Monday, June 19, 2017

Your Neighbors Aren't Safe

We ate goat stew of some sort, lentils, green stuff I was warned was spicy, a salad with a most delightful crunchy something mixed in with the greens. Dessert was carrot cake and a delicious ball in sweet syrup. Just a few days later, I don't remember the name of that dessert. I do remember the conversation about a fruit that was missed in this country. That name, too, has disappeared.

Many times, now, I have sat as a guest in a mosque, breaking fast with Muslim neighbors during Ramadan. Occasionally, I am invited to fast, too. Abstaining from food all day isn't fun, but it's the water that is most challenging. I can't imagine keeping the practice here in Phoenix. This is where I learned to keep a water bottle with me at all times. Many water fountains have a separate place for filling bottles because this practice is so universal.

Friends from my church came to this meal, too. Some eat more freely of this unfamiliar food than others. Occasionally during our meal, we hear familiar voices from the men's side of the mosque.

I wonder to myself what we might invite these Muslim neighbors to. It's different when you're in the majority religion; everyone knows when Christmas is. Easter is on most people's radar. Even the few food customs appear in all sorts of places. I don't know if it would make sense to offer hospitality in the same way.

When the time comes, the prayers look so different from ours; there is a young child--two, maybe three years old--trying out the prayer postures along with the adults. She nestles by one adult for one set, another for the next set, laughing in between.

It is a different sort of safe here. Many of the people switch freely between English and Urdu. Most of the people here are from Pakistan. Their sect of Islam is persecuted, so they have fled to the United States. Sometimes, when one of the Christians asks a question, they must talk about the question in Urdu in order to find an answer. Sometimes, what they want to tell us doesn't translate.

Persecution is a word thrown around far too lightly in the United States. More than I'd like, in my non-pastor life, I fight the fight that persecution is not being unable to have everyone practice your religion. People think persecution is not hanging the Ten Commandments on the wall or having everyone pray the same way you do. I wonder how to introduce them to someone who has fled for their life because of their faith.

One of the leaders is intentional in expressing their gratitude for living in this country, for being able to practice their faith freely here. Yet, in conversation, as we talk about community work we both support, they also talk about not feeling like they can volunteer to host certain things. They already receive threats sometimes just for existing.

Maybe it's just my imagination, but I swear I feel the comfort of my Muslim sisters in this space. They are comfortable here. Peaceful, perhaps, is the better word. It is easy to settle into this space. Later, when I talk with my partner about the evening, I would talk about Virginia Woolf and A Room of One's Own. This women's space is sacred in a way I forget women's spaces can be.

I realize the slipping into Urdu, the traditional dress, the practice of faith is fought for in a different way outside these walls.

The memories of the first Muslim women with whom I kept company inside a mosque remain vivid. Most of all, I remember their pleading, "Tell them we are not terrorists."

The "them", of course, were my fellow Christians.

That first encounter was twelve years ago, give or take.

And still, your Muslim neighbors aren't safe. Not even 17 year olds walking home.

I remember their names in my prayers. The names are unfamiliar. I would type them, except I don't know where to begin for many of them. Doctors, and teachers, and incredibly poised teenagers--at least I remember their faces. I remember the fears they have for their children that I have never experienced.

Not as often as I should, I remember that my neighbors aren't safe.

Your neighbors aren't safe.

Friends, change that. Whatever it takes. Change that.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

How To Save a Life

Step one, you say we need to talk
He walks, you say sit down; it's just a talk
He smiles politely back at you
You stare politely right on through
Some sort of window to your right
As he goes left and you stay right
Between the lines of fear and blame
You being to wonder why you came

Where did I go wrong? I lost a friend
Somewhere along in the bitterness, and 
I would have stayed up with you all night
Had I known how to save a life

I don't know if this song from The Fray reaches down into the stomach of people who aren't fans of Grey's Anatomy. I've been watching the show since college, although now I bingewatch at the end of the season instead of keeping up through the year. It still gets me. I swear if they added a good chaplain, it would round out the show to perfection. The doctors could use a dose of theology, especially good theology. 

