Thursday, December 22, 2011


I'm as annoyed by Christian insanity over Christmas as the next person. Another "Keep Christ in Christmas" might put me over the edge. That's a whole other topic, though.

Instead, I want to pick on Santa Claus. Hang on. Don't freak out yet. Give me a few minutes.

I have absolutely nothing against the jolly old man. Really. It's just that he wasn't part of my childhood Christmas. He almost was, but my family was never really sure how to handle him. Basically, he was an excuse for presents appearing on Christmas morning rather than the night before. Because I never really believed in him, there's no traumatic childhood memory of realizing he doesn't exist, which has sometimes created problems.

Skipping over the trauma I caused my classmates, within three months of being hired as children's minister, I almost compared the nonexistence of Santa Claus to something else during a children's sermon. I don't remember what, actually. Yet, as I was walking up to give the children's sermon, I realized that anything alluding to no Santa was probably a bad idea. I can now only dream of the bullet I dodged there! Still, overall, I think Santa is a rather benevolent presence in life, even if a little creepy if you think about it very hard.

A couple weeks ago, though, I was talking with Sunday school teachers, all of whom are also moms. They were, of course, all sharing Santa stories. Who knew that Santa doesn't wrap presents at some houses? Or that he only fills stockings at others? Or that he only brings one gift at still others? One of the moms, though, was having to deal with her 4th grade daughter's realization that Santa isn't real.

As she and her daughter talked about Santa, she cried and told her daughter over and over again, "I've been lying to you. Santa is a lie."

Of course, the kid tried to comfort her mom, telling her, "No, it wasn't really a lie."

The mom dutifully responded, "Yes, it was. I want you to always remember that. I lied to you about Santa. He's not real. And I want you to know I lied to you about Santa because I really want you to know that I'm not lying to you about God and Jesus."

You can probably imagine the rest of the conversation.

There's something in there about the way Christians treat Christmas. I really, really am not upset if Christians choose to participate in the Santa thing. But I am kind of upset we feel like we have to.

Yes, the gifts go overboard. Yes, Santa's now totally secular and maybe always was so. More than that, though, it's the same thing we keep saying over and over to ourselves and our kids: the Gospel is not enough.

The Christ Child is not enough. We need a magic man to bring presents to make this a good holiday. We need magical flying reindeer. We need elves. We need gingerbread men and houses. We need all sorts of things to make Christmas special and memorable.

Those things aren't bad by themselves, but they help us lose our way. And if they all disappeared, what would we find?

Thursday, December 8, 2011


The thing I enjoy most about working with kids is getting to teach them Bible stories for the first time. It's awesome. They don't ask too many questions. They don't worry about the how and the details. They trust that God could do whatever the Bible story says God could do. It's awesome. I also believe that if those stories shape their world enough, then when they start asking all the questions, they'll wrestle with them rather than walking away from the faith in which they were raised.

But seriously, tell a kid about Elijah for the first time and watch her face. It's awesome.

Up until a few days ago, every kid I'd ever taught had some idea about God and churchy things. If I said, "It's time to pray," they'd bow their heads and fold their hands. If I said, "We're gonna sing," they'd have a request or two.

But all that changed a few days ago.

A man came to church and brought his two young children, ages 3 and 5. The second Sunday they came, I invited them to stay for Sunday school. They did.

That Sunday, I happened to be in the kids' class. Since I was the only person those two kids had ever met, they sat with me. I introduced them as my friends.

It soon became clear they'd never been to church at all.

They had puzzled looks when we sang. They didn't add to the list of things the kids were thankful for. And when the leader said, "Let's pray," the little boy looked up at me completely puzzled.

I thought quickly and said, "It's time to talk to God. Sit like this." So we sat, hands folded, eyes closed, heads bowed, and we talked to God.

It was easy, but it was easy because he was a little kid. Kids are used to having adults explain things to them. Kids are used to being shown how to do something. Kids are used to not knowing. As I think more and more about the people I encounter who have never had anything to do with church, I wonder how to do that. 

How do we teach adults to pray? Not just the Jesus' response kind of way, but the I have no clue what you mean way.

How do we invite adults to sing? Unless they're karaoke fans or former choir members, should we even expect participation in congregational singing?

And that doesn't even get to the perceived more important stuff of communion, baptism, Bible, sermons...

We say, "Welcome!" all the time, but how do we live it?

I've wondered many times since the day that little boy and I prayed together what would happen if he had been 25 or 35 or 45 instead of only 5. Could he have asked? Could I have answered as easily?

I love tradition. I love churchy words. I don't think the answer is to toss out all the churchy things to be more friendly to folks who have never walked in the door of a church.

