Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Praying for Ferguson

Last night, I went to a vigil for Ferguson. I went as a faith leader rather than a person of faith, stole in hand, ready to wear. I prepared my 2 minute statement in advance, even though I felt very weird talking about racism given my very white skin. Yes, I preached about the events in Ferguson in church, including why it's so important we say, "Black lives matter." For some reason, though, this felt stranger.

I ended up not sharing my carefully prepared words. Others had things to say that I wanted and needed to hear. I don't regret remaining silent. But I still need to confess what I chose not to publicly confess last night. So here's the statement I didn't share last night:

I am 30 years old. You need to know that for what I’m about to say to really sink in. I was born in 1984; I have always lived in a world with CD players, air bags in cars, and a channel devoted only to weather.

I am 30 years old, but when I misbehaved as a child, my grandfather said to me, “If you don’t act better, I’m gonna go get me a little nigger girl instead.” I was an adult and he was dead by the time the meaning of those words sank in. My grandfather was born in 1917; he never lived in a country with legal slavery. But more than a hundred years after slavery was supposedly gone, buying a person with dark skin was a joking matter. He never thought twice about using the racial slur.

And I don’t know where to go after that. Because I know there’s a part of my words that are purely a confession—I was taught hate by one of the people I love most. I was taught to be racist as a byproduct of the culture I grew up in, even as Black History month and Martin Luther King Day were part of my education.  

All I have is confession: I confess that racism is beyond me, beyond Michael Brown, beyond Eric Garner, and beyond Shawn Brown—the little boy I used to babysit, the first young man I saw lectured about the penalties he would face if he screwed up while being black. In my tradition, it is Advent, a season of repentance as we await the Christ child. We read the words of the prophet Isaiah during this time, so I offer his words about when God’s reign finally comes, “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks…neither shall they learn war any more.” I confess, I pray to God may it one day be so.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

A Specific Sort of Christian: A Response to That Pastor

A pastor in my neck of the woods has made headlines this week for a sermon in which he said that the solution to AIDS was to kill all gay people. The epidemic would be solved by Christmas that way. I won't link to the news stories or to his church's website. The media attention has already amplified his feeble voice too much. Google if you must. Chances are, you've heard this sort of thing before. You might even have run away from church because of it.

My first instinct is to play the whole "Not that kind of Christian game." And I'm not that kind of Christian. But as much as I prefer saying what I'm not to what I am, especially when it comes to churchy things, here's a quick shot at saying what kind of Christian I am--or at least hope to be--, and what sort of Christian I believe we are called to be.

We should be engaged in the world. Intellectual curiosity, study of all sorts, people of all sorts, places of all sorts should be part of our lives. Ignorance is a far greater sin in many churches than we often admit.  Ask questions. Keep asking until you get an answer. Seek out balanced sources; this applies to news and theology. Insulation and isolation are both dangerous and manipulative. Need some Jesus proof? Why do you think he talked with the (Samaritan) woman at the well? Or went to Zacchaeus' house for dinner? Or told the parable of the good Samaritan? Why do you think the apostles traveled to all the different places preaching the Gospel? Why do you think the Ethiopian man with whom Phillip spoke was such a big deal? Christians are called to be engaged in our world. Coincidentally, that also means don't get to be afraid.

Our mission should be productive and turn us outward. In other words, what we do as church should make us worry less about ourselves and our own lives. We should be able to name something or show something we've done that makes a difference in the world right now. Jesus fed hungry people and healed sick people. When he forgave the sins of the paralyzed man, other people became angry because they questioned his authority. So Jesus forgave the man's sins and healed him. Yes, there are many intangible things that come with church, but you better believe we are called to do the tangible ones as well.

God's voice matters more than ours. This one gets a little tricky. Churches and pastors are absolutely called to speak on God's behalf. But God moves and acts beyond us, not limited to us. I firmly believe that we study the Bible and share in church to learn the characteristics of God so that when God speaks to us, we will know it's God and listen. If we can't confess God's authority beyond our own, then we're doing something wrong. God speaks and moves in ways that are unsettling and maddening and life-giving. At least once in your life of faith, you should have a moment when you realize you've been getting something all wrong and realize following God means doing it differently. That's the story of pretty much anyone in the Bible who decided to follow Jesus. The biggest mistake we've made is thinking that's a one time thing. It happens over and over again, usually inconveniencing us in major ways. God's funny like that.

That's who and what I believe we are called to be as Christians. It's not everything, but it's a good start. For me, it's a litmus test. And finally, just for the record, the Church should be involved in the fight against AIDS--through things like providing healthcare, supporting research, helping educate people about transmission, distributing condoms, and refusing to be afraid of people with HIV and AIDS. That's a start at least.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Learning Abundance

Is chaos the right word for the last few weeks in my own corner of the world? Maybe.

On the first Sunday of this month, I shared the results of our fall stewardship campaign with the congregation. We lit 105 candles, one for each thousand dollars pledged. Seventeen of those candles were gold instead of white, representing $17,000 in new or increased pledges. For some churches, those numbers would mean hand-wringing and moaning about budget cuts. For my church, these numbers represent a newfound abundance of life and Spirit among us. There were gasps and applause at a number so high.

We'd been challenged to raise $5,000 in new funds, with the promise of a matching gift of $5,000 if we did so. No one thought we'd get to $17,000.

That day, I also shared news of a generous gift from a person in the community who simply believes in our ministry.

Between that gift and the match gift, it was one of the largest offerings ever given at my church.

Some time later, despite everything being done as it should have been, that offering was stolen.

As a result, there have been many emails and phone calls with all sorts of people: parishioners, police, insurance agents, insurance adjusters. I have a whole list of things I learned from this process that I would have been quite happy to never have known.

The people whose checks were part of that offering all diligently canceled their checks. They were gracious about it. They were even more gracious when they re-wrote those checks.

Maybe I shouldn't be so surprised about that last part. Maybe I shouldn't be quite so surprised that, across the board, a new check was issued to the church, replacing what had been lost. But I was incredibly, wonderfully surprised by both the reactions and the giving of the gifts, again.

I was surprised because, sometimes, more often than I'd like, stories of fear and scarcity win. It's taken me a while to write this partly because I've spent the last days trying to wrap my head around what happened. And what happened is that my church believed the Gospel.

They believed they have more than enough and can give some away.
They believed what they have isn't really theirs to begin with.
They believed that fear doesn't win.
They believed that one thing going wrong doesn't throw everything off course.

It's the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 (or the 4,000). It's the story of a widow bringing an offering that she couldn't afford. It's every single time--and there are many--when angels and Jesus said, "Do not be afraid." It's the woman caught in adultery to whom Jesus simply said, "Go, and sin no more."

I shouldn't actually be surprised that we've learned abundance instead of scarcity and fear, but I was. As it turns out, we've been transformed by the Gospel after all. For that, thanks be to God.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

When It's Always Safe

A few years ago now, I was out with friends on a Friday night. One of them, I had known for several years and love dearly. The other was her girlfriend. They also happen to be an interracial couple. By that point in my life, I didn't even think twice about their relationship. It worked for them so it worked for me; I was glad to have a friend from a previous life there in that unfamiliar midwestern city. As we walked along the city streets that night, a man veered off course and leaned far out of his car to yell at us. He drove away quickly. I hadn't been able to understand what he said. In all my naiveté, I looked at them said, "What was that all about?"

