Period.

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Last time I visited my parents we stumbled upon an episode of The Middle playing on the Hallmark Channel.  It’s Thanksgiving and the extended family is gathered at the grandparents’ house.  Throughout the day the women of the family gather at the kitchen table to talk.  It’s a no kid zone and they revel in their time together apart from the rest of the family.

Sue Heck, the beautifully awkward, contagiously enthusiastic, overwhelmingly geeky teenager walks in to the kitchen where the women are and ceremoniously announces with a toothy braces-filled smile that this Thanksgiving she will finally be sitting with the women because she got her period.

I’ve seen the episode before and I could read her lips.  That’s how I know that she says the word “period.”  Otherwise I wouldn’t – because the Hallmark Channel bleeped the word “period.”

I was aghast.  Not only is this piece of information central to that main storyline in the episode, but this show normally airs on broadcast TV at 8pm.  If it doesn’t need bleeping then, why did Hallmark apply a stricter standard?

We hardly ever watch Hallmark because we don’t get the channel at our house but I can see from their tagline when I Google it that they are about “Family, Holidays, Original Movies & Series.”  Just as I suspected:  “family.”  How, exactly, do you celebrate family values without acknowledging the way families are created?  How do you prioritize and focus on family while treating the fact of women’s menstruation as a dirty little secret?

The bleeping in this episode is particularly ironic, given that the other main story line is the teenage son, Axel – along with his dad and his granddad – trying to pick up a teenage convenience store clerk with their pick-up lines.  To recap:  Girls experiencing menstruation as a rite of passage, taboo; boys and grown men hounding a teenage girl at work, full of family values!

The Middle is a great comedy that often has something worthwhile to add to conversations about class in our country.  So I’m not picking on the show, which was, after all, setting up the antics of the grown men trying to “help” Axel with pick-up lines as the unsettling, ridiculous attempts they were.  I am pointing out the tone-deafness of the Hallmark Channel.

There is nothing “un-family” or inappropriate about a young girl announcing, “I got my period.” The language is as neutral as possible without using the technical, medical-sounding “menstruation.”  Is the concern about having to explain the facts of life to young children before parents are ready for that conversation?  If so, the bleeping seems misguided.  “Period” is not even a word that would make a young child’s ears perk up upon hearing it.  “Period” is used all the time, in a variety of contexts.  Bleeping it calls more attention to it.

This started as a minor post about a network’s stupid decision to bleep a natural, everyday part of life in the supposed interest of “family.”  But in a week where a young woman is still missing from the university community where I minister, in a week where beloved Hermione Granger actress Emma Watson is viciously threatened for expressing her feminist beliefs at the UN, and in a week where  NPR is reporting on Gamergate, it’s obviously not just about Sue Heck’s period.

We are clearly still having trouble acknowledging the humanity and dignity of every person, regardless of gender, sexuality, religion, opinions, and a host of other things.  I could let Hallmark off the hook – it’s not the biggest fish to fry.  But it all adds up.  Bleeping “period” is the small, seemingly insignificant seed that grows into some mighty ugly, poisonous plants.

No one needs a bleep to protect them from a period.  Let it be right there in the midst of the family’s kitchen conversation where it belongs.


So, a United Methodist and a Jew go to Appalachia…

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The first day of our spring break trip I noticed how Christian-centric my Facebook feed is.  Relaxing after the first achy work day, waiting for dinner, we’d only had one group conversation at that point, but already I was seeing things a little differently.

Rabbi Jake Rubin and I have been colleagues and friends for a few years and we’d casually said, “We should do a trip together sometime.”  Last summer we got less casual about it and decided to bring our student leaders into the conversation.  After the first meeting, standing in the parking lot talking a bit more, our main Wesley spring break organizer said, “I expect to be challenged and to learn a lot.”  We talked about that being a great orienting stance for our group and she expressed the concern that everyone from Wesley would need to be on the same page – this is a service trip together, not an opportunity to convert the Jews.   (For the record, we didn’t have any students interested in doing this.)

