Saturday, December 24, 2016

squished together.


Portions of a Christmas Eve sermon.

Friends in Christ, God has come. Christ is with us. Grace and peace to you from the God who shows up tonight whether we’re ready or not, because God is all in and we are fiercely loved beyond our wildest dreams. Amen.

The Christmas story begins by pinpointing this moment among secular, political superstars: Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius. Lest we wander into tonight as a fairy tale or myth, Luke reminds us that God became flesh in the midst of an Empire – in the midst of borders and policy and wars and oppression and pomp. His birthdate is marked by current events and a Roman calendar, much like ours.

And then the tale takes a sharp turn toward the Plain Janes and Joe Blows:
  • A pregnant teenager awkwardly timing her contractions, who just months ago was one prophetic dream away from being scorned or stoned right out of history
  • A dutiful patriarch heading home to be counted, prepare for judgment and gossip from fourth cousins about his pregnant fiancĂ©
  • And shepherds, the hired help working the night shift for the sake of other peoples’ sheep, smelly and grazing along the edge of Bethlehem where they are so easily forgotten and unseen.
 Travelers and Tenants. They don’t have much power to wield in the world, but this message of a savior’s birth draws them together to witness, to adore, to participate in something brand new and much bigger than their ordinary, individual lives.

The angel appeared to the ones we’d least expect, barely named and on the fringe, so small to be tangled up in a tale with Augustus and Quirinius.  Even so, they are the ones noticed and claimed by the announcement each time: Do not be afraid. This is happening. God is all in. Salvation is here and you get to be part of it. Come and adore him.

It’s a beautiful thought, these ordinary people – Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds – they are drawn to the manger through fear, angels, dreams, and wonder. It sounds like an invitation show up with all kinds of people you didn’t think would be invited – to be started by your own inclusion and then startled again that travelers and tenants of every kind are there too.
Christ is born! This is for me! Oh, wow. And for him. And her. And even them?

And yet our depiction of the nativity can seem like a quiet haunt apart from the census and crowds, one barn in the shadows of town.


Our family has a small wooden nativity scene that is treated as a very interactive toy in our living room. Last week I found the three magi lined up neatly near one sheep, a shepherd, and a headless Mary.

Yikes. I imagined that Mary had, quite literally lost her mind at 39 weeks pregnant and these visitors had showed up too early, unwelcome. Jesus hadn’t been born yet and Joseph was missing in action, probably at a CVS buying Tums, ice cream, and diapers.

Over the course of the next week, Mary’s head was reglued and we found Joseph under the couch. Tonight baby Jesus joins them in the manger. But still too set apart from the rest of the world.

I guess I've been haunted by the minimalism of this birth announcement: its isolation and rejection. Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room in the inn.

Completely turned away? This would have been impossible for Joseph, a son of David. Naming the particular patriarchs in his ancestral line would have required even distant relatives to provide hospitality, to find them a place, to welcome them home.

The word used here for inn appears only one other time in Luke’s gospel, when Jesus and the disciples share the Last Supper in the upper room of a private home. This sent me seeking more information about ancient Israeli architecture. What did houses look like, anyway? 

It didn't take me long to learn that most Israeli homes in that region were three stories.
  1. The first level was a common living space with a dirt or straw floor. This space had an adjoining stable and, on chilly nights, the animals were brought in to keep warm.
  2. The second level was a more personal sleeping and eating space for the family and guests, a warm place that was likely already booked solid with visitors for the census.
  3. The third floor was open air and might have been used for laundry and work, but too exposed for sleeping.

Perhaps verse 7 tells us that there was no place for them in the upper room, where privacy and comforts were available. Instead, Mary and Joseph bedded down among the animals in from the chill, welcomed into the most chaotic, messy, vulnerable, and public part of the family’s home.

