Tuesday, December 23, 2014

We must look back, to Move Forward

The time is almost here! 

So far this Advent we have felt hope.  That even though we may have lost our way, God will always follow through with the covenant made with Abraham.  So even when times are dark or times are tough…we look the future with hope knowing that as long as we bless him, we will be a blessing to others (Genesis 12:1-3).

We have prepared.  Just as the prophets foretold and just as God has promised…one will come baptizing in the name of the Holy Spirit; the Messiah! (John 1:19-28)  To be ready for this, we must be prepared for this.  Instead of waiting for another John…we need to do the work ourselves.

We have felt joy on Gaudete Sunday!  We rejoiced as the shepherds learned of the announcement of the birth of the Messiah.  Letting us know that you do not need to be big and powerful or a king…God works through us to make these amazing moments happen.  Let us allow God to work through us so that we may be Christ to others.

This week, we light the last purple candle on our Advent wreath…this one stands for love.

Why is all of this happening?  Because of love…

“For God so loved the world…”  I think that is a verse just about everyone knows.

God loves us…that is why all this is happening. 

Advent four, we have the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary and telling her that she is going to become pregnant with the son of God.  Not big news at all!

Advent is a difficult time to fully grasp, because we are looking backwards in order to move forward.  In our time, we have spent the past four weeks preparing for the coming of Christ, an event that has already occurred.  But as we do this, we are also looking to the parousia or the second coming of Christ.

During this time we hear a lot from Isaiah, a prophet in Jerusalem that is lamenting for his people who have become so lost and so separated from God.  We have King David and the covenant God made with him.  Through all of this you hear these things about one that will come and make a new Kingdom on earth, one that will come and save everyone, one that will come and establish a new Jerusalem…  Many would argue that these people had no idea that this was Jesus they were talking about, that God was working through them, and they did not fully comprehend what it all meant.

Jump forward like 400 years!  If you think the 4 weeks in Advent takes too long…imagine if it were 400 years!  Throughout this whole time, we still have the people of God being separate from God.  They are still looking for the one that will come and save them.  Hoping for a warrior king to raise up and lead them against the Romans!  For 400 years, they waited.  Hoping that God will fulfill his promise.  Preparing for the time that this might happen, being joyful that that time may be coming soon…then we get to Advent 4…it is happening!

Mary has received the message…After years and years of waiting and preparing….the time has come!

The Messiah, the great warrior that will set them all free…has finally come.

But the leader they were expecting would not be the leader they would receive.

The son of the God that gave his only son because he loved the world…would not be a warrior, but would be a loving, caring God, one that would lead in a different way.

As we look back at these stories in the Old Testament…let us use the lessons in them to help us out today, as we wait for the time Christ will return.

As we near the end of Advent, we look back and celebrate the gift of love from God in his son Jesus Christ and we look forward to the second coming.

Happy Advent everyone and I hope you all have a very joyous Christmas!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Presence of the Lord is Here

This past Sunday, we observed what is known as Gaudete Sunday.  We lit the pink candle on our Advent Wreaths and listened to a reading from 1 Thessalonians.  “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Rejoice always it says… very fitting when you learn the word Gaudete is actually Latin for rejoice…it’s where the name comes from, actually.  You can read more about Gaudete Sunday and its origins by reading  Rejoice in the Lord Always! A blog written by our very own liturgist and organist, Dr. David Ouzts.

So this past Sunday, we lit that pink candle on the Advent Wreath.  This candle is for rejoicing, for joy!  We are beginning to get excited for the arrival of Christ.  We are still preparing…but we are know a little bit more excited. 

Here we have the birth of a King!  The King of Kings!  Now, let’s think back to not long ago…when the world anxiously awaited the arrival of the Royal Baby… There was no where that you could look without seeing or hearing about Prince William and Kate Middelton’s child.  It was everywhere!

Now that is just the child of a Prince…imagine what the commotion would be like for a birth of the Messiah, Emmanuel, Prince of Peace, the King of Kings, the Alpha, the Omega…it must have been EVERYWHERE!  Everyone must have been talking about the birth of this miracle worker…

But no.

What sort of announcement does Jesus receive…

Angels appear to “…shepherds living in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” (Luke 2:8)

That was it.  That was the announcement that Jesus received; Angels appearing to the shepherds in the field.  That is also why the candle we lit on Sunday is called the Shepherd’s Candle.

Instead of sending word to the authority figures and the higher ups…God chose to send the message of the birth of Jesus to these shepherds!

As you may know by now, I have worked at numerous retreats and camps for children and youth over the years.  One activity that we do at some of these retreats is called an Affirmation Circle.  In this exercise, each person will go around in a circle, make eye contact with each person, one at a time, and say ‘In all places, at all times, I see God in you.”

It is always one of the most powerful yet eye-opening things we do. 

