Wednesday, December 18, 2013


A man at my church called me religious the other day. Actually, I think he called me very religious. It was in a conversation about my dating life, or rather, my lack of a dating life. Telling a date or potential date I'm a pastor is a great way to kill a conversation; that's just the reality and I'm mostly ok with it.

Because of my profession, though, this guy was not off target in calling me religious. I'm in worship most every Sunday. Actually, I plan worship most every Sunday, and preach, and go to other churches just for fun, and ramble on about the theological discourse of Stephen King and horror movies. I'm pretty much as tied to institutional church as anyone can be. By most anyone's definition, I'm religious.

Still, I bristled at the word religious. Actually, that's putting it pretty mildly. My first instinct was to yell at this guy, "I'm not religious!" Luckily, a more rational chunk of my brain took over and I didn't. I'm pretty sure this guy would have laughed at me a lot if my first reaction had won. Ok, I would have probably heard about that reaction for a quite a while, with him enjoying bringing it up again to laugh at me some more.

But you know what? I don't feel religious. I'm not even sure I know what I associate with that word, but I'm pretty sure it has to do lots of rules and regulations about life. I'm pretty sure that means conviction of the evil of some people or that my religion trumps other religions. And I'm not quite sure what else, but I know I don't like whatever that is. Yes, I know that doesn't necessarily make sense. I'm ok with that.

My faith calls me to love other people--to trek to hospitals and school plays, restaurants and messy houses. The people there need to know someone cares about them enough to show up.

My faith calls me to prayer and study because yes, those things deepen my practice of my faith and change the way I think about God and the world.

My faith has taken me to temples and mosques and synagogues and candle circles in the woods, but I keep coming back to this Christian faith, which moves me deeply.

My faith means that I proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ from a pulpit in a church most weeks, and hope that yes, through me those present will hear a bit of good news.

My faith means that the money I give to the church represents my third largest household expense, after housing and taxes.

My faith leads me to strange discussions, heated discussions, life-giving discussions, doubtful discussions, all sorts of discussions about spirituality and the life of faith.

My faith, my spirituality is deeply important to me. It shapes much of my life and calls me to new things. While my faith will certainly morph in the years to come, I cannot imagine a life apart from faith and spiritual practice.

But am I religious? I'm not so sure about that.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

When the Impossible Becomes Reality

One of my church's mamas sent me a picture recently. She'd taken a snapshot of her daughter playing with scrap paper that morning. It just so happens that Mea had cut out a u-shaped piece of paper and draped it around her neck. She said, "Hey, Mom, I made one of those things Abigail wears around her neck!" Then she made two more, one for her mom and and one for her grandma.

Yes, she was talking about my stole. I'm probably the only person she's ever seen wear one of those. This particular kid has probably noticed that the stoles change with the season of the church year. The one I've been wearing this Advent is purple and gold; the ends have fringe. It's pretty cool in kid world. Yet, she's three going on four. The stole is just another accessory, similar to my boots that she also likes.

For her, making her own stole is part of figuring out life, learning new things, and the rich imaginative life that most children lead. It goes along with baby dolls and dress-up and play food. She has no clue that when I look at her, she reflects a reality that I long believed was impossible. When she plays pastor, she's imagining herself like me. For her, the image of pastor is a young woman--stole, cute boots and all. For her, this impossibility will always be reality; I can't stop wondering if this is reality.

Just this week, someone stopped by the church, carrying our Advent postcard with her. Every time we send something out to the broader community, we make sure to say explicitly that the LGBT community is welcome. She came to ask, "Is this really true?" I got to tell her yes. Yes, what you thought was impossible is a reality here. And I remembered, again, how strange it is when the impossible becomes reality.

That impossible turning to reality is so often a sign of God's reign coming just a bit closer. Because it has so long been impossible, the new reality comes with  incredulity and a zillion questions. It comes with suspicion. Eventually, when you realize that the impossible has actually, truly become reality, the new reality comes with deep, overwhelming joy.

Jesus knew that when he was approached by John the Baptizer's disciples, asking, "Are you the one who is to come?"

Jesus answered, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them."

In other words, the impossible is now reality; God's reign is near.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

"I don't want people to think I'm gay."

Several times lately I've heard people point blank say in response to some life situation they're facing, "I don't want people to think I'm gay." They usually follow it up with something like, "Not that I have a problem with gay people."

Are you kidding me?

Because, you see, it's said with the same disdain used for any classification we don't want applied to us.  In my case, it's the same reaction I have to people when I say I'm a pastor and they mention the fundamentalist megachurch down the road. I rush to say anything to make sure they don't confuse me with that, which is so different from my faith.

There are a few words often spoken with that sort of disdain, words like poor, homeless, black, just to name a few. There are all sorts of things folks say with an edge to indicate they'd never want to be confused with one of those people, and yes, gay is often on the list. That's ridiculous. Here's why.

First, if it's that big a deal for you to get hit on by someone you're not interested in (which seems to be the number one concern), grow up. I attract guys who say in the most disgusting way possible, "Hey, baby." Guess what? I don't go out with those guys. Problem solved. Of course, this is assuming the getting hit on fear scenario ever actually happens.

Second, you sound like a homophobe. This isn't a statement of religious or political conviction. It's a statement that says, "There are few things worse than being gay." So stop saying homophobic crap.

Third, and most important, get some new priorities. Make sure people don't think you hate your neighbor. Make sure people don't think you're stingy. Make sure people don't think you're a snob. Jesus said a lot about those things. Ok, he said a lot about the inverse of those things--love your neighbor, be generous, and Jesus hung out with people on the margins of society. They're pretty awesome priorities, actually. They might actually change your life.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Some Thanksgiving Thoughts

Holidays are weird. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who thinks that, though I may be one of the few who says it out loud. They make us all a little crazy. They often end up being high pressure events. They tend to make things that are already stressful that much more stressful.

Thanksgiving happens to be the holiday that I usually spend with other people. The last Thanksgiving at my parents' house was in 2006. Since then, I've eaten with friends' families and just friends. One year, I was told to smile and nod when I was introduced to the "roommate" of a forty-something man since a good Southern family wasn't ready to talk about the gay member of their family. One year, I ate with mostly international students who had a heated debate about the proper title of Princess Diana and yeah, I'm just going to call her that. I'm pretty sure that's not the correct title.

One year, I arrived at Thanksgiving dinner to find the hosts were vegetarian, so we were having meatless meatballs for dinner. Another year, the host family had agreed even holidays would be low carb. For the record, I believe Thanksgiving should involve white mashed potatoes and a nut topped sweet potato soufflĂ©; thanks to the family in denial about the gay uncle for introducing the wonderful delight that is sweet potato soufflĂ©.

Last year, I bravely cooked for guests. And it was pretty darn good, if I do say so myself.

But I haven't spent Thanksgiving Day with anyone who would be defined as family in several years, and won't again this year.

These Thanksgivings have been just fine, too. Blessed. Enjoyed. I'm even pretty grateful for the absence of football from these Thanksgivings.

I'm also grateful that there have always been people whose company I enjoy to share that meal with. It made the weird-to-me menus not matter so much. It also points to a re-definition of family.

Some people don't have any biological or adopted family, at least not in the traditional sense. Some have jerks for family. Some have been kicked out by their families. The list could go on.

So celebrate this year with whomever says, "You're welcome here." Family comes in as many different packages as Thanksgiving dinner does.

PS: And if you don't have anyone saying, "You're welcome here," find a church. We're often a bit screwy and a bit weird, but any church worth its salt will say, "You're welcome here." Seriously.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

With My Ornament Cup in Hand

If you haven't heard, there are six fewer shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year compared with last year. That's the excuse being given for the fact that I've already heard Christmas music playing in stores for a few days even as I type this. The same excuse for the fact that I'm drinking from a cup printed with ornaments and snowflakes. (PS: snowflakes looked kind of ridiculous in Atlanta; they're absurd in Phoenix.) You know what, Christmas comes early for pastors, too. I've already put together a basic Christmas Eve service, already asked folks about time of that service, already publicized Advent activities.

In a lot of ways, I'm not too concerned about the early breaking in of a season that's mostly about warm and fuzzy feelings and attitudes. The consumerism that comes with the season is a symptom of a widespread culture of consumerism, not the only time we see the disease.

Except this year, some stores will be open all Thanksgiving day, and all Thanksgiving night, closing some time late on Black Friday. They're hoping to draw in the folks who would like to enjoy some shopping during their time off, of course. But they're doing it at the expense of their employees--employees who now won't be able to eat dinner with their families or enjoy time home with their kids who are on school break or even travel a short distance to be with friends or family.

We can talk about evil corporations all we want, but the truth is no entity concerned with profit would pay employees to stand in an empty store on a day when they've normally been closed. The stores are opening on Thanksgiving because they're pretty sure they'll have plenty of people come through the doors somewhere around their time with friends and family. Shopping while someone else cooks? Great. Shopping after dinner? Great. Leaving those who care about football to watch it and going shopping? That sounds like an awesome plan!

