Ravin Rev, 11/15/2018

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

In the midst of the turmoil and tragedies that surround us these days, it seems a meager thing to lift up gratitude and thanksgiving as a spiritual practice. Amidst the images of forest fires in California; amidst the news of another mass shooting; amidst election recounts and partisan sniping, we yearn for a spacious center where we can connect to God and each other more profoundly. We worry the center will not hold and the challenges facing us are beyond our capacity to resolve in a just and compassionate way.

I have always thought of the words from one of Paul’s letters to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and giving thanks in all circumstances to be a difficult admonition to follow. Life is filled with challenges both personal and societal. How does one rejoice always when we see the pain around us; how does one pray without ceasing when we struggle to find a quiet moment to breathe; and how does one give thanks in all circumstances when we don’t like our particular circumstances? Paul’s words feel like an impossible ethic in today’s world.

Yet I am struck by the last phrase – “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” God desires for us joy, prayer, and thanksgiving. This means that God does not desire for us despair, fear, and regret. (It is sadly ironic how often church people preach forms of fear and guilt to motivate allegiance to a particular religious tradition) Maybe the rejoicing and praying and thanksgiving are not so much an act of our will as it is signs of God’s Will working in us and around us. The qualities of joy, prayer, and gratitude are a result of being transformed by God rather than a prerequisite for faithful living. Ultimately, this is a description of what God does to us. Ironically, we make these words into something to feel guilty about!

Every one of us feel sorrow and despair and struggle at times to be grateful. This is what it means to be human. Our very gospels reflect how Jesus felt sorrow and despair and grappled to find hope in the midst of a violent and oppressive world. Yet he embodies for us a Way of being transformed by God’s grace; a quality of consciousness and life different from anything else. A Way of living rooted in the true reality of gratitude and love and hope.

This world needs a people transformed by Christ in our hearts. It needs a kind of people who reflect the will of God for all humanity where joy, unceasing prayer, and thanksgiving are a true reflection of the reality of the world. Paul is telling us that this is what God is doing in each and every one of us. Thanks be to God!

Grace and Peace,
Rev. P. Alex Thornburg

Ravin Rev, 10/31/2018

Monday night I attended a prayer vigil for the victims of the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue at a local synagogue here in Des Moines. I know our Jewish brothers and sisters were overwhelmed by the support they received from so many in attendance. It was standing room only inside the building to the point that people stood outside practically surrounding the whole synagogue. It was a reminder that while it was one lone gunman filled with hate who committed this act of heinous anti- Semitism, the whole Des Moines religious community stood in solidarity with our Jewish friends.

There were amazing words spoken at this service. Words of sorrow and grief; calls to prayer and action; expressions of love and possibility. In these times of division and disunion, it was good to be reminded that we are all united in our shared commitment to create a better world together. In this service we sang songs and said prayers remembering the dead so that we could carry them with us into a future filled with life. I know I was uplifted and inspired to be a better person who looks into the eyes of fellow sisters and brothers and sees reflected there our shared humanity.

One person spoke of her struggle to make sense of the shooting. She shared the wise words of a Rabbi friend who told her hate never makes sense. Hate is not logical. This is so true. Yet, I am also struck by the reality that hope transcends hate. Hope changes such senseless acts into possibilities of compassion and caring leading to a different future. I was reminded of that standing in the synagogue Monday night.

On All Saints Sunday, November 4, our community will be remembering those who have entered into God’s embrace this past year and all the saints who we love and who have loved us. We recite a line in our communion liturgy where we affirm one day people shall gather from the east and the west, and from the north and the south, and they shall gather together sharing in the love of God and of neighbor. On Monday night, I caught a glimpse of this hope standing with hundreds of others singing and praying. One of the refrains we sang was this:

May the source of strength,
Who blessed the ones before us,
Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing, and let us say, Amen.

Ravin Rev, 10/12/2018

“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”  –  Leviticus 19:33-34

“God defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”  –  Deuteronomy 10:18-19

In the coming week (October 19-20), Heartland and First Arabic Presbyterian Church will host David Barnhart, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, who will show two of his short films about the immigrant and refugee experience in the United States. There will be a panel of immigrants and refugees who will offer their own experiences as they respond to the challenges of integrating into our communities. This will be a great opportunity to hear their stories and gain a deeper understanding of their reality. We hope you will be able to participate in this conversation.

