Last Night (A Meditation on Family Promise)

last night
we slept on the floor.
mattresses, really,
arranged on the floor

for comfort

this morning,
we woke up
and went home,
without a thought
to where we would sleep

tonight.

tonight,
someone else will sleep
on those same mattresses,
playing host
to families who sleep
on floor-arranged mattresses

every.

night.

thank God for mattresses,
for sleeping hosts and hostesses,
and the gifts the guest give us,
reminding us
that mattresses, so arranged,

saves lives.

An Open Letter To A Non-Believer

Dear Atheist Friend,

First of all, let me begin by saying two things:

1.  I am sorry for all the horrible things that have been done in the name of the Church, Christianity, Christ, or the Cross.  I agree with you that the Crusades were horrible, genocidal events that pitted so-called “Christians” against anyone who didn’t agree with their faith.  Yes, it was Christians who enslaved Africans in this country for over 200 years, in an act so nonsensical that no one alive today thinks it was even remotely a good idea.  And yeah, there are people calling themselves Christians today who speak all manner of evil things against non-Christians, homosexuals, liberals, and anything else that moves or breathes upon this earth.

2.  I am not sorry for calling myself a Christian.  Even given the above, I am not ashamed to say that I am a follower of Jesus Christ.  I do not shrink from stating that I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the same God who has existed throughout all eternity, who created the universe as we know it (and all that we don’t yet know about it), and who loves with a love that is unimaginable by human understanding.  I believe in God.  And I believe that God believes in me.

And see, here’s where there’s probably going to be some misunderstanding, because you may want to take my statement of faith in God as a reason for lumping me together with all the terrible, disgusting things that have been done throughout history in the name of faith.  You  might want to put me in the same category as the conquistadors, the crusaders, and freaking Fred Phelps.  And if I didn’t care about you, I’d simply let you do that, and write you off.

But I want to be your friend, so let me explain why that would be a mistake.  Because if I were to write you off in the same way that you’ve written me off, then I’d be doing us both a disservice, and I would be feeding into your preconceived notions about who I am as a Christian.  It would be easy for me to say that I don’t care.  It would be easy for me to just give up.  But that would defeat the purpose of me writing this letter, which is to show you why I’m a Christian.

I am a Christian because of relationships.  It began with my parents, who were strong Christians, leaders of the youth group at their church, who took me to church when I was a kid.  My parents have been through a lot in their lives–good times and bad times, ups and downs, but they always had two relationships at the forefront of their lives–with each other, and with God.

I was introduced to a relationship with God at an early age, but it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I made that a personal relationship.  You have to understand, my teenage years were filled with a lot of confusion and turmoil–mostly internal.  I was struggling with my own self-image, and I felt really lonely–a lot.  It was through relationships that I had with some friends who were really strong Christians that I came to understand that my struggles were really over what my purpose in life was.  I didn’t know what I was meant to do, and I felt empty most of the time because I felt like there was no future for me, or that the future was at least going to be very bleak.  So, I began to read the Bible, and I went on retreats and met people who had this relationship with God, and who seemed to have a real sense of purpose in their lives.  And I began to have a relationship with God, and through that I began to realize that I was created by someone who loved me very deeply, who would do anything for me, who even came to earth in human form so that I could relate even better.

Now, I’m not suggesting that those who don’t believe in God don’t have a sense of purpose in life.  In fact, many of the non-believers I’ve known in my life have been purposeful, driven, caring people.  But I do know that my testimony is that I was without a purpose before I really met God, and now I wake up every day feeling like there’s a reason for me to be here that goes beyond being a success or just being a nice guy.  I know now that God wants me to build relationships with other people so that they can also come to find their purpose in life.

For me, faith in God isn’t about having all the right answers, or having a one-way ticket to heaven.  I don’t spend a lot of time condemning my non-Christian friends to eternal punishment in hell.  For me, it’s about relationships.  And I feel that there’s something bigger out there than you and me, and I choose to call that “God,” and I choose to believe that God came to us in the form of Jesus, and that Jesus’ purpose wasn’t just to die for my sins and the sins of all people (although that is part of it), but that he came to teach us about love, compassion, and grace in human community.  For me, faith in God is as much about faith in my fellow human beings as it is about faith in the biblical texts or the doctrines and dogmas of the Church.

