Posts Tagged grace

Call It Grace: Finding Meaning in a Fractured World by Serene Jones

Reviewed by Mitch Carnell – ethicsdaily.com – April 15, 2019

“God Will Take Care of You” was a very popular hymn when I was growing up.
Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, makes it clear this is not the case in her new book, “Call It Grace: Finding Meaning in a Fractured World.”
God empowers us to take care of ourselves, she says, in this theological reflection that is as true as the author can make it at the time of its writing.
She is a product of Oklahoma and its broad sweeping plains, burdened by the racist history of the state and especially that of her family – though her father breaks that mold.
Her own struggles with racism play out in a teenage fit of disappointment and anger. She wrestles with her grandfather’s not-so-subtle sexual abuse.
Jones is also a product of the teachings of Calvin, Niebuhr, Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, Barth and Tillich and later of feminist theologians. She is steeped in the doctrines of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
There is no doubt that she belongs at the helm of the Union Theological Seminary. They are blessed to have her and so are we.
Her story is so compelling that it is difficult to put the book down. We get to watch as she takes what she experienced in India and processes those experiences to weave her own spiritual formation. She learns quickly from other cultures and other faith traditions.
The one major flaw is that in the story of Freddy (a boyfriend of Jones during high school who dropped out of school), she substitutes what she wishes were the truth for the real truth.
She mistakes raging teenage hormones for true love and then enshrines that image in her brain. She attributes Freddy’s death to his condition of poverty.
In reality, Freddy had all the elements he needed to escape poverty: a motorcycle, intelligence, talent, work, money and the role model of Serene and her family. He made a conscious choice to remain stuck.
She says that it was Freddy’s death that sent her into the study of theology. It was more likely the influence of her father because her younger sister also became a minister.
Despite this shortcoming, her telling the story of Freddy is exquisite and sets the pattern for an unrelenting search for meaning.
Jones also reflects on her marriage, which seems like it never stood a chance of success.
Yet, her love for her daughter and what being a mother birthed in her is truly inspirational.
Her oneness of spirit with her daughter is a case study in mother-daughter relationships.
Her struggles with the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and how she works through her hatred of Timothy McVeigh to come out of that struggle on the side of being opposed to the death penalty is a lesson in transformation for us all.
As much as Jones loves and respects her theologian father, she neither respects nor adores her mother. who was a bitter, harsh, mean person.
I suspect the mother was sicker for a much longer period of time than anyone suspected. She was brutal in the verbal abuse of her brilliant daughter and later she almost destroyed her adoring husband.
It is against this harsh reality that Jones’ theology is tested and reforms.
Jones comes to the conclusion that we are all held in God’s love. That the space between us and the breath that flows through us and unites us is God’s grace. We are all a part of God and that God is a part of us.
“It also allows us to see God not as another object, distinct from us, but as the air, the flow, the spirit, the life force that moves between us and through us,” she writes.
Her father’s mantra is referenced often, “We are all children of light and children of darkness. We are all children of the same God.”
The concluding lines of the book carry her message: “Love has become a trifling word, but it still, as a theological concept, has the power to redeem if we can grasp that it exists within and yet comes from beyond desire, language, need and want. That is the simple reason, really, why we call that love ‘grace’.”
My summary is found in her words, “Grace is older than sin.”

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Morning Worship: Put trash in mulch pile and let new, beautiful things grow

by MARY LEE TALBOT on 

“Humor and laughter are the most powerful gifts in life,” said the Rev. Susan Sparks at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. “The congregation this morning is a visual reaffirmation of faith in the church, in that the numbers here this morning rival the numbers at a screening of ‘Harry Potter.’ ”

Senior Pastor Susan Sparks Delivers Her SermonDuring The Sunday Morning Worship Service . PAULA OSPINA / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Her sermon title was “The Mulch Pile,” and the theme was letting go. The Scripture reading was Colossians 3:1-2, 8-14.