Do you really see God in me? 

Do you see God in others?

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to have dinner with some old friends and catch.  One of these friends is one that I have stayed in touch with, for the most part, but the other was one that I had not.  It was a terrific time, being able to visit and see that no matter how long it has been, that we were still all friends.  These were not my friends from school or college.  These were my friends from youth group.  From being involved with the church.  Those are the friends that I still remain connected with to this day.  This really made me think about why…why was it so easy to just pick it back up and still feel that great bond of friendship…I realized…it was because when I needed them…when I was in the dark…they were God to me. 

It is easy to say that people or friends or family are there for you…but when you change that to saying…When I was lost….you were the living presence of God in my life.

As I looked at the friendships that I have maintained over the years, there always seems to be one common denominator… the friendship I work on keeping, and care about maintaining…they have all been there for me in my life…  In all places and at all times… I saw God in them.

I was so moved this past Sunday during a free concert we hosted here at the Church of Holy Communion.  Fran Mckendree, a wonderful musician and an even better person, performed and entertained everyone with his words, his music, and his engaging personality. 

His performance was so packed with energy, that one of our youth was so moved to even try to participate in the concert.  Something typically not done during shows…but he was determined to play piano alongside Fran and really wanted to perform Wonderful Tonight by Eric Clapton…”the master of the 20th century” as he put it.

Worried that some people in the audience would maybe not appreciate the occasional breaks during the show, I rushed out to try to get him to join back in our seats…but before I was able to… I heard Fran saying, oh yea, let’s play!”  What happened next was a truly amazing moment.  Watching as one of our youth played an impromptu duet with this pretty well known musician….In all places, at all times, I saw God in Fran that night.

When you open your eyes and really look around….You can see God in the most amazing and unexpected places.  All you have to do is look.

If you ask me, this is why the Angles of the Lord appeared to the shepherds.  This is why we remember that act by lighting the Shepherd’s Candle on Advent 3.

God didn’t proclaim the birth of the King of Kings to the ones who were “worthy” of the message.

The message was given to the common people.  It was these “common” people that spread the good news. 

And to be honest…I don’t think much has changed.

You do not have to be “worthy” or “deserving” to receive the message of Christ…

God used the shepherds then….the people, back then….

God still uses us, the people today…

In all places…

At all times…

I see God in you!

Now go and be Christ to others.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The World Doesn't Need Another John

As promised, we will continue with our Advent reflections.  Last week we lit the first purple candle on our wreath.  This was lit as a symbol of Hope.   

A symbol that said although I am not perfect and free of sin…I am hopeful...

Although I am lost…I am not forever gone…

We looked to the future with hope!

This past Sunday we lit the Bethlehem Candle.  This candle symbolizes what it is to prepare the way for the coming of Christ.

What can we do in today’s society to prepare for the way for Christ?

If we look at the readings from this past Sunday, one may think that the acceptable answer is to live in the wilderness, eat locusts and honey, proclaim that you are merely a prophet preaching a message of repentance preparing the way for the Messiah…

Now, let’s be honest…  If a man dressed in rags, lived in the trees by Tom Lee Park, ate bugs, preached about the coming of the Messiah saying that everyone must repent for their sins, and be baptized in the waters of the River Mississippi…  I would go out on a limb and guess they are more likely to end up at 201 before being able to amass a large following of people.

This past Sunday, our Priest-in-Charge The Rev. Sandy Webb shared his thoughts on John during his sermon.  “…the world does not need another John…”.

When I look around at everything that is happening in our world, I would have to agree…we do not need another John.  I would be afraid of how we would respond to him anyway.

Father Sandy continued by saying that “…the world needs the one whom John prepared the way.”  Again…I would be fearful of how we as a society would treat this person.

Last week we were hopeful.  Hopeful for a better future and asked the question of whom shall the Lord send?

“Here am I” we said.  “Send me!”

But what does this look like for us in today’s society…

I remember when I was younger, some of my favorite days where days that you walked into school and saw that you had a substitute teacher…In my na├»ve mind, substitute teacher meant free day.  Just about 99% of the time I was wrong.

The teacher would always have prepared a lesson plan well in advance.  A lot of the time the teacher had spoken with the sub and had fully prepared them for what we were working on in class that day.  And more often than not, most of these subs were either former teachers or were perfectly qualified to be full time teachers…they just stepped right in and continued on just like if the teacher had been there.

Of course, as students, we would push the boundaries of what we could get away with a little bit more but we would still always end up getting busted. 

Now that I am older, I can look back at those situations and understand better what was going on during these times.

Your teacher would do their best to make sure that the substitute was fully prepared to keep things going as if the teacher were still there.  It would always have a different feel because each person has a different teaching style and a different way of dealing with certain situations. 