I’ll admit that I’m falling for this translation tonight because I want to believe that
  • Jesus is born into our tiny foyers that never fit all the shoes and coats
  • Mary and Joseph were navigating a situation in which the futon wouldn't pull out because the manger was in the way
  • curious relatives listened to labor pains from upstairs, simultaneously excited and irritated about one more baby coming to be counted by the census
I want to believe that Jesus was born into these thin and sacred spaces
  • between public and private
  • between hospitality and good intentions,
  • between landowners and the animals who graze the land
I want to believe that Jesus has come into our hinge moments
  • the cracks in our souls
  • between lonely tears and the warm embrace of a friend’s consolation
  • into elections that trigger every emotion
  • at dinner tables filled with family tension and conversational landmines
I want to believe that there was at least one introvert in the house that night who wandered up to the third story to get some air, who saw the star brightly shining above and thought, 

“It’s beautiful.  It’s shining just for me and yet it is surely for each of them downstairs, too. The ones tucked away and the ones up late gossiping. The ones snoring softly and the ones hogging the bathroom. The ones I was so excited to see and the ones who fill me with fear, loathing, and trepidation. It shines for all of them, whether they see it or not.” 

A light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.

I think I will add two stories to my little wooden nativity set. For the Christmas story is not a fable set in the seclusion of a peaceful barn. No, it is a story that squishes us together with hospitality that says, We’ll make room. We'll find you something.

It invites us to be together under one roof with a whole cast of characters, for better or worse, reimaging family and relationships and home through the Christ child, who says,

“This is the Kingdom of God. The Empire will continue to count you as tokens and numbers, but in here you are family, however distant. You belong, you are welcome. What you see is what you get. It’s a mess, but here are some swaddling clothes and don’t mind the animals.”

This Christmas, hear the invitation to come inside where it is warm enough. We offer what we have to give because we belong to each other for the sake of the good. And, in the chaos and vulnerability between what is public and private, we are met by the Son of God who sees our true selves and decides

Yes. Yes! This is the perfect place to be born.  

Thursday, December 1, 2016

woe.

Chapter 23: A Retelling
Jesus denounces the "Good Christians"

Then Jesus said to the crowds and the disciples, “The church goers - those inside the structure and comforts of the institution - they know scripture and tradition well, so do whatever they teach you and follow it, but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they preach.

They bury themselves in presentation and good order, which heaps expectations on those who do not already subscribe to the checklists of their own pious creation. They put on their Sunday best and greet you with simple pleasantries, “How are you? Good! Great!”, avoiding your jagged edges and damaged parts. These are precisely the pieces of you that need the body of Christ, but these things are messy, inconvenient, and distract from their sensibility and success at discipleship.

They will speak about their 
baptism
confirmation
volunteering
position 
as accomplishments earned and gold stars on the road to salvation, flattered that others have noticed their noble efforts. They love their pastors and priests, their teachers and mentors, who have abandoned the call to justice for administrative details and sanitized the gospel so it can compliment the Empire’s more imminent demands.

The Good Christians have forgotten to resist what is evil, providing so much pleasant nature and certainty while they stray from humility and mercy, preferring pomp and circumstance, devotional books in the bathroom, or the green pastures of platitudes.

But woe to you, insiders! You have wasted what is risked through the incarnation, preferring a valley of dry bones to dance on, never wondering about the oppression of those bones in the first place. You have glamorized the agony of the cross by still seeking salvation yourselves. You have ignored the resurrection with your comfort zones and your denial of suffering and death.

You fear God left when the the temple was destroyed by Babylon, that you were abandoned and empty. But you are void whenever you claim my body while simultaneously protecting yourselves from transformation. Woe to you when you push my kingdom away preferring the Empire; fruit from the tree that cannot satisfy; your own tower of mortality crumbling. Woe to you when you hear my woe as a threat to all you treasure, for they are pure freedom and you are missing it.


All that you hold dear and claim to be mine will be vacant until you see me coming and say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Sometimes I read a biblical passage and I'm quick to deflect its conviction onto others, refusing to accept its deep knowledge of me. I retold Matthew 23 because I cannot deny my status as a hypocritical insider: I robe up. I teach. I protect tradition. I avoid the fact that, daily, discipleship asks me to lose my life. In reengaging this chapter, I was finally able to hear both the threat and the freedom.

Perhaps you, too, are living on the inside and holding fast to everything penultimate. What is Jesus asking you to put down for the sake of truth, justice, and the body of Christ?

Friday, November 18, 2016

confession.

A post-election confession of faith.
For my children.

