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Each year on Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday, Community Renewal Society organizes a Faith in Action Assembly.  This year, the event will feature a mayoral candidate forum as well as calls to action to challenge the criminal (in)justice system in Cook County.  The event will be held at Liberty Baptist Church, 4849 S. King Dr.  If you would like to participate, please contact the church.  For more information about the event, see the flyer.

Faith in Action 2015

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In the spirit of Mary’s song (Luke 1:46-55) describing the impact of God’s arrival in the world through the baby forming within her, Pastor Ray wrote his own version of the Magnificat, describing what he hopes the world will look like when the Kingdom of God comes in fullness.

This is Advent—not a sad event.

It’s time to reflect—time to believe.

So don’t be anxious; do not grieve.

God is with us; the world is changed.

Everything is being rearranged.

Politicians with grand aspirations

are subject to the Lord of the nations.

The Judge of judges decides the fate

Of those who torture and incarcerate.

Guns and drones are null and void;

Generals are among the unemployed.

The filthy rich are sent to the shower;

The poor have equal earning power.

Living wages are the law of the land.

No more accounting slight of hand;

The 1 Percent have to pay.

Finally, the rest of us have time to play.

Titans of industry intent on profit

No longer control the economic market

Oil barons, fracking gas,

Are brought to their knees and kicked in the ass.

I hear the sigh of all creation

celebrating the end of subjugation.

The powerful are dissed;

The classes are dismissed.

Every color is embraced;

Every difference equally graced.

Glass ceilings are shattered;

no women and children battered;

Violence is rejected,

the vulnerable protected.

There is shouting in the streets,

and dancing to the beats

Hands are raised, but not in fear.

The kingdom reign of Christ is near!

Hands up! Praise the Lord!

Stand Up! Spread the word!

Sing the chorus;

God is for us!

Laugh and move your feet and say:

This is the beginning of God’s new day.

I’ve been reading the laments of Scripture–expressions of grief over  how the wicked flourish and act with impunity, how the poor are crushed, how the world is broken down.  One weary lament has resonated with me during this season:  “How long, O Lord?  How long?”  Advent is a time of preparation for the arrival of the kingdom of heaven.  It is a season of waiting and wanting.  We long for and (in the words of Charles Wesley) pine for the day when our exile will be over and God will intervene to make all things new.  When I hear the news of war, when I watch the clashes on our streets, while I feel the sting of death, I want to cry out, “How long, O Lord?  How long?”

I have also found myself praying the Lord’s prayer frequently.  According to the early church discipleship manual, the Didache, believers were expected to repeat this prayer three times daily.  I’m already up to four times and it is only 11:00 am.  I keep repeating the phrases, “Your kingdom come; your will be on on earth as in heaven” and “deliver us from evil.”  Yesterday, we prayed in the middle of Fullerton Avenue as we marched: “Your kingdom come; your will be done in the 14th Police District, throughout Chicago, throughout the suburbs, in Ferguson, MO, in New York City, on earth as in heaven.”  We prayed: “Deliver us from evil ‘cuz black lives matter, latino lives matter, all lives matter.”  We cried out in the midst of our wilderness.

I find great hope in God’s word to Moses at the burning bush, “I have seen the misery of my people; I have heard their crying out; I am concerned about their suffering.  So I have come down to rescue them.”  God sees; God hears; God rescues!  God sent a deliverer–Jesus.  And Jesus sends us.  “As the father has sent me, so I am sending you.”  So we cry out–not in despair, but in great hope and deep faith and persevering love–“The Kingdom of heaven is coming!”

O God, Yours is the kingdom.  Yours is the power.  Yours is the glory, forever and ever!  Amen!

And so begins Charles Dickens’ tale, A CHRISTMAS CAROL. I have a confession to make.  I’ve seen the play and I’ve watched the 1951 Alistair Sim movie version and (dare I say) the Mr. Magoo cartoon version, but I’ve never read the book.  Until this year. I understand why the beloved story of transformation has become such an embedded part of the Christmas tradition.  However, during my reading, I realized that our depictions of Scrooge’s transformation from a hard-hearted, greedy miser to a joyful, generous philanthropist on Christmas morning are quite shallow.  By keeping the story safely contained in the nostalgia of the Christmas season, we can keep it from truly confronting our own hard-hearted greed.

The parallels between Dickens’ 1840’s London and our own time are striking.  Scrooge was a part of the 1% of his day.  While the few at the top thrived, everyone else just barely survived.  The wealthy elite viewed the unproductive as “surplus population” that needed to be decreased–if by disease or disaster, so be it.  The poor, the jobless and the homeless were a drain on resources.  The solution?  Criminalize and incarcerate.  Sound familiar?

The transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge is profound.  He wakes up on Christmas morning not merely happy that he is alive nor with some vague resolution to be nicer to others in the new year.  Through his encounter with the three spirits, he understands the ways in which his classism and narcissism–and the structures of social order–have brought great harm to others.  His transformation is not about becoming more kind, but about becoming more just.  His actions go beyond merely giving a goose to a poor family for Christmas dinner or giving his employee a small Christmas bonus.  His actions are radical.  He gives Bob Cratchet a living wage.  He arranges for family healthcare.  He redistributes his wealth.  He seeks the common good.  We see more than just an attitude adjustment; we see true repentance.  Now humbled, we watch a liberated Scrooge actively participate in the creation of a new community where everyone’s needs are met and everyone shares in the abundance–not just at Christmas, but throughout the year.

I suspect that Dickens wanted to challenge the status quo and suggest that Christmas has the power to transform us–a process which begins with honest reflection and repentance and ends with our becoming a Beloved Community.  This is the transformation we need.  This season, I pray, “Come, Holy Christmas Spirit, and confront us all with who we are and what we will become apart from being filled anew with love for our neighbor–a love that does justice, loves mercy and walks humbly.”

Thoughts from Bruce Ray, Pastor

All Saint’s Day is coming in just a few days and I have challenged my congregation to tell stories of saints that have impacted their lives or who inspire them.  I want to identify several of my spiritual heroes.

My Hero Saints

I’ve always been drawn to stories of courageous people who stand up for what is right no matter what the consequences and of people who do unexpected things that challenge the status quo and even change the course of history. These are a few of my spiritual heroes:

I am inspired by Elijah P. Lovejoy, a Presbyterian who refused to be intimidated by pro-slavery mobs and continued to publish abolitionist materials in Alton, IL—action that ultimately led to his murder in 1837. His murder galvanized the anti-slavery movement in the north.

I am inspired by Mary McLeod Bethune, a Methodist who defied Jim Crow Laws, teaching people how to pass literacy tests and going door to door to collect money to help people pay poll taxes so they could vote. Because of her activities, the Ku Klux Klan threatened to burn down the school she had established for African American girls.  She stood her ground.

I am inspired by Trevor Huddleston, the Anglican priest who fought South African apartheid. Without him, it is unlikely that there would have been a Bishop Desmond Tutu. Bishop Tutu first met Huddleston on the street as a nine-year-old boy.  It was expected that black children and adults would step into the gutter to allow white people to pass by. Before Desmond and his mother could step off the sidewalk, Huddleston, a white man, stepped into the gutter and tipped his hat to them as they passed. Bishop Tutu identified the experience as the defining moment of his life. He decided at that moment that he wanted to be a “man of God” and an Anglican priest. Of course, Tutu went on to become one of the most outspoken leaders of the anti-apartheid movement.

I am challenged by their courage and determination and I thank God for their refusal to live by the dictates of their cultures, and I aspire to follow in their example. Because of them, the light of Christ shines more brightly than ever.

I hear this all the time.  You probably have too.  “If there really is a God, then why doesn’t God stop the murder of little children, and starvation, and the rape of the environment and the ebola outbreak.  And, damn it, why doesn’t God eliminate toenail fungus while he’s at it?” 

The world is a #&%@ mess and God doesn’t seem to notice or care.  The idea of a loving God seems ludicrous and cruel.  Then, last Sunday, we read this passage from Exodus 3:  “Then the Lord said (to Moses), “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the nations. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt.”  

It hit me.  The problem is not God.  The problem is us.  God sees the suffering, the misery, the oppression and God hears the cries.  God sees and hears what we see and hear.  And God is deeply touched and moved by what God sees and hears.  Unfortunately, we are often untouched and unmoved.  Instead, we identify the problems and then put all the responsibility of fixing the world on God as if God is the cosmic maid–cleaning up the mess.  God IS ready to fix the mess.  “I have come down to deliver,” God says to Moses.  But God then calls Moses to join God in the process of bringing about justice in the world–justice that will bring deliverance.   God expects us (as God’s representatives) to do God’s action in the world.  We cannot divorce ourselves from the solution.  No, if we want things to be different–to be made right–then we need to come out of hiding and engage the powers that are creating the nightmare of injustice.  God calls us to boldly go to the source of the oppression, suffering and misery–to Pharaoh.  And it’s not like we are on our own.  We go in the power and presence of God, I AM.  