It is striking how often in scripture the treatment of foreigners is a signpost of faithfulness for those who seek to be the children of God. Besides the two quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures above, there are continual calls to treat the immigrant with generosity and hospitality. Many Biblical scholars argue that Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed not because of a purported acceptance of homosexuality (a misreading and distortion of the story) but because they were not welcoming of the stranger in their midst. The gospel of Matthew tells the story of Jesus and his family fleeing to another country because of oppression and threats to their lives. (Matthew 2:13-23) The Bible is filled with imperatives to treat refugees with compassion and grace.

Our hope is to move beyond the divisive political rhetoric so that we may find our common humanity in the stories we share across race and class and country. David Barnhart understands his work as a storytelling ministry. In hearing the stories, we discover a commonality and empathy that helps us see not an enemy but a fellow human being. This event is truly, as it is named, a call and an invitation: “Won’t You Be my Neighbor?”

Grace and Peace,
Alex

Ravin Rev, 09/28/2018

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”  – Martin Luther King

The “Me too” movement in the past few years has been a startling revelation for many of us men. Hearing the pervasive stories of women who have experienced forms of sexual assault and sexual misconduct has been painfully eye opening. I know when my wife shared some of her own personal experiences with me, I was filled with sorrow and anger not simply at the callous behavior of other men but at my own ignorance about this reality. Not only ignorance but participation in a system where women are treated as less than fully human. If these stories are not a source of self-examination for all men, then we are not really listening to them at all.

‘Boys will be boys” has been an unfortunate explanation for much of this behavior. I have always been offended by such an assertion as it implies that the very nature of what it means to be a man is to treat women as objects for our own self-satisfaction. The assumption is that “maleness” is defined by power over others (especially women) excluding mutuality and equality. When men do not question this cultural myth, they define themselves in patterns of domination and oppression. The cost is a loss of our own humanity.

One of the insights Martin Luther King asserted was that the liberation of the oppressed also liberates the oppressor. That the Civil Rights movement was not only to affirm the equality of the souls of Black people, but also a struggle to save the souls of White people. In the quote above from his letter from the Birmingham jail, King reminds us that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” True liberation sets free everyone (black, white, male, female) from patterns of power and domination.

The first step has been to listen to the stories of women. To be silent and truly listen to women’s reality in our world today. I believe another step in this journey of mutuality is to foster honest conversations among men about masculinity. Fathers to their sons; brother to brother. Unless we can name and address the toxic definitions of being a man, we will not truly be liberated from the patterns of oppressive power that define our lives. Unless women are free, we cannot be free.

Grace and Peace,
Alex

Ravin Rev, 09/14/2018

“We are marching in the light of God” – South African Hymn

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down your life for another.” – John 15:13

This past week marked the 17th anniversary of 9-11. There are a number of images from that day I cannot forget. Watching the plane fly into one of the towers; the apocalyptic smoke billowing into the sky and streets; the collapse of the towers as they come tumbling down. All these images are burned into my memories of that horrible day.

But the one image that continues to take ahold of me was a news video taken as the first responders came upon the scene of the burning towers. As the firemen approach the burning towers walking together carrying hoses and axes and oxygen tanks, it is their faces I remember. The video shows them looking up at the smoking towers and their eyes reflect the fear one would expect to see at the immensity, at the danger, they would be confronting climbing up those stairs to save as many people as possible. But you cannot escape the sense of resolve in those eyes as well. The courageous determination as they marched together, step by step, into the blazing inferno that would take many of their lives.

In this day and time of discord and dysfunction, it is this image that sticks with me reminding me of the best of our humanity. Men and women of all ages and races and creeds marching together to save their fellow human beings trapped in those towers. In tragedy, that the best of our humanity comes forth despite the fear; despite the chaos; and despite the danger. We easily forget this at times when politicians seek to use fear to divide us from one another and the “Other.” That video image of those first responders will always be for me a resounding challenge to this cynical practice. That on the day when we saw the worst of hateful ideology, we saw men and women marching together with courage and determination to save others.

May we march together!