Beloved Ones,

I was not alive for the glory days of the American Christian Church. To be honest, I'm not convinced they lived up to their hindsight hype anyway.  I grew up in the Christendom Hangover, a generation that has finally needed to acknowledge a changing world, an imperfect institution, and that pain that accompanies change too late.  These things have called piety and pride into question while we continue to struggle with denial and the world’s measurements of success. The Mainline Protestant denominations have arrived first, but we are all on our way. It's an awkward, beautiful, and frustrating time to be a Christian in America.

There are plenty of reasons to wander away from Christianity these days (there always have been), but I remain for three reasons that I gift to you with all I have:

1. I know Jesus.
Jesus did not come to increase our piety or to provide a salvation back-up plan or to prove us right or to institute congregational country clubs or because God desires the cheap peace we prefer to conflict.  

The Incarnation is a story about God going all in, doing all the things that we cannot, meeting us in all the moments we’d rather deny, and then claiming us for something more beautiful and risky than what we’d choose ourselves. Again and again, Jesus gets in the face of our self-serving technicalities and fear of the other. He scoffs at our proof texting, our need to be right, and the ways we hide behind the law. He sees the nameless, voiceless people on the edge of the scene and casts them in lead roles, shifting power until the fragile and ever-comfortable ones are either in awe or livid. He keeps erasing the lines we draw, calling us to lose our lives for the sake of someone else.

I can’t think of any scripture passage in which Jesus trades all that important and subversive stuff in because he’s more threatened by transgender bathrooms or thinks climate change science faith-based or he's busy shaming women into keeping their unborn babies. Of course he cares about all these things: about bodies, personal identity, stewardship of creation, and the potential for life - but he never addresses the hot topics without first going after our judgmental motivations. He knows we hide behind hyperbole and worst case scenarios to avoid the deepest injustices: systemic oppression, stigmatization of the other, shattered human dignity, and wealth disparity. 

Jesus was a brown man born to unmarried parents who had to register so the Empire could watch them. He was a refugee who fled by night and crossed boarders for the sake of safety and dreams. He told the truth about justice and privilege. He embodied an unwelcome sacrifice. And when his holiness and suffering made good intentioned, faithful people terribly threatened, he was killed like a common criminal. How often white Christian America forgets to tell these things about God made flesh!

2. I know the church.
Jesus’ life and ministry is an invitation into his body, which is the church. Before we sanitized and compromised this holy welcome for the sake of building an institution pleasing to the Roman Empire, we had a radical and dangerous call to resist the establishment, status quo, and power. Jesus spent his life teaching people how to die:

Do not be afraid. Do not worry about earthly things. The Kingdom of God is not a zero sum game or a transaction. Lose your scorecard. Give away your power and privilege in this life because I have come for the least of these and all of these. Do not hoard your own freedom at the cost of others. You have not and cannot earn you value in God’s eyes, nor are you charged with determining the worth of another human being.  Confront injustice and call out piety as it distracts from the gospel. Put yourself in positions that feel uncomfortable so that someone else can be comfortable.

We are introduced to this stark reality in baptism. Through the water and Word, we die to all fear and hate, all ease and pretentiousness, all the illusions about achieving salvation ourselves. The sacrament carries us into community with others who are dying to these same things and a flawed but faithful institution that is supposed to be doing the same, giving itself away as a resistance to the Empire’s power - its comfort and oppression - as glimpses of the Kingdom here and now.

3. I know myself.
I am a sucker for the sticker charts of this world. I am wooed by the gratification of my own achievements and efforts. I trick myself into thinking I’m supposed to go for gold and, if I do not set a world record for righteousness on my own, Jesus will swoop in with a high-five to fill in the gaps. Lord, have mercy. You did not come to earth and die so that I might score a little extra credit.

I am a sinner who needs this kind of God and King to stand between me and the Empire with a different voice; one that does not settle for compromise or excuse my responsibility. Christ would never tell us to calm down in the face of inequity, violation, corruption, and hate.

Children, we are made in the image of a God who died for us, but not so that we may be comfortable, right, unmoved or in charge. We have been saved so that we can speak up when the bar for human dignity is moved away from those who need it, so we can stand up when the oppressed are blamed for their own oppression, and so we can push back when cheap peace is a cover up for lazy morality and injustice.

