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September 2007

Breaking Pottery

This weekend I was in Wichita for the annual meeting of the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference of the UCC. This was my second annual meeting to attend. We passed resolutions calling for a change in immigration policy that is more welcoming of the stranger and raising the awareness of the importance of water as an environmental/moral/theological issue.

Michael went along and attended the Pastor's banquet with me. He said I was like a little kid, introducing him around. The gay men's chorus of Wichita sang at the banquet, which was fun. The banquet itself seemed like it could have been the exact same meal we would have been served in 1955. Which wasn't fun.

Saturday night I had to get home to celebrate the wedding of Jim and Mike in Norman, who had done tons of extra work in their backyard to get ready for the event.

Today was a full day. I first had to meet with a family to go over a funeral service I'm doing in Lawton in the morning. Then to church to set up for the evening. Meetings. Our Christian education time, called Formations. Then church. Followed by our annual Southern Style Potluck, featuring a fundraiser for our Christmas baskets project. The fundraiser was drag bingo. There was no jello salad at the potluck, which seemed shocking.

Tonight's sermon focused on the potter and the clay passage in Jeremiah. I talked about how God shapes our lives and sometimes we need to be broken in order to find wholeness. I had taken all of my pottery up to the church and used it to decorate the sanctuary.

When I got home and was taking it all out of the car, one piece rolled out of the bag it was in and I watched as it fell to the driveway and shattered into many, many pieces.

It was the pitcher that the Wardlow's had given me as a going away present when I left Rolling Hills. They gave it to me to go along with the goblet and patin that the church gave me. It was a special gift that I used regularly.

Here I had preached about how we had to admit our lack of power and be broken. Here I was trying to talk to Valerie on the phone while carrying everything in. Too confident in myself, and something was broken.

And to add to the richness of the evenings metaphors, my relationship with the Wardlows has been broken the last 2 years. The pitcher was always a wonderful symbol of what it had been.

I've spent the rest of the evening preparing tomorrow's funeral service and talking on the phone to church members about the issues of their lives.

A full weekend. Filled with what it means to be a pastor. Now I'm going to bed.

The Awakening

Melissa Etheridge's The Awakening is the best album I've heard this year. Though I'm so out of listening to new music, that I'm not sure what you're supposed to do with that perception.

Yesterday Pam called and said it was great and that I would love it. I was out running errands, so I bought it and listened to it some in the background while visiting Kara and her new baby Maya. Then I listened closely as I drove to Stillwater last night. Pam was right it was great. It was full of catchy songs that I found myself singing along to even on first listen.

It's also full of really powerful songs. This morning on the way home, I finished listening to the album and during the final song I sang out loudly and cried. Powerful.

California and Message to Myself are great songs to sing along to while driving. Threesome is hilarious. I look forward to dancing to it at the Finish Line. I was particularly struck by the reference to Fred Phelps as "a suffering soul on the way to the kingdom of heaven," in the song Kingdom of Heaven. Also this, "A suffering soul on the way to the kingdom of heaven/Prayed in the dark "Death to the infidel"/He strapped all his desperate pain and his faith to his body/Then blew them away." The final two lines of that opened me up to new understandings of the terrorists. Finally, What Happens Tomorrow should become a new protest anthem. It's the song that really moved me "If not now, when? If not today, then what happens tomorrow?" We can't till tomorrow. It really must be today.

Klein on Bush & Petraeus

In the September 24th issues of Time, Joe Klein has an insightful analysis of Bush and Petraeus and the current state of the Iraq policy.

Fundamentally, Klein is critical of the elected, civilian leadership abdicating the decision-making power over military policy to the report of a military official. The point of elected, civilian leadership of the military is that such leadership is supposed to lead by setting policy. Bush had basically said,"we'll do whatever Petraeus says."

Klein also finds inconsistencies in the General's testimony that weren't pursued by Congress. On the one hand, Petraeus says that the surge has been successful at separating the Sunnis from al Qaeda in Iraq. While still claiming that they were the greatest threat to Iraqi stability. Ambassador Crocker doublespoke that Iran would fill any power vacuum in Iraq, while also testifying that Iraqi Shia are unlikely to cede control to Iran whom they fought fiercely in the Iran-Iraq War and because though both Shia, there are differences between Arabs and Persians.

Klein's basic criticism is that we are without answers to the major strategic questions. Only tactical issues were really discussed.

