Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Light and Darkness Become One

I preached this sermon this morning in my preaching class based on some thoughts that I have been mulling over in the last week about the use of the word, "Light" among Quakers.

This sermon is based on Jonah 1:17-2:10 (NRSV)

In the Quaker tradition, we use the metaphor of the Light a lot. Partly because early Quakers use this imagery often in their writing and also partly some Quakers are uncomfortable with using the word "God". Most of them tend to be spiritual refugees from other denominations, having grown up being told that God did not love them for one reason or another. Some tried to hide their true selves from God and others, feeling like if others knew the insides of their souls, they would be disowned forever by God and the church. Now to them Light seems safe to say because it is a new metaphor to them, something different, something without baggage.

But I have been reflecting on what I have been using for the opposite of Light for most of my life, which is usually darkness, to describe a lack of God, evil. I started rethinking using darkness to describe the opposite of Light last semester when I read a quote from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In an address in 1967 Dr. King said, "In Roget's Thesaurus there are some 120 synonyms for blackness and at least sixty of them are offensive, such words as blot, soot, grim, devil, and foul. And there are some 134 synonyms for whiteness and all are favorable, expressed in such words as purity, cleanliness, chastity, and innocence." Ever since then, I have been wondering: Do I promote this negative duality through the way I talk about my spirituality? Light/White = good and Darkness/Black=bad.

To seek out guidance on how I should proceed with this question, I went to the wisest place I know of for answers. Facebook!

Several friends commented. A friend bought up the ideas of an UU theologian Jacqui James who writes that there are some good points about darkness, like it brings relief from the scorching heat. Also in darkness seeds begin to sprout and thus new life begins. Another friend brought up the story of Jonah being in the whale. Jonah had to go through the darkness within a fish to accept his call. As we heard from the passage, in the darkness, Jonah says a praise of thanksgiving to God, before the fish throws him up onto the land.

Before this praise of Thanksgiving, Jonah has tried his best to avoid accepting the call from God to go to Ninevah. As we hear in the praise, he had to be close to death before he realized the entire positives in his life and how much he believes in God. But we know from the passage that he was not actually near death because God sent the fish to shallow him before he drowned to the depths of the ocean. God protects him, even though he acts disobediently when God calls him. Jonah is not the only prophet he tries to hide from God. Oh no!

I bet some of us have stories of being disobedient towards God's calling to come to be here today listening to this story. Heck, you probably wanted to be disobedient and did not want to get out of bed this morning. I know I did.

For me the journey of coming to seminary took me to rural Missouri. I had heard the calling before I moved to rural Missouri from Washington DC, but I ignored the call. I was always too busy or too poor to go to seminary, or I thought. I kept saying no to seminary, thinking another opportunity, in the form of a job or anything else, was around the corner. But it took me asking God late at night alone what the next plans God had for me. It took doors closing before I said yes to God's calling. I thought I was spiraling downwards but now I know that God was leading me here by taking me to those dark cold nights in Missouri. Now I am thankful for those cold dark nights wondering where I would go next.

As future pastors and leaders of the church, we will be charged with helping people of all ages as they go through terrible parts of their lives. Some things we will see will be horrible. But sometimes we will see our parishioners struggle and they will actually be rebirths into Christ and deeper faithfulness. There will be times where we will go through difficult times in our own lives too. But the good news, just like Jonah in the fish, we are not alone. God will always be watching over us and this process.

Also I think this is where the church that we are inheriting is right now. Many people think the church is dying. All the signs are there. Attendance is down across the board in the mainline denominations. Churches are often in the red, only surviving off of endowments from past generations. There are more pastors looking for positions than open positions. Most of us are going to graduate without an assurance of a job.

