it. I'm glad to say that for the most part, I have won the battle. I've stood my ground and moved forward despite people protests. Despite the uncomfortable feelings inside my body that remind me I'm going against the grain . . . responding counter culturally . . . and that it's OK. Standing fully in one's own self and thoughts and opinions . . . and oftentimes alone, isn't going to feel good at the onset. We live in a society that espouses uniqueness, but operates on sameness and so when change enters the picture we struggle to embrace it. Because it will separate us. Put us on the outs with some. Leave us standing in a place of critical judgement. And no one wants to be judged or be the target of its darts.

It's helped that I've had many around me to keep me grounded and undergirded in prayer, because I recognize there have been moments when I may have been about to break. And that has been scary. Admittedly, it doesn't help that I am a part of a denominational system whose very structure is founded upon man's approval of whether you pass the muster or not. They alone decide whether you are able to articulate your theology and whether it is aligned properly with the Methodist theology of your training. They make the decision regarding whether you are ready and fit for ministry with full credentials that give you a seat at the table. They, for the most part, decide whether God has called you into ordained ministry. The authenticity of your call by God is pitted against their own human knowledge that says you are ready. That your call was true and they stand in support of it.

This thing about people-pleasing is funny, because who does not struggle with wanting to be liked or having the praise of men. Who does not wrestle with their own uniqueness. Their being set apart and having to take the road less traveled. Or taking a risk that may pan out or not.

For the past few weeks, we have been studying Saul in Bible Study, a classic example of what happens when a people-pleasing mentality is not arrested. You become a puppet of the people. At the mercy of someone else pulling your strings. Like a drug, you begin to crave what is merely false affection and you find yourself a slave to it, as it become insatiable and difficult to break free of its tentacles. When you begin the journey down that road, it's hard to turn back.

In 1 Samuel 13, Saul's impatience regarding further instruction on how to lead his people into battle with the Philistines, leads him to engage in an unlawful sacrifice to God on behalf of the people.
When asked by Samuel why he made the sacrifice, Saul responds, "When I saw the people slipping away from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines were mustering at Michmash, I said, Now the Philistines will come down on me . . . "
Now the Bible doesn't say, but I know people and I'm sure they were no different then than they are today. Impatient, particularly when the vision isn't clear. Hormonal. Critical. Just plain crazy. I'm sure many of them were second-guessing Saul's military prowess, just as some of them did when he was first ordained. And because he feared losing his status with them, he responded, seeking their approval than God's directive.

Every since God called me into my pastor pumps, I've found myself having to arrest my people-pleasing mentality. I've found myself having to push aside this dark desire to be given the thumbs up and stamped with the "approved" checkmark label. I've found myself heeding the words of my wisdom tellers and sharers, who say it is imperative that I uncover and recover my wisdom voice. That it is imperative I speak truth to power. That it is imperative that I preach in and out of season, for "how will they have faith in someone they haven't heard of? And how will they hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent?" I have found that it is imperative I put away my people-pleasing ways and fear not the ordination boards, the mother boards, and the peanut galleries and critical comments of pew warmers and sideline saddlers and believe in God's belief in me. That God has indeed called and gifted me to be a truth-teller. And that I must simply preach!

Just Preach!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Journeying to a disciplined life . . .

Following service yesterday a church member said, "When God gets you to where God is taking you, you're going to be something else! Her comment alluded to the fact that on I'm my way somewhere. . . and God doing something with me . . . molding me, perhaps . . . whipping me into shape. . . Hmmm. Somehow in the wee hours of this morning, I didn't think of myself as going somewhere, but saw myself as stalled . . . blind even. I even started praying aloud, "God where am I going?" having forgotten about the earlier comment shared with me. These are probably normal thoughts as it is coming to the close of another year and reflections on the life ahead and behind often dominate my thoughts. What will next year this time look like? Where will I be? Who will I be? Who will I be with on the journey, if anyone? Where will the journey take me? All the normal questions that I have asked year after year, realizing that every year before has left its own indelible mark behind, and still many questions unanswered.

But I recognize for the past three years, it was slightly different. I was in seminary and I knew for the most part what was coming next . . . another semester. There was solace in the certainty of it all, despite the challenges that I knew each semester would bring. Despite the fact that each semester I found myself crying and praying that I would make it through and gather the strength to write one more 20-plus page paper. There was still some solace there. The end goal was always in sight . . . graduation. Even though I wasn't sure I would make it, I could see an image of the finish line. I hoped. Now that I'm seven months beyond the finish line, the image of what lies ahead is not so clear anymore. The walks seem a bit longer and the road more windier. Some things are clear. Many are not. I'm in a new city . . . a strange place . . . in a new job . . . doing something I've never done before . . . wondering "Where is God taking me?" Only this time, I must think about more than just myself. I pray and ask these questions for more than just one now. I have people to look after . . . souls to care for and tend to . . . a responsibility to pay more attention to what God is saying and doing. I can't just wander off and explore on my own anytime I please . . . others can be hurt.

I recognize what worked well for me before, isn't necessarily working in the same way it has for me in the past. I'm being required to do more . . . step up my game so-to-speak. I don't hear God in the ways I used to here God before. Some things are not unfolding so easily as they have in the past. I'm having to dig deeper, stretch my eyes a little wider and lean in to hear more clearly.
This month started our church-wide fast and on the first day I clearly heard God say I needed to be more disciplined. I knew exactly to what God was speaking. I haven't been the most disciplined in creating intentional space to pray and meditate. . . .nor prepare adequately for my sermons. I have not made much room to really hear the voice of God. It has not always been easy as I often feel I am being pulled in so many directions. This fast has probably been the most disciplined that I have been . . . and I have another 19 more days to go. They say it takes 21 days to create a habit, so maybe this is the start I needed to have clearer vision. Maybe this the answer to my prayer . . . the key that unlocks the doors to God giving me a peek into what's ahead.
So, yes my member is right. God is taking me somewhere . . . on a journey to become greater than my present self. And it's starting with an admonition to Be Disciplined. The hope is then I will be able to hear and gain clearer vision to see.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Journeying into self-discovery

It was like a scene from Grey's Anatomy . . . medical terminology and acronyms flying everywhere and directives on how to deal with patients, families, doctors and deceased bodies. Soon I would be staring in my own episodes each week. This was my first day of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) . . . my orientation to serving as a chaplain for the next 14 weeks at Grady Hospital, where I will find myself in various situations . . . being at the side of those in distress and despair . . . helping to make decisions over life and death . . . and praying all the while that the right words will come when I need them.

As I walked the halls to gain familiarity with what is located on each floor . . . across the street . . . . and around various corners, I was struck once again with what this experience would entail. It would require me to be transparent, particularly with my colleagues as we discuss weekly our experiences and reactions to encounters. It would require me to use the same tools I employed to produce a good story with myself. My time in CPE would require I do investigative work on me.

This was the first day to fully coming to know more about myself . . . and frankly it was all overwhelming. There is nothing fun about doing deep introspection on one's self . . . but it is necessary. Many who have traveled this path of CPE says that it will make be a better minister . . . . more competent . . . more sensitive to the needs of others . . . and more understanding of the other. . . and more knowledgeable about myself. As I shared with my supervisor, I'm not quite sure what to quite expect from this experience outside of the tears that have already began to flow from the heaviness of the day and the weight of my responsibilities.

I heard someone say of the experience that it is about learning to tell my story and learning to navigate what it true for me. That makes sense. Once I learn my own story then it will be easier to guide others to theirs and help them too, speak their truth.

116 days to graduation and counting . . .