How long?

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A sermon preached on Mark 5:21-43 at Wesley Memorial UMC, at the end of an extraordinary week.

It’s interesting to me how time feels different, depending upon who you are and how you are.  Like the way “just a minute” sounds like a scam when you’re a kid, waiting on a parent’s attention.  Like the way “just a minute more” with a departed loved one sounds like a blessing beyond imagining.

In Mark’s gospel, we hear two stories of healing, both involving 12 years of time:  Jairus’s twelve-year-old sick daughter and the woman who’d been bleeding for twelve years.

When you’re a parent, twelve years is not nearly long enough for your child to live.  Twelve years old means she’s on that cusp of childhood and adolescence.  Though she may think she’s more grown up than she is, she’s still a child.  To be contemplating a funeral for a twelve-year-old is unthinkable.  It’s not enough time.

When you’re a woman with a medical condition, twelve years is a very long time.  Twelve years without relief from menstrual bleeding.  Twelve years of sickness with no cure and no more money left to spend on one if she found one.   Twelve years outside the norms of family, and religious and cultural rituals.  Twelve years with a lifetime more sickness and isolation in sight.

Both of these stories are about Jesus giving more than what was asked for.  Jairus comes asking for healing for his daughter, who’s very sick.  When Jesus is interrupted by the hemorrhaging woman, on his way to Jairus’s house, the daughter dies in the meantime.  The men who came with Jairus to find Jesus say We can leave this teacher alone now.  It’s too late.  She’s dead.  The time for healing is past; it’s time for mourning now.  Let’s go home.  But Jesus goes along anyway and ends up not only healing her but restoring her to life, resurrecting her.  Jesus gives more than Jairus even knew how to ask for.

At twelve-years old, Jairus’s daughter would have been entering into marriage soon, as it was customary to marry off young girls between 12-15 years of age.  She was just about to enter into her next important roles and relationships, as wife and mother.

At twelve years into her continual bleeding, the woman would be without any regular social connections, religious life, or male contact.

Life held limited opportunities for women at the time of Jesus – to put it mildly.

Girls were expected to marry young and bear children, especially male heirs.  Girls and women had very few rights and Roman law placed women under the custody or control of men, first your father, then your husband.  If a young woman wasn’t married by the age of 20 or if she didn’t bear children, she’d incur penalties, a state tax to be paid by her family for the drain of her life.  For enslaved women in that culture, it was even worse, of course.  They were considered property, and could not marry at all, though they were subject to any and all desires of their masters and of male slaves, with the master’s permission.  Any children born to them were the property of their masters.  Jewish women were subject to both Roman laws and Jewish purity laws.  Regular monthly menstruation was considered an “unclean” time and had to be followed by a seven-day purification each month.  During that whole time of a woman’s monthly period and the purification that followed, she couldn’t leave home, sleep in the same bed as her husband, sit on the same furniture, or go anywhere in public, including the synagogue.  (http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/fifth-sunday-after-pentecost7)

That’s the way it was for women.  So consider what it was like for this woman.  It’s likely, if she’d ever had a husband, that he was long gone – they wouldn’t have been able to even touch each other for twelve years.  Bleeding continually for twelve years would have put her so far outside of normal, she probably couldn’t imagine ever getting back.  She never had much power in the culture of her day and now she had nothing at all.  Really think about the state of mind she must have been in by this point, funds exhausted with no cure in sight, body exhausted with no comfort to be found in society’s regular interactions, spirit exhausted enough to reach out in faith so desperate and hopelessly hopeful that it was the only thing left to do.

Time couldn’t have felt more different for Jairus and the bleeding woman, before they got to the point of seeking out Jesus.

Jairus was a religious leader in the Jewish community.  He was a man, wealthy, connected, important.  He had a daughter about to be of marrying age so he was almost ready to hand her to the next man in her life, a husband.  For twelve years, Jairus felt secure in the course he was on and what lay ahead for his family, his daughter.  Meanwhile, for twelve years, the woman who never had much power to begin with, helplessly watched her relationships and connections and possibilities for life seeping away with the flow of her blood.

Whatever the previous twelve years were for each of them, the moment they come to Jesus they are each in the same spot at the same time – desperate enough to try even this.

And faithful enough.  Did you notice what Jesus says?  The bleeding woman left the confines of her “unclean” house and reached out to touch Jesus’s cloak as he passed by.  Standing in the midst of “clean” folks in a place she’s not meant to occupy, she fesses up when Jesus realizes someone’s touched him.  She falls down at his feet and tells him everything.  And Jesus says, “Daughter, your faith has healed you; go in peace, healed from your disease” (Mark 5: 34).  Daughter.  He not only heals her illness, he redeems her standing in the community, claiming the woman whom moments before no one would touch, much less claim as their kin.  Her entire life is redeemed.  This is not just a stop to the blood, it’s a start to her future.

Jairus’s desperation and faith are evident in the fact that he himself goes to seek out Jesus.  He’s the kind of man who would have been accustomed to sending people to do his errands and carry his messages.  But this request couldn’t be entrusted to anyone else.  He wanted it that much.  He was willing to forego his powerful position and act as his own errand boy.

The power of this story is that these two were always in the same position, though neither they nor their communities nor the disciples knew it.  They were both, always and everywhere, desperate enough to need Jesus and the wellness/wholeness/saving only he can give.  At twelve years in they came to the same desperate fork in the road, gave up on convention, neighbors’ advice, self-reliance, and gave themselves over to faith and hope.

This is a week when we have known forks in the road.

