New is often messy

I have a pastoral crush on Nadia Bolz-Weber. I have been slowly reading her book Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint. It has been too rich of an experience to just fly through. Heather and I were able to attend the church she leads in Denver called House for All Sinners and Saints a few weeks back. It was an experience that made my heart come alive in a way that I have not felt in quite some time.

I don’t really know what I am trying to say this morning or what is stirring within me so I am just going to share a few passages that are ruminating in me like good, black coffee on an empty stomach.

“For many churches,” I said to the crowd, “Easter is basically another word for church showoff day— a time when we spiff up the building, pull out the lilies, hire a brass quintet, and put on fabulous hats and do whatever we have to do to impress visitors. To me, it had always felt kind of like the church’s version of putting out the guest towels, which makes no sense. Easter is not a story about new dresses and flowers and spiffiness. Really, it’s a story about flesh and dirt and bodies and confusion, and it’s about the way God never seems to adhere to our expectations of what a proper God would do (as in not get himself killed in a totally avoidable way).” [...]

“Jesus didn’t look very impressive at Easter,” I said, “not in the churchy sense, and certainly not if Mary Magdalene mistook him for a gardener.” [...]

But then what we all end up with is a perverted idea of what resurrection looks like. My experience, however, is that the God of Easter is a God with dirt under his nails.

Resurrection never feels like being made clean and nice and pious like in those Easter pictures. I would have never agreed to work for God if I had believed God was interested in trying to make me nice or even good. Instead, what I subconsciously knew, even back then, was that God was never about making me spiffy; God was about making me new.

New doesn’t always look perfect. Like the Easter story itself, new is often messy. New looks like recovering alcoholics. New looks like reconciliation between family members who don’t actually deserve it. New looks like every time I manage to admit I was wrong and every time I manage to not mention when I’m right. New looks like every fresh start and every act of forgiveness and every moment of letting go of what we thought we couldn’t live without and then somehow living without it anyway. New is the thing we never saw coming— never even hoped for— but ends up being what we needed all along.

“It happens to all of us,” I concluded that Easter Sunday morning. “God simply keeps reaching down into the dirt of humanity and resurrecting us from the graves we dig for ourselves through our violence, our lies, our selfishness, our arrogance, and our addictions. And God keeps loving us back to life over and over.” (p 173-4 on my iPhone Kindle app).

New is often messy.

Thanks be to God.

Brokenness

That spoken word poem is a from a guy named Micah Bournes who I met in my time working with Baylor University and in the summer we spent in Bend, Oregon in 2012 when I was doing my mentoring at Antioch Church (no affiliation or connection with Antioch Waco).

Brokenness is on my heart this morning and brokenness abounds in our country. Racism, health care, poverty, liveable wages, violence, power, disease, LGBTQ discussions, and marriage equality to name just a few. These areas of brokenness are not just “out there” in a broken world but they are very real and present in our churches and faith communities. Sadly, throughout history, the Church has been on the wrong side of many issues and very slow to realize its faults. I believe today is no exception.

I love the last lines in Micah’s poem:

“And as we work with our sister in humble love, maybe we will discover how to fix what is broken is us, for brokenness belongs to us all, but hope, only to those who come together before God.”

Brokenness abounds in our churches and faith communities. Churches and those who attend are so focused on their own needs, wants, desires, and brokenness that little time and attention is given to the needs of the community, city, and world in which God called us to be to salt and light.

This should not be so my friends!

Ask nearly any minister and they will tell you they wish they had more time to be with people outside of the church wells. Sadly, most of their time and attention is invested in church people inside the church walls trying to encourage and empower them to get OUTSIDE the church walls. True discipleship is practiced not in a sanctuary, auditorium, or classroom. True discipleship takes place around tables, at the dog parks, at the local pubs, and in the schools. Discipleship takes place in the neighborhood! John 1:14 says, “The Word [Jesus] became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”

Lesslie Newbigin believed a community will experience renewal when “local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life, and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as sign, instrument and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society.”

I believe in the Church and I believe in a better Church! May we not just attend a church, give to a church, and invite people to a church. Rather may we BE the church in our neighborhoods and communities. May we “exist for the sake of those who are not members” so that they might know “God’s redeeming grace.” Amen.