We need a God who has already accomplished everything so that we have no excuse but to be the Church in the name of Jesus, a body that dies and rises to what is true, confessing its compromises, using and releasing its power for the sake of the inconvenient ones we wish away. And we need a Church that is breaking - just like the world, just like Jesus, just like me. For in the cracks we find the Kingdom of God, meeting our failure and fear with redemption and justice still unfolding.

I write you this letter because, I believe, someday you will ask me what happened on November 8, 2016. You will want to know how this Jesus and this church welcomed belligerent hate, intolerance, oppression, and abuse of power into the White House.

I will need to explain that, while most Trump supporters don't consider themselves racists, they decided blatant racism was not a deal breaker. I will need to explain that each White House appointment validated the alt-right and white supremacy movement. I will need to explain that white Christian America's great sexual concern was the LGBTQ community instead of a president who bragged about grabbing women by the pussy. I will need to explain that white Christian America drown out Jesus' call to welcome the stranger by cultivating terror narratives about refugees. I will need to explain that white Christian America had been dying to itself for some time now, but we still held enough power to oppress others so that we could be "left alone" or hoard the privilege of feeling comfortable in our faith. I will need to explain that white Christian America voted not for the sake of Jesus' life and values, but to preserve our own white privilege. I will not suggest that Hillary Clinton was the Jesus vote. No, no, no. Only that Trump was not.

I will also explain that I could not wring my hands and blame God for inaction and apathy. God has been exasperated and confused by the ways we pin all of our moral and spiritual hopes on politics since 1 Samuel 8.  Instead of opting out, we tried to untangle our hearts from the empty promises of the Empire, returning to the cross to be reminded of our first and primary calling as children of God: to love without bounds and to resist that which oppresses great love.

You will grow up in the rubble of this moment, a new generation of American Christianity yet to be named. I am sorry for the ways this might confuse your understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. But, then again, Jesus never said this would be easy. Discipleship is not about winning or being right. So I hope you will fall in love with the Jesus who mends brokenness and meets us in failure. Because in this dying and losing, we feel the weight and necessity of God's fierce commitment to us all and we become part of a body that lives and loves forever. 

Love, Mom


Thursday, November 10, 2016

my place.

I hugged the covers under my chin on Wednesday morning, trying to decide whether I should read my phone or my husband's face for the answer I dreaded. I cried in the shower, wishing I didn't need to face children so soon after the news. My little ones pulled back the curtain and demanded me before I was ready for them. But such is life. Such was everything about yesterday as life ticked on.

I am sad and angry for all the reasons I thought I would be, but also because President-Elect Donald Trump is making me engage my white fragility from a completely different angle. 

You see, I am a straight, white, able-bodied, non-military, English-speaking, documented, Christian person with health insurance made available through my spouse's employment. I am done renting my uterus to unborn children, so the government will leave it alone. I am a tired 35 year-old mother of three, who Trump would consider "a 4 tops", so I don't have to worry about him groping me anytime soon. 

All this to say, I woke up on Wednesday with a vast majority of the same power I had on Tuesday. I get to feel all the things, but I don't get to be shocked or distraught or imploding in the face of people who are more personally affected by this because of their 
race
religion
loved ones
language
immigration status
sexual orientation
neighborhood
income
insurance
active military duty
or government assistance. 

Wednesday demanded that I get up and face the day: not only my children and my parishioners, but also the power I will continue to hold in this new administration. I will not deny it, putting even more distance between me and Trump supporters. For, if I am called to engage my white privilege for the sake of changing systems that oppress, I must begin in the most uncomfortable place each time. I must begin in discernment of theologies that make me responsible for my whiteness and the power that still - unfortunately - grants me.

