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Keep Warm

May 21st, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, May 21, 2017, the fifth Sunday after Easter.

Text: Ecclesiastes 4:7-11

 

What is the most important thing in your life?  Without taking a poll, my guess is that, for many if not most of us, a person or group of people come to mind immediately.  Today we’re going to think together about relationships—the primary relationships in our lives with partners, family members, and close friends.  Each one of us in this room today has so much going on in our relationships—some is painful, some wonderful, and a lot under the surface.  There is always a lot.  As I prepared this “Soul Food” sermon series, I had in mind things I was hearing about how folks are trying to cope with living their already full lives with the added stress, outrage, fear, and uncertainty that has gotten stirred by the presidential campaign, election, and subsequent events.  One of the things that emerged was the toll these things were taking on relationships.  I heard this loudest with regard to family members with opposing political views. But I also have heard, spoken almost in a whisper, that marriages were feeling the effects, that the stresses were finding their way into folks’ closest relationships.  And of course this would be the case.  Anthony and I just moved into a new home in Brookland here in DC.  Moving is stressful.  Add that to all the other stress already exists in our lives?  Well… All our stuff shows up in our primary relationships in one way or another…and for better or for worse.  What I also know—particularly on the heels of this week’s events in my own life—is that it is good to have a friend, to have a partner, to have someone who will not only put up with you, but who will help you recalibrate and find your balance again.

 

The rather dark and cranky wisdom of Qoheleth in the book of Ecclesiastes puts it this way: “Two are better than one…for if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help.  Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone?”  In other words, we need one another.  Trying to “go it alone” is a pretty daunting task and, even if we can persevere for a while, there will come a time when we just can’t do what we need to do without the help of another person.  (I have to admit, I considered breaking here for a singalong of all the songs on this subject:  “Lean on me,” “With a Little Help From My Friends,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Rise Up,” not to mention all the love songs!…) We are created to be in relationship and, regardless of the shape, size, or make-up of our family and circle of friends, the primary relationships in our lives are a profound source of “soul food.”  Sometimes we let other things in our lives—work, bad habits, or emotional baggage—keep us from fully receiving the nourishment available.

 

Over the years, I have known many folks who found their marriage in a shambles from years of failure to communicate; I have witnessed children alienated from their parents due to lack of time spent together; I have watched friendships sour through failure to show up for one another.  But today our focus is not on broken relationships—or on those tragic instances of abuse, betrayal, and the like.  Rather, it is a simple reminder that there is nothing more important than the primary relationships that we have in our lives right now, that these relationships deserve our care and attention, and that they are a source of deep nourishment.

 

Have you ever noticed how, in the movies and fairy tales and TV, the focus of the story is often on all the activity leading up to the beginning of a real relationship?  I mean, with Snow White, you’ve got all those little dwarves and songs of longing for the handsome prince, but just when they finally meet—for the first time, mind you!!—we hear the words:  “and they lived happily ever after.” …They JUST MET!  (talk about setting up unhealthy expectations!)  In the movies you see the hot pursuit of one person for another and, most times, the credits begin to roll just about the time that they’ve finally decided to be together.  In fantasy land, the hard part of romantic relationships is all in the meeting.  And, of course, meeting the right person is certainly not always easy and is often pretty darn hard.  But I would suggest that the even harder part of relationships is what happens after you’ve ridden off into the sunset, after you’ve made a commitment.  “For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…”  Even if your call is to singleness or even if you never use those traditional words with a partner, that stuff is the stuff of real relationship and when you are in a real relationship with another person things get real pretty quickly.

 

Unfortunately, idealized pictures of relationships get into our heads.  Because we tend to want things to be easier than they are, we appropriate these images and, as a result, can end up feeling put upon or like failures, when commitment and relationship aren’t as easy as “and they lived happily ever after.”  It wasn’t supposed to be this way… // Any meaningful relationship will require care, cultivation, patience, work.  Like a garden, our relationships need to be lovingly tended or they can become dry, unmanageable, even unrecognizable.  Healthy relationships require an investment of time.  Today at Foundry, we prayed blessing upon small group leaders who have or will convene groups across the DMV.  Connecting with a small group—making that commitment of time to be in relationship with other folks in a way that is thoughtful, accountable, and honest—is a great way to practice the care and cultivation of meaningful relationships. 

 

In my own life, I do OK with some relationships, less OK with others.  And always, I can do better.  More than one clergy colleague has posted recently on FaceBook about struggling to be a good friend—about how ministry in the church always seems to override making time for friendships.  I can totally relate!  Our work responsibilities—no matter what they are—can become so all-consuming that we have little time or energy for friends or anyone else.  My further challenge is that even when I have held aside time to spend with Anthony (my spouse), he often gets the worst of me since I have been so intent on trying to give my best to everyone else.  Perhaps you understand what I’m talking about.  We can be patient, open, creative, engaged with others, but when it comes to our partner, parent, or child?  //

 

There is so much to consider and so many important things to practice in order to sustain healthy, nourishing relationships.  We have to communicate well, we have to—as my Arkansas grandma taught me—“give a little and take a little,” that is we need to learn to compromise; it is important to have compassion—to think about things from the other’s point of view and then be patient and gentle, forgiving and open.  Learning how to have healthy relationships is a lifelong process.  When it’s going well, what a joy and delight!  You feel heard, understood, and connected.  You experience tenderness and intimacy.  You know yourself to be cared for.  You can laugh together and accomplish difficult things together.  Now that is some nourishing soul food!

