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Goodness and Truth

It was that lovely week of Christmas when utterly NOTHING happens at church, and we clergy types can lounge in our sweats for days on end, in recovery from the high holy days. Christmas had fallen in that same week of blessed cool weather that the desert gets, just every now in then, when the sun is still shining but you can actually wear a jacket outside without melting. It was like that. My mom was in town, and we had walked the kids over to a neighborhood park for some excercise.

There was a sign–handwritten, non-descript, unassuming–hanging on a post as we arrived. “Pat-pat,” says my 4-year-old, “What does that sign say?”

My mom proceeded to read her the message on the sign; someone had lost their cat. Said cat was greatly missed, and a little girl named Alyssa would greatly appreciate any help in locating her pet. A phone number was attached so that folks could call with information.

I saw my daughter’s wheels turning rapidly–sparks flying and gears grinding, in that rhythm unique to a 4-year-old girl who has just been faced with a new and alarming reality of the world: pets can get lost.

Uh-oh. This was about to be a long walk.

Now, we don’t have a cat. My husband is allergic, and besides, we are dog people. In fact, we are the proud family of Van Halen, super dog and baby shepherd extraordinaire. (And yes, like many people who have small children, we have become the worst ever dog parents in the world. But, he has yet to encounter a rattle snake on our watch, he is well fed on covert bites of chicken nugget and peanut butter sandwich, and he gets a stocking at Christmas. We love that little booger). So the fact that my child would feel immediate rush of affection for a member of the feline race seemed unlikely.

What she did feel, however, was a rush of worry for this sad little girl who had lost her pet. “Let’s go find the cat,” she said, just like that. Like the cat was chilling under a bush somewhere, muching on a snack of desert quail and just waiting to be found.

Maybe we’ve let her watch too much Wonder Pets. But now we had a mission, and she wanted to look all over the park for the cat.

When we didn’t find the cat, we tried to change the subject. No deal. “Let’s call Alyssa and tell her that we’re looking for her cat,” she said. I guess she thought it would be some comfort for the girl to know that neighbors were on the case. Solidarity, sister.

“Well,” i said, “i don’t think we need to call her unless we actually see the cat,” i said.  Then i tried, “You know this isn’t OUR Alyssa from church, right? This is another little girl named Alyssa.” (Hey, worth a try. Maybe her concern is not arbitrary, but attached to a person she knows by the same name.) But no. She knew this was not our Alyssa.

“I know. But…where did the cat go?”

My mom and i exchanged looks. We knew that the likely answer was that kitty had run afoul of the neighborhood coyotes, and become the centerpiece of an elaborate midnite picnic in the desert.

“LET’S GO PLAY ON THE SLIDE,” i try, a little too loudly. Commence slide play. 30 seconds later, “I think somebody already found the cat.”
Yes, exactly. Cat has been found. Let’s go with that. “Your brother’s playing in the sand. Let’s go help him.”

Sand play in progress. 90 seconds later, “Pat-pat, tell me a story about the cat.”

A story. Now that we can do. And so, Pat-pat goes about telling a cat story. And then, upon urgent request, another cat story. And another and another. The cat hid in the bed, under the covers, and took a long nap. The cat went out to the desert and had an adventure involving a road-runner and a javelina. And always, the favorite one that we kept coming back to–the cat was found and home again, and Alyssa was so happy, she forgot to go to the park and take down the signs.

Cause there’s a story, and then there’s a Story, you know? I am all for telling kids the truth, and not pulling punches about the realities of life and death, of missing pets and poverty and partisan politics. But at this point, Alyssa and her cat are still pretend, in some abstract kind of way. Why not give them a happy ending if we can?

Some day, there will be plenty of time to talk about the difference between truth and lies; and then the deeper distinction between truth and history, in that profound way that gospel, literature, and shared narrative–though not entirely historical– can still hold great truth. But, as a wise seminary professor said–when the kids is 5 (or 4, as it were) all you have to give them is the story. You don’t have to dig into the layers of context and language barriers, and what actually happened. You give them the gift of the story so that it becomes a part of them. As they grow, they will find the many ways in which the story is, in fact, true.