There is so much more I’d like to say, and I may say it as time goes on.  But I just wanted to begin this conversation with you so that you know that my goal in trying to get to know you is not about converting you to my way of thinking, but about my desire to have a relationship with you that goes beyond “Christian” and “atheist.”  I want you to know that there are people–reasonable people–who believe in God, and who would never say the same things about you that you have sometimes said about them.  There is a community of loving, caring, Christians who just simply want to introduce you to the God who changed their lives, and to let you make your own decision.

I don’t pretend to think that this letter will change your life, but I hope it’s helped change your mind just a little bit about us crazy Christians.  And I hope you see it for what it is–an invitation to dialogue about purpose, the meaning of life, and the place of a higher power in the midst of all that.

Your Friend (I hope),

David

“We Didn’t Know We Were Poor…” Thoughts on Poverty and What We Can Do.

When I was serving as a pastor in local congregations, I often had the opportunity to work with people who came from the generation that lived through the Great Depression.  I remember one woman who told the story of how her father accepted a job at his company that paid about a third of what he had received before, but he took the job, as she said, “Because at least he had a job, and so many people didn’t have anything.”  Many of the political ads I am seeing on television right now are reflecting the realities of the recession that our country has gone through over the past few years.  One side claims that their candidate is helping to pull the country out of a recession, while the other is trying to convince the American public that things are much worse than his opponent is trying to make us think.  Both have used the word “depression”–one to say that he helped us avoid a depression, and the other to say that we’re in something like a depression, or very close to it.  And of course, both sides are saying that their candidate is “The One” who will help our country get out of this mess.  Meanwhile, both candidates are concerned about the place of the middle-class.  The words “middle-class” are thrown around in the present political climate in much the same way as “family values” and “choice” have been used in the past, as a litmus test of where one stands, and particularly, with whom one stands in an election.

What I haven’t heard very much about, though, regardless of the candidate or political party, is poverty.  Yes, they are slinging arguments around about “entitlements” and “the social safety net,” and other buzzwords that really try to reduce the issue of poverty to a soundbite, but there is no one major candidate who is talking about poverty as “the issue” of this campaign.  Here’s why I think it should be…

Nelson Mandela, the great freedom fighter of South Africa, is attributed with the quotation, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”  According to the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) at Columbia University, around 15 million children (21% of all children) in the U.S. live below the poverty line.  I live in a community where 26% of residents live at or below the poverty line (U.S. Census figures).  With so many children (and adults) in poverty in our communities and our nation, what does the way we treat people in poverty say about our society?

Another phrase that so many people from the Depression era have said to me over the years is, “We didn’t know we were poor until afterwards, or until someone told us we were poor.”  So many communities, families, churches, and yes, the government, came together during the Great Depression to help one another out.  As a result, many people who might not have survived otherwise were able to survive those lean years.  Self-sacrifice, community spirit, and good legislative and executive action were all part of the road to economic recovery back then.  And yet today, so many of our political class would have us believe that poverty is less of an issue than the shrinking middle class.  Hello?  Where are the middle-class going?  They’re slipping into poverty, that’s where!

So what can we do?  I can tell you that the answer is not to write more blogs about poverty, which is exactly what I am doing! I’m not sure I know all the answers, but here’s one that works for me:  Everyone who talks about poverty as an issue needs to get to personally know someone (or multiple someones) who are living in poverty, and they need to introduce their friends to people who are in poverty.  Not in a touristy kind of way, like “Oooh, look at the people in poverty!”  What I’m thinking of is a true opportunity to make friends with people in poverty, to learn their perspectives on the world, and to know them first as human beings with feelings, attitudes, and frustrations, and second only as the numbers that make up the “issue” of poverty in our nation.

I work with the ONU chapter of Habitat for Humanity, a great group of top-notch students who really care about helping others.  Many of these students come from what politicians might call the “middle-class,” while some actually come from backgrounds of privilege, and others may come from poverty themselves.  But the one thing that binds these students together is their commitment to a movement (Habitat) that not only builds homes and does good work, but builds relationships with the people who will inhabit those homes.  Habitat encourages people to get involved with the people who are benefiting from good works, and really being a part of the community  in which you live and serve.  When we do this, we realize that no one is ever truly poor who has good friends who are willing to help out, and that no one is without gifts to give for the greater good.

If only our politicians understood as much.  Well, that’s not fair, maybe they do, on some level.  I guess what I want to say is, if only our politicians admitted as much.  What a country that would be.  What an election that would be!