Saying “service trip” instead of “mission trip” was one of the first things we noticed.  The Brody Jewish Center – Hillel at UVA usually refers to their trips as Alternate Spring Break trips and when we asked we realized “mission” has a resoundingly Christian ring to it.  So we worked on our language a bit and referred to our joint venture as our “Interfaith Spring Break Service Trip.”  Those of us at Wesley started to think more deeply about what we communicate by saying “service trip” or “mission trip.”  For many years in our pre-trip meetings, Wesley has stressed the theological understanding that we don’t “bring God” to anyone – we go to see what God is already doing there.  Adjusting our language this year helped us to see this even better.

We also adjusted our schedule.  Hillel usually travels to and from service trips on Sundays, observing Sabbath in place from Friday night to Saturday night.  In the past we have usually traveled back home on Saturday.  Making room for Sabbath also meant volunteering some place we felt comfortable just hanging around in on Saturday without the distractions of work.  We ended up choosing the Hinton Rural Life Center, a United Methodist organization with whom we’d volunteered previously.  I called them before we registered to go over the particulars of our trip (longer stay, Sabbath, more dietary needs) and to be sure they were as comfortable with and excited about our interfaith venture as we were.  The Hinton location had a lot of what we needed to make things work and from our previous Wesley experience we also had a sense the staff would welcome and support the unique nature of this year’s group.  We were right and their staff – everyone from the chef to the executive director – went out of their way to make it a great week.

Jake and I were committed to having actual interfaith conversations, not merely watered down “spiritual” talks unconnected to either tradition.  One of the best parts of our week were several evening conversations we had, led by Jake and using the Ask Big Questions framework.  These were excellent in helping us connect our work in North Carolina with our beliefs, questions, and developing relationships with one another.  “Big Questions” like “For whom am I responsible?” and “What do we choose to ignore?” focused our conversations and gave everyone permission to speak from the heart.  There are no right or wrong answers to the big questions themselves so students were free in their responses and generous in their listening to one another.

For me, the highlights of the week were our worship services on Thursday and Friday nights.  During the rest of the week we offered interfaith prayers but on Thursday we had a Christian worship service with Communion and on Friday we had a Shabbat service and celebrated the beginning of the Sabbath before we shared dinner.  Following each worship service was an open time of conversation, reflection, and questions.  Wesley folks were surprised to hear Hillel folks point out how much we talk about love and God’s love in our worship.  Jewish students expressed longing to sing together the way we did in the Christian service, though Christian students were surprised at this reaction since almost the entire Shabbat worship was sung.  After each worship service we talked for at least an hour together.  Fearing we might be going on too long after the Thursday night worship, I offered that perhaps we should close the conversation.  One of the Jewish students said, “I don’t have anywhere better to be,” and we talked for another 45 minutes.

Midway through the week I’d already had several Wesley students come up and tell me it was the best trip they’ve been on.  One said, “A lot of my Christian friends from other groups wondered why were are doing this.  I have learned so much and I have so much to tell them now.”  One of the Jewish students reflected on observing Jake and me, “The two leaders of two different religious communities have engaged in constructive discussions of religion without fighting—something that I do not often encounter.”

Like my Facebook feed realization, that student’s reflection caught me off guard.  I was surprised to hear that something as simple and civil as two people talking respectfully was such an anomaly.  For our two groups, at least, it won’t be.  We are hoping to make this part of an ongoing tradition, every 2 or 3 years.

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photo credit:  © 2014 Aaron Stiles.  Used with permission.


Who Wants to Pray?

People in my profession get asked to pray a lot.  Many times, there isn’t even any asking going on – it’s simply assumed the pastor is the one who prays.  When one of us pastor types goes off script and cheerfully offers for one of the other Christians in the group to have the honor, uncomfortable silence ensues.  “Who feels called to offer a blessing for this meal?”   Crickets.

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I can’t blame the non-pastor types.  It can be intimidating to be The One who announces through prayer – through what gets prayed for and what does not – where our collective focus lies and where we especially hope for the signs and wonders of God’s presence.  Since, in many faith communities, pastors are the only ones who ever have the opportunity to pray, it can send the message that you need special training or voice intonation or secret knowledge about the “right” things to say.

A couple of weekends ago I got to be one of the listeners as a group prayed together.  We took my stepson to a wonderful surf camp offered by Surfer’s Healing.  I’ve written about them before and the overwhelming nature of standing on a beach together watching our children go out to sea without us.  This year I was teary and moved again.  I found myself standing at the shoreline with gripped hands at my chest – almost in a prayer position – holding my breath, watching him work on trusting the surfers enough to go where they led.