Sparks said she and her husband were traveling across the country, and to the west of Minneapolis they saw a billboard that had a picture of a casket “Minnesota Cremation Society — Think Outside the Box,” it read.

“That is what humor does — helps you think outside the box, see in fresh ways, and it builds community and bridges,” Sparks said.

Sparks quoted theologian Karl Barth, saying that humor is the closest thing we have to God’s grace.

“We can feel hope in our hearts,” she said, “because humor is there even if the world tries to beat it out.”

Sparks recently ended a three-month sabbatical. For the first month, she and her husband rode their Harleys around the country.

“That’s right, you have a biker chick and a comedian for a chaplain this week,” she said.

The second two months they spent in their cabin in Wisconsin — a place they visit regularly. It is near a town much like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon: 2,000 people and 17 Lutheran churches.

They have a ritual for their first morning — first, making “really bad coffee,” and then fishing for bluegills and other small fish and then cooking breakfast. During one visit, they threw the fish guts and egg shells into the trash after breakfast and went out to run errands. They had no air conditioning and the day was 93 degrees — “you can see where this is going,” Sparks said. When they got home, they were hit with the smell.

“I made a small gas mask out of wet paper towels and went in and got the trash and ran it out to the mulch pile,” Sparks said. “As you gardeners know, the trash turns into rich, dark soil that grows daylilies or tomatoes.”

In the Scripture reading, Paul tells the Colossians to get rid of their anger and malice and clothe themselves in a new self.

“Paul was writing in 60 A.D. and the danger he was writing about was gnosticism,” Sparks said. “He urged the Colossians to clothe themselves in the teaching of Christ. Paul is reaching out to us in the same way today and asking two questions — What trash are you carrying that needs to be put in the mulch? And what beautiful new thing can grow in its place?”

This is the arc for the week in her sermons: to look at what the trash is that needs to be put out on the mulch pile and, on Friday, to sum up what beautiful new thing might grow in its place.

“What trash are you carrying?” she asked. “Do you even know? Are you carrying anger, resentment, fear or self-doubt? Are you carrying racism, homophobia or other hatreds?”

Sparks said that sometimes when we are in denial, we don’t know that we are carrying trash or we have lived with generations of disregard for the problems. As an example, she said she threw her back out once and had to lie on the floor for almost a week. On the fourth day, after having read every newspaper and magazine in the house and binge-watched reruns of “Dr. Phil,” she was bored and her only view was under the furniture.

“I saw dust balls the size of ferrets, some leaky pens and paper and a strange orange square thing. It turned out to be a cheese appetizer from a cocktail party two years before,” she said. “I would not have known it was there unless I had been forced to look. You can’t take out the trash if you don’t know it is there.”

The second action in taking out the trash is letting go, and that is easier said than done. There are many things that we are used to but are useless to us.

“My father had a big old Buick boat of a car and he kept two spare tires, food, water, blankets and a foil space blanket in his trunk — in case there was a blizzard — to drive the 0.1 mile to from our house to his office in Charlotte, North Carolina,” she said.

We, she told the congregation, need to let go of privilege, apathy and ego as much as a foil blanket. She told the story of a man who fell off a cliff and was dangling from a tree, calling for help. A voice came from the heavens, saying, “Let go, my son, I have you.” The man thought for a moment and said, “Who else is up there?”

It can be hard to let go, but if we carry this trash too long it begins to define us. Ralph Waldo Emerson said what we worship, we become.

“I have a friend who calls it the 3Bs — believe, behave, become,” Sparks said. “What we believe drives our behavior and what we believe drives who we become.”

Sparks cited the first part of the Serenity Prayer, attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, which reads: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

She prefers the Senility Prayer: “God, Grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway, the good fortune to run into the ones that I do, and the eyesight to tell the difference.”

“We have got to let go and throw things onto the mulch pile and in that moment, greater forces will take over,” Sparks said. “When we hand things over to a greater power, to Jesus Christ, it fades and changes into something beautiful and new.”