All those things together, though, can make our "Welcome!" sound a little more like "Welcome?" Where is the space to just as gently take an adult by the hand and say, "Here's how we pray," as one would a child?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

"Fear not!"

I don't remember the sermon or the commentator at this point. What I do remember is this gist of the commentary: the phrase repeated incredibly often in the Gospels is "Do not fear." There are variations, of course, but it's there, over and over and over, again. The angels spoke those words when they spoke of Jesus' birth. Jesus spoke those words when he calmed the storm, when he walked on water, when he called disciples, when he preached--and a whole bunch of times there!

Today, in one of those meetings that was going nowhere, one of my lay leaders asked the question of the pastors, "What's our greatest hindrance in going forward?"

My answer was quick and simple: fear.

I stand firmly by it. I wish they could have heard it better. Maybe there are others who can hear it now.

Church, please, do not be afraid.

Do not be afraid to toss out programs that aren't effective and wear you out.
Do not be afraid to try something you have never tried before.
Do not be afraid to hear stories of people and from people you do not understand.
Do not be afraid to make room for those stories and those people who tell them, even when it's going to mean thinking a little differently than you once did.
Do not be afraid to read the Bible with those stories in mind.
Do not be afraid to read the Bible as if you don't already know what it says.
Do not be afraid to admit, "We were wrong."
Do not be afraid to admit, "We don't know."
Do not be afraid to live in the gray space.
Do not be afraid to walk out in faith and trust that God will surely be there.
Do not be afraid of the things you don't know or understand.

Church, please, do not be afraid. Just because the culture doesn't think you are important doesn't mean it's true. But you have to stop being afraid.

You see, I've seen fear in a church firsthand, especially that fear to see and hear differently. I grew up in a church that told me time and time again, "God would not speak to you in that way." It was, of course, in response to entering ministry. I grew up in a church that was certain God would not speak that way, could not, no matter how loudly I heard God's voice.

They were unwilling to re-examine, re-interpret or listen with me. So I left.

I now understand a lot better why other folks my age have left. They've heard far too much, in too many ways, "God can't be speaking that way."

So church, please, do not be afraid. Re-examine. Re-interpret. Listen hard and listen with. God will show up. You might be surprised at what God has to say, but since it is God, whatever the word is will lead to goodness.

Hear the Good News: "Do not fear, only believe."

In case you have to look it up, that quote's from Jesus. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Just a Little Heresy

I am quite aware that there are many, many heresies I could preach from the pulpit and no one in my congregation would ever complain. However, here is one heresy that is going to get me into a lot of trouble: it's time to kill potluck dinners.

If some of the older church ladies heard that, I'd be scraping them off the floor right now. My personal distaste for potluck dinners is pronounced and easily identified: it's a large social gathering in which I'm expected to mingle. I don't like that whole scenario.

More broadly, though, it's about a way of life that is not part of my reality.

Potluck dinners assume:
  • I cook.
  • I like to cook.
  • I know what to cook.
  • I can cook for several people.
  • I have ingredients in my home to cook.
  • I can cook unhealthy things. 
Ok, short of the last one, there's a theme here: it's a family-oriented, very domestic event. Here's the thing, again: that's not me. It's not the great stretch for me to cook something for a potluck that it is for many of my friends, but it is a stretch. I cook mostly healthy stuff for just one person or I grab take-out. I'm happy to eat my own cooking, but who knows about anyone else. My cooking is certainly never subject to judgment and yes, I do cook up some delicious experiments. I also cook up some disgusting experiments. And oh yeah, I eat all of those on my couch. I consider my table to be more of a large shelf.

So to cook, sit down, eat a meal and clean up afterwards is a foreign concept for the way I live my life.

I want table fellowship, don't get me wrong. I'd just rather go out to eat or be told very specifically what to bring.

What I don't want is the expectation that table fellowship can only take place in the same way it always has. Or a table fellowship that is a remnant of a time when women were to have strong domestic skills. I don't want table fellowship that resembles family dinners similar to ones I haven't participated in regularly since childhood.

For once, there's nothing resembling theological reflection going on here. It's just my own cry to the church: Make space for someone like me. Figure out a way to be church that doesn't ask me to be a family-oriented cook. That way, I don't feel like such a misfit in a church that is already unsure of what to do with me.

I'm pretty sure some other folks would agree.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

And Now I Wonder...

I survived preaching on September 11. I even surprised myself on walking the line of political affiliation. And the sermon was more Gospel than me. It was prayed over, Spirit breathed on, that much I know.

I knew, though, the potential problems in my congregation. I can honestly attest to a few people skirting me at the door. A few others made a special stop to thank me. Some genuinely responded to the sermon. All in all, I'd say a pretty standard Sunday.