So stay home. You who have heard Jesus' words, "Love your neighbor as yourself," stay home. You who know that Jesus calls us to love the poor, give the retail employees making minimum wage a day off, too. You who remember that even God rested on the seventh day, help someone else enjoy a Sabbath.

Watch football. Take a walk to get rid of some of Thanksgiving dinner. Go ahead and tackle some of those leftovers the same night if you like. Play an endless game of Monopoly. Just sit around in a turkey and mashed potato induced stupor. Do something or nothing, but don't go shopping.

Don't go shopping. The love of Christ compels you to do something, anything else.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Living Among the Saints

Some days, it's old lady perfume. Other days, it's cigarette smoke. Still other days, it's the stale odor of sheets slept on by infrequent bathers.

These are the smells of ministry, smells that often linger in my clothes as the day goes on, smells that are stirred up again when I change clothes at the end of the day. Some are more pleasant than others, but all remind me of holy people and holy moments. If I tried to name every single scent that reminds me more of ministry than anything else, I imagine the list would be very long.

That list would include Play-Doh and rental cars, a certain brand of cleaner and a few other unknown factors that give rooms distinct smells. That list would include the stale odor of clothing closets and the fresh clean smell that wafts up from children's carefully packed bags, a scent I never seem to replicate with my own laundry. While I said I wouldn't make a list, I have managed to begin quite a list to which I must add the smell of a bag of Dum-Dums, and unscented candles that have a smell all their own, and the smell of wood that was made into furniture many years before I was born.

I will stop there, because I could keep going and going and going. I could keep going and going and going because there are always more wonderful memories of people and places that I would not know apart from the Church. On this All Saints' Day, I celebrate the joy of living among the saints, rather than the saints who have joined the cloud of witnesses. Sometimes, it's easy to forget our own place as one of the holy, one of the beloved, one of the many witnesses to what God is doing in this world.

I see them, though, most every day and am often overwhelmed with my love for these saints of God. They don't know it, most of the time, 'cause that would be a little bit awkward, but they're all around me, even in this broken being that is the Church. They're all around me--living, loving, being transformed and transforming by their lives and love.

So today, on All Saints' Day, blessings upon all the saints who still walk this earth. Your presence matters. And after all, isn't that what we remember on All Saints' Day most of all: those people whose presence touched our lives deeply and make us long for them to be nearby? We who are so fortunate to live among saints, let us celebrate today!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Witch Hazel & All the Rest

I love all things scary and spooky. Horror movies, haunted houses, TV shows that I don't always confess to enjoying, at least in public. It started young, with my love of the TV show Unsolved Mysteries, and has only gotten worse as I've gotten older.

The other part of that story is that all things scary and spooky were off limits when I was a kid, mostly thanks to church. I discovered horror movies in college about the same time as I discovered peanut butter and jelly. (No, no one thought PB&J was immoral, we were just more of a grilled cheese sort of family.) Halloween came with churchy Halloween alternatives, the worst version of which was a Hell House or Judgment House, basically, a really scary house telling people venturing there all the reasons they're going to hell. Or creating what they imagine to be hell and ending the tour with, "So here's what to do if you don't want to go to hell!"

And here I am, this year, with a witch costume much resembling Witch Hazel from Bugs Bunny and enjoying every minute of it. I've had a few kids edge away from me with my scary make-up. One kid came up to me and asked, "Are you a good witch or a bad witch?" I assured her I am a good witch. I'll be sporting the costume again this Thursday, on actual Halloween, when hanging out at my church's coffee shop. Yep, we'll be handing out candy to any trick or treaters as well.

I still hear the echoes of my childhood and many of my friends wrestling with, "Is it ok for us to celebrate Halloween?" There are plenty of articles about Halloween's origins and plenty more talking about its ties with the demonic/satanic/take your pick. Some of them are probably true. Most of them have some kernel of truth.

And you know what? I don't care.

For about 99%* of the people who celebrate Halloween, it's about having fun dressing up. Or enjoying handing out candy. Or liking being scared. Kids get excited and they look darn cute. Adults get to be silly, too. And there's chocolate involved. Lots and lots of chocolate.

There are way worse things in the world.

*Don't think this is a real statistic or anything like that.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Cat Vomit and Getting It Together

Some mornings are better than others. This morning was not particularly good for multiple reasons, including the fact that I had to clean up cat vomit before I left my apartment. I was also awakened by the cat vomiting at some point in the early morning hours, which certainly didn't help the morning along. At least with cat I was welcome to ignore her and her vomit until my normal getting up time.

Mornings like this make me think I don't have it together at all. Mornings like this make me think it's really obvious I don't have it all together. And mornings like this make me more gracious to folks who don't have it together at all. And more gracious to folks trying to get it together a bit better.

It took most of my life up to this point for a bad mood to turn to graciousness to others rather than annoyance with them. Some days, annoyance still wins, but it wins a lot less than it used to.

At church, we're really good at whispering the things that we still need to get together--the kids throwing tantrums and the college classes we're trying to take and a crazy sibling or two. But the day to day I wish this were better things are most always whispered. We want to look like we really, truly have it together or are pretty darn close.

I think of the man who asked Jesus if he could go bury his father before he followed Jesus. Jesus told him no. On some level, that was the question of, "Can I go get it together before I do this?" And Jesus answer was, "No. Come on any way." There was a graciousness in that answer that I've mostly missed, a graciousness that said, "Don't worry about having it all together."

A church that follows that Jesus will probably help me laugh when I realize there's still cat vomit on my shoe. There's a great deal of Gospel in not having it all together after all.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Pilgrimage to Tennessee

I'm on my annual pilgrimage to East Tennessee. The chill of fall is in the air, but the grass is still green and soft underfoot. A few leaves have turned to red and orange; a few others have already fallen to the ground. Mostly, though, it's green and lush. These mountains are soft, settled mountains, cloaked in green. Dusty fog rises from them in the evening. No, I'm not quite in the Smoky Mountains here, but they're not far away.

It's a place of beauty and of calm. Because I no longer live here, my days are filled with sweet reunions with friends with whom I grew into adulthood and other friends who have watched me grow into adulthood. There are long breakfasts that turn into lunch, then afternoon coffee, and dinner with yet someone else. This weekend, I celebrated a friend's wedding in the waning light of the day. In this place, there are even a few unexpected reunions; those reunions are every bit as sweet as the planned ones.

The laughter here is plentiful; often, the tears are as well. We have the conversations that can't be held over the phone. We exchange hugs that can't be offered again for many months. These are people with whom I once shared my daily life. I still miss that familiarity. There's a bit of sadness that our lives have moved us apart from each other. Here, there's more of home than anywhere else, at least for me.

I cannot stop giving thanks for this God-breathed place and these God-breathed people. There is a deep, rich holiness here. The whole of this place is the bridge between my different worlds. If all goes as planned, I'll be here next year, around the same time, enjoying the richness once again.

I also know that part of the beauty and richness of this place is because I only get to be here a few days a year. The quick glimpse makes this place seem much closer to perfect than it would if I lived here. It also is a glimpse of the Church at its best.

Soon, I'll return to Arizona, to a place and a congregation I love, too. I wonder if this glimpse could teach me how to better live the day to day. Or better yet, how to better be Church in the day to day.

How can Church be calm instead of chaos?

How can Church slow down time? Not in a return to 1960 kind of way, but in an unhurried, another accounting system kind of way?

How can Church be more of home than anything else?

How can Church be as abundant as this place?

Thursday, September 19, 2013


Agnostic. Religious sampler. Spiritual but not religious. Atheist. Damned. Heretic. Yeah, all those terms have been applied to me within the last ten years, most within the last seven. I was working full time in ministry the first time I was called an atheist. I can't remember why that person called me an atheist, at least the first time. By their definition, though, I'm pretty I would be an atheist.

My love of encountering all religions is a topic for another day. I definitely embrace rather than deny it, though. It works. But, yeah, that's for another day.

 Lately, I've been pondering the converse of faith: doubt. Somehow, most Christians have learned to see doubt as a bad thing, as the thing we fear most of all. Confessing doubt leads to an onslaught of folks wanting to assure and offer answers--anything that means the doubt goes away. 

God help us for being so afraid of doubt.

Several years ago, I was at a retreat where we did an art exercise. Now, people think I'm artistic when they see me draw something quickly. What they don't realize is that they have seen the pinnacle of my artistic ability. Anything where I'm expected to create something visual that could be considered a work of art is a problem; I definitely wasn't excited about the stereotypical flowing dressed, spacey, love everyone, be your ultimate cheerleader, artsy lady who showed up to lead this particular exercise. 

But I played along--drawing, turning, seeing something new, drawing again. It was a constant revision of what I thought I was doing and no clear aim for what would emerge. I still have that drawing stashed into a closet in my home. Every once in a while I pull it out, remembering the transformation of one thing into something else that could probably be something else yet again.

At its best, doubt allows us to see anew, to transform, to think differently, to live differently. Doubt stretches and changes our faith; indeed, doubt is part of our faith. Doubt is part of faith as surely as death is part of life, and hate is part of love, and darkness is part of light. There's no clear division. The space in between matters.