They knew. It was about them. That wasn't the first time they had been yelled at in that way. Interracial and same-sex couple were both problematic in different places.

A few years later, I've finally found a man with whom I've been on more than three dates. It's still new. It's still weird at times. We're still figuring out each other. (Seriously, he doesn't like watermelon or  cheesecake. Who doesn't like watermelon or cheesecake? These things are the nectar of the gods!) But it's always safe. I've been weirdly conscious of that lately for all sorts of reasons, at least in part because of stories like that night years ago. Actually, people are nice to us for no reason than the fact we're on a date.

We get smiles and jokes from waiters when we have a three hour dinner on a slow evening. Those same waiters assume we're on one check. No one looks at us strangely when we're walking down a street together. In fact, cultural norms say that I'm safer when walking down a dark street with him than I would be by myself or with another woman. PDA is totally acceptable, even though we're not PDA people so that's mostly irrelevant. Everywhere, anywhere we go, it's safe for us to be together.

We're safe because we're heterosexual, cisgendered people. We're safe because we're both Anglo at a "Please give me some sunscreen" level. We're safe because we embody what is "normal." We're what this society has always privileged. There's something decidedly eerie about that fact. Maybe unsettling is a more accurate word.

Now, a few days after same-sex marriage has been legal in the state where I live and work, that privilege is even more unsettling. Ministers willing to perform same-sex weddings the day the ruling came were asked to be in pairs for safety. I was not among those performing weddings because of a funeral, but I have heard of the tears, and the joy, and the incredulity. I started this particular post weeks ago, unsure of how to end it.

Now I know: we're closer to the reign of God than we were a few days ago. Of that I am certain. Still, I long for the day when safety isn't a privilege for people who just happen to be walking down a street.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Drive Along the Border

I've lived in Arizona well over a year, but it took a trip to San Diego to actually see the United States-Mexico border. When I looked at the route my phone told me to take, I knew I'd drive along the border for a few miles. I was excited to at least look into Mexico, especially since I've been cautioned not to drive into Mexico and my expired passport means I won't even be walking into Mexico.

And I did, indeed, get to at least look into Mexico. The memories of those few miles of road make me wince. You see, when I started looking for the border fence I've heard so much about, I wasn't quite sure what I was looking for. So there was this not too intimidating fence that I drove by and wondered, "Is that it?" I should have known that if you have to ask, no that's not it. For when I saw the looming border fence, there was no doubt that was it. It rose dark on the horizon. In a different landscape, it would look quite large. Open desert tends to dwarf things and throw off perception, especially for people like me who have mostly lived in other places. Still, the border fence rose out of the ground, twisting and turning, snaking its way across the desert.

Rationally, I knew that the landscape on either side of the fence would look mostly the same. Still, I found myself a bit surprised that the dunes to the left and to the right of the road looked the same, as did the distant mountains on either side. In between, there was only this winding, snaking fence--more shadow than anything as the road moved me farther from it. Without it, there's no way I could have drawn a line in the sand between the U.S. and Mexico.

On the way to San Diego, it seemed I followed the fence for miles and miles. On the way back, it seemed so short a distance. I can't say which perception is truer. By the time I was driving near the border fence headed back to Phoenix, I'd come to recognize the white and green vehicles of border patrol. Some were sedans, some vans, some SUVs, some trucks, but all with the same distinct markings. I didn't worry about my speed so much around those vehicles, which were far more numerous than any regular law enforcement vehicle.

I learned to recognize those vehicles when I went through a border patrol checkpoint. It was clearly designed to be mobile, or at least moveable, which I imagine happens with some regularity. All the traffic on that stretch of I-8 was funneled into a single point by concrete barriers normally used for construction. A construction site style trailer sat to one side. Border patrol vehicles were everywhere. I sat there, behind maybe half a dozen vehicles in line. Six cameras were pointed at me before I reached the officers. One of the officers had a dog. Another officer held a flashlight. I think there were more officers standing there, but those are the two I remember. I rolled down my window because that seemed the most logical thing to do. The officer barely glanced at me before he said, "Thank you, ma'am." As I drove away, I wondered if it was the color of my skin that meant I was waved away so freely. My old pickup truck has caused suspicion at other times since moving to Arizona, but that suspicion always wanes quickly. I'd bet a great deal of money that happens because my skin is light.

And still I wince at the entire experience. My stomach feels a little strange when I think about the fence and the checkpoint. I can't put my finger on why those things happen. I know I'm bothered by such visible symbols of a fear of people other than us. I know I'm bothered by the Christian failure to welcome the immigrant. I know the feeling of military presence--even if that's not what it should be or is called--is unnerving to me. For once, my mostly dormant patriotism rises from its sleep, certain that we've somehow traded freedom for an illusion of security. I know that I'd rather any government spend money on schools than guns.

The best summary of what I know: we're getting it wrong. Our resources--money, time, energy--are being spent in ways that don't fix our problems. We're getting it wrong. There has to be a better way to live together than what we're doing now.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Church Gifts

On my vacation a few days ago (really, only a few days?), I had the chance to worship at the church where I was ordained. Because of my weird, weird churchy past, it's the last place I can actually show up at and be more at home than at not. Ordination boundaries mean I check with the current pastor before showing up for worship, of course. Still, it's home in some way, which the churches of my childhood aren't.

But that's not really the point. I had lots of angst in the weeks before, wondering if it was really ok to show up. No one wants to read all the angst-y arguments that went through my head. Finally, I decided that yes, it is truly ok to return to the church where I was ordained because if for no other reason than the fact that I was ordained there, I am forever a part of them and them of me. So I went, with the kernel of one of the angst-y head argument resolutions that I was good for them.

And I was. Songs and laughter and Bible stories and tears and Spirit-breated unbelievable times together good for them. Really, it was spectacular. Yes, there were rough times and God knows I juggled church and seminary with varying levels of competency. But at the end of the day, I was good for them. That's absolutely true. I'm pretty sure they'd mostly agree with me, too. I was good for them.

The thing is, though, they were good for me. Maybe it's because I have a vocation tied to the church that I first consider how I contributed to that place. Maybe. In general, I think people who look for church are looking for a way to contribute to church. We want a place that realizes our presence matters so it's easy to forget that often, so often, church is good for us. Church has something to offer us. Church has something to invite us into. But that church was so good for me.

When I think of this church, I think of what they put up with from me. Yeah, I was pretty good at my job, but not all the time. There were certainly some cringeworthy children's sermons and a couple horrid times leading worship. Some of their children will probably mention at least one or two Ms. Abby inflicted things in therapy one day if they haven't already. (Yeah, I accidentally spit on a germaphobic kid. Long story, but oops.)  Sometimes things fell apart when I decided to wing something I should have winged. Yeah, they put up with a lot from.

And when I think of this church, I remember that they trusted me. Really, really trusted me. Even the most protective parents, in the long run, trusted me to take their kids places overnight and listen to their kids when their kids weren't talking to them. They trusted me to have difficult conversations with their kids. They trusted me with keys and money and codes and all sorts of things. Even then, that seemed crazy. It was a holy trust, though, and one I'm pretty sure I lived into well.