Now if you ever had a substitute teacher for a long period of time…then this was most likely how that would go down…

At first the sub is trying to continue on with what the teacher had prepared.  After a little while they will begin taking what the teacher had prepared and tweaking it a little bit so that it fit to their style of teaching.  Perhaps if they were there long enough they would just be teaching their own lessons.  They were no longer necessarily on the path the teacher had set from the beginning, but they were trying to keep things going with what they thought they should be doing.

Now, most of you may be reading this and thinking….yes, we understand how the school system works…what does this have anything to do with Advent!

Let’s look at this scenario again…but change some things. 

Instead of teacher what if we say Jesus.

What if instead of substitute we said ourselves.

The longer we are without Jesus, the further off his path we get and the more on our own path we get.

We also do not carry the same amount of credibility as Jesus so a lot of people think the exact same thing that I did back then..Free day!

The job of the substitute teacher was help things carry on while the teacher was gone.  It was not to press play on a movie.  They would continue teaching, class would move on…and that is what we need now.

But we do not need to look to one person to accomplish this.

Each Sunday as we send out our Eucharistic Visitors we say this line, we who are many are one body; because we share one, bread, one cup.

We are all one in the Body of Christ. 

The world does not need another John to come and prepare the way for Christ.  We have plenty of Johns already on earth.

We just need the Johns to stop teaching and living from their own agendas and lesson plans.

We are the ones that need to prepare the way.

John has done his part in preparing the way.

His message is with us.

What can we do to prepare the way?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

I am Lost, for I am a man of unclean lips...

If I had to choose one word to describe what life is like between now and Christmas it would be “busy”.

Thanksgiving, as a holiday, has nearly disappeared and has become the unofficial starting date of the Christmas season.  The spirit of “shopping” has taken over this holiday so much that stores are now even open on Thanksgiving Day!

Now, I must be honest with all of you…I have been Black Friday shopping…twice to be exact.  Neither time was done so willingly nor neither time I enjoyed it…but there is not much arguing with your older siblings.

Sadly, due to this, we are skipping one of the most beautiful seasons!  Advent! 

Many families will put their Christmas tree up the day after Thanksgiving…begin decorating and listen to Christmas music nonstop from November 28 until after New Year’s.

Personally…I love Advent.  The more I learn about it and the more I read scripture during Advent…the more I fall in love with it.

Starting today, I will offer my own Advent reflections all the way through Christmas.  These reflections will correspond with the meaning of the candles in the Advent wreath.

This past Sunday, we lit the first purple candle on our Advent wreaths.  This candle is known as the Prophecy Candle or the Candle of Hope.  It is lit on the first Sunday of Advent….the day the church begins its new year on the liturgical calendar.   So….Happy New Year!

Now, while we are on the subject of New Year’s…let’s think about all those things we do for New Year’s.

Many of you may be thinking things like, watching the ball drop, Auld Lang Syne, eating black eyed peas, going to Winterfest (that is where I will be and you can sign up to be there too just by clicking here!)…

Something else that you all probably thought about is making a New Year’s resolution.  Now, just for fun, how many times have you made a New Year’s resolution?

How many times have you followed through with your New Year’s resolutions?

My guess is that second number is pretty low. 

Did you know that in the United States, less than 12% of people actually follow through with their resolutions!  Just 12%!!! So let’s say that everyone who comes to church this past Sunday made a resolution…so that is 494 people…making 494 resolutions… less than 60 people will keep those resolutions.

So what is the point?

Why do we make the “promises” to ourselves and then not follow through with them?

I may be wrong, but to me the purpose of making a resolution is to do something to better yourself. 

Eat healthy, work out more…Most of the time, it is a way of making ourselves better people. 

We are hoping that we can better ourselves as we enter the New Year.  Who doesn’t want to make their next year better than their last year?

I compare this same concept to Advent.  In Advent, we are preparing for the parousia, the second coming of Christ!  We are looking forward and hoping for a better time.  We are preparing ourselves for this.

But this can make ourselves ask some questions about ourselves…

A few weeks ago we heard the scripture about the owner of the house who would have stayed awake all night if he knew the hour that the thief was coming…but we do not know.  All we are told is that we must “…Keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” -Matthew 24:42.

Whenever I hear this story, I can’t help but think of the movie Johnny English.  Now in this 2003, comedy about a mediocre spy (Rowan Atkinson, better known as Mr. Bean) tries to stop Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich) from taking over England.  Hilarity ensues leading up to the almost coronation of Mr. Sauvage.  Johnny English breaks up the ceremony and accuses the Archbishop of Canterbury of having a tattoo on his butt that reads “Jesus is coming, look busy!” 

Now if you had to simplify Advent down to 5 words…this may be close…but there is so much more to it! 

We can’t just look busy.  I do not think that when Christ comes again we can just start doing everything right and Jesus will be like…Ah, well look at you!  Good Job!