On any given day, I'm not sure God intervenes in our daily lives, or that there's any sort of afterlife, or who Jesus was and is. I could actually write a very long list of doubts. And that's ok.

Because doubt is part of faith, too. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Church Ladies

Confession: I misjudged church ladies.

Last weekend, I was the keynote speaker for our regional women's retreat. I went into it with a great deal of anxiety, not about speaking, but about being among church ladies for such an extended period of time.

I've been around church ladies my whole life; I don't remember when the anxiety began, but along the way it did. Some of the ladies I knew were quite concerned about what was proper. As I grew up, I felt their expectations about nice tablecloths and nice dresses, expectations I wasn't crazy about. I've watched them wash dishes and prepare mountains of food. I've mostly dodged invitations to join because I was never quite sure I wanted to become one of them.

Then, last Wednesday, before this retreat, I went to an all-women's MeetUp group. I thought I was going to be the youngest person there, but psyched myself up and went anyway. I sat down at a table; the two women already sitting there barely greeted me and continued their conversation.

It just so happened their conversation was about young women, about thirty years old, and how the world would surely be screwed up when these girls were in charge. They didn't stop the conversation when I sat down. They kept going, blasting young women who have the audacity to wear heels rather than sensible shoes and who didn't know they would have to call in if they were to miss work. They ranted about these young women had surely been coddled by parents and never taught how the real world works. The conversation went on for a good five minutes before either of them took notice of the fact that I, too, am about thirty years old. They were anything but welcoming when one of them looked at me and said, "What do you do?" Her shock was written on her face when I replied, "I'm the pastor of a church."

Then, I walked into a women's retreat, where yes, I was one of a handful of women under the age of 30. But I was welcome.

They never made me feel like I was an outsider. They listened to what I had to say. They extended the same welcome to the young women who weren't preaching at the event.

Somewhere in that weekend, I realized that I'd never recognized the graciousness of church ladies before. The requests to join sewing groups and make casseroles and wash dishes haven't been invitations to what is clearly women's work, even though I always took it that way. I often heard a malicious implication about what I should be doing.

It turns out, the requests have always been a way of saying, "You're one of us. Welcome." The requests have always carried with them a willingness to teach skills not known or help me figure something out, too. The requests were always an offer of relationship.

Now, I still don't want to make casseroles or join a sewing circle. I do want the relationships. I think, just maybe, these same church ladies would be willing to give the thing I'd rather do a shot, whatever that is. So maybe, just maybe, it's up to us younger women to offer up the option of hiking, or movies, or dinner out, or scrapbooking, or a Pinterest party, or whatever floats our boats to the women of the church who are older than us. The women I met this weekend would take us up on it; after all, they've been inviting for a long time.

And I'm really sorry it took me so long to see the graciousness of their invitations.

Friday, September 6, 2013

If I Weren't a Pastor

I wonder sometimes what I'd look for in a church if my life weren't so closely linked with the church. I was a freshman in college the last time I truly chose a church based only on what I wanted. The criteria I used them no longer apply. Not even a little bit. The occasional evening when I attend worship somewhere so I can just attend worship offers little insight; evening services are limited and that community is never going to be my primary faith community.

Here are a few things, though, that I think I'd be looking for:
  • Easy entry and exit. As in, please make it obvious where I should enter the building. Give me any necessary instructions to participate in the worship service. Be welcoming, but let me choose how much to engage. Make it easy for me to leave when I'm ready.
  • A few folks like me. I don't know what "like me" means exactly and it doesn't have to be limited to age. People with whom I have enough experience and similar language that we can share our faith more deeply. I'd surely learn the love some more folks than just those, but those would help a lot in the short term. 
  • Welcome of me. I have this vague idea that if I became engaged in any community, the first things I would be asked to do are help in the nursery, teach kids' Sunday school or help with the youth group. All of those requests are coming from an age and gender bias. I'd rather do mission or serve in worship, actually. I'm much better at reading scripture aloud than holding a baby. Seriously. Me reading scripture inspires confidence; me holding a baby makes everybody nervous, including the baby. 
  • Calm. I'm not talking about absence of energy. I'm talking about a place that quells anxiety and worry. A place that, overall, eased the stresses of daily life, not added to them. Some place that gets there's a peace that passes understanding and somehow rests in that. 
It's strange, I think, that the first things that come to mind have little to do with theology or worship style. They have a lot to do with church culture. 

And I wonder if maybe, just maybe, that's what matters more in the long run. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Money Things

It won't surprise most of my pastor friends or any of my fundagelical friends for me to say that I'm a tither. Ten percent of my after tax income goes in the offering plate each month. I know folks who challenge a 1% increase each year. I know folks who challenge a reverse tithe, living off 10% and giving away 90%. As long as I've been thinking about budgets, the practice of tithing has been a personal expectation. It's on par with paying rent or utilities; it's just what I do with my money. That's all to say that this isn't bragging or a call to better stewardship. This is about what I've always expected for my life and maybe not even knowing there's another way.

About a year into working full-time and the realities of that budget were setting in, I started to wonder how on earth my friends were buying new cars. I looked at my budget and didn't see any wiggle room for even a modest car payment. Did they make that much more money than me? Was their rent that much cheaper than mine?

Because money isn't a taboo subject with most of my friends, I started asking about salaries and rent and their car payment.

Turns out, it wasn't a salary difference at all. My car payment just went in the offering plate. And some money went into savings each month. And I don't carry a balance on my credit card. All those things meant no new car, but also a lot less stress about finances.

It was also one of the first times that I realized this is a way my faith reorients my life in a real, tangible way. And one of the first times I realized I'm glad that it does.

I'm glad there are things that matter more than a new car or concert tickets.

I'm glad that there's something in my household budget that says, "It's not all about me."

I'm glad that I grasp why stewardship of money matters in the life of faith.

But it's also one of those things that places distance between me and people who are loved friends. That distance is one I don't know how to lessen, much less make disappear completely. Unlike so many other institutions that ask for money, money in the offering plate isn't about me particularly liking something or wanting to support it. This isn't an art museum or a college or an animal rescue. This is about God's demands on my life. That's a lot harder to explain.

I think it might be worth a shot, though.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

It's All of Us

The loudest voices of Christianity are echoes of congregations of my youth. It's strange, now, to consider the rules that I once knew as the primary way of being a person of faith.

No alcohol or at least no public consumption of alcohol. And one could never readily admit to consuming alcohol, of course.

Tattoos were a problem, but not as much as piercings.

"Cussing" was off the table, of course, and certain settings placed even stricter parameters on what qualified "cuss words." 

Swimsuits of any sort were suspect. 

Let's not even talk about sex.

One should read their Bible and pray daily.

It was a tradition, as is most of US Christianity, of personal piety. In the long run, those marks of personal piety would mean that you would be just fine when answering for your actions at the pearly gates of Heaven. 

Personal piety also fits well with the intensely individualized culture in which I live. It's a world of personal responsibility; how would faith be any different?

While I'm not willing to completely discount personal piety, it does have less to do with the reign of God than most believe. The reign of God--kingdom of God for those less worried about gendered language--is a political claim. It's a system. It's corporate, not individual. 

And so is our sin. No, we shouldn't completely stop talking about personal sin. But we have to figure out a way to name our corporate sin, too. Corporate sin creates racist systems. Corporate sin creates opportunities for some, but certainly not all. Corporate sin builds wealth on the backs of the poor. 

Corporate sin is why we must talk about the redemption of the world, not a single person. Corporate sin is the need for a corporate solution. The kingdom of God--all of us, not one of us. 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

I Don't Want To...

Some time between 2007 and 2010, stopping at McDonald's every Sunday morning became a ritual. That was the era when I started to get up early on Sundays. Working at a church means there's lots to do. I've never been a morning person, including the fact that I can't eat until I've been up for at least an hour and preferably more. All those things mean that I started hitting the drive-thru for my $2.16 morning breakfast each and every Sunday.

At first, I got a sausage biscuit and a large Diet Coke. Over time, it has morphed into a lower calorie sausage McMuffin with no cheese and a large Diet Coke. Many weeks, that's the only incredibly unhealthy food choice I make. Given the insanity of Sunday mornings, I finally gave myself that free pass once a week.

For a long time, I've ignored the problems with McDonald's and fast food in general. I try not to think too hard about the environmental impact even as I deal with the resulting trash--a mountain of trash in comparison to the amount of food. I mustered all my patience, even when I was living in the town with a McDonald's that made "fast food" an ironic claim, knowing that the workers weren't being paid well for their work.

Though my other shopping habits have changed, this one remains. Even as I became more conscious about choosing locally owned places, and shopping at major chains that pay a living wage and offer health benefits to even part-time employees, this habit remains.

Like clockwork, some time between 5:45 and 6:45 a.m., I'm in a McDonald's drive thru on Sunday morning.

And with the recent news about McDonald's and the suggestion of workers taking a second job in order to just live, I realize I've got to change.