Fabled Alyssa, if you are reading this, I hope that you found your cat. I hope he was off on one of the great adventures that my mother laid out for him, and I hope he came back home with his own story to tell. But if not…then know that a little girl who lives very close to you was willing to share your broken heart. While the rest of us wrote you a happy ending.

No, this is not missing poster kitty. This is China, who lives in Winston-Salem with my friend Jimmy. And whose demise, I'm certain, will not involve coyotes...

No, this is not missing poster kitty. This is China, who lives in Winston-Salem with my friend Jimmy. And whose demise, I’m certain, will not involve coyotes…

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Your Jesus looks like a frat guy…

It was a day to celebrate diversity, a day to celebrate progress. It was a day to look forward with great hope and resolve. It was also a day to look with sadness on the deep divisions of race and religion running through the course of our history; a day to recognize the tragic and growing chasm between plenty and want.  And yet, for all that, it was a day to believe in the best ideals, the most beautiful landscapes, and the hard-working, free-thinking people that make up our great nation.

And yet–certain religious leaders tried to upstage all those layers of darkness and light, by making snarky comments about the President’s faith. Or lack thereof. Let’s call that camp of pastors “He who shall not be named”–(because, you know, saying the Dark Lord’s name gives him more power). The widely-tweeted comment was something to the effect of “praying for the President as he places his hand on a Bible he does not know, making a pledge in a God he doesn’t believe in.”

Ick.

I don’t really want to repeat or engage such negative words at all.  I mean…who is he, after all, to comment on someone else’s life, let alone another person’s relationship with God? Thing is…those same kinds of pastors comment on my life, and my relationship with God, all the time. They say I should not be allowed (yes, allowed) to preach, because I’m a girl. They say that I am not called to ministry–perhaps I heard wrong?–because God would not speak to me in that way. Furthermore, they say that my husband should not be a stay-home dad, because of some obscure biblical text that basically says men need to work a 40 hour week and bring home a pay check in order to ensure that their sons won’t be gay. (Side note–in what obscure epistle do people find this $*%&??).

I’m a pretty secure person. He-who-shallnotbenamed can say this stuff, all day long, and ima still be in the pulpit come Sunday. My husband will still be at the drums with a small child on one knee–possibly two. It’s whatever. i don’t care what they say about me.

However–i do care what this brand of Christian leader says to other women and girls, who maybe don’t have the network of support and affirmation that i’ve had, all my life. I do care that they feel entitled to comment on another person’s worthiness to speak the name of God–whether it is a woman pastor, or a gay person, or a President whose faith does not quite fit in the same box –or on the same bumper sticker–as that of the masses.

I do care, when pastors talk about religious freedom as though they–the straight, white, affluent, American male–are somehow the ones being oppressed.

So, we’re going to play a little game i like to call “What Would Jed Bartlett Say?”  For instance, what would Jed Bartlett say, were he the President being sworn in, upon finding out that the mega-preacher in the back row was saying disparaging–and public–things about his belief in God?

Here is my best guess:

The Pretend President Bartlett, who lives in my head: “I’m sorry, who is this guy? He’s a pastor, right? With a following of thousands? Maybe HuNDREDS of thousands? Is his faith so insecure, so fragile, that he needs it written into the constitution and affirmed by the Supreme Court? I find that troubling. Maybe he’s just mad he had to sit next to the Lutherans at the interfaith prayer breakfast. I hear they had some women in collars as part of their delegation.

Anyway, we don’t do this. In this country, we don’t point fingers and claim that ‘our God is bigger’ when we disagree. We don’t go in front of cameras and say that our faith is better than somebody else’s. We don’t question the contents of a man’s soul. I don’t care if he’s the President of the United States or the guy who cleans up peanuts after a baseball game. We don’t do this.