Announcing “Mid-Week Prayer in the Liturgical Tradition”

Mid-Week Prayer in the Liturgical Tradition:
Drawing on Resources from Roman Catholic, Anglican, Episcopalian,
Lutheran, Methodist, Taize and other Liturgical Traditions.

Introductory Prayer Service:
Wednesday, September 5, 2012
5:00-5:30 p.m.
English Chapel Sanctuary

Please join us for this time of prayer and contemplation.
Sponsored by: Chaplain’s Office (Chaplain David E. MacDonald)

Starting on September 5th, we will be offering “Mid-Week Prayer in the Liturgical Tradition,” a prayer service designed for those who enjoy a more traditional/liturgical/contemplative time of prayer.  Drawing on resources from the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Taize, and other liturgical traditions, this service will closely resemble Evensong, Compline, or Vespers (for those who are comfortable with such words!)

The goal for this experimental community of prayer will be to provide a space where the ancient words of the Christian faith become the deep wells from which we may all draw inspiration, refreshment, and comfort.  As Christ said to the woman at the Samaritan well, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.  The water I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4:13b-14, NRSV)

Please consider joining us for this new venture in prayer, which is really a new expression of the ancient practices of the Church!

 

Thoughts on Worship (Part 2): Worship in Scripture

Wow!  That last blog post was huge!  I guess I had a lot to say about what worship isn’t.  If you have any more ideas about what worship isn’t, please let me know in the comments below, or on Facebook (www.facebook.com/davidemacdonald)  or Twitter (@ONUchaplain).

Today, I’d like to focus on the purpose of worship—a response to last week’s post, in the form of exploring what worship is.  As is the case with these sorts of things, making the argument in the positive has proven to be much more difficult than arguing the negative.  So, I expect that there will be some disagreement with me on some of the points I will make, and that’s o.k. with me.  What I want to do is start an honest discussion about worship that may help in our work here at the ONU chapel, and might spark some discussions in other communities of faith, too.

Let’s Begin with Scripture: This is obviously not an exhaustive list–if you have other suggestions, let me know!

Psalm 122:1  “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go into the house of the LORD!’” (NRSV)

When was the last time you felt “glad” about going to worship?  (Especially if you lead worship, and never get a chance to sit back and just worship without worrying about what’s coming next!)  Worship is intended to be a joyful expression of gratitude and praise to God.  Now, some people express their joy through moving liturgy, symbolic actions, and sacramental acts.  Others express their joy through music, movement, artistic expression, and spontaneous expressions of worship.  Everyone expresses joy in his/her own way.  I once criticized people who had “long faces” when they worshiped, until I spoke with several such people and realized that the joy they felt in worship was no less deeply felt than mine, simply because their facial expressions were staid and stoic.  What brings you joy?  How do you express that joy in worship?  Are you “glad” about worship?  If so, how do you share that joy?  If not, what’s stopping you from fully experiencing joy in your worship?

Psalm 8:1  “O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!  You have set your glory above the heavens.”

Worship is an expression of awe and wonder in the face of the Creator.  Look around you.  Where did all this come from?  Who created all this?  How does the bird stay in flight?  Who placed a particular strain of DNA inside that tree to make it look just the way it does?  If you conclude that creation has a Creator, then you can’t not be impressed and awed by the complexity of God’s grace and love for creation.  God’s handiwork is all around us—God’s fingerprints are left behind in the sacredness of the earth and all the gifts of creation.  Worship is a natural response to the feeling that God is something/someone bigger than you or me—and is an opportunity for us to be in relationship with that Creator.

Psalm 29:2  “Ascribe to the LORD the glory of his name; worship the LORD in holy splendor.” 

God is holy.  Only a holy God would be worthy of our worship.  Who would want to worship an unholy God?  Not me!  Worship is our way of standing in the presence of our holy God, giving praise for God’s mighty acts of salvation in our midst.  Worship is an opportunity to recognize that we human beings are not the be-all and end-all of the universe—that there is One who is greater, One who created us all, and One who redeems us from sin and sustains us through life.

James 4:8a  “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”

Worship is about proximity on two planes.  One plane is more noticeable to us—the horizontal plane—this is our proximity to one another.  Worship is about rubbing elbows with other believers (and even with some non-believers and skeptics from time to time, depending on your context).  In worship, we sing together, hear the Word of God read and interpreted, and respond through acts of prayer, giving, and sacramental or symbolic actions.  All of this is done in the context of community.