It was breathtaking and comforting again to move through this “one perfect day” together, rehearsing the hard letting go of parents.  But what struck me this time was the ritual of beginning the day.

Once the surfboards are unpacked and lined up at the shore, the beach area roped off, and the registration tables up and running, the event organizers gather everyone.  Logistical announcements and thank you’s are issued and then Izzy Paskowitz, the founder of Surfer’s Healing (along with his wife, Danielle), says a few words.

He and the other surfers all wear wetsuits and stand together in a line at the front of the gathering.  Izzy talks about the “club none of us wanted to be in” as parents of autistic children and he talks about the generosity of sponsors and volunteers.  Then he calls on one of the other surfers to come offer the first of several prayers before embarking on the day.  We hear a prayer in English then a second surfer takes the mic and offers one in Spanish.  Then a third surfer comes forward and sings a traditional Hawaiian prayer to the tune of the doxology.

When we first got to the beach I saw the surfers in wetsuits and felt some competing combination of being a geeky teenager around the cool kids and being an old mom.  Each of them is young, many are tattooed, and they look sleek and muscular in their second skins.  If I let my own high school experiences or movies clichés take over my thinking, they appear to me as a group of untouchably cool dudes.

But I look at them as we are praying.  Every last one of them is holding hands with the surfers next to him, heads bowed.  No one looks impatient, bored, or uncomfortable.  I don’t get the feeling from any of them or from the crowd at large that this part of the day is imposed or strange or old-fashioned or constricting.

They do this every day of camp all season long.  Before heading into rough waters with autistic children they’ve never seen before this moment, they pause and pray.  As they gather their strength, stamina, patience, and hopes for a rough and rewarding day, they recognize their intentions and ask for God’s blessings on the camp.  There was nothing showy about any of the prayers or the fact of praying together before beginning.  I only consciously understood the words of the English prayer but I’ll go out on a limb and say none of the prayers were self-conscious or full of buzzwords.  They were simple, short, in and of the moment, heartfelt.

I was completely taken aback and had to wipe tears from my eyes during the prayers.  The sight of the cool dudes, long hair flying in the wind, holding hands and praying on the beach got me choked up.  It was the opposite of what many of us experience in church – or what we are afraid will happen when we pray together in church, especially if one of the “non-professionals” offers the prayer.

That day on the beach, I began wondering about how we are teaching people to pray in context.  For those of us who are asked/assumed to pray, how can we model praying so it’s an invitation to others to do the same?  It seems to me that many times in the church we gather to offer prayers and ask God’s blessings on a meal or a service trip but our humility is hidden under slick phrasing or a tone-of-voice assumption that the prayer is a “lock on it” rather than the start of it.

What I experienced on the beach was a group of consummate professionals vulnerable enough to hold hands and remember the One who makes all days gifts.  How can we professional pray-ers model this spirit and invite the non-professionals to the mic?  What would this look like at tax time in an accountant’s office?  In a writer’s room?  Before surgery in an operating room?

I need to hear more prayers from the trenches, raised up from wherever by whomever, stating the simple but obvious truth and need of our lives.  This matters and we give it to you – the success and the difficulty of it – and ask your blessing.  We know you’re here.  Thank God.

 


Dogged and Wooed by God

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Sitting on a porch by a lake in New York last week, my brother-in-law offered me a section from The New York Times.  I declined and kept watching the boats go by, listening to the water lap the rocky shoreline.  He joked, “You don’t want to know what’s happening in the rest of the world?”  Nope.

Not that day anyway.  During my time away I didn’t spend time online or listening to the radio or reading papers or watching any TV except baseball.  It wasn’t hard.  It was satisfying, restful and rejuvenating.

Coming back to the world of 24-hour noise after a tech Sabbath can be disorienting.  Some news stories and have come and gone.  Others are into level three of their coverage and I have to go back and piece together how we got there.  Others, like the coverage of the Ebola virus outbreak in Africa and the Americans being treated at Emory Hospital in Atlanta, are simply puzzling.

