Thursday, December 17, 2015

Still Waiting...

Here's some information you can mock me for later: I get a little annoyed when people wish me a Merry Christmas. Christmas is still eight days away. Eight. Whole. Days. Away. I know I'm in the 1% of the population that believes this, but by golly, I'm going to stick by it. 

I dream of throwing actual Christmas parties during the Twelve Days of Christmas. If I ever have kids, we'll do very cool things for those twelve days and dedicate ourselves to a time of preparation for the Christ Child in Advent. (I also have visions of taking children to volunteer at a women's shelter every Wednesday and, when asked why, they joyously proclaim, "On Wednesdays, we fight the patriarchy!" I'm aware I may have some skewed perceptions of reality.) If I get around to sending Christmas cards this year, they will arrive after December 25th. Again, I'm aware I'm giving you information which can be used for mocking at a later time. 

In the calls to worship that I wrote for Advent, though, I reminded people to wait a little longer for all the trappings of Christmas: shepherds, stars in the sky, magi journeying from afar, mangers, and inns with no vacancy. We name the things that are broken in response--and it wasn't hard to come up with a list. Last week, when I wrote, I named the kids for whom I bought presents and the IHELP guests who slept in our church. 

This week, though, I was reminded still more of how much we need the Christ child. I talked with a man who told me about his call to be a monk, "If I am assassinated for this work, it is only me. I have no wife or children." He's a Sufi monk, to be precise. I'm proud that when he told me he was a dervish, I did not start singing, "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" (Seriously, remember, "she could throw a whirling dervish out of whirl!") The work he was talking about? Peace. Nonviolence. Telling people at every chance he can that most Muslims want peace, that ISIS is not Islam. 

I also have a nasty ear infection this week, resulting in two trips to Urgent Care. During the first trip, I spent quite a while in the waiting room. While I was there, one of the elderly women came in and asked about cost, saying plenty loud for me to hear even with my quite infected ear, "I don't have insurance." The staff responded with costs, which were a minimum of $135 if you're curious. The response from the young man at the desk when she said she'd have to come back made it clear they got this question often, "Need to think about it for a while?" She responded in the affirmative. 

So let's wait a little longer. Let's wait a little longer to proclaim, "Peace on earth." Let's wait a little longer to shout, "The Christ Child is born!" Let's wait a little longer to announce, "God has drawn near."

Let's wait, for so many of our neighbors are still waiting for the kingdom to come. Let us wait together.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Frilly Socks

I like the healing stories in the Bible best of all. The people around me who get nervous about miracle stories just love this about me. That's just fine with me. I don't actually think that Jesus had to perform a miracle in order for the story about Jesus performing the miracle to be transformative. That, however, is another day's writing.

I like the stories because of what they don't say. In pretty much every case, be it the blind man, or the paralyzed man, or the man with the withered hand, it's a story of economic security. The feeding stories aren't that. The feeding stories are very much, "Here's your daily bread." And that's good.

But healing someone meant that person could work and support themselves. It meant they could earn a living that was better than begging. Work that can support and sustain a person and their family mattered then as much as it does now. It's also a very different vision of how the world's economics should work than the way they do.

Last Sunday morning, I didn't hit snooze on my alarm clock. There were people waiting on me to bring them breakfast. Well, at least if they were going to have breakfast, it was because I was taking it to them. I got out of my cozy, comfortable bed and stopped at the grocery store. I picked up three boxes of instant oatmeal packets in different flavors. I remembered paper bowls. I got the raspberries that were on sale and some bananas, too, to top the oatmeal. I've heard people like fruit on their oatmeal, although it sounds terrible to me. I was proud of myself for thinking of an easy, hot breakfast for the sixteen homeless guests in my church.

My living room is full of all sorts of things right now. I cleaned last weekend. I put up the tree. I decorated a bit. Then nothing. Now, there are an assortment of empty boxes from recent online shopping, the contents of those boxes, and an even larger assortment of shopping bags. The bags mostly aren't for my friends and family. They're Christmas gifts for a family my boyfriend and I were matched with through a local agency. (Most people would say we "adopted" them for Christmas; I'm heeding my friends' words who remind me that adoption is permanent, and what makes a family for many people.)

We managed to get most of the things requested, both needs and wants. It broke my heart that one of the household requests was for a broom and dustpan. The most expensive broom and dustpan at Target was $13. I don't even know what to do with that sort of request. The $13 one was large enough that we opted for the $11 set instead. It's in my living room, along with a set of sheets, a blanket, towels, washcloths, and a set of pots and pans. Another bag holds pants, shirts, socks, underwear and assorted Frozen toys for a six year old girl. Another bag holds jeans, shirts, Nike socks, a video game and controller for the fourteen year old boy. He wanted Nike socks, quite specifically. She wanted frilly socks, so yes, hers are frilly. I'm quite proud of couponing skills that stretched money into that many gifts.

Both those things, for all the good they do, are a band-aid. I've guilt and anger over these two things in one weekend, things that made me feel good but didn't fix the problem. I am glad there was hot breakfast on Sunday. I am glad there was a hot dinner the night before and a safe place for our neighbors to sleep. I am glad there's a grandmother raising her grandchildren who will have gifts for their home.

Something is desperately wrong, though, if we think people sleeping in churches and getting names of kids from agencies is what should happen. This isn't healing. This isn't restoration. This is managing a broken system. Our neighbors should be able to eat hot oatmeal in their pajamas in a comfortable, safe home of their own. Many of the men and women sleeping in my church have jobs. Some have college degrees. They still don't earn enough to live. I can't shake my worry that the people raising and loving the children should be picking out frilly socks and video games on holidays and special occasions.

We need healing, not of physical maladies, but of broken economics. As I wrap packages to give as we celebrate the birth of the Christ child, I am reminded how much we need that child, who promised something better.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

My Muslim Neighbors

Her name was Amira. She was a confident, poised high school student. My favorite memory of her is the night I was at their potluck dinner as they broke the day's fast together during Ramadan--now nearly 10 years ago. She understood what my US palate would prefer more than anyone else in her family. Maybe it was her duty as the daughter of the mosque's president, but either way, she guided me with skill through a sea of beautiful, completely unfamiliar food.

We passed the baby over the half door into the men's portion of their masjid. She was chubby, laughing, and delightful. Prayers for the day were over; her father wanted to show her off to the other men gathered for worship. I remained on the other side of the door, chatting with women who were almost all doctors. At that time, I couldn't answer their questions well: when do Christians fast? Do you know we know about Mary, too? One woman was wonderfully shocked at the bustier shaped purses popular at the time. She was the one whose final words were, "Tell them we are not terrorists."