This story was posted today by A Mighty Girl. Go and read it, even if you read this first. It's the story of a woman who saved the lives of 150 Jewish children as the Nazis invaded Holland. I'd heard it before only because her granddaughter is a colleague. Her granddaughter and I have never met before; our connection is through The Young Clergy Women Project. Still, I consider her a friend. As a result of calling her friend, I hear this story differently. 

What is an extraordinary story becomes more ordinary--in a wonderful, beautiful way. There is a different sort of closeness to it. Decidedly, the story becomes more possible simply because it is nearer. Saving a life becomes possible, maybe even probable. 

"You don't need to save the world. Jesus already did that," is advice often given to pastors. I'm guessing, it's especially given to young, eager pastors. It's true. Yet, in a faith that has often talked about saving souls, we might do well to follow it up with, "But you do have to save a life."

The vast majority of what I preach week to week is noticing, showing up, and paying attention in ways to create community. After all, Jesus couldn't have healed the people if he had just looked away. A persistent woman or two had to convince him to pay attention to her. Feeding people means paying attention to the fact that there are hungry people there. In our world, especially among the middle class folks, it is isolation that is most damning. After all, individualism is one of our greatest idols. 

Romance aside, the last two lines of that chorus are the ones that echo in and out of my life: I would have stayed up with you all night/Had I known how to save a life. 

God knows, I give thanks for the Marion Pritchards among us. I also give thanks for the people who stay up all night with someone who is hurting. I give thanks for the people who pick someone up and take them somewhere they can sleep safely. I give thanks for the people who check in on their neighbor. I give thanks for the people who invite someone to sit with them. I give thanks to people who live their life as well as they can in the direction that Jesus calls. That direction is sometimes uncomfortable, often annoying, but always a little holier because they followed Jesus' call. 

I doubt I'll ever have a moment in which I know I saved a life. Yet, I have no doubt that this Jesus life means we save more lives than we ever know. It turns out, we might just know how to save a life after all. 


Monday, May 1, 2017

Being Rev.

Recently, I was handed a new, very official looking name badge by an agency for which I regularly volunteer. "Rev. Abigail Conley" it reads. I laughed a little inwardly and grimaced a little inwardly and tucked it away for days I would need it. You see, the "Rev." is included with great intention by the organization.

A couple of years ago, I walked into a room full of faith leaders convened by that organization. Looking around the tables, the place card for every single man had a title before his name. None of the women's titles were included. I know for a fact that the people gathered in that room held a variety of advanced degrees and titles. Yes, that includes me. When the organizer came around to check in, I shocked her a little, saying, "I'm curious why all the men have titles included and none of the women do." Suffice it to say that I didn't get an adequate response and my title has been included ever since.

Over the last few weeks, women's leadership of churches has come up in a few more prominent ways. Princeton awarded and revoked their most prestigious award over women's ordination, as well as LGBT inclusion. This week, Julia Baird of the New York Times wrote about the event, with the piece failing to include women's appropriate titles. Later, it was revealed that the titles were editorial discretion, with the male editor failing to walk back any of it. Nothing like a dose of sexism in an article about sexism to make things fun.

Several weeks ago now, I decided to do a sermon series during Eastertide called, "Things Progressive Christians Care About." I was going to come up with a better title, but time got away from me, so that's sticking. It was about three weeks ago when I realized I should include women in leadership among the topics. I'd written it off as something so normal now; the truth is, it's not remotely true in many of the churches we share a zip code with, or the adjacent zip codes for that matter. It's not been true in my history, either.

My sermon for Sunday isn't written yet, but it's been brewing for a couple weeks now. All of it rolls over in my head. All of it. The learning to see women's stories in the Bible--women, who were the first to announce the resurrection while all the men were still in hiding. I loved the call to worship we used this past week:
      Women:   Christ is Risen!
      Men:        No, he isn't!

The story continued for a while before the men agreed, "Christ is Risen!"

All of it rolls around in my head, though--the learning to see the way women were written out of stories. Some translations demanded the male Junias instead of the female Junia as a name in Romansn. After all, no apostle could be female.

All of it rolls around in my head--the flipping through the Bible to make sure verses were really there: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus."

Somehow, that name badge says so much, "Rev. Abigail Conley." It speaks of the struggle of leaving a fundamentalist church. It speaks of the struggle of so many women to have their work and achievements honored. It speaks of years and years to get to this place, years put in by generations before me.