As a side note, I have not posted on this blog as often. Here are some of my recent blog posts for Wilshire Baptist Church:

Our Continued Response: https://www.facebook.com/notes/wilshire-baptist-church/our-continued-response/10154680217270317

Jealousy and Judgment: https://www.facebook.com/notes/wilshire-baptist-church/jealousy-and-judgment/10154616465525317

When a haircut is not just a haircut: https://www.facebook.com/notes/wilshire-baptist-church/when-a-haircut-is-not-just-a-haircut/10154568612825317

Work from our rest: https://www.facebook.com/notes/wilshire-baptist-church/work-from-our-rest/10154521402805317

This is where theology meets the real world. And let me tell you, it’s messy.

I love my job as a chaplain. There is not place I would rather minister. The types of people I meet and the scenarios I find myself are like no other ministry setting. My father has begun to adopt the term “minister of last resort” to describe the encounters he has in his evolving calling as a community minister and the new non-profit he has started (http://www.lovingcommunity.info/). I find myself resonating with this term as well.

But there are days like today when there are no words. The horrors I encounter I do not know how to give voice to. Honestly, today was a fairly “normal” on-call shift. However, I found myself at two drastically different ends of the spectrum with two different patient/family encounters believing in and claiming miracles.

The first was the death of a girl in her late teens in a car accident. When the doctor delivered the news to her parents and numerous family and loved ones . . . there are no words to describe the pain and suffering that filled that room. I facilitated the viewing of the body. She had been gone for several hours but those present immediately began praying, pleading, calling out for, and claiming a miracle. They were strong in their faith. They cited Scripture, they affirmed visions and prophecies of what her life was to be and this was not it! They renounced Satan and his plans, they claimed Jesus as the Great Healer, they cried out of the Holy Spirit to fill that place and to breathe the breath of life back into her lungs, and clung to God’s sovereign power and control. And there was no miracle. The body was eventually removed and the family and loved ones departed.

A little over an hour later I had the honor of leading the chapel service. One of those in attendance was the mother of a patient and family I have been ministering to over the past few weeks. After the service, with joy on her face and tears in her eyes, she told me of the miracle that had occurred since I last saw her earlier this week. God had been faithful. God had heard their prayers. God was sovereign and in control. Her daughter’s recovery was miraculous. It was a miracle. There was abounding joy, tears, and gratefulness.

This is where theology meets the real world. And let me tell you, it’s messy.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.

My Challenge to You

So, the ALS ice bucket challenge is all the rage right now. I have intentionally refrained from posting or commenting on anyone’s post for fear of being called out. Well, my dad challenged me and my siblings (thanks a lot dad!) and as the challenge goes, “you’ve got 24 hours.” I’m supposed to accept the challenge and post my own video dumping a bucket of ice water on myself or I can give to the ALS Association (or both!). As of August 22nd, over $50 million dollars in donations had been given to the ALS Association: http://time.com/3159673/als-ice-bucket-challenge-donations/

I celebrate the awareness that has been raised and the generosity of so many. However, I have felt unsettled every time I see another video on my news feed. Throughout much of the United States and around the world, we have heard about drought conditions and water shortages all summer long. I recently saw a picture on Facebook of a group of individuals walking with buckets on their heads to retrieve water with the caption: “Ice bucket challenge? You know how far I had to walk to get this?”

I cannot help but think about my friends in Ghana and what they might think about all of this? If you have read my blog before, you no doubt have read about my dear friend Vincent Asamoah. Vincent and his family are some of my favorite people in all the world. They truly live out what they say they believe. As a result of God’s calling upon their family and the passion God placed in the depths of Vincent’s soul, Vincent stepped out in faith, resigned from a job that paid the bills but took him away from his calling and passion, and went to work full-time as a completely 100% fund raised staff member through Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Vincent and his family knew Shoot 4 Life Ministries was what God was calling them to do. They knew this would require sacrifice and change.

Vincent had to give up the vehicle his former job provided him. They had to move to a more affordable housing situation. Unfortunately, landlords in Ghana are often greedy and corrupt. As a result, the most affordable housing Vincent and his family could afford does not have running water.

My dear friend Vincent and his family have lived without running water for over a year now. But this is not what Vincent would want you to know. This is a small inconvenience for the beauty and Good News of the Gospel of the Way of Christ.