Mirwaiz and Taneem sat in my apartment, eating cake. Another time, they were there to carve pumpkins. My roommate's birthday was on Halloween. The couple across the hall had a 4 year old boy. I was the only person from the U.S. there. I would surely know how to carve pumpkins. Little did they know that my family opted for painting pumpkins instead. Still, we gather with cake, pumpkins, and knives, eventually producing a few jack-o-lanterns. I worried about them at the long winter break. These two men from Afghanistan had few possessions in their student housing apartment; they could not go home to visit their families for fear of not getting back into the country. Did I mention they were also doctors? They were working on a Masters of Public Health, hoping to help build an infrastructure when they returned to their country.

I laughed at myself when I met an Imam here, one who later came and preached at my church. I know some Muslim men do not touch women who are not part of their immediate family, especially if they are married. I don't want to seem rude, but I never assume a handshake. This man certainly did not care, and bought me delicious food. I'm a sucker for Middle Eastern food. Or Mediterranean. Whatever you want to call it. If there's baba ghanouj, falafel, and baklava, I'm in.

The restaurant owner spoke to me on the way out of her restaurant, eyeing the small box in my hand. "Baklava?" she asked. "Yes," I answered. "Good girl."

Only a few weeks ago, Hanan and Asna sat in my office, as we talk about the way my congregation could help to welcome refugees who are fleeing to Phoenix. Asna's daughter came, too, having a day off school. She's not the first six-year-old I've seen who loved her jewelry and glittery things.

These are my neighbors. In particular, these are my Muslim neighbors. In every instance, they have made me feel welcome and safe. I hope I did the same for them. I know one thing is true: any time I invite them into my church, I take extra care to make sure they know they will be safe. I wish that I didn't know they might not feel safe, or that they might worry about what will be said to them.

These are my neighbors whose faith is different my own. They have always honored me and my faith, trusting that somehow that binds us together more fully, not less.

I am angry at a media that mentions when someone shooting others is Muslim but is silent when they are Christian. I am angry that we think more guns in the right hands is the answer, which seems to mean those hands are white and Christian. I am angry by the phrase "Muslim Terrorist." I am angry by more media attention given when a shooter is Muslim. I am angry that we are all complicit in feeding that behavior. Even as I write, I wonder if angry is the right word. I am sad. I am heartbroken. I am worried. Perhaps I am only angry about the ignorance.

And please, can't we be kinder to my neighbors?

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

We Are All Living with AIDS

A great uncle of mine passed away a couple of weeks ago. He and his wife were always vaguely part of my life, in and out at various times. They sent cards at graduations but didn't show up at birthday parties. They were family, but more distant family. Because he was around all my life, I didn't think much about his disability. I don't know that I would have ever asked what was wrong with him. My mother just mentioned in passing one day, "Haven't you ever noticed he almost touches the ground every time he takes a step?"

I knew what she meant. He had a strange gait, dipping down significantly with each step. Yes, his hand could have easily brushed the ground had he tried. He'd had polio as a child; this was the lasting effect. I never got any more details.

That great uncle was born in 1920, though, so it shouldn't really be a surprise that he would have polio. It wasn't eradicated in the US until 1979 and is still a threat in other countries. Still, for all intents and purposes, in 1984 I was born into a world without polio. In another country, that wouldn't have been true. However, it was true for my world, my childhood, my schools. No one worried that a sneeze or unwashed hand would transmit a disease that could leave a limb nearly useless. Actually, the interwebs was required to even find out how polio is transmitted.

By contrast, I have always lived in a world with AIDS. Somehow, even in conservative rural Kentucky, AIDS was covered in my elementary school education. Everyone knew how it was transmitted. Of course, no one talked much about what the "sexually" part of sexually transmitted meant. Still, the mystery was limited to origin, not transmission. Blood and sex, that much we knew.

Treatments were more in development than wonderfully effective. It was always there, though, that knowledge of AIDS and HIV as the virus that causes AIDS. People talked about it directly in TV shows and roundabout ways in country songs. Strangely, given everything I know now, I never thought of AIDS as affecting a particular group of people. (That could say an entirely different thing about my education.) I only learned that AIDS had once been known as GRID (gay-related immune deficiency) from an episode of Grey's Anatomy.

Still, on World AIDS Day, I'm always reminded that this is the disease that has come with caution and worry in my lifetime. I am glad to know, firsthand, that diseases that once came with caution and worry no longer do--at least not for me, in my part of the world. Other scary things are gone from every place: smallpox, for example, eradicated in 1977.

I remember the stories of paralyzed men let down through roofs to Jesus. I remember lepers and blind men, outcasts of all sorts, crying out from the sides of roads. I remember a friend who died with AIDS. I remember others diagnosed with HIV and AIDS. But most of all, I remember hope: what was is no longer; what is does not have to be this way. Because that is the story of the leper, the blind man, the paralyzed man, and so many others.

Let us hope more fully.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

No Secrets

"Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops." Jesus, Matthew 12:2-3

An article in my college's newspaper is causing quite a stir in my newsfeed. Many of my friends are pleasantly surprised that an article recognizing the fact that LGBTQ alumni exist was published in the school newspaper. For me, there is an underlying reality all of us at the college knew: we have gay and lesbian friends here, and we're not quite sure what to do with that reality.

For many reasons I won't go into now, we weren't certain where the line was between loving our neighbor and holding people accountable for their sin. The presence of sin, in my experience, wasn't called into question then. "Love the sinner, hate the sin," was fairly common, of course.

I wept as I read the article. The alumni interviewed arrived at Milligan after I had left. I didn't know them, though I knew other LGBTQ students who have gradually come out as the years go by. The tears weren't just for them, or their fear and love of that place intermingled. It was for so many who kept secrets because they feared what would happen if they didn't.

My freshman year, near the end of the year, a young woman showed up to a dorm event wearing maternity clothes. She was a senior, beautiful, blonde, and pregnant. No one had known. She talked later about how nervous she'd been. What might happen? She and the child's father married later, I think. I don't remember her name or much else about her. However, I do remember my classmate who disappeared for a semester. I'm ever more certain she had a baby and that was how it was handled--a 1950s style go-stay-with-your-aunt, never talk about it sort of way. Premarital sex, of course, was against the rules, both the school's and the faith in which it was founded.

A friend came to me one day. She was a year younger, worried about a mutual friend. That friend was angry and struggling, which included drinking too much. Drinking alcohol, except for communion, was against the rules for students whether they were on or off campus. The Dean of Students was rumored to have spies around the bars just in case you dared to drink. Asking for help for someone who needed it was complicated by the need to not get a struggling person in even more trouble. Looking back, I wonder about the difficulties I caused for the person I spoke with in an effort to get that young woman the help and support she needed.

For the record, I just kept my bottle of whiskey well hidden in clothes under my bed my senior year, after I realized I was done with all the rules I'd willingly agreed to at not quite 18 years old. In retrospect, I chose to be oblivious to a lot that happened on campus. Because I opted to follow the rules, I assumed most people did. I realize I was wrong. In some cases, following the rules had to be torture.