Every time I think about that day when I asked about the women's titles, I feel a little more glad I mentioned it.

And you better believe I wear that name badge with pride.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Grieve, Dear Friends

"Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last." (Matthew 27:50)

Grieve today, dear friends. Grieve today and tomorrow. Grieve in the midst of sunny skies and packing Easter baskets. Grieve in the midst of soccer games and ballet lessons. Grieve while walking the dog or feeding the cat. Grieve as you eat dinner and wait on your morning coffee.

Grieve.

These two days hold within them so much grief. As deep as the pain caused by the unjust death of a savior is, there is so much more to grieve for.

Grieve for the children in Syria, the combatants in Syria, the people whose lives are being shredded day by day. Grieve for the use of chemical weapons and bombs. Grieve for the ancient cities destroyed day by day.

Grieve.

Grieve for Karen Smith and Cedric Anderson and Jonathan Martinez. Grieve for childhoods ripped away from the kids at North Park Elementary School in San Bernardino.

Grieve.

Grieve for the men in Chechnya being forced into concentration camps. Grieve for violence on Palm Sunday, leaving churches covered in blood.

Grieve. Of course, you should sign petitions and go to rallies and send letters and do anything else that might possibly slow down the madness. In doing so, do not forsake the act of grieving.

Grieve. Mourn. Sit in dirt if that helps. Dress in black if that feels right. Shout at the heavens. Weep in the shower. But grieve, dear friends. Let your heart be broken into a million pieces, then a million more.

Grieve, for this is resistance. Resist the normalization of reckless abandon for human life. Resist the normalization of sweeping destruction under the rug. Resist the "again" of school shootings, as if it will surely happen again and again. Resist the "history of violence" as if that makes everything ok and you're going to be just fine. Resist. Resist every unholy, violent, destructive thing, for that does not come from God.

Grieve today. Grieve tomorrow. Grieve as if it is God-breathed, kingdom-building work. For it is.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Pride's Lessons on Bodies

I'd never go to Pride Festival if my church didn't table there. Actually, the chances of me choosing to go to any festival are slim. Paying to be in crowds of people with overpriced food and drink ranks very, very low on my list of things to do.

Still, in this case, I go. Jesus has a way of sending us to places we'd never go on our own.

Pride is always an interesting experience. There were no protestors this year and one of the men walking beside me as we approached the entrance said, "Is it even Pride if there aren't protestors?" I laughed, all the while self-conscious in my church t-shirt. Inside the gates, we're not the only church present by any means. Pride does, indeed, cause a massive collision of values for me. I guarantee the values aren't any that anyone immediately thinks of. You see, at Pride Festival, bodies are good.

Bodies are good.

It's amazingly, wonderfully, unbelievably radical. It breathes life into the dusty places of my soul.

American Christianity has widely embraced Gnosticism, a dualistic view of body and soul. The body, of course, isn't as good as the soul, which must be cared for in spite of the body. Pretty much every church that talks about your eternal soul is guilty of some form of Gnosticism. Theology aside, we're also really uncomfortable with bodies.

I cannot count the number of conversations I've had regarding what kids wear to camp, school, and pretty much every place else. We've worried about midriffs and bra straps and too much thigh and pants falling off and no shirts and visible underwear on absolutely anyone. The robe I wore before moving to Arizona (where the heat wins every fight) was in many ways a deference to policing bodies. Sitting on a dais in a knee-length skirt is nightmare. Couple that with the sexist fact that women's clothing isn't made for microphones and a robe made everything easier. That doesn't even begin to hit the conversation on weight and how comfortable we are with judging people because of their weight.

My culture and my faith have managed to tell me bodies are evil or tempting or only acceptable if they look a certain way. Pride upends that in all the most wonderful ways.

Anyone can wear booty shorts if it suits them. Pasties are welcome. Big, little, and everything in between is just fine. Your body is your body. No shame. No one gives an interesting ensemble a second look. No one gawks at bodies. It's downright revolutionary.

And it's better. The dusty parts of my soul say it's better like this. It's much better than how we live day to day when even a woman feeding a child is scandalous. Breasts, you know. We started a Bible 101 class just a few days before Pride, and reading through the creation story, I'm reminded of the claim, "And they were naked and unashamed." Somehow, bodies just being bodies really is better.

