Our Story – Remembering We Are God’s Beloved

What a summer it has been! This summer held my first three mission trips in a summer with Calvary Denver’s youth – one to Honduras and most recently immersion experiences in Denver and Chicago with Christian Student Ministries (CSM). 

Our Honduras trip was featured in my reflections last month. The Denver and Chicago trips marked my third and fourth experiences overall with CSM. Two new cities, new organizations to partner with, new prayer tours, new ethnic restaurants to try, and new memories with two groups of students.

Being a leader is a gift, you get the aerial view of the trips and those one-on-one moments with students, leaders, and city hosts. CSM trips are a blend of prayer tours, plunges, immersions, ministry sites, and devotions/debriefs. They are trips where the tangible results are few and far between. A great deal of the trip is experienced through the internal work of understanding how and why homelessness exists, what it means to be part of the working poor class, shaking stereotypes so they are no longer the lens we view people through, and processing our comfort zones – all the while understanding how God is present and at work in these cities.

When serving with CSM, you go to bed exhausted and wake up tired (it’s great when you have a longer drive to your ministry site because those catnaps are a gift). The work isn’t as physically taxing as building a house or pouring cement, but the work is tiring nonetheless. It’s the work of understanding that one of the greatest gifts one person can give another is to see them for their own story and not their stereotype and that looking someone in the eye can be the hope they need to believe there is a reason to keep pressing on.

I hope you all will join us this coming Sunday morning for the Forum where you will hear from some of the 19 students, five co-leaders, and myself about our snapshots from all three trips (Honduras, Denver, Chicago). That is where you can hear in more detail what we did on the Denver and Chicago trips and build upon what I wrote a month or so ago about the Honduras trip.

What I wish to offer you today is a snapshot of an encounter that I hope provides a window into the types of experiences our Calvary youth had this summer. I hope you’ll take the time to ask each of them personally about their own stories and encounters such as these that they experienced. Hearing their first-hand reflections is a true gift.

“The Denver Plunge”

On the Denver trip, we did a plunge (an in-depth scavenger hunt type of activity to learn about a portion of the city) in the Five Points neighborhood. During the plunge, the students were given the task of seeing if someone we met would like a cup of coffee. Sure enough, our five junior high students passed a woman on the street, and, in a simple exchange of hello’s, she accepted their offer–to buy her a cup of coffee.

The woman wished to stay outside, so as a few students went in to get her coffee, I stayed and got to know a bit about her, starting with her name – Olivia. When Olivia greeted me, I had my sunglasses on. She gently lifted them so that she could see my eyes. She was no longer a stranger we were buying coffee with, but Olivia, a woman who had lived in Five Points most of her life and had seen it back when it was wrought with gang turf wars between the Oldies and Crips.

You see, Olivia was an Oldie herself, and her partner, and father of her child, was a Crip – not something you hear everyday. As we stood there speaking, she shared her memories of old ice cream shops, stores, and houses that had been transformed into new businesses and took on the sites of gentrification.

Olivia is a gentle spirit that took time out of her day to speak with people who were not from her neighborhood but she wanted to make sure we knew good people came out of Five Points and that it was a good place to live. She shared her struggles of committing to a neighborhood that has experienced so much hardship and now faces new struggles as things change with new apartments being built and the businesses that have come in. Olivia wasn’t upset with the changes but reminded us that change is not easy – she spoke from observations and not judgments. We wished one another a good day, and as she walked away, she shared the peace of Christ with us and we with her. 

In meeting Olivia, I am reminded that when one doesn’t have much reason to trust a stranger, seeing their eyes is a doorway to establishing trust. Being able to make direct eye contact is a gift shared to both people. Olivia is a woman who is small in stature, kind in tone, committed to her neighborhood and its people, hopeful for what is to come in her life and in Five Points. She is a sweet person who shared her story with strangers and shared a cup of coffee with us. Olivia is the Beloved Child of God and part of her story is that she is gang member.

These are the experiences we need to be offering our youth and why I believe in the types of trips CSM offers.  Through these trips, we – youth and leaders alike – learn to look at the world (including our own city) with new eyes and to see our neighbors closer to how God sees them. 