This time last week I was about to leave Annual Conference in Roanoke.  I was packing my suitcase to go to Roanoke when I heard about the shooting at Emanuel AME Church.  All last weekend, I carried my phone around so I could keep up to date on news from Charleston.  When I saw the online petitions asking South Carolina to take down the Confederate flag, I supported the sentiment but wondered if we were distracting ourselves from the pain of the shooting.  I wondered if removing that hateful symbol would do much to remove hate itself.  I wondered if some of our more stubborn states would ever do it.  A week later and Wal-Mart has stopped selling them.

A century and a half is a long time to hold onto a symbol of hate and oppression.  One week is a short, powerful time in which to forgive and insist on another way.

Twenty-four hours is a short time between seismic Supreme Court rulings.  It’s a lifetime when you’ve been waiting to marry the one you love.

2000 years is a long time to spend explaining why women weren’t treated well in the time of Jesus.  It’s even longer to be holding onto beliefs like that – two minutes today is too long to endure or accept second-class treatment.

Time feels different, depending on who and how you are.  So does healing.

Healing began in some new and unexpected places in our country this week – praise God!  There’s more to do.  There are miles to go.  But it feels like more of us are heading in the same direction together.  It feels like the bleeding has stopped and we aren’t alone and outside of the crowd anymore.  We suddenly/at last noticed we are in the same place as every single one of our neighbors.  Equally desperate and in need of healing; equally blessed.

This time last week, marriage was legal for all our citizens in some states but not in others.  Today we can all marry the one we love.

This time last week our Virginia Annual Conference was voting to petition the General Conference to remove language from our Book of Discipline that refers to homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”  When I got in the car to drive home, the vote hadn’t been tallied.  By the time I reached Charlottesville the news was out that Virginia voted to ask General Conference to take the language out.

How long, O Lord?

One day, one drive, one week, one lifetime…

The genius in Mark’s storytelling is that this is all one story:  Jairus (and his daughter) and the bleeding woman; rich, male, power and poor, female, powerlessness.  In Mark’s telling they are interwoven into one whole story.  They are brought to the same spot – desperate hope – and taken to the same place – healing and redemption.  This is the Good News of Jesus Christ:  we are all in the same story of healing and redemption, no matter how else we are tempted to see it.  No matter how we count the time.

It doesn’t matter whether you think twelve years was the blink of an eye or a long time coming.  What matters is recognizing Jesus when he calls out to bring you back into the fold of the family, back to life.  It feels like healing beginning in the place of deep woundedness and sickness.  It sounds like “Daughter,” “Son.”  It looks like we are all in this together.

Thanks be to God!


On President Obama, this extraordinary week, and the holy breast pumps of grace

 

I spent most of last week on retreat with my writing group, half of whom are nursing mothers with babies in tow.  When I made it home late yesterday, my husband and I went straight to the computer to watch President Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney.  Perhaps if I hadn’t just been witness to a week of breastfeeding, I would have heard it differently, but I hung up on his repeated phrase “we express God’s grace.”

He couldn’t have done a better job speaking Methodist, with his sustained emphasis on the undeserved, unearned, unmerited grace of God we all receive.  (And I was proud to see the United Methodist Church sitting in solidarity with our AME sisters and brothers, represented by South Carolina Bishop L. Jonathan Holston on the front row on stage – yes, geeks like me can spot the cross and flame logo and the bishops’ insignia on a stole in the background of a video shot.)  As President Obama spoke, circling back around to God’s grace in our lives, I heard something I haven’t before.

I usually think of God’s grace flowing – gushing – continually into the world and into each of our lives.  Sometimes we notice, sometimes we don’t.  Either way, it’s always there and we can actively participate in it or resist it or halfway notice it, or not.  What I never thought about before hearing the President preach-speak is how we might be able to participate more directly and persuasively than I’ve considered in the past.  We might be able to squeeze out another ounce of grace when it seems to be running dry, like a mother pumping breast milk for her newborn.

When President Obama first used the phrase, he said, “by taking down [the Confederate] flag we express God’s grace.  But I don’t think God wants us to stop there.”  I heard “we express God’s grace” as We are exhibiting God’s grace, demonstrating its existence and power.  Which surely we are….But as he repeated it I heard it differently.  A little later he said, “The vast majority of Americans – the majority of gun owners – want to do something about [the epidemic of gun violence].  We see that now.  And I’m convinced that by acknowledging the pain and loss of others, even as we respect the traditions and ways of life that make up this beloved country, by making the moral choice to change, we express God’s grace.”

As he repeated, “we express God’s grace,” I began to hear the verb “express” differently.  I started to think about breastfeeding and how the milk doesn’t just gush on its own, especially when a mother is trying to express (literally, press out) milk into a bottle for her child to drink some other time.  A breastfeeding mother who expresses milk needs to spend time and give attention to getting her milk from breast to bottle.  She has to push, pull, suck, and squeeze to help it flow from her to where it’s needed.  From what I understand, sometimes even with a breast pump, a mother has to wait through several minutes of sucking-pumping for the milk to start flowing.

What if, in some times, places, and circumstances, God’s grace is like this?  What if it’s not just gushing all the time like an open fire hydrant?  What if it’s ready to do that but needs some active participation from us?

I am not saying God is completely stymied without the likes of us.  That open fire hydrant of gushing grace is an image that still works for me.  But I have known places and people where, even though I witnessed God’s gushing grace drenching us all from head to toe, someone in the crowd didn’t seem wet or sensible to their drenched state.  Surely God’s grace was flooding that Wednesday night Bible study last week when a group of the faithful welcomed a stranger and invited him in.  Obviously the grace of God flowed through the families of those who were killed, as they offered forgiveness in the midst of their deep pain and loss.  But it’s not obvious to everyone.

