Invitation: Transcend

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Several weeks ago I attended a church service acknowledging Transgender Day of Remembrance, an annual recognition of transgendered people who have died from violence during the year. All over the world, participants in similar services remember, name, and mourn these people. Several years ago I was listening to an interview with a transgendered woman. When asked about how people first reacted to learning she was transgendered, she said she was surprised and disappointed by the number of gay friends who were happy to hang out and buy her a beer when they thought she was a gay man, then said they “just didn’t understand” and distanced themselves after she came out as trans. Hearing this hurt my heart (though surely nothing compared to how living it must have affected hers).

As a gay person, I’ve heard more than once from someone who “just didn’t get it” and thought that was reason to reject me and people like me; that’s why I was so disappointed to hear people like me were almost as likely to do the same thing. God bless the friends and family who “didn’t get it” (and maybe still don’t) but loved and included me anyway.

We have this notion that once we get to know each other, we’ll learn to understand and love one another. I even believe it’s true, but let’s face it: we don’t have time to get to really know absolutely everyone we meet. There are lots of things I “just don’t get” about other people, and I never will. I could start listing them, but that’s just another type of finger pointing and rejection.

Here’s the thing: Jesus doesn’t ask me to “get” you, and he doesn’t ask you to “get” me. He asks me to love you. He’s actually very specific about loving the people you don’t even like when he says: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.”

So when it comes to Christ’s table, our personal objections to a fellow Christian’s behavior, attitude, or identity don’t matter. Yes, we may be able to point to some specific verses that make us feel justified, but then we could also point to the ones we choose to ignore when we “get” someone. Christ asks us to transcend the idea that we have to “get” or accept someone before we can love them. If they are starving – physically or spiritually – it’s not okay to ask them to wait on our own comfort while we gorge on their portion at the table. Yes, we should work to understand each other, but my inability to understand you does  not trump your membership in the Body of Christ.

I may never “get” you. You may never “get” me. It’s okay. Christ gets us all.

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

Invitation: Clutter

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My car is usually a mess.

It started out clean and new, and I kept it that way for a few months, but I travel a lot, eat in the car a couple times a week, and accumulate items from work and home. Any more I don’t notice it most of the time. It’s nothing to be proud of, but sometimes it just is. Have you ever heard of the term “clutter-blind?” It describes things like the sticky note reminders all over your desk that you no longer notice, the items in your closet you move out of the way every time without thinking, or the receipts, books, and fast food bags piling up on your seats.

The times I do notice it are when I need to give people a ride. If it’s just one person, I can make a quick apology and grab a quick head start to clear the passenger seat. If it’s two or three, it can be pretty embarrassing. More often than not, I have to decline. Whether you’re judging, nodding in understanding, or just confused, there is a bigger point to this.

Sometimes we are clutter-blind to behaviors. Maybe it’s the way you click your pen in meetings, or hum at the dinner table. In churches, our clutter is often made of habits and assumptions. Like clutter on a desk, to the familiar eye they are more background than anything, but to the unfamiliar eye, it’s difficult to determine what’s important. If someone new came to our worship, what would we have to push out of the way before they could fully participate? To start with, our assumptions they understand any of it at all. And next, our habits that may exclude or alienate them. Referring only to acronyms or first names, launching into hugs during the passing of the peace, or breaking into our usual cliques in the parking lot may be comforting to us but off-putting to others.

The trick to de-cluttering is knowing what to keep, where to put it so you handle it most effectively, and what to throw away. If there are parts of worship that require explanation every time, think hard about whether you need them, or if you should make them more user-friendly. It took a long time for me to figure out that “narthex” just mean”front hall.” Such jargon only serves to make people feel like they are not part of the in-group.  Chances are many years ago your worship service and church experience started out new and clean, but after it’s been driven until the odometer goes around a few times … not so much.

The most important place to de-clutter is the communion table. We need to clear away any doctrinal or ritual clutter we might have added – anything that keeps people from understanding and participating. Christ died for all of us, and instructed us to observe this meal to remember the sacrifice of his body and blood. It is a privilege to come to the table, but not one bestowed or limited by man; it is an invitation directly from Christ, and all are welcome.  Keep a seat at the table clear for everyone.

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

Invitation: Graduation

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Today is the first Sunday of Advent. It’s a solemn season when we reflect on the past and look toward the future. Advent reminds us why Christ needed to come into the world, and why we need him to return. As the world observes the approaching Christmas holiday by urging you to buy more, eat more, and do more, the church asks you to slow down, to remember, to mourn. The world’s message is a lot more fun, but all it seems to get us … is more of the world. The conflict. The need. The emptiness.

No one wants to be a wet blanket tossed over the Christmas party buffet, but Christmas without Advent is like celebrating a graduation for someone who never went to school: the cap and gown are nice for a day, but ultimately there’s nothing inside. The season of Advent is our preparation for the Christmas graduation. It is a time for exams – examination of ourselves, examination of our relationship with Christ, and examination of the world in all its brokenness. At the end of our forty-day term, we understand why the world needs Christ. And like graduation, Christmas is a watershed moment. It marks the completion of one journey, and the beginning of another. What we learn during Advent is celebrated on Christmas, but then we have the responsibility of putting that knowledge to work to better ourselves and the world.