 

Today I want to invite you to put not only care but also celebration of relationships on your plate.  Celebrate the gift that you are to each other!  Take every opportunity to celebrate!  I have a friend who does this so well—she sends me cards, messages, funny gifts, all sorts of things for any possible occasion!  And it doesn’t have to be concrete gifts we share, but simply speaking the words of gratitude, naming what you love and appreciate about your partner or friend—sometimes for no apparent reason.  Celebrate the victories of life, whether large or small.  Find opportunities to play and to laugh and to cheer each other on!  Parents can do this for their children and children for their parents, friends for friends, and spouses for one another.  Celebrate the gift of having relationships that matter and that nourish our lives.  Don’t take these precious people for granted. 

 

Without them, who would lift us up when we fall?  How would we ever keep warm?

 

 

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The Sacred Sommelier

May 14th, 2017

This sermon was preached by Guest Preacher Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana at Foundry UMC on Sunday, May 14, 2017.

Text: John 2:1-11

 

 

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."

 

Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, "Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward." So they took it.

 

When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, "Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now." Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

 

 

 

When Ginger invited me to come and be a part of this Soul Food series around the topic of PLAY, I thought immediately of my friend Cindy Rigby, a professor at Austin Presbyterian Seminary. Cindy has been studying the theology of play in recent years, and believes that play is vital to our spiritual lives and necessary for a healthy understanding of God.

 

Cindy told a group of colleagues about an event where she was asked to speak some years ago. When she proposed the theology of play as her topic, the event planners balked. These are serious times we live in, they said. People are out of work; we are a nation at war. Play seems frivolous, a luxury we can’t afford.

 

Fine, she thought. So she tweaked the titles of her presentations and gave them impressive-sounding names, replete with plenty of fifty-cent words, to be more palatable to the organizers. And then she went ahead and presented the play stuff under these new important-sounding headings. I applaud her playful deviousness.

 

It’s true, isn’t it, that some people feel they are “too important to play”; they almost have to be tricked into it. These people will tell you that, like the apostle Paul in I Corinthians, they’ve put away childish things (1 Cor. 13:11).

 

And in a world as fast-paced and chaotic as ours, such industriousness is understandable. We’re here in one of the nerve centers of the political world, and boy does it seem like that nerve is exposed and scraped raw right now. So many of us these days, if we’re not actually working in the halls of government ourselves, are contacting those people, through letters, phone calls, and town halls… speaking truth to power, standing with the vulnerable and the oppressed… that “sacred resistance” that is in the air here at Foundry and in many other congregations. You’ve probably heard the old adage, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” We might also say, “If you’re not overwhelmed, you’re not paying attention.” The 24-hour news cycle has tired me out. There is very little energy left over for “frivolous” things.

 

Meanwhile Christ House still needs a lunch from us once a month, the building needs upgrades, and who’s going to teach the 1st and 2nd grade Sunday School next year? To say nothing of the various everyday tasks that make up a life. Commuting. Working. Cooking and cleaning. Paying bills. Flossing. A friend of mine who lives on Capitol Hill and in many ways embodies the type-A mindset of this area had a therapist tell her, “You know, maybe you don’t need to see your entire life as one big self-improvement project.” She responded, “My gosh, what else would it be?”

 

And yet just about every one of us is born with an innate sense of play.  Methodist minister and coach Chris Holmes reports a study in which a five-year-old on average engages in 98 creative tasks per day. By contrast, a 44- year-old engages in two creative tasks per day. A 5-year-old on average laughs 113 times per day; a 44-year-old laughs 11 times. Holmes says, “Where did we lose our sense of creativity, humor and curiosity?”

 

Now, I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I wonder how many of us heard that statistic and started auditing our lives: Hmm, how many acts of creativity do I undertake on the average day…? How many times did I laugh yesterday? Did I laugh yesterday?

 

Or perhaps you heard those numbers and folded your arms in skepticism: Well how do you define creative acts? What was the sample size? Was this a survey or an experiment in a controlled environment? OK, I’ll raise my hand for that, which may be a sign that this sermon is for the preacher as much as for the congregation.

 

But it’s when things are at their most dire that play becomes necessary. Rabbi Edwin Friedman, a guru in the area of family systems, wrote that anxiety keeps people pessimistic, to the point that it becomes almost impossible for anxious people to reorient themselves toward positive change. An unwillingness to play, or an inability to do so, is a symptom of an unhealthy or anxious system. The most steadfast social justice workers I know have a certain fizziness to them, that comes from taking their work seriously but taking themselves lightly, that comes from a certain playfulness that undergirds their lives. Because play is a conduit for perspective, and for hope. Play is not a luxury right now. It is essential.

 

But we’re together in a church, which means we’re not just here to talk about the psycho-social benefits of play. We’re also here to explore play as an act of faith and discipleship. Our job is made a little tough, because there aren’t tons of examples of play in scripture. But if you look at today’s story, in which Jesus turns water into wine and keeps the wedding feast going late into the night, you don’t have to squint too hard to see it as a deeply play-full act at its heart.