But I don't want to. There. I said it. I really don't want to give up my convenience. I really don't want to part with more money for food by going elsewhere. I don't want to attempt to add one more thing to my Sunday morning. I'm also appalled by the marriage of living out my call to systemic exploitation that can so easily be revealed in a single ritual.

I know, too, that if I give up this, other things will have to follow. My $4.86 meal at Subway, for example.

I'm not so naive that I believe radically altering my life with alter the systems of exploitation. Dealing with corporate sin is a whole different ballgame than dealing with individual sin.

Still, Jesus calls me to love my neighbor as myself. I think that means less participation in a system where the guy serving me food earns far less than half the amount I do in a year. Even if I don't want to.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Taking Rides from Strangers

I have a confession: I've started taking rides from strangers.

It started a couple of years ago, when I moved to Kansas City. A couple weekends ago, I didn't think twice about hopping in the ATV of some random guy driving down an access road near Sedona, AZ. There are lots of hiking trails there, with gorgeous red rocks. I was happy to escape there for a weekend, with temperatures twenty degrees cooler than Phoenix and yes, amazing hiking.

The same guy had a cooler strapped in the back and handed out cold bottles of water to weary hikers headed back to parking. I was one of those who had overestimated the difficulty of that particular hike and though I would have made it back to the parking lot just fine, I wasn't about to turn down a ride.

I could offer lots of logical reasons why taking rides from strangers is ok. Most victims of violent crimes know their assailants. I'm willing to bet a guy isn't just driving down the road looking for victims in a well-traveled, busy place. I could be wrong. Many folks would tell me I'm being naive and asking for trouble by accepting a ride from this guy. The same people would probably say the same about taking a bottle of water from the guy.

Truthfully, though, I'm not even worried about the logical reasons. I'm worried about the other side of the Gospel.

For all the talk about hospitality in the Gospels and the whole New Testament, actually, it's mostly on the giving end. But there's a lot of it. Edicts to remember to show hospitality to strangers. Claims that offering food, water and shelter to someone in need is the same as offering them to Jesus. The apostles who stayed in people's homes. The disciples sent out to stay in people's homes. I could go on.

The other side of that, though, is that someone has to be wiling to receive.

And in our independent, take care of yourself culture, that's hard. It's hard to say, "Please, give me some water." Or give me a ride. Or a whole host of other things. For those of us with financial means, we're used to paying for those services and not thinking much of it.

But receiving is part of living into the Gospel, too. Being vulnerable is part of the Gospel, too, especially in the Christian community.

So yeah, I'll accept a ride from a stranger, again. Maybe even some time soon.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Embodied: Why Incarnation Matters

I know the doctrine of incarnation makes many progressive Christians nervous. On some level, it makes me pretty nervous. It's one of those tenets of Christianity that seems irrational and we've mostly been brushed under the rug as a result. Let's be honest, talking about doctrine at all makes a lot of folks nervous because we think the church has talked about it too much. Yes. And no. The doctrine put only a little too simply: in Jesus, God became flesh and lived among humans.

There's some hypostasis, preexistence and other trinitarian things to work out according to classical Christian thought, but let's just stick to the basic claim of incarnation: in Jesus, God became flesh and lived among humans. It's a claim that makes others from Abrahamic traditions nervous and more than a few within the Christian tradition. I don't know if I believe that God became flesh and lived among humans.

But I do trust in it. It's a claim about Truth I'm willing to make. And here's why.

Pixels on a screen and noises bounced off satellites and towers are not enough. I love Facebook and Skype and Facetime and texting and all the other things that make the distance seem less. Oh, I should add phones to that list.

But the truth? To find someone I keep in touch with whom I've known for at least five years, I'd have to travel over 1,000 miles. To find someone I keep in touch with whom I've known for ten years, over 1,900 miles. Ditto for anyone longer than 10 years. And for many of those people, phone calls and images are not enough. I long to sit with them, to eat with them, to touch them. I want the hugs and the shared laughter and general ridiculousness that only happens in person.

I want the connection that can't be had with disembodied voices and faces. Bodies matter. My body matters--from day to day living to a need for touch. We are embodied people and to think of us as anything else is a problem; we can't know each other apart from our bodies.

So I trust in the incarnation. I trust in the claim that our bodies are good enough for God to take on for Godself. I trust in the claim that God knew we needed to touch and encounter God in the same ways we encounter each other. I trust in the claim that everything in this embodied, broken world, was worthy of God's presence.

I trust in the incarnation. God became flesh and lived among us. It's Truth even if we can never test fact.

Monday, August 19, 2013

No Exceptions

A few days ago, I went to visit a man from my church who was in the hospital. He introduced me to his nurse. She will be entering seminary in the fall, preparing to become a chaplain. We talked some; she had questions for me. They weren't questions about logistics, but about theology. She was quiet, thoughtful, and comfortable in the hospital. I imagine she'll be a very good chaplain.

In our talks about who Jesus is, why I'm a Christian if I think that about Jesus, and the like, there was one question that stuck out from the others. 

The question went something like this: I heard the stories of two men on CNN. I don't remember all about it, but they had done bad things to children. What makes your heart different from theirs?

I think she was looking for an articulation of being born again, at least in some way. I think she was waiting for me to talk about my salvation and their lack of it. I confess, I planned to go look up the stories or at least guess at the stories she was referencing. I didn't. 

Because I realized that the answer I gave, though it was hastily given, came from a deep, uncomfortable place. But I stand by it: nothing.

Nothing makes me different from those men, whatever crimes they committed. 

Yes, my infractions are minor by comparison, but they're present. I don't buy theology I was taught in my youth that said all sin is equal. You better bet it's worse to kill a person than lie to them. I'll take the second offense over the first any day. 

Still, I say nothing makes my heart different, if heart is speaking of the seat of feeling and knowledge, the thing that would be changed by being born again and live on in whatever comes after life. Nothing makes my heart different, if we're talking about the intangible thing that makes us human rather than animal. 

That confession is born of the conviction that God does not love me more than the worst criminal nor has God abandoned the worst criminal. That confession is born of the assurance that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. That confession is born from hearing a Gospel that says the person most offensive to polite society has a seat at Christ's banquet. 

That's a sobering confession. I'm not crying out, "I'm unworthy!" Instead, I'm crying out, "All are worthy!" All are worthy of God's love. All are worthy of God's best gifts. All are children of God. 

So still I say: nothing. Nothing makes me different from those men, whoever they are and whatever they did. We are beloved children of God, one and all. No exceptions.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

"I'm a pastor."

Sometimes, at those same sort of gatherings where I say, "I work at a nonprofit," it's safe to say, "I'm a pastor." It's an instinctual difference for the most part. Well, kind of. Here's the thing: the younger the group of adults gathered, the safer it is to say, "I'm a pastor."

It's not because the group is closer to my age that it's safer, though. It's because the younger demographic has little or no experience of church, so the statement is benign. These people don't have a warm and fuzzy connection nor a visceral reaction. Instead, reactions waffle somewhere between intrigue that a pastor exists in the real world and lack of interest.

There's a vague knowledge of what goes on at church, but little more. I field questions about my speeches since they don't know to call them sermons. We might have a conversation about the one thing they know about churches or pastors. Often, their knowledge is limited enough that they ask how I could commit myself to a life of celibacy. I smile even as I think about those conversations because those begin with a very basic discussion of the different kinds of Christians.

Just a few weeks ago, I was at one of those gatherings, walking through an art museum. One corridor had a large Christian section. I talked a lot more because I was the only one who know more about the stories behind the art than was written on the placards. I told the stories of Moses and John the Baptist's beheading and the crucifixion of Christ. In another section, someone asked about a festival--I don't remember which one--and I could answer their questions. That painting was by a Mexican artist which led to a me mentioning Santa Muerte. The people with me, who keep up with current events and knew a great deal about drug trafficking in general, had never heard of Saint Death. I realized that even if their news sources had those links, they probably never clicked them. They had no reason to.

As much as the Church has been wringing its hands about the folks my age who have left church, overall, this isn't a generation that left the church. This is a generation that has never been part of the church.

We need to know that. We need to know that we're not worried about reconnections but introductions. We need to stop assuming that, even though the Christian narrative is written into our culture, people can recognize it.

We need to realize that this culture is becoming a place where I can say, "I'm a pastor," and it means nothing at all.

And that's not a reason for mourning; it's a chance for the Gospel of Jesus Christ to transform.

Monday, August 12, 2013

"I work at a nonprofit."

We're having dinner, or playing games, or something innocuous like that. It's a group of potential friends, acquaintances at best, so we're covering the basic questions of hometown, work, things like that. I survey the group. I've lived in five states in the last ten years; this isn't new territory. Along the way, I've learned to gauge better how much to reveal.

So, sometimes, I introduce myself, "I work at a nonprofit."

We move on to other people and other things. I'm welcome. There's lots of laughter. The conversation is comfortable.

And I told the truth. Or at least I did't lie. I do work at a nonprofit. It just so happens that the nonprofit is a church. And I'm the pastor.