Now, I shudder at the thought of a faith that demands keeping secrets. I know the response I learned as a child and young adult, "Don't do anything you'd have to keep secret." It doesn't hold water.

Life happens. Decisions of all sorts are made. Things don't pan out like you thought they would. I could go through a long, long list of possible derailments that happen to people. Mostly, I shudder at the thought of a faith that demands keeping secrets.

Jesus spoke the words I quoted at the beginning in response to the Pharisees, in response to religious people who wanted to make sure they were appropriately pious at all times. These leaders, too, had a faith that demanded secrets, that some things not be talked about, that some things were simply not acceptable.

And Jesus condemned them for that sort of faith.

Let us have faith that will hold secrets we would have not dared to speak aloud. Let us have churches whose faithful know the worst and cry out, "Welcome." Let us trust in a God who knows all the things we cannot say, yet loves us with an everlasting, unshakeable love.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Prostitutes & Virgins

Rahab was a prostitute. She had sex with people in exchange for money, goods, or other services. The Bible isn't clear on what the preferred form of payment for prostitutes was. It is clear on the fact that Rahab was important. She helped spies escape from Jericho, and so was saved during the invasion of Jericho, along with her household. If stereotypes about brothels and houses of ill repute are true, then she might have managed to save a few more prostitutes in the process. You can read most of her story in Joshua, if you like. She is remembered as a helpful prostitute more than anything else.

Yet, in Matthew she's listed as an ancestor of Jesus, in Hebrews as one of the faithful role models, and  in James as one who was saved by her works. It would seem that prostitutes, in all their impurity, have a place in the reign of God, maybe even a place of honor.

I need that reminder this week. Some time last week, news of a young bride presenting her father with a certificate of her virginity started making the rounds. I've been in the world of purity pledges and True Love Waits. I've been in the world of "Jesus doesn't care what I do with my penis." I don't think either is a healthy approach to sexuality. However, the full discussion on a healthy approach to sexuality is for another day.

Instead, let me say this: there's a biblical precedent for abstinence until marriage. I'll easily concede that. But let's be clear that precedent is geared toward women. Without apology, these women were property. They didn't come with certificates of authenticity, but they might as well have. "Proof of virginity" comes up a few times. Her virginity, after all, made it easy to know her husband was the father of her children. Dad wouldn't have to worry about someone else inheriting his property. Property of all sorts seems to have been a big concern. Most of the rules about virgins and marriage are tied directly to that world. The awesome seminary phrase I like to pull out to discuss this is "patrilineal endogamy." The short version: men owned property and transferred that property to other men. End of story.

Our daughters, our sisters, our wives, our best friends Women deserve a better story. A story that isn't about their relationship to men. A story that doesn't reduce them to their sexuality. Yep, unabashedly this is a healthy dose of feminism through a Christian lens, in part because Christians suck at telling women they do matter. I'm pretty sure no institution has so firmly held on to traditional gender roles as the Church.

In another few weeks, churches will be telling stories of a virgin giving birth to the savior of the world. Some of them, like my church, will be nervous talking about a virgin birth because science. Others will be worried someone might actually use the word "pregnant" in worship. Most all of them will be a little nervous in talking about conception and childbirth and other things often relegated to private realms, or at least to the realm of women.

We will once again be reminded of the fact that our tradition says our savior was born of a virgin. We will once again see images of a young woman, pure and chaste. Let us not forget, though, that Matthew's gospel, the author who was most adamant that Mary was a virgin, is also the one who tells us of the prostitute in Jesus' lineage. Somehow, the person who worried far more about Joseph than Mary, telling us Joseph would just divorce her quietly, can hold the tension of a prostitute and a virgin    together. More than that, he proclaims it as Gospel.

Maybe, just maybe, we can also learn to tell the stories of prostitutes and virgins side-by-side. Maybe we can even remember the stories we've inherited name both as beloved children of God. Maybe we can live a faith that has room for both Rahab and Mary.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

God is Not Done Yet

God is not done yet. That's my one line confession of faith. It's not the one I made at baptism or that admitted me into membership in any church, but it's what I come back to time after time. I'm just going to go ahead and say that up front.

And I need to say that up front because about every six months, I go to one meeting in particular that makes me give up on Church. That meeting, it's pretty much a guarantee. Actually, a lot of meetings with the larger denomination pretty well convince me that I should just give up. I'll pay some money to a career counseling firm, turn my résumé into something that makes sense in the business world, have plenty of money and weekends free. 

I don't think I'm alone in the reasons for why, exactly, I think I should give up on Church. There are remarkably few people like me at most of those meetings. I'm younger, which I can deal with mostly, except when I realize how radically different our worldviews are. What I care about is decidedly from those around me; it's partly generational, partly worldview, and partly just me. I don't see "it's church" as a reason to feign interest, or to accept mediocrity. Let's not even talk about gender and issues there.

Since that's a lot of me talk that maybe doesn't make a great deal of sense, here's a conversation from a recent version of that meeting that I often use to convey why, exactly, these sorts of meetings make me give up on Church:

Very nicely dressed, sweet elderly lady: "You're the new pastor at Chalice?"

Me: "Well, I've been there well over two years, so I'm not really new any more." 

Ignore the look from the sweet elderly lady.

Very nicely dressed, sweet elderly lady: "We haven't been there since the building was dedicated."

I nod nicely in response. 

Very nicely dressed, sweet elderly lady: "I wonder something. When we were there, they were talking about moving the chairs to face the opposite direction. Did they ever do that?"

Me: "I haven't moved the chairs since I've been there, but I don't know what they did before."

Very nicely dressed, sweet elderly lady: "Well, I thought you might have seen pictures."

Me: "No." Because there are about seven hundred things more important to the history of the church than how chairs are or are not arranged. You know, things that are relevant to ministry and the future of the church.

I hope that adequately conveys the reason I now go home from these meetings to watch Netflix accompanied by chocolate and wine. 

Ok. Rum or tequila, actually. It's how I avoid actually sending in my résumé. 

I know, most certainly, that I'm not alone in my occasional desire to give up on Church. I know many people who have and who are. I know your reasons may be very different from mine. 

But, at the end of the day, I remember that deep confession: God is not done yet. 

When I see the kids who don't have adults to take care of them, people barely scraping by, illness, loneliness, church people worried about the arrangement of chairs--everything that makes anyone wonder, "Where is God?" then I confess: God is not done yet. 

I need that reminder from the Church because I'm pretty sure I'd forget if I were left to my own devices. God is not done yet is not my confession alone; it's a confession born from the faith handed down to me by many faithful before me. It's written in every story of healing, in every letter to a church, in every prophet's words: God is not done yet. All the things that break my heart break God's heart, too.

And so I hope, I pray, I confess: God is not done yet.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Anniversary of a Death

A year ago today I walked into a hospital room. I didn't know when I got in my car that day that I would receive news that death was near. I found out after I donned a gown and gloves, according to protocol for that unit, and walked down the hall. His family was gathered. The machines would be turned off; I would have been called soon. And so we settled into that hospital room. We prayed, we sang, and then we waited. We waited for several difficult, beautiful hours. I was not there for many, but not all, the hours of waiting. 