Before I preached at all, though, that sermon that inevitably tipped my hand away from something like "kill all the terrorists," the conversations were already flying about the tenth anniversary of the attacks. The person most adamantly sharing her beliefs was one well on the other side of things from me. It was that union of God and country that is almost synonymy. It also included her conviction that if the threat of the Muslims ever came too close, she would "lock and load." There were accompanying motions, as well.

I like this woman. I gratefully accepted the number of her hairdresser a few weeks ago. She's funny, in the witty, not over the top kind of way. Then this happened.

For the last few weeks, I've been considering more and more what boundaries place a person outside the Christian community. The questions started when about ten people walked out of worship a couple of weeks ago, which is a long story all by itself. In the fundamentalist world I grew up in, the ability to say something was outside accepted behavior of the Christian community was present. I can't say I agreed with the choices made even then, but I miss the ability to hold the community accountable.

The choice for accountability is made by a community that isn't so afraid of money or decline in numbers that it can take the risk of demanding something of a person's life. Most of the choices about accountability made in other communities weren't ones I would replicate now. They usually involved things like drinking alcohol in public and sex among teenagers. Even now, though, I respect the choice of accountability if not the parameters of it.

And now I wonder what to do with this member of my congregation. It's political, which is always messy. If I answer from a purely political stance, I'll surely throw around words like bigot and racist. But to love this woman does not mean looking the other way. To love her in the name of Christ does not mean that.

I am aware that I am offended by her beliefs and attitudes; I am also convinced that they are not Christian. While I believe Christians and Muslims worship the same God, she does not. She would say that Muslims are our enemies and a threat to our lives. Actually, she did say it. She believes they are persecuting us. Ok, then. Jesus said to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Really. Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.

Jesus didn't elaborate a lot on that particular teaching; Paul didn't elaborate a lot on penalties of not adhering to such behavior in a Christian community. There are no guidelines for how failure to adhere to a teaching might sever a person from the community.

Now I am wondering, though, where is that line? Where is that line that once crossed, means you're not welcome in this community any more?

I admit, I'm willing to draw the line right there, right where she crossed over from viewing a certain group of people as our enemies to wanting to destroy those enemies and believing that's the way it should be. For me, that is an utter failure to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

If I do draw that line, though, all of a sudden I have an enemy I must love. At least I'm pretty sure that's how that works.

So now I'm left to wonder, is there anything so great that it can actually oust a person from the Christian community? Or is love really the greatest of all?

Friday, September 9, 2011

That Can of Worms

I had about eighteen hours to think about what I would say, what I would do, possible repercussions. I don't know that I would do anything differently if I had eighteen days.

Yesterday, I got the call I had skated past a couple weeks ago. It was from the local anti-abortion clinic. They go by a lot of names, some good, some derogatory, but at the end of the day, if one thing is an abortion clinic, they must be anti-abortion clinics. This time, it wasn't the community recruitment lady, Nancy, calling, it was a guy from my church, quite excited about the fundraising walk in a few weeks. He wanted to know which promotional materials he should bring to the church and well, would I talk to Nancy since I knew what we could do and couldn't?

I did. And he called late last night to confirm when he could bring the materials to church and the plan for Sunday and further promotion. All the time, I knew he was going to ask me to walk in that fundraising walk and I was grappling more and more with the fact that I would have to tell this man that I would not do that. I had to tell this to a good-hearted man who genuinely cares about people and is also a proud supporter of the Tea Party. Yes, we have some differences of opinion in lots of things.

Sure enough, this morning, I was right. He came bringing the materials, bearing the news he would be out of town that weekend and would I be willing to walk?

The rest of the conversation (a shortened version) went something like this:

"I'm not a pro-lifer."

"Are you serious? Well this changes my opinion of you, it really does. I didn't know any minister wouldn't be pro-life."

"Most of the ministers I know aren't pro-life."

"Well, that's the Lord's decision, not ours."

"I agree. And we should talk about it some time, but we probably won't ever agree. But no, I don't personally support the pro-life movement. Now what do we need to get out to the church?"

"You're still ok with making the announcement on Sunday and telling people about it?"

"I knew when I became a Disciples minister this kind of thing would happen. There are people in this church who strongly agree with you. Others don't. And this church has supported this in the past, so I'm not going to do anything to keep the information from them."

It wasn't much messier than that, truly. I could see the dismay written on his face; it only got stronger as our conversation progressed. I think the cognitive dissonance was wreaking havoc.

I'm sure it won't be the end of that conversation, as much as I'd like it to be. I'm sure more people in the church will hear about it and will hear a lot of things about not being pro-life that are or aren't true about me. There's little room for nuance on the subject in just about any circle.