In the wise words of Ruby Sales
I want a theology that begins to deepen people’s understanding about their capacity to live fully human lives and to touch the goodness inside of them rather than call upon the part of themselves that’s not relational. Because there’s nothing wrong with being European American. That’s not the problem. It’s how you actualize that history and how you actualize that reality. It’s almost like white people don’t believe that other white people are worthy of being redeemed. And I don’t quite understand that. It must be more sexy to deal with black folk than it is to deal with white folk if you’re a white person. So as a black person, I want a theology that gives hope and meaning to people who are struggling to have meaning in a world where they no longer are as essential to whiteness as they once were.
My urge yesterday was to run to those more affected than me, to express my shame and shock so that I could keep hiding out in the corners of my white fragility. But instead, I promise to use my power to do the work required of my sad, but oh-so-privileged ass. 
Friends, Beloved: You will not catch me crying at you, projecting my shock at your open wounds. And you will not hear my empty threats about moving to Canada, because that's a flippant micro-aggression. 
My first fear on Wednesday was that my place is with women set back in time, but the day proved my place is right here in 2016. This moment demands I continue to examine and confess my own whiteness, but with new purpose and urgency. 

My place is in the uncomfortable corners of my own cultural identity where hate and fear divide. My place is in and through the body of Christ, where I will hold space and move for those more weary and vulnerable than I am.  

Today I recognize I've got plenty of whiteness to spare and it's time to use it for good.  

Sunday, October 9, 2016

bodies.



Some people are startled by their own emotional response to this video leaked last week. Others are not surprised at all, but struggle to articulate precisely why this is so offensive and inappropriate. Like racism and privilege, rape culture is in the air we breathe. It's hard to define and dismantle something that is like vapor that permeates our society's expectations and systems.  And why is this the straw that breaks the RNC's back? What about all those other bodies denigrated and disrespected by this campaign and our systemic privilege?

I type today because a few have asked me to explain why this is an example of rape culture, but then I want to give us some hope through action. What can we do, as conscious individuals, to change rape culture and build respect for all human bodies? 

What is rape culture?
If you haven't watched the video yet, please do and hear the soundtrack of smug laughter. This is the sound of entitled, rich, famous, white men relishing the power they feel in remembering and planning violence against another person. Demanding and feeling owed the bodies of others - in the form of touching, kissing, groping, commenting, ranking, and discarding - is an act of violence.

They speak about taking what they want with disregard for the dignity of the other person. It is a game they win or lose by hunting their prey. Donald is so bold as to acknowledge his source of entitlement: when you are this rich and famous, you can do whatever you want.

When they get off the bus, they demand hugs and touching. They create a space in which only they get to feel comfortable and call the shots. Others are lucky to be beautiful or chosen or present, but they will need to stand where Billy and Donald tell them and be ranked on their terms.

You could argue that the actress doesn't have to comply, but of course she does! Her employment depends on her beauty and fun-loving nature. She has been tasked with making sure Donald has a wonderful experience as a guest star on the show. She works in an environment where white men direct and produce, making decisions about who's in and who's out. She wants to be in and, like many women, has learned to navigate that system with compromise and a smile.

We see this in white collar criminal cases, board room meetings, elections, and newscasts. Men are generally revered for their future potential while women are critiqued based on their reputations and their ability to function within systems that let the decision-makers feeling comfortable and powerful.

How do we change the culture?