 

This is Jesus’ first sign in the gospel, and it feels different from the others. There are seven in all, and in case you need a review, here they are in no particular order:

 

  • Walking on water.
  • Three healings.
  • Feeding 5,000 people with the contents of a child’s picnic.
  • Raising a guy from the dead.
  • And… restocking the bar at a wedding.

 

One of these signs is not like the other.

 

Jesus’ mother comes to him: “They have no more wine.” It’s a statement… that’s really a question. A request. And Jesus gets that, because he responds to what remains unsaid: No mother, that is not my concern. This is not mine to do.

 

Maybe he figured he was too important to tend to such frivolous things. Not when there were people to heal and tables to overturn and Pharisees to take to school and justice to proclaim.

 

Mary is saying to him, Look… here is an opportunity.

And Jesus responds: Really? Beverage service? For my inaugural sign? I don’t think so.

 

And she turns toward everyone else: Do what he tells you. And again there is a subtext: You are needed, right now, right here.

 

I love that Jesus’ first sign is one he never intended to make.

 

What Jesus does here is improvise. He sees an opportunity to create something, and he uses what’s on hand to make it happen. I’ve been practicing improv for a few years now, and it’s an incredible creative exercise. You take a group of people and maybe a couple of chairs, and somehow scenes get created, and characters come to life. Together, improvisers construct entire worlds.

 

Now, when Jesus improvises, he creates not just decent wine, but the finest vintage the steward has ever tasted. I’m still relatively new at improv, and I can tell you that a lot of what we create is not good wine; it’s more like the wine that comes in the big jugs at the grocery store.

 

But the product isn’t the point. The point is to play.

 

In my Presbyterian tradition, we have the Westminster Catechism as one of our creeds, and much of it feels antiquated and a little stodgy, so I would never presume to foist it on you good Methodists… but let me offer you question one, if you’d like it:

What is the chief end of humanity?

To glorify God and enjoy God forever.

 

To enjoy God—that is our highest purpose.  

 

Cindy Rigby says this about the theology of play:

Too often, in our overextended culture, we conceive of ‘play’ as a ‘break’ from work that renews us to be able, once again, to work. It is a problem when we view our play as ‘merely reproductive’ rather than ‘productive’ activity. It is precisely through playing (in this specific, theological sense) that we are able to imagine God's Kingdom/God’s will in such a way that God’s desires become our desires. It is through imagination, founded in play, that we are able to participate in and even contribute to the coming of this Kingdom to earth as it is in heaven.[1]

 

*        *        *

 

We’ll never know what Jesus had in mind for his inaugural sign. What we do know is that his first sign wasn’t a healing… it wasn’t an exorcism or feeding 5,000 people. It wasn’t even a really good sermon. The first sign of Jesus helped the hosts of the wedding save face, to be sure, but otherwise it had very little usefulness. It was just an act of pure beauty. The celebration needs to go on, says Jesus. The love and fellowship should continue.

 

Jesus’ whole ministry began with a party.

 

About a year ago, a high school student in Nacogdoches, Texas named Taylor Ries asked if she could attend the prom with her same-gender date. School officials referred her to the student handbook, which said she could go by herself or with a date of the opposite sex. A back and forth ensued, and to cut to the chase, the school decided to cancel the prom rather than change the policy to accommodate Taylor and her date. So this year, there will be no prom at Central Heights High School.

 

But there will be a prom. Because members of the community decided to come together and host a “Lavender Prom”—a come-as-you-are event for LGBTQ kids and their dates and friends, a party that would be welcoming to all.[2]

 

This hits close to home for me because I was born and raised in Texas, and it seems like every week there’s a new state bill to restrict LGBT rights and protections. The latest is a bill in the Texas house that would allow adoption and foster care agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ prospective parents.

 

In the wake of such mean-spiritedness in the Texas legislature, a lavender prom in a small East Texas town is such a small thing. But it’s a sign in the same way Jesus providing wine was a sign. Yes, people need to organize politically, and write letters, and try and elect candidates who don’t discriminate. But in the meantime, a prom for queer kids and their friends and dates can be a small act of beauty, like wine at a wedding.

 

These young people should be able to play.

 

Jesus said, "Fill the jars with water."

And they filled them up to the brim.

 

So may we be filled: with a spirit of curiosity, grace, and holy play.

Thanks be to God.

 

[1] http://www.ntxe-news.com/cgi-bin/artman/exec/view.cgi?archive=29&num=49438

[2] Kudos to my friend, Heather Olson Beal, for her work on this initiative: https://www.gofundme.com/lavender-prom-come-as-you-are

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News and Views

May 7th, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, May 7, 2017, the third Sunday after Easter.