The final paragraph of the essay is telling:

Without a strong, credible central government, for whom exactly is the re-retrained Iraqi army fighting? How can any Iraqi be loyal to a government that doesn't exist? And, finally, now that the Sunnis have decisively rejected the extremists, why should any American trooper sacrifice even a pinkie in this sectarian catastrophe?

New Barna report shows young people skeptical of Christianity because of its anti-gay views

From Barna:

Even among young Christians, many of the negative images generated significant traction. Half of young churchgoers said they perceive Christianity to be judgmental, hypocritical, and too political. One-third said it was old-fashioned and out of touch with reality.

Interestingly, the study discovered a new image that has steadily grown in prominence over the last decade. Today, the most common perception is that present-day Christianity is "anti-homosexual." Overall, 91% of young non-Christians and 80% of young churchgoers say this phrase describes Christianity. As the research probed this perception, non-Christians and Christians explained that beyond their recognition that Christians oppose homosexuality, they believe that Christians show excessive contempt and unloving attitudes towards gays and lesbians. One of the most frequent criticisms of young Christians was that they believe the church has made homosexuality a "bigger sin" than anything else. Moreover, they claim that the church has not Rhelped them apply the biblical teaching on homosexuality to their friendships with gays and lesbians. . . . [Read more]

The Womb of God

The Womb of God

Jer. 1:1-10

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City

23 September 2007



    As I have prepared for this sermon series, one thing that became clear is that the Book of Jeremiah is filled with feminine and transgendered imagery. But, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's work our way up to that, by starting at the beginning.

    In the passage read tonight from Jeremiah 1, we heard,


    Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,

    and before you were born I consecrated you;

    I appointed you a prophet to the nations.

    Then I said, "Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy."

    But the Lord said to me,

    "Do not say, 'I am only a boy';

    for you shall go to all whom I send you


As I prepared for this study I began to focus on the image that runs through Jeremiah of being formed or shaped by God. And so I began to focus on this text as a clue to a God-shaped life. Of course, one meaning of this is the life of Jeremiah himself. We learn much about Jeremiah's inner state in this book as he struggles with his calling and his faith. Here is wonderful literature about the human spiritual and emotional life.

But more than Jeremiah is being shaped in and by this book.

Jeremiah is the longest book in the Bible. It is a rich text. It is not an easy text. It calls for study and meditation. It requires imagination, because its meanings are not obvious. But it will yield great reward if we engage the text with the energy it calls for. In fact, I think that the very process of engaging this text will God-shape our lives.

Jeremiah, the people, and God are being shaped by their relationships and the events of the wider world. Just like us, they run the gamut of emotions and experiences – ecstatic joy and dark despair. Throughout this text run many themes, including amazement, grief, pain, wrath, sex, terror, suffering, hope, and compassion. Our study will focus on these various themes and how they relate to one another. Not just how they relate to one another in this book of Jeremiah, but, importantly, how they relate to one another in our own spiritual lives.

Now, if our lives are being God-shaped, then that raises some questions. One of those is "what is God like?" Who is this God we are worshipping? Exactly what shape are we taking on?

Now, there are many different metaphors used of God in Jeremiah and throughout scripture. Some have more depth than others. For example, in Hosea dry rot is used as a metaphor to describe God. Now, dry rot is not the most expressive of metaphors. Not a lot you can do with that one in art and liturgy. I've never heard anyone begin their prayer, "We come to you today, O most holy Dry Rot," though if they did, they'd be using a legitimate biblical metaphor. The point is, that some images are richer and convey a greater depth and variety of meaning.

So, as I was preparing, I came across the suggestion by Angela Bauer-Levesque in her commentary on Jeremiah that the womb described her in Jeremiah 1 is not just the womb of Jeremiah's mother, but is also a reference to God's womb. If so, that's a pretty significant metaphor. Can this reading of the text be supported? Is the metaphor of God's womb available to us? Does it help us understand what it means for our lives to be shaped like God's? So, I went exploring, and I want to take you along with me.

Our first clue is found in Jeremiah 31, where we read:


    Thus says Yahweh:

    A voice is heard in Ramah,

    lamentation and bitter weeping.

    Rachel is weeping for her children;

    she refuses to be comforted for her children,

    because they are no more.


    Thus says Yahweh:

    Keep your voice from weeping,

    and your eyes from tears;

    . . . there is hope for the future . . .

    your children will come back to the land


    You are likely familiar with this passage, since we read it during the Christmas season when the children of Bethlehem are slaughtered by the soldiers of King Herod. But, according to OT scholar Phyllis Trible, this powerful text about motherhood goes on with God identifying as the mother. Now listen to this translation in which Yahweh, the God of Israel, speaks about God's own womb. Remember, God is the one speaking here:


    Is Ephraim my dear son? my darling child?