Moses was faced with a choice: Join God on God’s mission or stay in Midian (comfortable and safe and detached).  We too are faced with the choice.  But only one option will change the world with God.

“On this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” This statement of Jesus assumes something that I had never considered. The church is meant to be on the offensive. “Gates” are not offensive, but defensive. The gates of hell prevail when there is no force that threatens it. The assumption is that the church is on the advance and knocking down the gates. The church is on a mission to take over hell for heaven. Whenever and wherever hell unleashes its destructive force, the church is there to counter it and overcome it by the authority of Christ. Injustice, violence, abuse of power, oppression are all exposed and overcome in Jesus’ name.

It seems that the church hasn’t gotten the message. The church frequently is either unengaged (that’s not our mission) or in retreat (let’s hold on to what we can). If the church is engaged, it often uses the offensive weapon of prayer. While this is appropriate, prayer must lead to action that coordinates with God’s purposes and plans. The church has often been criticized for hiding inside their buildings and staying safe while the world burns. This is not the church Jesus envisions. An unengaged church is an irrelevant church; a retreating church is a pointless church. The church Jesus envisions is a church that makes the gates of hell tremble; a church that moves to bring light and love to the places of deep darkness and hatred.

This is not a time for timidity. This is not a time for retreat. The poor are crying out for deliverance. The marginalized are crying out for justice. The captive are crying out for freedom. It is time for the church to march straight to hell.

On Palm Sunday (April 13, 2014) the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance (LSEA) will be hosting its 3rd annual public witness at the Logan Square monument from 12pm—1pm. As in previous years, we will be gathering to celebrate the very public and political nature of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and his call to people of faith to resist the values of empire and seek instead “the kingdom of heaven.”

Building on the success of our December 2013 “Posada for Public Housing,” we will be focusing on issues of housing in Logan Square as we hear testimony from people experiencing eviction and foreclosure and campaigning for quality, affordable public housing. Participants will be invited into conversation with one another about faithful responses to our neighbors’ needs, and provided opportunities to get directly involved.

All are invited to participate in this neighborhood event, regardless of religious affiliation or congregational membership. LSEA congregations will be processing from their respective houses of worship carrying palm branches. People are encouraged to bring snack foods, enough to share with one or two other people, so that no one goes hungry as we listen to our neighbors and dream together about God’s preferred future for our community.

No previous notice is required to attend this event, simply come! More information online at: http://logansquareecumenical.blogspot.com.

Edited text from Pastor’s Message on March 2, 2014

Emphásis on the Wrong Sylláble  1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Accent marks don’t seem like much, but in many languages an accent mark can change the meaning of the word entirely.  I am attempting to increase my Spanish language skills through an application called Duolingo.  Sometimes, I forget to include an appropriate accent mark when I’m completing a writing assignment and the program will inform me I’ve used the wrong word and deduct points.  ‘El’ means ‘the’; ‘Él’ means ‘he’.  ‘Si’ means ‘yes’; ‘Sí’ means ‘if’.  Or maybe it’s the other way around.  I get confused.  The point is that an accent mark is all it takes to distort communication.  When I put the emphásis on the wrong sylláble, I fail to express myself clearly and I might end up writing something that would be confusing or worse.

The Church at Corinth not only had communication problems (i.e. ‘speaking in tongues’ without interpretation), they were putting the entire congregation at risk by putting excessive emphasis on possessing spiritual gifts.  They loved the gifts–especially the most sensational gifts like “tongues”.  They held certain gifts and their recipients in high regard while minimizing other gifts and reducing their recipients to second class Christians.  They used the gifts to bolster their spiritual status.  The most excellent gifts were their highest priority.  The results of the wrong empháses were harm to relationships and the mission of the church.

It is in this competitive and destructive context that Paul writes, “I will now show you the most excellent way.”  It is not the way of showmanship or boasting or the way of destruction of the body.  It is the way that will result in the common good and the edification of the church.  It is the way of love.  Love must be the priority. 

First Corinthians 13 is one of the most well-known passages of Scripture.  We usually associate it with wedding ceremonies.  In fact, it is so common at marriages that Owen Wilson bet Vince Vaughn in “The Wedding Crashers” that the first reading would be 1 Corinthians 13.  It was.  Vince Vaughn lost.  However, by lifting 1 Corinthians 13 out as if its context within the dysfunctional relationships within the church at Corinth, we miss how important this passage really is.  Paul did not write this beautiful ‘love’ chapter to instruct brides and grooms.  He wrote it to shift the direction of the church at Corinth away from self-centeredness to “body” awareness and mutual edification.