I believe that Jesus actually got mad at the Pharisees for doing very similar things and called them the following names… blind guides (Matthew 23:16), fools (Matthew 23:17), whited supulchres…full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness (Matthew 23:27), serpents, (Matthew 23:33), generation of vipers (Matthew 23:33), hypocrites (Luke 11:44), and even compares them to unmarked graves that people walk on without knowing (Luke 11:44).

Ok so I think it is safe to assume that we do not want to be like them.

But as we sit back and look at all the things that are going on in the world around us, we look at our own lives… maybe we struggle to see the hope.

We may think that we are not living a life that is worthy in the eyes of God, we may fall short and now during this time of hope, we may find it difficult to fully allow ourselves to do what we are suppose to.

What good can we do as a just another person who is living in this world full of such anger, sadness, despair…  What can we do?

If you find yourself asking this question…then you will find that you are in good company.

In the Old Testament, there is a prophet who struggles with this same thing…

“Woe is me!  I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips…”

In this passage we hear about a vision in which the Prophet Isaiah sees the Lord sitting on a throne.  Isaiah feels something that I think many of us may feel if we were in that situation or may even feel now as we look at our purpose as Christians.

But immediately after Isaiah admits his shortcomings, an angel takes a coal from the fire and places it to his tongue and tells him “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin blotted out” (Isaiah 6:7).

After this, Isaiah is willing and ready!  The Lord then commands him And he said, “Go and say to this people:
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
10 Make the mind of this people dull,

    and stop their ears,
    and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
    and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
    and turn and be healed.”
-Isaiah 6:9-10

So again, I ask what can we do?  We may feel weak…


We may feel that we are the wrong person…

We may feel like Isaiah.

This week’s candle is known as the Prophecy Candle.  A symbol of hope.  We are looking forward to the coming of Christ…we are called to go out and spread this message…but I am lost.

I am a man of an unclean tongue…

I live among people of unclean tongues…

But still the Lord asks, “Whom shall I send…”

“Here am I; send me!”

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

How Will You Respond?

If you have turned on the news or listened to the radio either yesterday or today…there seems to be only one thing that everyone is talking about…

The Grand Jury decision on the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, MO.

It has been all over the place and just about every single person has something to add to the conversation.  Many people are hurt, sad, afraid, but mostly angered…

But how do we respond to that anger?

A little while back I wrote a post in response to the violent attacks that took place at Kroger (you can read that here http://youngsterstheology.blogspot.com/2014/09/an-eye-for-eye.html).

After the Grand Jury’s decision was released, Michael Brown’s family released a statement.  The following is a segment of that statement.

“While we understand that many others share our pain, we ask that you channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. We need to work together to fix the system that allowed this to happen.”

Again, I go back to thinking about the same Marcus Borg words that I reflected on in that previous post. 

How do we respond?

How do we respond when we are angry or upset?

Sometimes we may want to lash out, react, just do something with all that anger!

But when everything settles down….and you calm down… does that accomplish anything?

Was that the right way to handle the situation?

They say hindsight is 20/20…and I don’t think I can look back at my life and honestly say that how I responded when I was angry was a “good” way to handle the situation.  Normally I had to go back and apologize for what I did and the excuse was always, “I am sorry.  I was angry.” 

But, that is not an excuse if you ask me.

I wasn’t acting like myself...I was angry!

But James 1:20 says that angry does not produce the righteousness of God.

There are also numerous places in the Bible that states that we cannot serve two masters.

To me, one way of interpreting that is that we cannot properly serve God if we are angry.  Anger is a master that makes us act out of character and do reckless things.  It is distancing ourselves from God and as James says, we are not producing the righteousness of God when we are angry.

Something else really stuck out to me in the Brown families statement. 

It in, they say they understand that emotions are going to be felt and that people will want to respond emotions.  But again, how do we respond?

They ask that people channel that frustration to make a POSITIVE change.

Don’t just get mad about something that has happened and do something…instead do something ABOUT it.

Growing up…I was a HUGE Michael Jordan fan.  One of my greatest memories was being able to see him play live against the Trail Blazers in 1998 during an exhibition game at the Pyramid.  For a boy going up in that era, you either loved him or hated him.  If you hated him it was probably because you were a Knicks fan.

Anyway, one thing that I was always impressed by was his drive.  He wanted to be a basketball player.  He tried out for his high school varsity team…and didn’t make it.  This angered him. 

His response?

Worked hard and became basically the greatest basketball player ever.

I also remember when I was in high school.  I was cut from my high school soccer team.  I was hurt.  I was not happy.  I was so angry at the decision.

It took some time but I spent the next year working my butt off and tried out again...and I made it.

I know these two examples are a far cry from being on the same level as what is going on in Fergason, but why can we not still apply the same lessons.