    For the more I speak of him,

    the more I do remember him.

    Therefore, my womb trembles for him;

    I will truly show compassion upon him.

    The oracle of Yahweh.


    If that isn't surprising enough, the next section of the text makes a transgendered move. The people of God who have been called "my dear son" up until now, change and are described as "daughter" by this mothering God:


    Return, O virgin Israel,

    return to these your cities.

    How long will you waver, O tournabout daughter?

    For Yahweh has created a new thing in the land:

    female surrounds man.


"Virgin," "daughter," even this interesting word "turnabout."    

What is this new thing in the land?

    Recall what God was about with the people of Israel. It was the creation of a new community, the shaping of a new people. A people who would follow the way of God, a people who would be like God. The God-shaping of lives.

    But what might this strange, final phrase mean, "female surrounds man?" Many of the commentators and translators write that this verse is difficult to translate or understand, so they just kinda ignore it. Phyllis Trible, however, thinks it is the key to understanding the passage. Here God is calling upon the female spiritual experience as necessary to understand God's new work in the land.

    There is impending doom. Because of their sins, the people of Israel are about to undergo invasion, conquest, death, and exile. Jeremiah is warning the people of the impending catastrophe and providing hope for the future. And Jeremiah 31 seems to be a clue that the female experience is necessary to comprehend what God is doing. So, with clue one we have a suggestion of an idea.

    Clue number two will help us to understand further what's going on here. Clue two is in Jeremiah 9, where we read,


    Thus says the Lord of hosts:


    Summon the dirge-singers, the mourning women, let them come;

    send for skilled women to come;

    let them quickly start a wailing for us,

    so that our eyes may run down with tears,

    and our eyelids flow with water.

    For the sound of wailing is heard from Zion:

    How we are ruined!

    How greatly we are ashamed!

    Ah, we must leave our land,

    Abandon our dwellings!


    Hear, O women, the word of Yahweh,

    let your ears receive the word of his mouth;

    teach your daughters a dirge,

    and each to her neighbor a lament.

    Death has climbed through our windows,


    Here in the book of Jeremiah, God calls on the powerful spiritual and emotional experience of women to deliver God's message.

    Remember with me. It's the scene in Steel Magnolias when the funeral for Shelby has ended and the only people left in the cemetery are M'Lynn and her friends. Truvy, Clairee, Ouiser, and Annelle are there to comfort M'Lynn.


M' Lynn:    I find it amusing. Men are supposed to be made out of steel or something. I just sat there. I just held Shelby's hand. There was no noise, no tremble, just peace. Oh god. I realize as a woman how lucky I am. I was there when that wonderful creature drifted into my life and I was there when she drifted out. It was the most precious moment of my life.


M'Lynn then goes to leave and asks for a mirror. When she checks her hair she laughs that Shelby was right, her hair does look like a brown football helmet. Then she breaks down and starts to cry and Clairee asks if she's alright.


M'Lynn:     [crying] I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine.

[then screaming]
I'm fine! I can jog all the way to Texas and back, but my daughter can't! She never could! Oh God! I am so mad I don't know what to do! I wanna know why! I wanna know *why* Shelby's life is over! I wanna know how that baby will *ever* know how wonderful his mother was! Will he *ever* know what she went through for him! Oh *God* I wanna know *why*? *Why*? Lord, I wish I could understand!
[then, In a firm tone]

No! No! No! It's not supposed to happen this way! I'm supposed to go first. I've always been ready to go first! I-I don't think I can take this! I-I don't think I can take this! I-I just wanna *hit* somebody 'til they feel as bad as I do! I just wanna *hit* something! I wanna *hit it hard*!

Then Clairee grabs Ouiser by the shoulders and positions her in front of M'Lynn

Clairee:     *Here*! *Hit this*! Go ahead M'Lynn, *slap her*!
Ouiser :     [Taken aback and confused] Are you crazy?
Clairee:     *Hit her*!
Ouiser :     *Are you high, Clairee*?
Truvy :     Clairee, have you lost your mind?
Clairee:     We'll sell t-shirts sayin' "I SLAPPED OUISER BOUDREAUX!" Hit her!
Annelle:     Ms. Clairee, enough!
Clairee:     Ouiser, this is your chance to do something for your fellow man! Knock her lights

    out, M'Lynn!
Ouiser :     [snatches away] Let go o' me!