We, every last one of us, are first and foremost the child of God and are more than our past or pieces of our story.

I am continuing to grow and learn about people who have different stories than I do. Trips with students remind me they are more than society sees them as, and more than they even believe of themselves. It is a blessing to meet people who share their stories with you, and when one is open to hearing another’s story, the Spirit fills the space between them, and they end up standing on holy ground – Thanks be to God. 

An Invitation To Transformation

After my trip to Honduras, with four others from the church where I get to serve, I was invited to offer a reflection from that trip. Below is what I shared with Calvary Denver back in early July.


To be invited into a family’s home, church, school, city, and country is an immeasurable gift. And, when young people allow you to witness their authenticity, vulnerability, and passions it is an unforgettable experience.

In a week and a half’s time, I had both of these memorable opportunities come together… all thanks to the remarkable young ladies from Calvary who participated in our international missions trip to Honduras and our hosts Dago Zelaya and the community at Hogar de Ninos Vida Nueva (New Life Children’s Home) in Azacualpa. 

On Thursday afternoon, five of us from Calvary left on our journey, picking up more team members (soon to be friends) along the way.  Samantha, from Kansas, joined us on our layover in Houston and then our ABCIM:  Discovery Team in Honduras was made complete when we landed in the country and met up with seven more team members from New York. 

In our short week together, our main project was doing construction work on the campus of a local orphanage that had housing for the children and a school. Our work involved clearing debris, mixing cement to build classroom walls, laying flooring for a library and computer lab, and creating a sidewalk.

When we weren’t busy working around the campus, our time was spent playing an epic game of soccer with the children from the orphanage (they may or may not have taken it easy on us, but we will take a USA win of 5-4); leading an interactive lesson on the Good Samaritan for the children’s bible study; exploring the surrounding mountains and seeing a coffee field and local riverside; visiting a local pastor and working with him to take food to people in his community and praying with them if they wished (20 families received food to last about three weeks); taking a tuk tuk (or rickshaw) between Maya Ruins and a local market; and so much more. 

On the first night, as I stood in the middle of the campus and looked around to the mountains surrounding us, the children kicking a soccer ball, and our team settling in, I was awash in the peace of the Spirit – the Spirit that connected us to those on our Discovery Team and interwove our connections with Steven, Carlos, Jaime, Glenda, Vanessa, Norma, Janey, Nancy, and Alexandra (the children who lived on the campus).

In preparing for trips like this, youth leaders always hope for meaningful connections for our students, but it’s not something we can force. Within a day, it was evident that this team was unique. Even though we came from different parts of the country and were with those at Hogar de Ninos Vida Nueva it was as if we had been friends long before this trip. Every group and trip has a few bumps and natural frustrations, but as a collective we were no longer the New Yorkers, Midwesterners, and Hondurans: we were community.

The laughter of my girls quickly was enmeshed with the laughter of others – inside jokes were made, stories were shared and built upon, games of soccer were the source of playful jokes and bets, and attempts to communicate in each other’s languages built community.  We found a joyful rhythm!

At the worksites, we used our teamwork to find more efficient ways of mixing cement to keep up with the crew pouring and laying the floors. When one struggled, three others jumped up to help, there wasn’t one person carrying the team, but rather a balance that allowed people to take care of themselves, the work we were doing, and each other. We were far from perfect but we were given space to be ourselves, leading and stepping back as needed, which meant we were the best we could be in the present moment. The Spirit of God connected our hearts to our work and to our new friends and each other.

I returned to daily work here at church and reminisced about the sounds of laughter, the effort at trying to keep up in a soccer game, the sweat from hard work, the breathtaking beauty of the countryside, and the stilled moments of seeing three teenagers and a young adult from home thrive from the soul-filled work they were doing. My heart is deeply grateful for the relationships we all carry with us that reach beyond the distance between our homes. 

We hold the ministry and transformative work that Dago, his family, and those at Hogar de Ninos Vida Nueva in God’s Light. We hold the continued process and transitions back to daily work for all of our team members in prayer. May this week and a half not be a story we tell; instead, let it be a story that is a touchtone in our faith journey as we continue to be transformed by the lives we met and ministry we joined.