I heard a snippet on NPR one morning this week during media re-entry.  Ebola in Africa, Americans transported.  I thought, I hope they’re OK.  By the time I got around to listening to a lengthier report or reading anything about this online, Ann Coulter and others had already chimed in and yet others had retorted.  Having been out of the media cycle and as relaxed as I’ve been in a year, it was hard to imagine what sort of left-right divide could have happened around this issue.

Silly me.  In the world some folks live in, everything is a left-right issue, if they want it to be.

I’m not going to thoroughly research this “debate” or try to catch up on each twist the “conversation” has taken.  I’m not even going to dwell on the hatefulness evident in Coulter’s article, though it will reach out and slap you in the face if you read it. (You can find her 8/6/14 article “Ebola Doc’s Condition Downgraded to ‘Idiotic’” on her website but I don’t even want to offer the hyperlink here.)  I’m simply going to point out one thing, in response to two questions she poses.

Talking about Americans who would be protected from this virus if we stayed put instead of traveling to Africa, she asks, “But why do we have to deal with this at all?”

(We deal with things – unpleasant, seemingly remote things – because we are all living on the same planet and because the far away people suffering a plague are our brothers and sisters.  We deal with it because to care for other humans – especially when we don’t “have to” by law or familial obligation – makes us more deeply human.)

Later she laments people going to Africa on mission trips and asks, “Can’t anyone serve Christ in America anymore?”

(Of course we can, and do.  But this question suggests we either serve Christ here or in other world locations.  It’s a false choice.)

Both questions reveal a lack of understanding about how and why Christians express their faith as action in the world.

Christians deal with the things we would not choose for ourselves and we go to unusual places far from home (literally, emotionally, spiritually) because we are called.  Pushed, nudged, prodded, dogged, and wooed by God.  Beckoned to a task or a place beyond what we would have chosen for ourselves, sometimes an illogical one by other standards.

We worship and follow the One who came in the vulnerable form of a human body, a body just like ours and just like our brothers’ and sisters’ bodies in Africa, susceptible to disease and hunger.  Jesus put his hands all over the scabbed contagious bodies of his neighbors and he sends us to offer healing, too (Matthew 8: 1-3, Matthew 9: 18-38, Acts 3: 1-10).  When we go, we are called to look for Christ in the “distressing disguise of the poor” he wears so often (Mother Teresa).

Medical missionary work in Africa is not how God calls everyone.  It’s OK if it’s not your calling or Coulter’s.  Don’t worry, there is plenty to do here in the States and right there on your street.  But don’t make her mistake.  Don’t assume that hiding out behind vitriol, fear, and an insulating we-take-care-of-our-own mentality will save you.  It might protect you from a virus, at least for a while, but none of that will protect you when God comes calling with another idea.

Though I don’t want to isolate myself in a protective bubble, I enjoyed the bubble of time I preserved for vacation and time out from this fray.  I appreciated the smaller circle of care and concern and I reveled in saying “no” to the newspaper.  I felt called to step back and out of the normal loop of work and responsibility, called into God-given Sabbath time (which is another way God operates that doesn’t make sense to the way the world operates).

The point is not whether you step forward or step back, whether God calls you to this or that at any given moment.  The point is that God is calling.  Always.  And each time we are called out of loops of our own making, into deeper relationship – with ourselves, one another, and God.  Are you listening?


Gone Fishin’ (and great news)

There comes a time in every woman’s summer when she has to step away.  Out of the routine, off the treadmill, away from work, offline.  That time is now for me.

I thought about loading up the Kindle for ease of packing and lightweight luxuriousness during my travels and time out.  Then I thought again.

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I want to feel the heft of a book in my hands and hear the crinkly plastic covering of a library book.  I want to smell the pages and feel them turn between my fingers.  Most of all, I simply want to be attentive to my physical surroundings rather than being distracted by pings and messages and stories from other far away places while I’m trying to read.  I anticipate the pleasures of lingering over a page wondering where that town is without the incessant invitation to open a browser window and look it up on a map.

Far away stories will have to come through the portal of my imagination, mingling with a writer’s words, put down in black and white on paper.  No hypertext (or email or Facebook) for this vacation.

So I made a trip to the library, like we did every week when I was growing up.  Since I don’t do this much any more, maybe part of this book-in-the-hand longing is nostalgia.  So be it.  In the week leading into our vacation, we’ve buried a family member and will toast a longtime family friend at her wedding.  If a stack of library books and a little nostalgia is the result of this swirl of events and emotions, I’m good with that.