When I think of this church, I know that they loved me. Maybe past tense is even wrong. They loved me in my overly nerdy, quirky self. Yes, I mostly taught kids, and the parents and kids learned together that I'm a Bible nerd and they (mostly) learned to love it, too. Someone left the Easter chocolate I really like on my desk each year. They adjusted to the ebb and flow of seminary work. Really, why on earth did the Christmas play and finals week always coincide? When I run across things that were gifts at my ordination, the names etched in book covers and on cards evoke far more than someone spending some money on me. They loved me.

Yes, I was good for the church, but they were so very good for me. They gave me space for many things, which included naming my call to ministry for sure, but much more than that. So very much more than that.

And for churches, whose numbers in the pews and in the budget are dwindling, that's easy to forget. For churches who will never be the megachurch whose shadow they live in, it's hard to believe. But it's true. Churches, never forget that. You are good for those people who walk in your doors. You are good for the people who choose to remain with you, even if you can't figure out why on earth they're staying. Church, you have something to offer. I promise. In fact, Church, you'll probably never know how very good you are for so many people. Trust that. Remember that. Take pride in that. Because yes, church, you are good for your people, even if you don't always know it.

Today, I am so thankful for how very, very good that church in the suburbs of Atlanta was for me.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

"Thy Kingdom Come:" September 11

I, like most of my friends, know where I was thirteen years ago today. On this day, we remember those who died. We remember our fear. We pray something like that never happens again. In all those things, though, there is a deeper ache within me, a feeling that something is terribly wrong with how things look thirteen years later.

You see, in the fall of 2001, I was starting my senior year of high school. That day was the birthday of one of my classmates with whom I sat watching the news unfold. I think we were in a Sociology class together that day. The guy from Jostens came to yearbook class that day, so no watching the news during that class. I missed the breaking news because I was in choir and the teacher had her television unplugged. Most of all, I remember that interminable hope of 17 and 18 year olds. We weren't sure we would conquer the world. Most of us didn't even want to save it. We were, though, about to graduate high school and start We were filled with anticipation even if we couldn't have said that at the time. Something Else was coming.

Those next years brought a great deal of change for most of us. In those thirteen years, I graduated from high school, college, and a master's degree. I was ordained. I lived five different states. I had seven different part time jobs and two different full-time jobs. Maybe more jobs than that, depending on how you like to count. I could count that passage of time in a few different ways if I so chose.

Some members of my class ended up enlisting in the military because of September 11. Honestly, I lost touch and don't know what happened to them. I imagine some are counted among the wounded and the casualties.

That day, though, I remember waiting to hear the U.S. President speak, waiting to hear what would happen as a result of the attacks. At barely seventeen, I didn't have a strong opinion, which is and was a rare thing, even at seventeen. Now, I know I wish I had heard something different, something that, somehow, echoed the notion, "Peace."

I'm now strangely conscious of the fact that the bombings and bloodshed and occupation of countries as a result of the 9/11 attacks have shaped my entire adult world. I have few words about what to do with this reality. I have few ideas about what could actually, truly make things better. So I let the words of Jesus echo around me, "Thy kingdom come." Bold, terrifying, assuring prayer that those words are, that somehow God's reign could rush in and take hold, I hope, "Thy kingdom come."

I hope it, because thirteen years ago, I never would have imagined the fear of that day would still feature so prominently in our lives. "Thy kingdom come."

He shall judge between the nations,
     and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
     and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
     neither shall they learn war any more.  
                                                           (Isaiah 2:4)

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Hope When Broken is Normal

The world seems more broken lately. It's hard to even make the list of how exactly it is broken. The news cycle ebbs and flows with stories of violence between Israel and Palestine. News from Ukraine and Syria fill the ebbs, at least as far as world news goes, with some ebola sprinkled in for good measure. Riots follow the death of Michael Brown. And yes, Robin Williams' suicide fits in there, too. I admit, I feel differently about his death than I would most celebrities' deaths. Some gifts that people share with us are life-altering; his definitely was.

Yet, it's strange, because somehow, all this brokenness feels normal. It feels like the reality of the world I was born into. I make it into the category of "millennial" no matter who is drawing the lines. Sometimes I just squeak in with my 1984 birthday. Others people who study demographics draw the line a little earlier, 1981 or so. As with most things, there's ambiguity about when something truly begins or changes. Suffice it to say, though, that I am thoroughly a millennial. My distrust of institutions surprises even me. Friends are family and I trust friends to help me make decisions more than other generations have. And yeah, I'm just fine with making pot legal and a liberal view of economics is putting it mildly. The list could go on and on.

My personal theory is that being born in the United States after Vietnam created a lot of the world views for my particular version of millennial, particularly distrust of institutions. I've also grown up as 24 hour news cycles were being created. In my lifetime, the shift from evening news to news bombardment has happened. Now it's a world of clickbait to see which news sources can get the most traffic. I don't remember a world where there weren't US troops somewhere in a desert on the other side of the world. At times, it's a frightening echo of the book titled for the year of my birth, 1984: we're always at war somewhere. In my lifetime, we've mostly not called the endless something somewhere war. Partly due to where I grew up, the problems of poverty have always been part of my life, even if my family was mostly comfortable. The Great Recession just took what I knew beyond the hills of Kentucky.

I don't say any of this with anger or even disillusionment. I'm mostly neither optimist nor pessimist, just realist. In fact, plenty of people find my detachment and analytical habits maddening. (And I'm good with that.) Yet, all the things that make me so typical of my generation lead me to the thing that makes me atypical for my generation: I'm still doing church.

I might have SBNR leanings in my faith language. I might have just as little hope and trust in the institution of church as I do other institutions. I'm a religious sampler in a lot of ways and a Christian tradition sampler in many more ways. Being in ministry within a particular tradition is a near-constant negotiation for me. No one would ever describe me as orthodox; I call it mannerism in practice. In the midst of all of my doubts and weirdness about my faith, though, I can't shake the hope of the reign of God.

The idea that maybe, probably, hopefully, the reign of God is at hand, breaking into this world at any moment, ready to redeem, to pull us out of the worst messes, holds my imagination. I get glimpses from time to time. There's are brief, glittering moments when it seems like something so new, straight from the hands of God, is about to take over all the brokenness. Then the glimpse is gone. And I want it again so much that I keep going, keep putting faith in the fact that it was not merely a glimpse, but something new coming.

And I live that hope with the church. The broken, often-crazy, weird beyond all belief thing that is the church. I do it despite church life being out of sync with my life a great deal of the time because they're the people who get it. They're the people who have also seen the glimpses and long for more. They're the people willing to say, "Yes, let's give this reign of God thing a shot," even if they're not remotely sure what that looks like right now.

So I do church. And I proclaim faith that God is doing a new thing in the midst of all the brokenness. And somehow, it gives voice and life to all the millennial who-knows-ness I feel most of the time. So I do the reign of God things that I understand and I pray that God will redeem all the messes and mostly, I live in the hope that God is not done with this world or with me. And maybe, just maybe, there is salvation after all.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Sell Everything?

His name was Michael, that charismatic cook at a rescue mission. His theological language never matched my own, but I could never help but smile around him. He always had his volunteers sing at the end of our time together, re-writing songs most of them had never heard with Christian lyrics. I always giggled inwardly, wondering what these beloved but self-sheltering people would do if they knew how much profanity was in the original lyrics.