On behalf of the five of us from Calvary who were on the ABCIM: Discovery Team, we thank you for the prayers, financial support, and love you provided before, during, and following our trip. We truly could not have done this trip without you!

Intuition

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In the past month I have had several conversations with friends about learning to listen to their intuition – about people, self, life circumstances, faith. It strikes me that listening to one’s intuition is always a bit of a risk. How to be sure whether the decision you choose to make is sound – the certainty rarely come before the decision is made. That is a risk. The risk is less about the decision itself and more about knowing yourself well enough to know how to be in tuned with your intuition. When life is filled with voices offering commentary to your life and the decisions you make it is easy to question if listening to your intuition was in fact a wise choice.

For my friends who have shared about wondering whether listening to their intuition was a healthy decision I have been encouraged by their strength to trust themselves. Encouraged because the decisions that allow you to come to know yourself better, know your community better, know your God better are the ones which – I genuinely believe – are guided by the divine Spirit stirring within each of us.

As someone who holds a leadership role in the church I wish I could give a 10 step way to ensure you know how to be in tuned with your intuition, but I can’t. What I can speak to is what I have seen in my friends stories and my own. Be willing to take a chance to be honest to who you are becoming – even when that means letting go of who you have been. Reflect on what has given you life and what has caused you disharmony in past decisions, listen to those moments and see how your intuition has been shaped by them. Surround yourself with people who are willing to reflect back to you what they hear you saying and if they hear motives of fear or courage. Growing to trust your intuition is a process – it’s not a one stop shop fix. 

To my friends who have taken the risk of listening to their intuition and have grown further into wholeness I am thankful and honored to see your journey. You have reminded me to consider the fullness of my context, history, resources, and strength when learning to be in tuned with my intuition. You remind me the risk of growing to know myself earnestly is worth it. Through your stories of how you have come to trust your intuition I have been reminded to not be controlled by fears of loss of privilege or status but let those be known so they don’t cloud intuition. For your risk of trusting your intuition and sharing your stories, thank you. May we all continue to make this worthwhile risk of knowing self. 

A Year of Hope

A year ago today I made my way to Calvary Baptist Church, DC to participate in worship. A significant part of the worship service for me was my ordination to the Gospel Ministry. It is hard to believe it has been a year. A year since the faith community at Calvary affirmed the gifts, talents, and call they saw in me. A year since they laid hands upon me to offer blessings. A year since I took my vows. A year since I became the Reverend Morgan Caruthers. A year ago I anticipated the beginning of my work in my first placement in an ecumenical experience. What a year it has been, too.

In the past year I have clung to hope in ways I did not know I could. Hope in both my personal and professional realms of life. Within this past year I have had to learn how to settle into my pastoral identity in ways I could not have imagined. Throughout this first year I have trusted my call to this work and hoped to God the community at Calvary was not mistaken. I am sure I am not the only newly ordained minister to have these hopes of discerning and trusting the journey which led them to ordained life. This year has held those few precious moments when your skills, talents, and creativity fit beautifully with those you are serving alongside and something transformative is birthed. In those moments you experience how the Spirit of God created a marvelous symphony of lives coming together to play the music of the Gospel.

I have learned more about my calling and where I fit within the Big C and little c “church” as life has moved along in the past year. I have come to know just how Baptist I am (who knew?!) and how proud I am to be from this tradition, blemishes and all. Working within an ecumenical setting, being Baptist and working at an Episcopal church, I have experience the great joy of sharing between denominations. I am also experienced how hard it can be to do ecumenical work well, but how worthwhile it is to make the effort.

Boundaries and support systems have taken on a new role in my life. Together with my family we have learned how to share me with the church and my working on Sundays. Being single I have realized the importance of protecting and respecting the life I am building. Sharing in conversations with my family about how they may not share me with a spouse’s family but how they do share me with the church I work with, the relationships I am building in Austin, and my rhythm of life. Living out the importance of taking time off to celebrate in my friends’ lives. I am thankful to have a family and support system who have shared this past year with me. They have loved me beautifully, more than I could have asked for.