If something is wrong or if something angers us…we have a few options in how we respond.

1.     We can just do something out of anger.
But then ask yourself…will you be happy with it later?

And more importantly, were you producing God’s righteousness with those actions?

Or you can do something about it…

Take that anger and channel it towards something that can then help further the Kingdom of God…

How will you respond?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Don't Worry About Tomorrow...

No matter how hard we try, we can never fully prepare for the future. One cannot plan for the future,
yet for thousands of years, humans have been trying to do so. Through practices such as augury
and astrology, the generations before us have been unsuccessfully attempting to find answers or hints
of the future in their surroundings. We are always looking for answers or some insight into the future
that can help us better prepare for it, but does it really help? Looking back at these absurd, antiquated
traditions makes one question if the generations that came before us truly were poisoned by the lead in their cup. Calendars and classification systems have been built around horoscopes, but today, one is considered a fool for even giving them a second thought. As we look back on our attempts to predict, plan, and control the future, we realize humans will probably never be able to tell or even prepare for the future because we simply do NOT know what the future holds for us.

To this day, most of us wake up to the buzzing of an alarm clock or fall asleep at certain hour. We let time control our lives in the present through clocks, and we have schedules to plan for the future.  Being organized may be conducive to having a stress-free life, but if you let your attempts to control the future take hold of you, the tool you once thought would help you through the day could lead to paranoia instead.  If one solely focuses on the future, I believe that they are missing out on the present. 

God asks us to live our lives to the fullest and bring honor to his kingdom. Being anxious hinders our ability to fully understand our surroundings. Without an understanding or awareness of God’s kingdom built around us, we cannot grasp the complicated and constantly changing world we have been blessed with.

A new chapter of my life is rapidly approaching. For the past 16 years, I've been at the same schools as thirty or so boys in my graduating class, and as we head to different colleges, separation is unfortunately inevitable. It will be strange being surrounding by 20,000 new faces next year without having people I've grown up around with beside me. The value of relationships you have made in high school will begin to lose value over time, and they will continue to get replaced by more recent friendships. Even though we still have another semester ahead of us, a lot of boys in my grade are realizing that our high school days are limited and easily counted. Boys have already begun the college process, and many are flocking towards the same universities. In my grade, ten to twenty boys will probably attend the same university as I. As we try to plan for the future, we may at first find comfort in it but we cannot let it take full control of our actions.

We have been aimlessly playing video games and ping pong in the senior lounge for the past 10 weeks -- living in the moment rather than worried about the future. Although what we’re doing may not be the best use of time, is it so wrong to live life in the moment for a bit? God’s plan is unknown to us as we try to live our lives in his name, yet we keep living. Perhaps not having a complete understanding of what’s to come may not be so bad after all.

The future is frustrating, and our attempts to further understand it only bring more confusion, so maybe today’s trouble is enough for today. Tomorrow will bring worries of its own.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

On Sundays, We Go to Church.

Just like every Tuesday, I sat at my desk trying to think of a topic to write about.  Luckily I had some visitors in my office that helped me out.  They began asking me questions about people that I have met and how they come to be Christian.

I thought about this for a bit and realized that the story that I know best is my own.

So, here it goes, the story of how I became a Christian.  It is not always a pleasant story full of smiles.  It was and still is a long journey; a struggle many times that made me question and doubt. 

The simple answer to the question is that I am a cradle Episcopalian.  Baptized in 1989 by my Godfather, The Rev. Dwight Helt at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Duncan, Oklahoma. (Pictured above, my mother, aunt, and uncle, my oldest sister, my cousin, and then all the candidates for baptism, myself (the cute blonde on the left), my sister, and my two cousins)   Then later went through Confirmation in 1996 and was confirmed by the Right Rev. Gary Coleman at St. George’s Episcopal Church.  From that perspective…I have always been a Christian.

But just like that classic Billy Mays catch phrase….there’s more.

While my mother was the one who would take me and my 2 sisters to church, my father would go play golf.  He was and still is not the most religious person you will meet.  When you grow up as a church goer, you act like a church goer.  And me being the stubborn young man that I was…often disagreed with my father, especially when it came to religion.

For a young person who is not only trying to figure out their own faith and place in the church, that is difficult.  For a young person who does not have the greatest relationship with their father…it was even more difficult.

As I got older, my sister’s became more and more involved in the youth programs at our church, St. George’s.  At the time I was too young, but was always dragged along to drop them off and pick them up.  I was that little kid who was not old enough to be in youth group but desperately wanted to.

When I did start going to youth group, I was hooked.  I instantly became very involved and active in just about every single thing you could at the church.  Even at one point dressed as Buddy the Elf, yellow tights and all, and danced around the Nave during announcements screaming that Santa was coming and that everyone should come to the Christmas Carnival that the youth were hosting.

