The Mission Field

We are a Mission Church. I had just spoken these words to our accountant who comes in quarterly to help us keep current with taxes and the like. She looked a little confused. Then a young man came into the office. He had the tell-tale number tattoo on the side of his head.

He asked me if he and his friend could go into the sanctuary to pray.

So I opened up the sanctuary to him, his friend and his three year old. A few minutes later, I looked in to make sure all was well and indeed they were earnestly praying. When they finished, they came back to the office to tell us they were done. The young man was flushed, his eyes still wet with tears, as he thanked us for having the only open church in the area that day.

Then a thin man with a red face came in. He was looking for food. He has 2 girls, he said, teenagers. While he was gathering his food we talked awhile. He asked about our church—isn’t this a Samoan church? I had the opportunity to explain that we are 4 churches at one address. Those who meet here reflect and serve our community. One of our faith families is Samoan, another worships out of the African-American tradition, and another is gently Pentecostal. The group I pastor worships out of a tent revivalist tradition called the Christian Church–Disciples of Christ. He made me smile when he said he would visit the Disciple’s Worship one day.

Following him was a middle aged woman whom I’ve gotten to know over the last month. There was something in her eyes that said “I need to talk.” I invited her into my office. Grateful for the tool of Compassionate Communication (thanks to Reverend Terry LePage), I had a tool to give to her so she could start to create peace in the midst of a crazy situation. Of course, the first thing out of her mouth wasn’t “I want peace.” It was, “I need to find a job.”
All of this happened within the span of 3 hours.

And, the accountant, who sat at the computer in the front office watching all the comings and goings understood. We don’t send Missionaries out into the developing world, the mission comes to us. We are blessed to be in this neighborhood where a few words, a prayer, a box of food, an open door, or a cup of tea can make all the difference in someone’s day, and over time, in their life.

Of course, I welcome your gifts, your prayers, and your kind words in support of the work here in North Long Beach. We often are in relationship with people who do not have a larger network of support.

But I also am reminded that a gift of a few words, a prayer, some food, an open door, and a cup of tea can make a difference in the lives of those you encounter in your day to day walk. Go and make disciples…the mission field is closer than you think.

In Christ,

Reverend Heather Miner

An Old Fashioned Altar Call

An Epiphany!  I love it when I get to have an epiphany!  It is like the moment when, in your head, pops the word you need to finish the crossword puzzle but 100 times better because it isn’t only an answer you find but God. 

Of course, it is the wrong season for Epiphany.  Today is about Jesus, the cross, and the realization that, within the worst parts of our humanity, lay the seeds for Jesus’ death.  It is a time of confession and tears.  How much have we lost as a human race?  How much have we killed?  What have I done?

The music of the Christian church grows solemn; the words of guilt placed upon our tongues as we confess that our ways are what killed Jesus.  Today we feel the distance between us and God…a distance caused by tuning into the wrong voices and forgetting to listen to the only one that matters.  With Jesus gone, the voice that connects us to God, the universe seems so vast; we so small.  Silence. 

Gone is the chatty prayer.  Our friend is gone. 

Jesus’ absence makes clear that what our souls crave is that voice of God’s love, of God’s healing, of God’s leading…the voice of Jesus. 

And, so here’s the epiphany.

I was planning a baptism service for Easter.  It seemed like a good idea except I wanted to spring it on those who came…surprise, today you can get baptized.  And, then I wanted to include a liturgy that would allow people to join the church.  You see, I’ve been called to a very small elderly congregation and I’m eager to bring in new and young members.  I figured we could do it all at once.  I had started working on a liturgy taking a little from the baptism service and a little from the membership service and, just in case no one had the courage to come forward, a liturgy of affirmation we could all speak together. 

It was in the kitchen, after Thursday night’s Messianic Seder, that it came up.  I bragged:  “We are going to have an old fashioned altar call on Easter,” to a long time member of the Disciple of Christ Denomination.  She said, “oh, we used to have those every week.”  And, I who had never seen one, asked…”so how is it done?”