Let's start with the children. 
  1. Don't let your first comment to a young girl be about her appearance or clothing. Instead, ask her about her interests, passions, and talents. She is so much more than a pretty face.
  2. Don't tell little boys to stop crying. Instead, help them understand and embrace a healthy range of emotions. It's okay to be sad and angry. Model problem solving your feelings in healthy and creative ways. 
  3. Don't tell them who to touch or make them hug people. From an early age, kids should be encouraged to own their own space, getting a sense of what touch and times feel appropriate so they can build confidence about themselves and a respect for other people's bodies. When saying goodbye to other people, I ask my kids to choose between a wave, a high-five, and a hug.
What about the teenagers?
  1. Fathers of Daughters: Please don't do that creepy thing where you threaten potential dates with physical violence if they touch her. Your daughter is not "your little girl" until the moment - poof, bang! - she's a women. Those teenage years are an important opportunity for her sense of self-acceptance and boundaries to develop. Teach her to value and celebrate her body, but also her mind and her spirit. Model a healthy relationship with your own partner. Refrain from making comments about women based solely (or firstly) on their looks. Trust your daughter to make good choices. Her body does not belong to you until you give her permission to belong to someone else. You do not protect her purity or beauty by treating her like property.
  2. Parents of Sons: Don't tell them to "be a man". Teenage boys are still boys. Let them have this formative, in-between season while modeling a multitude of ways to "be a man". It's not only about bucking up or acting tough. Being a man is about being a whole person who loves well, feels things, and takes responsibility for himself. Show him what that looks like.
An Introduction to Rape Culture 101.
  1. Understand Benevolent Sexism. This is any unsolicited or unwelcome advice or feedback about my physical appearance. Need an example? When my husband or friends compliment my body, it's welcome. If a parishioner gives thanks for my legs or a male colleague says, "You're lucky you're married or you'd be in big trouble around here", that's benevolent sexism. Just because you mean it as a compliment, doesn't mean I don't think it's creepy, gross, or distracting from our actual, boundaried relationship. Most adult men unconsciously relate to women through one of four lenses: wife, mistress, mother, or daughter. But guess what? Women shouldn't have to navigate these lenses in every relationship with a man. A doctor might remind a man of his daughter because she's in her thirties, but that lens should not impair his ability to respect her as his doctor. If you are an adult male, you can fight benevolent sexism by recognizing these lenses and choosing to operate outside of them with new, more appropriate boundaries.
  2. Recognize the hypocrisy. We are supposed to be smart but not no-it-alls, pure but not prudes, sexy but not slutty, flirty but not a tease, leaders but not bossy, confident but not shouty, breaking glass ceilings but PTO chair, climbing the ladder but keeping up with the laundry. In every case, we are asked to choose between fragments of whole personhood. We are supposed to excel, but only to a point that will continue to support the social and economic structures that keep us in our place.
  3. Encourage women leading. Across time and culture, studies and stories show that when women do better, everyone does better. When women lead, communities rise up with them. Recognize and thank the women leading in organizations, schools, and political systems that matter to you. Learn more about the issues and policies and challenges they are passionate about. Uncover barriers for women in places they are not yet leading and ask questions about what you find. 
I began this post with a story about rich, white men delusional with power. The men in this video feel entitled to the bodies of others and use their privilege to consume and discard people. It's maddening, but I can't bring myself to end there because there's a better story:

There's a working class, brown man who humbled himself before friends, strangers, and the power of the Empire. God Embodied used his privilege to love the bodies of others, taking only his own for the sake of the world and then giving it away for the sake of life, freedom, and justice.

I am a Christian because of Holy Communion, so I was filled with hope this morning while I spoke the Words of Institution. I stood holding the bread and wine, proclaiming the true presence of Jesus in a meal that celebrates God's commitment to our bodies, our lives, our mutual value, and the justice we continue to seek. If you need this kind of hope - this kind of ending, find the meal this week. It will sustain and delight in your beautiful body.

God is right here with a different story. And, because God's story is louder in my ears and heart than CNN Breaking News, I will always proclaim truth about my body and yours: your body is valuable, not as an object to be consumed, but as a creature in whom God delights; not as a piece of meat to tormented by critique and oppression, but as a whole person who is loved and set free in Jesus; not as an island weathering rape culture alone, but as a member of Christ's body through whom the Spirit breathes and inspires change...

change that is inconvenient for some, but necessary for justice.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

tenderness and power.

Last week I launched my girls into preschool and put Jasper on a bus to Kindergarten. It's an emotional time for any parent, the releasing of your children to new experiences and people and environments. As a working mother, I can't help but wonder what I have missed in these first five and a half years of parenthood. But as a potty training warrior, I can't help but be glad they'll be peeing on someone else today.

The night before Jasper started Kindergarten, we talked about superpowers. Everybody has one. There is strength and creativity and kindness in every single person you'll meet at school. Sometimes it's hidden and sometimes it's obvious. And guess what? I think one of your superpowers is discovering other people's superpowers.

It's true. He's wise and observant. He notices and names things I cannot see. I sent him off with this encouragement so that he'd be curious about his classmates, always seeking to learn more about them until he finds something wonderful and powerful in these new peers.