As I make room in the car for the giant stack of books, I am making room in my spirit for the people and stories right in front of me.  Here’s my gone fishin’ sign.  I’ll see you again back here in a few weeks.

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And now for the news…

I’m so pleased to announce Snow Day has been accepted into the CCblogs network.  You’ll see the bright and shiny new logo on the home page and you can click on it to head over to the CCblogs site at The Christian Century, where you can peruse other network sites and see selected posts highlighted by The Christian Century editors.


Holy Scarcity, Batman

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Last Sunday I preached in a church that has three different worship services in three different locations within the church.  One is a moderately sized chapel, one is a voluminous fellowship hall with a stage at one end, and the last one is the original sanctuary of the old downtown church.  The variations in space accompanied the differences in worship style.  The one thing all three had in common:  a clock easily seen from the pulpit.

I know all the practical reasons for this.  As someone who doesn’t wear a watch and doesn’t carry my cell phone into worship, I can appreciate the orientation the clocks give, especially in that church where pastors rush from service to service to make it in time for all three.  Still, I was a bit sad and wistful thinking of those clocks and the importance we place — even in a weekly set aside time to worship — on adhering to the schedule.

I’ve been longing for less scheduled time in my life.  I’ve been wanting to roam freely through at least some of my days or seasons, without the constant constraint of being pre-scheduled for the next appointment or task.  I’ve realized lately that my great skill in organizing and scheduling is both help and hindrance, both a survival mechanism and something that might be slowly killing my spirit.

Along with several of my sister writer-pastors from last summer’s Collegeville retreat, I’m now part of a cohort awarded a grant through Austin Seminary’s College of Pastoral Leaders.  We wrote the bulk of the grant together but we each had to write individual responses to certain questions.  Every one of us commented on the swirl of demands on our time and attention and how we need to establish more balance and pace in our lives.  We didn’t discuss this as a theme but reading through our responses it was the one, glaring thing we all had in common.

This summer, re-reading MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s Sabbath in the Suburbs, I came across this already-highlighted passage (p.150):  “I have found it much more liberating spiritually to embrace the idea of holy scarcity.  There isn’t ever enough time.  Even when we strip away all the inessentials — even when we focus only on the things that are good and nourishing and important for ourselves, our families, and the world — there is still not enough time.  But our hope is not in there being enough time but in there being enough grace to muddle through the scarcities of our days.”

I keep trying to believe the myth that I can reallocate time and rework the schedule so there will be enough time, as if there is a secret key to this I haven’t stumbled upon but I’m oh-so-close to finding.  When I’m honest I see how even when the options are all deemed good, I can’t say “yes” to everything.  Making friends with time, as McKibben Dana calls it, means embracing “no.”

I have known days so full they seemed out of time, perfectly paced, lingering just so.  They are rare.  I’ve known many more that were crammed full, often with amazing things and people, but so packed it was hard to take it all in or to “come down” enough to go to sleep at the end of them.

“Our hope is not in there being enough time but in there being enough grace to muddle through the scarcities of our days.”  At least half of our biblical stories are about this very thing:  wanting to be God instead of ourselves.  Guilty as charged.  Through my amazing organizational skills, I want to command time to obey me, find the elusive formula to the perfectly balanced day, and sleep satisfied in my own powers of management and discernment.  This hasn’t been working out so far.

When I look more closely, I see those few full timeless-seeming days in context.  There were dishes in the sink while we sat outside churning the homemade ice cream, watching the sky turn black and star-pricked.  There were emails left untouched and – gasp! – unseen when we hiked by the waterfalls and rested in a meadow for as long as we felt like it.

Perfection is always illusion.  Mastery is misguided.

“Even when we focus only on the things that are good and nourishing and important for ourselves, our families, and the world — there is still not enough time.”  My choices aren’t usually between horrible, bad, soul-denying things and beautiful, transporting, soul-enriching things.  Many, many times I have the wonderful choice in this time-limited life between two very good things.

That’s the rub.  That’s what I’m trying to make sense of these days and make a little peace with as I go forward.  Saying “no” is, painfully, often a “no” to something or someone I’d really like to spend time with, too.  But I’m tired of this torn-ness and never-ending calendar calculation.  I’m ready for more imperfection and the grace that orients better than any clock.