But if we did…I say, if we did, I might tell that guy that he’s, right; I don’t believe in his God. I don’t believe in a God who’s been tragically limited to a certain time by a particular cultural context; a God who has been named and claimed by a slim demographic of people, and wears all the same blinders that they wear. I would also say that the Jesus I follow does not look much like his Jesus. The Jesus I know talks about feeding the poor, and loving your neighbor, and sitting at a table with people you don’t like very much. His Jesus looks like a frat guy.

But we don’t do this. Not in this House.  By the way, I guess this means all those ocean-liner-sized churches are officially ready to give up their tax-exempt status now, so they can campaign for the other guy next time. Tell them I’ll take their check, anytime now…”

**Thankful for my inner Jed Bartlett, for such a time as this. Now I’m off to work on some sermon notes. For a message about the body of Christ having many gifts, many parts and pieces, many voices; but one faith, one baptism, one Spirit of Love. May as much be true in our time and place. Even if we don’t all fit on the same bumper sticker, maybe we can learn to at least share a government and dispense with the name calling.

Or maybe I’ll just go home and watch reruns of The West Wing.

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Another Dream

Holy smokes. I am just getting around to reading Jimmy Carter’s piece about gender inequality in the church. If you haven’t read it yet, please do so today. Even if it feels like preaching to the choir in some of our circles, he speaks far more eloquently and broadly the truth that so many of us have been hollering about for decades, given his perspective from within the tradition. And also, he was the freakin President of the free world. Somehow, I feel this good word carries a little more weight of authority than it would coming from any old pulpit or blog post.

I encourage you to read and share this today, because a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Matters of gender and sexual identity remain intricately intertwined with matters of race, poverty, abuse and violence, from our doorsteps to the farthest reaches of the world. Here is a straight, white, powerful, man, saying to the world that enough is enough. It is a new day, and a new kind of dream. I am grateful for his voice. Read on. Sing on.

There was a dream, and one day I could see it

like a bird in a cage, I broke in and demanded that somebody free it.

-the Avett Brothers

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$*^! Jesus Says: Wedding Edition

Mary: Jesus, you aren’t going to believe this. They have run out of wine.

Jesus: I told you this was going to be a lame party. I totally didn’t want to come.

Mary: Yes, well, but i knew there would be some nice girls here…

Jesus: ANYway…i guess somebody’s going to have to make a run.

Mary: Yes, I suppose. Unless…well, you know. You could do some party tricks.

Jesus: Woman! And of course, I mean “woman” in the most sincere and respectful tone, and not at all the the perjorative sense that is meant to silence you… I say, Woman! I couldn’t possibly. It is not yet my time. The world is not ready for me.

Joseph: Don’t talk to your mother that way. And anyway, it would be really cool. Why don’t you just do what she says?

Jesus: You’re not my real dad!

But of course…Jesus does it anyway. He turns a lame-@$$ wedding into the greatest one of all time, by transforming the water into a surplus of wine.  The party continues on into the night.

Some say that Jesus is foreshadowing the ‘gift’ of the cross here, the promise of eternal life–that which never runs dry. Maybe. Or maybe he loved a good party. Or maybe he really loved his mama.

Or maybe Jesus knew that love was the real miracle. That in a dark and broken and messed up world, people who still seek the salvation of human connection are brave enough and bold enough to deserve something spectacular. Maybe he knew that a world of Manti Te’o (wth is that even about? i honestly don’t think anybody knows) and Kardashians and Charlie Sheen, we could all use a little more of the magic of the wedding feast.

Truth is, it is miraculous that people still get married. When the divorce rate is well over 50% (true story); when our ex-es are southeastern kentucky meth dealers (also a true story) or something equally impressive; when odds are against us from the start; there is something about love that sustains us and compels us to hope, something essential and life-giving that overcomes even the lamest wedding ritual, that remains joyful life-giving well into the night.

Likewise, it is the essence of grace and good news that drives us back church, when every trend says we are dying; when every public opinion survey says that our tradition is  ‘irrelevant,’ ‘judgmental,’ ‘hypocritical,’ perhaps even ‘lame.” We continue to believe in the miracle of grace and community because, around our table, the cup is never dry.

Love is the miracle, and it keeps us coming back for more. Jesus knew this. And so did his mama.