There are times and places and people who seem to need more than the ocean we’re already swimming in.  Those times and places and people need us, to point to and live out and express every last drop of God’s grace – not just to witness to it and live gracefully and graciously, but to squeeze, prod, suck, and push until every single drop of grace lets down into the situation at hand.  Like mothers who want to be sure every ounce of precious milk gets to their hungry helpless babies, God enlists us to help express grace into the world and the lives around us so it gets to every hungry helpless child of God.  We are the holy breast pumps of grace.  It’s not a sexy job and not as beautiful as the babe at the breast, but it still gets the milk to the sucking puckered mouth.  It gets the job done.  And sometimes, when the baby’s sleeping or not hungry right then or the mother needs to be somewhere else at feeding time, expressing milk is the difference between feeding and not feeding, between flow and drying up.

I love to hear Barack Obama sing and his rendition of “Amazing Grace” was stirring and soulful, but to my ears, what he said about grace was even better.  We are witnesses but we are also tools to help get the job done, the breast pumps expressing (pressing out into the world) the grace of God.  We are expressing God’s grace when we answer hate with love and forgiveness, when we recognize how the past is killing the future, when a group of United Methodists in Virginia votes for a new way forward, when we choose to care for everyone’s health and safety as a basic human need and right, when we recognize love looks just the same on everyone and rejoice in everyone’s right to marry

For a breast-feeding mother, every day brings a hungry baby, so even though this week has been extraordinary, every week brings opportunities to express what God gives.  Keep it up.  Keep pressing out every bit of grace you know, into a world in desperate need of knowing it, too.  Keep pumping.

*

photo credit:  By Beukbeuk (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Straight and flat, the boring parts

On long backpacking hikes in my twenties, we passed the time going up and down mountains by cataloguing the ways we were struggling.  Going up, we were breathless and our muscles were shaky; going down, knees and ankles, different muscles.  One wasn’t really better or worse than the other, just hard in different ways.  We never said much about the hike itself on the few flat portions of trail.

I find myself doing this in the rest of life.  I spend a lot of time hoping for and anticipating the uphill sections – the family vacation planned for July, the next kiln opening, finishing the project, beating my mile swim time – and a lot of time dreading and trying to just make it through the downhill sections – sickness, cleaning the bathroom, meetings and reports, uncomfortable conversations with difficult people.  I’m realizing lately that I have underappreciated the occasional straight, flat parts of “the trail.”

Hiking in April after a sluggish and inactive winter, we were on a well-groomed trail with small, intermittent flat stretches built into the switchbacks.  Going up, I used those stretches to straighten up and catch my breath and gather my wits and steam for the next uphill bit.  Going down, I relaxed and felt relief from the joint-pounding, muscle-quivering descent.  These seemingly boring straight flat parts saved me – in both directions.

As with many spiritual break-throughs, my own weakness and vulnerability on that first hike of the season allowed me to see and appreciate something I’ve been missing.  And needing.  Those usually unheralded flat parts had a beauty of their own.  I didn’t have to concentrate so hard or push myself or hold myself back.  I could just let them take me to the next up or down.  They were absolutely necessary for both recovery and gearing up.

The parts (on the trail, in life) that are easily overlooked, the flat reprieves where nothing much happens and we aren’t engaged in heroic measures or managing failures, are as necessary as up and down to get where we are going.  It’s easier to see this on the trail than in the midst of life.  When my panting slows on a flat path after a steep rise or my knees stop barking after a sharp descent, if I’m paying enough attention I can see the need for something flat and straight and just boring enough to give me a moment.  In life off the trail, it seems harder.

This summer, I’m trying to slow myself down enough to appreciate the relative flatness but it’s taking great intention, like pulling on the reins of wild horses.  So I’m remembering April’s hike and the unexpected savoring I did on those flat parts of the trail.  I know the uphills and downhills of the academic year (and the rest of life) are coming but for right now the path is clear, flat, and straight.  I’m catching my breath, offering thanks for this blessedly boring stretch, and letting it take me where it will.

 


Drowned by God

I was swimming along just fine, regularly going for a mile or more, several times a week.  I felt strong and sleeker than usual.  Then, one day, I just didn’t feel like it and had to argue myself into going to the pool.  I felt bloated and stressed and harried, and in my convincing conversation with myself, I reminded me that this is exactly the kind of time when it’s important to go ahead and get moving instead of eating half a cake in front of the TV.  It’s probably a result of watching too much TV and too many movies, but on the first lap I kept waiting to start feeling better.  I’m moving now.  I complied.  Kick in the soaring inspirational montage music and I’ll feel sleekness return.  I’ll be out of the funk.

That’s not what happened.  I don’t remember how long I swam that day – maybe a half mile, if I made it that far – and every single stroke was a struggle.  There was no montage music.  There was no lightening of my load.  I never hit my swimming stride to feel sleek and smooth, gliding through the water.  I felt like I was thrashing around, slapping and splashing, struggling to breathe.

I was praying the whole time.  Praying as I convinced myself to go.  Praying as I got into the pool and started thrashing.  Praying for my stroke to even out.  Praying for God to be with me and lift some of the burden I felt, weighing me down.  I thought I was struggling with myself – with self-doubt and that strangely stultifying combination of physical laziness and overwork – but as I doggedly kept slapping the surface of the water, gasping for each breath, I started to think maybe it wasn’t me.

I started to wonder if I was in a wrestling match with God.  And, since I was in the pool, I also wondered if God was trying to drown me.  That feeling didn’t go away for the entire swim, and I wondered why God would want to wrestle me right then, on a shaky day to begin with, in a particularly vulnerable location.