The pain of those moments is real, but I'm often amazed at how fully sacred texts speak promises that cannot be forgotten in those moments, "But we do not others who have no hope" (1 Thessalonians 1:13). I've been present at deaths several times. It remains amazing to watch people of deep faith walk into death without fear. There is grief, to be sure, but it is not a hopeless grief. Christians are, after all, a resurrection people. 

I'm one of the people who is less certain about what comes after death. I'm not banking on eternity or bodies rising from the ground. My confession about death is this: whatever comes after, God is there. On a good day, I believe that we are only more fully in the presence of God. But I am always aware that my grief is a hopeful one. 

The funeral sermon for that man was punctuated with the line from scripture, "Well done, good and faithful servant." It's from Matthew 25, a vision of the final judgment, when Jesus names all the things that those who follow him do. For a retired chaplain and pastor, it was well-suited. I imagine, though, it would have been well-suited even if he'd chosen a different vocation. 

His stoles, a sign of the office of clergy, now hang on my wall and occasionally around my neck; his wife gave them to me a few weeks after his death. They are a deep reminder of the great cloud of witnesses that holds me now (Hebrews 12:1). I am certain that cloud of witnesses only grows larger with the passage of time. 

On this difficult, but beautiful, anniversary I cannot forget one of the great gifts of the Christian faith: we do not grieve as those who have no hope. We trust in and occasionally live in the the thin places, where God could break in and fully take over at any moment. We are never too far from the holy, for God calls us to be partners in what God is doing in this world. By virtue of our name, Church, we are called out to a holy purpose. The Christ who has called us and bound us together remains with us; the Spirit breathes new life into us with each passing day. We do not grieve as those who have no hope for we are resurrection people, trusting that life can and will overpower death at any moment. 

Today, I am so grateful for this cloud of witnesses.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Lost Cards and a Hot Dog

"We're usually the Pharisees." It's a terrible reminder when reading through the Gospels, but one that must be uttered often. "We're usually the Pharisees." In my mostly Anglo, mostly middle-class, I'd-guess-half-of-us-have-post-graduate-degrees-congregation, yeah, we're usually the Pharisees. We're the teachers, the people with at least some power. We're not usually the ones asking for help. We're not usually the people caught in vulnerability; money (or credit) usually fixes our vulnerability.

I think a solid, even if small, dose of vulnerability would do us all some good. I got one yesterday, in fact. I woke up feeling like death on a Triscuit. Not sick, not anything tangibly wrong, just overall bad. I eventually dragged myself out of bed, showered, and decided to grab food on the way to work. Yes, there was food in my house, but ordering food alone seemed like too much of a challenge. My desire for not breakfast food coupled with time of day meant that I stopped at QuikTrip. (I enjoy gas station food far more than anyone should.) I ordered my sandwich, filled up my drink, then went to pay. Standing at the counter, owing all of $4 and some change, I realized my wallet was empty except for my driver's license. 

Empty. No cash. No cards. Nothing. Now, this should have really surprised me. I have a phone case that's also a wallet and it needs to be thrown away. I've dropped cards out of it a few times lately. But really, why bother with something like that until it's absolutely necessary? I was hopefully they had merely fallen out in my car, so I left my drink with the cashier and went out to check. No cards. Because I was in my death on a Triscuit haze and because nothing like this had never happened to me, I still went back in the QuikTrip to explain to the cashier that my cards had not been in my car after all. He just kinda stared at me as I told him I'd have to go home and look for them. I'm not sure what else I expected him to do. This was not one of the best moments of my life. 

A woman standing in line--a line which was now long by QuikTrip standards--said, "Oh, you need to pay for your snack? I'll buy your drink." So I thanked her, grabbed my drink, and headed back home in search of the cards. When I pulled into my parking space, I suddenly knew the exact moment the cards had fallen out. It was the night before, when I'd been talking on the phone. Sure enough, there they were, between my bed and nightstand. 

I did not return to QuikTrip for my sandwich. 

I don't think any of this would have been so bad if not for another story from that same QuikTrip. It happened not long after I moved to the area. I don't know what I'd stopped for that day, but there was a young woman ahead of me in line. She had a hot dog that she was trying to pay for with her SNAP card. I'd never thought of using a SNAP card at a gas station; just like a grocery store, hot food couldn't be purchased with the card. The cashier turned her away.

I was annoyed by the exchange and the delay in line. I was even more annoyed with her when the cashier called to her as she tried to sneak out the door, "I'll need you to pay for that hot dog." Yes, she'd tried to steal it, instead. Paying for it never entered my mind. For the record, it was all of $1.50. 

I've thought of that woman and that attempted hot dog theft many times when I've walked into that gas station, which is one of two that I frequent. I've thought of the friend waiting in the car. I've thought of her black plastic glasses, dirty blonde hair, and don't remember much else. But I didn't consider her vulnerability that day until the last couple of days, even though her vulnerability meant she had only SNAP benefits to pay with. 

For just a moment, I'm glad I wasn't the Pharisee in the story. Now that I've found my cards, I think I'd also be kinder to that lady with the hot dog. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

That Day I (Kinda) Became a Troll

Each Sunday, the class I teach reads together the scripture for the sermon for the following week. This practice is an excellent way to begin my sermon preparation. I also thoroughly enjoy when someone calls bullshit. 

You read that right. It happens with some regularity--especially when offering a traditional interpretation of scripture or some portion of the Bible we're not crazy about. Yeah, we can openly admit that we'd like to ignore some of the Bible. And we can call bullshit. It's one of my favorite things about ministry in this place, actually. 

To be fair, when I needed to call bullshit in a sermon, I used the more worship appropriate "horse feathers," but I still did it. Actually, I think the ability to engage and question scripture is one of the most profound callings of Christian faith. So the other day, I found myself sorta, kinda becoming one of those trolls that so regularly cause me to roll my eyes.  In this case, a college friend (haven't seen each other since graduation, but his picture from a hike with our group from our capstone course is in my office) had posted on Facebook that Kim Davis' ridiculousness is the beginning of even worse Christian persecution.

Friends, I do not regularly engage in Facebook debates. They rarely go anywhere productive. They turn vitriolic incredibly quickly because these discussions happen outside the confines of any sort of community. Yet, someone needed to call bullshit. So I did--knowing that I did it with people who would likely be offended if I actually said (or typed), "Bullshit." 