I think more of the shock, though, came from the fact that I was still passing on the information to the congregation, or that I didn't want to fight about it. Both things are definitely true on my end.

The thing that drives me crazy about the whole scenario isn't what anyone would easily guess. The thing that drives me crazy about it is that he, like so many others in my church, doesn't think the bond of the church is strong enough for this kind of thing or anything else that might cause heated debate. They don't think that bond that exists among members of the church is strong enough to hold opposing opinions and bend, not break, under the strain. That bond is strong enough. Really, truly, it is.

It takes the grace of God. It takes a strong presence of our Lord. The Spirit may be tested to its very limits. But the bond is strong enough to hold us together if we don't let ourselves get in the way. The schisms in the church testify to the fact that we don't believe the bond is strong enough to hold us together. And there are certainly things that stress us to the point that we really can't be in fellowship with one another--women preaching, yes me preaching, is one of those things. Trust me, I've been there.

But I wish it weren't true. Then, later this afternoon, I read the Epistle reading for the week and can think only, "May it be so."

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, "As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God." So then, each of us will be accountable to God. (Romans 14:1-12)


Thursday, September 1, 2011

Christ & Country

I confess, I've been dreading September 11 for months, ever since the day I realized that date is a Sunday. Or maybe since the day I realized it was the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Maybe those two events were even close together.

All I know is that there's this sense of dread about the intersection of faith and memory. Except if it were just memory, I think I could handle it. Instead, I'm around people who fear all Muslims. The military thing continues; I don't even know what to call it any more. I pride myself on my ability to quickly navigate the ins and outs of current airport security. Less than ten years ago, I know my life wasn't like this. Our country wasn't like this. Fear wasn't so much a part of our lives.

I know there was fear on that day. I know there was pain. I know there are many, many people who still miss the people who were lost that day. I know that it was the first time in my life something happened that was so dramatic, I realized that the President of our country actually was my leader and waited with deep anticipation to hear what he would say.

But I still don't know what to do with the worship committee meeting where we think the way to mark the anniversary of the attacks is to sing patriotic songs in worship. It so happens that September 11 is also the day where the lectionary text recounts Jesus' teaching to forgive not seven times, but seventy-seven times--or seven times seventy, depending on which translation you're reading. Coupling that teaching with the memory of a wrong done against our country is...well, it is a good way to name a lot of problems and raise a few questions and tick off a lot of people in my congregation.

For many of them, God and country go hand in hand. Most of them would say they respect both, but God trumps country. For me, God and country are mostly at odds with each other.

I didn't always feel this way. I know what changed me: my first year of seminary. It was nothing I learned in the classroom. Instead, it was the people who shared my apartment building. My German roommate. My Bulgarian neighbors, also Christian. My Afghan neighbors who were Muslim.

They feared my country. All of them. I never dreamed any European on a student visa would fear deportation. I never knew that my country's government would let people wait in suspense for visa clearance until a few days before leaving for a new country. I never dreamed those same people would rather spend a year away from their young children than risk not being allowed to return to the country to complete their studies. Both of them were doctors who later would return to Afghanistan to work to build a medical infrastructure.

These were people who I welcomed in my home and welcomed me in theirs. We ate together a few times. We carved pumpkins once, since I was from the US and would surely know how to do that. My roommate helped me study Hebrew. I let one of my neighbors drive my truck because he was so fascinated by an automatic transmission; he'd never seen one before. His wife served me Bulgarian espresso that I loaded with as much sugar as possible and choked down in order to be polite. I didn't sleep for about a day and a half after drinking it.

Those relationships were holy. The fear was not. I knew which one claimed my life; I still know it is the holy thing from God matters most.

There was grief that came with this new reality. But in the midst of that time, I decided that I would not celebrate my country in worship any longer. The fear it brought was too unholy. And for the first time, I also felt the schism that my country created between my fellow Christians and me. There is no way I can ever celebrate something that divides us from each other. I'm one of those naive people who still believes there is only one church, one Lord, one faith, one baptism.

The problem is, this conviction about my country creates some friction with Christians with whom I also share a nationality. I don't know what to do with that friction. But I am sure that what we are is Christian. That identity not only trumps the other one, it erases the other. Paul wrote that a few places, just in case I need some back-up.

More than having some things to quote to back me up, I wish that we knew our identity is first and foremost in Christ. And yes, that really is worth even our lives.