I don't tell the whole truth in many groups, though, because I've experienced what happens. People feel uncomfortable around me. They apologize for cussing. They look at the alcoholic drinks in their hands and fidget, even if I have one in my hand, too. They feel like they have to explain their lack of involvement in church to me or tell me about their childhood church. At worst, they spew the hatred they feel for the church at me; it's an incredibly potent hatred.

So, I choose the partial truth instead. "I work at a nonprofit." At least I choose that some of the time.

My older friends tell me of a time when most people, at least in the US, thought church was mostly good. Christian was the default. Even folks who didn't attend church knew they should. Very few spoke ill of the church. I'm willing to believe that was once true; trusted friends say it was so.

But it's not any more.

That anger that I'm not willing to have heaped upon me--there's usually a good reason for it. Rejection by the church, sometimes for things as silly as coming late or sitting in the wrong place, is often the reason. Other reasons include forced church attendance, lots of talk of hellfire once there, and failure to include newcomers in the community. That's just a few reasons. There are more, many, many more.

When I worship at an Episcopal church, as I sometimes do on Sunday evenings when I long to simply be part of the congregation at worship, I always appreciate the confession of sin. This part rings especially potent, "We have not loved you with our whole hearts. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent."

We need to say something like that more, the voices of the whole church joined together. We're talking about institutional sin, here, not individual or even individual congregations. As a whole, the church has done things that has left beloved children of God angry and bitter.

And I think, if we figured out a way to do that, I would say I work at a nonprofit far, far less.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

I Met This Guy...

It's been at least two years, maybe more, since I met the guy. I don't remember his name. I'm not sure the name he told me is his real name, or anything close to it. But I do remember him.

He was in his late 50s or early 60s with a neatly trimmed beard. He wore a clean but battered t-shirt and dark khaki cargo shorts the night that we talked. We met at the local food bank, where we spent the evening sorting out the carrots that could be distributed from the ones too rotten to make it from the food bank to the local food pantries. We talked, we laughed, and we talked some more.

I eventually realized it was safe to utter what I often keep secret, "I'm a pastor."

If he went to church, he usually went to a UU congregation. But he didn't stay in place long enough to find a church home. Instead, he moved every few months, staying ahead of various law enforcement agencies. He was a construction foreman. He completed his work with day laborers, often undocumented. His crews did a good job, so he was always able to keep work, even though he moved often. He lived this life so that he could offer the day laborers--often underpaid, often exploited day laborers--a few months of steady work at a fair wage.

He'd kept up this lifestyle for several years by the time I met him. He talked about what he was doing without reservation, but with some fear.

I take his story with a grain of salt on some days and as he told it on others. But it's stuck with me.

It's stuck with me because he's breaking the rules and he's living the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel marked by the poor hearing good news.

The Gospel marked by the proclamation that the reign of God belongs to the poor.

The Gospel that says the poor are invited to the table.

The Gospel that sees a mark of conversion as giving what you have to the poor.

The Gospel that says, "Love your neighbor as yourself."

The Gospel that says there is no greater love than laying down your life for a friend.

This man, who does not claim to be a Christian, gets all that. He gave up his life and chose a place at the margins of society. Actually, he chose to become a criminal.

Maybe that's why his story has stuck with me most of all. Too often, we've confused Christianity with making good citizens. We expect Christians to be obedient to the state, even using the narrative of a Christian nation so there's not too much scrutiny. We forget that the one who started it all was, indeed, a criminal. It wasn't long before his followers were considered criminals, too.

I'm still sorting out what it all means, but I still remember this one day, when I met this guy.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Conjuring: What Will Save You?

Sometimes, when I least expect it, a central tenet of my faith comes at me in a whole new way, kind of like that car out of nowhere when you're driving down the road. That happened, again, and I suddenly find myself talking about salvation. Me. Who knows that language has all sorts of issues. Me. Who talks about transformation more readily than salvation.

But here I am, talking about salvation, all because of a horror movie.

I love horror movies. I know that. Most people who are only acquaintances know that. It hits home a little bit more, though, when I look at my DVD collection or Netflix recommendations. Dark, twisty, things jumping out, mess with your head sorts of movies--I just can't get enough. I especially love the ones with a theological twist. Yes, I know, that's not surprising either, given my profession. I own all of The Exorcists and The Omens. I've seen a long list of others with similar themes. A horror movie is the only genre that regularly gets me to the theater of my own free will. Well, maybe a dystopian theme, too.

Given all that, of course I saw The Conjuring on its opening weekend. I just couldn't wait any longer. Plus, a cool movie theater is a great way to spend a hot Phoenix afternoon.

It was a good movie, overall, and other watchers have agreed. It's getting mostly positive reviews and there are rumors of a sequel. It's got just enough based in reality creepiness to satisfy those who aren't as crazy about gory horror movies. There are parts that will mess with your head. It is part of a long line of particular ilk of horror movies about exorcisms yet manages to engage and surprise. That's not always easy to do.

Yet, the resolution was anything but satisfying, at least for me. Because it was unlike any other similar horror movie in one way: there's no clear notion of who or what would save the family in distress, even though there's no doubt they need saving.

Yes, there's a clear answer to that question in the movie in the couple whom God had brought together. At least kind of. But there's not an answer to the broader question about who is saving the family in distress.

In every other movie of this sort, it's clear that God will do the saving. Maybe through priests, maybe through the church, maybe through a person who doesn't know they're following God but can't escape God. But it is God who saves. There's no doubt. There's often theology I disagree with and theology that is downright heretical, but it's still theology.

Not in The Conjuring. The film waffles from a transcendent God, to the power of the Roman Catholic Church, to the power of the evangelical movement, to humans themselves. In the end, though, there's no claim about who did the saving. Instead, it seems to be the product of a postChristian culture that doesn't know what claim it is actually making about what is transformative and worthy of pursuing.

It's from a perspective that has no clue what or who saves.

It's not a secular claim about who or what saves. Whoever wrote this film doesn't know what could save even though there is a clear need for salvation.

So I'm wondering, here in the midst of an individualistic, consuming-to-the-point-of-being-parasitic society, how to talk about salvation better.

Because maybe, just maybe, the problem is an unwillingness to answer the question, "What will save you?"

And you should totally see the movie so we can talk about it some more.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

What the Hell Am I Doing?

By this point in my life, I've made a few long distance moves. Three, in fact, after college, which is its own sort of crazy, life-altering long distance move. Each time, there's a moment when reality begins to settle in and I wonder, "What the hell am I doing?"

It's a bit of fear and anxiety. It's mostly questioning my sanity, wondering if what I'm doing isn't crazy after all. When I started seminary, that moment came when I was sitting in my (crappy) campus housing apartment, during the middle of one of the worst heat waves Atlanta has ever seen. It was over a hundred degrees every day that month; the inside temperature of the poorly insulated, old windowed apartment never got below eighty, even at night. And one day, sitting there, came the question, "What the hell am I doing?" 

When I moved to Kansas City, the question came somewhere in Illinois, driving across a bridge. The woman riding with me was talking on the phone; I was spending too much time in my own head, even as I drove the UHaul down the road, towing my truck behind. I will never again drive a UHaul and tow a vehicle if there's any way I can avoid it. Looking into the distance, driving through what then felt like the middle of nowhere, I started asking, "What the hell am I doing?"

And when I moved to Phoenix, the question somewhere in New Mexico, the land of beautiful rocks and no cell phone service. I made it across Kansas, which apparently has no McDonald's or chain gas stations west of Lawrence, to Oklahoma and Texas, but in New Mexico, I started to question things. I think it was the abandoned town I drove through. Driving across western states gives new meaning to what I think of as the middle of nowhere. So I wondered, "What the hell am I doing?"

I don't know if that question ever goes away in the midst of major life changes. For young adults, though, those major changes are often a way of life rather than occasional. Young adulthood is the time for education and starting a career wherever it can be started. Those things often mean physical location changes and even more often mean spiritual and mental location changes. We're transients of a different sort, but transients just the same.

My answer to, "What the hell am I doing?" has ended, each time, with the claim that I'm following God. To Atlanta. To Kansas City. To Phoenix. I still hold to that claim.

More than that, though, I am convinced that God is just fine with my questions of "What the hell am I doing?" And all of our moments best summed up by "What the hell am I doing?"In fact, even if I was following my own whims and fantasies, God would be there, too.

For that's a place of faith, too. Whenever I think of my life's absurdity and God's presence in that, a scene from the show Judging Amy, when a former Roman Catholic priest now living as a woman until he can afford gender reassignment surgery, says, "Faith is the belief that it will all make sense in the end."

Until then, it's ok to keep asking, "What the hell am I doing?" God's there, too.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Christian Worldview

I know the world is more than 4,000 years old.
I believe in evolution (ok, actually I don't care, but if I have to choose, I'll take evolution).
Space is above the earth's atmosphere. I have no clue where God lives; actually, I don't think God lives anywhere in the way much of the Bible portrays.
A global flood is a cool story but there was never an ark filled with animals.
Ditto with the Tower of Babel.