Then all the women, 'cept Ouiser, begin to laugh. Ouiser then calls Clairee a pig from hell and storms off, flashing the bird at them when they call for her to come back. As they continue laughing, Annelle says to Clairee, "That's not a very Christian thing to do." To which Clairee responds, "Annelle, you gotta lighten up."


Like anyone who's seen Steel Magnolias knows, God knows that women are best at mourning. Men like to hide their pain and grief. Men often live in denial of their emotions. It is women who often seem particularly suited for compassion. Because mourning is just that – compassion. Which is "suffering together," the meaning of the root words.

    Like the women of Chiquapin Parish, the women of Jeremiah know how to suffer together. In this text mothers and daughters mourn together. And women grieve with their neighbor, a word that might more easily translate into contemporary English slang as your "girlfriends" or your "sisters," meaning that close bond of female friendship.

    So, clue number one, in its metaphor of the womb and its trangendered language, told us that the feminine experience was key to understanding what God was doing in the land. Clue two suggests that the female experience of compassion is what we are looking for. Clue number 3 is a linguistic clue. Compassion, suffering together, is a particularly feminine trait in the Hebrew language. The Hebrew word for mercy and compassion is derived from the Hebrew word for womb. Compassion, then, in Hebrew is to have an experience with someone else that is similar to the experience that a mother has with her unborn infant.

    So, where are we with our clues? The first clue told us that God was doing something new in the land by female encompassing male. The second clue was that the unique, feminine spiritual experience is needed at this point in the life of the people. What is that unique experience? Compassion. And compassion is the experience of a mother.

    We are closer to answering our question, "Can the metaphor of God's womb help us in understanding how God would shape our lives?"

    As we turn to clues four and five, our answer will become clearer. Clue four takes us to Exodus 34:6-7:


Yahweh passed before Moses, and proclaimed, "Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in loyalty and faithfulness, keeping loyalty for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty."


    This text includes the formula, "Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious." That formula, "merciful and gracious," appears more often in the Old Testament than any other to describe the God we worship. And the word merciful here is interchangeable with the word compassionate.

    So, and it is really important that you get this point, every time, and it is often, that scripture reminds us that we serve a merciful, compassionate God, scripture is reminding us that our God loves us with the intimate love of a mother for the child she is carrying in her womb. God's compassion towards God's people is the experience of being carried in the womb of God.

    And here's where all these things are drawn together. Clue five takes us back to Genesis 1:27:


So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female, he created them


    The divine image, we are told from the very beginning of scripture, is both male and female.

    I think the answer to our exploration is that yes, the metaphor of God's womb is available to us for us to understand the God who is shaping us.

    But what does it mean to be shaped in the womb of God? What is the experience that God is calling us to?

    In profound ways, the book of Jeremiah helps us to get in touch with our feminine side. It is the experiences of women as mothers, daughters, brides, lovers, prostitutes, and victims that run throughout this book. At various times God, the prophet Jeremiah, and the people of Israel identify with the feminine in order to comprehend what is going on in their lives.

    I believe that part of what God is doing in Jeremiah is reminding the people that if their experience of God ventures too far over into the masculine experiences, then they are leaving out a significant aspect of the divine nature, particularly God's compassion. Both masculine and feminine images are necessary to understand the spiritual life. But maybe in this particular moment in the life of the people, the feminine aspects of compassion are required. This intimate caring for and suffering alongside of one another is what the people really need right now.

    And here's where I want to go back to Jeremiah 1 and tell you about the new reading that came to me this week. No commentator made this connection, but in the longstanding tradition of Jewish midrash, where we tell our stories from the text, I think there is a powerful queer midrash on Jeremiah 1.

    God, speaking as the divine Mother, tells Jeremiah, that he was formed in the womb and called to be a prophet. Then, Jeremiah responds to this mothering God, "I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy."

    Only a boy. Traditionally we understand that Jeremiah is talking about his youth as an inability to be a prophet. But that themes doesn't really recur in Jeremiah. What does recur are the gendered and transgendered images. I want to suggest an imaginative reading as a queer midrash for this text. Jeremiah, responding to this divine Mother is saying, "I'm not the one you need right now because I'm only a boy."

    And the divine Mother responds, "Don't say you're only a boy, I'll take care of that."

    Then we turn to Jeremiah 4 and now the words of the prophet,


    My belly, my belly! I writhe in pain.


    For I heard a cry as of a woman in labor,

    anguish as of one bringing forth her first child.