For now, though, I'm dreading that upcoming Sunday.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Those Clay Jars

I believe in the church. Let me say that, again. Some people don't, I know. They say they have a personal relationship with Jesus. They say they don't need a church to be a Christian. The Gospel says otherwise. When Jesus sent the disciples into the towns, he sent them in pairs. When things were the worst, Jesus wanted his community with him. And oh yeah, Jesus called a community of people. There are, of course, reasons to call twelve, mimicking the twelve tribes of Israel. But Jesus could have been a Moses or an Elijah--either no followers or just one. The church, the people called are, are part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. We all follow together. We all search for the reign of God together.

And yet, when I look at the church, my heart is broken. It breaks again and again. Those who would make the church angrier and meaner than anyone should ever be get the loudest voice. And on the other side of things, we're a different sort of broken. Mostly, I think about the jars made out of clay.

That passage was meant to inspire hope among people who were distressed, but mostly to say that they were only vessels hiding the glorious power of God. The trouble is, somehow, we have begun to only look at our jars made out of clay. We look at our very ordinariness and limitations and sigh, not having known the all-surpassing power that is within.

The truth is, we haven't had to trust in that unseen, all-surpassing power within in a long time. The Gospel was first preached to the very poorest and marginalized in the culture. The people searching for the hidden power certainly had very little within their world. So in this neck of the woods, where the church saw strong, strong growth for so long, especially in the population boom of the 50s and 60s, we've been powerful for a long time. We didn't have to look within. We were some of the strongest forces around. We were dressed up in jars of marble and gold, jars decked out with jewels. The world around the church came to the church because such relationships were necessary for respect in the community.

As that has passed away, we can only look at our ordinariness.

Stop it. Seriously. Stop it.

And start looking at the things that defy the ordinary. Look at the things that have happened in the name of Christ that have transformed you.

In the name of Christ...
...were you healed?
...were you fed?
...were you welcomed?
...were you given a place to sleep?
...were you loved?

And in the name of Christ...
...have you healed?
...have you fed?
...have you welcomed?
....have you offered a place to sleep?
....have you loved?

Because of my own stories around just those seemingly simple things, I can guess that if you have been on either end of those things, you have been transformed. And if you begin talking about those stories, you cannot help but feel the extraordinary things wrapped up inside the things that seem so simple. It's that all-surpassing power wrapped up in a clay jar.

After all, the Gospel story is just those things, spoken over and over again. And if we looked to the things inside those clay jars instead of the jars, we might be shocked at the church we find.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Most Holy Covenant

It's no secret that, overall, the church is aging. The so-called young people in many of our congregations are baby boomers themselves; the old folks are the ones with white hair, not just gray hair. And churches say they want young people in the church. That is, of course, if those young people will come and be like them, or at least something they understand. At least that's the way things come across.

So here's my request: be in covenant with me.

I remember a time when the old folks were in covenant with me. No, they're not the same people with whom I worship now, but those people were part of the same holy covenant. They were part of the ancient command given to God's people long before Jesus, people who were told to teach God's commandments to their children at every single moment possible. They were part of the Christian commitment to Jesus' Great Commission: teach them to obey everything I commanded you.

I remember all those who kept those covenants with me as a child. My mother was among those who taught me, but she was only one, along with Diane and Judy and Linda and Wayne and Ron and Cheryl and Randy...and well, that is who I can name off the top of my head. All those people taught me within the first ten years of my life. Some were older than my parents. Others were teaching their kids alongside me. And Ruth, the seemingly ancient woman whose class I never sat it, was surely in covenant with me. She talked to me each Sunday morning, even putting up with my playing with Cheerios during worship. I remember staring at her hair in fascination; she was the only person I ever knew with a beauty shop hairdo--part of a generation that went and had their hair done each week.

And all those lessons they taught me stuck. God's word is written on my heart and in my mind. I tried to forget it and couldn't. I never left the church and I pray I never will.

So please, be in covenant with me now that I am grown. I know that I haven't fulfilled all the expectations you had for me and that I have exceeded others; that's true of most kids. I know you don't understand a lot about my life. But it never hurts to ask. Ask where I find the holy and if it's not church, then go with me there. Ask what I find moving about worship. Don't worry so much about me still being single and allude to the day that problem is rectified. Learn a song I like to sing. Not because I'm a pastor, but because I'm that thing you say you want in the church.

Be in covenant with me.

Because, you see, I am in covenant with you.

It's true. I would rather not worship on the morning of a precious sleep-in day. I would rather walk a little faster. I would rather eat at a restaurant than cook for a church potluck; like other folks my age, cooking's not really my thing. Sometimes you smell weird. Sometimes you talk too much about doctors and pills and pain and creaks and groans. Sometimes you offend me with your language, a remnant of an era I wish had never happened. Some of those old hymns you love make me cringe; others I adore. But I learned them all.

Because I am in covenant with you.