Then there was that other side of me.  I would then go to school and I was the quiet shy kid. 

Why I loved going to church...was that was where I felt comfortable.  That was where I felt accepted and loved.  I felt comfortable to do the craziest things…like dance around in front of 150 people wearing yellow tights…and not be judged.

Church was my outlet.  It was my home away from home. 

I also remember the pain and struggle of when our youth group at St. George’s fell apart.  Our strong proud program had become 3 people who met twice a week to talk about what we could do to save our program…but we finally realized we were fighting a losing battle.

At that time, I had already begun coming to Holy Communion for youth group.  Many of my friends were members here and I had lost that sense of home at my own church.  I wanted to be back in that atmosphere again.  It was then that I began going to Holy Communion full time.  To be honest, it was not for some big spiritual change or that I felt called to go there.  My youth group had died and my friends went to Holy Communion.  It is as simple as that.

The rest is history as they would say.  I became very involved with the youth group at Holy Communion until I went to college.  Stayed connected and involved in the church throughout college and then got offered this job to work here!

But behind the scenes…but how did I become a Christian?

To be honest, I would have to go back to the basic act of my mother taking me to church when I was younger.  That was the first building block.  But there are many others.

I look back at my disagreements with my father over whether or not God even existed.  Even at such a young age…I was so adamant in my stance that God was real!  Whether or not this was because I had such a strong belief at the time or I just was really good at disagreeing with my dad, we may never know.

Now, while thinking through this, I even went back to some of the reflections I wrote and gave when I was younger.  There is always one common thread in all of them.  It was the people that made church what is was for me.  I did not go for “church”.  I went because I loved being in that atmosphere. 

While that side of my Christian life was going great, I struggled with other sides of it. 

I am a firm believer that as we grow up, so does our relationship with God.  For the longest time, saying that I was a Christian was good enough.  Just going to church, even if for the wrong reasons, worked fine for me, but then I wanted more.

I was hungry for something else but did not know how to go about it.  I began to doubt and argue with God.  Even spent so much time so angry at God for not providing me with answers or not guiding me.  I essentially turned my back on the God side of the church and solely went to be with my friends. 

This continued for a little bit until I was challenged again.  I was asked why I said these things in church if I did not know what I was saying.  If I was just saying them and I didn’t believe them, then I was a liar.  That it would be better to not say these things than to say it with an empty heart.  For some reason, as a 17 year old high school student, I took this very personally.

I slowly began to work my way back to fixing my relationship with God.

It wasn’t easy.  It took a lot of time.  And it is not like a run where you there is a set finish line.  You do not go a certain distance and then collect your medal that says ‘You are now a Christian!”

How did I become a Christian?   Well…I don’t know what specific thing made me a Christian.  But what makes me a Christian is this…

I don’t know the answers.  I struggle with my faith on a regular basis.  Some days I feel very close to God and some days a feel very distant.  My relationship with God and the church is constantly changing and evolving as I grow and change as a person.  What my faith looks like now is not what it looked last month and is not what it will look like next month….it is always changing and growing and evolving.

It is a constant journey and often times a struggle.  It is challenging.  It is difficult.  It forces me to question myself and ask if I am living right and doing things the right way? 

But why do I do it then? 

Because it is important to me.  It is something I care about and what to do.  Because when I was younger…it was something my mother instilled in me.

 On Sundays…we go to church. 

That was what I was taught as a child.  That was my first step on the journey. 

That was where it all began.  

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Syrophoenician Woman and the St. Jude Mother