The other plane on which worship takes place is the vertical plane—our “drawing near” to God.  When we worship, we come closer to God, not so we can puff ourselves up as “God’s chosen people,” or wall ourselves off from the world.  We come closer to God so that God will come closer to us.  Or perhaps more accurately, so that we may recognize that God has already drawn near to us, and that we are in God’s presence, not just in worship, but in every moment of our lives.

Revelation 4:11  “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” 

Above all, worship is wrapped up in the mystery of God’s grace for humanity, and is our recognition of God’s love for us.  God created us, and everything around us, and God continues to love us, even when we disrespect the creation we’ve been given.  The above scripture from Revelation also shows that our worship is part of the heavenly worship of God, which makes us part of God’s kin-dom of worshipers who have lifted up their voices in song and praise for millennia.  Worship makes us part of something that is bigger than any one of us, and together, we form the body of Christ, the family of God—the Church.

I have some more thoughts on worship that I’ll share at another time.  For now, I’d like to hear from those who might read this blog–What scriptures inspire you to worship?  What is your definition of worship?  Do you feel a part of the body of Christ when you worship?

Taking Down the Porch Decorations

I finally got our Christmas decorations from the porch taken down today!  Well, mostly–I still need to get up on the step ladder and take down the icicle lights–the staples go in so hard that it takes a pair of pliers to pry them out!

Part of the reason it’s taken this long to get this job done is that I went away for two weeks earlier this month, during the time when “normal” people take their decorations down.  Part of it is that I deliberately chose not to take them down the day after Christmas, as so many people seem to do nowadays.  We have forgotten that the “12 days of Christmas” BEGIN with Christmas day, and end at Epiphany.  Hence, we have always kept our decorations up and lit during the 12 days.  Actually, Kelly chose to keep the porch lights on until sometime late last week, because she liked them, and they cheered her up.  I say, good for her.

Looking at my calendar yesterday, I realized that we are just four weeks away from Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.  “Wow,” I said, “it seems like we just recovered from Christmas, and it’s time to start again.”  But that’s the joy and the challenge of the Christian year–we move by a rhythm of fasts and feasts, of preparation and celebration.  While it is good to “keep Christmas in your heart” all year long, it is also good to be reminded that Jesus’ work on earth didn’t stop with his being born in Bethlehem.  He grew up (though we know frustratingly little about his childhood and adolescence), taught his people how to love, healed the sick, raised the dead, challenged the powers that were, was crucified, died, and rose again.  And, through the power of the Holy Spirit, he lives today in the body of Christ, his people the Church.

So, though I am sad to see an end to the Christmas lights for another year, I am glad that we are preparing to enter another season of waiting and watching and preparing ourselves for the coming of the King.  For it is in the preparation and the journeying and the pilgrimage that we ultimately find ourselves again, and in so doing, we find God.

Grace and Peace,

David

There are no “Bar Mitzvahs” in the Bible!

As I have been doing some research on rites of passage and on human faith development, I began to explore the Bible for some examples of rites of passage.  Not surprisingly, I didn’t find any!  In fact, a lot of people in the Bible go from being an infant (or child) to being an adult, with nary a mention of their childhoods.  Some examples:

  • Jesus (other than a brief mention late in Luke 2, he pretty much grows up in the gospels without any childhood!)
  • John the Baptizer (doesn’t even get a childhood story–just birth to grown man.)
  • Isaac (one minute, he’s a boy about to be sacrificed, the next minute, he’s grown up and looking for a wife.)
  • Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25:26–babies; Genesis 25:27–grown men!)
  • Moses (Exodus 5:10–baby in the bullrushes; Exodus 5:11–grown man!)

It’s no wonder we have a hard time expressing rites of passage in the church today–there are precious few examples of rites of passage in our most foundational Scriptures.  There are no bar mitzvahs in the Bible!  Pastoral theologians Herbert Anderson and Edward Foley wrote in their book Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals: Weaving Together the Human and the Divine that in the church, “…there is an absence of ritual models for significant moments of crisis or transition.” (pg. 7) 

That’s why I am doing my Doctor of Ministry project in the area of spiritual direction/spiritual growth with youth and young adults.  It is my hope to be able to help youth/young adults create for themselves meaningful rites of passage that will help them be prepared to face the challenges (to their faith and their sense of self) that will come when they enter the so-called “real world.”  The goal is not to create a youth ministry with spiritual direction tacked on, but a ministry of spiritual direction with youth and young adults. 

Look to see and hear more about this project in the coming months, as I work through the details and start working with my “subjects” (participants) for the study.

Blessings,

David