Vincent would want you to know that over the last year, Shoot 4 Life Ministries and their ministry partners have shared the love of Christ with THOUSANDS of children through sport of basketball. Shoot 4 Life Ministries demonstrates to and teaches children about the Way and Love of Christ, respect and love for one another through the sport of basketball, and provides a meal and ice cold water to children who attend basketball camp.

I am going to use my pastoral voice and authority to re-frame the challenge I have received. I support Vincent and Shoot 4 Life Ministries on a monthly basis but I am going to give an additional gift to Vincent and I challenge YOU to do the same. I challenge you to give a one time gift or better yet, to join in and support Vincent on a monthly basis. You can give to Vincent here: https://my.fca.org/3742-asamoah-vincent.aspx

There are many worthy causes to give to and to challenge people to learn more about. I challenge you to support the work of God in Ghana through Vincent Asamoah, his family, and his team. I challenge you to learn more about the mission of God in Ghana and how Shoot 4 Life Ministries seeks to join in with what God is doing. Learn more about Shoot 4 Life Ministries here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/SHOOT-4-LIFE-MINISTRIES/270228426354555

As an aside, I have not posted on this blog recently, however, Heather and I have both been active writing this summer. Please feel free to check out things we have written published elsewhere. Enjoy!

Born anew? https://www.facebook.com/notes/wilshire-baptist-church/born-anew/10154466280090317

Is there room at the table? https://www.facebook.com/notes/wilshire-baptist-church/is-there-room-at-the-table/10154413866275317

Talk and Action: https://www.facebook.com/notes/wilshire-baptist-church/talk-and-action/10154364939015317

Here are two posts Heather had published on a larger scale:

Until the Lion Has Its Historian, the Hunter Will Always Be the Hero: http://nacsw.org/blog/2014/until-the-lion-has-its-historian-the-hunter-will-always-be-the-hero/

As Rockets Fall: http://www.abpnews.com/opinion/commentaries/item/28765-as-rockets-fall

Reflection on the Pool of Bethesda

John 5:1-9a (NLT)
Afterward Jesus returned to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish holy days. Inside the city, near the Sheep Gate, was the pool of Bethesda, with five covered porches. Crowds of sick people—blind, lame, or paralyzed—lay on the porches. One of the men lying there had been sick for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him and knew he had been ill for a long time, he asked him, “Would you like to get well?” “I can’t, sir,” the sick man said, “for I have no one to put me into the pool when the water bubbles up. Someone else always gets there ahead of me.” Jesus told him, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!” Instantly, the man was healed! He rolled up his sleeping mat and began walking!” (emphasis mine).
As I have reflected on our trip to Israel, our experience at the Pool of Bethesda has impacted me deeply. It wasn’t just the site itself but the visit to the site along side the encounters and conversations surrounding this experience. While we were there, I was able to offer a reflection or devotion on this passage and the significance of the word “saw” found in verse 6 and the imago Dei. I’ll let you in on a little Mustain family secret: we aren’t perfect. Never have been. Never will be. Never tried to give the impression we were. Life can be messy. Family can be messy. But life and family can both be beautiful and life giving as well. Love and risk walk hand in hand.
Our family is made up of a collection of unique individuals made in the image of God. In the midst of our similarities, we have different backgrounds, different educations, and different beliefs. We each bring our unique set of experiences to the table. We see eye to eye on some things and on other things we couldn’t think more differently. Yet, we are still family. During one family debrief at the end of the day, my dad reminded us that what we desire in our family is love and unity, NOT uniformity. Too often uniformity is the expectation for many families, churches, and communities. That may be how it works in your family but that is not how it works in ours. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
So, why this Scripture passage and this background information? This past Wednesday, I was given the opportunity to share a devotional at our Baylor Scott and White system staff meeting for the Office of Mission and Ministry. There were roughly 50 chaplains and other staff members present in the room and linked in via video conference. Slightly intimidating to say the least. I shared a devotional reflection on this experience at the Pool of Bethesda. This is what I shared:

I have always loved this story but I especially fell in love with it when I sat by the actual Pool of Bethesda with my family on our recent trip to Israel.

I learned that until the pools were discovered by archeologists, we did not know if these pools existed or if it was more of a metaphoric or symbolic teaching from the Gospel of John. I also learned that the name Bethesda is a sort of play on words as well. The name is made up two Hebrew or Aramaic words: “beth” meaning house and “hesda” meaning mercy or grace. I’ve been told that depending on the context, hesda can also mean shame or disgrace.

