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.