Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Clothes of "Me, Too"

Over the weekend, my partner and I were doing some cleaning out of things that never quite got cleaned out when we moved. You know what I mean. There are the couple of boxes where you just dumped everything when you had no clue what box it should go in. There's the stuff kept for sentimental reasons that, in the right mindset, can be called junk and tossed.

And then there are the clothes.

Like many, many people, I own a range of clothing sizes. Let's not talk about the weight range they encompass, please. There's the lose 10 pounds box, and the lose 20 pounds box, stepping down quite a way. There's the dream box with about five articles of clothing in it from that three months I was that size. If I hadn't gotten the flu, I'm pretty sure I'd have never been that small.

When we moved, we took many boxes to Goodwill. Unpacking in the new place still made it clear how very, very many clothes I own. We pulled out all the clothes boxes over the weekend, and I gleaned two more IKEA bags to get out of our spare bedroom.

Some of the clothes were more worn out than I'd remembered. Some were more out of style than I remembered. Three of the items were tossed because I'd been sexually harassed while wearing them. Wait, on second thought, maybe I should count it as four. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Me, Too on the blog for the local conference of the United Church of Christ, especially naming how rampant sexual harassment is in the church. For some women, Me, Too is triggering, bringing up many terrible and traumatic memories. For others, like me, it has erased some of the guilt and shame. Let's be honest, it's not just Me, Too. It's years of conversation about the harassment women experience just for existing.

My partner was in the room when I pulled out the gray striped sweater I had been wearing for the worst incident. A married pastor later told me how attractive I was when wearing that sweater, along with plenty of other inappropriate things. I turned to my partner, "This was the shirt I was wearing when I was sexually harassed. I should get rid of it, right?" I asked. Of course he said yes. If the memory clings after five, six, maybe even seven years, that seems the better thing to do. It's become clearer after the fact that incident was worse than I knew at the time.

I also got rid of the pink shirt I was wearing when a young man struggling with his life made unwanted sexual advances. I was in the back parking lot of the church, doing something or other for the church where I was a youth and children's minister. He'd been attending on and off for a few weeks. In a space where I've always been told I should be exceptionally nice and welcome, I had no idea how to stop him. It was church, so being rude was not an option--at least not then.

I long ago got rid of the skirt I was wearing when a seminary classmate ran his hand up my thigh and wouldn't stop when I told him to. I so love the dress I was wearing when he thought it appropriate to toss small objects between my breasts that I kept that. This time, I got rid of the not so liked dress where he did the same. I also got rid of the shirt I was wearing the day he made it clear he wanted to do all of those things.

The "What Were You Wearing" exhibit pops into my mind as I reflect on these clothes. Maybe these clothes matter so much because I've been told they do--as if clothing invites a certain kind of touch. It might be my particular sort of memory, too, that I can picture each incident with alarming clarity.

As more and more stories about sexual harassment and assault surface, there seems to be a glimmer of hope that the tide is changing. I have this deep, abiding hope that the church, groaning with age and girth, moves, too. After all, complicity is one of the church's greatest sins in many things, including harassment of women.

I don't have much to say in the way of Jesus things about this particular topic, so here's what I do know. As a pastor, I hold people's secrets and their confidences. I use two words with intention. Confidences are things that need to be held--often until they're ready to be revealed. The most joyous of those confidences are about pregnancies, still too tenuous to be shared with many. Secrets, though, are darker, more sinister. They are the things that must not be spoken because of guilt and shame. They carry great weight and it seems there is nothing that can relieve that weight.

Totally out of context and not well-exegeted at all, I still think of this passage whenever I learn a new secret, "Nothing is hidden that won't be revealed, and nothing is secret that won't be brought out into the open. Therefore, whatever you have said in the darkness will be heard in the light, and whatever you have whispered in rooms deep inside the house will be announced from the rooftops." (Luke 12:2-3)

It's an alarming promise if there's a secret you desperately want kept.

It's an amazing promise if the Reign of God means the guilt and shame around those secrets dissipates so that they can be spoken aloud.

For everyone who can say, "Me, too," may their secrets be turned to justice.



Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Why We Won't Create an Active Shooter Protocol

I never thought I'd be looking forward to preaching on the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids (or Virgins, depending on your translation). There's a lot that's unappealing in it, including that half the women are shut out of the banquet because they left to get oil. The parable is one in a succession of stories pointing to the impending end of the way things are.

Of course, what ushers in the end is the coming of the Reign of God. That is the thing the hearers of the parable are called to await: urgently, expectantly, hopefully. What would you do if you thought God's Reign might come crashing in at any moment?

In the wake of another church shooting, I am certain of only one thing: we are preparing for the Reign of God. Anything else is a distraction from our calling.

Quite bluntly, that means we are not called to prepare for someone bursting in with a gun. Be prepared for fire, sure, and flood--the things over which we have no control. Be prepared with a plan to keep kids safe in your churches. Be prepared for everything except that which is heartbreakingly preventable.

You see, that's always the truth about gun violence: it is preventable. It was preventable on Sunday in Texas. It was preventable at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina. It was preventable in Newtown, Connecticut and Blacksburg, Virginia. It was preventable in 1993 in Grayson, Kentucky, when the deaths there hit very close to home for me.

Preparing for the violence instead of working against the violence is wrong. That is a response of fear, and fear alone. It is a recoil inward to the worst parts of ourselves. If we make that choice, we sacrifice our resurrection hope at the altar of security.

Most terrifying of all, creating any version of an active shooter protocol is accepting this is the new normal. It follows that if this is the new normal, then we must adapt. In doing so, we surrender any claim to the Kingdom of God we have.

I realize at this moment church councils are wondering if they should figure out how to answer, "What if?" I realize at this moment other church councils are congratulating themselves for already having armed guards on campus or policies already in place. With words I rarely choose: that is sin--full of sin, from beginning to end.

You who seek the Reign of God, reject this version of normal. Reject any possibility that we adapt to this. Reject the fear that cries out gun ownership is necessary.

Follow the call of the Kingdom, instead. Demand justice. Demand justice from lawmakers. Demand that it be harder to obtain a gun than be licensed to drive a car. Demand that domestic violence be treated with the gravity it deserves. Demand that white men be held accountable for their actions.

This is your call.

By all means, run. Run fast and hard. Run headlong into the Reign of God. Run with perseverance this race. Keep watch faithfully at every single moment for what God is doing. Let the Spirit be your guide. Let fear crumple with the shadow of death. For the sake of this call, though, don't update your policy manuals.

Instead, be ready for the Kingdom of God. The gates might be flung open at any moment.


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

When She's No Saint

As always, Halloween overshadows All Saints' Day. I'm sure many kids are ricocheting from last night's candy. Still, I love this day. My congregation will celebrate All Saints' Day on Sunday. The particular way we celebrate is decidedly Protestant. The Roman Catholic Church reserves November 2 for All Souls' Day, remembering all who have died. All Saints' is reserved for named saints, those who have achieved the beatific vision.

Long before I was a pastor, Protestants collapsed the two into one day on November 1st, when we remember all who have died. We especially remember those who have died within the last year.

This year, two of my aunts have died. Well, one aunt and one woman who was for all intents and purposes my aunt. She was married to my uncle at one point, I think, and they have a son my age. She's been around all my life. So has the wife before her, the only one with whom he had two children. Yes, you may have guess that he's that uncle.

The other aunt is the one who is the squeaky clean, played piano in church aunt. The skeletons are well hidden in her closet; not so with the other one.

My partner gets very confused when we talk about this branch of my family tree. The years of brokenness pile up to form my knowledge; my mother has told me the portions that extend beyond my memory. There's no way he could grasp the full brokenness. I don't know that I can either.

Because the truth is, it's overwhelming. The parsing of it all would take pages upon pages. If I were to write about it, would I begin with addiction that carried on to the next generation? Or prostitution to support that addiction? Would I talk about cancer caused by those choices? Maybe it's the pieces I've collected to realize that cousin who is my age was born addicted to something. He suffered a stroke last year resulting from his own drug habit; I'm told he can now walk pretty well.

There are all sorts of places in those stories that something could have helped--mental health services or effective drug treatment programs. Maybe foster care and the agency running it could have broken the pattern if those systems were better.