On the way home from Pride, I was on the train with a woman and her four granddaughters. They were having a marvelous time. They'd been somewhere for lots of fun, including making coffee filter butterflies. I'd guess the oldest was around 8 years old. The light rail was basically an amusement park for them, and they squealed with delight at every stop and start. I heard a mention of "the candy bag." Near my stop, she asked about the sign I was holding, which led to a conversation about Pride. We didn't have any additional conversation after that.

As I looked at her granddaughters, full of energy, confident that their bodies were meant for bending and holding on to things and helping them have fun, I became even sadder. She had no idea how much they need Pride.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

A New Place

My partner and I moved last month. Yeah, that has to do with lack of posting. It turns out, moving sucks a lot of energy for several weeks.

We moved to a bigger apartment. We moved closer to his work. We moved to be on the light rail so he wouldn't have to fight rush hour traffic every day. It's been a good move, despite a longer commute for me. Actually, the biggest change has been living in acute awareness of my privilege.

Privilege, as we know, is least evident to those who have it. I've never ranked at the top on quizzes like this one or this one, but I've never been at the bottom either. My family was and is fairly stable. My parents always managed well with resources, even if those were limited. We did spend my youngest years below the poverty line; there was pride that our family didn't take free lunch, even though we qualified. However, my accent is largely gone, because it had to disappear in order to be taken seriously. I remember getting asked if I wear shoes because of where I grew up. True, I'd largely prefer not to wear shoes, but that would be considered weird in eastern Kentucky, too.

We could talk a lot about privilege, including living with an extra bedroom, an extra bathroom, and a washer and dryer. What is most evident, though, is the difference in environment.

Where we live now is poorer and more urban than where we lived before. A couple miles east is very poor. A couple miles west is on the wealthy side of things. The apartments on the other side of the freeway that were also on the light rail were well outside our budget. It's not what most people would consider a bad part of town, but neither is it the best part of town. Honestly, if not for the gentrification happening around the light rail, I'm not sure we would have moved there.

Here, especially in the stores closest, my neighbors are all shades of skin. Here, the grocery stores block off one entrance after dark. The Wal-Mart in the town near where I attended college did the same, but only after 10 p.m. It's strange to encounter it at 7 p.m. We don't go to the grocery store nearest our apartment because it's not as well stocked as the same chain just a mile or two in the other direction. The produce section is lacking. Boxes of macaroni and cheese are always on sale and piled in bins near the front of the store. The music is rather terrible country, too, which doesn't help anything.

I walked over to the park across the road and was the only person present who would be considered white, of the European descent variety. Expletives were occasionally shouted in the skate area. I only caught snatches of the conversation happening among the men playing cards; those snatches made me steer clear. Homeless people were gathering here in the evening. A few had already made camp in the nearby field. A few shared dinner in one of the ramadas. I didn't feel unsafe. It was also the first time I saw that sort of community in the park; it was obviously a regular ritual. The presence of these homeless neighbors made the bars on the benches make sense. They were divided into seats, the arms added after manufacturing, to prevent sleeping on the benches. Most parks I've been in certainly didn't bother with adding arms.

The differences are subtle. There are no more sounds of sirens than where I lived before. My neighbors are quieter, even. The grocery stores, though, have MPower stations, the pay-as-you-go version of electric service here. I didn't even know it existed for at least a year of living here. The rate is slightly higher and you load cash onto a debit card; you also don't end up with a bill you can't pay. Knowing that regular accounts require a deposit or credit check, of course this exists.

The St. Vincent de Paul thrift store is just across the road. Small almost bodegas are plentiful along the stretch of road, as well. People walk on the sidewalks most all the time. Many are students at ASU, but many are not.

I know one day these things that point to the difference in place will disappear into the background of where I live. Maybe. Four years later, the spring smells of the desert are still a beautiful surprise. Saguaro surprise me in a way green trees don't, even when I haven't seen them for a year. And maybe, if I can keep those differences in sight, I will step more fully into the reign of God.

After all, this is part of the benediction I give often at the close of worship:
               May you see as God sees.
               May you hear as God hears.
               May you love as God loves
               as you go out into the world.