Texts: Proverbs 15:28-33, Habakkuk 2:18-20

 

Ayurveda is a traditional Indian, holistic healing system that pays attention to what we put into our bodies—and not just food, but also images, surroundings, relationships… Ayurveda is a complex system, but grounded on a pretty basic principle: what we take in to our bodies and lives affects our overall health and well-being. This ancient medicine came to mind as I read today’s verses from Proverbs.  The focus in the text isn’t food—a prominent part of Ayurveda—but rather is on words and messages spoken and received.  The body is mentioned again and again—the “mind,” the “mouth,” the “eyes,” the “ear” are all named.  And the line that really struck me:  “good news refreshes the body.” (Pr 15:30b)  Good news.  Who doesn’t love good news?  Receiving good news is like being offered a drink of cool water on a hot day, refreshing and nourishing…  But these days, it often feels like there is an absence of much good news. It feels like we sojourn in a dry and weary land; we can begin to feel parched.  Disturbing news, confusing news, bad news is readily available and always popping up on our screens—screens that go with us everywhere.  Recently, I heard Anne Lamott say that children observe their parents carrying around full multimedia empires on them!  The ping or buzz of our devices functions like Pavlov’s bell, eliciting a compulsive need to look. Practitioners of Ayurveda would caution against the imbalances and dis-ease caused by too steady a diet of “screen time” and disturbing news.

 

As I did research for today’s sermon, I was reminded of the ways that what we call “the news” —especially the TV and online news—is such a small slice of what is happening in the world.  These outlets have all sorts of incentives to broadcast bad news—ratings and ad money to name just a couple.  And this “click bait” and constant stream of upsetting reports is in our face any time we turn on our smartphone, our television, or our computer.  There is a plethora of data and reporting on the harmful effects of constant connection via mobile devices and the steady streaming of “news” and information.[i]  Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a professor at the University of Texas–San Antonio and leading researcher on the connection between media consumption and stress, is clear that folks who suffer from mental illnesses like anxiety and depression need to be very careful about their news intake.  And for all of us, taking in bad news can contribute to a sense of helplessness…and “can also lead us to gradually see the world as a darker and darker place, chipping away at certain optimistic tendencies.”[ii]  This confirms the ancient Indian medicine.  What we engage and “take in” deeply affects us—for good or for ill. 

 

Our “Soul Food” series is focused on things that nourish our lives—things that provide perspective, grounding, energy, hope, and encouragement.  So far, we’ve explored the benefits of laughter and engaging with the created world.  And today our focus is on how to manage our use of devices and our intake of “news” and other messages. 

 

In the months following the election, I heard all sorts of perspectives on this topic.  Some folks said we needed to be more vigilant than ever in staying informed and up to date on what is happening.  Others said the thing to do is turn the news off completely because it’s simply too damaging, too full of “spin,” and ultimately not helpful.  Still others were working on strategies to hover between the “all-in” or “cut it off” extremes—and sought out a measured, balanced diet of solid journalism from several different perspectives.  Many of us, of course, have no choice about whether or not to follow the news because our job requires that we know the headlines and stay in the conversation.  But even if that’s not your reality, for those of us committed to sacred resistance, it is important to find ways to stay informed.  As I have suggested before, it is also our responsibility to guard against confirmation bias—that is, to listen to a variety of voices, not only those that confirm what we already think.  We need to “stay awake” but we also have to be mindful of the effects of what we are “taking in.”  Just as our bodies need a balanced diet that works with our particular constitution, our psyches and souls need a balanced diet as well. Feeding ourselves only bad news will make us sick. 

 

“The light of the eyes rejoices the heart, and good news refreshes the body.”  My study Bible says that “the light of the eyes” refers to “the cheerful look of the messenger.”  In other words, the way the message is communicated makes a difference.  And “good news refreshes the body” is pretty straightforward.  We need to both monitor the intake of challenging news AND feed ourselves with good news that is communicated with “light” in the eyes.  How do we do this?

 

McNaughton-Cassill suggests that the most important piece of guarding against the negative effects of the news, it to “get conscious.”  “That is, stop consuming news like a hungry teenager wolfs down a Pop-Tart …‘You have to get some control mentally.’…The more you understand your own reaction to the news, the easier it will be to shape your news-consumption habits in an adaptive way.  It’s also useful to see the bigger pictures, of course. ‘Consciously focus yourself on the evidence around you that the news is picking out the extremes and the bad things,’ McNaughton-Cassill said.  In other words, understand that you’re seeing a lot of bad news not because the world is an inherently evil place, but because news outlets — not to mention individual Twitter and Facebook users — have lots of incentives to broadcast explosively negative news stories.”[iii]  Get conscious…keep perspective.

 

// I’ve been trying to practice what I preach in terms of guarding against confirmation bias.  I find it difficult and exhausting to try to search out a variety of perspectives.  One resource I’ve recently discovered is a weekly newsletter that pulls together reporting on the activities of the president from both liberal and conservative news outlets.  It’s called “Last Week in Trump”[iv] and, according to the editor, is “an attempt to cut through all the noise that surrounds coverage of Trump on both sides while also building some badly needed empathy between liberals and conservatives.”[v]  When I became aware of this resource, I felt like someone had just offered me a gift.  There is help available!