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God of the Facebook Meme

One woman’s ‘apologetic’ as to why she is raising her children without God has been making the internet rounds this week. Reading it made me want to respond in some way, without engaging the crazies in the comment thread (do not feed the trolls). But I also don’t want it to sound like I’m arguing with her—or with people who share her beliefs.

Because actually? I kind of agree with her.

At least, on some points. Despite my own faith and vocation, I absolutely ditto the sentiment that schools and/or government should not be in the business of teaching or imposing a certain faith, or language of faith. What we believe, after all, is a deeply personal thing. It cannot be easily manipulated or contrived.

Furthermore, I agree with her that many Christians live with a deep and abiding fear of atheists, and it makes us do crazy things. Hateful things. Distinctly un-Christlike things.

However, I feel like there is a  limited image of God at work in this piece. But it isn’t her fault. It is ours.

Like I said, my interest here is not in converting this author–or those who share her views–into a Christian. I know that Jesus said to ‘go and make disciples,’ and yes, I think he meant it. I think it would be swell to go out in the world, loving and serving people like Jesus did, calling for a repentance that rejects the ills of the world and turns people back to the way of the Holy. Sounds like a great gig. Sadly, a few Christians since Jesus’ time have taken ‘make disciples’ to mean rape, pillage, kill, shame, silence and inspire fear, so they kind of ruined for the rest of us. Our best bet, in our time and place, is to model Christ-like behavior as best we can, to preach good news, and to pray that people will glimpse the goodness of God when they are in our presence. We can hope that they might want to learn more about how our beliefs shape us into the kind and loving and intelligent people that we are.

Of course, we first have to BE kind, loving, and intelligent people.

What I’m getting around to is: I’m not arguing ‘against’ unbelief, so much as I am trying to shine a light on this conversation for fellow Christ-followers and say–this, right here, is what comes of bad theology; this is what happens when the popular gospel message is full of easy answers, fear of ‘other,’ and an image of God that has been reduced to a Hallmark card or a facebook meme. (btw, i finally learned how to say that word).
This is what comes of shredding apart the Bible and reducing it to a quippy one-liner that will win an ideological argument for us (again, usually on facebook). This limited, unfeeling, unjust, and kind of petty God is not one that I’ve ever met before. But it is the God who has been marketed for mass consumption. I’m not arguing with the author of that post because, really, she did not create this God–we did. And I don’t blame her for not wanting to know him.

Or rather, westernized Judeo-Christian heritage created this God, and we built institutions around Him (yes, this God is a him) and, well, here we all are. May God forgive us for trying to make it so easy.

There is a cost to cheap and easy religion. It feels good–like a new clothing purchase or a first drink or a fancy scented lotion–when you first try it on. Thing is, when life gets hard, it leaves us with utter emptiness. A godless void that cannot explain away the sick child, the impoverished country, the gun violence or the earthquake.

Trying to explain away the suffering of the world continues to be our problem. We say pithy things like ‘it was God’s will,’ or ‘everything happens for a reason,’ or ‘this is what happens when we legalize gay marriage/give women the right to vote/ let kids play soccer on Sundays.’ Saying these things might somehow make the speaker feel better in the moment. But ultimately, we are not doing God–or humankind–any favors when we condense our faith to a bumper sticker. People are leaving our churches in droves, and this is the image of God they take with them.
We can do better. We can learn to say things like “i don’t know,” or “i don’t have an easy answer for that,” or “it doesn’t make sense, but I promise…you are not alone in this.”

We can do better, folks. We can try harder, be louder, live larger and insist that being a person of faith does not mean checking your brain at the door, or holding onto archaic social systems, or learning to hate and fear those who walk another way. We cannot explain or reason God into being, any more than this writer can explain or reason God away. God is reason, and wonder; God is grace and compassion; God is science, and God is profoundly unknown; God is joy, and given the state of the world, God must be a little bit of heartbreak; God is justice, but not by any system that we know; God is in all, and with all; God just IS, and thanks be to God, nothing I say right–or write wrong–will change that.
If God does not look like the world that we know—or rather, if the world does not look quite like God—then all the more reason to go and try again.