As we circled up at the close of the evening, he pulled a black, well-weathered Bible from somewhere and would hand it to one of us to look up a Bible verse or two. At least twice, he had us read the story of the rich young ruler. The adjectives are taken from a multiple Gospels, but the story is the basically the same. Someone comes to Jesus asking what he should do to enter the kingdom of heaven. When Jesus tells him, "Keep the commandments," he answers, "I've done this since my youth." Then, the more difficult response comes, "Sell everything you have and give it to the poor." In at least one Gospel account, the man goes away very sad, for he had great wealth.

Michael would always add, "This is not a commandment, but a prescription for this particular man's ailment." I don't know if that's actually what he believed or if it was his way of letting off the hook the people who came to his kitchen to volunteer. After all, most were overwhelmingly wealthy by the standards of the people who ate from his kitchen every day. Living comfortably in the US, by global standards, means everyone there was rich.

For what it's worth, I'm pretty the real answer was somewhere in between. The man standing there with us knew better than most do about how difficult it is to bridge the world between people who are firmly middle class--able to pay all their bills and have some disposable income--and the people who are the poorest around. He was the one gently telling our teenage girls to not walk between the tables. He was the one who had called the police more times than he could count. He was the one who had spent many years hearing the same stories of addiction and illness coming out of so many mouths.

I'm more sympathetic that that rich young ruler than I would have been a few years ago. Yes, he probably was too attached to his wealth. But as someone who has now regularly turned away the poor for a few years, I don't think he was a bad guy so much as he knew the difficulty of loving the poor, which yes, includes giving them your money.

Last week, a man I recognized came to the church mid-week. I was in a part of the building where he saw me, and I sent him to the secretary. I knew his story, or at least the one he would offer. He lives in his car and needs some help with a hotel. I first heard this story over a year ago, the first time I told him we had no funds for that sort of thing. Back then we had a conversation about where he could go for help, where he could find a program that would help him get a home and not have to live in his car. He wasn't interested in it. He was just fine where he was, if I could just put him up in a hotel for the night. The secretary had run into him at one of the other churches where she works as well. He offered the same story there.

Two weeks ago, a woman came asking for help with money to get her into Section 8 housing. I found a couple holes in her story pretty quickly. I know she lied to me about at least one thing. She used every guilt-tactic possible to get me to give her something else. While we were talking, one of her kids jumped the fence into the church courtyard where the playground is. The others let themselves into the building and found their way through the classrooms out to the courtyard, too.

Ask your pastor, or your church secretary, or anyone who regularly works with the poor. All of them will have stories of being yelled at, of vandalism, of scam artists, of calling police. All of them will have stories about how very, very difficult it is to love the poor.

Back to Michael's interpretation of the rich young ruler. Actually, I don't think Jesus' words were a specific prescription to that one person in that one place. I think they were words for us all. "Sell everything you have and give the money to the poor." I also know they're crazy hard words to hear, much less live. I think that's why we've had to read and hear them over and over and over again for a couple millennia. Let's start with confessing what we often refuse to admit: loving the poor is hard. Jesus reminds us we have to do it any way.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Punch in the Stomach

Last night, my congregation hosted the local interfaith emergency housing program. Basically, that means homeless people sleep in our church and we provide food. Some folks who provide food will stay and eat, too. I'm usually one of the ones who sits down to eat with our guests for the evening. I often get the side-cocked head of confusion when I tell them I'm the pastor, but it's mostly good, easy conversation.

Well, kind of. It's weird conversation because it's a weird set-up. I feel weird even talking about this program that makes me feel a bit self-righteous because oh, look at us, we help the homeless. And it's awkward for our guests, too, because, hey, everyone in the room knows beyond a doubt that they are homeless. So I try to make it less weird. I introduce myself and ask their name. I ask about their life beyond being homeless. Where they grew up. What they like to do. I want to see them as more than homeless, as people. It has always seemed like something Jesus would do.

During last night's dinner conversation, we were talking about movies and what new movies we'd like to see. As I proclaimed my love of horror movies, which I often do, the conversation naturally turned to The Purge: Anarchy. It's the recently released sequel to The Purge. The basic premise of both movies is that for one night a year all crime is legal. Murder is included in that. I have yet to see the first one, but one of my dining companions had.

"You know," he said, "I really didn't like that part where they killed all the homeless people."

And silence took the place of words. Because what do you say to that? What could I say to that? I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach.

What could I say when reality trumps ideals? Yes, the people I had dinner with last night are people. They are neighbors Jesus calls me to love. They bear the image of God. I do those people a disservice when I dehumanize them--we all do--but I also do those people a disservice when I don't see them as homeless. Like it or not, homeless is part of their identity, especially when they're sleeping in my church.

And homeless means vulnerable in a way most of us never experience.

Homeless means mostly sleeping where you could be attacked. At the very least, you could be ridiculed and harassed because the broader culture says that's ok. Oh, and you know how we're taught to worry that the homeless person is high on drugs? Or drunk? Or mentally ill? Those same worries exist when you are homeless. It doesn't help that popular culture continues to say, "These are the people who don't matter." I'm not much help when I want to talk about things other than being homeless. For better or worse, "homeless" dictates a lot that goes on in the life of homeless person.

I wish I knew what to do with all that. I wish I had some great revelation to share. Mostly, I'm just pondering the fact that adjectives do matter and that it's ok to let them matter. Sometimes, loving my neighbor means loving my homeless neighbor in particular.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Train Ride

The guy was dressed head to toe in Cubs gear, having obviously been to support his favorite team at the game. He was ready to talk to anyone. He joked with the teenager who had a teddy bear in an Arizona Diamondbacks t-shirt. "You put a cub in that?"

A stop or two later, another man got on the train. This guy's clothes were shabbier; I'd bet he was a far more regular rider. He was wearing an Arizona Cardinals t-shirt. The Cubs guy had to jump on that, arguing that baseball was the better sport, not lowly football. Cardinals guy wasn't biting. Cubs guy then started an argument with him about whether or not there are actually cardinals in Arizona. It was a calculated move, so calculated that one of the people standing nearby said, "What you're trying to start a fight about is stupid. Stop it." Yes, random man on the train, you are correct.

Cubs guy did stop, for a while, but tried to make conversation with a couple other folks. The train was crowded; there were plenty of other possibilities. When Cardinals guy got off the train, Cubs guy tried to talk to me. "You taking the number…?" I don't remember what bus he asked about. I said no and refused to make eye contact, again. I'd figured out early on that this guy was a pretty off. Still, it was a pretty calm train ride overall. Cardinals guy did crowd my space, but my bubble is so large that it doesn't take much.

As in many places in the US, public transit sucks where I live. Out of either conviction or guilt, I take the bus and the train whenever it's actually somewhat convenient. That mostly means trips to the airport or downtown Phoenix. Getting anywhere else is prohibitively complicated and time-consuming. Taking the bus to work would take at least an hour; the drive is under five miles and takes under ten minutes if I miss all the lights.