Not surprisingly, we weren't close, this sometimes aunt and me. I've looked for her obituary over the last few days, but haven't located it yet. She requested to be cremated and no funeral, so there's no rush on an obituary. I had to spend some time figuring out her last name in order to search. Many broken relationships, including at least two marriages, are part of her story. Although she was living with my uncle when she died, that was not the name she'd most recently chosen.

Her story is not unique. My story on the other side isn't either. I've sat with more people than I care to count who are worried about their children or their cousins or their parents. They don't know how their loved ended up where they did; it's a painfully common story.

On this All Saint's Day, I remember well the phrase, "She's no saint." Of course, it may also be, "He's no saint." Either way, it's shorthand for someone who has made a series of bad choices, creating their own problems. The clich├ęs are many. Maybe someone is reaping what they sowed. Or maybe the made their bed and now they have to lie in it. There are more ways than there should be to condemn someone.

Many people would say of my aunt, "She's no saint." I'm guessing they'd be right. I know far too much and I'm guessing it's the tip of the iceberg. In some ways, I barely knew her. The things I do know mean there has to be far more.

Still, she is a saint.

That is the deepest promise of All Saints' Day. She, too, is a saint. She, too, is beloved by God. She, in all her brokenness, will be welcomed by God. The many afflictions of her life will not follow her into death. Somehow, all of the terrible will be better.

"...for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to the springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." (Revelation 7:17)

Blessings upon all the saints, both known and unknown.


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

When Pumpkin Spice Lattes Invade

The world seems to be crashing down--out there. Somewhere. I wonder if this would feel different if we didn't live where news makes its way quickly from one part of the globe to another. Yes, here in the US, you might not hear a whole lot about the Rohingya being displaced, but you might, too. It depends on how much you're paying attention. Harvey and Irma are storms you recognize; Maria, too, is wreaking havoc. Those names remind me of a decision several years ago to diversify the names of hurricanes, replacing the lost list of very white sounding names. It seems to me we might have done well to keep the names as a reminder of all the destruction of white people, but I digress.

Earthquakes get numbers, not names, but Mexico is is clearing rubble after two different earthquakes. Who knows what comes next with North Korea. A man at my church said that a Trump presidency means another war; I fear he is right.

And I'm over here missing Fall. Somehow, all those things are related.

Die-hard Arizonans will tell you we get four seasons. It's quite true in higher elevations, but even some folks here in the Valley claim there are four seasons. After a few years here, it's true that you own pants and long-sleeve shirts and a few sweaters. A crackling fire on a January night might even be nice as you sit outside. Although temperatures are getting cooler, it's dropping from 100 to 90 right now. It will be October before we stop hitting walls of heat when opening doors.

The desert has a beauty of its own, to be sure. The cactus bloom and there's life in unexpected places. Crops grow here, but in the winter months, not the summer ones. Right now, plants are going into the ground, with no harvest to safely gather in.

I miss trees with changing leaves and needing a jacket. I miss the change in the air and spiderwebs dripping with dew. I miss the trappings of fall, in all their Pinterest glory. I don't even mind the invasion of Pumpkin Spice everything, too much, if accompanied with cooling temperatures.

Pinterest, like most things, is a sales pitch. The same could be said for Facebook or Instagram or Buzzfeed, for that matter. While I love Fall, I also love the idea of Fall. What's being sold at every turn is comfort. We might say coziness, instead, but that's not far away from comfort. Warm blankets and warm sweaters, hot drinks and hot soups, fireplaces and candles, all point to comfort. Fall, it seems, is the season to be exceedingly comfortable in your own space.

When the world is crashing down outside, comfort becomes even more appealing. I'll stay here, with my blanket, sipping a hot drink, reading a book instead.

I confess that I am torn. There is a part of me that thinks there is Gospel in choosing to remain calm, where you are, satisfied. This reaction is the story of Jesus calming the storm, when he is asleep in the boat while the storm rages outside. The disciples must wake him up in order to calm the storm and he says, "Do you still not have faith?"