That's what people in covenant do. They learn from each other. They hear about the things that are important to the other person and even participate in those things. You may not enjoy it so much. You may have the time of your life. It doesn't matter. What matters is that you shared in the covenant with me, that most holy thing that binds us together when other things should separate us.

You have heard: there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female for all are one in Christ Jesus. Sixty years or less should certainly be less divisive.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

No, Really, It's the Gospel

I grew up in fundamentalist world. It screwed me up in a lot of ways--a whole lot of ways, actually. It's to blame for the fact that I have no rhythm (dancing was evil), wear massive earrings (a rebellion against the demure, lady-like ideal), and am very nervous in large gatherings of women (church ladies are not always so nice), among other things.

But I also learned the Bible. It was sometimes in a weird, scary, obsessive way. It was probably over the top. But all those hours of teaching and study made it seep into me in a way that I could never, ever forget it. Somehow, all those stories became part of who I am.

When I tried to leave church, I couldn't. But more importantly, as I spent more time around more relaxed, more open, dare I say more liberal Christians, those stories are what made things make sense. I remember the moment that I knew better than I ever had before what Jesus was talking about when he said, "I came that they may have life and have it more abundantly." That list goes on and on and on. I know, I'm a Bible nerd.

But I'm not just a Bible nerd. Yes, I enjoy having historical critical discussions about the Bible. I enjoy discussing translation issues. I love systematic theology. I wish more people in my church enjoyed those things. But when it comes down to it, I want people to know the Bible not as a rule book, or a magic book, or as a mark of piety. I want them to know the Bible and those stories, because yes, this is the Gospel. These are the stories of faith from God's people. These stories tell us what to expect from God, how to look for God and give us a way of interpreting our own experiences of God. Really, truly, we call (part of) our Bible the Gospel for a reason. Sit with it. Struggle with it. Think about it.

On my church's mission trip this year, I told the story of Jesus changing the water into wine at the wedding in Cana. It's one of the stories I don't remember learning (despite the teetotalers in my church!). It's also one of those fabulous Gospel stories of the abundance of God. It's also a really good way to narrate an experience of the abundance of God that we were having in a mission trip. Most of the people on the trip had never heard the story. I understand the youngest kid not knowing it, given extreme cultural anti-drug, anti-alcohol, anti-smoking tirades. But there was no reason the others shouldn't know it.

The church is missing something when it says, "We should help others," but never tells those willing to help about Jesus healing people or feeding people or saying that providing for the least of these is as if it were providing for Jesus. We miss something when we say, "God loves you no matter what," but never speak of Matthew, Zacchaeus, or so many hated, marginal people tied to Jesus' ministry. We miss something when we invite people into ministry and never tell them of those gallons and gallons of wine, or the thousands of fish, or the poured out expensive perfume or any of those other stories that point to God's abundance in the midst of scarcity.

And that something we miss might just be the Gospel.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

VBS...oh dear

I waffle a lot on VBS. Some days I hate it. Some days I love it.

I love it because of things like the little boy last night. We were playing games and somehow, he missed the "fill the cup full of water, put the cup in your mouth and start running." Instead, he just had a mouth full of water, all blown up like a chipmunk, with water occasionally sputtering from his clenched lips. It was hilarious.

And I hate it for so many other reasons. I hate that we dress up the Gospel in themes ripped from popular kids' movies because by doing so we say the Gospel is irrelevant unless we dress it up with something that really matters. We use curriculum that makes no sense in terms of what stories it puts together and offer kids no substance. We make it a time-driven, programmed production in a whole world where kids are forced into time-driven, heavily programmed, heavily produced lifestyle. We demonstrate poor stewardship by spending hundreds, even thousands, of dollars on all those bells and whistles. We demonstrate poor stewardship by creating elaborate decorations that are used only once and suck up an amazing amount of time, not to mention money or materials.

By doing all those things, we refuse to be an antidote to a culture that consumes too much, fears silence and believes nothing.

The only proof I need that what we should be offering is an antidote to those things in our world is that last night, it didn't take long before I dropped the third game from the rotation we were playing. That game involved a parachute and themed animal. I dropped it because the kids were having so much fun playing another game: freeze tag.

That's right. Freeze tag. No supplies, few rules, just a big open space freeze tag.

There's far more Gospel there than in any decked-out sanctuary.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

$1 Gasoline

I have lots of thoughts and theories and things that I think might pan out in the future of the church in the near future, both in my congregation and for the larger church. We'll see.

But I am more and more convinced with each passing day that much of the lack of energy and passion for our faith and congregations is rooted in the fact that, for the most part, our congregations have not been places where people found Christ or anything else. When I hear things like, "The Gospel of Jesus Christ, well that's the most exciting thing ever! That's as exciting as $1 gasoline!" I cringe. Actually, I cringed the first time I heard it. The second time, I wanted to collapse into tears.