I love the story of Jacob wrestling all night with the angel/God (Genesis 32: 22-32), refusing to let go or give in until he’d received the blessing he was after.  I love the idea of God as one who’s willing to get this intimate with us in our struggles, but until my own wrestling match I always thought of the wrestling itself as merely a metaphor.  I preferred my actual experiences of God to be in more in the comforting metaphor variety – Good Shepherd, mother hen (John 10: 11-18, Matthew 23:37).

That day in the pool, I was face-to-face, breath-to-struggling-breath, with a very present but not so comforting God.   I don’t know why and I am not sure I know yet what blessing I wrangled that day, but God was definitely present in the pool with me and it wasn’t the comfort I thought it would be when I started swimming and praying.

Months later, when I’d pushed that episode to the back of my mind, it came pouring back to the front during a conversation with my students.  We’d been singing the David Crowder Band song “How He Loves,” which includes this line:  “If grace is an ocean we’re all sinking.”  I told them this doesn’t seem like grace for me, that I like the metaphor of grace as an ocean but it needs language like  “floating” and  “buoyed up” to describe it.  Do we really want grace to sink us?  Isn’t that like being drowned by grace?

Then I remembered my wrestling match.  Maybe Crowder’s got it right after all.  Maybe we do want grace to sink us.  From our watery beginnings in baptism, death for Christians is as present as life.  When we join the tribe, we enter through a “watery grave,” believing it holds the promise of life.  And it does, but we go by the road Christ himself traveled, as Charles Wesley wrote (United Methodist Hymnal, p. 302):  ”Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!/ Following our exalted head, Alleluia!/ Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia!/ Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!”

I don’t know why I thought God would stand back in my vulnerable moment instead of jumping in with me.  I don’t know why I thought metaphors were enough.  Don’t get me wrong:  I don’t want a rematch, at least not in the pool.  But maybe part of the blessing I received that day was the experience itself, of being taken hold of by God in a desperate and vulnerable moment, and being held onto no matter how I struggled and resisted, no matter how much I begged for a mother hen instead of an underwater sumo wrestler.

 


Oh, UMC. A Lament.

Last weekend I had the honor of serving as celebrant for the wedding of two recently graduated alumni.  I’ve known both the bride and groom for their entire undergraduate careers, and their wedding brought three reception tables’s worth of Wesley students and alumni to town.  After they were married at the church, we spent a gorgeous early summer evening, sun descending, shadows gathering, on a luscious winery estate lawn, sipping drinks and enjoying the company and the occasion.

Late into the evening, as shadows gave way to stars, and it couldn’t get any more delicious, Meredith* said, “Can I ask you a question?”

I was sitting next to my husband, flanked on one side by an alumna from last year and on the other side by Meredith, who just graduated in May and who will be coming back to grad school in a year.  It so happens both of these alumnae are gay.

Wesley students visiting the Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta, GA.

Wesley students visiting the Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta, GA.

Meredith said, “I know you can’t do a wedding for me and, obviously, it’s a ways off because I don’t have anyone in mind, but at this point, I don’t have another minister.  You know me best and you’re still my minister.  Even if you couldn’t be the one to marry me, would you do my pre-marital counseling?”

I have known Meredith her entire undergraduate career and, before that, her sister.  I am booked to be the officiant for her sister’s wedding next year (to yet another Wesley alumnus) and was about to meet with that couple for their first pre-marital meeting this week, which is partly why Meredith was asking.

She told me she’d spent two hours on the phone with her sister earlier in the week, talking about how excited she was to start planning for her wedding and marriage.  Meredith, who grew up in the church just like her sister, and who did the hard work of making space for a faith community during college (just like her sister), and who is determined to keep growing in her discipleship into her adult years and her future relationships, including marriage (just like her sister) – this beautiful young beloved child of God did not even ask me, her pastor, if I’d do her one-day wedding.  Even her question was trimmed down to size for compliance with our current UMC Discipline.  All she asked me is if, even though it may not be possible for me to be the celebrant at her wedding one day, could she please spend time with me preparing for it?  Meredith, whose discipleship and faith community has been as similar as possible to her own sister’s for their whole lives, and who learned well the Church’s own teaching about the importance of having a pastoral spiritual guide and a gathered community of faith for life’s passages, didn’t even ask me for what she really wants and needs.  And deserves.

It sickens me to say she learned those other lessons our Church is teaching, too – that not all of what we do and say is meant for her.  I feel sick to my stomach and teary just writing this.

Imagine how difficult it was for me on that beautiful night, in the midst of our beloved gathered community, to hear Meredith ask for such a small crumb from the children’s table (Matthew 15: 21-28; Mark 7: 24-30).

Now imagine how hard it was for her.

She made it easier on me than she should have.  Both she and the other alumna were kind and generous in the conversation we had, but that moment dampened the evening for me – not that she brought it up, but that she had to at all.

There is no amount of forethought and hypothesis that can predict what you’ll actually do, given the right situation.  Though this is still where I stand, I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep standing here.

Oh, UMC, don’t make me do this!  Don’t make me choose you over God’s own children.  Don’t make me choose the Gospel over you.

__

*Meredith gave me permission to use her name and to write about this, and said, “I hope the UMC can get it together by the time I want to get married.”  Me, too.


Traveling Companions: New Music

Back before the Internet, when downloads and iTunes didn’t exist, I drove to another state for the new Indigo Girls album.  It was 1990 and I spent my day off driving from Jonesville, Virginia, to Kingsport, Tennessee, to the mall.  Remember mall record stores?

I had recently upgraded from my first car, a 1968 Dodge Dart named Arthur (yes, it was incredibly old even then), to a nondescript K-car.  I got air conditioning and FM radio in the upgrade but no tape player.  So, on road trips I’d bring along my radio/cassette player and one of those power cords that plugs into the cigarette lighter.  It didn’t play through the car’s speakers, I just blasted it as loudly as I could from that sad little “box,” sitting, speakers up, on the passenger seat.  It takes about an hour to make that drive, which means I got to hear the whole album at least once on the drive back.