I'm not going to lie, weird stuff happens on public transit, especially the buses. All the in-person arrests I've seen have been on public transit, though I've yet to see anyone arrested in Phoenix. Sometimes, people make out for extended periods of time. There's always a smelly guy or two. The conversations are often colorful; let's say they're not for the modest. I often think of the kids who are overhearing these conversations, too. I was twice their age before I knew the word they just heard 5 times in under a minute.

Still, I take the bus and the train and wish I could do so more regularly. The world there is different than the world I live in. It's a class difference, especially on the bus. I get that. I know how far into the next town I am based on who's getting on the bus. The divide is visible between a community that's struggling and one that's doing well. I also have the privilege of choosing public transportation when it's convenient for me, not being limited to it.

Public transit reminds me, though, of how different my life is from Jesus' life. It's so rare that I'm in a place with people who need social service agencies unless I'm helping at the social service agency. I'd wager the same is true for most of the people in my congregation. I don't pass beggars on the street; I rarely walk down a street. I'm far away from anyone crying out for help. I rarely pass anyone asking for food. I don't know where the free clinics are and have only a vague idea of where an office of the Department of Economic Security is located.

In short, I participate in a society that has segregated classes, sometimes with frightening intentionality. Things like public transit are reserved for people who can't afford anything else. Serving people who are poor is in well-controlled environments. Relationships with people who are poor are hard to find. It's only in those minutes on a train or a bus that I realize that most of the people on the bus are not the people I encounter in my everyday life. They're literally my neighbors; we get off at the same stop. But I never see them at the grocery store or the gas station. They disappear into places I don't know about.

I can't shake the reality that "Love your neighbor" is really hard if you've never met your neighbor. I can't shake the idea that maybe our poor neighbors wouldn't have it so rough if we did know each other. I can't shake the feeling that a whole herd of the sheep Jesus told us to tend and feed are nowhere to be found. If we spent more time on the buses, we just might notice the neighbors who are missing from our lives.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Forgotten Commandment

I spent last week in western New York state in a lakeside community that is only full nine weeks out of the year. A very few people are year round residents. I was there for a new clergy program and spent the week hearing lectures and good preaching every day, alongside talented colleagues also in their first years of ministry. Nights brought opera, ballet, concerts, and front porch gatherings.

There, among Victorian houses complete with brick walking paths, there was an intentional presence of a bygone era. For those of us who were guests who applied to a program rather than guests who paid for their time there, we had plenty of discussions of privilege and what it meant to walk on those grounds. Retired people could more easily visit than those still working. Those who rented homes and brought their children with them to this place were well above the middle of the middle class. The community was less diverse in race and class than the places we call home.

Even for us, it was a place of leisure, as it was for the other guests. We had wonderful, engaged conversations. "Continuing education" wasn't a misnomer. Yet, I walked along the lake between lectures and the dinner that someone else was preparing. I sat with new friends in the cool of the evening air, talking. (They drink beer; my drink of choice was not available.) Meals brought plenty of laughter and conversation, too. In church world, that sort of re-creation is normally called Sabbath.

In that place of such privilege, I couldn't ignore the privilege of leisure time. I knew before that days off are a privilege not granted to many. Of course I knew that vacations, especially ones away from home, are something many people cannot afford. Then, there are those of us who have jobs that allow us time away and enough money to fund time away, but still feel we can't afford to take it. Leisure always has a not so pretty economic side to it.

But the truth is, it always has. I had to memorize the Ten Commandments in various forms throughout my life. Yes, we covered both numbering systems. Sometimes I had to recite them verbatim, other times I just had to provide the gist.

Among those commandments (which I shall refrain from numbering), the commandment to keep Sabbath has the most explanation--several sentences more explanation than any other, actually. Here's the whole thing, "Observe the sabbath and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days shall you labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work--you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day."

 And still, we choose slavery. We choose not to rest. We create and support economic systems that do not allow other people to rest. We enslave ourselves and others, thereby denying God's claim on our life.

Part of the week was joining a Jewish community for their service welcoming the Sabbath--bowing, singing, eating, all out celebrating God's gift of a time of rest. May we all one day celebrate the gift of Sabbath rest.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Bigger than Hobby Lobby

At age 27, I signed up for swim lessons. It took lots of time on Google and perusing swimming schedules and I never did find a group class for adults just learning to swim. Instead, I shelled out $80 for a private instructor. I'm still terrible at the breaststroke and breathing often enough, but I can swim. Actually, I can swim pretty well.

I never learned to swim as a child in part because there wasn't anyone to teach me. Going swimming was also a big deal; pools were few and far between. Giant water parks were hours away. The primary reason that I never learned to swim, though, was that I am female and swimming requires a swimsuit. Those two things were incompatible. By about age 10--that magical age of puberty and accountability--swimsuits were frowned upon by my family. They were immodest. The need for modesty was somehow tied to being Christian, though I don't remember how.

My always chubby but always female body was always carefully guarded, especially in church. Prior to age 20, I had worn pants to church exactly once in my life. There are still Sunday mornings when I pull on a pair of dress pants and there's a quick thought, "Wow, I'm wearing pants to church." In some ways, that's a bigger deal than standing in a pulpit each Sunday. I was not required to cover my head in worship, but that was not uncommon in the area where I grew up. Youth events, even those with wild games, often required skirts for modesty's sake. My hair was very, very long until I was in middle school. Again, that age of accountability thing. By then, I could decide for myself if short hair on a woman is sinful or not. Overall, my family was of the opinion women could have short hair as long as no one was trying to pass for a man. There are biblical prescriptions to go with that as well.

My stories could go on and on. My stories are mild, though, in comparison to others. Teenage girls were discouraged from seeking medical care, especially from a gynecologist, since "no man would want to touch you after that." A friend who dared to purchase colored underwear her first year of college was dragged home since it was clear she had become promiscuous. The colored underwear was burned in a brushfire.

Churches, especially conservative churches, have made a habit of policing women's bodies--clothing, hairstyles, makeup to what they do with those bodies, especially anything that might end in a pregnant body. It's damaging in so many ways. Women learn not only to hate their bodies, but to fear them. Often, they are not taught how to care for their bodies or seek medical care. They're often reduced to only bodies. They learn, from a very young age, that being female means I'm someone the church has to worry about--the kind of worry mixed with fear of this thing in their midst. As is often the unspoken goal, they learn to hide themselves on the margins of the church and all public life.

You might guess by now this has something to do with Hobby Lobby and the recent ruling by the Supreme Court. I disagree with it for all kinds of reasons, but know this: it points to a far bigger problem in our world that has been fed by churches. We keep saying over and over and over that women's bodies are dangerous. They are dangerous when they tempt roving eyes. They are dangerous when they're pregnant, unavoidable evidence of sex. They are dangerous if they are not pure. And, of course, they should always be pretty.

And yes, all of that is lurking behind a corporation claiming religious exemption all the way up to the Supreme Court. There's no easy fix for centuries of treating women as second class citizens; it's clear we're not done yet.

Maybe, just maybe, the Church can lead the way instead of trying to tug things backward. Maybe--if the Church can learn to love our daughters and sisters, bodies and all.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Three Kids, Two Brides, and Me

On May 30th, I performed my 3rd wedding and my first same-sex wedding. The other first that weekend was missing a flight (and thanking God that a bar in the time-zoneless world of the airport was open).

