Thursday, December 21, 2017

alter.

We are coming of age.
My classmates, my colleagues, my peers.
We are naming things that need to be named and elbowing our way into the public square. We are getting published and giving Ted Talks and recording albums.

We grew up on the sidelines while fundamental Christian voices dominate the public square, but we've been tagging in for about a decade now. So many people do not have language for their theology and theology for their values. And that's on us. It is practiced and gifted and sung and spoken and prayed and confessed in our Sanctuaries, but it is missing in bookstores and on radio stations that sell mostly damnation, emotional highs, and self-help.

I am soaking in the work of my generation's Christian leaders: children's books, memoirs, devotionals, articles, poetry, music, spoken word, and visual art. There's good stuff out there!

Here's one more log on the Holy Spirit's bonfire.  I've been writing and storytelling and praying with three fabulous pastors my age. It's become a podcast called Alter Guild and our first season will be available on Monday, December 25. These episodes rooted in familiar and obscure Christmas texts and will be released one day at a time through the Twelve Days of Christmas.


This season produced without a budget. We are grateful for the talent and equipment borrowed from our congregations, the blessing of our colleagues, the free trial memberships for stock video and music, and the time we've found - against all odds - in the holiday season to create something new.

Want to help make it successful? Here's how:

  1. Subscribe to Alter Guild through iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, etc. Or visit www.alterguild.org to listen through the website.
  2. Like and Follow @alterguild on Facebook and Twitter.
  3. Rate us on Facebook and iTunes.
  4. Share this resource with others who listen to podcasts or need to hear a fresh word rooted in these ancient texts.
  5. Give us feedback. Email alterguild@gmail.com to share your suggestions, encouragement, and ideas for future seasons.
Why "Alter Guild"? Because something is changing in the church. Just ask those authors, artists, and musicians. The call to discipleship is still rooted in ancient mystery, but it alters the way we listen, love, and serve in the world. We've had a lot of fun putting these episodes together and hope they speak to your weary, curious, and empathetic faith. Enjoy!


Thursday, December 7, 2017

public vulnerability.

I met with parents of confirmation students last night. They asked how to engage scripture so that we hear the call to the public square and know where to show up. I blabbed on for awhile and I'm not sure I said anything of great use in that moment. A day later, I'm still thinking about that question and more practical ideas have been swimming by my brain.

1. Fail hard. You won't always be in the right place at the right time. Prophetic, active, embodied faith requires practice and risk and looking a fool most of the time. And that's okay. There are no Division 1 scholarships on the line here. Like St. Daniel the Tiger says, "Keep on trying - you'll get beh-et-ter."

2. Focus in. Choose a few issues that matter deeply to you. Spend time learning about the intersections of that issue - the demographics most affected, the funding barriers, the stereotypes, and the people already showing up and being loud. You can't save the whole world and fight every fight. But you can delve into a few things that introduce you to new relationships and ideas.

3. Join some stuff. Are you at PTO meetings or City Council conversations? Does every member of your family have a library card and know how to use it? When is the last time you visited a state park? Did you tag them on social media and give thanks for that sacred space and unsung work? It's a good time to rediscover the power and privilege of being a citizen.

4. Like it all. Find organizations on Facebook that align with your values and dreams for community. Like and follow their pages so you can see what local events are already happening around you. Show up for your watershed district, urban art programs, MLK Jr. speaker series, or a scout troop pinewood derby. Visit a place of worship for their fish fry and bingo night. (It's real.) You don't have to recreate the wheel. Good stuff is already in motion and it's easier than ever to jump on the beautiful bandwagon of resistance or celebration. (Also, this can be done while drinking wine.)

5. Tell the kids. Share some of the ways you struggle to connect your faith to daily life and your values to concrete action. They're watching and wondering how all this stuff connects. If they don't know that grown ups think this is really hard, they will draw sad conclusions about how discipleship works and why being the church matters. Your vulnerability is welcome proof that confirmation is not graduation - we wonder and wrestle with this stuff from cradle to grave. Maybe they'll have some ideas about how your family can work on this together.

6. Pre-read that scripture. I'll bet your place of worship publicizes the texts for next weekend in advance. Read the text before worship and see if any of these questions get your wheels turning. Just one or two. It doesn't need to be intensive.