LOVE IS WHAT IT IS ALL ABOUT.  It is not that skills and gifts and abilities aren’t important to the functioning of the church.  They are necessary for the accomplishment of the mission.  But if gifts are used without consideration for the common good, they are only so much noise and worthless.  Gifts and talents and abilities are not given to you for you.  They are given to you for the sake of others.  Love is always about the other.   It is a question of benefit.  Who benefits?  When the gifts are used in love, everyone benefits.  When only the one using the gifts benefits, it is not just unhelpful, it is harmful. 

I work with young children every day.  Children are not born with an awareness of others.  They are completely self-centered and absorbed with their own wants and needs.  Part of our job in early childhood education is to help children to “de-center”.  In this process, children become aware of other children’s feelings, sharing, helping each other and not hurting each other.  It is not a quick and easy process and there are many tantrums and time-outs along the way.  Children want their own way; want their needs met first; want everyone else to pay attention to them.  They have not grown up.  Part of becoming a mature adult is to become unselfish–to live a de-centered life.  Such an adult can appreciate and meet the needs of others; can feel empathy in the face of suffering.  In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul is implying that the church has been stuck in early childhood.  It is time to grow up and become adults.  It is time to de-center and make love the highest priority.

In the church, it is love that sets us apart.  Jesus told his disciples, “By this, all people will know you are my disciples.”  By love.  Not by gifts.  Not by spectacular healings.  Not by speaking unknown languages.  Not by supernatural strength.  Not by intellect.  But by love.  The church God wants us to become, emphasizes the common good, shifting the emphasis from self-interest to the interests of all.  The church built on the foundation of love will seek the welfare of the weakest among them knowing that the health of the weakest will ensure the health of all.   The early church understood this and acted from the beginning to take care of each other’s needs–providing assistance to the poor, eating together, practicing Jubilee.  They acted like a community that sought the common good–not individual glory.  

How different from our culture that emphasis self-actualization, personal fulfillment, individual goals, and selfish pursuits, climbing the ladder of success.  Unfortunately, what we experience daily and what is idealized in our culture tends to walk through the church doors.  The result is a church that acts out of similar priorities with a veneer of spirituality.  Such a church quickly degrades into the church at Corinth.

But there is a more excellent way.  There is Jesus’ way of love.  The results will be a church where everyone is valued, everyone is accepted, everyone is edified and where everyone uses their talents, abilities and spiritual gifts to accomplish the mission to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world.  And such a church will live out God’s alternative vision for the world–a world where the emphásis is put on the right sylláble–the sylláble of LOVE.

betterEdited Text of Pastor Ray’s message on February 23, 2014

“Body Dysfunctions”  1 Corinthians 12:1-31

I grew up in a church where every Sunday was pretty much the same.  We sang  old hymns.  We read the Bible.  We stood during the (long) congregational prayer.  We sat still and listened to sermons (though I frequently wrote notes to my friends on my bulletin).  And after a closing blessing, we solemnly filed out of the sanctuary.  We all knew what to expect.  But then I went to college and I was introduced to a very different church experience.  There was freedom and excitement and enthusiasm.  People lifted their hands, the music was joyful and sometimes there was even dancing in the aisles.  Sometimes people were healed.  Often, people would speak in tongues that no one seemed to understand–except occasionally when someone would interpret.  And there was no bulletin!  Each week, there was a sense of anticipation and wonder.  One never knew exactly what would happen next.  The experience was liberating for me and I wanted to experience more.  

It was during this time that I was told about the “baptism of the Spirit”.  All the joy and exuberance was because people had been filled with the Spirit.  I wanted it.  So some friends of mine gathered around me, laid hands on me and prayed that I, too, would receive the baptism of the Spirit.  We waited.  We continued to pray that God’s spirit would fall.  We waited some more.  We were waiting for me to receive the evidence that our prayers were answered.  I was supposed to speak in tongues.  I didn’t.  I wanted to.  I was told that I needed “just let it happen.”  Honestly, I tried.  I followed all their instructions.  I babbled to “prime the pump.”  Nothing happened.  I needed to persevere.  I persevered.  Still nothing happened.

Since I didn’t receive the gift of tongues, and God says, “ask and you shall receive,” obviously something had to be wrong with me.  Maybe, I didn’t have enough faith.  Maybe I was blocking the movement of the Spirit as a result of some sin.  I confessed every sin I could think of.  I read the Bible cover to cover so I would better know God’s will.  I learned all I could about the gifts of the Spirit.  I prayed–hard.  I still didn’t speak in tongues.  Though no one said it, I felt like a second-class Christian.  There were other gifts of the Spirit, but speaking in tongues was THE evidence I expected.  It was the evidence that everyone else around me expected.  It was the one gift above all others that mattered; that made my infilling of the Spirit valid.  