Photo by Jan Simonelli
There are a lot of things I could say about the wedding. The venue was beautiful. The food was yummy, especially the homemade desserts. It was a wedding. Some people assume a same-sex wedding has to be a bit weird, or off the wall, or something--something outside the realm of so-called normal weddings.

And it wasn't. There were cute kids in dress-up clothes, one of whom handed out flowers instead of throwing flower petals. She loved the flowers too much for them to get stepped on. Both brides wore white dresses. Parents cried. Families gathered, not all of whom were crazy about each other. It was a wedding, traditional order of service and words and all the rest.

It was a wedding that felt so right. I stood there in front of friends that I love, and miss more than I realized, and asked them to pledge their love to one another. We asked God to bless their marriage and their family that already includes three kids. The vows they wrote on their own reflected how deeply they understood the covenant of marriage they now share. I smiled throughout the ceremony without thinking about it; I was so glad I was able to bless their marriage. The joy of being with them as a minister on that day surprised me.

Sometimes, we quote the Bible, both the right and left's version of clobber verses, to talk about same-sex marriage. Sometimes, we decide to claim the Spirit is moving in new ways and forget about the verses to back it up. Too many times, we have to divvy up same-sex marriage and marriage with no adjectives, which is its own double-edged sword; if we just say "marriage" people think only a man and  a woman, if we say "same-sex marriage," then we clearly must be talking about something different than real marriage.

Knowing all of that, I offer the one thing I do know as a pastor who recently and wholeheartedly uttered the words, "I now pronounce you wife and wife": the fruit is enough.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits."

I stood in front of these two women and I saw the fruit of their relationship: happy, crazy excited kids; family that supported them; love that was evident even to this clueless, often misanthropic person; a desire to have God's blessing, too; abundant hospitality. All around, piles and piles of good fruit.
So yes, I'm certain, the fruit is enough.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Offensive Grace

When I was in college, I had the full scholarship--as in the school was small enough that there was only one. In exchange, I was supposed to tutor ten hours a week and generally be a campus leader. So I did--Habitat for Humanity, honors societies, and a whole host of other on-campus groups. It also meant that I was not about to get in trouble.

My junior year was rough, for a few reasons, and I decided to stay on-campus the following summer. I got a job at a local restaurant, starting work the week of finals. For the restaurant job, I needed to wear a tie, which I didn't own. Of course, I asked one of my guy friends to borrow one. He asked me to follow him back to his dorm to grab one on a rainy spring day.

My college was a conservative Christian college. Liberal in its tradition, but conservative in the grand scheme of things. That included dorms segregated by gender. When the guy from whom I was borrowing a tie told me to step into the back hallway to get out of the rain, I said I'd go to the lobby instead, where women could be until midnight. But he insisted it was silly and I should step inside for the three minutes it would take him to run to his room.

So I did. And when I stepped back out, the person in charge of all of residence life was standing there. Of course, on a small college campus where I had my hand in so many things, she knew who I was. She called me over, asked what I was doing, and didn't like my answer. "I'll contact you later," she said, as she walked off with the person to whom she had been talking.

Panicked doesn't quite cover my reaction, but it's sufficient for what went on in my room for the next few minutes. Eventually, I picked up the phone to call a friend. What else do you do but call a friend? (These were pre-cell phone days.) When I did, I had a message. It was from the person who had just caught me.

"You've never done anything like this before. Don't worry about it this time and don't do it, again."

I told that story to high school kids at camp this summer. I broke up the story with one from the Bible, the story of the woman caught in adultery, to whom Jesus said, "Go and sin no more." When I finally gave them the resolution to my own story, though, they began grumbling. Immediately, there were scoffs and grumblings and I heard at least one, "I'd have gotten in so much trouble for that!"

I laughed as they reacted and let them do so for a few minutes. It tied into the sermon well. Their reaction was a reminder of something that's easy to forget: grace is offensive.

If done well, if applied generously, if extended in the worst of circumstances, grace is offensive.

We forget that, assuming grace is something positive, wonderful, transforming. And it is. But it's also offensive.

Grace means not getting your just deserts.
Grace does not mean justice.
Grace means guilty people get off scot-free.

Of course that's offensive. And of course that's God.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Camp & Jesus

Last week was camp week for our Region. In one of those oh-now-you're-doing-this situations that I'm pretty sure only happens in church world, I went to camp with high school students. Yeah, I said I only do little kid camp. And I ended up as the keynote speaker for the week. Again, church world. Weird things happen.

Surprisingly, high school camp and little kid camp aren't all that different. The high school kids are better at taking showers all by themselves but both age groups have to be told they must take a shower. The older kids go to sleep way easier than the little kids; I think I got at least six and a half hours of sleep every single night. "Ok. Quiet time," actually works with high school kids. Amazing.

Crafts are just as beloved by the older kids. They, too, make messes when eating--more so than the little kids, actually. It's really nice to be able to let the kids who serve on the regional Youth Council be in charge of something for a while. No one asks for help getting dressed either. Well, if they do, they ask another camper instead of the counselor.

What was surprising to me was that the older kids cried more than the little kids usually do. The tears weren't about skinned knees or homesickness; these tears were about problems that were a lot harder to fix. Unlike the little kids, the high school kids hugged often and long. They gave side hugs and bear hugs and hugs from behind. They weren't ready to let go a lot of the time.

When the week was over, rather than tiredly trudging back to the cabins, the older kids lingered, tears in their eyes. No, not all of them did that, but a lot of them did. This week of camp was harder for me than any other week of camp I've done; well, at least it was hard in a different way. I've never thought quite so much about kids in the week following camp before. Usually, I just try to recover from my own post-camp stupor.

The last keynote of camp was a reminder of Jesus' words, "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength,' and 'Love your neighbor as yourself;' for that is the law and the prophets." As I still pray for those kids from last week, still worry about them for all sorts of reasons, I keep coming back to those words of Jesus. (Jesus' words have a way of sneaking back up at inconvenient times, for better or worse.) We're not always good at loving our neighbors, especially our sometimes-prone-to-obnoxiousness teenage neighbors. We talk about wanting youth programs and youth energy, as long as the youth do mostly what we want.

I'm pretty sure we'd be better off if we didn't worry quite so much about youth group and instead worried about how to love our kids. And you know what, the ways we love our kids at camp aren't earth-shattering, hard to do things. They're things like:

  • Kids get hugs when they need them (but they're never forced to hug).
  • Kids are treated with respect, including being given responsibilities.
  • Adults listen to kids.
  • There's plenty of food.
  • Kids are kept safe. 
If Church did all those things well, we might be surprised at how fast God's reign takes over. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Haunted by Words

In a few more days, I head off to camp. This year, I'm a counselor and a keynote speaker for the high school kids. God help me. Seriously.

The curriculum is based on how we got the Bible; I'm spinning it a bit to be why we care about the Bible. There's lots of talking about story, as you can imagine.

At the same time, I'm prepping my sermon for the Sunday after camp, which just happens to be Pentecost. The story we tell each year is the coming of the Holy Spirit to the church at that feast, creating something knew. Pentecost is often called the birthday of the church.

In this weird place where I'm figuring out how to talk with high school kids about what the Bible is and why it matters and preaching the story of Pentecost, I realize how many words from the Bible haunt me.