  • Does this scripture sound like instruction, story, conviction, promise, or something else?
  • Who is named in this scripture and who is merely described or spoken for?
  • What do the action verbs reveal about this story?
  • What does (particular character) have to gain or lose?
  • How is heaven's love or justice revealed here?
  • What about this scripture makes me feel defensive, uncomfortable, or convicted?
  • What about this scripture makes me feel hopeful, relieved, or forgiven?
  • What is going on in the world or my life that resonates with this scripture?
  • If I'm going to hear a sermon/reflection on this text in a few days, what do I hope to hear more about?
Most of us don't read the Bible during the week and, if we do, there's some "professional" there to translate or expound right away. The average mainline Christian seems out of practice simmering with scripture, reading it and then letting it soak into our ordinary tasks and thoughts. But that's how preachers and teachers get cracking. That's where the weird and wonderful stuff happens. It doesn't require fancy degrees or biblical fluency or personal agenda. Give it a try and see what happens.

7. Believe in the little things. Tonight I donated $50 to Doug Jones for Senate in Alabama. I want to believe that my $50 will help keep Roy Moore and his "family values" out of the United States Senate. Roy Moore stands as a bigot and barrier at the intersection of so many things I care about. He doesn't believe women or Muslims should hold elected office. He tried to take a mother's custody away because of her sexual orientation. When he was my age, he stripped down to his underwear and molested teenage girls. He and his voter base don't get to corner the market on what it means to be American and Christian anymore. I don't want Doug Jones to lose in a nail biter and wonder whether $50 would have made a difference.

Seven. It's a holy number so I'll stop there. Are we willing to fail, get specific, show up, be a witness to others, share with the next generation, read the bible, and believe in small acts of hope and love?That's plenty. And yet, it's just a call to public vulnerability. This is what it means to be incarnational, to be the church, to be together in the public square.

See you out there, with open hearts and makin' fools. 
Love, Meta

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

complicated.

He was the first person who told me I'd become a pastor someday.

I was 12 and it came across as a cheap insult. I hated him for it because I'd never seen or heard a female pastor and thought that meant I would have to imitate men instead of being myself.  But I also loved him for it because I knew he meant to get me dreaming big about my faith and vocation. He was a great pastor and mentor. I can still remember him standing on the stretch of sidewalk between the race track and the sanctuary, his alb blowing in the ocean breeze. He greeted everyone by name and handshake, personable and intensely funny.

He stayed in good touch with our family after we moved back to Minnesota and would visit from time to time. He corresponded with me and my brothers through snail mail, cheering us on while we grew up.

But in college I got a strange farewell email and then news that there was a warrant out for his arrest. For more than a dozen years he'd been manipulating family systems and sexually mollesting little boys in and beyond our congregation.

Families broke with pain and trauma.
A congregation hemorrhaged grief, anger, and denial.
Countless people questioned their faith in God and their relationship to the church.

Somewhere in between counseling at summer camp and leaving for a semester abroad, his lawyer asked me to give a character witness for his trial. My parents urged me not to reply, warning that communication could rope me into a trial and keep me from the adventure I'd planned. I remember reading the letter from the lawyer several times.

You had a good relationship with him.
He never did anything terrible to you.
Just speak to your own experience of his behavior.

Each time I read it, I became more upset. This invitation was a sinister twisting of what's true:

Everyone is complicated by good and bad behavior, healthy and unhealthy relationships, talented and toxic decisions. We have all accomplished broken and sinful things and we have all accomplished kind and beautiful things. He didn't sexually assault me or my family, but that is beside the point. I can speak to the goodness he offered my life, but not in the context of the terrible ways he hurt others.

As the #metoo movement unravels reputations and assumptions across party lines and industries, we hear people inserting themselves into the trauma and truth of others:
If it's a politician we like and voted for, we point at the other party and their perverts instead. We distract with allegations across the aisle and troll the internet for dirt on the alleged victim. The slut shaming begins in an effort to protect our own categories and personal distance from the scum. 
If we know the alleged perpetrator, we go on record saying he never grabbed us. He never made those joke around us. We don't think he's that kind of guy. It implies that since he didn't masterbate in front of every women he ever met, then he never did it at all. Each character witness chips away at what the victim has to say. 
If she waited years to speak out, we judge her silence as though we were the ones inconvenienced by the delay. We prove why women wait to tell someone. If you are raked through the coals as a 54 year old woman, why would you said anything forty years ago?
Allegations are disrupting systems. They are toppling ivory towers and touching the untouchable. Our mentors and leaders are standing on shaky pedestals. It's scary and confusing and disheartening and exciting all at once. But it is not conservatives vs. liberals. It is not men vs. women. It's not good people vs. evil people. It's complicated.

