Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Belonging

Surprise, surprise, I got myself into a little bit of trouble a few weeks ago at our denominational gathering. On social media, I critiqued the number of speakers who said how long they had been part of the denomination; the majority of speakers in large gatherings presented such a credential, apart from their biography. In every case, the point was that it had been their entire life, or even for generations. For the record, I still maintain that it's a good way to make people who did not grow up in the tradition feel unwelcome. That remains true for me, and I imagine I'm not the only one.

After I posted the critique, several people carefully explained to me why I was wrong to feel that way. Let me tell you, that is always incredibly helpful. I got at least one, "Why do you come, then?" Yep. That was welcoming, too.

If I kept typing about that, I still wouldn't get much of anywhere.

Y'all, here's the thing. I can play the credentials game all day. No, I didn't grow up in the denomination I serve, but by golly I've logged a crazy number of church hours. I didn't do youth group intensely, but I've logged a crazy number of mission trip hours, too. I've topped out at communion three times in one day. Nursing homes, lock-ins, VBS, going to Sunday school, teaching Sunday school, most everything churchy, I can play that game. I've slept on floors and raided church kitchens in more states than I care to count and discovered three year old condiments in the fridges of most all of them. If you want to quote scripture, let's go for it. By the way, I also have a Master's degree from Emory University that I'm damn proud of. We could talk about my lack of student debt, too, if you'd like. There are all kinds of ways to play that game.

It becomes terrifying quickly, though, this proving that you're "enough" of something to matter. The other day, I got an email from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). I get an email from them most days, sometimes several a day. Many of their emails are about Muslims being harassed. This particular one was about a daughter of a legal immigrant. The daughter, the woman being harassed, was born in the United States, so she is a citizen. In other words, she's really an American, so she deserves to live here without harassment. Or so the email implied.

Some would say crazily, I think she should get to go about her daily life without harassment regardless of her citizenship status, or her faith, or pretty much anything else. Being and feeling safe is a right, not a privilege. I actually think that's Gospel. I'm also aware that me feeling like crap at a denominational gathering pales in comparison.

Still, this insider/outsider game is real, and it's playing out in terrifying ways right now. How Muslims in our country are being treated is the tip of a giant iceberg. From middle school bullies to the President himself, there's a lot of concern for who is in and who is out.

For once, I don't have a Jesus story in response; I have Paul:
"If anyone else has reason to put their confidence in physical advantages, I have even more:
I was circumcised on the eighth day.
I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin.
I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews.
With respect to observing the Law, I'm a Pharisee.
With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church.
With respect to righteousness under the Law, I'm blameless.
These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ."
                   (Philippians 3:4b-7)

This is one of the times Paul got it just right.

For the sake of Christ, we'll stop asking those questions to prove if you're enough.
For the sake of Christ, we'll invite you in.
For the sake of Christ, we'll believe you when you say you're one of us.
For the sake of Christ, we'll say, "We're glad you're here."

I picked up a quote from Yvonne Gilmore at that same conference. It sums up what I most deeply believe about Church, "I am yours and you are mine."

I don't think we should wait so long to say so.



Wednesday, July 26, 2017

You are loved.

This summer has been a bit of a whirlwind between a couple conferences, camp, and vacation. It's only late July, but feels like summer is ending. Here in Arizona, school starts early, which certainly adds to that feeling. Some kids were back in class this week and a lot more will be next week. Most of the districts give kids and teachers more time off when the weather is nice enough to enjoy outside. I imagine the lines at Disney are better, too. Despite the unrelenting heat, back to school is in full swing.

For our church, back to school means blessing backpacks. Every kid gets a luggage tag for their backpack and is charged with handing them out to the kids and young adults too cool to come and get one for themselves. They hand them out to the teachers, too. In fact, anyone who has their hand raised to indicate they're going to school in some way gets one. We pray together for the coming year. 

The prayer we say together is for the things that I know the kids worry about: finding friends, people to eat lunch with, standing up for what is right. I admit, I loved school. I'd probably be much better at adulting if I were still given grades. The whole system worked exceedingly well for me and I have the report cards and transcripts to prove it. I'm painfully aware that's not true for every kid.

More importantly, how they do in school has nothing to do with how much God loves them. How they do in school also has nothing to do with how much their church loves them. When I send kids off to a place that will be sometimes amazing and sometimes terrible, that's the best reminder I can give them. 
Despite lots of brainstorming each year, I keep making tags that remind kids how much they are loved and that they are called to love others. Last year, the tag read, "Love God. Love others. Love yourself." This year, it's simply, "You are loved." 

"You are loved," is the deepest truth I can offer them. It's the truth that I can hope will sustain them when they are scared, or sitting alone at a lunch table, or fail a test. Some of my kids have brown skin. Some of them having learning disabilities. Some of them are LGBTQ. Some of them have struggles I know nothing about. And still I say with great confidence, "You are loved."

May this sustain them their whole life long. 

Jesus said, "As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love." John 15:9

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.