I want to say new albums meant more when obtaining one was an event like this, but I don’t think it’s true, even though I remember small, specific details of that day, like how steamy the car was when I got back in at the mall parking lot, wrestling with the thin, tight-wrapped plastic to open the hard, textured-plastic case around the tape.  Like putting my sunglasses on and hearing “Hammer and a Nail” for the first time, making my way back to the highway.  Like I was recognizing something I’d heard before yet couldn’t wait to hear revealed.

I want to say this but then, today, on retreat in a remote locale with a one-bar signal, I managed to download the new Indigo Girls album, One Lost Day, onto my phone in decent time.  And when I heard “Elizabeth,” the sound of summer and longing all mixed up with their voices – like another summer whose stormy soundtrack was Rites of Passage (“Ghost,” “Romeo & Juliet”), like the epitome of late-summer ripeness and longing I can actually taste every time I hear “Mystery” (Swamp Ophelia) – memory of that drive flooded back.

It took a lot less time to procure this album, but I’m in the same place, transported.

Driving to my retreat yesterday, I listened to another musical traveling companion, Susan Werner.  These days I can plug my phone straight into the car’s sound system to listen, but the essence of companionship is the same.  Driving alone through the green gorgeous western Virginia mountains, Susan sang to me about “the greenest corner of God’s green earth,” and though she meant Iowa, it resonated.

Lately I spend most of my time in the car navigating appointments, with NPR on in the background.  Yesterday’s drive reminded me how much I need music and what great musical traveling companions I’ve spent time with over the years.  To give myself the excuse to listen to more music this summer and to evangelize a little about some of my favorites, I decided to do a relaxed series here called Traveling Companions, telling stories about and highlighting songs/albums/artists that have accompanied me.  I hope you’ll come along for the ride.


Trust. Remember. Go.

Baccalaureate sermon on Acts 1: 1-11, preached for the Wesley Foundation during UVA’s graduation weekend.

There are certain times in the Christian year when we never get to be together as the Wesley community.  The 4th Sunday in Advent and the entire Christmas season, being a prime one.  Every year in our community worship, we jump from the 3rd Sunday in Advent right into mid-January, the season after Epiphany.  I realize many of you may not have noticed this since Christmas is a busy time of year and you are worshipping, back together with family and friends at home.  I realize this is mainly a pastor’s lament, because we’re geeky and into the liturgical cycle, and because it’s a little weird, from my point of view as a worship planner and preacher, to fast forward through one of the best parts of the Christian year.

The Ascension and Pentecost are times like this, too.  I think I was a good six years into campus ministry before the school year made it to Pentecost, and that was only because it fell the day after our baccalaureate worship so I claimed it as Pentecost Eve.

Today is Ascension Eve.  And because we rarely make it to this point in the Christian year together, I was pleasantly surprised to see how perfectly the story of Jesus’ Ascension fits with the leave-taking of baccalaureate and graduation weekend.

Right at the end of the passage we just heard, Jesus is lifted up into the sky and beyond the clouds.  The disciples just stand there staring.  And the two men in white robes show up and ask, “Galileans why are you standing here, looking toward heaven?” (v. 11).

Does that question ring any bells for you?  Ascension is the end of the forty days of Easter.  Remember a similar early morning question back on Easter day?  In Luke’s gospel, when the women find the empty tomb, they are terrified and just stand there, staring and immobile, looking into the place where Jesus was.  Two men in white robes show up and ask them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24: 5).

These questions are bookends for us to the Easter season:  Why do you look for the living among the dead? … Why are you standing here, looking toward heaven?  Each time, Jesus’ disciples want just a little longer to stare.  It’s like they think he’ll come back or they will see something new when the clouds shift.  If the white-robed men didn’t show up with their questions would they have all stayed frozen to those spots, staring and waiting indefinitely?

Maybe this is a temptation you’re feeling this weekend.  To stay and stare.  Wait for a clear sign.  Bask in this place and these years and this Wesley family of faith.

I get it.

You are looking at a mighty marvelous sight…  Wesley friends who have become family – people you had never met just four years ago, without whom you can no longer imagine life making sense.  You are looking at Christ-centered community that’s made your time at UVA soul-nourishing and character-forming.  You are staring at a place that has become one of your most important places.  You are standing still on ground made holy by your time in this community of faith.  It’s worth another long, lingering look.

Take it in.

Then take it with you.

The disciples didn’t want to leave that empty tomb or that locked upper room.  They wanted to stay rooted to the spot where they last saw Jesus, even after the clouds had shifted.

But the gifts he gave them didn’t end on either of those hard, unimaginable, blessed spots.  He promised the gift of the Holy Spirit, the spread of their witness to the ends of the earth, and his eventual return.  He gave them himself, each other, and a mission.

You have the same gifts.

Your time at Wesley has been God-infused and blessed in ways you probably didn’t imagine before you arrived, and which will make you hungry for more wherever you go from here.  Let that hunger be your guide.  Don’t stand rooted to one spot, starving and staring.  Leave here knowing you are as full as can be right now and that God will keep feeding you “out there.”

God is not done with you yet.  You are not just graduating from UVA, you are being sent from Wesley, too, on a mission to witness to the incredible, stare-inducing love of Christ.  Whether you think you know what you’re doing or not.  Your degree, honors of honor that it is, is not the most important thing you got here.  You got discipleship training in being and becoming the body of Christ.  You received the gift of God’s Holy Spirit dancing among us, pulling us together in just four short years, into one family, one body, against all odds.