I suspect I will continue to cling to hope in the years to come the way I have clung to it this year. Hope which took me from day to day when life was in difficult transition, as life can do at times. Hope that provided me creative outlets for being a sound pastor to my students. A hope in God’s work in the present to help me plant my feet a bit deeper each day of this past year. It was hope in the movement of the Spirit to guide me in the life of this student ministry, life in Austin, life in where the future might go.

For an extroverted person like myself I have become more quiet this past year. A year of wanting to use my words more purposefully. A year wanting to find a place for my voice. A year of learning to speak in a new denomination’s language. A year of wanting to share my experiences in writing but not sure how or to what purpose to share. It has been a year of learning my extroverted self in softened tones. Growing as my extroverted self while learning to appreciate my introverted sides as well.

A year ago June 16 I moved to Austin, Texas after seven years in Waco. A year ago June 18 I began working at Good Shepherd. A year ago yesterday the first Bear & Hymn Sing was held at Amy’s house and Treyson performed. A year ago today I was ordained to the Gospel Ministry. It has been a year of transition. I have described this past year to friends as though it is as if I am standing in the ocean right within the shoreline, with each movement of the tide the loose sand beneath my feet moves and places new sand and water under and around my feet. No matter how much the loose sand moves the foundation which I sand on is strong, keeping me balanced for the next movement of the tide.

I am thankful to have a solid foundation created by family, friends, and self – the mainstay to each of these threads in the tapestry of life being the transformative love of the Spirit.

To all who have journeyed with me this past year, thank you. Thank you for sharing in laughter, joy, tears, frustration, hope, creativity, and love. I have journeyed further in settling into my identity as the Beloved this past year and I give great thanks for that reality. Thanks be to God for the great gift of the year past and the year to come.

Today I recall my ordination vows and affirm them once again, with the the help of God & those in this faith community.

_______________________________________________

A few photos from July 7 & 8, 2012.

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Lenten Scorecard: Genesis 15:1-12; 17 – 18

Lenten Scorecard

The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd |:| February 24, 2013

Audio from 11:30a service here.

Welcome, on this second Sunday in Lent. The season of Lent is one I have come to enjoy, all the while getting frustrated by, too. It’s a time when we take on disciplines or fast from various things in our lives. I don’t know about you but I don’t believe I can earnestly say I have completed every Lent I have observed perfectly; that’s where the frustrating piece comes in. I like to know I have achieved or completed something set before me and when it comes to Spiritual disciples if I cannot seem to achieve or complete those I observe during the few weeks in Lent then how can I know if I am right with God the remainder of the year.

It’s nice to know that Lent comes every year because it is a fresh start to achieve or complete this Lent more so than the year prior. Growing up I was never a fan of when Lent fell in the calendar year because it always fell a week or two before my birthday; which meant if I had given up sweets or coke or junk food my birthday was a bit pathetic or I would find a loop hole and tell God I would give up those things, except on my birthday.

Lent for me can be the time when I see how I am doing with God. Am I doing the right things. Do I pray enough. Do I live a good enough life. Have a cared for the least of these every chance I have been given. Have I checked off all the things I have placed on the good believer in Jesus list I have created in my head. Then, once I have answered these questions, I’ll know how I’m doing with God.

It can be daunting and taxing this spiritual checklist examination. I mean the areas where I fall short as a human being are endless and change from day to day, moment to moment. Good thing God knows all things so God is able to keep track of all these things I fall short on.

I’ll never forget the Lent where I fasted on Fridays. It was my first year of Seminary and I had not practiced fasting since my first year of college and I thought I must be better at it this time since I was in the holy seminary and all.

I cannot recall my scorecard at the end of that Lent but what I do know is my Friday fasts would get changed to whatever day of the week it was easier to fast so that I was able to keep it or if I slipped in the morning forgetting it was Friday and would have breakfast there was this guilt that hovered over me the rest of the day. So much for being better at it in holy seminary. It was only my first year, perhaps there wasn’t enough holiness on me at that point.