Then, there is my deepest belief that we are coworkers with God, participating in the divine will and bringing about the reign of God now, here, right where we are. Jesus healed, so we offer medicine. Jesus fed people, so we do, too. Jesus hung out with the poor, so we eat dinner with our homeless neighbors.

Here is where I end up: is your world the one that is crashing down? If so, by all means, choose comfort. Take the offered blanket and hot soup and curl up somewhere with a book that whisks you far away. Find the way to be calm in the midst of the storm, to have faith that there is One who will somehow help carry you through.

Is your neighbor's world crashing down? Then help. Take that soup, if it's a next door neighbor, or send the check if it's a neighbor far away. Do the thing you'd long for if your world was crashing down around you. Do that thing with great love and many prayers.

In some ways, the sales pitch of Fall intersects well with the Gospel: we all long to be comforted, to be safe, to be nourished in body and soul. Breaking from Pinterest, the Gospel pushes us to create that world for everyone, not just ourselves.

I'll probably still be annoyed when the temperature hits 100 today, though.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A Name to Remember

I speak the name James A. Fields often. In prayer, in thought, in worry, in conviction, in determination. James A. Fields is the name I need to remember, not Heather Heyer. Who she was matters a great deal, but I know plenty of people like her. They are willing to march, to give money. They shop at businesses owned by people of color. They are people who recognize their privilege and work to be an ally. They don't always get it right; they're willing to hear they got it wrong and try better next time.

I know how we create the Heather Heyers of the world. There are many ways I strive for the same goals. But we create the James A. Fields of the world, too. In some cases, we create with the same intentionality as the people seeking justice; in others, it's the byproduct of our entrenched racism, our entrenched white privilege turned to supremacy.

Here is my truth: I know White Supremacists. Maybe I should say confession, I don't know. It's this haunting truth inside me though: I know White Supremacist. I grew up with them. Maybe they didn't call themselves that publicly--good Lord, I am shocked that we've made it safe for White Supremacists to come out of their closets and into public spaces unashamed--but they were White Supremacists all the same.

They were there, lurking in the teenager who called Martin Luther King Day by "Nigger Day" instead. (I thought about using n***** instead, but niceties go out the window in confession.) Does he remember that? We're friends on Facebook and he, his wife, and two kids are living a nice suburban life. Yet, somewhere, he learned that word, that phrase, and had no problem using it in front of his friends. I saw so many faces like his in the photos of the marchers at Charlottesville.

The White Supremacists were there, in those same places. Confederate flags were everywhere, but there were those who had swastika patches on their backpacks or sewn onto their jackets. They'd sometimes be made to remove the emblem or turn their coats inside out while at school, but the rule was enforced sporadically at best. Was there a rule against swastikas? To tell you the truth, I don't remember. I am certain the Confederate flag was just fine. Heritage, not hate, after all. These were the people I sat on a school bus with, an hour at a time.

I wonder, were the White Supremacists gathering in that abandoned house on the other side of the hill? Sometimes, at night, a light would be on. It was the kind of light you use in a garage, a bulb on the end of a cord. The room it illuminated was covered in flags: US, Confederate, Nazi. I don't remember people gathered there, just flags, but the image that remains is vivid and terrifying.

Never, ever, have the KKK or Neo-Nazis been merely an idea for me. Maybe because it was the South, or maybe because it was a rural area, but they were always there somewhere. They were in the newspaper when they got arrested. They were whispered about by teenagers interested in joining. (Yes, interested, I remember that much, too.)

Moving away means I don't know if I know White Supremacists now--other than there this lurking feeling that I must here in this deep red, SB1070 passing state.

And so I remember James A. Fields because he is the person I might have sat with on a school bus, or watched a teacher make change clothes, or wondered how he found the people meeting in back rooms and back alleys. He is the person I might stand in line with at Starbucks, or cut off on the freeway, or run into at a city meeting. He is the person I must remember is here, at least until we, until I, make it clear he's not welcome.

After all, he is the person who persevered, persisted, held on to the demons we've never exorcised.

I confess: I do not know how to exorcise these demons.
I confess: I know I helped create them. I know I help sustain them.
I confess: James A. Fields. Because so much is wrapped up in that name.

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