Now that I have matured in my walk in the Spirit, I realize how dysfunctional my college experience had been.  Because there was so much focus on what I had not received, no one could appreciate what I had received–gifts that ultimately propelled me into pastoral ministry and prepared me to help others on their spiritual journey.  The problem was not that people were speaking in tongues–a legitimate expression of the Spirit’s presence in person’s life, but that speaking in tongues was held up as the only legitimate expression of the Spirit’s presence and as the pinnacle of personal spirituality.  Along the way I discovered that God had much more to say about spiritual fruit as evidence of the Sprit’s presence.  An over-emphasis on spiritual gifts–especially elevating one gift above all others–was evidence, not of spiritual maturity but of spiritual dysfunction. 

The church at Corinth exemplified this very dysfunction. They too were exalting one gift over all others and were minimizing the other manifestations of the Spirit.  And they were minimizing those members of the church that did not show evidence of greatest spiritual gift–the gift of speaking in tongues—especially “angelic tongues”.   Those who spoke in tongues were more spiritual than those who did not.  Those who did not speak in tongues were inconsequential and unnecessary.  Possession of THE gift led to spiritual pride and social arrogance.  They might as have well worn “I’m better than you” buttons.

Such dysfunction ultimately destroys the church and prevents it from fulfilling its God-given mission.  Paul writes to clarify in no uncertain terms that there are MANY spiritual gifts from God and ALL gifts are necessary to the healthy function of the church.  AND the Spirit distributes the gifts not on the basis of some maturity hierarchy, but as the Spirit wills.  Not every member will be a prophet.  Not every member will speak in tongues.  (Why hadn’t my college friends read that to me?)  Not every member will have the ability to heal.  Therefore, we need each other and the full range of spiritual gifts. 

There is unity within the body of Christ, for we are all baptized by the Spirit into one body, but that does not require uniformity.  In fact, it requires many parts.  To illustrate his point, Paul used the analogy of the human body–a single body made up of many parts–some visible, some protected inside the body, some covered out of modesty, some seemingly inconsequential.  However, ALL parts are indeed needed.  To exalt one gift or one calling or one perspective over all others will only result in spiritual disability. To denigrate certain parts just because they are not visible or because they are small; to say to any part, “I don’t need you,” is the height of arrogance.  

Their hierarchical understanding about spiritual gifts had also led them to a hierarchical attitude toward those who possessed the lesser gifts.  The church had once again divided itself into a group of “haves” (they have the gift) and the “have-nots” (they have not the gift).  This was beyond social class structure–another issue in the church.  Now the church was creating a spiritual class structure!  And the “haves” had little concern about the well-being of the “have-nots”.  

The purpose of spiritual gifts–all the gifts–is for the upbuilding of the entire church.  It is for the common good.  Mutual edification can only occur in an atmosphere of humility and love (the more excellent way of 1 Corinthians 13).  For the common good to flourish, we must treat each other as though they are God’s gift to us.

The church that God means for us to be is a church that values diversity of gifts and diversity of people demonstrated through respect, mutual care and equality.   Unfortunately, many churches, while giving lip service to diversity, have actually pursued segregation.  One of the foundational principles of the Church Growth Movement is that churches can only grow in homogeneous groupings of people.  In a book entitled, Our Kind of People, C. Peter Wager wrote, “men like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers”.  Therefore, segregated churches based on socio-economics, education, race, language, generation and even spiritual gifts have been (and continue to be) planted throughout America.  Rather than the church embracing diversity and the gifts of different cultures, experiences and perspectives, the church has chosen instead to organize itself on the principle of “separate but equal” (which is never truly equal) and on the de facto statement, “I don’t need you.”  This structure has resulted in mega-churches and mega-church wannabes that have little power to challenge the status quo.  And because the body of Christ is not engaging the gifts of all the members, the result is a church that has actually lost its voice.  We can hardly speak about systemic injustice when our own systems mirror the injustice.

The church needs a reformation which affirms the need for all gifts, experiences and perspectives.  The church needs to make new choices about welcome and inclusion.  The church needs a structure that allows for those of “lesser gifts” to do their part with great respect and honor.  While diversity of people and gifts within a denomination or a local church is challenging, it is what God desires.  Isn’t that why God gave us the Spirit in the first place–to empower us to do God’s will in the world and to be God’s witnesses across all lines of division?