For instance, she said, we have to throw out our judgmentalism of others in order for mercy, empathy and forgiveness to grow.

“We judge people by the craziest things, like color, language or religion that have nothing to do with their being a child of God and our brother and sister,” she said.

She told a story from Jack Kornfield about two prisoners of war. The first one asked the second if he had forgiven their captors. The second one said no. “Then they still have you in prison,” the first one replied.

“We have more in common than we think and we have to start living like it,” Sparks said. “We have to begin with ourselves and forgive ourselves so we can forgive others. We have excuses for why we can’t do that, but if we have any lesson for today, it is that this body is our house, this heart is our house, this country is our house, this world is our house and it is our responsibility to take out the trash even if someone else brought it in.”

Poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

“If you care about this gift, don’t waste it on what weighs you down,” Sparks said. “Fling it on the mulch pile and clothe yourself in something beautiful and new.”

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Morning Worship: God is holding you and all this beautiful, broken world  o

by MARY LEE TALBOT on   The Chautauqua Daily

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The Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli Presents Her Sermon During Sunday Morning Worship In The Amp On Sunday, July 23, 2017. ERIN CLARK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

When the Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli was serving as a youth minister, she was asked to preach one Sunday. One of the youth, Phil, wanted to see her before the service.

“I knew Phil liked me and he had been on mission trips and retreats and was aloof, as fitted a 16-year-old,” she said. “He asked if I was preaching and I said yes. He said, ‘Make it interesting.’ ”

Gaines-Cirelli was preaching at the 9:15 a.m. Monday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. Her sermon title was “Hear and See,” and the Scripture reading was Isaiah 30:8-18.

“That is such good counsel if you have ears to hear,” she said. “To invite people to receive God’s love and liberating grace, to share God’s life.”

This message has always been a challenge to be truly received.

Hearing is more than physical; it is not just intellectual assent or an emotional response. To truly hear “adjusts the core of our being and we are changed from the inside out.” Gaines-Cirelli said the most difficult journey is from the head to the heart and it is a round trip — a quote she attributed to 20th-century preacher William Sloane Coffin.

The prophet Isaiah had fully received God’s message and a vision had taken root in his heart of a community living in covenant faithfulness. It would be a community that rescued the oppressed, beat swords into ploughshares; it would be the vision of the peaceable kingdom.

“This vision of peaceful living and interdependence guided all he did; it was his grounding and he invited others to live it,” Gaines-Cirelli said of Isaiah. “He looked at Judah in crisis and saw it rejecting the vision and turning toward oppression and cunning that brought increased suffering and the presumed necessity of violence.”

It is only in quiet and trust that Judah could remember who was able to liberate them.

“In response to this blessed assurance, they said, ‘No thanks, we are good with oppression and cunning,’ ” Gaines-Cirelli said.

Jesus lamented over Jerusalem, calling it the city that killed the prophets and stoned those sent to it. Jesus longed to gather the people of Jerusalem under his wings like a mother hen, but they were not willing.

“Why? Why did they reject the words of God’s prophets?” she asked. “They were unwilling or unable to receive the word and change course.”

The prophet could see the writing on the wall if things did not change, but his announcement of destruction made no impact. The people told Isaiah to stop telling the truth, to quit speaking of God all together and “tell us what we want to hear.”

“Why?” Gaines-Cirelli said. “What is your answer?”

She imagined that for some, in a message-saturated culture, they want to keep their illusions because they are tired. People just want to get through the day; they have enough to do and are not interested in doing more, or learning more or caring more. They are on information overload.

Others “prefer to keep their illusions about their life, relationships, country, world or culture because the truth is too painful, too overwhelming.”

“They grow complacent and think things aren’t so bad and that it will all work out,” she said.

This is only possible, she continued, for those who live in relative safety or ease.

“They will resent those who threaten their relative comfort,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “This is called privilege, and it works overtime to prove those who are suffering wrong, even in the face of data. What would be required of the privileged would be too costly if the vision took root.”

Prophets tell inconvenient truths that require real change.