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The Rhythms of Grace

Last week, I signed my 4-year-old daughter up for her first dance class. !!  I bought tights and leotards, and she’s been wearing them around the house for weeks now. I’m trying to teach her the grande jette. Because, you know, it is always preferable to begin the (beginner, toddler, community center) class from a more advanced perspective than your peers.

Oh, yeah. I’m going to be that mom. Consider yourselves forewarned.

Thing is, while the ‘retired’ dance teacher in me is thrilling at the idea of tiny tutus, the reasonable, rational side of my brain is thinking…this is how it begins. I find myself mentally flashing forward about ten years. To a cascading flow of dance classes; swim lessons; piano via skype with their (by then) grammy-winning uncle; basketball and volleyball practice (since both my kids will outgrow me by the 3rd grade); church youth group activities; band camp; weekend sleepovers; and then, you know, whatever THEY actually want to do. And given the fact that our lives, at this very moment, are pretty full and busy, i find myself wondering; how are we EVER going to find time for it all?

In many ways, i might really be that mom. Because I want my kids to have a chance to try many things, and find what they enjoy and/or seem to be gifted in. (Here’s hoping that the ‘enjoy’ and ‘can sort of do’ overlap, at least some of the time.) But as much as i want my kids to see, do, and practice all of the things that make life full and meaningful, I do not believe in the over-programmed, unsustainable, expensive and exhausting schedules that many of us tend to engage, in an effort to make our kids ‘perform’ better, go farther, and somehow validate us as parents. The “altar of busy-ness” (says Barbara Brown Taylor) has become perhaps the primary false god of our culture. And i blame it, at least in part, for pulling many families out of the faith community: ‘yes, we know Church is important. We are just so busy…”

I’m hoping that, with intention, my husband and i can strike a reasonable balance of supporting and encouraging our kids to explore their gifts, while also maintaining a rhythm of family life that is life-giving and endowed with that great, yet often overlooked gift of childhood–downtime. Precious downtime in which to just BE– at home, with family, in nature–for our children to simply know what it means to be a whole, round, and balanced person in the world. (Dang–my husband. I forgot to add ‘drum lessons’ to that litany of stuff up there…)

In the meantime, I’m resolving to cherish every minute of this time in the life of my family. The kids are big enough to do fun stuff–like go on a road trip, or take a dance class, or eat at a (reasonably) nice restaurant; but not so big as to have demanding social calendars and weekends full of regional whatever competitions. I will enjoy those things in good time, but for now, it is nice to just ‘be’ with my people. I hope that we are setting the rhythm for a graceful pace of living, for all of our years to come. (Note to self: good job for my spouse, the drummer. He’s kind of a rock star).

I’m trying to keep a more graceful pace in other parts of my life, too. As i opened my new church calendar for 2013, I thought of all the wonderful things that we want to do in the life of the church this year, as we discern God’s call to serve our neighbors. And yet, I am rid of the desperate sense of urgency that I felt in my first years of serving this church. While there is always–always–urgency to the gospel (just ask Mark), I no longer get the feeling that my congregation is in ‘survival’ mode, and that everything we do (or do not do) has the potential to make or break us. There’s no longer a frantic energy around my schedule of events and gatherings, and for that I am grateful. After years of prayerful discernment and following the Spirit’s lead, we seem to be in a rhythm of abundance these days. The work of transformation has finally taken root, and it no longer seems that everything has to be an uphill climb. While there is still (much) work to be done here, I feel we can give ourselves permission to breathe through the changes, and let ‘whatever’s next’ come in good time.

Maybe it’s because we have people in the seats, and money in the bank, and additional staff. Or maybe I have finally learned that nothing we can “do” can bring about the work of the kingdom, better than simply showing up and learning how to be fully in the presence of God and community. I thank God for giving me the energy to run around to dance class, and Bible study, and leadership retreats, and hospital visits, and community task forces for whatever, and preschool orientation night, and choir practice, ad infinitum. But I also thank Jesus for teaching me  to simply lay down my own stuff and follow, into a life that cannot be planned, but is always full of good news.