Perhaps it's crazy to think I can raise a deeply curious child in today's world. The media presents a list of despairing, polarized, terror-filled, angry, and fearful headlines that paralyze me with every page turn and click. Nothing inquisitive about their tone or volume!  I feel small in the face of this declarative reporting and I am left to wonder what kind of world is waiting for my curious little ones:

Gretchen Carlson's sexual harassment suit paid her exactly half of what Fox paid Roger Ailes to leave. Brock Turner was released from jail early for good behavior and Stanford has not yet expelled him. Syria used chemical weapons against its own people. Again. College campuses continue teaching first year students "how not to get raped" instead of teaching them "don't rape". Iran and Saudi Arabia flex tensions as the pilgrimage to Mecca begins. Elementary students are learning how to hide quietly in case men with guns enter their schools. Our legislators are divided and stalling about funding urgently needed to fight the Zika virus, proof that they do not honor the welfare of the American woman's uterus. American Indians are united in historic proportions at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota as protectors of water and life, but a majority of media outlets show little interest in this human, creation-wide cause.

Lord, have mercy.

And then there is Jacob Wetterling. He has been found, but not as we have hoped. The myth of closure is alive and well in Minnesota today. The Wetterling family invited all of us into the search 27 years ago and yesterday Patty Wetterling spoke with such eloquent strength, inviting all of us into the grief of this moment. She gave us permission to be deeply sad and sorry, but also to be alive in the work still before us. There is more to do: more children to find, more families to comfort, more perseverance to mold, more porch lights to leave burning brightly.

Jasper and Patty have met me in the tenderness of this season - in the midst of all that is evil, unfinished, and hard to bear alone - with the promise of power. Everybody has one, you know. And the best way to discover (or rediscover) your superpower is to get on the bus and show up together where someone might be curious enough to notice and name yours.

Let's see and be seen, friends.
We are found in moving our bodies and souls together.
And perhaps our collective tenderness will reveal new superpowers.

May the bus show up when and where you need a ride,
  guiding you into new courage and adventure.
May the light you were gifted in baptism shine brightly,
   guiding others into hope and warming your own heart.
May the power of the Holy Spirit rumble in your breath and bones,
  guiding you into great purpose and curiosity for those who need power, too.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

what do you mean, "welcome"?

I drove all over town running errands on Thursday and passed at least a dozen church buildings of all different sizes and denominations that shared something in common: their marquee or banner out front declared, "All are Welcome". I struggle with this tagline for all kinds of reasons and here are just a few...

  1. I should hope so. When our congregations feel the need to explain that everyone is welcome, it reminds me that our history, theologies, and communities have done a poor job embodying this basic truth in all kinds of destructive and disappointing ways for which we struggle to fully acknowledge and seek forgiveness. I think this statement is meant to be innocent and friendly, but can also remind our estranged and unfamiliar neighbors of our great hypocrisy throughout history. It can fall a little short of what's necessary to redeem our reputation for hospitality.
  2. Really? Everybody? To be true, this assumes we have interpreters at worship services, elevators and ramps for accessibility, trama-trained staff and leaders, gender non-specific bathroom facilities, braille bulletins or hymnals, and much more. But we don't have most of these things - at least my congregation does not. There are several subsections of the population who know what it's like to show up only to feel unsafe, undignified, and unexpected. Perhaps that marquee feels like salt on a wound that's been festering for awhile now. And perhaps we hope they don't show up because failing to welcome them well really kills morale and the easy going nature of this one-way slogan. We'd prefer an easy welcome that doesn't require our failure or shame.
  3. Sweet assimilation. What, exactly, are welcoming them into? Our ways and traditions? Our worship style and membership protocol? Our budgetary needs and priorities? Um, no thanks. That sounds just as rigid and painful as getting on board with a new company health benefits plan. We are so quick to say folks are welcome, but our motives are mixed and completely unclear to passersby. What if I bring more need than benefit? What if I have ideas and gifts that cause too much change or discomfort for the core? If my welcome is contingent upon adaptation into this ecosystem, are you willing to be changed by me, too?
I searched for images online using the phrase, "All are Welcome" and found this arrow piercing a heart. It has been become a symbol used by communities all over Europe and Asia to show unambiguous welcome to Syrian refugees seeking a new beginning. I was taken by it's simple clarity: the arrow of welcome cuts to the very center of the heart. It seems the heart has been changed by the arrow - it's pain and plight and courage - and it is welcome in the very soul of this new place where it will cause discomfort and change while forming an entirely new shape.