At some point in life, we all watch a beloved leader, mentor, or family member fall from grace. We all made it about ourselves and have to wrestle with the same question: how can someone who was so good to me do something this terrible? 

Maybe you write them off and walk away.
Or you punish them with whatever power you have.
Or you deny their sin to protect your experience.
Or you lash out at those who challenge his reputation.
Or the trust you once placed in institutions and leaders dissolves into jaded skepticism.

But I believe there's another way.  It's much harder than our fight and flight instincts, but it makes healing a possibility. So for everyone who has been disrupted, disappointed, surprised, or disgusted by the failings of a hero, come with me:

Their actions make us wonder if the relationship was genuine, if the good stuff was actually good, if the sin was contagious, if we were compliant. Take time to wonder.

That wonder leads us back to our own human nature. We realize that what he did isn't about us, but that we too are human. We sin and make mistakes. We could be found out someday. Take time to wrestle with your own temptation and imposter syndrome.

The wrestling wears us out. It leaves us vulnerable, empathetic, honest about our emotions. Here we can confess our own fears and insecurities, but also the weight of systems that protect the powerful, avoid liability, and isolate the weak. Here we recognize how close we have also come to violating a boundary or causing damage in the lives of others. Here we can remember that God has a habit of working through disruption to restore dignity, belonging, and truth. That God shows up in the hard and painful stuff to bear new life.

It took a few years to peel apart the wonderful way my pastor announced my vocation from the horrifying and hurtful things he did to other people. It was hard to believe that my faith formation and call to ministry weren't somehow tainted by the man who broke faith and bodies and boundaries and families and church and trust for so many others. But by standing to face what was complicated, God showed me that all of these things can be true.

I can hold these different truths in my heart without projecting them onto a survivor of his abuse. I don't need to point out to them that he never hurt me because that implies I don't believe the survivor. I don't need to parse common denominators in the families he betrayed because that just puts me at a distance and makes empathy harder. I don't need to give up on the church and all of its pastors because there are still so many who heal the hurt and protect the weak.

Our culture resists the remorse of perpetrators because we don't know how to test their sincerity or hold them accountable. So we deny and defend, rage and seek vengeance. But what if the church was willing to lead people into the heart of this disruption - the feelings, the wonder, the wrestling, the confession? What if we gave the world language for the complexities our human identity?

Oh wait. We have it. (And in Latin so it's fancy!)
"simul justus et peccator"

We are simultaneously sinner and saint.
We are breaking and dying and hurting and deflecting.
And we are repenting and rising and healing and being made new.
There is potential for both forgiveness and accountability.

So it's not partisan.
It's not the battle of the sexes.
It's not about proof or scorn or shame or piety.


It's complicated.
But we've got language for this, so let's go there.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Naaman.

www.codyfmiller.com 

The Hebrew grammar is unclear. Is Naaman’s weakness his leprosy or his self-importance? He is introduced by both of these things and perhaps they are tangled up together. Naaman is a Syrian general, confident about his military status while haunted by his deepest insecurity. His flesh invites curiosity, disgust, and distance. 

A young girl had been taken captive from the land of Israel and served Naaman’s wife. She was either shrewd or merciful when she spoke out of turn and offered up a long shot solution. There was a prophet in Israel known to cure this disease. If he went to see Elisha, he might be healed.

But healing does not always happen on our terms or leave the rest of our body unchanged. Healing often requires trauma, humility and recovery from the rest of our being. Naaman went to Israel hoping for a miracle that would cure his flesh, drawing him further into relationships and society than before.

Naaman’s king sent a caravan of pomp and circumstance to the King of Israel with a letter asking for healing and life. But kings and politicians and courts could not provide. Instead, they were rerouted to the outskirts of town where Elisha lived. When their horses and chariots pulled up, they expected Elisha to come outside, ready and impressed. But Elisha did not emerge. Instead, he sent a simple word:

Go, wash in the Jordan River seven times.
Your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.

This was not what Naaman hand in mind. The river was more like a stink ditch. A bath would be so humiliating, his tormented flesh laid bare for all to see. Submersion in the silent spotlight of expectation – again and again and again and again and again and again and again. It would be too physically simple. Too emotionally embarrassing. 

His pride and fear twisted up in the pit of his stomach. Naaman turned to go, angry and muttering all of the reasonsthis was beneath him. Until his servants stopped him.

If it required muscle and conquest, you would have done it.
This is another kind of sacrifice.
This is strength born when you shed your layers and show up as yourself.