The conversation went exactly as I thought it would, including a typically terrible debate on same-sex marriage. Have I mentioned how annoying I find it when people ask me if I've read a particular Bible verse? For the sake of Moses, Peter, and sweet 8 pound baby Jesus--YES! I've read the entire Christian Bible on multiple occasions. I've read the apocrypha. I've read large chunks of the stuff that didn't make it into the canon. I can tell you the difference between the Christian and Jewish orderings of scripture. If you really love me, please buy me an English translation of the Ethiopian Orthodox Bible because I don't have an extra $300 lying around right now and it's the largest of any Christian canon; I'd love to own a copy. But yes, I've thoroughly read this book I'm prone to geeking out about. Any way, back to that day I behaved kinda troll-like. 

Sometimes, those sorts of conversations are worth it. Most of the time, they would be better in person. But here are a few things I truly believe, going in and coming out of that usually avoided conversation:
  • We should be talking to people who are more conservative and more liberal than we are, especially if they share our faith. We might find we use the same words to talk about different things. My troll-y self knew we had different sets of beliefs about what we mean when using the word "Bible" for example. We do a great disservice to ourselves, though, if we can't figure out how to at least talk to each other--even if we walk away pretty sure the other person needs some divine intervention. 
  • Community matters. This goes hand in hand with the first one. We should be in and maintain relationship with people different from us. It might be people we once sat alongside in class. It might be the neighbor whose music drives us nuts. But we need those bonds of community to help us continue conversations. 
  • Conversations should continue. The least troll-y thing I did was say something to someone I would be glad to see in real life. If something is one way, then it's not conversation. The conversation matters. We can listen to ourselves talk all we want on any given day. It doesn't actually do much good. 
  • Speaking up matters. Side conversations came from the primary conversation. They were good conversations, too. They were needed conversations, too. On social media, in coffee shops in grocery store lines--you never know who's listening. You never know who might need to hear what you're saying. You never know when, exactly, the Spirit might create something amazing.
  • Speaking up matters differently if you're you're privileged. I've been told I'm going to hell for a variety of reasons, but never because of my sexual orientation or gender identity. I'm a little farther right on the Kinsey scale than some, but decidedly a cisgendered, heterosexual female. I also can keep my temper in check when others can't. That means I'm highly unlikely to end up in tears or feeling absolutely terrible when someone gets nasty in a fight about same-sex marriage. I care about the subject deeply, but it's not a conversation about the validity or sinfulness of my relationship. I owe it to my friends for whom those things are not true to speak up when they can't--and to move aside when they're ready to speak. 
So there's my confession from the day I kinda became a troll; sometimes, you just have to call bullshit.


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Restoration: a Midrash

There is a Jewish tradition of midrash: storytelling that fills in details and provides explanation that the biblical account does not offer. This is one of my favorite kinds of interpretation to read. I usually don't share sermons here, but this past Sunday, I wrote a sort of midrash of my own, about the hemorrhaging woman and Jairus' daughter. You can read the biblical account in Mark 5:21-43; this is my interpretation of that story. 

What do you do with a love story gone wrong? What do you do when everything falls apart and ends up terribly, terribly wrong?

She got up terribly tired this morning, as she had every morning for what seemed like forever. Walking to the window, with the warm light of early morning streaming in, she wished for the life she had dreamed of. She wished for the life she had promised with the man she loved. Some days, it seemed like yesterday that the tiredness had set in—not the deep exhaustion of days like this, but the hopeful tiredness of a baby on the way. She couldn’t help but glance at her hands, hands that had recently begun to show fine lines. They bore the marks of these almost 12 years alone. They felt empty, most of the time, left empty by the baby taken from her, a baby now nearly grown, and terribly sick.

Her body shivered from the exhaustion of illness, as she sank to sit by the window, waiting for the strength to gather her breakfast. The warmth of the sun sank into her body, lulling her into sleep, there in her tiny home.

A knock at the door woke her. Out the window she saw a familiar face.

“Joanna,” she called. The woman turned, and rushed over the window, reaching through to hug the woman she had served for so many years—first as a nanny, then raising her daughter when she couldn’t.

“Joanna, how is she?” And the elderly woman’s eyes welled up with tears at the question. She had hoped to ask first how this woman she loved was, before she broke her heart even further.  She tried to sort out how to say that the little girl was even worse, but the tears began to flow as she remembered: days without food, barely drinking, seeming to grow smaller and smaller in her bed, barely moving. As her tears broke into sobs, they spoke the words she could not. The eyes she stared into filled with tears, too, as the whisper came, “She’s going to die, isn’t she?”

Her nod caused the tears to fall from her friend’s eyes, too. They took hands through the windows, and let tears fall, weeping for the child they both loved.

Joanna’s words broke silence, “I have to go. They’ll soon miss me. And I need to be with her.” This was their arrangement after all—Joanna would stay in the house where her mistress wasn’t allowed. Joanna would come as often as she could to this tiny house on the edge of the city, sharing news of the daughter who had to be left behind.

Left there, in her home alone, she gathered all the strength she had to get up, wash her face, change her clothes. There was a fire in her eyes that everyone would have suspected had long since burned out. She had a plan. Although the town had chosen sides with her husband, she’d still heard what no one would speak to her. They talked in the market like she wasn’t there. The servants who had followed her from her father’s house to her husband’s house, like Joanna, spoke to her when they could. There’s a man, they said, who is traveling here. And they told stories of the man named Jesus, traveling around, stories she’d heard of other people—but never so many stories from so many people. Never quite so many stories of demons cast out, of people healed, of boats that didn’t sink in storms, of a man who seemed like the prophets of legend.

And he was supposed to be in the town today.

She might catch him if she hurried. He, at least, would not know her story. He might be willing to help even her daughter. And so she shut the door, steadied herself with her cane, and hurried over dusty roads into the center of the town. Each step drained her strength. Each step made the bleeding that never stopped worse. Each step cost her dearly. But she took each one in the hope that this man named Jesus could do something.

Sooner than she had managed in years, she was near the synagogue, where he would surely be headed. But there was a crowd blocking her way. There was a crowd everywhere. The streets were full of people, pushing and shoving, too many people, many from out of town, crammed into a tiny space. She pushed her cane into the ground, steadied herself, trying to see what was going on.

And as soon as she did, her heart sank. Of course, Jesus was at the center of all the commotion. Of course, he was why crowds had gathered. Of course he was with the synagogue leader, her husband, Jairus. The impossibility of her mission became immediately clear.

How could she approach Jesus? How could she have any place here?

Suddenly, the weight of all that the town knew was heavy on her heart. These people were not her friends. They were the people who knew.

They knew she and Jairus had married, despite their families wanting them to marry other people. They knew it was only after many, many arguments that their families agreed. They had laughed at the young couple for talking about love so much. They knew.

They knew how long it was before a child was born. They, too, held the suspicion it was because they had defied their families. They knew that the child was fine, but her mother was not. Her mother never recovered from childbirth, kept bleeding long after the time she should have. They knew that for months the mother and child lived in the servants’ quarters, apart from the main house, hoping it would get better.
God, have mercy—they knew. They knew she left her husband’s home as soon as her child could eat solid food, weaned or not. They knew he gave her back her full dowry. They knew she had spent it all, a small fortune, searching for a cure. They knew the synagogue leader would not keep her in his house any more, but refused to divorce either.