Lent can be a very daunting time in the church calendar when used as I have just illustrated. Keeping the scorecards accurate. Checking to see if all the behaviors we hold, consciously or unconsciously, in our minds for what makes a good church member, a good Christian are checked off our list.

To do all of these things during Lent or at any given time in our life can be exhausting because the list of where we fall short as human beings can seem never ending. The work to check of a seemingly never ending list is too much for any person, no matter how holy they might be.

This work would be too much ever for my remarkable grandmother who is almost 100 years old, who has never said an unkind word about another person, who knows Scripture inside and out, whose prayer life would make the Pope jealous, and who loves people so incredibly well. Even for my wonderful grandmother this work of checking off the “good works” list to be in good standing with God would be too much for her.

It is a good thing Lent is not meant to be a scorecard of how we are doing with our spiritual practices or ensuring we check off a few more items on the “I’m good with God” list. Lent is a time when we can look inwardly at ourselves and see what is holding us back from believing we are already atoned with God, that forgiveness abounds for each of us, and that we have the freedom to live as the beloved children God has created us to be.

This inward looking is not about naming all the bad things we do in life and being shackled to the guilt, burden, or shame that can accompany those areas of our life. The inward looking is to examine where we have bought into the lies that our wounded-ness is too big for God’s forgiveness, too much for God’s grace, too imperfect for the Spirit to move and transform. It is within this inward looking that God calls us to have faith that God keeps his promise of atonement with his. That we are already made at one with God when we have faith that it is true.

Having faith can be even more scary than the endless checklists I mentioned earlier. That might be why we have seen people, even ourselves maybe, turn to the scorecard or checklist because it gives us specifics to how to know we are moving towards living as God intended us to live, more so than we can observe with faith as the measure of that.

This is where the text in Genesis gives us wisdom. In Genesis we see Abram and God having dialogue around the promises God has made to Abram and Abram wondering how God will fulfill those promises.

The portion of the text we are gaining a closer look at today is verses 12 – 18. Beginning in verse 12 God tells Abram to take a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon. Abram took the animals, minus the birds, and cut them in two, laying one half to either side of him, creating a pathway between the torn animals.

In ancient times this practice was not uncommon. It was one of the unconditional covenants, particularly known as the cutting covenant. What would happen was, the two parties partaking in the covenantal promise would start at either end of the path and walk through the torn animals passing each other until they were at the other side from where they started. The purpose of this practice was to say to those in the covenantal promise, if I break this promise may I end up like the animals we are walking through. Essentially saying, if I break this promise may I die.

Abram prepared the animals for his covenant with God but before he could walk through the animals a deep sleep falls upon him; resulting in Abram witnessing the remainder of the covenant promise in a vision or dream.

In verses 17 and 18 we are told a smoking fire pot and flaming torch passed between the pieces of animal. The smoking fire pot and the flaming torch represent the Spirit of God.

It is only God who walks through this covenantal practice, meaning the responsibility of upholding the covenant was solely upon God and if God broke it the fate of the animals would be the fate of God.

This is huge! God knew there was no way for Abram to live up to the covenantal promise of giving his descendants the promise land. God knew there was no scorecard large enough or checklist long enough to achieve or complete to live up to this covenantal promise. Therefore, God took the full responsibility upon Himself and asks for Abram to have faith in Him to complete the promise.

We are told in verse 6 of this chapter, along with other dialogues between Abram and God in chapters 12, 14 & 17, that Abram does have faith in God’s promise to uphold their covenant.

This story of Abram’s covenant with God comes at a great time on this second Sunday of Lent because it reminds us that just like God knew Abram could not hold the weight of the covenantal promise, so too does God know we are unable to perfectly live as members of a church community, followers of Christ, or as the beloveds of God.

God has already made our being at one with Him a reality from the beginning by placing the covenant responsibility upon Himself. From the beginning of creation God has been calling us back to the reality of being in right relationship with Him. Calling us to remember that we are His beloveds. Showing us with patience as we forget or doubt God’s promises, just as we see he did with Abram.