Pastor Eric of our partner church was also helping clean the kitchen at the time.  Eric has never gone to seminary but he is wise and understands liturgy.  Unlike me, he’s gone to churches that offer altar calls.  They both told me that all you do is use a scripture to invite people to ask Jesus into their heart.  And, Pastor Eric suggested, I phrase it in such a way that people can rededicate themselves to Jesus; that way, the congregation doesn’t have to know everyone’s business.  The people come forward, you pray with them, and then afterwards you meet with them who took Jesus into their heart for the first time and set a date for a baptism.

Oh my goodness…how simple! 

And then it dawned me…I was going to replace the voice of Jesus with the voice that is crying out within me, the one crying out for new members. 

For a moment, my ego fell away, and I remembered–because of church, I remembered–the first step of the Christian faith is to ask Jesus to come into your heart.   May we not be distracted!  For it is that Jesus lives, and Jesus lives in us, that makes this a Happy Easter!

Loving you, in Christ,

Heather

Change Your World

The Bible never depicts this world as being fair but it does show us a way through the trouble.

A very Jewish tale is told in Mark 6: 17 – 29.  In summary, Herod divorces his first wife to marry Herodias.  John the Baptists suggests that this is not a good idea.  His advice angers Herodias who decides he needs to die.

Herod liked John the Baptist.  He liked to listen to him even though he didn’t understand him.  He didn’t understand him because he refused to follow the heart of the message–to repent.  He refused to turn from being his own Lord to the humility and faith which allows what is good and holy to take hold of him.  So, when Herodias became angry, in order to keep the peace in his home, Herod had John the Baptist arrested.

On the day of Herod Antipas’ birthday, Herodias gets her revenge.  It begins when her daughter dances for King Herord and all the guests.  Artists have captured this dance on many canvases.  This one, from Reni who lived in late 1500s, portrays the daughter as aloof, dancing, holding the hair of John’s head as it is presented to her.

It is a picture of a great wrong.

I wonder what she, the daughter of Herodias, understood?  Did she know the game of power being played by her mother?  Maybe not for the word used for the daughter is “girl” not “woman.”  The same Greek word is used earlier in Mark for a 12 year old girl who Jesus lifts out of death.  When the dancing girl of the banquet is offered half of the King’s kingdom, instead of saying, “alright!” and living large, she goes to her mother, and says “what shall I ask for?”

Evil manipulates the one with the crown, of one who refused to learn the language of humility, or faith, or grace.  Take heed.

The story suggests evil is born of a grudge and spread by the innocent.

A simple birthday party, a celebration of life, corrupted.

On the one hand, I want to condemn Herod Antipas.  Herod–the man who is the center of his own dance.  He makes himself an easy target.

On the other hand, how many times have we held in higher regard something other than what is right and holy?  Even Peter denies Jesus when push comes to shove.

It is hard to hold on to what is right and holy.

I have opportunity to speak to couples now and then.  Everyone fights.  There should be a book about that for couples similar to the one for mothers and their little children called “Everyone Poops.”  Everyone fights.  This is true about all our relationships—friends and coworkers alike.  What often happens is we feel slighted in some way.  The other doesn’t understand us.   Lists of wrongs are kept.  Anger grows.  We’ve tried everything, we say, as the one who we once loved and respected becomes the enemy to our peace.

The best general reminder scripture gives about all of our relationships is that our first priority is not the happiness of the other person.  Herod tried to make his wife and niece happy and it led to the death of the holy one.

Our first priority is to do right by God, to hold on to what is right and holy in ourselves and in the other.

As Christians, we do this by looking to see Jesus.

In this scene from the rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar, Jesus has been brought to Herod Antipas having been arrested for treason.

It takes time to find Herod among the dancers, underneath the many bulbs that light up the “H.”  But it is not hard to see Jesus there in white lit robe in the foreground.   In the midst of all that is wrong, there is Jesus, waiting.

When we look to see Jesus at work in us and in the other person, we will often find him there, kneeling before the Herodian dance, the ego’s masquerade, waiting for us to repent.

Look for him.  Call for him to stand up.  Unbind him.

