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


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.