She wished she could shout out what they didn’t know. They didn’t know that she was the one who refused to let him leave his place of honor at the synagogue. They didn’t know that she chose to leave her daughter in what would be viewed as the more respectable household, the one that would give her daughter a chance. They didn’t know that she was the one who refused to destroy everything they had worked for.

They didn’t know nearly as much as they thought they did. They didn’t know that they never stopped loving each other.

She looked at Jairus, there in the blazing sun, pushing through crowds, dragging Jesus along behind him, and knew he was as desperate as she was. He had to be, to go find this man and drag him along, undoubtedly to their daughter’s deathbed.

Hope that she hadn’t felt in a long time welled up inside her. The love for this man and their daughter that had kept her going for 12 years made her push just a little closer in the crowd, hoping to touch the man who might help her daughter.  He’d never know in this crowd, of that much she was certain. She needed some connection to her daughter’s only hope.

And so she pushed and prodded, tired though she was. Just as she was giving up, a man moved. He saw her and knew—not that she wanted to touch Jesus, but that he didn’t want to touch her. He jumped back before he thought, and she put out her hand, almost grabbing Jesus’ arm. She wasn’t strong enough, and barely brushed his robe before he went on his way.

But something happened. What exactly she didn’t know. In that instant, something changed. The exhaustion that had been present for so long left. What had been true about her for 12 years wasn’t any more. Something had happened, something wonderful.

“Who touched me?” The moment of joy was broken as soon as it began. Jesus’ words silenced the crowd, “Who touched me?”

“How could he know?” she thought.

“How could you know?” the disciples echoed.

“There are people everywhere,” she thought. “He couldn’t know it was me.”

“There are people everywhere,” the disciples echoed. “What do you mean who touched you?”

The crowds fell silent. She felt herself walking toward him, moving easily for the first time in years. In front of him, staring into his eyes, choosing not to look at her husband, she knew he head healed her. She fell to her knees and said, “It was me.”

And he knew. He knew more than anyone in the town ever had. “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.” She didn’t move at all, for servants were approaching. With confusion in her eyes, seeing those people gathered there together, Joanna choked out, “Your daughter is dead. Don’t bother the teacher any more.”

She looked to the Teacher, knowing how much he had already done that day. Her eyes met his, and she turned to follow him. Jairus’ eyes filled with fear as he looked at his weeping servants. Jesus’ words barely registered in his mind, “Do not fear; only believe.”

The crowds, already confused by what had happened that day, easily stayed behind as a small group traveled on to the home. Peter, James, John, Jairus, Jesus, and this woman went into the room. Mourners shouted they came near, mourning and wailing so loudly they barely heard the commandment, “She is not dead; she is sleeping.”

Just the six went into the room, where the little girl barely made a ripple in the covers. Just six people went into the room that smelled of sickness that had lingered for many days. Just six stood in silence , waiting for what would come next.

But just five saw Jesus take the hand of a child, and speak, “Little girl, get up.”
Just four knew for sure something like that could happen at all.
Just three were amazed by the power of the one they had chosen to follow.
Just two were given back their child.

Just one saw her entire life restored in a day. Just one understood what God-among-us could do.

As God treasures her, holding even her name a secret, may we treasure her story and remember the many who are like her.

Thursday, August 13, 2015


This past Monday, I ordered food delivered to my office. My car and I had a fateful half hour on Saturday, so it was at the dealership. The joy of living in a world where people will bring me things I want to wherever I am is great. But I digress. This isn't about the wonders of delivery service--at least not mostly.

The delivery driver, not surprisingly, got lost. Somehow the directions I put into GrubHub didn't make it to him. He called, so I knew when he pulled into the parking lot and I walked out to get my food to save him from walking inside. That plan didn't work.

Instead, he grabbed his bags and followed me in, chatting the whole way. I, left to my own devices, am not a chatter. At about 3 minutes, I'm done. But this guy clearly wanted to chat. About pretty much anything. So as I was searching for a pen to sign the receipt and wondering how on earth I'd get rid of him, he kept chatting.

Then, he looked around my office. I'm rather enamored with my office décor. Far fewer people than I'd like read the poem about Deborah and want to have a conversation about that. I'm guessing most of them don't know the story. Again, I digress. My pizza delivery guy was looking at the signs behind my desk. They're all pro-LGBT in one way or another. He honed in on the one that reads, "We believe Arizona is read for the freedom to marry."

The people who made those signs got the reality of a conservative state. Talking about freedoms might get you places human rights appeals never would. It's the same way we talk about revenue rather than taxes. Some things just work better than others. It's also entirely possible that pizza delivery guy would think Why Marriage Matters Arizona, the organization that made the signs, is a conservative organization.

So he asked, "Freedom to marry?"

And I answered, far more focused on wanting my food than thinking about anything else, "Oh, that was from before same-sex marriage was legal."

Then time slowed down in a different way. I realized I had just said something that, well, could have all sorts of results. I was suddenly glad the secretary was there, too. Eventually, I saw my response register on his face. "Oh," he said, and quickly left the building.

There have been very few times in my life when I felt someone's disgust in response to me. On Monday afternoon, though, I did.

I live in a world where I forget that's possible. I forget that being fully who you are isn't always ok. I forget that my straight, cisgender voice matters for changing that. I forget people can be made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe in their own spaces. I forget the weight of everything that "Oh" implied.

Because, for me, you what happened?  I already told you almost everything. After pizza delivery guy left, I thought about it for a couple minutes, had an "Oh!"  of my own, and then sat down and ate my salad and cheesy bread.

So I am reminded we are not done with welcoming all God's children, with raising our voice for all God's children, with using our privilege for those who do not have it. Here's hoping for the Reign in which "Oh" carries little weight.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

For These Saints

I know so many of the names scrolling on the screen. Two are men from the congregation I serve now. I planned and preached their funerals, actually. Yet, most of the names I recognize were never Disciples of Christ, at least not denominationally speaking. They were, most certainly, disciples of Christ, functionally speaking. Some, of course, were better disciples than others, or at least less crazy disciples. 

One was the father of one of my college professors. I only knew him well after he was the president of a seminary. He still tried to convince me to attend that seminary, though. 

Another was a legendary professor at my undergraduate institution. Let's just say the legends about him were not exactly favorable, but legends nonetheless. 

Another was the wife of an Old Testament professor. In between the leaving of one professor and the hiring of another, he came out of retirement to teach a class. 

A grandfather of a classmate. One of the little old ladies who was in assisted living when I led worship services there. If the city listed with the name was Johnson City or Elizabethton, Tennessee, the name was likely familiar. 

They're all people I remembered from a life in a different tradition, and a life very different from the one I lead now. There are so, so many twists and turns to end up in that auditorium, watching the names scroll across the screen.