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photo credit:  “time” © 2012 János BalázsCC BY-SA 2.0

 


When the kiln opens

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When the kiln opens in June, reuniting me with objects that began in February as moist and malleable lumps of clay, there are always surprises.  Even when I’ve used a particular glaze combination many times before, this kiln firing may have produced a different effect.  Though I’ve been following these now-finished pots through each stage in the process — wet clay, leather hard, dry-and-fragile, bisqued, glazed, and now fired — I’m always surprised.  A piece I thought was inelegant has undergone its final transformation, the glaze smoothing over the least graceful spots to make a pleasing whole.  Sometimes it’s a surprise in another direction:  the form I loved in one piece now seems a bit marred by the glazes I chose and how they fired.

But the long process isn’t really finished the day the kiln opens, no matter how elated or deflated I am with certain pots.  All these pots end up somewhere, part of someone’s daily life, holding flowers or fruit or coffee or pasta.  That’s the abiding surprise:  something I made and tended over months and seasons now graces someone’s table and holds the things that sustain life.

Here are the latest pieces, wonderfully photographed by my husband, Woody Sherman.


Friday Five for Summer

On Fridays the RevGals play a little writing game together.  Today’s the summer edition and I’m playing…

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 1.  What makes you happy in your happy hour? (kicking off shoes, reading a book, a cocktail, lemonade~~essentially, what do you do to relax at the end of your week…)

The most refreshing indulgence lately is this coconut yumminess from Smitten Kitchen.  Combine it with a long, light-filled evening of baseball.

2. I have a pair of shorts that I jump into the minute I get home for the evening–every day in the summer. What’s your favorite summer “garment”?

At any time of year:  Bra removal promptly upon arrival home and pj’s.

3. I have discovered, after living here in New England for 7 years, Ipswich fried clams. Oh. my. OH MY! Do you have a summer food you might splurge on once or twice in the summer?

I wait all year for ripe homegrown local tomatoes.  I dream of them in the winter and start salivating by May.  In late July through August (and sometimes into September) I eat them at least once a day.  Tomato sandwiches, BLT’s, Greek salads, ratatouille, sliced on a plate with salt and pepper…  You can not go wrong with a tomato in the height of its season, one of the simplest reminders of God’s enduring providence.

4. Do you have a specific fond memory of summers of your childhood?

At my grandparents’ house in the country, we helped hang laundry on the clothesline, slinging clothes up and over, using the wet weight to help pull the line near enough for our short arms to use the pins.  We went back out to take down the scratchy, stiff-dried, wind-scented clothes, yanking on the now-higher lines until the clothes came down in our hands and the pins popped off and landed in the grass.  Like baseball players with the sun in our eyes, it was hard to follow the flying pins against the lit sky.

5. Use these words in a sentence: snail, baby duck, camper, ice cream, surfboard, cherries.

The camper indulges in the simple extravagance of cherries for breakfast, fished from the bottom of the cooler and cold as ice cream, accompanied by the small progress of a snail moving across the picnic table, a baby duck learning to glide in the nearby lake, and the promise embodied in the surfboard waiting atop the car.

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photo credit: © 2008 by Erich Ferdinand, CC by 2.0


When the Words Sink In

Today we closed the church building where my dad attended growing up and where I visited throughout my childhood on summer Sundays at my grandparents’.  They are buried in the cemetery out back now, along with two sets of my great-grandparents.  It was bittersweet to worship at Rocky Run UMC one last time with second cousins and longtime country neighbors, helping celebrate Communion in one of the places that helped form me as a person and a pastor.

For years now, whenever I serve small children during Communion, I offer them the elements by saying, “This means God loves you very much.”  I can’t claim credit for this idea since I copied it from my colleague Alex.  But I love its simple restating of the point of the Eucharist and what all those other words mean.  Boiled down and essential good news:  God loves you very much.

Today, during the last Communion we’ll share in that place, a small blond boy of about 5 came up.  I offered him the bread and the simple words.  He took them and took a step towards the other minister, who was holding the cup.  Then he did a double-take.  He looked back at me as if the words had sunk in and he realized after a beat what they meant.  He was radiant, with a smile of surprise and delight on his open face.