“There are things in my life I need to change, that if left uncared for will have negative consequences,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “I know I need more rest and exercise, so I decided to do ‘vigorous sitting.’ I don’t have a primary care physician because I don’t want to deal with the insurance company.”

She said that there are difficult conversations she needs to have, and her husband tells her to do what needs to be done.

“I could kill him, metaphorically,” she said. “But exhaustion, guilt and regret are things that keep me from doing what needs to be done and when I don’t want to see, I lash out.”

Smart, accomplished people who care can inadvertently miss what God is trying to do or say, she said, because “they think they understand the situation and can handle it themselves, with no assistance from God, because they know what the problem is and it is up to them to solve it.”

She gave the example of the statue of Atlas in front of Rockefeller Center, holding up the world on his shoulders.

“He is the most powerfully built man in the world, and he can barely stand,” she said. “That is one way to live.”

Across the street, in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, is a statue of Jesus as a boy holding the world up with one hand.

“We have a choice,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “We can try to carry all the injustices, hurts, doubts, confusions, fears and anxiety — that is, it is up to us, we know best — or we can let God help us. I can just see Atlas saying ‘no thanks’ to God’s offer of help.”

She told the congregation “our overactive sense of knowledge keeps us from seeing God’s saving love and mercy.”

“The prophets made the message interesting and painful to get our attention,” she said. “We have heard God’s call to love, serve, give, live with the creation. We know this stuff, right?”

We cannot do it by ourselves, she continued. It is one thing to know something intellectually and “another to change our lives. Where are you on the round trip journey from head to heart? God is with you on that journey and holding you and all this beautiful, broken world.”

God’s love is at work in, through and all around you in quietness and trust, she said.

“God is waiting to help grant you mercy and grace in what work is yours to do in the living of these days,” she said. “Hear. See. Receive. God bless you, amen.”

The Rev. Robert M. Franklin Jr. presided. The Rev. Susan McKee, founder and executive director of Knitting4Peace, read the Scripture. She is a United Church of Christ minister, working on interfaith relations in Denver. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, directed the Motet Choir, which sang “We Shall Walk Through the Valley,” arranged by Undine Smith Moore. The Geraldine M. and Frank E. McElree Jr. Chaplaincy Fund and the Randell-Hall Memorial Chaplaincy provide support for this week’s services.

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Dr. Linda McKinnish Bridges Elected Pres. of Baptist Seminary of Richmond

I met Dr. Bridges at the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York State in the summer of 1991. She was the Chaplain of the Week. She is one of the many reasons I fell in love with the place. Her sermon, “Grace upon Grace,” describes my life and has stayed with me to this day. She grew up in the area above Greer, South Carolina. Her father was a well-known mountain preacher. At the time Joan Lipscomb Solomon, a classmate at Furman with me, was writing the Daily Religion Column for the Chautauqua Daily. Joan and I met Linda for lunch one day and had a great time exploring our South Carolina connections. I have continued to follow Linda’s career and her outstanding Christian service.

“On Tuesday morning (March 21), trustees voted unanimously to welcome Dr. Linda McKinnish Bridges as the third president of BTSR. Dr. Bridges was selected after a comprehensive nationwide search led by a BTSR committee consisting of trustees, faculty and staff, with assistance from AGB Search. She will serve as the third president of BTSR, and comes to the seminary at the culmination of BTSR’s 25th anniversary.

In her comments, Dr. Bridges vowed to, “listen first, revere the symbols of the past, all the while ruthlessly renewing and revisioning theological education for the future.” Rev. Dr. Linda McKinnish Bridges will transition to her new role as President-Elect in May 2017, and will officially begin as president of BTSR on July 1, 2017.

The trustees at BTSR have chosen wisely. I am thrilled with the choice. She joins Dr. Molly Marshall, President of Central Baptist Seminary, as a second woman president of a Baptist Theological Seminary. “The mills of the Gods grind exceedingly slowly but exceedingly fine.”

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