He is there in the one who is hurting herself beyond recognition.  He is there in the boss whose heavy hand you have felt.  He is there in the “other” and he is there in you.

Martin Luther King Jr. fought for equality, not with a violent revolution, but with a Christian witness calling the enemy to take hold of what was holy and good in them.

Look for Jesus.  You may not ever be offered half of the King’s kingdom but you will see your way through to what is good and holy.   That is enough to change your world!

In Christ,

Heather

Speaking Jesus

Christianity certainly has a rich back story found in the Hebrew scriptures.  But today I’m more interested in the “after story,” what happens when the final scene has ended.  The gospel of John tells the story of Jesus but is written long after Jesus died; long after the resurrection encounters.  Yet, despite John being the latest gospel written, it, alone, is filled with Jesus’ speeches, Jesus’ words.  And, it is the only gospel that we hear Jesus pray for us (John 17).  Here scripture points to a principle of faith.  Only after the church has been around awhile, only when they have dwelled within Christ for some time, can they give Jesus a clear voice.  Only when we have dwelled with Christ for some time can we give Jesus a clear voice.  I suspect this is why the epistle, 1 John, talks so much about abiding, dwelling in Christ.  What I understand from this scripture is that there are times when it is best not to act but simply to abide that we might give Jesus his truest voice.

In Christ,

Heather

An Easter Call

Easter morning—He is Risen!—He is Risen, Indeed!

Sin and Salvation

Jonathan Edwards shouts out

We are sinners in the hands of an angry God

Look what we have done

To ourselves

Our neighbors

Our nation

Our world

Our God

Look at what we haven’t done

For ourselves

Our neighbors

Our nation

Our world

Our God

Should God not be angry when we stand apart, build our own towers, testaments to our own strength?  Should God not be angry when those God loves abandon each other?  Should God not be angry when we abandon our world and ourselves when the tower falls?

We are not made to stand alone!

We were made to stand with…

Salvation is connection.

At the cross we stand with

Jesus who believed

God is more than anger

Or vengeance

People are more than sin

Or arrogance

Easter morning dawns

Mary and Peter peek into the

Empty tomb

And are afraid.

Resurrection possibilities

Strewn about in torn cloth.

“Mary,” calls the gardener

Recognizing Jesus’ voice, she cries out, “Rabouni!”

Salvation is connection.

Jesus’ faith  in and Jesus’  love for

God’s faith in and God’s love for

you and me

live on

connect

you and me.

Leave behind Eden

The serpent will never have

The last word.

Leave behind the tower

None of it is yours

Anyway.

Free your hands

Together let us

Take hold of the cup–

The cup of salvation.

Together, let us come into love.

Samosas and Pi

I listened to a film critic’s debate about whether current cinema has become too easy for us to watch.  Films like The Help or the Shawshank Redemption were criticized as being too sentimental, too satisfying to watch–providing no deep insight into humanity, moving us nowhere.  A few of the critics lamented how movie viewers need to demand to see more challenging movies rather than seeking movies that make us smile.  While they probably aren’t going to win that argument in the marketplace of stories, I felt properly chastised.  When Netflix surfaced a film called Pi, I thought, “okay, I’ll give something that is ‘edgy’ a try.”

More than once I wanted to turn it off.  It seems that when film pushes the boundaries, it invades the psyche.  I was reminded of the time when all freshmen, including me, who took Humanities Core at UC Irvine had to watch A Clockwork Orange.  It was a similarly unpleasant experience.

The premise of the movie, Pi, is that a mathematician (Max Cohen) finds the pattern that describes the ups and down of the stock market.  Because the number of digits matches a number a group of esoteric Jews seek, they believe that this same number is the one that underlies creation itself–or is the pattern that is God.  Max is already subject to migraines, and knowing this pattern increases their frequency and intensity.  Further, within these episodes are harrowing visions.   In the earthly world, the knowledge Max holds sends bad people after him from every direction.  His solution to all of this craziness? <spoiler alert>  Drill a hole in his head.  <end spoiler>  Who wouldn’t want to watch this for 2 hours?