 

So that’s some guidance for how to manage our intake of challenging news and at least one resource to try to listen to a variety of perspectives. What about balancing the diet with some good stuff?  I am aware of several sources that exist to share good news—the stories that don’t generally take center stage in mainstream media.  Perhaps some of you subscribe to “The Optimist” newsletter from The Washington Post. This arrives in my email box every Sunday, carrying with it stories that are uplifting and positive.  I also discovered a couple of websites that curate stories that have the potential to “refresh the body.”  One is called “Daily Good” and another is called “Good News Network” (not to be confused with the “Good News” magazine or movement in the UMC).[vi]  I’m thinking about how I might replace the current landing page when I open up the internet on my computer with one of these sites.  What would it be like to be inundated with interesting, positive stories first, rather than the junkfood that so often fills my screen’s proverbial “plate?” (do I really need to see anything else about a Kardashian?)

 

It is amazing how much flows through these little devices we carry around.  They are the portals for so much information, the source of so much truly helpful data.  I honestly don’t know how I ever found my way anywhere before having this phone…   I’m grateful for the ways that my phone and various social media apps like FaceBook help me stay connected to people I care about.  I love being able to share—even in a remote way—in some of the joys and concerns of friends and family all over the country.  I find that some of those online applications have helped me know some of you more—as we’ve “interacted” via FaceBook or Twitter.  The devices and technologies we have are so powerful—allowing for rapid responses to pressing needs and organic movements to take shape and all sorts of creative ventures to get financial support and on it goes.  There are apps and sites that help us connect in prayer and meditation—Pray As You Go, Insight Timer, Sacred Space, and Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals—just to name a few.  There is so much blessing that can be received through these devices!  But as with any gift, technologies can be used for good or for ill.  It’s up to us to be mindful of when and how we use our devices—what we take in and what we share through them affects life in significant ways.

 

Yes, we need to stay awake, informed, and aware.  But we also need big helpings of good news.  “Good news refreshes the body.”  It is soul food.  And if we are really paying attention, we know that in God’s world there is always more than enough good news to go around. Why not partake?  Why not share?  Because, God knows, everyone’s hungry.

 

[i] Here are a few: http://www.activebeat.com/your-health/women/6-health-dangers-of-smartphone-overuse/?utm_medium=cpc&utm_source=bing&utm_campaign=AB_BNG_US_DESK&cus_widget={placement}&utm_content=search_marketing&utm_term=Smartphone

http://ndoherty.com/why-you-should-stop-watching-the-news/

https://www.theguardian.com/media/2013/apr/12/news-is-bad-rolf-dobelli

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/your-neurochemical-self/201410/stop-traumatizing-yourself-watching-the-news

http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2014/08/what-all-this-bad-news-is-doing-to-us.html

[ii] Jesse Singal, “What All This Bad News Is Doing to Us,” New York Magazine, The Science of Us, August 8, 2014, http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2014/08/what-all-this-bad-news-is-doing-to-us.html

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] http://lastweekintrump.com/, http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/last-week-in-trump-newsletter-aims-to-offer-the-best-of-both-bubbles/

[v] https://www.geekwire.com/2017/last-week-trump-newsletter-distills-hyper-partisan-news-create-empathy-sides/

[vi] The Washington Post <newsletter@paloma.washingtonpost.com>

http://www.dailygood.org/

http://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/

 

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The Way the World Is

April 30th, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, April 30, 2017, the second Sunday after Easter.

 

Texts: Psalm 19:1-6, Job 12:7-10

 

 

This past week, I traveled alongside other Foundry folks to Newark, New Jersey to stand witness at the Judicial Council’s public hearings on the case brought against the Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church regarding their election, consecration, and assignment of the Rev. Karen Oliveto as a bishop.  Bishop Oliveto, the UMC’s first openly gay bishop, is an accomplished pastor whose gifts, and graces for episcopal leadership are abundantly clear to everyone.  At issue for those bringing the complaint is nothing to do with her competence, loyalty to the UMC, or faithfulness to Jesus, but rather Bishop Oliveto’s sexual orientation and marriage.  On those grounds, the argument went, the actions of the Western Jurisdiction to elect, consecrate, and assign Bishop Oliveto should be found to be “null, void, and of no effect.”  And I thought to myself, “There’s no way any human, legal process can nullify or make ineffectual what Spirit is doing in and through Bishop Karen and the deeply discerned actions of our siblings in the West.”  The ruling that came out on Friday simply upheld what we already know to be unjust policy.  It changes nothing about Bishop Oliveto’s profound and powerful ministry; nor can it take away any of the grace that has flowed into the world through her or through countless other LGBTQ clergy who have served from the beginning.  Human laws can try, but will always fail to hinder God! (ref. Acts 10-11) Even so, human laws can be cruel. They can do harm. Our church’s laws continue to do harm.

 

But this is the way the world is.  The human family divides, rejects, litigates, belittles, and does harm in so many ways—and for all sorts of reasons that are simply unnecessary and so often driven by fear.

This weekend, our Sacred Resistance action was to participate in the People’s Climate March, a powerful witness of our commitment to faithful stewardship of and advocacy for clean air, water, land, healthy communities and a world at peace.  We know that there is a climate crisis, that ocean temperatures and levels are rising.  We know that human activities and industries are largely responsible for this, for the pollution of water, air, and land, and for the destabilization and destruction of entire ecosystems.  We know that there is a tragic intersection of injustice between the environmental crisis and the poor.  Over the course of the past several months, the much touted word “deregulation” has—at least in my mind—caused no shortage of anxiety.  Perhaps there are rules and regulations that do not, in fact, protect the creation as they were intended to do.  But I confess that when I hear the word “deregulation,” all I can think of is that businesses, industries, and manufacturers will be given free rein to do whatever they want as cheaply as they want with no thought of the environmental or communal consequences.  Some will do the right thing because their leadership and mission are guided by a strong moral compass.  Others—and my cynical side fears most others—will lack such discretion. 

