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.