So, in our passage, we read of a pool in Jerusalem where people would gather, hoping to be healed, to be shown mercy. It says there were crowds of sick people. They were blind, lame, and paralyzed. We don’t know specifically what was wrong with the man in the story but it says he was sick or ill. I am guess he was disabled in some way because he needed help getting into the water.

Perhaps these people who gathered at the pool outcasts? They might be the shame of their family or community. They might be or feel disgraced because of their disability but they are hoping to be healed or shown grace. So, I think you can see how the name Bethesda is fitting. Perhaps it was a place of shame or disgrace, hoping to encounter mercy and grace?

So, the man in the story was sick for 38 years and I am guessing he has also been completely overlooked and forgotten. When he meets Jesus, he says someone else always gets in the water before him. He was over looked. No one cared. No one helped him. It does not seem he has anyone to advocate for him.

But all that changed when he met Jesus.

I think the key word or phrase is saw: “When Jesus saw him…”. I don’t think Jesus saw just the outside of the man. I think Jesus SAW him. I think Jesus saw not just someone who was disable and felt pity for him. I think Jesus SAW deep into the soul of a man who despite his illness was still a person who bears the image of God.

In the creation poems of Genesis 1 and 2 we find this idea of the imago Dei, the image of God. And for many of us chaplains, that is a basic building block of our ministry, believing every patient we encounter bears the image of God.

However, do we really believe or treat everyone as one who bears the image of God? How often do we fail to see or chose not to see? The homeless person on the street corner begging for change? That church board member who just makes your church experience a living hell? Perhaps it’s that Facebook friend or family member who’s political or religious views are just so different form yours you’re convinced you can’t love and serve the same God?

We could take this deeper still. In a recent article my wife had published she said that “We so often attach labels to people who are different than us or that we don’t understand. We have a human tendency to assign categories to people that only really help us disconnect from the biblical idea of the imago Dei.” She says, “as a Christian, I believe no one is so far beyond God’s grasp of redemption, not even the one lost sheep, coin or son.”

We often see people but do we truly see them? Do we see them and stop? Do we see them and engage them in conversation? Do we see them and listen? Do we see them as someone who bears the image of God?

Here in the hospital, I see a lot of patients and families as a resident chaplain. I have the opportunity, hopefully, to see people. So often, people are defined by their illness. What I have learned through the power of story is that people are more than their illness or struggles. Prior to needing a a liver or kidney transplant they were a successful business person. Or they loved to be outdoors and were very active. Or they loved babysitting their grandkids. Their story has been consumed by their illness and they are only seen as someone who’s color is changing to yellow as their liver fails them or they are extremely bloated from kidney failure.

Every day I am presented with opportunities to stop, to see, to listen, engage, and to learn. As I discover the imago Dei in them they also help highlight the imago Dei within me.

So, do we really see people? Can we see beyond skin color? Can we see past the illness or disability? Can we see in spite of the political and religious difference? Can we like Jesus, see some because they bear the image of God? May it be so.

So, that’s what I shared on Wednesday. A good sermon or message is always most pertinent to the one who delivers it. I am in need of the message just as much, if not more, than to those who have heard it or read it. This question of the imago Dei is hitting home for me right now in more ways than one. In order to get home from Baylor University Medical Center, I drive through not the best part of Dallas. After a hard day of ministry at the hospital, I just want to get home but I pass by numerous people who I want to choose not to see because I am tired but yet they bear the image of God. It is a difficult tension to ask when am I “on the clock” and when and am I “off the clock?” When have I served enough for one day?

And honestly, in recent days, church people have been some of the most difficult people for me to love and see as ones who bear the image of God.

So, I close with some words from the recovery tradition praying: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know it’s ME!”

Amen.

(P.S. I had intended to post pictures I took at the Pool of Bethesda but for some reason I am unable to right now. I will try to edit this post later and post a picture or two.)

Tensions: A Holy Land Pilgrimage

On Thursday, we returned from a family pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity that my parents afforded us to experience together as a family. We are all deeply grateful for this unique experience to share together.

I posted some of my favorite pictures of the experience on my Facebook, Instagram (http://instagram.com/chadm02), and Twitter. Feel free to check them out.

