Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Postage Stamps

I smile every time I put postage stamps on something at the office. I smile because I remember the woman who sold them to me, or at least our conversation.

I'm more than a little uptight about flags and such in churches. We can have that conversation any time, but well, not here and now. Unfortunately, to get stamps with something other than flags on them, one must go to a post office. The last time the church needed them, it was a stop on my way to somewhere else, so I told the secretary I'd just pick them up.

I waited in line, of course, because that's what you do at the post office. The conversation went like this:

"Do you have rolls of forever stamps in anything other than flags?"

"No. But we have lots of designs in sheets."

"Well, it's for a church…" (I had no clue how to finish that sentence. I try hard not to start a debate of any sort in an encounter that should be purely transactional. Yes, this is a learned skill for me.)

"Oh! Love! We have all sorts of those."

And she handed me an assortment of stamps, one hundred total, with all sorts of love designs: a heart in sealing wax, roses, words in a heart shape, flowers in a heart shape.

On the rare occasions I put a stamp on something, I'm pretty much like a little kid choosing a favorite sticker now.

Mostly, though, I think of that postal worker, and her exclamation, "Oh! Love!" In a time when I worry about the church's reputation of being anti-LGBT, dogmatic, legalistic, hypocritical, and a whole bunch of other not good things, all of which make me hesitant to say, "I'm a pastor," her response was life-giving.

Because when people hear "church," I wish more of them were able to exclaim, "Oh! Love!"

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Peanut Butter Gospel

"Then Jesus ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to the heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children." (Matthew 14:19-21)

I still remember the flannelgraph version of this story. I'd be willing to bet it's still in its giant purple envelope at my parents' house. But it was never one of the Bible stories that I was entranced by. It was just always there, always talked about, always preached on, always taught in Sunday school. It was there, normal. That makes sense, actually. Because while the feeding of so many with so little is miraculous, the food itself and the act are mundane.

Most people who will read my words eat multiple times a day. Most of us can even afford to be somewhat picky eaters. We have our staple foods, the things we buy at the grocery store every single week. I'm pretty sure we all have our fish and bread equivalent, something we eat a few times a week and we'll grab if nothing else is available.

That's how my church started collecting peanut butter. Yes, it's one of the most often requested items by food pantries. Culturally, though, it's a staple.

I did not grow up in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich household. I didn't have a PB&J until I was in college, to which the person handing it to me replied, "What did you eat when you were a kid?"

I ate peanut butter and crackers. "Eat a spoonful of peanut butter," was usually the advice to a ravenous kid still an hour away from supper. I still don't like peanut butter and celery, but peanut butter and apples is a whole other story. Toast with peanut butter and raisins was also a pretty common snack in my childhood home.

While food allergies mean peanut butter is not as common at school as it once was, it's still a childhood staple. And an adulthood staple for that matter. That's a pretty good thing to remember when we fill up our church shopping cart with peanut butter once a month.

When Jesus fed thousands of people, he didn't call forth a banquet or wait to until someone brought a delicacy to share. He fed them what they might eat again tomorrow in their lunch.

And people haven't stopped talking about it.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

On Mother's Day (Just a Little Late)

Mother's Day is one of those things I wrestle with each year, especially when it comes to church life. So far, I've chosen to mention it during prayers and little else. There's all kinds of baggage when it comes to mothers, my own included. I can't help but be even more wary of that sort of celebration when the Bible mostly names women in relation to the sons they gave birth to. The founder of Mother's Day as we know it, Anna Jarvis, wasn't one of the feather rufflers.

But Julia Ward Howe, who wanted a "Mother's Day of Peace" years before the official Mother's Day--I could get behind her notion of Mother's Day, as well as the similar notion belonging to many women longing and working for peace around the U.S. Civil War. If you've never read her "Appeal to Womanhood Throughout the World", you should. She and so many others were tired of the violence of war, and the fact that war took their children from them. I can't shake the echo of Jesus' words, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God." There's some twisted irony when people long for peace because their children are dying.

As I tried to sort Mother's Day in my own mind this year, I kept thinking of those women saying as loudly as they could, "You don't get to kill our children." I've read the words of many women saying the same thing in the past months. This time, they are women fighting for the safety of their black children, saying as loudly as they can, "Black lives matter."

Because some children of some mothers are still especially vulnerable. When I read the list posted by the Very Smart Brothas a few days ago, I was shocked. I knew so few of their names, so few of their stories. That fact likely has something to do with the color of my skin and what the national media ignores. I also thought of their mothers, wrestling with Mother's Day when their children are dead.

So I found most of their names through the power of Google. In the end, I had a sheet from a yellow legal pad filled: Gloria Darden, Gwen Carr, Angela Helton, Tressa Sherrod, Lesley McSpadden, Judy Scott, Tina Hunter, Catherine Daniels, Shirley Marshall Harrison, Tanya Brown, Carolyn Baylor-Guimmo, Andrea Irwin, Samaria Rice, Cassandra Johnson, Sylvia Palmer, Tritobia Ford, Nora Brisbon, Susan Hunt, Syretta Myers, Dominika Stanley, Constance Malcolm, Georgia Farrell, Diane Roberson, Carol Gray, Dorothy Davis, Wanda Johnson, Sybrina Fulton.

For these mothers missing children, I pray. I also add: they deserve more than Hallmark sentimentality. And they are certainly not alone.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

"You're ours."

"You're ours." It's what I say to babies before they're old enough to even recognize their names. They're usually wiggly, maybe smiling, but still little babies when we dedicate them; other traditions would baptize the same ones. This little guy was dedicated last Sunday. Gratuitous cute baby picture for the win. And yes, that's just what his hair does.

Cuteness aside, the covenant made that day is serious. Parents promise to raise children in the Christian faith, for one. For me, though, the church's promise matters more. One of the weirder parts of my tradition is the lack of rules about what has to be done in particular ceremonies. I've looked at our book of worship and those from other traditions. I've ended up a simpler ceremony that most would choose; the simpleness of it sometimes surprises even me. The parents get a question, and the congregation gets a two part question: "Do you promise to love this baby as you love yourselves and to teach him to obey all that Christ has commanded us?"

They're questions straight from the Bible, rephrased from the Greatest Commandment and the Great Commission. The Greatest Commandment, reiterated by Jesus, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself." A slightly different version is in each of the synoptic Gospels. The Great Commission comes at the end of Matthew, and is also spoken by Jesus, "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." Holding a cute baby, though, and asking seriously if a church truly intends to do these things, brings with it a surprising seriousness.

A baby might be cute and easy to love on the surface, but no one has to be convinced they're a ton of work. A baby's vulnerability is immediately evident; he needs other people to care for him. No one doubts that, either. "Will you love him as you love yourselves?" If you really listen to that, you'll likely let out a nice, "Oof," at some point. It's tough, at best.

And it should be. Covenants are difficult, are binding, and, if we let them be, transforming. A promise that lasts a lifetime will certainly be all of those things. If, though, we take these promises to heart, uphold them no matter what, it would fix a great deal of all of our church problems.

Let's say that baby grows up to be:

  • Homeless
  • Rich
  • Incarcerated
  • Addicted
  • Intelligent
  • Gay
  • Irresponsible
  • Beautiful
  • Depressed
  • Chronically Ill
  • Poor
  • Handicapped
  • Successful
Or anything else, really. That baby is still, forever, the Church's. With God's help, we'll love him fiercely his whole life long, no matter who he turns out to be. It's a trust that the God who called us to love that baby in the first place calls us to still love that baby when he grows up different than we expected. 

I can't help but think we'd find some Spirit-filled, surprising places if we learned to never stop saying, "You're Ours."