I did not. Instead, I went to the gym and burned off all the resulting emotions.

Cheap gasoline is not transforming. It's text message worthy, certainly. It's one of those more recent pieces of the puzzle that would fit into descriptions of abundance; maybe it is the new land flowing with milk and honey. But it is hardly a way to describe the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The difficult thing about describing a Gospel that is transforming is that it is deep, personal and beyond words. But here are a few words about my own transformation: I took a job in seminary to pay the bills. Seriously. Seminary was not a call to ministry. It was a three-year commitment to my nerdiest tendencies. The job was in the denomination I needed. It was a reasonable wage and reasonable time commitment. And I was a children's ministry coordinator, not a children's minister. I never would have signed on for the second.

Entering into that job, I knew one thing quite well: a nuanced definition of the biblical concept of "love." You've likely heard the Greek word agape that has been tossed around to try and remove cultural understandings of love. And that agape kind of love is doing what is right, what is just, what you promised you would do. I could love kids in that way, as long as they didn't get me sticky in the process.

But what followed is something I can only attribute to the real and holy presence of the living God. Call it the Holy Spirit. Call it the resurrected Lord. I don't really care. What I know is that what happened was something outside of me. It was a different kind of love that was not a psychological adjustment. It was the "I'd die for these kids," kind of love that Jesus talked about: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." It was a shocking, frightening moment when I realized that I would die for someone else. It was a kind of love for which my only response could be to speak, in the most private of places, to God alone, "Thank you."

Because of that transformation, I see differently. When other people and things are so difficult, I remember to see as I saw those kids, as God led me to see those kids. The way I see people and the world has been transformed, at least on the very best days. I can't quantify the transformation. I can't give rational reasons for why this matters. But I do know that it is closer to the reign of God. It is that pearl for which I would sell everything else. I cannot imagine living without that transformation.

And it is nothing like $1 gasoline.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Sweet Surprise

There are many, many reasons I do what I do. There are many reasons I stick around. And I will surely write about them, one here, one there. Those things are necessary to keep going on. 

Today, at least, the very best thing about this job is the surprise. There is transformation where I expected death. There is openness where I expected fear. There is grace from the people I never would have guessed would offer it. There is love before and above anything else. And it has been one of those weeks of sweet, sweet surprise.

A bit of that surprise was the Youth Group Sunday school class, all almost 8th graders and under, who managed to bring up and wrestle with questions of human value--what does make someone matter, any way? Somehow, we even ended up with the exasperated proclamation from a not quite 6th grader, "Why can't we all just share everything so we all have what we need?"

More of that surprise was from the looks of interest and possibility on the faces of just a few when I brought up the possibility of using part of our unused lot for farming--as in a co-op that would give some work and some food to people in need in our community.

Most of all, though, the surprise came from a woman who is somewhere around 70. She's wonderful in a lot of ways and someone I'm quite happy to have around in general. But I never expected that her eyes would light up when she began talking about history, specifically Middle Eastern history. Her favorite Bible study ever was one where she had a teacher who could take a biblical story and put it on a modern map and even cover a lot of in-between history.

I cautiously offered her a favorite book of mine, Elias Chacour's We Belong to the Land. There's nothing particularly racy about it, other than the fact that it's about a Palestinian man's ministry and life in Israel. There's no way offering that could ever get me in trouble or ruffle a few feathers.

She loved it. She called me the next day to say how much she loved it. We talked more about it the following day. She marvels at the intricate complications surrounding that land. She asked me what Druze were exactly. I had to look it up, again.

I emailed her the answer later. And her response was yet another surprise: "Many thanks. I hope we are fortunate enough to meet some day. Should be fun."

Thanks be to God for sweet, sweet surprise.

Monday, June 20, 2011

By the River

On Saturday, I had one of those oh-so-brief encounters with a complete stranger. One of those encounters that changes something about you and the world and you don't exactly know what. I was in Kansas City's River Market area looking for a bike trail. There was much preparation for the trip and much frustration surrounding it. Just as my trip was ending--or my attempted trip I should say, I never sat on the seat, much less pedaled anywhere--I saw this guy.

I was pushing my bike coming from the river and he was headed toward it. I saw foot traffic on the bridge earlier and I swear I saw a sign about access to the riverfront area there as I was driving around. Since there were barricades and road closed signs, driving there was out of the question. But when I looked across the bridge and saw no one and couldn't find the sign I thought I saw, I decided to give up on the trip and head home. Then this guy asked me, "Can you get to the river on that bridge?"