Show up as yourself. Bare the one you wish away, you label with weakness, you try to control with apathy, violence, or distraction. Reveal your secrets and shame. See what happens.

So he let go and stepped out from behind his chariot. Thanks to a foreign slave girl and a band of patient servants and a quirky prophet, the Syrian general dared to take off the layers of soldier, commander, and man. And once undressed, he waded into the murky mess of his truest self: a beloved child of God. The mud squished between his toes and the water smelled foul in his beard.

It took seven times to lose himself in the hope of wholeness and healing. When he stumbled out of the tide, he seemed lighter and less self-conscious. And his flesh was clear like that of a young boy just learning how to live. Surrounded by witnesses and still dripping, Naaman stood before Elisha with a whole hearted confession…and a present.

But Elisha reminded him that this grace cannot be bought or bribed or rewarded. It is free. It is relational. It is enough for God to see him returned to his truest self. Naaman’s presents were refused until he finally agreed to return home. His infections and transactions had been washed away in the filthy beauty of a God who gets up close, who speaks truth to power, who peels back our layers to reveal our truest selves.

- An Interpretation of 2 Kings 5

Monday, November 6, 2017

Cain.

Now when Adam and Eve knew each other, she conceived and bore a son they named Cain, which means the sum of what they made and had (to produce). Cain was a farmer who cared for the land and his brother Abel watched over the flocks of animals. When the young men made sacrifices to God, Abel's was regarded but Cain's was not received with the same appreciation. 

When you are named for what you produce, your output can become confused with your identity. God's silence was deafening and unbearable for Cain. The scriptures say his countenance fell. Composure and mental stability were lost without praise for his harvest.

It was enough to unravel his sense of self, his loyalty to kin, his faith in God, and his stewardship of creation. While Cain knew how to produce and strive, he did not know how to feel or fail. And so, he began to live and act out of his mind. He lured his brother to the fields and murdered him in a jealous rage. As Abel's blood soaked into the earth, Cain lied to God and argued the punishment for his sin. Without confession or empathy, he became paranoid that death would now come for him too. 

Existing without real relationships meant he could imagine escalating violence and nothing else. And so he wandered away from family and farm and faith, marked by the curse of his own insecurity and isolation for generations.

- An Interpretation of Genesis 4

Cain still wanders the earth. He is the sum of what he produces: the talents he hoards, the secrets he enforces, the acclamation he demands, the accountability he rejects. We need to talk about

mental illness
and mass shootings
and sexual violence
and racism
and poverty
and religious intolerance
and bullying
and collusion
and money laundering
and nuclear proliferation
and fake news
and threats to the constitution

but they all have one thing in common: men. More specifically, toxic masculinity. Most of today's headlines echo of Cain's anger, fear, grief, dishonesty, and loneliness, which play out in manipulative, selfish, and violent ways. We're not talking about that, but we must.

Do not let Cain's narrative win by entertaining conversation about a Muslim problem or a tax problem or an immigration problem or an it's-too-soon-to-talk-about-guns problem or a religious freedom problem or an abortion problem.

We have a toxic masculinity problem. Cain is still wandering our churches and communities and schools and airwaves and elected offices. Cain is fooling our men and boys into thinking they are the sum of what they can produce and have and hoard and hit and grab and hide and profit. And when all these things fail, they are left alone in their unapproved feelings and their distorted identity where paranoia, shame, and revenge flourish.

We have a toxic masculinity problem. White straight cis men in particular, get your people. It is time to wake up and catch up and show up for the men and boys in your life. Because it's like an episode of the Walking Dead trying to navigate this mindless epidemic without your help.

Tell them who they actually are: farmers of creation and children of Eve.
Model unconditional love for animals, neighbors, and strangers.
Express your feelings in front of them and talk about why that's okay.
Build connections in nature and help them find simple ways to be useful.
Hug and kiss them. Wrestle and play with them. 
Assure them that no apparel, interest, role, or activity is "just for girls".
Teach them to apologize without blaming the victim.
Show them how to pray and offer thanks to God with humble candor.
Remind them to hold space and listen well to others.
Be a man in caring relationships who tells the truth, especially when it isn't easy.

Ooze empathy for those and that which you do not understand. Speak of the problem we actually have. Because feeling and confessing is balm for these feral fields that lie covered in the blood of our brother.


If the term "toxic masculinity" is brand new to you, start by watching this documentary by The Representation Project.  It's free on Netflix right now.