The Good News is now you know how to do it and what to look for.  Now you know it can happen in some other unexpected lonely first-time place.  The leave-taking is both beautiful and painful.  So is your mission.

The Good News is there’s nowhere to escape God or outrun that Love. God always gets there first and calls you on.  Just like when you left home and showed up at UVA to a puny dorm room with no friends, and parents about to drive off, wondering how in the world you would make it.

And look what happened.

Go ahead, take another look.  Drink it in.  Feel the fullness and the hunger.  Trust it.  Remember it.  And Go in peace, dear ones.

Thanks be to God!


Friday Five: Spring Renewal

Our state flower, blooming right alongside the Monticello Trail, another great local hike.

Our state flower, blooming right alongside the Monticello Trail, another great local hike.

 

 

Every Friday the RevGals post a play-along Friday Five.  (Have I mentioned we wrote a book?)  This week’s is wide open:  “share with us five experiences of renewal that you have recently enjoyed, or would like to launch this Easter season.”

Happy May Day, everyone, and here are my five…

 

  1. Hiking.  We hiked Crabtree Falls with company in town a couple weeks ago, as the forest was just waking up again and trillium were blooming.  My calves were so tight afterwards I had to use a rolling pin on them to get them to relax – which means we should be doing this one again and often.
  2. Crêpe fest.  A few years ago for my husband’s May birthday I declared it “Crêpe fest” and we made both savory (gruyere and mushroom) and sweet (Nutella, honey and cinnamon, lemon and sugar) crêpes.  It’s time for the festival to return.
  3. Visit my grandparents’ house.  My dad owns it now but I will always think of it as theirs.  I’ve been working on a longer piece about home and being southern.  It centers on this little spot on the map in the flat red-clay tobacco country of Virginia and how I’m connected to family and traditions and people there.
  4. Enjoy a real, decadent brunch.  Atlanta is the brunchingest town I’ve ever lived in and I have missed this in every other place I’ve lived.  To find a good restaurant that does both Saturday and Sunday brunch is a treasure (and a necessity for those of us with Sunday obligations).  I love lingering over a third cup of coffee and the sprawling feeling of morning merging into afternoon, in both time and cuisine.
  5. Writing retreat.  I had one planned for the exact week we got ten inches of snow in February.  The kind proprietors of the cabin I booked allowed me to reschedule and it’s coming up soon.  I’m looking forward to being offline, out of touch, and deeply absorbed.

Late to the party and invited to dance: Delight and the new RevGals book

First time holding the real live book in my hands.

First time holding the real live book in my hands.

I’m a relative newcomer to the RevGals and to blogging.  When I started Snow Day two years ago and announced it to a former-student-turned-colleague she replied, “How 2002 of you.”  Yeah, yeah, I know I’m late to the party.

In 2005 when RevGals began officially, many of the Gals were keeping their blogs anonymous.  As editor and contributor Martha Spong remembers in her There’s a Woman in the Pulpit essay, “The Worst Communion Ever,” many only knew one another by blog names.  In 2013 when I participated in a summer writing workshop at Collegeville there were two other RevGals in our twelve-person workshop that week.  Each of them had been part of the group and reading along on the blog for years.  One had gone on the first continuing education cruise.  They talked about the other women in the RevGals group like they knew them.  At the time, fresh to blogging and to the group, I was surprised by this.

By last year when I made a trip to the Festival of Faith and Writing, I had met a few RevGals through Facebook and chimed in on the posts asking who’d be going to the Festival and might want to meet up while there.  It still surprised me when, trying to leave early and discreetly from a Festival lunchtime chat hosted by RevGal Ruth Everhart, she spied my nametag, stopped mid-sentence in her presentation, and blurted out, “You’re Deborah Lewis!” Since I was at a writing festival, I wondered how many people in that room were thinking I must be someone they should know, the Deborah Lewis, famous writer.

I’m pretty sure no one did.  But versions of that moment are part of the fabric of the RevGals community.  Seeing one another for who we are – pastor, writer, mother, sister, queer, straight, at wits’ end, thriving, faithful, revolutionary – seeing one another for more of who we are than we can often share in our day-to-day ministry is at the heart of this community.  In long-held traditions like our weekly “Ask the Matriarch” column on the website and in less formal Facebook group posts and prayers, we can plop down in a comfy chair with a cup of something good and ask anything.  We can listen when someone’s had a horrible encounter and we can offer a word of compassion.  We can pour it out without worrying too much about sounding pastoral or professional.  We can be our whole, wonderful, wise, working-for-Jesus, womanly selves.

My essay, in print. Damn, that looks good.

Of course this is exactly the kind of group that would put together an excellent book full of reverent and funny reflections, encouragement and honesty, about this calling we share.  Ruth Everhart’s wonderful essay, “Swinging,” opens the book with the faithful family call and response of “stupid-heads” during a languid front porch afternoon.  Stacey Simpson Duke’s “I Rise Before the Sun” quietly affirms the beauty and necessity of engaging some place other than our ministries, as she realizes, “Knitting is a valuable practice on its own terms, which reminds me that I am a valuable person on my own terms, and not just because I do valuable things.”  (Full disclosure:  Stacey is a dear friend and my former seminary housemate but I would love her piece even if our friendship didn’t pre-date our RevGals connection.)  Jan Edmiston contemplates “What They Will Remember,” urging pastors to consider our own need for full lives and healthy practices, for ourselves and for the pastors who come after us.  Katie Mulligan claims to have been “reluctant” to write her poetic and inspired “Queer,” so I can only give thanks that she let it out in all its biting, funny, compassionate, injured, healed, prophetic glory.  When she writes “I am called to dance by the one who delights in me” it’s an invitation to join in.