    Jeremiah, worried about being only a boy, now has the experiences of a woman carrying a child in her womb. In a surprising transgendered move, the prophet Jeremiah has the unique female experience of compassion.

    So, my conclusion of this imaginative exploration of the text? Part of having our lives God-shaped is identifying with the mothering-compassion of God. Otherwise, we are practicing idolatry by only focusing on one set of metaphors for God. And we are lacking wholeness as human beings. We need to get in touch with our feminine side. We need the unique experiences of the feminine in our church. We need to explore the feminine side of God in our worship and devotion. And we men need to explore the feminine sides of ourselves.

    May the feminine and transgendered imagery of the Book of Jeremiah be a liberation and an encouragement to all of us to take a more holistic approach in our lives. After all, our church's mission statement is "to empower all people to experience the presence of God, to grow toward wholeness, and to act in love." And in our statement on inclusive language, we discover that one path to that wholeness is by integrating our masculine and feminine sides: "the more we are able to integrate both parts of ourselves, the closer we draw to the image and likeness of God in which we were created." The womb of God, helpful metaphor for the God-shaping of our lives.


Jena 6 Rally

Today I attended the Oklahoma City rally raising awareness about racism in America in the wake of the events in Jena, Louisiana. About a thousand folk, maybe, attended the gathering on the southern steps of the State Capitol.

It was sweltering hot and everyone was in black. The sound system wasn't the best, so I missed much from the speeches. But it was still encouraging to be there. I think simply being present at events like this helps raise awareness.

There were a handful of LGBT community leaders and some Latino community leaders as well, so the solidarity is nice. In fact, it seemed to me that the majority of European-American folk there were members of the LGBT community. Hmm.

Dobson Against Thompson

I didn't think Thompson would be the darling of the GOP. Evidence of that is growing, as Dobson is opposing him. Read a Washington Post article here. Excerpt:

"He has no passion, no zeal, and no apparent 'want to.' And yet he is apparently the Great Hope that burns in the breasts of many conservative Christians? Well, not for me, my brothers. Not for me!"

The Fruit of the Spirit

The Fruit of the Spirit

Galatians 5:13-26

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City

9 September 2007



    Back in 1989 Robert Fulghum published a book of essays that became a sensational best-seller. The essay that propelled the book to popularity was a very short one entitled "Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." Here's what Fulghum wrote:


Most of what I really need to know about how to live and what to do, and how to be, I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sandbox at nursery school.


These are the things I learned:


Share everything.

Play fair.

Don't hit people.

Put things back where you found them.

Clean up your own mess.

Don't take things that aren't yours.

Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.

Wash your hands before you eat.


Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.

Live a balanced life.

Learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.

Take a nap every afternoon.

When you go out into the world, watch for traffic, hold hands and stick together.

Be aware of wonder.


Remember the little seed in the plastic cup? The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that. Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the plastic cup they all die. So do we.


And then remember the book about Dick and Jane and the first word you learned, the biggest word of all: look.


Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and sane living.



Think what a better world it would be if we all the whole world had cookies and milk about 3 o'clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankets for a nap. Or if we had a basic policy in our nation and other nations to always put things back where we found them and cleaned up our own messes. And it is still true, no matter how old you are, when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.


    This essay was so popular because we all recognized in its simplicity great wisdom. If everyone followed all these simple little guidelines, life would be so much better than it is.

    I feel that I learned most of what I need to know about the Christian faith from my kindergarten Sunday school teacher. Her Name Was Ruth Robinson.

Bob & Ruth Robinson lived in a little white house. They liked to watch Lawrence Welk, and Ruth made wonderful Swedish Meatballs. They had blackberry bushes in the backyard. Ruth was a little old lady with white hair and glasses. Outside of my own parents, Ruth Robinson is the single greatest influence on my life.

In the late seventies and early eighties, my family lived in Grove, that small lake town in Northeastern Oklahoma. Our life there is the source of some of my fondest childhood memories. We were members of the First Baptist Church. There we met Bob and Ruth, who quickly became the adopted grandparents for our family.

Ruth was the kindergarten Sunday school teacher, my kindergarten Sunday school teacher. All the most important, the most basic stuff of my faith, the stuff I've always felt, believed, and practiced, what has never changed and never will I learned from Ruth. It was while in Ruth's care that I "became a Christian" and under her tutelage that I felt the call to ministry.

Ruth simply showed God's love and grace. In fact, if I had to put an image on God's love and grace, it would probably be hers. She was always kind, even when you'd done something wrong. She didn't punish, but would lovingly admonish and would take the time to explain to you what you had done wrong.