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”  Matthew 11:28-30. The Message

My tiny-Bop in a tutu--several years ago, when she was way too young for a tutu. Cause I am still THAT mom, at least a little bit.

My tiny-Bop in a tutu–several years ago, when she was way too young for a tutu. Cause I am still THAT mom, at least a little bit.

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The “Yes”es Have It

I spent the weekend at a mountain camp/retreat center with other church leaders from around Arizona. If you’ve ever been to this sort of thing, you’ll know that it involved a lot of ‘sharing;’ a lot of coffee; some dancing, silliness and general hilarity; and group-building activities involving things like rope, pvc pipe, and blue plastic tarps. (yes, we have pictures).

Which is to say that, in many ways, once you’ve been to some kind of leadership retreat, you’ve been to them all. However, this one had unique components that placed it a notch above other similar events. For one thing, it was a uniquely gifted bunch of people who gathered. Makes a big difference. Also, the purpose of this gathering was not to ‘fix’ our churches, or to go home with a new program or operation model that would help us ‘get more people.’ This was more about how we approach ministry in a rapidly-changing culture; how we engage our communities; and how we can be more fully present and aware in our churches, families, and neighborhoods.

There was one exercise that I found especially meaningful, and will use again in other circles. We were asked to organize ourselves into groups of 4, and have a simple discussion–pretending that we were a church committee. An interesting sort of role play.

One member of the group was to approach the ‘committee’ with an idea. And our task was to say ‘no’ in as many ways as we could, in under 3 minutes. So when the first person said, ‘I want to take a group of senior citizens to Haiti, for a mission trip,’ the rest of us had to come up with as many reasons as possible to stop the conversation in its tracks–again, pretending to be a group of church leaders.

The whole room was erupting in laughter, between excuses, because it was so easy to engage every ‘no’ we’d ever encountered in church life. “We aren’t insured for that!” “We don’t have the money for that!” “We need to help the poor right here in our own community!” “We need the old folks to stay home and knit us some more prayer shawls.” “We’ve never done that before.”  And so on. Like i said, it was funny because it was so true, so familiar, and so telling of the culture in much of mainline Christian America. The first and easiest response is always ‘no.’

Then we had to take the opposite approach–someone was to come to the group and suggest a youth group choir tour, and the task of the group was to shout, ‘yes…AND,’ then add another idea to enrich the initial propsal. “Yes, AND let’s engage them in some kind of multi-cultural experience on the road.” “Yes, AND, let’s sell cd’s of their concert to help them raise money.” Yes, AND, let’s make this an annual trip.” “Yes, AND, let’s have them do a presentation for the congregation, and share their stories when they get back.” Yes. And yes, and yes, and yes.

Awhile back, I wrote about the rules of improv, and the lifegiving properties of YES, AND. The retreat exercise of last weekend confirmed everything we know about the power of affirmation and engagement. It was a simple reminder that, as often as we say ‘yes’ in the life of the church, we are making room for the Spirit to move among us, and to do a new thing with the good news of Jesus Christ.

Of course, on occasion, we have to say no. “No” to the old models of growth; “no” to out-moded elements of worship; “no” to expensive and unsustainable programs that do not give us life; “no” to people who halt all progress in its tracks, and hold our ministries hostage with their check books. We have to say no, sometimes, in order to find the deeper ‘yes’ that waits for us, just beneath the surface. The trick is to engage in mindful discernment, at all times; and to never say ‘no’ just because it is easy and familiar to do so.

In the Disciples of Christ tradition, it has always been our practice to say ‘yes’ to new life, even when ‘no’ seems easier and more comfortable. In the coming year, there will be some opportunities for us to engage a more open, inclusive and life-affirming gospel. We might have to say ‘no’ to some things in order to declare this particular piece of good news. But like my friend Julie, over at Under the Ginko Tree–and like so many of our colleagues, church members, and partners in mission–i cannot wait to say “yes,” when it is my turn to do so. I cannot wait for the AND that will come after.

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