If our church is to declare welcome to our neighbors and the world in the name of Jesus, then it is like this heart which says, "Come unto me. Pierce me with all of who you are so that we can transform and become more together. For you belong just as much as anyone else and we, of course, will make room for you in the middle of this great love."

Since my marquee sign can't hold three sentences, the message is often and tragically stunted into fragments. But I mean it with my whole life and I am not afraid of failing miserably at this pierced welcome while writing, singing, and declaring it from the pulpit and street alike.

How do you understand the phrase, "All are Welcome"?
What, exactly, is this catchy slogan inviting people into 
and do they understand the invitation as we intend it?

Saturday, July 9, 2016

whose.

There are words and chants and articles and feelings flying around this week in America and in my community here in Minnesota. Police shot black men for rumors of weapons that, by video accounts, appear to be still in pockets. Snipers shot police officers for a system that cannot be cured with bullets. Tensions are high. Emotions are sharp and pointy and fragile.

The vigils and protests in my neck of the woods have been largely peaceful and unifying. People are standing together to cry and listen and prophecy. A 32 year old St. Paul man is being remembered for his gifts, strengths, and relationships. His life is being called worthy, but only after he was shot dead in his car while a four year old girl watched from the backseat. Lord, have mercy. We are failing her and her whole generation.

With every black life lost to police violence and racial injustice, a few are hard at work finding fault with the victim. Criminal records. Domestic abuse. Gang affiliation. Addiction. Unpaid parking tickets. Down to the acne and hangnails!  When specks and logs are discovered, they are paraded as justifiable cause, as proof that his behavior and identity were unworthy of life and dignity, respect, and basic human rights. (All while we reported rapist Brock Turner's swim times, charm, and Olympic potential I might add.) This pattern is fuel for a system and society hell bent on making sure white people like me can sleep at night. Those articles and arguments try to remind me of a great and permeating lie that has powered the quiet hum of my ease and privilege for nearly 35 years:

Some people have to earn their share of respect, belonging, and worthiness.
Some people can lose their share of respect, belonging, and worthiness.
And according to this system you, Meta, are white enough to sit on that jury.

I have the luxury of hearing what someone has done or left undone and then feeling better about whether or not they should have lived. I get to go home to my mostly white neighborhood where late night bangs are probably fireworks. I can turn it all off when I need a break because I'm too tired or sad. I get to, as Jesse Williams would say, go make myself a sandwich.

While abiding in this pattern is convenient and comfortable, it is not remotely Christian. As a preacher, I confess day in and day out that our identity and value are not aligned with what we do or who we are, but whose we are. Philando isn't more deserving of our grief because he was good at his job or well liked by kids or about to win a Nobel Prize, nor is he less worthy if it turns out he didn't have a conceal permit or jaywalked on occasion or was building a fricking bomb in his basement. Philando was and is and will forever be a beloved child of God.  If I tell my children that there is nothing they can do to make God love them any more or any less, then it is most certainly also true for Philando and black lives everywhere.

Being made in God's image and redeemed in Christ Jesus are not exclusive invitations or conditional offers. This is the gospel. It is untamed and Spirit-filled and a holy gift to the black community. But merely knowing that is not enough: white Christians are called to speak and embody this news even in the face of a system that does not encourage or reward such movement. (Poor Meta. So used to encouragement and rewards.)

I will read about the men who have died this week - the black lives and the blue lives, their gifts and faults alike - and then will remember that they belong to God. They are worthy of love, belonging, justice, and life abundant regardless of what they've done or left undone.

We're decades - centuries - overdue, friends. It's high time to put our sandwiches down. This is a call to excuse ourselves from the jury and instead stand accused of our destructive ignorance and perversion of the gospel. Can we trust that grace wide enough for our own specks and logs? Can we listen and feel until we are disrupted and outraged about death where life matters and about conditional worth where Christ's body belongs?

Many of us will hear the story of the Good Samaritan in worship tomorrow. Forget the moralistic reminder about lending a hand and instead listen from the ditch. Watch passersby wave and promise you that Of Course All Lives Matter while you're lying there vulnerable and bleeding out - let it break you into pieces because their generalizing and brief glances are not enough. Wait there in the dust with death and injustice, wondering what or who marks you worthy of life. You might be surprised by the one who shows up and carries you back into belonging.