The movie’s intensity made it into my dreams and woke me up in the middle of the night.  I realized what was missing in this man’s search for truth, what was missing in his search to understand the ultimate code of the universe, was relationship.  There is one friendship, but that too is lost in the search for the numerical pattern of the universe.  When a girl knocks on his door bearing Samosas, he slams it shut.

His compulsive need to find a pattern, to know what the pattern means, made me think about that tree in the Garden of Eden, the one God said not to eat from.  It was the tree of knowledge.   The serpent said eating from it would not kill us but would make those who ate of it like God.  Might this movie be a meditation on what it means to disobey God’s garden command?  For it was the human desire to know what it is God knows that took Max out of all relationship and led him into hell.

After the drilling, there is one more scene:  heaven.  Where, on earth, a young girl can give Max complicated arithmetic problems which he solves quickly in his head, in heaven she sits with him on a bench, gives him a math problem, and he smiles and says, “I don’t know.”

The Bible suggests, from the very beginning, that we are not made to know everything but we are made for relationship.  We are made for relationship–with these words I join a chorus of preachers.  But I will differ from many by saying that the Bible isn’t interested in giving you the 10 ways to make your relationships last or in helping you find your life long partner based on 30 bits of scripture.  The fact that such a message means snipping scripture from its context suggests humans are at play.  Remember that the apostle Paul makes clear that, if we can help it, we should not enter into marriage because it will distract us from following Jesus.  The Bible isn’t interested in helping you find your lifelong love.  But the Bible is intent on inviting you into love.

The Garden of Eden warns when we allow our search for anything to get in the way of relationship with God we lose ourselves.  It isn’t that the pursuit of knowledge is bad.  There was much to learn about in the garden, and God was there to be Adam and Eve’s guide.  But when their search for truth overrides their relationships what is left is scary.  The Garden of Eden story seems less frightening than was the movie in that it describes not one who has literally lost his mind, but how the world really is…pain in childbirth, backbreaking work to till the land, and a distance between us and God.  If we’re looking for something more akin to a nightmare we might recall those scenes from the prophets where God is fed up with loving a people who refuse to love. There the enemy is allowed to enter into the people’s homes, to destroy their place of worship, and to send them away.  The language of God’s ire is vivid and abundant.

There are many who draw out that Biblical language and state that they will not believe in any religion with such a God.  They miss the point.  It is exactly because the “chosen people” turned away from relationship with God that God became the one who condemns.  When we turn away from love, from loving, from relationship, we are left, as was Max Cohen, with people, with a God, who just want to use us.  However, when we turn towards love, we experience God’s love.

Relationship is at the heart of faith.  Faith deepens when we choose to love God and love our neighbors.  And faith compels us, when we are struggling, to do the things that allow love to take hold of us.

Practically speaking, from my own experience, this means that when we are feeling low, apart, even attacked, it helps to enter more fully into relationships, to become more vulnerable, and to allow love to act.  It is the opposite of what I want to do when I’m tired, uncertain, or hurting.  My first impulse is to run away, whether it be in imagining a solo road trip or playing on my computer.  I confess, I allow myself a little of both.  But what’s even better…?  Being held tight by my family and holding them tight; sharing some of my life with people I meet at the gym as they share of their lives; allowing the people I meet in church to walk with me and I with them in the ways of faith; writing these messages where I seek to know God’s word for this time and place and reading the writings of others who are engaged in a similar task; reading and watching creative endeavors–some that are satisfying to watch and others which wake me up at night; and prayer.  Some prayers I focus on Jesus, in others I rest in God’s word, sometimes I talk a lot, other times I’m quiet.    None of these are “the way,” but each is an example of how I enter more fully into love at this time of my life.

Thankfully, I suspect none of us are as extreme as Max.  When someone knocks on the door with Samosas we are going to, at the very least, open the door.  But still, the question remains…how will you move closer, be more intimate, love more deeply God and neighbor?  What are the habits you already have or one you might add into your life which allow you to remain open to love?  Within your list, there is your garden where you walk with God.