The story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman is one of my favorites
in the Bible. It is a tender story, with a happy ending; it is a story of a
desperate woman who, against all odds, succeeds in getting her beloved
daughter healed. But, it starts out with rather unexpectedly harsh words
from Jesus, who does not want to throw food to the dogs, an
uncomplimentary term with which he equates her. Consider the context:
Jesus, a Jewish man and a leader of his people, has ventured with his
disciples into Gentile territory, and is approached directly by this Gentile
woman, who has heard of his ability to heal. In those days, it would have
been unheard of for a single woman, especially a gentile woman, to be seen
in public, not only unaccompanied by her husband or male relative, but
also to approach a single, Jewish male. To do so would have put her at risk
of being banned from the church, or even being arrested and stoned to
death. Yet, here was this woman of great faith, desperate to have Jesus heal
her daughter, who was afflicted with some demonic disease that no one else
could cure. She responds to the derogatory remark of Jesus by saying that
even the dogs will eat the crumbs spilled under the table by children. A light
bulb goes off in Jesus' head, and he thinks, " you know, you are right, my
ministry and the kingdom of God should be available to all people, even to
Gentiles and women with demonic children". Jesus has been taught a
lesson by this humble woman and he changed his position in the matter,
and the daughter is healed. I personally like to think that this story reflects
the human side of Jesus, a person capable of making a mistake, learning
from it, and correcting it.
This story parallels a meaningful event that occurred in my life several
years ago, during my seminary experience. I served as an assistant chaplain
at St. Jude Hospital and my assignment was to visit patients and their
families in an effort to provide support and to pray with them when
appropriate...mainly, I was there as one of God's representatives. On many
occasions, I visited rooms where there were many family members present,
some of whom were totally uninterested in my visit, carrying on separate
conversations, and with a television blaring in the background...obviously,
not a scene conducive to having a very effective pastoral discussion. On this
day, however, the room I entered was rather dimly lit, the television was
not turned on, and the room was occupied only by a young woman and her
one year old. The child lay quietly, receiving IV fluids and sedation to
control his symptoms, for he had become unresponsive to further chemo
and radiation treatments for his inoperable brain tumor. The mother--we'll
call her "Nicole"-- was a slight African-American woman in her mid
thirties; when she smiled at me, I could see a couple of missing teeth, and
she wore glasses and had what appeared to be a "lazy eye", one that looked
to one side. It occurred to me that she may have neglected some of her own
medical issues in order to care for her son. They had spent most of the past
3 months in the hospital, and she had never left his side. She was extremely
grateful for all the care they had received at St. Jude, and told me that she
prayed daily for all the doctors and nurses there, as well as all the other
little children receiving treatment there. When I asked how she passed the
time, she smiled and pointed to two open books on her small bed, adjacent
to her son's hospital bed. One was a prayer book and the other a Bible, open
at the time to Luke's Gospel, where several verses could be seen
highlighted. She said she drew her strength and courage from reading and
praying from just these two sources. For a moment, I was speechless, and
choked with emotion. Here I was, an apprentice chaplain, there ostensibly
to offer her comfort and support, but it was she who was giving me a lesson
in faith. This slight, soft-spoken woman, whose son was dying with brain
cancer, was a tower of strength, one whose faith enabled her to endure
great suffering. After gathering myself, we said a prayer together, and I left
the room knowing I had been on sacred ground.
On my dining room table at home I have a beautiful glass bowl on which
are inscribed these words from the Book of Hebrews, "Do not neglect to
show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some may have entertained
angels without knowing it". There are angels like Nicole out there...if we
look for their presence, our lives might be transformed.

-The Rev. Deacon Randy McCloy

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Morality without religion?

One of my favorite Bible verses will be the Gospel reading this Sunday.  It is one that has really stuck with me over the years and I still, to this day wear a symbol that reminds me of this verse.

It is also the verse that I thought of this past Sunday when our youth gathered during the Formation hour in Sunday School.  They were posed a question.

After many of the events that have occurred, not just in the world but even just in Memphis…it often times leads to us ask questions of why these things happen.

 What would lead someone to do these things? What moral guidelines do people follow when they don’t believe in God?

Can morality exist without religion?

This was the topic that our high school students discussed this past week.  At first it may sound that there should be a fairly simple answer, however, the more you think about it the more complicated it becomes. 

My initial response is “Man, I hope so…I would hope that it does not take religion for people to be able to be nice to each other.”

In some of the conversations that I have had with people, there really has not been much of a consistent response but it seemed that one point came up more often than others. 

As Christians, we do good because the Bible tells us so…and in some cases it can even come across as, do good or we go to Hell.

And for me…that is where I start to struggle with that response.

When I hear that it seems that it is merely taking all of the teachings of God and all of the teachings of Jesus and the Bible and simplifying it down to a set of rules.  Basically I was uncomfortable with such a simplified version.  A Gospel of “Do’s” and “Don’ts”…There had to be more to it than that.

That, to me, seemed that people are innately bad unless they believe in God…which would be a belief that would make me struggle.

As a Christian, we believe that we were created in the image of God and after being created, God looked at what he had created and indeed, it was very good.

As an Episcopalian, we believe in Incarnation Theology which in a sermon given By the Rev. Dan Matthews at Holy Communion in 2012 summed it up as anything of God is good, that everything can be good in moderation, even moderation.

But, again I struggle… what if you don’t believe in God?  If you don’t believe in God, then you wouldn’t believe that people are innately good and therefore where do morals come from?

The answer…I do not know.  But if I had to give an answer…I would say yes, morals do exist outside of religion.  I do not think you have to be a Christian or that you have to believe in God in order to be morally good or to be a good person.  But if that is the case, then this Gospel of “Do’s” and “Don’ts” cannot be a good way to look religion, can it?

Sure, when we are younger we may have learned the 10 Commandments and it may have been explained to us in a way that seemed that it was merely a do this and don’t do that type of situation.  But as we grow up and we mature and our intelligence matures and our understanding of the world matures…our faith must mature as well.  We must grow past this simplified version of the Gospel.