I didn't know the answer. I didn't know even part of the answer. And I was hoping he could tell me where this ten mile seemingly fun trail was. As we stood talking, sun beating down on us, I began to size him up. I saw he had a backpack over one shoulder. Then I saw Scotch tape holding his glasses together. And just as I was mentally connecting all the dots, he said, "I'm staying by the river right now."

He went on to say something about how high the tide was and whether he could go down there. If I knew more about rivers, I would probably remember better. Then we went our separate ways. I loaded my bike and went home, disappointed by a plan gone awry and feeling the weight of that loneliness that is all too familiar with new city. I don't know where he went. He walked in the direction of the bridge, seemingly glad to know that I had seen people walking there earlier.

But the thing that has stuck with me is the reality of our mutual vulnerability and need of each other. I had tried calling or texting every person who could possibly help me find the parking that would lead to this trail and was completely unsuccessful. I don't know why he approached a young woman pushing a bike across an empty street, but reasonably, I was the only one there to ask. And it was a totally different encounter than I've ever had with a human being normally lumped into the category of "homeless."

For once, I didn't have the upper hand. People often come to my comfortable church office for some help with gasoline or a utility bill or rent. It's clear who has the upper hand there. But not this time. In fact, the conversation I shared with that man was the longest face to face conversation I had that day. He gave me more of his time than the yuppie I had approached earlier in my search. I was quite grateful to have run into him.

And unlike so many other times, all of which were in cooperation with some ministry, I wasn't told what to do or not do. I didn't think of him as homeless. He was just a man I met on the street with whom I traded information. Could he have done some harm to me? Probably. But was there anything about him that made me afraid? Not at all. We were just two people who happened to meet.

When two people so radically different (at least for the moment) stood face to face asking for the thing they need from the other, something happened. I'm not sure what exactly, but it probably has something to do with the stories of the first believers who shared all their possessions and met all their needs by doing so, stretching the story just a bit to go beyond possessions to something more like "all they had." It probably has something to do with seeing a bit more like Jesus did, not naming a problem as resulting from sin (and it follows, is therefore deserved). It probably means hearing the words so frequent in the Gospel, "Do not be afraid," again. But whatever that something different was,  I'm pretty sure that's closer to the church than anything with a steeple.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Where to start?

There's no easy way to say it, so I'll just be blunt: I don't fit in church.

Shew. It feels good to say. And here's some elaboration. First, there's no reason I shouldn't fit in church. I can easily name all the Sunday mornings in my life I haven't been in a church. I am baptized. I went to a Christian college. And oh yeah, I'm a pastor. An ordained, stole-wearing, seminary-educated pastor. I even broke from my fundamentalist background so that, as a woman, I could be an ordained, stole-wearing, seminary-educated pastor. (Ok, the stole wasn't part of the dream, but it's a fun bonus!)

On top of that, I believe in church. And the Gospel that created and creates the church. I affirm that I cannot be a Christian apart from a community of believers dedicated to following Christ. I believe that the reign of God is real and close and something we seek as a community. Those hopes and faith are deep and abiding.

I believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Depending on the day, I weep or get chills when I hear so many stories of the Bible, but ones like Jairus' daughter or the woman caught in adultery move me deeply. They have and continue to transform my life and I believe the God they point to can transform all of us.

But somehow, something strange has happened. Despite the best efforts of a Christian community, I don't fit there. Mostly, it's because I'm young and single. Mostly, it's because of the latter. It probably doesn't help that I don't worry about a lot of things that community wants to worry about. And it's not just the particular congregation I serve. It seems to be everywhere.

And then, when I walk out into the "world"--that secular, scary, need-God's-help world--I fit there. There, late twenty-something and single isn't weird. At all. There, a couple of post-secondary degrees isn't strange. There, a working professional woman seems quite ordinary. There, I can hang out with people and not worry about race or gender or sexuality or ethnicity or all the ambiguity around any of those things.

All of that works with my faith. All of that works with this deep, unbelievable yearning for God that rests within me. All of that works with the deepest experiences of God, the ones for which I cannot find words. In fact, these things help me hear the Gospel better. But that discussion will come later.

You see, somewhere deep within me, I am also certain that I am not alone. The church is well aware that we are missing at least one generation, if not more. Anyone who knows anything about things that are churchy or large cultural trends can speak of the postmodern mindset and the secularization that is creeping in. And somehow, I have ended up with a foot firmly planted in both the church and a world that doesn't seem to need the church.

And so, I begin writing, pretty certain that this conversation needs to move outside myself. Who knows where it will lead. But it seems I am hearing a call of some sort, so I respond the way God's people have for generations: here I am.