None of that has anything to do with a Christian worldview. All of that has to do with confusing faith for science. Affirming all those things I denounced not radical. It doesn't change our interaction with the world. It only makes us yell that things that can be quantified and tested and are not true. And we look silly doing it.

Here's a portion of a Christian worldview that is radical: there's enough. Of everything.

You want a world-rocking claim? Live that for a while. Because "there's enough" isn't a concession about the way you think, it's a re-ordering of your life.

We live in a world that shouts, "There's not enough!" Our economy is one of supply and demand. The less of something there is, the more it costs. The more people want something, the more it costs. There will never be enough. In fact, making less of something, or natural scarcity of something, is the surest way to ensure it costs a lot. In our economy, there can never be enough. Instead, our economy says to hold on to what you get, especially if it's scarce. It might be worth even more.

Don't believe me? Think about the Beanie Baby craze of about 15 years ago. If your memory's fuzzy, Google it. See what I mean.

But the claim of the Christians--actually, lots of God's people, not just us--is that there is enough. Give some away and you'll still have enough. That something you give away might be food, money, or clothing.

In addition, enough is actually enough. As in, if you have clothes to wear today, you're good to do. Food to eat today? Awesome!

For Christians to say that, in God, there is enough and will always be enough is actually life-altering. It might make you give away a lot of money you thought was yours. It might make you open your home to a stranger. It might make you offer your employees a salary when you're not give yourself one.

Sound crazy? Sound bizarre? That's how a worldview changes your life.

So please stop caring about something as mundane as how old the earth is.

Monday, July 29, 2013

"...and Guest"

Fall wedding season is approaching. My mailbox alone is proof; let's not talk about my Facebook feed.

And there, on the invitation, the words "Abigail Conley and Guest." If the wedding were near my home, I'd find a date for the evening. (And guys, no, if a woman asks you to be her date for a wedding, she's doesn't want to marry you. She just wants to go with someone she doesn't mind spending a few hours with who has reasonable social skills. Seriously.) None of the invites are to nearby weddings, though. Attending these weddings means planes and hotels and lots of time away. So I'll say no to a few and head to the others alone.

I'm pretty ok with attending events alone, actually, especially to celebrate with close friends.

That "and Guest," though, is a reminder that our cultures expects couples. Our culture knows what to do with couples. It's written into the etiquette rules that we only pay attention to at weddings. It's written into vacation pricing and cell phone plans and tax codes. And yes, all of those things tend to get cheaper if you're part of a couple.

The thing is, couple mentality is also a part of our churches. We know what to do with widows, but that's about it on the single spectrum. We yearn for young families. We have no clue what to do with 20something professionals who aren't married. Or 50something professionals for that matter. For people my age, there's the vibe of "We'll know how to handle this better once you're married." Then, you'll know what to invite me to. You'll know what I do at holidays. You'll expect my free time is as limited (and mundane) as yours.

So, from a happy, working, single woman who really loves the church, here are a few pointers about welcome that make space for me in church. I bet they'll work for some other folks, too.

  • Ask me: What do you do for fun? I can answer that question. It'll get me talking about things I genuinely enjoy. It's a really good substitute for questions such as: Are you married? Do you have kids? Where's your family? Answers involving spouses, kids, whatever constitutes a family will certainly come up in the answer to "What do you do for fun?" But none of those things has to. You just made me feel welcome. 
  • Assume my time is limited. There's an assumption that not having kids means having unlimited time for all sorts of other things. Yes, single people, as well as couples without children, tend to volunteer more than people with children. Please, though, don't assume I have all this free time floating around that just needs to be sucked up by something I may or may not care about. Like most folks, I'll make time for something I consider important. But treat me like my time matters, too.
  • Invite me like you'd invite anyone else. "You're young, so..." "You'll be the only single person there, but..." If you'd like to invite me, just invite me. If I'm worried about things like being the youngest person by 20 years or the only single person present, I'll ask. Stop naming the reasons I might feel excluded and just include me. 
  • Oh yeah, invite me. I, like many people, do live far away from family and friends. Like many younger people, I'm perfectly fine with spending holidays with random people and have done so on numerous occasions. Church people are often the worst for hunkering down with biological family only, especially at Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving. You know, those family holidays. Practice some Christian hospitality and invite me. And maybe invite some neighbors, too. Or people you just happen to like. It could be really fun. And not weird. 
  • And that. Don't be weird about it. Welcoming new people of any sort is hard. Assume you already like me. Assume we're going to be friends. Assume I'm not some Other Kind of Person that you have to figure out. Assume you're the one who needs to approach me, even if it makes you uncomfortable. And unless you know me really well, don't try to set me up on a date. Just don't. 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

People of Privilege

A few weeks ago, I gave everyone in worship that Sunday $5. The Gospel reading that day was about bearing fruit, so I said, "Here's something tangible. Go bear fruit. Do something that brings the reign of God closer."

Yes, it made me a little nervous. There are now a few dozen $5 bills floating around with my church's web address on them (, in case you're wondering). Most people did what they were asked. I know, because I asked them for the stories of what they did with the little bit of extra cash they had in their pockets and purses. 

A tip to a crew installing a new washer. A gift to a landscaping crew member on a morning walk. A tip to a waitress at a Kiwanis dinner. Notice a theme here? With two exceptions, every gift went to someone in a service industry. The two exceptions were to a friend in need and some kids at Sonic. The majority of those $5 bills, though, went to waitresses and landscapers, people working in the heat, or those actually asking for money. 

Somehow, I'm bothered by this. Not because I wanted the money to go elsewhere, but because it became so evident that most people in my congregation are people of privilege. They are generous people. They are gracious people. They care for and worry about the poor, both the individual and the systems that perpetuate poverty. They are beloved children of God, seeking God's reign for themselves and for others. But they are people of privilege.

As am I.

My $5 also went to a waitress, making the tip nearly 100% of the bill since I added it on to my usual 20%. (Yes, I like Waffle House. We can talk about issues with that establishment another time.)

We are people of privilege.

Before this, I knew how great my privilege is, at least on a intellectual level. This time, though, I felt it. And I have to say, as a person of faith, I didn't like the way it felt. At all.

You see, this exercise in stewardship and evangelism of sorts has created other questions for me. Questions that I can't quite formulate and can't begin to answer.

Those questions are somewhere in the confession of a Messiah who spent a great deal of his time with the very poor and was poor himself. Those questions are wrestling with the spiritual difficulty that wealth brings, at least according to Jesus, who talked a lot about rich people being unable to enter the kingdom of heaven; the problem was their attachment to their wealth. And those questions have to do with power, which I find most disconcerting of all. Because in the vast majority of the interactions, there was a hierarchy. There was one who gave and one who received. There were amazing conversations that went with most of the interactions, but the power was almost all one way. The call to bear fruit, it seems, just pointed out those systems of power that much more.

I don't know what to do with all those questions, the ones I still can't boil down to succinct question of only a few words.

But I do know this: I think it has something to do with how very far we are from the kingdom of God. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Unexpected Tears

I generally don't cry unexpectedly. I hate crying in public. I keep control. It's just what I do. Once doors are closed or the event is over, I'll shed a few tears in private. That works best for me.

Because of that, I was surprised when tears ran down my face during the vote on resolution 1327 at my denomination's General Assembly. The resolution is non-binding, but as forceful a stand as the whole denomination will ever take on any particular issue. The language in the resolution is pretty mild, "encouraging" all congregations to become open & affirming to folks of the LGBT communities. Each congregation still chooses their own pastor. Each region still chooses whom to ordain. This resolution is a step, not a leap. It's a nudge, not a push. It was still seen as divisive. The entire assembly prayed about it multiple times. There's still a lot of uncertainty from a lot of folks, despite the fact that the resolution passed by an overwhelming majority.

During the debates, during the voting, though, tears streamed down my face.

And one prayer echoed through my mind: "Say yes."

"Please, please say yes."

Now several weeks ago, I wrote about the power of offering God's yes to people for the DOC group, GLAD Alliance, that works for LGBT rights.

And I wanted that for my denomination. I knew that going in. I knew I would vote in support of the resolution before I ever packed a bag, much less walked into the business session.

But the tears were unexpected. They were from a deep, holy place. Those sorts of tears only come when rooted in a place where I was transformed. The last time they fell? When I watched a young man, one of my youth group kids, whom I never expected to love, perform in his school play. I was so proud of him. I was so proud of God's work in his life. I was so blessed to have him and get to love him. They were holy tears.

And so were these. They were tears of hope. They were tears born from my own rejection in the church. They were tears born of welcome in holy places I never expected.They were tears from some place deep inside. They were tears from God.

And I was so proud to stand among those counted to say yes to some more of God's beloved children.

And the tears continued when I realized how many of my brothers and sisters stood up to be counted among those speaking God's yes to God's children.

For those unexpected tears, I am thankful. Maybe, just maybe, they are a sign that God is healing some of the tears in the world, tears that have caused so, so many tears.