In Christ,  Heather

Far and Wide

In seminary at Yale Divinity School I was awed to find myself in a vast landscape–that of the Christian witness spoken through the centuries.  My perspective, having grown up in the Southern California United Church of Christ, was limited by comparison.  I realized I had only seen faith from one small corner of scholarship in this time and place.  There were more voices to hear, endless voices of faith and ways of understanding God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.  Add to that the Jewish traditions that are woven into scripture, and the totality of the Judeo-Christian witness reaches back to the days of creation.  This faith tradition is varied and beautiful, reaching far and wide, inviting us into a relationship with the living Creator, God’s self.

The vastness of the Judeo-Christian faith starkly contrasts with the image of the temple, the day Jesus arrived, as described in the gospel of John.

“In the temple Jesus found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.”  (2: 14)

Entering into the space where people came to meet God, Jesus is accosted by the sights and sounds of animals being sold for sacrifice to atone for sin.

In the claustrophobic chaos, the faithful find their way to the stalls in order to buy the appropriate animal as described in Jewish law.  Imagine the sounds, the smells, and the difficulty of holding an animal long enough to carry it to the priest for the altar.  How easy it would be to lose the intent, to lose God’s larger story, in the business of what must be done.

Recall, the Jewish people have come to the Jerusalem temple to celebrate the Passover, the day when God freed Israel from Egyptian bondage.  They remembered a day of blood and horror and salvation.  The night before Passover, each family of Israel was to sacrifice a lamb and put the lamb’s blood on their door.  God passed over the households that had this sign, inflicting the last plague on the rest of Egypt, killing their first born sons.  Only this last plague turned Pharaoh’s head long enough to allow Israel to leave his service and enter into a new life with God.

Israel, the freed people, enters into the wilderness, a vast landscape which opened them to experiences of God they had never before known.  Beautiful experiences, as when they saw God as a pillar of cloud and fire.  Frightening experiences, like a snake rising up from the desert floor.  After a generation had passed away, the new generation led by Joshua, entered, with God, into the land God promised.  God’s presence there is marked by the Jerusalem temple.

Having come to the temple, the symbol of God’s promise and presence, the crowd enters in thinking about what must be done to atone for sin. How small is their view as the din of animal noises and seller’s voices echo off the high walls of the courtyard.  Is this really the freedom that God envisioned long ago when blood was shed in Egypt?

Jesus gets angry…very angry.

“Making a whip of cords, [Jesus] drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.  He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.  He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here!  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (2:15 – 17)

I’m sure Jesus’ actions confused the temple leaders of the day.  They were only doing what was expected.  Maybe the root of that which would debilitate the churches of this day is similar.  It is all too easy to get into a business that, in its essentials, is quite similar to selling sin offerings: we do what has always been done in order to placate what someone has said is the Holy Way instead of seeking to invite all people into God’s grace.

Jesus was angry because the temple had created a way for people to placate the Holy One instead of opening the doors to a relationship with His Father and our Father.

Church practices are rarely questioned, indeed, just as in Jesus’ time, there is always a scripture to point to defend them.  Every such practice can be justified through tradition…and will continue to be as long as we are trading in our earthly temples.

Would that Jesus enter in, whip in hand, to tell us to get out.  Stop selling your doves here, your narrow way to peace with God.  This is my Father’s house.

In Christianity, we come to know God through Jesus.  When Jesus saw the faithful confined to buying sin offerings, he overturned the tables.  Given this, is it not possible that God is unhappy with tradition bound rules even if they can be justified by a small portion of scripture?  Isn’t possible that, even now, God continues to overturn the tables of our limited understanding that we might better know God’s way?

When Jesus saw that the temple, the place where one could come to enter into God’s presence, had as its first and foremost concern making people act according to tradition, he told them to get out.

Then, he pointed to himself as the temple which would be destroyed and in 3 days raised up.

Of course, the temple faithful had no idea of that which he spoke.  For it required leaving behind expectations in order to imagine God in a new form, one who would not kill, but would die to set us free.

May we allow God to make us free to enter a faith which is varied and beautiful, which reaches far and wide, and invites us into a relationship with the living God.

In Christ,

Heather