 

But this is the way the world is.  The human family so often forgets our interdependence with each other and with all the creation.  We become short-sighted and seek what is most expedient and “cost effective” instead of what is most loving and mutually supportive. 

 

The way the world is can feel so heavy and leave us weary and hungry for something that nourishes our need for hope, for a sense of solid ground, for beauty, for tenderness.  What a gift it was to see the Pope’s TED talk[i] go viral this past week.  In the talk, Pope Francis speaks of our need for one another, of the need for a robust understanding and practice of solidarity, and for a “revolution of tenderness.”  What is the “tenderness” he is talking about?  “Tenderness is not weakness,” he says, “it is fortitude.”  “It is the love that comes close and becomes real. It is a movement that starts from our heart and reaches the eyes, the ears and the hands. Tenderness means to use our eyes to see the other, our ears to hear the other, to listen to the children, the poor, those who are afraid of the future. To listen also to the silent cry of our common home, of our sick and polluted earth. Tenderness means to use our hands and our heart to comfort the other, to take care of those in need.”[ii]

 

These words were “soul food” for me this week.  A powerful and timely reminder that even when it seems that the voices of rejection and division and fear and deregulation will prevail, the voice of love and Gospel pops up in unexpected places—I mean it’s the Pope giving a TED talk!  Life emerging in unexpected places always strikes me—for example, the sight of a tuft of grass or a single flower creeping up through a tiny crack in a sea of concrete pavement.  For me, that very small thing points to a very large truth:  the power of life, fueled by the love and presence of an endlessly creative God, is stubborn and determined.  Life and love will always, ultimately prevail.

 

We heard a few verses from one of Job’s speeches this morning.  In general, Job represents the voice of suffering when no “soul food” is available; Job knows full well the way the world is. And the book as a whole is a beautifully challenging meditation on the nature of virtue, suffering, reward and punishment, and the nature of the God-human relationship.  But today, the words of Job proclaim—in the midst of his suffering—a simple tenet of ancient wisdom:  the earth and its creatures “teach” and “declare” that God is the source and sustainer of life and breath.  Psalm 19 captures that wisdom this way:  “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.” (Ps 19:1)  Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins expands upon the Psalm in his poem, “God’s Grandeur.”  Some lines from that poem:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

 …

 And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

 And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell…

 

And for all this, nature is never spent;

 There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

 And though the last lights off the black West went

 Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

 World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.[iii]

 

Whenever I share a poem of any kind in public, I can’t help thinking of my daddy who loved to tell the story of his college English class in which his reaction to poetry—as an accounting major—was general frustration and aggravation.  “Why not just say what you mean?” he’d ask.  He may not have used any formal poetic way of speaking, but my dad did speak with the wisdom of Job and the Psalms.  In the face of my worry or stress, daddy regularly reminded me that “the sun comes up every morning and there’s nothing we can do to change that.”  This, just another way of saying, as Hopkins does, that for all our human smear and smudge, “nature is never spent” and “morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs” every day.  From my front window, I often watch the sun rise.  And it proclaims something powerful: it is a new day, a new start, a new life. I can begin again.  It is a regular reminder that “new every morning is God’s love…”

 

I don’t know about you, but one of the things that consistently helps me regain a sense of balance, hope, and general well-being in the face of anxiety and stress, is to be outside, to look at the trees, to listen to the birds, to walk barefoot on the grass, to feel the breeze against my skin, to smell the scent of flowers or wet earth.  It recalibrates my blood pressure to pet and play with the dog and cat who share our home.  Even if it’s with the aid of allergy medicine or a great picture window through which to take it in, my guess is that all of us can be fed and nourished by intentional engagement with earth, wind, fire, water, and all the plants and creatures and energies in this beautiful world.  The animals and plants speak…they teach us things about life and about God.  You never know when you will see or receive something that restores your hope, that calls you back to something more real than all the litigation and destruction so prevalent all around us.  Wendell Berry gives us this vision:

After the bitter nights

 and the gray, cold days

 comes a bright afternoon.

 I go into the creek valley

 and there are the horses, the black

 and the white, lying in the warm

 shine on a bed of dry hay.

 They lie side by side,

 identically posed as a painter

 might imagine them:

 heads up, ears and eyes

 alert. They are beautiful in the light

 and in the warmth happy. Such

 harmonies are rare. This is

 not the way the world

  1. It is a possibility

 nonetheless deeply seeded

 within the world. It is

 the way the world is sometimes.[iv]

 

As we continue through this Easter season and this “Soul Food” series, I encourage you to add to your diet some intentional time outside.  You never know when you’ll be given the gift of experiencing the way the world is sometimes.  You never know when you will catch a glimpse of harmony.  The world is that way sometimes; it could be that way even more; and ultimately, by God’s grace and in God’s mercy, it will be that way always…when, in the fullness of time, all things are reconciled and made new.