Throughout the experience and since we returned, I’ve reflected upon the all that we saw, learned, and enjoyed. I think the learning that took place on this trip will be gradually discovered like peeling back the layers of an onion. In the midst of the experience, there were many tensions that were present. Tension is a word I used often to describe my life experiences. For instance, here are some of the tensions that I recognized:

Theological: a literal reading versus a narrative reading of the Scripture text.

Historical: there are two different traditional sites of where the crucifixion and tomb burial took place. One site is in the heart of the city where an elaborate church was built to commemorate the location. The other site has been preserved as a garden and you can see the rock face of Golgotha (the place of the skull). I’ve posted pictures of both sites here (http://instagram.com/chadm02).

Family: although we are a family, there were four different couples and four different ways of doing life (Jim and Sharon, Chad and Heather, Joy and Caleb, and Katelyn and Jesse). There were eight different theological, historical, and present day interpretations of what we saw and experienced together.

Present day: there are many dynamics and interpretations of the current situation of present day Israel (the tensions with the Palestinians and Israel’s other neighbors, the role/purpose of Israel in history, and theories of the last days/events). For a great reflection of one of the present day events we experienced on the Golan Heights, read Heather’s reflection here: http://www.abpnews.com/opinion/commentaries/item/28765-as-rockets-fall

Additionally, the pilgrimage experience is shaped by the views of your tour guide. We were blessed to have a wonderful Jewish tour guide who is now a believer. Yet in the midst of our commonalities of belief, he added another layer of the tension as he would share his interpretation of the theological, historical, and present day tensions we were experiencing.

As most of you know, I am a morning person so each morning I often had several hours of solitude to reflect, read, and write. Throughout the trip I read the book Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life by Thomas Moore. This book was a valuable conversation partner for me throughout the trip. Towards the end of the book Moore shares:

“Soul-making is a journey that takes time, effort, skill, knowledge, intuition, and courage. It is helpful to know that all work with soul is process — alchemy, pilgrimage, and adventure — so that we don’t expect instant success or even any kind of finality. [...] This is the ‘goal’ of the soul path — to feel existence; not to overcome life’s struggles and anxieties, but to know life first hand, to exist fully in context. [...] But the only thing to do is to be where you are at this moment, sometimes looking about in the full light of consciousness, other times standing comfortable in the deep shadows of mystery and the unknown. [...] The soul becomes greater and deeper through the living out of the messes and the gaps [...].”

At this point in my process of reflection and learning about our Holy Land pilgrimage, the last line best sums up where I am at currently: “The soul becomes greater and deeper through the living out of the messes and the gaps [...].” Life is messy. Theology is messy. History is messy. Family is messy. The present is messy. Yet in the midst of the mess, there is depth, beauty, richness, and joy. In life and faith, love and risk go hand in hand, walk side by side.

May we be blessed as we continue in this pilgrimage and process of life together.

Amen.

Blogs and Bullies

These days, the bullies I encounter don’t hang out on playgrounds but on blogs, twitter, and facebook. No, I’m not the victim of “cyber-bullying” but in the past week there was some unfortunate bullying taking place in the blogosphere.

Many of you are familiar with Rachel Held Evens (http://rachelheldevans.com/). She sort of came out of nowhere with her first book and is now a regular speaker at conferences, church retreats, universities etc. Her views are not for everyone but she is passionate about helping create safe and welcoming space in Christianity for those who no longer resonate with popular, white, North American Evangelicalism.

This week, Owen Strachan took to bullying RHE because her views were not what he deems orthodox. He is, among other things, the president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Yes, sadly, there is such a thing. You can read his bullying here:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thoughtlife/2014/05/when-a-theology-post-is-unsafe-for-facebook/

and here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thoughtlife/2014/05/rachel-held-evans-and-what-god-herself-means/

You can read RHE’s response here: http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/owen-strachan-facebook

This breaks my heart because despite our differences they are both my brother and sister. Most importantly, it breaks the heart of God. I meet people every day who have left the Church because of various reasons from being told they did not believe “correctly” or because they were not dressed “correctly.” Friends, this should not be so!

I believe in a better Church. I resolve to peacefully help bring about a more loving Church. I am hoping for and participating in a different kind of tomorrow.

Amen.