Grace and Peace,
Alex

Ravin Rev, 08/31/2018

“It is not the church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission that has a church in the world.” – Craig Van Gelder

Our call is to connect to God, to connect to each other, and to connect to the “Other.” – Heartland Mission Statement

“The Church has left the building” – Heartland T-Shirt

What does it mean to be the church? This is one of those questions we assume should have a simple and clear answer. In fact, we are likely to have a wide variety of answers to this question reflected in our own values, priorities, and past experiences of the church. One answer might emphasize worship; another may focus on fellowship; and still others center on local mission to the most vulnerable in our society. The reality is that all these answers are right and wrong. They are right in the sense of describing things the church does yet wrong in that they don’t really answer the central question. What do we mean by describing ourselves as the church?

The church is and has always been a community of people. At times we might say I am going to church, yet this assumes church is a place we go to, a building where we gather. The church is not a location; it is you in relationship with God, and with each other, and with the “Other.” It is one of the quirks of being a Pastor that people feel they have to apologize to me when they haven’t been coming to church because of kid’s sports events, or vacations, or just needing a day off from their busy schedules. I always remind people that Presbyterians are about grace and not guilt. More and more I want to remind folks that they have been the church as much out in the world as when they gather on a Sunday morning.

The church is a mission. There are ministries and missions that we can do together better than on our own. This is a good thing. But the truth is that every day you are engaging in ministry and mission where you are whether at work or at the dinner table or attending a community meeting. You are the mission in the world!

The church is not a building. Our beautiful building serves as a tool of our ministry and mission. It is the place we gather to worship together (even as we are called to worship everyday); it is a place we educate ourselves and our children in discipleship (even as we are called to discipleship everyday); and it is even a space for mission where Boy Scouts, support groups, community organizations, and various people find a space to do their work. The building is not the church, it is a tool of this community to be the church in the world. Our new T-Shirts are a fun symbol of our connection to the Heartland community. But even more than that, the words on the back of the shirts are a reminder to us all that we are the people of God out in the world every day of the week and in every place, God has called us to be whether at home, work, or neighborhood.

Grace & Peace,
Rev. P. Alex Thornburg

Ravin Rev, 07/31/2018

“The greatest thing that you can do is to help someone know that they are loved and capable of love.”    – Fred Rogers

I recently went to see the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” about the life and work of Fred Rogers. Growing up, I was a little too old (barely) to have watched his show “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” which was nationally syndicated in 1968. I was more into Batman and Spiderman cartoons rather than this low production children’s program with hand puppets and simple songs. Yet somehow, I still knew the words to the famous song that opened every show.

What struck me in the documentary is the way Fred Rogers interacted with the children in the show and in real life. Rogers disliked how children’s television at the time was so kitschy, more about pies in the face and slapstick than anything else. Rogers treated all children with respect seeing them as fully formed people who had struggles and serious questions about the world and their place in that world.  His show was famous for addressing such questions as divorce, war, and racism.

Many people may not know that Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, ordained as an evangelist. We may find that odd since he never mentioned church or religion in any of his shows as people often view evangelism as recruitment for heaven or at least the church. In fact, the Greek word for evangelism simply means sharing good news. Fred Rogers was a far cry from the televangelists and “Health and Wealth gospel” peddlers we find these days.

Fred Rogers shared the good news of Grace. You are loved and are capable of loving. His was not a complicated theological construct that required an allegiance to a particular statement of faith or specific group. He shared the good news that you are loved and are capable of loving others with the children he talked with and listened to each and every day.

We are evangelists also when through our daily living and interactions with others we simply share the good news with the people we meet that they are loved, and they are capable of loving others. We are called to share this good news with our spouse, our children, our friends, our coworkers, and the strangers we meet along the way. In a way, every day we should be inviting everyone around us, “Won’t You Be my Neighbor?”

Grace and Peace,
Alex

Ravin Rev, 07/13/2018

One of the most impactful spiritual experiences of my life growing up in the church was a gathering every summer sponsored by the Synod of the Sun where youth and adults would gather on the campus of Trinity University in San Antonio for a week-long workshop of play, worship, and small groups. As the years have gone by (too many years!), I have come to realize that what made this a deeply meaningful event was the simple experience of community together.

All of us could likely identify those spiritual highs in our life as being connected to an experience of community in some form or another. It is in community that we are accepted and loved for who we are. It is in community we are accountable for extending this same acceptance to others. In other words, community is where Grace comes alive for us all.