 

[i][i] https://www.ted.com/talks/pope_francis_why_the_only_future_worth_building_includes_everyone/transcript

[ii] Pope Francis, Ibid.

[iii] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur,” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/44395

[iv] Wendell Berry, “2008: I,” This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems, Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2013, p. 315.

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Carbonated Holiness

April 23rd, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, April 23, 2017, the first Sunday after Easter.

Texts: Psalm 126, Genesis 18:1-2, 9-15

 

There is a sculpture that has inspired and encouraged me for years.  It has been in my pastor’s study—often on my desk—since I received it as a gift from my mother.  It has become a profound symbol for me of something deeply important in the spiritual life.  The sculpture is of a laughing pig.  The pig is on its back, its two front hooves holding its round belly, mouth wide open in laughter.  Michelangelo’s “Pieta” gets all the attention as a masterpiece of Christian art, but I think the sculptor of “The Laughing Pig” should get more accolade.  For me it’s a sacred icon of earthy joy.  I find it impossible to look at the giggling swine without feeling a shift in my spirit—a lightening up.

 

Laughter doesn’t often get its due in Christian settings.  In an attempt to be faithful, we can become awfully intense, we can take ourselves very seriously, we can—as I try to regularly remind us—begin to feel responsible for every single problem and broken place in the world.  And that’s a heavy load to carry.  But as we enter this Easter season, the story we tell is that God’s love and mercy are the powers that can—and DO—bring about resurrection and transformation in the world.  We get to share in the work of new creation that God is always busy with—but we are not God!  Lightening up doesn’t mean we aren’t taking our responsibilities seriously—but rather that we have proper perspective.  That is good news if I’ve ever heard it!  I don’t know about you, but I need to be reminded of this good news all the time.  I need constant reminders to lighten up!

 

One way the ancient church helped people claim and experience the good news of Easter was through a custom, dating back to the early centuries of Christianity in Greece, in which the days after Easter were celebrated as days of joy and laughter with parties and picnics to celebrate Jesus resurrection.  Over the centuries, playing practical jokes on each other, dancing, laughing, and generally having fun together have all been part of the celebration.  Over the past thirty to forty years, some churches in America have reclaimed this practice, calling the Sunday after Easter, “Holy Humor Sunday.”

 

The custom is based on the reflections of early church theologians like Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom who mused that God played a practical joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead.  They referred to this as “Risus paschalis—the Easter laugh.”[i] Growing up, I observed my dad’s family delight in trying to one-up each other with practical jokes. I love the thought of God being the original trickster.  No one’s going to one-up God—God gets the last laugh! 

 

I have a running debate with a close friend about Jesus on this point.  My friend tends to think that Jesus was too concerned with the great cosmic struggle between good and evil and the deeply bruising earthly struggle against greed and injustice to spend much time joking around or laughing.  I, on the other hand, am convinced that all those children wouldn’t want to be near Jesus if he didn’t laugh and play; everyone wanted Jesus to join their dinner parties—and he spent time with folks who knew how to have a good time; and, though in translation it’s sometimes hard to recognize, some of Jesus’s parables are deeply funny.  All this is to say, I think Jesus laughed.  A lot.  And the more I learn about laughter, the more convinced I am of that.

 

Laughter is scientifically proven to have healing effects on our physical and mental health.  It boosts our immune system, relieves muscle tension and stress, and causes the brain to release “endorphins, interferon-gamma (IFN), and serotonin.  These are nature’s own feel good chemicals and are responsible for helping to keep your mood uplifted.”[ii]  Studies out of Harvard Medical School and the Mayo Clinic (among others) confirm that “Nothing works faster or more dependably to bring your mind and body back into balance than a good laugh.”[iii]  In other words, laughter is good medicine when you’re stressed, ill, or discouraged.

 

I imagine all of us can think of a time when we were in the midst of a deep struggle or right in the middle of grief and found ourselves laughing with others—and in those moments felt at least a moment of relief.  There is deep folk wisdom in the phrase “sometimes you’ve got to laugh to keep from crying!” That might be going on in our story today from Genesis when Sarah overhears the messengers prophesy that she will get pregnant.  She had lived her long years unable to become pregnant.  And in the culture of the time, to be childless was a tragedy and disgrace.  Sarah had reason to cry.  But she laughed!  Did she laugh to keep from crying—to ward off the temptation to hope and, yet again, have those hopes dashed?  Or did she laugh simply because the whole idea was ridiculous—since she and Abraham were not exactly in the habit of acting like newlyweds anymore and her body’s monthly cycles had long ceased?  Perhaps it’s a bit of both.  I’m struck by her denial out of fear—evidently she sensed she wasn’t supposed to laugh.  And that makes me think of all the times I get the giggles in the most inappropriate moments.  There was a serious conversation going on between Abraham and some Very Important People.  And Sarah gets tickled.  I can relate. J

 