Oh--and those names: in worship at each General Assembly, the Pension Fund of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) submits a list of names of those members who have died in the two years since the last General Assembly. There was a time when I could tell you the history in depth, but that time has passed. I know, however, that while the Pension Fund is Disciples of Christ, they offer their services to pastors in all of the Stone-Campbell Movement. I'm sure that's because the Pension Fund existed long before the restructure of Disciples of Christ that created a couple of different entities that were once one. Perhaps the greatest failure of that Stone-Campbell movement is that it splintered in to multiple groups at all. The tradition that valued unity, that hoped for unity, that prayed for unity, couldn't hold onto it, either. 

Yet, there is this beautiful confession at each General Assembly: these who have died are ours. They are ours as disciples of Christ if not Disciples of Christ. They are ours in their beauty and in their flaws. They are ours because because we are all the Church, even if our churches don't get along so well. Even in that brokenness of Church, still we can commend all of these saints to God.

For this beautiful gesture of grace in these names scrolling across a screen, I am deeply grateful. After all, the God who loves all, who created all, will surely welcome all in whatever comes after. Thanks be to God that we can recognize all our saints even in our brokenness. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015


I still remember that Maggie, two years older than me, called me "four eyes" when I was in school.

I know I was older than Kindergarten by then, because it did not cause me to totally rebel against going to school. Had I still been in Kindergarten, it would have. My grandfather paid me fifty cents a day to go to Kindergarten and not cry, after all.

My tiny elementary school closing after my fourth grade year was absolutely terrible. I can't help but think my life would have been easier if my new English teacher hadn't said to one of the other students, "The competition has arrived."

Middle school is a torture all its own. Gah. I don't even want to think about that.

On Sunday, we'll bless the backpacks of kids headed to school in the next weeks. Well, I'll be out of town, but lay leaders will bless the backpacks just the same. We're giving them luggage tags, bearing the reminder, "Love God. Love others. Love yourself."

We'd be crazy not to admit that school is hard for kids. It's hard for smart kids and not so smart kids, shy kids and outgoing kids. It's hard for all sorts of reasons.

And as we bless backpacks for these kids, I can't help but think of how often things are tagged #blessed or spoken of as blessed. I'm not much on hashtags in any form nor would I likely say something about being blessed. I do know, however, that the word is usually used for things viewed in a positive way. Something good happens. Someone good happens. Good. That's what blessed has come to mean.

These kids' backpacks will be blessed, though, regardless of how good or bad the school year turns out to be. They will be blessed because the church said to God, "Please bless this." The church said to God, "This tangible reminder of school and all that entails is important enough to warrant your attention."

We hope the kids will get good grades, have friends, and stay out of trouble. We know that won't always be true. That doesn't mean the blessing didn't take. The blessing is a hope that good things happen, but it's a confession that even if terrible things happen, God will still be present.

Contrary to popular usage, blessed is a state of being, not an outcome. It has little to do with whether what is currently happening could be called good by anyone on the outside looking it. We bless babies, and houses, and worship spaces, and cars, and relationships, and all sorts of things. We bless them because we confess that God cares about this, too. As Church, we know that baby is blessed even if she gets cancer. We know that worship space is blessed even if we can't pay the mortgage. We know that relationship is blessed even if neither person is sure it will continue.

Like many reign of God things, blessing is part of seeing differently, counting differently, knowing things are different. By being blessed, something becomes God's, even if there's no immediate evidence it would be called good.

That may be the best news of all. For many of us are just doing the best we can, trying to follow God, slipping up along the way, wondering where God is in all of these. That doesn't change that we are #blessed, called God's own. For that, thanks be to God.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

To the Trolls

"Don't feed the trolls," I told the other admin for my church's Facebook page. The trolls do not want to talk. The trolls just want to yell at someone. Trolls are always angry, it seems. The ones who email via the church website don't provide email addresses so we can contact them. Neither do they put return addresses on the regular mail they send. Trolls just troll.

The crappy part is, we'd often like conversations with the trolls. My congregation has this crazy idea that Jesus really did welcome everyone and calls us to do the same. Even if we're not too sure we'd like hanging out with the trolls, we believe Jesus calls us to hang out with the trolls.

I could tell you so many interesting things about communication from the trolls, but here's my favorite and the most often occurring version, "You(r church) need(s) to read X." X is always a Bible verse or set of Bible verses. Always. Verses from Romans and Leviticus are favorites for our trolls, who are usually upset about us welcoming LGBT people.

And here is my response to the trolls: what makes you think we haven't?

What makes you think we haven't read the holy writings of our tradition? Really? Do you think we skipped that?

It might be easier if we did, actually. If we skipped reading the Bible, we wouldn't know the texts support slavery, no mental acrobatics needed. If we skipped reading the Bible, we wouldn't be more than a little freaked out by all the violence. I mean, have you read Judges? If we skipped reading the Bible, we could pretend one man, one woman madly in love with each other is an accurate definition of biblical marriage.

We read the Bible, and we wrestle with what to do with the violence, the slavery, the sexism, and all the other weirdness of these writings handed down to us from worlds far different than ours. We read the Bible, from beginning to end, and go back to wrestle more. In fact, those of us who have had proof texts shouted at us to name our sin are often the ones who can quote chapter and verse. Trust me, this lady preacher knows all about "Let your women keep silent."

We've read it and we're still Christian. We're still Christian because there is Truth beyond all the things that give us pause. That Truth speaks to us, calls us to this place, and breathes abundant life into us. We're Christian because despite those verses you so want us to read, this faith has taught us to love more fully and deeply than we ever thought possible. It's almost like it's a miracle of the Spirit or something.

We live in the hope that God's reign is taking over at this very moment and that, somehow, we are participating in that reign. In that hope, we bury our dead and welcome our babies. In that hope, we give food to people whose bodies are hungry and share in the worries of those whose souls are hungry. In that hope, we see life instead of death, joy instead of sorrow, abundance instead of scarcity. In that hope, we look at the violence, the slavery, the sexism, the hate, the things in our world that are the most terrifying and the most horrible and we cry out, "God will redeem this."

That is our faith, dear trolls. And trust me, we've read that verse you mentioned.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Confessions from a Southerner

Not many days ago, I bought sand, candles, and nine small glass vases for our worship service, to mark the murders at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. We spoke their names, prayed for the church, lit the candles. Since then, I've prayed and I hope others have as well. Our denominational leaders in the Carolinas issued a letter, calling for prayer during the week following the murders, especially for how we address racism.

I'm proud to say that in my predominantly white congregation, we can talk about racism and how deeply it's entrenched. I, and we, hope to be allies. I know we could do more.

As I sit in Arizona, most of a continent away from Charleston, I'm also haunted by my own demons. You see, I'm a Southerner. Yes, I'm a border state Southerner, young enough that I've rarely heard the Civil War referred to as the War of Northern Aggression, but still a Southerner. The killer who walked into Emanuel AME Church, who prayed among people who became his victims, is a little too familiar for comfort.