I am delighted with this book.  I gobbled up There’s a Woman in the Pulpit as soon as it was available on Kindle.  I immediately went to my own essay (“The Weight of Ash”) and snapped an Instagram picture.  I marveled at seeing my words on the screen and, the next week, I breathed in that wonderful new book smell when the paperback arrived in the mail (and snapped some more pics).  But I already knew what I had written.  What kept me up late into the night were the words of my sisters, the RevGals.  I recognized some and was introduced to others, but through a long night of dive-in reading, I recognized in every one a kindred spirit, a sister and a colleague, another writer trying to put together a few words to reflect the mystery of God and the strangeness and the many blessings of the call we all try to follow.

 

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Disclaimer: I have written one of the essays in this book and I received one free copy as my contributor’s compensation.   Other than that – and some pride and excitement – I have not received any other compensation for this blog post and review of the book.

Get your book!  There’s a Woman in the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments & the Healing Power of Humor is available from Skylight Paths or at Amazon via the RevGalBlogPals site.

 


A Thin, Thick Place

A sermon on Acts 4: 32-35, John 20: 19-31, and Psalm 133, preached at Wesley Memorial UMC on April 12, 2015, during weekend festivities for the Wesley Foundation at UVA’s 50-year Celebration and Groundbreaking.

woman holding freshly baked Communion loaf

One of the Wesley bakers, with dairy-free, gluten-free bread fresh from the oven.

In my twenties I often concocted dream visions of communal living.  Visiting with Wesley Foundation friends or Appalachia Service Project friends, we would revel in our reunion weekends, drink up the goodness of being together again, and plot our Someday dreams…a retreat center and intentional community in a big farmhouse with a huge kitchen table, a garden, and a writing shed for me, a little removed from the bustle….a self-sufficient community where we could grow our own food, make our own furniture, create all the pottery for our kitchen… These were dreams born from tight communities of faith formed at pivotal times in our lives, and that remained touchstones for all of us, no matter the time or distance.  Whenever we got together we just wanted more.  Not to go “back” exactly, but to create again that sort of Spirit-infused, life-defining, deeply communal expression of faith and love.

In none of these scenarios was I thinking explicitly of today’s passage from Acts.  In all of these times I was remembering how good and full a community I had left, how lovely it was to dwell together in unity (to quote the psalmist).  We had come together in a thin place – what Celtic spirituality calls those spaces where heaven and earth seem to be closer and more permeable to one another than usual – and in that thin place, we’d made thick, substantial, meaty community.  We had seen glimpses and flickers of God’s kingdom made manifest and those were enough to sustain visions and lives.

When I think of the book of Acts, this is the passage I most often think of, though, we have to acknowledge, this idyllic time didn’t last that long.  This time when no one held private possessions and no one was needy didn’t last.  But it was thick and real while it lasted.  It was important enough to describe and include in scripture so no one would think Did that really happen?  Was I merely dreaming?

There are many thin places in the world but we are often too busy to notice them.

There are fewer thick communities and they can be so rare that we’re tempted to think we dreamt them.

We’re celebrating 50 years of ministry at the Wesley Foundation this weekend.  It isn’t 50 years total but 50 in our current building, which we’re renovating and showing some TLC this year.  Thanks to Ed for inviting me to preach here in the midst of this weekend as part of the celebration – how fitting, since Wesley Memorial has been our partner in campus ministry since the beginning.  We had 200 people worshipping and celebrating here yesterday, alumni from at least as far back as 1963, “Wesley legacy” families with parents and children who’ve all made Wesley home, the Bishop, our district superintendent, students, and tons of friends.

Those of us celebrating yesterday and many of you here know the Wesley Foundation as a thin place.  It’s holy ground, a thin place that’s home to a thick community with permeable boundaries, always being re-formed as people graduate and matriculate.

A couple of weeks ago the Wesley Foundation’s Student Coordinating Council (SCC) met for its “changeover” meeting, our peaceful transfer of power from one group of student leaders to the next.  One of our practices at that meeting is to offer words of gratitude for those rotating off the SCC.  At one point, in the midst of a long list of wonderful attributes and things she would miss about departing a student, one student stopped herself and blurted out,  “How are you real?”

In some ways this is what Thomas needed to know and see and feel for himself, when he met the resurrected Jesus.  How is any of this real?  Do you remember what Jesus does?  He does not refer to Thomas as a doubter or chastise him in any way.  He simply offers up the most visibly wounded part of his body and invites Thomas to stick his hand all the way in and get a good, tactile feel for it.  Thomas doesn’t even have to ask; he just has to reach out in the direction of the living, very real Christ.

How are you real?  Here, see for yourself.

At its best, this is what campus ministry is:  an invitation to see for yourself, in the midst of a community thick with the Spirit of the living Christ.  It’s the kind of place where people are transformed, where they become more fully who God is calling them to be and, though it may only last 4 years, it’s enough to sustain a vision for the future.

Let me hasten to add, about that early Christian community in Acts and about the Wesley Foundation, that there’s nothing out of the ordinary about the people involved.  Don’t get me wrong:  I love me some Wesleyanos!  But what I mean is, those early Christians weren’t somehow the cream of the crop, and though UVA students are the cream of the crop in many ways, Wesley folks aren’t the cream of the cream.  That’s not what makes the community faithful or memorable or life-transforming.  What makes both the Acts community and the Wesley community thick communities is the presence of the living Christ.  It’s not the prefect storm of personalities and skills, dreamers and engineers.  It’s Jesus.

How are you real?  Jesus.  The “thickening agent” in this recipe of love is the risen Christ.