Saturday, July 20, 2013


I spent this past week at my denomination's General Assembly, our biennial gathering of as much of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) as would like to attend. I attended the one in 2009, where I knew only the persons with whom I was traveling. I missed the one in 2011. I gladly packed my bags for the one in Orlando this year.

I knew the programmatic schedule and what was duties I had. I had prepped diligently and was ready for all those things. I wasn't ready for other things, the things that had nothing to do with programs.

My body works best when on the Eastern Time Zone, for example. I've lived in other time zones for over three years now, but there, my body settles in and knows what to do when it comes to waking and sleeping. I've never had the same experience living with any other timing.

I knew I would see the pastor who I worked with while in seminary. I knew that reunion was long overdue, at least for me, and would be sweet. It was. I didn't anticipate there would be more reunions, more people I was happy to see, again. I didn't realize there would be wonderful introductions, great debates, and conversations that resound with the innermost parts of me.

And in the midst of all those things--those wonderful, God-filled things--I began to feel a sadness that this would be over. I began to feel a sadness at leaving the pastor whom I hadn't seen in far too long, and the conversations that only happen when a large number of theological nerds gather and yes, even sadness at leaving the time zone where my body works best.

A word crept into my mind along with these feelings: exile. I live in exile. 

I was a bit shocked at how well that word fit the space where I normally live my life. My life, which I love, which I live in partnership with a congregation I love, which is comprised of people whom I love.

Then, I remembered: exile isn't a bad thing, at least where God is concerned. Sometimes, yes, but not most of the time. Abraham was called into exile from his home, as was Jesus. The earliest disciples, especially the twelve closest to Jesus, spent most of their lives far away from the places they called home. At least they did after they met Jesus.

As much as I love those people and places who make me feel at home, home is not where I am called to live my life. It's not where any of us are, actually. For home is wonderful and longed for, but it wreaks of nostalgia. It wreaks of inactivity. It wreaks of longing for what was rather than moving into what will be.

God is present, moving, transforming in the exile. God is doing new things in the exile. And I'm happy to live my life here even as I treasure the moments of home.

Exile is a holy place, too.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Take Bread

In my tradition, we receive communion every Sunday. Ok, sometimes more. One of the lingering Disciples jokes is that wherever two Disciples are gathered there will be three opinions and communion. At least we know how to laugh at ourselves.

We're also pretty low on the required liturgy. Some of us can out-Catholic the Catholics; others are appalled by anything resembling a formal liturgy. What does make its way into most every service, though, are the words of institution, usually the 1 Corinthian version that goes something like this: "For the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them saying, 'Take, eat. This is my body which is broken for you.' In the same way, when supper had ended, he took the cup also, and offered it to them saying, 'Take, drink. This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you do it, in remembrance of me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes again.'" 

Nope, I don't think that's any particular translation. It's probably a conflation of KJV and NRSV and NIV, since those are the three translations used by the churches in which I've participated. Regardless, there's still some clunkiness about the language, some things completely different than day to day speech. 

A few weeks ago, it became clear that a 3 year old's request came from those words. When communion was offered, she said to her mother, "I want to take bread."

Not, "I want a snack," or "I want something to eat." My own cousins were upset when they were denied a snack during worship one Sunday many years ago. "I want a snack," is the response of any kid. "Take bread," is the response of a child formed by her faith community. "Take bread" is the response of a child who knows this is different from a snack, even though she couldn't begin to put words to how or why this is different. She knows it is.

At only 3 years old, she recognizes what the church calls sacrament, a sacred rite in which one encounters God. At only 3 years old, she knows this matters. And she wants to be a part of it.

Those five little words, "I want to take bread," are worth every time she ever ran in worship or spilled a drink in the sanctuary or walked in front of the preacher. Welcoming her as an infant, and a toddler, and now a 3 year old, means she's learned this church is her church. She's learned where her church encounters God and feels safe enough to ask to encounter God there, too.

Every day, I am more convinced that if we want 13 year olds in worship alongside everyone else, the church must also welcome 3 year olds in worship alongside everyone else. The 3 year old will learn what can't be taught; by the time she is 13 she can never forget it.

So, church, be ok with little ones' noise and disruption. Be ok with whatever they need in order to be included. For one day, that child will ask to take bread, too. Or at least something like it. And you'll realize that, somewhere in the midst of the noise and disruption, she saw Jesus. What more could you ask for her?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Exodus, DOMA and Prop 8...oh my!

The last few weeks have been big ones for the LGBT community and its allies. The Supreme Court's rulings are breaths of fresh air, but I confess, I was more excited by the closing of Exodus International. For me, that represents the shifting tide in North American Christianity and I am even more grateful for that. I am especially grateful that people have realized reparative therapy doesn't work and are no longer continuing this hurtful practice.

The glimpses of these ways that God is breaking into the world are wonderful, beautiful, reassuring. I give thanks, as do many of my brothers and sisters. In just a few weeks' time, we got rainbows, unicorns and glitter.

Except some saw storm clouds, scorpions and dirt.

And many of those people are my brothers and sisters, too.

Where I saw God breaking into the world, they saw signs that God must soon return to reclaim the world from evil. Where I rejoiced, they began wringing their hands much more fervently.

These people are beloved to God and to me. I'm not talking about nasty internet rhetoric so easily spewed and the people behind those words. I'm talking about people whom I have served alongside, building houses and serving food, in worship and holding hands of elderly. These are people whom I deeply love. We've spent late nights and early mornings together. They know how messy my living space always is and how organized the rest of my life usually is. We've cried together and laughed together and evaded police together. Our lives are shared--classes and lunches, weddings and babies, new apartments and buying houses, moving away and sweet reunions.

So it's strange. I am completely convinced these changes in the world are God's changes. But the day I changed my Facebook picture to the red equal sign--at the request of a gay friend--I realized the number of friends I had dropped. Not many. Under 10. But it happened. I'm sure some of those weren't close friends, but at least one was a beautiful friend, with whom I shared sleepovers and pep rallies and lots of other things. It reminded me of a few years before, when the same discussion meant that I haven't since spoken with one of only two friends who were with me when I was baptized.

There's no conclusion to this discussion, no sort of easy summation. It's only a story of brokenness and a reiteration of my own vibrant hope that God in Christ will truly, one day, make all things new.

Additional note: my denomination will be talking about the welcome of LGBT folks at our General Assembly that begins in just a couple days. The offered resolution is already the subject of much debate. My prayers are for those of us on both sides. I never doubt that we're all still followers of Christ, still searching for the reign of God that is at hand.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

I Have a Master's Degree, Actually

If I am brave enough to tell someone I've recently met that I'm a pastor, the ensuing questions are always interesting, to say the least. Often, I get to hear all about their own church involvement, or lack of it and the reasons why, or their own theological take on the world. (The number of people whose personal theology includes extraterrestrial visitation would truly alarm most folks. I met most of those people in airports, too, lest you think I hang around strange places.) One of the most common questions, though, is whether I went to school for this.

The question bothers me, I'll admit, because it's rooted in an idea that ministry isn't something that requires special knowledge or training. And so, I reply, with a slight edge in my voice, "I have a master's degree, actually." It's a Master of Divinity, and here's what it involved.

It's a degree that took a year longer to complete than most master's degrees. Other people who have an MDiv are often impressed when anyone who completes the degree in a mere three years. Mine is 85 credit hours; if you don't know, that's a lot of credit hours.

I took classes in the practical arts of ministry, things like religious education, preaching and pastoral care. I took classes that are considered more academic like church history, biblical studies and Hebrew. I was required do on-site training as a hospital chaplain and in a church. As is the case with most on-site training programs, the amount of work required was in no way proportional to the number of credit hours I received for the work. 

So what's the value in so much training? Why bother since there are many pastors without that training? Here are the biggies:
  • It ties me to the broader Church. I have been deeply formed in my own tradition. But church history and classmates have tied me to the broader church in a way that would be otherwise incredibly difficult to achieve. The theological claims of my particular tradition have become clearer; my ties to the people of other traditions are stronger. 
  • Questions are welcome. We're a postChristian society. People who have read the Bible and want to talk about it aren't always people of faith. Without significant training and education, I wouldn't be able to have conversations about where the Bible really came from. Or how we differ from other traditions. Or why those traditions behave in a certain way. Or answer most questions in a way that doesn't have to involve the word "faith."
  • There's a cost. I spent 3 years of my life earning that degree, not to mention money and the angst of things like studying Hebrew. (Tears and beer will get you through. Or tequila in my case.) That was on top of college. That matters. The things in life that are worth doing require work and preparation. That applies to the church, too. Why do you think Jesus spent three or four years with his disciples before he left them?
  • I have studied and shown myself approved. I'm in a denomination, not an independent church, for a reason. I wanted to be ordained for a reason. I wish my ordaining board had asked more questions, been more strenuous, more concerned with testing me. Because my yes to ministry wasn't just a yes to God's call, it was a yes to the church. And the church had to say yes to me. Rigorous training should be demanded. This call is for the whole church and that church has every right to ask questions and demand even more.
  • God still called. Let me be clear, I was called to this work by God. I have no doubt of that. God was present before and during and after seminary. For everyone who says God's call is sufficient for ministry I say yes--but if a job switch is all you think God is asking of you, you might need to listen some more. And yes, my possession of a graduate degree remains a testament to God's presence and call on my life. That might be the strangest part of the conversation yet.
But yes, I have a master's degree, actually.