I choose not to know if people I went to high school with have joined white supremacist groups, but I'm certain some have. Culturally, it's not a very far leap.

Students went hunting before school; guns were just part of life, as was carrying a pocketknife to school for that matter. If I remember correctly, there was a 2.5" blade limit. Confederate flags were common. One of the cooler guys had the same horn on his truck as the General Lee on the Dukes of Hazzard. If you're not familiar, it's "Dixie." Yes, "Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten," Dixie.

There were lots of poor white people and almost no people who weren't white. Still, I've heard the question, "Do you really think they're like us?" Everyone remembered that the original version of the state song for Kentucky has the word "darkeys" in it. Students scoffed that didn't attend school on Martin Luther King Day. Looking back, the epithets used for the day are appalling. If I misbehaved, my grandfather told me he'd have to go buy a little girl to replace me. You can guess the color of that imaginary child's skin.

All of that is the surface version of racism that is so deeply entrenched that white supremacists with plenty of guns are more common than most people would like to admit. And yes, all of that is deeply tied to being Southern. I've seen my share of "Heritage, not Hate" Confederate flag memorabilia. I know all the words to Hank Williams Jr.'s "If the South Woulda Won." For better or worse, Southern is part of who I am, even if my accent has long faded.

This picture was taken in worship this past Sunday, July 21. It shook me in a different way. The little girl's dress looks suspiciously like the dresses I wore to church most Sundays when I was her age. I don't know if she wore a scratchy slip underneath to add volume to her skirt, but I sure did. The immaculate dress of the man holding the door open, that's familiar, too. So's the paneling in the background, the bulletin board. The door is larger and grander than any church I attended as a child, but the other things are weirdly, remarkably the same. These are all the markings of Sunday in the South. There's a country song or two about that.

Roots run deep. So does fear. Fear that tells us who we are involves guns and a flag and General Lee. Fear that tells us skin color does matter. Perhaps the deepest, most haunting fear of all: it could be my brother, or cousin, or high school prom date pulling the trigger against innocent people. As a result, we end up clinging to relics, shouting at anyone who would dare say they're a problem.

God and Google know how many blog posts and articles you could find on combatting systemic racism. Read them. Practice the things that are suggested. This very pale Southerner has confessed what she can.

God help us to do better.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Bouncy Balls and the Handwriting of 8 Year Olds

"Very truly I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice." John 10:1-4

I've never liked the Good Shepherd portion of John. In general, John is a text I love to read and hate to preach on. Even at that, I've always figured I'd be just fine if John had skipped that particular passage. That probably says more about me than any one or anything else. And I know it. I live in a city to preserve my anonymity, at least if I choose. I don't like having an entire town that can recognize my car, much less always end up in a conversation in the grocery store. Deep familiarity isn't appealing to me.

Except it is. In fact, the familiarity of community is for me one of the deepest, holiest parts of church. On some days, I could drop the "one of." There's beautiful simplicity in community. There's beauty in deep familiarity, someone knowing you, someone welcoming you. Cheers was right: "Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came."

Each Sunday, there are a few people whose footsteps I recognize long before I see them--those bringing walkers and baby strollers in particular. Other voices are distinct. Some even arrive at incredibly predictable times.

The rhythms of my life are tied to their lives in strange ways. On Monday mornings, as I correct attendance taken by a lay leader and sift through a pile of attendance slips, I smile when I see the handwriting of an 8 year old. It's her job to fill out her family's attendance slip each week. I can attest that her penmanship has improved a great deal during 2nd grade. This morning, as I walked out to the mailbox to see if I'd gotten a notice for an undeliverable Amazon order, something red in the dirt caught my eye. I dusted off a red bouncy ball. I'm pretty sure it belongs to a four year old boy who was distraught when he lost it under the bushes. I put it on my desk to give back to him on Sunday.

Before I sat down at my desk this morning, I had to put away the board game he'd taken out of the box while his mom was meeting with worship participants. He currently has a fascination with all the games under my desk, stored there between our Thursday game nights. The pieces are intriguing, but never lost. He always puts it away as well as a four year old can put away a game designed for people a few years older.

Familiarity, after all, means people know what you need. It means safety, in most cases. It means a place where it's easy to be. It's home. It's someone you know, who calls you by name, all in the name of the Shepherd. I like that story more all the time.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

At the Mosque Last Night

It's been a long time since I walked into some place with police present just in case something happened. I was among the many who walked into the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix last night in support of the community that faced protestors on Friday night. The mosque was packed with Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and people from a few other faiths. Surprising to me, a huge spectrum of Christians were present. One of the speakers for the evening is Nazarene; I admit they wouldn't have made my list of friends of Muslims. A few children were scattered among those sitting on the floor. I smiled when I saw the tall, African-American man sporting a cowboy hat, giant belt buckle, and handlebar mustache there. There were clerics in collars and stoles. There were people with dark skin and very light skin. It was one of the most diverse gatherings of people I've seen in quite some time.

The few chairs set out for those who couldn't easily sit on the floor filled quickly. (Mosques typically have only a few chairs, since Muslims pray with their bodies and their words.) Elderly men and women found seats on the floor, instead. I wasn't particularly comfortable. I know beyond a doubt they weren't. But they still sat there, stayed there, refusing to abandon their neighbors.

I don't know how many people showed up. They were expecting 600; it was more than that. Some said the number was near 1000. I don't know. There were piles of shoes outside the worship area and piles of flowers inside, brought as requested as a sign of peace. The parking lots were full, despite the fact that most people carpooled. I proved my Chevy Sonic can, indeed, fit four adults in it. The evening was holy, for no other reason than so many people inconvenienced themselves enough to show up and say, "You matter to us."

Most reports of the evening won't mention the man with a megaphone outside the gates. I'm glad they won't, but I will. He used his megaphone to tell us we would burn in hell, we would be converted, the flowers we carried may as well be flowers for our graves. He spoke of human rights violations, particularly women's rights, and how wrong we were to support Muslims who commit vile crimes against women. He went through the same list of warnings over and over.

And I know he's right. There are Muslims who hate women. There are Muslims who force conversion. There are Muslims who do all sorts of stomach-turning, deplorable things. The same is true for Christians. And Jews. And Sikhs. And white men. And Americans. And Europeans. And Africans. And people in wheelchairs. And left-handed doctors who live in houses on cul-de-sacs. And all sorts of other categories of people. There are truly despicable people in every category you can come up with. But most are not.

So yes, there are some Muslims who hate women, and force conversion, and would love me in a grave. There are some Muslims who join and lead militant groups. There are some Muslims who do just about everything.

On the floor of a mosque, seated among both friends and strangers, I am grateful so many people realize that some Muslims do not represent all Muslims. I am especially grateful for the Muslim neighbors whom I've learned to call friends.