I vividly recall sitting in a class on the history of my denomination when one of the other students turned and said with more than a little irritation, "Did you memorize the entire Bible?" Well, in the world where I grew up, memorization of scripture was a big freakin' deal. In a lot of ways, the goal was to memorize the Bible.

These words, though, linger in other places. As one of Jesus' early followers, Peter, explains what is going on, he quotes the prophet Joel, "'In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy."

The first time I really heard those words was when Berenice Clifton, a character on the '80s sitcom Designing Women whose craziness was described as "an arterial flow problem above the neck," quoted them. The episode was called "How Great Thou Art." The topic was women in ministry, and she was fighting a Southern Baptist minister who was adamant that women should be silent in church. I took notes the first time I saw that episode, at least mental notes, and went flipping through my Bible to make sure all the things she was saying were really in there. Even though I'd read the Bible in its entirety a few times by then, I heard what I'd been taught; somehow, I skipped over what would become life-giving texts.

When, in college, we had to memorize a few passages of scripture for biblical survey classes, I more or less hugged the list of texts to my chest when I saw Joel 2:28 on it. Here were the words that I had thought were marginal words, and they were important enough to be tested on. It was a dream come true for this Bible nerd still trying to hear the possibility of call.

Now, ten or twelve years later, I'm preaching on these words, as I have before. And I can't shake all the times I have heard these words before. They haunt me. They are friendly ghosts for sure, but ghosts nonetheless. They bring back other times and places even as they invite me to new things.

My conclusion, at best, is this, "You're doing it right." From the Gospel architect Luke to screenwriters to my own teachers, "You're doing it right." For I'm certain these words will haunt me all my life as they have so many faithful before me. The words will push me to new places. The words will bubble up in moments of fear, offering assurance. Words that will do all those things--yeah, you're doing it right.

I'm so grateful for these words, these ghosts. Perhaps most of all, I love that I get to introduce others to these beautiful, haunting words.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Four Years

Today is the fourth anniversary of my ordination. The picture attached to this blog is from that day. Like most special occasions, people from all phases of my life were there. It was a churchy celebration for sure, but a wonderful churchy celebration. Preaching and packages and singing. Cute kids and lots of hugs.

In the middle of it all, me, with all of the craziness somehow swirling around me. Here were all the people from my many communities joined together to say, "God has called her."

For all the craziness leading up to that day, and all the hullabaloo that afternoon, I've never been quite so calm or so certain of something. The weight of the robe, the stole, felt just right. That remains true to this day.

I think back on those four years and wonder how to best measure them. There are so many ways to count.

Five baptisms.
Four funerals.
Two weddings.
Only God knows how many pizzas.
Three churches. 
Three states.
Four places I've called home.
Two weeks of camp.
A lock-in or two or three.
Somewhere around 200 Sundays in worship.
Bible studies--who knows how many.
Prayers--God knows that, too.

So many things still to count. So many things that could be named. All these things that are part of the ebb and flow of church life. Well, not just church life, all life. 

Because the best summation is to say that this has been my life for the past four years. There are certainly things in my life that are not church, but I mostly keep count in church time.

Four years later, I'm still glad that I responded, "Here I am."

Where shall God send me next?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Love & (Gay) Marriage

It seems to be the week of striking down gay marriage bans. Oregon and Pennsylvania are the most recent. Other states--well, commonwealths--are fighting the fact their ban was struck down. Some are fighting with attorneys hired just for that purpose.

I'm happy that the bans are disappearing. I hope and pray that they all are struck down. I hope that some time soon, we realize this is a federal issue, too, not just a state one, if for no other reason than immigration is federal.

Yet, every time I see another headline about a marriage ban struck down, I keep thinking that it's not quite enough. Yes, same-sex couples can marry in that state. But they can do so only because a judge somewhere said, "You don't get to stop them." It might be a matter of semantics, but it's not the same as saying, "We think you should be able to get married."

It's the difference between loving your neighbor and tolerating your neighbor. Guess what? Christians are called to do the first one, not the second one. Tolerance is the I-guess-I can't-stop-you response. Love is the of-course-you-deserve-this-too response.

Love is what's demanded of those of us who follow Christ. Not gritting our teeth. Not pretending it's not happening. Not skipping the questions we don't actually want to know the answer to. Love. As clear as Jesus ever said anything, he said, "Love your neighbor as yourself."

So for those whose weddings past or future include plenty of family and friends, a minister whom you love, vendors who don't look at you and your betrothed strangely or refuse to serve you, and everything tailored to who you are if you're willing to throw enough money into your wedding, remember, "Love your neighbor as yourself."

They deserve more than "Well, now we can't stop you."

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Water in the Desert

I'm incredibly fascinated by water in the desert. I grew up in a place with lots of water--rivers and ponds and spring rains that almost always caused flooding. My grandfather took us to play in caves; until I moved to Arizona, I never thought about dry caves. I think I knew they existed, but wet caves carved by water are the ones I know well. Crawling around in them always meant lots of mud and dripping and riding home sitting on plastic bags.

There's little drinking water most of the time in the Sonoran desert. Hiking means carrying plenty of water with you. Businesses all keep bottled water and hand it out freely. Here, even if you do absolutely nothing that causes you to sweat, it's recommended that people drink half their body weight in ounces each day. Yeah, that's a lot of water. 

Despite the fact that most all of our water is piped in and carefully managed, there are fountains all over the Phoenix area. They're in front of churches, movie theaters, open air malls and housing complexes. My church has one, too, beside the outdoor baptistry. The gurgling of the fountains always turns my head. It's such an unnatural sound here. Water is something noticed and not quite so easily taken for granted.

I think it's that way even for people who have lived here a long time.

On my morning drive today, as I neared the freeway, I noticed bottles of water setting on the median. People often stand near that spot and ask for food or money from the drivers of the cars stuck at the stoplight. It's my assumption that one of the people who regularly passes through there left them for the person who will appear later in the day. Of course, maybe one of those beggars left them for someone else. 

I'm constantly amazed, in this land of clean, readily available drinking water, that the desert brings out the need for water so fully. Echoes from the Bible always enter my mind: the Hebrews who needed Moses to strike a rock for miraculous water because water was that scarce; the words of prophets marveling at God's abundance, like water in the desert; Jesus standing with a woman at a well, talking about water. Here, no one has to tell us how much we need water. Thirst does that all on its own.

As I ponder the life of the Church, as so many ponder the life of the Church with me, and wonder how to communicate the relevance we know we have for the future, it might just be so simple: there is water that you can drink and never be thirsty again.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Inclined to Silence

Most people would be surprised to know that I prefer to be silent, especially people who know me from church world. The first time a seminary roommate accompanied me to church, she was incredulous: "Who is that person and what happened to my roommate?" That shift has to happen at church, given that I've been on staff some place for several years now. 

But I prefer living in a city because I can go unnoticed in coffee shops and grocery stores and restaurants. I can slip in and out with as much anonymity as I like. Usually, I like a lot. I confess, I've even shied away from the pizza place where I was going often enough that they recognize me when I walk in and already know my order. Anonymity. Silence. I like those things.

As someone who literally has a pulpit and in the age of social media when everyone who wants an audience can have one, I still choose silence a great deal of the time. There are several reasons why. A lot of the things people side up on are far more complicated than most make them out to be. 