Yes!  That is good news.  Yes!  It is for you, little one.  Yes!  Even on a day when the doors will close and lock behind us, this is still God’s Word for you. Yes, yes, yes!


Conference Conversation

It’s easy to gripe about Annual Conference.  Too easy.  Uncomfortable seats, long drives, longer hours, the Bishop can’t see people standing up waiting to speak at the microphones, the drums are too loud, there aren’t enough drums….  I am not immune to the complaining.

I often imagine a wonderful retreat-like locale, where we could spread out in time and space and really be together.  I picture walking across a green campus to a dining hall for breakfast and I wonder how the tone of our annual gathering would change if we were “there” when we got there — no more driving in long snaking lines out to lunch and dinner, no more traipsing back to the hotel dead tired late at night then rushing to get a parking space in the morning.  If we held our Annual Conference at a place like Lake Junaluska, would we hold it differently?  Would it be less of a Christiany business meeting with pre-planned entertainment and stunts?  Would it be more spacious and leisurely and would we actually participate in the holy part of holy conferencing?

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So much better than a convention center. A girl can dream, right?

One of the most-anticipated parts of Annual Conference each year are the resolutions.  These are submitted in advance and are usually pleas for our church to make a statement about something like fracking or predatory lending.  They often anticipate an upcoming General Conference (the international United Methodist gathering every four years) and they are aimed at changing our polity or our church’s stance or statement on a particular issue.

As with much of the church, our corner of United Methodism is in constant conversation about sexuality issues.  One of this year’s resolutions was about same sex marriage, though we never talked about the resolution itself.  We spent the measly half hour allotted to discuss whether or not to discuss it right then or put it off for a year.

At the opening of Conference our Bishop announced a series of conversations that will be held during this next year, opportunities to delve prayerfully over time into issues around sexuality and the church.  When it came time for resolutions, someone made a motion to put off talking about the submitted same sex marriage resolution in favor of the prayerful conversation model being put forth by the Bishop.  That’s what we spent our half hour deciding and that’s what passed:  we will engage in conversations throughout the conference and throughout the year.

I’m not going to complain about that decision or about the way we handle resolutions generally.  I want to talk about conversation.

We have an opportunity to get to know one another better and to listen to the pain and promise in each other’s stories.  How do we prepare ourselves to listen well, faithfully, lovingly?  How do we listen when we don’t like what we are hearing?  How do we listen without immediately, simultaneously,  making ready our response?  When we are certain of the ethics and theology, how do we listen to contradictory views?  When we are in conversation with someone who is undecided, how to we engage with her as a person rather than another number to win to our side?

I don’t envy those who will organize and moderate these conversations.  It’s a tough job that deserves to be done well.  They are long overdue so people on all sides are raring to go, or at least to speak.  I wonder how the moderators will approach the process.  Are we trying to get one another to agree or to agree a little more?  Are we merely trying to “take the temperature” of this corner of United Methodism?  Will we report on the tenor of the conversations in order to assess where we are or are they meant as preamble to the one we put off and may have next year at Conference?  How will we encourage people to participate?  How will we facilitate deep, prayerful listening without shutting down passionate and pent up emotion?

I know where God has led me on these issues and where I hope our church will eventually go.  I don’t know how to get us there and I don’t have many answers for the questions I’m posing here.

I do have a few suggestions on how to proceed during this next year in Virginia:

Hold at least one conversation in every district of our conference.  It should be easy to get to a conversation nearby.  Allow and encourage folks to attend any/all that are convenient for them (not just the one(s) in their district).

Hold them on different days and in every month between now and our next Annual Conference.  Do not make assumptions about when people have time off or time to fit this in.  Again, if should be easy to make it to at least one conversation.  Hold them on Saturdays and weekdays.  Hold them during the day and in the early evening.

Require all members of Annual Conference (clergy and laity) to attend at least one conversation.  If we achieve an amazing conversational turnout (like half of all United Methodists in the Virginia Conference) but only half of those folks actually attend Annual Conference next June, we still aren’t having the same conversation.  If this is important enough to spend the year on, make it a requirement for attending Annual Conference as a member.

Publicize the conversations themselves (when and where) and some of what’s coming out of them.  Make it a media blitz and one of the communication strategies for our conference in the coming year so there is no excuse for being unaware of or uninvolved in this.  Use the email lists, conference website, Facebook, Twitter, e-Advocate, and The Advocate (to name a few) to consistently hold this up as something we are spending time on together.