The point of highlighting this long-ago and short-lived community from Acts isn’t to show what exceptional people they were.  It’s to show what’s possible when the center of your life and community is the living Christ.  The point is not that they were particularly un-needy people but rather that living with Christ at the center meant they prioritized the needs of others, they treated one another like family.

As I read our scripture passages this week I was struck by how physical and tangible the images are in each one.  The risen Christ offers the wound in his side to Thomas.  Surely the Acts community prays and worships together but we hear how they “bear powerful witness to the resurrection” (v. 33) by sharing things, the tangible goods they owned; they sold houses and properties and gave the proceeds to the group, to be used to purchase what they needed; people were housed and fed and clothed.  And Psalm 133 offers us the messy but luxurious image of Aaron’s long, thick, bushy beard, claiming that living together as one is like expensive oil poured over his head and running through that big beard, soaking it through.  Like I said, it’s messy, but it’s hard to read that and then think that spiritual things are separate and apart from physical things.

It’s also hard to read these passages and think that being faithful, being Christian is merely “between me and God.”  Part of what is real and tangible about God in these stories is that God is made manifest in Christian community….in living together as family…in making sure no one among us is needy…in offering breath, touch, forgiveness, sharing our vulnerable and wounded selves with one another…

The reason we had 200 people here yesterday is because this is a place and a people who have embodied life with the risen Christ.  People from across the decades are still savoring the thin place and space of their time at Wesley.  Students are fed here, literally, every Thursday night.  They stay up late together in Study Camp, offer rides home in the dark.  They take each other to the hospital, offer hugs on hard days, and water on hot mission trips.  Some meet their future mates here.  We welcome strangers – every fall when new students arrive, and many other times when someone comes in crisis, or when other religious groups fall short and they are looking for a faith community where they can be and become all of who God made them to be.

One of the clearest recent examples of “no needy persons among us” is our Communion bread.  At the 5pm worship service we celebrate Communion every week, gathered around the Table, offering the elements to one another around the circle.  It’s a highlight and an orienting moment in each week.

But in the past few years we noticed we were meeting more and more students with gluten sensitivities, celiac disease, and some folks who both gluten-free and dairy-free.  We struggled along for a while, using a little side plate on the Table to feed those who needed special bread at Communion.  It seemed like the best we could do.

Until a student asked if she could try making a loaf we could all eat.  There are two very important things to say about this endeavor:  1) It took her and a few other dedicated bakers experimenting for several weeks before we settled on the recipe we now use.  Those early loaves were not all pretty or as tasty as what we have now.  So, it wasn’t “perfect” from the start.  And 2)  The second thing to say is the one who offered to bake was not one of the students who had food allergies.  She herself didn’t need the bread to change for her own health – she wanted to do this so that there would be no needy persons among us.

These are the moments I hear students and alumni recount decades after their years here.  Deep spiritual moments expressed in physical ways, in the context of community…She remembered my name, he gave me a ride, they listened when I vented about my roommate, they didn’t laugh when I said I was thinking of going to seminary, they made bread I could eat, too…

Real, tangible bread, offered so that all could eat.  That’s what a community thick with Christ looks like – that’s what it tastes like!  That’s how love ends up looking like a round loaf of bread glistening with coconut oil on its crust.  That’s the simple but extravagantly grace-filled type of thing that keeps this a thin place thick with the love of Christ.  That’s why four years is a short time but long enough to send us out into the world and the rest of our lives, with the beacon of this community to orient us and the taste of heaven on our tongues.

Thanks be to God!

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photo credit:  © 2015 Aaron Stiles.  Used with permission.


There’s a woman in the pulpit…and her book’s on the bookshelf

I’m excited to announce the publication in April of There’s a Woman in the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments & the Healing Power of Humor (SkyLight Paths Publishing)

Available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

#WomaninthePulpit

It is a joy to be included in this collection of stories and prayers written by more than 50 of my colleagues who are members of RevGalBlogPals and who represent 14 denominations, 5 countries, and more than a dozen seminaries.

“In ministry, we constantly balance the sacred and the ordinary, juggling the two as expertly as we manage a chalice and a [baby] bottle. Even as we do things as simple as light the candles, set the table, break the bread and pour the wine, we invite people into a holy moment…. The women [in this book] not only have a wellspring of deep wisdom, but they also have the ability to dish out their knowledge with side-aching humor…. I am thrilled that their great wisdom and intelligence will be bound into the pages that I can turn to, lend and appreciate for years to come.”                           —from the Foreword by Rev. Carol Howard Merritt

Intended for laypeople, women hearing a call to ministry and clergy of all denominations, these stories and prayers will resonate with, challenge, encourage and amuse anyone who has a passion for their work and faith. A group reading guide will be available on the SkyLight Paths Publishing website – consider choosing it for your book group!


Working and Resting Revisited

resting hotel door hanger

I’ll admit this woman looks like she’s having fun.  But I was almost as dismayed with this hotel door hanger as I was with the all-working version we encountered in October.  I’m sure she’s working up a sweat with all that jumping.  I might even be willing to call it “rejuvenating,” but restful?

Why can’t she be taking a nap?  Or be snuggled beneath a blanket reading a book?  Why can’t she be listening to music with her feet propped up?

It seems one of the many causalities of our overworking is our resting.  When we deign to rest it now looks like a competitive sport rather than an afternoon spent dozing or meandering through a music collection.

Yeah, I know, it’s just a door hanger.  It’s some hotel marketing department’s creative answer to standard equipment.  I get that I’m allowed to rest how I want to no matter what the picture shows.  I just think we deserve work that looks less like a constant war and rest that looks a lot less like work.  We deserve cycles of work and rest rather than one-speed-fits-all living with the labels changed every now and then.