One time I stole some stuff from the Sunday school class. I was so excited by some books we had read from in the class, that I hid them in my clothes and took them home (remember, I was only five). When my parents discovered it, they took me over to Ruth's to return them. I felt awful. I had let down this woman whom I loved dearly. But Ruth smiled. She forgave me. She praised my desire to learn more. She sat next to me on the couch and hugged me. I never stole again, but I also understood forgiveness.

Or one time she was babysitting me and my sister Kelli at her house. The Lawrence Welk Show came on tv, and I turned the channel. Ruth admonished me. She instructed me to turn the channel back. She explained that she was watching tv, that she liked the show, that this was her home, that I was her guest, and that I didn't get to watch whatever I wanted all the time. Watching Lawrence Welk is like dying a slow painful death. I thought that when I was five and I still think that. But this lesson was about thinking not only of yourself, but of others and respecting their desires and wishes even when they were quite contrary to your own. From Ruth I learned tolerance and acceptance of diversity. From Ruth I learned that one had to look beyond your own desires to the desires of others.

And there was the time when we were having the annual Easter Egg hunt at church. All the kids were running around collecting eggs. Ruth noticed that in my excitement, I was running and swinging my basket so much that all my eggs were falling out and that other kids were coming along behind me getting my eggs that I was dropping. When I finally noticed, I had hardly any eggs compared to the other kids. But Ruth had grabbed a few and set them aside just for me. From Ruth I learned about a fairness that isn't blind but sees with eyes of compassion.

One time when she was over for Sunday lunch at our house, I asked for something to be passed to me by one of my parents, who went to do it, when Ruth said gently, "Scotty, you didn't say please." Ruth cared that I learn manners more than my own parents did. She taught me to say "please," and "thank you," and "you're welcome." But these were so much more than just polite language. From Ruth I learned hospitality and gratitude.

Bob died while we were still living in Grove, so Ruth became even more a part of our family. Over the years, even after we moved to Miami, she'd come to visit, once even spending Christmas with us. Eventually she had to go live in a nursing home in Altus near her sister, nieces, and nephews. And when she died while I was in college, I had not seen her in many years.

Ultimately, Ruth taught me that I was a loved child of God. She told this five year old that he would receive "crowns of glory" one day for the ministry done for God's kingdom. What a beautiful image by which to guide a life.

St. Paul gives us a pretty straightforward view of the spiritual life. God, in Christ, has set us free, but not only has God set us free from something, God has set us free for something. As I said last week, we realize our freedom in the very process of becoming are true selves, who God has called us to be.

And, once again, our true selves can be found in this simple statement, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Everything that follows in this passage is an explication of that simple Golden Rule.

When Paul talks about flesh and spirit, he isn't creating a dualism between mind and body. Here "flesh" is about feeding our own desires and appetites above our concern for other people. Here to live by the Spirit is to follow Christ's example of putting our concern for others above our own desires.

The list of bad things, the "works of flesh," are all things that abuse, hurt, or use other people. The fruits of the spirit are all things that exhibit love and compassion toward other people.

Paul says that those who commit the works of the flesh will not inherit the kingdom of God. He's not talking about heaven. The reign of God is simply that new community created by the death of Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit. If you practice these bad things, then you will find yourself outside the community of those who are living according to the Spirit. It's that simple.

Philadelphia is the "city of brotherly love," yet it has one of the highest murder rates in the country. In the early eighties violent crime was on the rise, and the city was confronted with growing anti-social behaviour that affected the community environment. In 1984 may Wilson Goode decided to confront the growing graffiti problem by creating a mural project. The graffiti artists and even the various gangs like the Bronx Bombers and High Class Lunatics were recruited to paint murals for the city. Today there are over 2,500 murals throughout the city, more than any other city in the world. Now these murals have become tourist attractions. Recently Prince Charles came to see the murals.

The murals have allowed residents to grapple with serious issues like race, crime, and immigration. Confronted with growing racial tension in the Grays Ferry neighborhood, the city created a project for the locals to cooperate in painting a multiracial mural called The Peace Wall that has helped in easing the tensions.

People's energies have been turned to producing good fruit that builds relationships and strengthens community. That's what Paul was talking about.

If you follow Christ, and are willing to sacrifice the destructive aspects of yourself for others, in other words, strive to live in genuine community, then your life will bear fruit. And the fruit will be love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Thus, you will find your true, authentic self. And then you will truly be free.