Thursday, March 2, 2017

Abundant Life

We sat in a circle, holding on to stars. Some of us held on to our stars the whole time. Some of us folded back points. Some of us tore off the points of our star. It was an exercise in understanding the life impact of being LGBTQ.

The church I serve has welcomed LGBTQ people for a long time. There is welcome of everyone who walks in, sure, but deep welcome of people who had to seek out a church where they'd be welcome. There are treasured memories of same-sex couples whose names still come up regularly. The two women who led the charge to rework our patio are names I know well, thought I've never met either of them.

I smile when folks in my congregation avoid pronouns if the person can't answer the question of, "What's your pronoun?"

"Ok. That person is like God," someone responded to a particular visitor. And so, for the duration of a visitor's somewhat short time with the congregation, we avoided pronouns and said, "Welcome." That visitor is, indeed, a long story. But no one ever doubted that visitor should be at our church, and was worthy of love.

Doing this particular exercise, called Star Training, was a bit unusual for a congregation that has the welcome of the LGBTQ in our DNA. When talking with the faith director of One Community AZ, who offered the training, he wondered a bit about the benefit. It turns out, he's not a fan of The West Wing, but still, I quoted Toby Ziegler, who said in response to the cry, "You've got me preaching to the choir," "That's how you get them to sing." He laughed and understood.

Even though I'd done the Star Training before, I wasn't quite prepared for the tears, and the raw emotion in the room. Part of being a church that welcomes LGBTQ people is that, for most members, there is deep investment in this choice. Sometimes, it's deeply personal, as an LGBTQ person who has been shut out of church. Other times, it's a child, a sibling, or a parent who you need to know would be welcome in your church, too.

The conversations are always strange for me on a personal level. My hair is often short enough that people assume I'm a lesbian, then see me in a dress wearing make-up and aren't sure. I've dated women, but married a man. Of all things, I married a Scotch-Irish Christian man, despite dating far more Indian men and Middle Eastern men, Hindu and Muslim, respectively. I've gone through various butch phases, including the cargo shorts and men's t-shirts phase. It's strange. Bi and straight both seem weird labels for this definitely not far left person on the Kinsey Scale. I live my life, right now, on the femme side of things. It took recognizing the horrible cultural expectations of women for cisgender to feel right. There are a lot of traditional roles of women I've shunned, but the body suits me well enough. I recognize my own baggage around gender, in particular, and I fit the molds well enough. I even have the wedding gifts to prove it, and the pictures of me in a white dress.

I remember a morning back in my life as a fundamentalist, a time when I certainly didn't fit the molds as well. I was walking down the stairs along the hill one morning. The buildings of the college campus were just visible in the first light of day. For some reason in that moment (I'm guessing because I'm generally grumpy until 8 or 9 in the morning),  I remembered a promise of Jesus, "I came that they may have life and have it abundantly." I realized that had never been my experience of faith.

Looking back, I see the community of that place as an incredibly abundant experience. Well, at least most of it. Things like a ridiculous worry about sex detracted from that abundance. In that place, though, the gauge of, "Is this life-giving?" became life-giving to me. My own life took lots of twists and turns as a result. More importantly, though, it has become the gauge for pastoral ministry. "Is this life-giving?"

That question becomes a lens to interpret other scripture. It becomes a way of making decisions. It often prods a yes instead of a no. Above all else, that question always prods compassion. There is nothing life-giving about hungry people. There is nothing life-giving about poverty wages. There is nothing life-giving in illiteracy. There is nothing life-giving about sleeping on the streets. There is nothing life-giving in absurd clich├ęs when someone dies. There's so much that is not life-giving that we encounter every single day.

And be sure, there is nothing life-giving in kicking children out of homes, or denying people a romantic relationship, or forcing someone who wants to wear pants to wear skirts. As we sat around the circle on Sunday, holding our stars, we also heard those sorts of terrifying statistics. Kids who come out as LGBTQ are still far more likely to be homeless than any other demographic. The suicide rate remains alarmingly high among LGBTQ people. Holding a job, which most of us take for granted, is a privilege that may be lost at any time. There are all of these things that other people do that offer death instead of life--often quite literally.

I come back to the words of Jesus that aren't quoted nearly as often as I'd like, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." It's a worthy goal for those of us who follow Jesus.