Monday, July 8, 2013

I Still Love Him

LGBT rights are in the media a lot lately. And I reiterate, yay for awesome things! The same topic has been at the forefront of my own denomination's life and will continue to be so, especially this coming week at our General Assembly. All of the discussions, though, have been a reminder of guy I knew in northeastern Kentucky, Aaron, and our story together.

My elementary school closed after my 4th grade year, so I had to attend 5th grade at another school. Going from a school of 75 kids to one that had about 60 in just the 5th grade was a shock, and not a good one. It was a bad year.

But in that bad year, there was this really cute boy named Aaron. When I look at our 5th grade class picture, I still think he's cute; most would, I imagine. Green eyes, olive skin, brown curly hair and a slightly crooked smile. My conservative family was anti-dating and anti-dancing (worrying about how exactly people ended up married with kids in that culture is a whole other topic), so I never told them Aaron was my boyfriend. He invited me to a dance that year and I said yes. Unfortunately, the 10 year old me never got up the nerve to ask my parents if I could go or tell him that I already knew they wouldn't let me. So he showed up to the dance with roses for me and ended up giving them to a teacher instead. I'm sure he ended up talking about that in therapy at some point. I found out from some of the other girls.

In middle school, we were still really good friends. His parents divorced at some point. My mom worked at the school so we often hung out in her office. We lied about him missing his bus so that she would drop him off on the way home and we could spend more time together. Aaron-my-boyfriend had disappeared and he was just Aaron-my-friend. Then, he moved to the next school over and it was high school before he returned. 

And I had my friend back. Kind of. He wasn't the clean cut, good student he had once been; I was working on graduating first in my class and running every student organization at the same time. I didn't quite know what to do with this guy who now had piercings in places I didn't know could be pierced. He was sullen. He cussed a lot and drank even more. But he was still Aaron, and we still laughed and talked more easily than just about anyone else. 

It was another year or so after he re-entered my life that he told me he is gay. It was via ICQ, an instant messaging service that was very cool at the time and one I accessed via dial-up. It seems worlds away now. When he told me, I wasn't shocked. I was shocked that someone I knew, someone who was a teenager in northeastern Kentucky, would actually say that. We operated much more on a system where everyone knew but no one talked about it. I just wasn't shocked that he is gay.

I know my response wasn't the greatest. My church had told me clearly what I should think about being gay; I added a liberal slant to it, progressing to the bullshit of "love the sinner, hate the sin." 

I also was overwhelmed by my own internal response: I still loved him. I couldn't shake that feeling and I couldn't think about him the way my church told me I should think about gay people. So, for the first time in my 15 years, my response was, "Screw the church."

Aaron was a gift from God. I knew it even then. He was there through the sucky 5th grade year and the differently sucky middle school years. He was there late at night. He loved me and let me love him. He listened to my pleadings for his safety during his rocky years, not stopping drinking, but at least not getting in cars with someone who had been. I treasured him and wanted the best for him. Looking back, it was the beginning of a radical change in me and my theology. And I still say it was from God. Wholly, wonderfully a gift from God, from beginning to whatever point we're in now.

He didn't graduate from the same high school as me. The last time I saw him, he was working as a manager at McDonald's. I ran into him on my way to my parents' the year after I graduated from college. When I pulled into a drive-thru for a snack, there he was. It's northeastern Kentucky, so it was only natural that I put my truck in park and talked until a car pulled in behind me. It's northeastern Kentucky, so that was 45 minutes later. It was like we'd never been apart.

These last weeks, I've thought more about him and looked for him on Facebook. I didn't find him. I imagine, though, I'll run into him again at some point in the future. And I imagine my reaction will be the same, "I still love him." 

He is, after all, a gift from God. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Familiar Things

A couple Sundays ago, for the first time in a long time, I sat in a church pew. I held a hymnal in my hands because there was no projection. When I placed the hymnal back in the rack on the back of the pew, I felt a twinge somewhere deep inside.

It was the twinge of something deeply familiar and the twinge of something forgotten.

For the first twenty years of my life, all but a handful of worship services involved pews and hymnals. My hands knew to hold a hymnal long before my eyes and mind could make sense of the words and notes. I sang anyway; after all, I was part of the congregation. I wiggled on pews as a child and later held children struggling with their own pew-inspired wiggles.

I never expected something as simple as placing a hymnal back in its rack would evoke such strong memories. Then again, I realize part of the reason that simple action resonated so deeply was that I had done it so often, so regularly, so unconsciously from toddlerhood to adulthood.

I'm not filled with nostalgia for churches filled with pews and hymnals. They are part of my formation, not the formation offered by the congregation I serve now or the ones I have served in recent years for that matter. As we work to make disciples of generations accustomed to lots of media and comfy chairs, I have no problem worshipping with neither pews nor hymnals.

But I wonder about those familiar things. I wonder about what familiar things the children in my congregation are being offered.

I wonder what they encounter in churches that engages their bodies and their minds.

I wonder what thing they encounter in worship that they're not yet able to understand, but one day becomes sweetly familiar.

I wonder what will become something they do as second nature.

I wonder what they will have, what thing they will do later on in their life, maybe even something they had forgotten, that will make them say in some holy place, "I belong here," even if it's for just fleeting a moment.

I wonder because I know, somehow, the beautifully familiar feeling of a hymnal being placed in the rack on the pew is why I now lead a congregation.

I pray that these new generations of believers will still find holy familiar things.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Camp & Holy Preparation

This post was mostly written after the 2012 camping season, but never posted. Since camping season is here, again, it seemed timely.

Can it really be weeks since I left camp? I've been meaning to write about it for that whole time. It just took this long to find the words.

This year was my first year directing camp, welcoming more than 50 kids who had just finished 4th and 5th grades, plus adults to teach, sing, play and watch over. I've never been to camp with another age group and I never really want to give another group a try. This age is Yes, the hormones are (sometimes) starting to kick in, but for the most part, they're fun, easy to entertain kids who enjoy just about everything about camp.

My most treasured moments in ministry are times of preparation, times a lot of folks would consider a necessary evil rather than a joy. Not surprisingly, camp follows suit. When I think of camp, I first think of nighttime.

It's the time of night when I'm getting ready for the next day, thinking of what needs to be done before then. Around then, the kids are getting ready for bed, but aren't there just yet. They're showering and writing in journals and talking in their bunkbeds, at least the girls; I don't know what the boys do when alone in the cabins. Usually, I'm walking around the camp, doing last minute checks and clean-ups. As I walk past cabins, I catch bits of conversations. I hear lots of laughter muffled by the walls. There, in the darkness, I pray some and think some before heading back to my cabin, where there will surely be many giggling girls wanting to do anything but go to bed.

The days before camp were marked by cutting cardboard and fabric, getting them ready for crafts. There was much shopping and calculating, working to make everything happen and stick to my budget, with a few fun surprises thrown in along the way. The glow sticks I found on clearance were pretty awesome, after all. They were days of packing and unpacking and loading and reloading, as were the days after camp.

And why? The question often haunts me. Why do this? Why work so hard and put so many hours into something that will be enjoyed for such a short time? It's not just camp, but so many things that I prepare for, and admittedly, over-prepare for. It might just be for me--the Type A, obsessive-compulsive person most know me as.

Except I don't think so. It wouldn't be such a life-altering, presence of the Spirit thing if it were just about me, just about making me happy.

Instead, I call it holy invitation.

As much as I wish there were descriptions of Jesus getting ready for his followers, there's not. Of course, there's the snippet or two--go find a donkey. Get the room ready. But nothing substantial. Even the prayers in the garden before his crucifixion seem to be for Jesus, not his disciples.

I wish the Gospel writers had told us more. It occurs to me, though, that maybe they didn't write about it because no one knew about those things except Jesus. No one was there to witness those things. No one bothered to tell or make up stories about those things. They seemed unimportant, maybe, especially compared with the people clamoring for teaching and healing.

Consider, though, how much of Jesus' ministry and teaching would never have happened if someone hadn't spent a great deal of time getting ready. What if the little boy's mother hadn't packed his lunch? What if someone forgot the wine or didn't bake enough bread when Jesus and his disciples celebrated passover? What if no one had bothered to open the synagogue or the temple?

In my heart of hearts, I don't think the invitation I offer is holy; I have the privilege of offering an invitation to the holy. I'm ready and put in lots of work because I believe people will encounter God in the place I am ministering.

Truthfully, don't I join so many priests who have come before me? Those who dressed in special garments and those who didn't. Those who sacrificed animals and bread and those who scoff at the notion. Those who slept in the sacred spaces and those who spent nights with their families.

So in the darkness of the evening and the darkness of the early morning, the hours when I do more work than any other, I remember: I'm getting ready. God's children are coming and God will surely meet them here.