I am more and more convinced that the root of our dysfunction and disillusionment in our politics and society today is a loss of community and a sense of the common good. In 1985 Robert Bellah in his book “Habits of the Heart” foreshadowed these struggles in our hyper- individualistic nation to find and build community. In 2000, sociologist Robert Putnam in his book “Bowling Alone” shared the alarming decline of social participation in the various communities/groups/institutions that undergird a connected society (Kiwanis Clubs, Bridge Groups, churches, bowling leagues, etc.) This collapse of the common good has been coming for quite a long time.

To be clear, I am not trying to evoke a sense of community rooted in some mythology of the past where we imagine our society in the good old days. The truth is that one of the underlying dysfunctions of community in our past has been the intentional exclusion of women and people of color. True community does not simply tolerate diversity, it embraces it!

The challenge in these divided days is how to create and find community. Our trust in the “Other” is almost nonexistent and we find ourselves feeling unsafe in our conflicting disagreements about the common good. One strategy has been to adopt the age-old strategy of not talking about religion or politics. This might get us through the day without the discomfort of disagreement, but it doesn’t really lead to the common good we all yearn for in our society.

Peter Bloch describes community as a conversation. Maybe the way forward is to start by having a conversation together as risky and challenging as that may seem. Maybe the first tentative step towards the realization of the common good comes by simply staring to talk with each other. If we don’t start, then who will?

Grace and Peace,
P. Alex Thornburg

Ravin Rev, 06/28/2018

“Nothing human is alien to me.” These words were written by a Roman
slave named Terrance, a playwright, around 160 years before the birth of
Jesus. These ancient and wise words express something essential about
the human condition/community. Despite the many ways we may divide
ourselves into tribes of color and creed and country, we are all essentially
human. No matter how much we may deny anther person’s humanity by
labeling them alien or vermin, we cannot escape our shared connection
on this planet. No matter how much I may find myself struggling to
comprehend another’s worldview, nothing human is ever, really, alien to
me.

One of the assertions in our faith tradition is that Jesus was both fully
divine and fully human. We have tended to focus on Jesus divinity
while ignoring the meaning of his humanity. In Jesus, we have both the
expression of what it means to be fully human and the very sacredness of
that humanity. In other words, Jesus was a sacred humanist!
One cannot read the gospels without bumping into the reality of Jesus
essential humanism. He welcomed/embraced/loved the humanity in all
kinds of people from the unclean to the unrepentant; from the leper to the
leaders in the temple; from the Samaritan to those labeled sinners. Jesus
did not shy away from confronting the injustices of those in power, but he
did so by striving to remind them of their own shared humanity.
As we live into this day filled with words of division and alienation, we are
called to the way of Jesus, a sacred humanism, that stands for justice and
peace honoring the humanity in all of us. We must seek to live out those
words written thousands of years ago – nothing human is alien to me.

Grace and Peace,
Alex

Ravin Rev, 06/15/2018

By the time you have received this, I will already be in St. Louis for the General Assembly meeting. It starts for me with an early meeting on Friday, the 15th, of “The Way Forward” committee. Delegates are arbitrarily assigned to committees and this was the one I was lucky enough to get. At first, I was excited about the committee as it sounded right down my alley. You would think the “Way Forward” committee would be about visioning and outside the box thinking as we move into the future God is creating for us as a church. Much to my chagrin, it seems the discussion focuses on the establishment of a corporation to distribute and manage the resources for the various boards of the national church. Radical, right!

Actually, it is a little more complicated than that but essentially it is one more committee recommending the creation of another committee. How Presbyterian is that! (You know the old joke: When two Presbyterians gather together they form three committees.) Hopefully it will be more than simply rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic, but we will have to see.

My weekend will involve a number of worship opportunities from the Opening Worship on Saturday morning to a special opportunity Sunday morning to go out and worship with local congregations in the St. Louis area. One of the things I am most looking forward to is singing and praying and dancing (maybe?) with Presbyterians from all over the United States and the world.

The other big thing this weekend is the election of our new moderator(s) who will serve a two-year term. There are a number of candidates and I will try and give you an update after the election. My hope in the coming week is to send you all some reflections on my experience. I cannot promise too much as I will be in meetings about 10 to 12 hours a day, but I will try. Pray for me!

Grace and Peace,

Alex