But in the midst of this struggle, there is a hope, a seed, a thanksgiving to be seen. We are seeing the church changing. LGBTQ people are being accepted in as the children of God as they have always been. The church is becoming more than just a building that is open on Sunday to only some. There are so many examples of pastors and Christians taking new risks, trusting on God, doing and being in the Church in radical new ways because we cannot do any worse than we are right now. A couple weeks ago we listened to Dean Kay preach about his former church in Minnesota which changed themselves into a new kind of church with an active laity outreach to the community. We live in a time of great hope of pastor being bold. The church is being reborn and we are involved with this process.

Finally, this Sunday we will celebrate women finding an empty tomb and a command for them to tell the world about their find. In this dark cave, a place of death and sadness, God gave a people a message of hope that has lasted over 2,000 years, the resurrection of Christ and a proclamation of freedom to the captives. Light and darkness became whole together in that tomb with Christ's Resurrection. This act confirms God's devotion to all, despite what some people may try to say. By putting Jonah in a fish and by making a sealed cave empty, God shows that God does love all!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Unpredictability of March

A couple weeks ago, I attended the meeting for worship at Princeton Friends School, which the school calls "Settling In". Each week they meet for 30 minutes and a student offers a query. Since it was the first day of March, the assigned student asked "What are you looking forward to in March?"

Students talked about upcoming birthdays, looking forward to playing outside more, and summer coming closer. They were ready to shed their winter clothes and activities for sunny days spent outside. Eighth graders expected to hear back from high schools soon and they were nervous and eager to find out where they were accepted. These students were eager to take the next step in their education and life.

One of the teachers stood up and talked about how March could bring different weather. In March it is still normal for there to be a late snowstorm he said, but we also could expect sunny days to happen where short sleeves can be worn and bike riding could be done. The theme of his message was that March brought unpredictability, at a time when we wanted something concrete, ie the end of Winter and the start of Spring or the end of one stage of life and the becoming of another. We know that Spring is coming and we will hear about where we go on the next stage of our life, but March always brings surprises and bumps along the way.

In my experience this rang true. I used to go to New Orleans in March from Washington DC with a group of high school students for an alternative spring break trip. I remember often times bundling up to go to the airport in DC and then shedding all the layers once we landed in New Orleans. New Orleans was usually sunny with highs in the 70s and 80s that week in March. It gave us our first glimpse of Spring that helped us make it through the last few weeks of a DC winter/early Spring when we returned home. We were given a chance to see what was awaiting us once we waited out the dreadful last weeks of the winter season.

But that was not always true. Once I remember arriving to the airport in DC when it was in the 70s there. Instead of the group all wearing shorts and T-shirts in preparation for warm weather to follow us, we were carrying jackets and coats while wearing jeans. I actually expressed concern for two students who arrived with shorts on. "Did you come prepared? Did you look at the weather forecast?" Once we landed in New Orleans, it was a different than other years. It was cloudy with a high in the upper 40s. That night the temps dipped down to about freezing. We were cold that night sleeping in the not well insulated dorm room. It did warm up by the end of the week, but it seemed strange.

A week later after the Settling In worship, I was reminded of the teacher's words. A small snowstorm dumped a couple inches on Princeton, ruining any plans for bicycling or playing outside. It was beautiful and Princeton looked more like it was early January than early March. Jenn and I would have appreciated the snow more if we weren't in a hurry to make it to DC. We left that morning instead of the night before due to forecasts of snow. Yet, despite the weather forecasters' predictions, the snow came that morning.
The unpredictability of March caught us and we were not prepared or happy. We were worried that we were going to be late. Even though we knew it would clear up as we headed south, we were still worried in the moment. We knew that we needed to just keep driving until we were out of the storm

I feel like being a religious seeker is living perpetually in a state of March. Hopefully most of us have made it through the long journey towards God, the Light, the Holy Spirit. We know that we are almost there to the glory and unlocking the mystery, but we are not there just yet. Instead we will encounter a little more doubt and weariness and we will encounter quick fixes that promises happiness sooner than later. Sometimes I feel like that this time is harder than the journey I experienced at my lowest point in time. I am ready for the low point to be over. I am ready for God! That thought, much like looking forward to sunny days during a late winter snowstorm, keep me going in my faith.