I also consider a lot of things to be adiaphora. If you're not familiar with the term, Google it for the specifically Christian meaning. Mostly, it's a reference to how much I'm indifferent to. It's not that it doesn't matter to some, but to me, it doesn't matter much at all.

I won't start a list of those things because some day, one of them might move off the list of adiaphora to something I care about a great deal. I'd hate to dig myself a hole like that. 

The result of this inclination to be silent is that people know the handful of things I really care about. They've told me to stop talking about LGBT concerns and I've lost at least one very good friend over those debates. I've offended a few people talking about what the Bible is and isn't. I've confused people employed by food banks who are used to having to sell the notion of food insecurity by being able engage the topic and talk about subsidies and budget cuts and the like. 

My inclination to silence spills over into the church. There are often times I haven't addressed world events in worship that other pastors have chosen to address. It is a choice, though, not negligence. I actually pay quite a bit of attention to national and world news; I confess to skipping out on the local more than I should.

But what if the church, just my church, or the Church, the whole Church, chose just a handful of things to be worried about? What if we declared a whole list of things to be adiaphora and worried about the few remaining ones? 

I'm hesitant to say the Church should ever be silent because there are so many times we have been when we shouldn't have been. But I wonder what would happen if the many drowned out cries about so many things turned to a shout about just a few? 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

People of Resurrection, People of Death

Last week, we held a memorial service for a beloved member of our congregation. We laughed and cried and laughed some more, remembering our part of his 80 years. We sang hymns, then sang some more. When it was all over, we ate and laughed some more and cried some more. Gatherings like those are the Church at its best.

I could make a lot of guesses as to why those gatherings are the Church at his best. It's true, as Paul wrote, we don't grieve as those who have no hope. We're resurrection people after all. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Yet, it's more than that.

We don't just live with the Gospel of abundant life; we live with the Gospel that proclaims abundant life even in the face of death. Year after year, before we tell the story of resurrection, we tell the story of a terrible death by crucifixion. Before we tell of the hope of the resurrection, we tell the story of the hopelessness of the tomb.

And year after year, when death claims those we love, we proclaim resurrection while staring at the hopelessness of death. I'm not sure I could name all the funerals I've attended over the course of my life. I was a young child the first time someone my age who I knew well died. I remember sitting at the funeral of a dear friend when I was not quite 19. There have been funerals of grandparents and friends' parents and beloved members of the church. I have preached the hope of the resurrection and the assurance of God's love at the death of a 4 year old and an 80 year old and some folks in between.

That experience, of the Church and death and funerals, is one of those strange things that has taught me more fully than maybe any other experience what Church is--community, support, and hope beyond wildest imagination. And the proclamation, "Do not be afraid." Even death, in all its pain and weirdness and surprise, is part of our lives. And resurrection shall surely come.

All of that, I'm sure, is why, at 29, I have these strong opinions about my own funeral: buy me simple casket made by monks and bury me where there are mountains and lots of green things. The marker should be one that stands upright; if it must be flat, just skip it all together. Read John Donne's "Death Be Not Proud" at my funeral and 2 Timothy 4:7 and whatever other scripture you like. Maybe the cloud of witnesses text from Hebrews or the story of Lazarus. We're resurrection people; I'm certain you'll find something. Sing hymns. Sing old hymns and new hymns, ones of mourning and ones of hope. Sing until you're tired, then sing some more. Laugh some and cry some and tell some wonderful stories about me. Eat some fried chicken and rich desserts.

Do these things, no matter if I die at 29 or 99. Do these things, certain that the God who called me near in life will surely not abandon me in death. Do all these things, certain that what we say every time the Church gathers is never truer than when the Church gathers at the death of one of its own: nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

What Sort of God?

Last week, I headed north. North, there are mountains and canyons. In that part of the country, the canyons are deep and the mountains are high. The sheer size is overwhelming. The beauty is both breathtaking and incredulous. Northern Arizona is beautiful, but in Utah, I never wanted to close my eyes. There, the landscape is wild. Civilization encroaches upon the land rather than dominates it.

There, in those mountains, I hiked places I never dreamed I would hike--walking across and scrambling up and down mountain fins. I've never been a fast hiker, but covering only a mile in an hour is slow even for me. That's what happens when you have to stand for a bit to figure out where the trail goes. That happens when you can't easily climb the rocks before you.

There, in the midst of rock walls so large and smooth I can't imagine anyone being able to scale them, no matter what equipment they were given, I began to think of God. My thoughts were not of the pious, see-the-wonder-of-God variety. They were about how differently I would think of God if this were the landscape for my entire life.

The God of this landscape could not be safe God. Even the park-mapped trails were dangerous. Many places, falling would have meant a rescue team. The smoothness of most every peak and rock was overshadowed by the larger picture, which showed a landscape that was jagged and insurmountable.

In the middle of it all, I felt a smallness like I have never felt in my life. Not that I was insignificant, but that there was so much more. The promise of a God who will not let your foot slip makes far more sense in a place like that. An almighty God isn't one who can manipulate the minute details of daily life; an almighty God is one who can reign over something like that. A God beyond understanding seems the only possibility in a place so beyond the order most of us live in.

Hearing the biblical echoes so strongly in a place like that, I can't help but wonder about the sort of God  portrayed in church--church with comfy chairs, climate control, easily accessible. Church on Sunday morning hopes that everything goes as planned and we stick to a schedule. Church on a Sunday morning is designed to be hospitable, welcoming, safe.

Is that the sort of God worth following?

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Yes, It's Ash Wednesday

I love Ash Wednesday. I think it outranks pretty much every other holy day as far as personal preferences go. That probably sounds strange to most people.

I love burning the palms from the years before and the messiness of it all--the smoke, the fire, the crumbling leaves, the scent that lingers.

I love the quietness of the service. Maybe there are Ash Wednesday services that are loud, but I can't imagine one.

I love the fact that we take time to confess that there's brokenness, sin, in our world. I love the fact that we take time to confess that there's brokenness, sin, in each of us.

But most of all, I love the reminder spoken with the imposition of ashes: "You are dust, and to dust you shall return."

In so many ways, Church is about learning God's story, a story radically different from what our culture tells us. On Ash Wednesday, we see the chasm between the two stories, if we're willing to look.

Look at a billboard, a magazine, those sidebars in your browser, probably even inside your medicine cabinet or on your bathroom counter--youth! It's what's best. It's what we're seeking, or at least what we're told to seek. Smooth skin. Hair with no gray. Toned body. White teeth. None of the signs that naturally come with living. Perhaps most telling is the fact that ageless is one of the best adjectives that can be applied to a celebrity. I, who have to Google many names from pop culture because I really have no clue who they are, still can name a few folks who get the title of ageless.

Then, there's God's story. That story reminds us we are dust and to dust we will return. We will die, one day. There's no way around that in the world that we know. Each year, I offer that reminder to folks from four years old on up to about eight-four years old. Then, I turn, and a colleague offers that same reminder to me.

You are dust, and to dust you will return.

And that's holy, too. God who formed the dust into something will be ready to receive the dust when it is only dust, again. As I find a few gray hairs at my temples and notice a few lines at the corners of my eyes, I am comforted at the reminder: I am God's, in life and in death.