So again, I saw yes, morality can exist without God and without religion…but then what does that mean for our understanding of the Gospel…

What then makes it different?

That is where the Gospel reading for this upcoming Sunday comes into play.  If you didn’t stop to look it up when I first mentioned it comes to us from Matthew…such a good name, Matthew…

Here is a segment of the upcoming Gospel reading:

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
-Matthew 22:34-39

In Exodus we have God summarizing hundreds of laws into the 10 Commandments.  Here we have Jesus taking those and simplifying them into this.

Nowhere in this passage does it say do this and don’t do that or you will go to Hell.

It simply says to live in love, not to just be nice to others.  You can be nice to people but still not really like them. 

Having morals exist within religion but there has to be a greater meaning to being Christian than just being good.

If you take the time to fully think and process how differently you would live your life if instead of following a checklist of do’s and don’ts you followed this list…

I will LOVE God with all of my heart.

I will LOVE God with all of my soul.

I will LOVE God with all my mind.

I will LOVE myself and care for myself.

I will LOVE others and care for them just as would for myself.

I will walk in LOVE.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Perspective is Everything

My, my!  What yucky weather today!  There is only one thing I can think of on a day like this…

Rain, rain, go away,
Come again another day…

I hope that some of you sang along to that…because I did while I typed it.

I think when it is rainy outside we have a natural tendency to focus on the fact that the weather is bad and therefore start our day off in the worst way possible…with a gloomy outlook.

I normally have one message to many of the youth that come to some of our youth events; you will get out of it what you put into it.  I think this message can apply to just about any situation in your life.

Today, I was thinking about a few events of this past week.  Yesterday I had the opportunity to do something that I have not done in a while…paint.

Probably not what you thought I was going to say.  A little known fact about me is, yes, I am an artist.  In high school and through college I studied studio art.  I have spent countless number of nights not sleeping but staying up to finish a painting or project, or compiling my portfolio for a show.  For the longest time my dining room table was a drawing desk and the room was used as a studio space instead of a living room.  Art consumed my life.

One thing is bound to happen if you study art long enough…you will have a teacher that you truly and genuinely disagree with on just about everything.  If you have ever taken an art class, you know what I am talking about.

I was lucky enough to have this teacher on two separate occasions.  Even though I combined the styles of art that I knew she hated to make one of my projects, we did get along rather well.  One class we made to do this exercise that I still remember and hate to this day.

First, every student in the class was called up one at a time to put their stool in the middle of the room.  This served two purposes…1. We were not allowed to sit during class anyway and 2. We were making a still life so that we could draw it.

So once even in the class had made this massive scattered pile of uncomfortable metal seats, we made a circle around the display with our desks and began to draw.  I studied the stools for a bit to see where I wanted to start and to lay out my composition, started making a few marks on my paper, made a few outlines…then finally began drawing.  We had been going for maybe 30 minutes when the teacher made an announcement… “Everyone move one desk to left.”

“Uh…ok,” as we all began gathering up our supplies and paper to change locations, but then we were stopped. 

“Leave your supplies and your paper.  Continue drawing on the other person’s paper with the charcoal they were using.”

Uh, oh heck no lady, you must be crazy!

I can’t even begin to describe how much this irked me.  We all slowly shuffle over to the desk next to us and stare down on this foreign piece of paper and try to figure out what to do with it…

I had left my future master piece, that I had just spent 30 minutes using vine charcoal outlining and preparing to go into detail and now I was stuck using dark stick charcoal on a piece that already had covered in dark, inerasable lines that were not where I wanted them.  So we all begin to dive in and try to fix what was already there and to make that piece look more like something we would do.

About 10 minutes later, “Move again.”


This continued until we had gone all the way around the circle and ended up back at our original desk.  The only metaphor I can think of to describe the feeling would be to imagine that you started writing a paper.  You had solid outline and knew what you wanted to do with it, you had a really good introduction…and then you step away from it.  When you return to it 20 other people had finished writing it…but each person wrote in a different language.

By the time I returned, I did not recognize my own work.  I couldn’t even see many of the original lines that I had so carefully and thoughtfully sketched out. 

For some reason, this was what I thought of today.  A combination of the weather and painting again…this is where my mind went.

It also made me think of a line in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. 

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)

Especially on gloomy rainy days like today, it is so easy to just see the negative and become upset or irked.  And just like I tell my youth, you will get out of it what you put into it.

If you start your day off thinking it is going to be bad…chances are, you will have a bad day.

Instead he is what I propose…

Just like my teacher made us do while trying to draw those stools…change your perspective.

Maybe by looking at it in a different light we will be able to see the truth in it.  The honor in it.  How it is just or how it is pure.  You can see how it is pleasing or commendable or excellent.  Or even if there is anything, even the smallest thing, that is worthy of praise…then think of these things.

Keep on doing these things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:9)