Arrange the Bible study sessions of Annual Conference around this topic.  Our Book of Discipline makes it clear how we as United Methodists read scripture This doesn’t mean we will all understand every passage in the same way but it does rule out some lazy scholarship and incendiary off-base “readings.”  Help us, as a group, to read together in the context of this ongoing conversation.  Give the gathered body this grounding so that when someone veers off course, the Bishop or another moderator can gently guide them back with authority and in the context of an explicitly shared understanding of scripture.  At the very least, then we’d all be talking about the same thing when we talk about “what the Bible says.”

Pray.  Without prayerful and open hearts we won’t get anywhere.  We need more than our own experiences, theologies, and interpretations — no matter how faithful and hard won.  We need God’s Spirit to breathe in us and inspire the conversation.

Part of me dreads this conversation because I’ve been having it for more than 25 years now.  But I’m going to practice patience and listening and engage in it as well as I am able…Take a deep breath.  Listen.  Take part in the conversation.  May the Breath of God disrupt our usual conversations and inspire every moment.

 

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photo credit:  “Lake Junaluska,” © 2010 by justinknabb, CC BY-SA 2.0


Overheard at the Pool

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I love to people watch.  Sometimes I’ll plunk myself down with a coffee and a good view and just observe the comings and goings on a particular day in a particular spot.  Often I’m watching from afar, my own silent movie, guessing about that fight across the street or the rush of that family whizzing by outside.

Sometimes I hear entire conversations I’m not trying to hear.  On those days I’m simply trying to get some work done or read a few chapters yet I find myself next to a table of talkers.  If I can tune it out I usually do, but in a tightly packed coffee shop sometimes we are stuck with each other and the stories floating past their proper tables.

Then there is the public bathroom stall, wherein some folks feel the need to keep talking no matter what.  Bodily noises, doors slamming, flushes galore, and yet these folks keep up their end of the conversation which is, of course, loud enough for the rest of us to hear.  Most of the time I can’t listen to those conversations because I’m too busy plotting my move to yell loudly, “You know she’s on the toilet, right?”  (No, I haven’t done that yet.)

Our pool opened up a few weeks ago and I’m swimming my laps outside.  I try to go early enough to avoid the throngs of kids but there are usually a few parents in the shallow end with toddlers.  They are often there together at the same time each day, parents chatting while kids intermittently shout, “Look at me!”

I don’t try to listen to these conversations but water is a great sound carrier and some parents are used to having adult talk while kids play nearby.  I usually dry off and catch my breath and log my miles in my phone.  Just a few minutes in the fresh air sitting near the pool.  And then phrases come my way, bouncing across the water’s surface…”Then I switched to Prozac”…  Just enough so I’ll look up, wondering who said that and how the rest of the story unfolds.

Even in coffee shops and bathroom stalls a lot of people are talking to other people in other places.  I’ve gotten so used to the louder-than-normal cell phone speech that when a quiet little person-to-person sentence blows across the water to my ears it seems strange now.  Strange that folks are actually talking to one another in person, sometimes about things they might want to keep more private.  But still.

Today I said a little prayer for the talker who’s been trying out medications.  And I thought how old-fashioned it is to overhear two sides of a conversation.  I thanked God for the 90 degree heat, forcing us to quit our houses and our phones and jump into the pool together for a while.

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photo credit:  (c) 2009 “090807Pool-3″ by Maggie, CC BY-SA 2.0


Ode to Aspens

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John Denver was on the radio when I was growing up.  Living in Virginia as a non-skier who’d never been west of Texas, I can’t think of any other reason I would have known Colorado names like Golden, Aspen, or Boulder.  With his silky bowl-cut, round wire glasses, and guitar, he ushered into my life the idea of “coming home to a place you’ve never been before” and gliding on a “Rocky Mountain high.”

I don’t know when I figured out aspens were trees and not just an exotic-sounding ski town, but I first saw them on my way to the Telluride Music Festival in my 20s…

[Click here for the rest of the story at catapult magazine.]

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photo credit: “Day 194: Aspen leaves on a lazy summer day…” © 2013 Loren Kerns, CC BY 2.0