Advent means we have the opportunity to prepare and graduate every year. Like any school experience, you get out of it what you put into it, especially if you are wise enough to retain and build on what you learned before. Every year we learn what more we can contribute, and understand better how that all depends on surrendering ever more completely to our dependence on our God. The wiser we get, the less we know.

So if Advent is our school term, the communion table is our study group. Here we check in with our adviser, and learn from our fellow students. But we can’t just sit in the room with our noses buried in our own books; we must become invested in each other’s success. To know when to tutor, and when to be tutored. To dedicate ourselves to one another, because that is the condition of the full ride scholarship paid for with the life of Jesus. Whatever our life circumstances, the offer is available. Communion is the ultimate student union.

Pop quiz: Who does Christ invite to the table? Answer: Everyone.

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

Invitation: Election

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So that happened.

After what is possibly the most divisive election in modern American history, the Christian family finds itself in the same boat as many families around the country: an awkward gathering around the table for the Sunday meal.

Some of us feel like we lost. Some of us feel like we won. Some of us feel like nobody won.

If you feel like you lost, and are angry at the other side, keep in mind you’d probably feel differently if you’d won. You’d be less afraid, and therefore less angry, and therefore in a more forgiving mood even though your opponents did nothing differently. Also consider the possibility that had you won, the other side would be experiencing its own fears right now. It doesn’t matter whether you believe those fears are justified; fear is not always best addressed through reason, but through compassion. Remember this moment, so that when the pendulum swings and you are no longer afraid, you will understand your opponents’ fear, and be merciful in victory.

If you feel like you won, remember that Christ teaches us having the upper hand is a burden, not a privilege. Listen to the concerns of the losing side without dismissing or mocking them. Keep in mind that had you lost, your side honestly wouldn’t behave much differently. If you snorted at that last sentence, revisit history; you won’t have to go back far. For Christians, power is not a mandate to exercise control, but a call to service. If the first are last and the last are first, you are now walking a golden tightrope. Christ calls us to do good to our enemies; that includes the ones we’ve defeated.

If you feel like nobody won, consider that you may be called to the role of peacemaker. Perhaps rather than expressing disappointment all around, promote work in areas where all Christians should agree. Visiting the sick and homebound is not a political issue. Feeding the hungry is not a political issue. Comforting those who grieve is not a political issue. Where you can, encourage those who are – for the present time – emotionally estranged to find common ground.

Christ’s table is not a political issue. We meet here because we need him the most in times like these. Come to the table willingly, and break bread with all members of the family because Christ has invited them, too. If Jesus didn’t turn away Judas, we have no excuse to turn away from each other. Sharing a meal, especially this divine one, is the both the most holy and common ground we will find.

May the Peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

Invitation: Forks and Elbows

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Etiquette.

Now there’s a concept that’s become twisted over the centuries. A couple years ago I attended a class that was supposed to be on workplace etiquette,  but turned out to be mostly about table manners: what to do with your napkin and your elbows and your bread plate and all that jazz. The presenter insisted breaches of etiquette could seriously limit your career. This view of etiquette as a set of arcane rules the elite use to distinguish the worthy from the unworthy warps the true purpose of etiquette, which is kindness.

The classic etiquette dilemma when presented with a very formal table is: “Which fork do I use?” The implication is that using the wrong fork would signal your lack of class. Do you know why the general rule is “start from the outside in?” A good host sets a place with only the utensils that will be needed, in the order they will be needed. This way, a guest does not need to understand the difference between a fish fork and a fruit fork. The formal setting was designed to minimize the embarrassment of guests, not to create it.

My mother-in-law had a rule of thumb about decorating: no matter how good it might look, never put anything where someone may accidentally break it, because you don’t want to set anyone up for embarrassment. As far as I know, you won’t find that in a book on manners, but it is an excellent example of etiquette. Etiquette should always be about making someone feel comfortable and welcome, not about belittling them.

What is the proper etiquette for a faith community? In many instances, it has been as warped at the communion table as at the dinner table. We develop rules about language, behavior, and belief that may seem completely arbitrary to an outsider (and frankly to many insiders as well): what to wear, how to pray, where to sit, when to stand. When we set up insider rules then judge people for not following them, we are not being at all Christ-like. Sadly, we are too often more concerned with calling someone out for using the wrong fork or hymnal than with creating an environment that helps people learn and grow in ways that foster harmony. In a faith community and all other matters, etiquette is not about looking outside ourselves for reasons to be offended, but about looking inside to ask if we are genuinely caring about others. Jesus wasn’t concerned with arbitrary rules imposed by polite society, but he was interested in creating a just society where all were valued. At the last supper he didn’t worry whose elbows were on the table; he was preparing for the ultimate sacrifice to make sure everyone was welcome to the feast.

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.