The covenants made between God and humanity weighs disproportionately upon God. God is the one who initiates. God is the one who sets the terms. God is the one who makes the promises. God is the one who decides how the covenant will be sealed. God is the one who acts out the covenant agreement.

God has done the work. We are called to have faith that this is truth. We are to have faith that God does not wish us to live our lives by spiritual scorecards or “I’m good with God” checklists. We are to have faith that it is by the grace of God alone we are able to live into the reality of who God has created us to be.

Abram’s covenant with God was not without Abram questioning God’s presence in how God would fulfill the promises he made. Abram questions God’s activity. His questioning faith takes seriously God’s presence and power in his life and challenges us to be open to God’s work in our lives. Abram questions God because he deeply believes God can do something about it. Such questions about God can also help us take the next steps of our journey of faith.

On this second Sunday in Lent let us use the remainder of this season of looking inward to see where we are being kept from believing in the reality that we are at one with God and may it allow us to hear the beckoning of God to live a faithful life — one that is leaning forward into the vision of God for the world, knowing full well that such a vision may extend to a horizon far beyond our own lives.

May you go in peace this Sunday free to let go of the spiritual scorecards or checklists that might accompany Lent or any other time in life. God has done the work to make us right with God. May each one of us have faith to believe this to be so and then with the grace and love of God live into this reality, allowing each of us to live each day more truly as the people God has created us to be and knows us to be.

Amen.

Three Little Letters…

Three little letters have never felt so big to me. I have had little letters added to my name before: BA, MSW, MDiv, yet none of those held such weight as the three I received yesterday. The weight of the latest letters is not a weight of achievement, rather one of devotion and responsibility. Devotion to the call of pastor, preacher, prophet; to the church (universal and local); to God in a way of intercession for those in my care. Responsibility to the church I am caring for; to the churches I will meet in my future; to the church who examined, blessed, and commissioned me. These three little letters are a mere title of representation, sure, but today their representation leaves my heart feeling inexplicably heavy.

The heaviness is not of sorrow or pain, not of utter joy, not of confusion. It is the weight of the journey which led me here, the journey of the present, and the journey which has not been written yet. It is every moment of the odd and wondrous calling known as the pastorate. When my head tries to parse through this weight it gets lost in the vastness of it and is left with knowledge of the weight, but nothing more.

I am sure this calling to the pastorate is not the only calling to bring about such a feeling and experience, for this journey is not holier than any other. I hope other journeys feel and know such an experience because it is a tattered, scuffed, and mess journey made into a kaleidoscope of beauty, the only way the Spirit can make such a journey beautiful.

With these three little words nothing and everything changed in one smooth collision. Nothing changed because I am of the same character, ethics, values, and spirit as I was before those three letters. With those letters came no magic to make me worthy of this calling or even perfect for it. These letters did not bestow holiness on me. I am still the odd, quirky, church and community nerd I have been all along. I still get short of patience and grace when I am at my stress point. These three little letters did not answer all of my questions about God. These three little letters changed nothing about me. And yet, these three little letters changed everything. Before receiving these letters I took vows to God, to my ministry, to Calvary, to the churches I will pastor, and to the calling of pastor, preacher, and prophet. These vows bind me to the represented parties and them to me. With the taking of these vows the dynamics of these relationships changed and will never be the same again. These three little letters are markers of those vows and all the change which accompanied them.

Those three little letters have never seemed so real and alive as they do now. I have always respected said letters when they have accompanied other colleagues or professionals; I just never grasped the experience these three letters bring. I doubt I would have had comprehension of the realness and breadth and depth of these three little letters without receiving them for myself.

I have no doubt the journey with these three little letters will change, dwindle, etc. No matter where the journey with these letters takes me I will forever treasure the weight they hold for me today. The freshness of this experience, of this marker in this tethered life of being a pastor is one I will cherish for years to come.

My name is Morgan Caruthers and I am called by God to engage in the ministry of love and reconciliation. In this ministry I will seek the truth, proclaim it, and uphold it every day with God’s help. On July 8, 2012 I received three little letters and became Rev. Morgan Renee Caruthers.