In one study I consulted, I read that “Laughter allows us to entertain the absurd and imagine alternate possibilities.”[iv]  Spiritual writer, Carolyn Arends, sees that happening in Sarah’s story:  “Consider the laughter of…Sarah, blossoming from incredulity into incredible joy. When Sarah had a baby at long, impossible last, she named him Isaac—which means, of course, ‘laughter.’” Arends goes on to say, “laughter belongs to the world of wind, or Spirit—unexpected joy arrives on the gust of a fresh current and carries us to a different place from the one where it found us.”[v]

 

I’ve mentioned some of the many places that laughter can carry us from:  physical tension and stress, over-responsibility, disappointment, grief, taking ourselves too seriously, lack of perspective.  Christian writer and essayist, Anne Lamott, speaks to some of this saying, “Humor and laughter and silliness and giggles can get into some dark, walled-off places inside us and bring breath and lightness…When I am at my most stressed, I sometimes lose my sense of humor, and that condition is just a nightmare…For me, hell is when I’m absolutely stuck in self-obsession, this terrible, terrible self-consciousness.  The healing and grace often comes from being put back together by people… [who] somehow help me lighten up and get my sense of humor back. When I have my sense of humor back, nothing can stop me.”  Lamott describes humor and laughter as “carbonated holiness.”[vi]   //  I love that way of thinking about the gift of laughter.  As a bubbly, refreshing drink of God’s grace, as the thing that is always available to us, just waiting to nourish and renew us body and soul.  “A good laugh is a release—even if only for a moment—from worry, strife, and self.  It is a sudden, often unbidden confession that someway, somehow, all is well, or at least there is a hope that it can be.”[vii]  Carbonated holiness…grace…laughter.  With such a beautiful healing gift always extended, why not take advantage of it as much as humanly possible? 

 

I can’t remember who wrote it, but someone once said that Christians should look more redeemed.  That is, the good news of God’s love, mercy, and resurrection power should lead us to rejoice, to laugh and be glad!  And, even if you don’t necessarily identify as Christian or can’t get down with the whole God thing or resurrection thing, laughter is proven to be good for you.  There is almost no downside to it—though Woody Allen mentions one saying, “I am thankful for laughter, except when milk comes out of my nose.”  Aside from that, laughter is just good.  So, what are some ways that we can cultivate laughter in our lives?  Here is a pretty good guide I found:

“Begin by setting aside special times to seek out humor and laughter, as you might with working out, and build from there.  Some ways to start:

Smile. Smiling is the beginning of laughter and like laughter, it’s contagious.  When you look at someone or see something even mildly pleasing, practice smiling.  Instead of looking down at your phone, look up and smile at people you pass in the street, the person serving you a morning coffee, or the co-workers you share an elevator with.  Notice the effect this has on others.

Count your blessings. Literally make a list.  The simple act of considering the good things in your life will distance you from negative thoughts that are a barrier to humor and laughter…

Spend time with fun, playful people. These are people who laugh easily–both at themselves and at life’s absurdities–and who routinely find the humor in everyday events.  Their playful point of view and laughter are contagious.

Bring humor into conversations. Ask people, ‘What’s the funniest thing that happened to you today?  This week?  In your life?’”[viii]

There are so many other ways to imbibe carbonated holiness:

  • Watch a funny movie, TV show, or YouTube video
  • Invite friends or co-workers to go to a comedy club
  • Read the funny pages
  • Share a good joke or a funny story
  • Check out your bookstore’s humor section
  • Host game night with friends
  • Play with a pet
  • Goof around with children
  • Do something silly
  • Make time for fun activities (e.g. bowling, miniature golfing, karaoke)”[ix]

As we move through this “Soul Food” series, I hope that we’ll all make sure to give ourselves a heaping portion of laughter.  Let this time be an opportunity to more intentionally seek out laughter in your life; so that it becomes part of your regular spiritual diet, nourishing you for the long haul as we continue to attend to the serious work of sacred resistance and intentional community.  Drink in the “carbonated holiness” that can refresh and renew!  St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuit order once remarked to a novice, “I see you are always laughing, and I am glad of it.” Ignatius also “once danced a jig to cheer up downcast Jesuits.  He was a man whose joy was known to be full.” So much so that the phrase, “Laugh and grow strong” is often attributed to him.[x]

 

Laugh and grow strong, friends.  Imbibe some carbonated holiness.  Find your laughing pig and keep it ever before you!

 

 

[i] https://www.joyfulnoiseletter.com/hhsunday.asp

[ii] http://www.activebeat.com/your-health/the-6-health-benefits-of-laughter/5/

[iii] https://www.helpguide.org/articles/emotional-health/laughter-is-the-best-medicine.htm

[iv] http://www.activebeat.com/your-health/the-6-health-benefits-of-laughter/5/

[v] Carolyn Arends, “Carbonated Holiness: Laughter is Serious Business,” Christianity Today, “Wrestling with Angels” column, April 2008.  Accessed at: https://renovare.org/articles/carbonated-holiness

[vi] Anne Lamott, “Anne Lamott: The Habit of Practice,” https://www.faithandleadership.com/anne-lamott-habit-practice

[vii] Carolyn Arends

[viii] https://www.helpguide.org/articles/emotional-health/laughter-is-the-best-medicine.htm

[ix] Ibid.

[x] https://renovare.org/articles/carbonated-holiness

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