Another Aspect of Real Ministry

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One thing we don’t need more of is gloomy doom-filled prophecy about the state of the church, campus ministry, and money.  Another thing we don’t need is more clergy and campus ministers referring to things like fundraising and routine administrative work as “not real ministry.”  That’s like if Jesus, instead of telling the disciples to feed the 5000 (Mark 6: 30-44), had said, “I don’t care if they’re hungry.  We’ve been healing and teaching for days.  That’s real ministry.  I don’t care how they get fed so let’s get out of here”…

[Click here for the rest of the story and my tips for fundraising as a very real aspect of campus ministry, over at the National Campus Ministry Association blog.]

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photo credit:  By Southern Railway System [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 


Campus ministry is a different matter

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She was a student from a church in our district, located near enough to us that they serve dinners to students each year.  She grew up in that church and she was involved in the Wesley Foundation all four years of college, serving as a leader here in a variety of roles.  And she stopped me cold with her observation.  I had asked her to reflect on what makes Wesley different and valuable as a faith community for college students and she said, “No one at my home church would ever let me lead anything.”

I appreciate Tom Fuerst’s helpful reorientation this week on the topic of millennials’ engagement in church  (Why Aren’t Millenials Attending Your Church?).  He offers an antidote to the impotency of constant worry, and he gives one central thing every worshipping community could implement.  I agree wholeheartedly with his assessment that removing children and youth from worship, in favor of age-restricted and so-called age-appropriate activities, is misguided, has backfired, and has taken us too long to notice.

When he lumps campus ministry into the mix, I think he gets it wrong…

[Click here for the rest of the story at Ministry Matters.]

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Final Kiln at Nan’s

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I walked into Nan’s pottery studio the day before Easter four years ago.  Woody and I were eating lunch nearby, saw her brochure in the restaurant, and decided to follow the directions to her studio.  It was a lovely, rare, ambling afternoon, a little adventure of meandering the unfamiliar back roads leading to her long, sloping gravel driveway.

I knew I’d like her pots.  She had some on display in the restaurant, where I’d picked them up one by one and seen the same ”NR” stamp on the bottoms.  Even though we arrived as she was shooting a demo video she cheerfully stopped and gave us a tour.  I wandered through her cottage-like studio and showroom admiring the glazes and forms and bashfully saying, “No, I’m not a potter, but I’ve collected pottery for a long time.”

“I teach classes here.  I usually have a long waiting list but right now I happen to have an open spot, if you’re interested.”

That’s when things changed.  All the way home in the car Woody and I talked money and timing and how long the drive to class would take, but it was already a done deal.  I was doing it.

Becoming not just a potter, but Nan Rothwell’s student, has been one of the unexpected blessings of these past few years.  Pottery is a grounding and spiritual practice that gets me out of my head and back into my body, fully in the present moment.  I’ve written a few things about it here but this probably sums it up best.  I always knew, even before I held my first lump of clay, that I’d love working with it.  What I didn’t know until I became Nan’s student, was how much I needed a teacher.  Those of us in her classes said all the time how lucky we were.  We counted our blessings out loud, regularly.

Life keeps changing and one of those changes this past year was that Nan and her husband decided to try city living for the first time in decades.  In October, Nan closed her teaching studio and we fired the final kiln there.  Here are the last pots I made at Nan’s.

Nan’s teaching at a new place and I look forward to taking classes with her there.  It will all be different, but no matter how many places I sit down at a wheel and no matter how many teachers I learn from, Nan will always be my pottery teacher.  She’s the one who said completely obvious things that came from deep wisdom and forty years of throwing pots, but which were not obvious enough to me before she said and demonstrated them – things like, “Just because the wheel’s moving fast, doesn’t mean you have to.”  Nan has helped me move more slowly and deliberately at the wheel and in life.  She’s the one who let me become a student again and walked me over the threshold from admirer to potter.


Winter Afternoon Haiku. No Snow.

bird footprints in winter sand

I wrote these a few weeks back one afternoon, enjoying the late light but wishing for snow.  Looks like we might be getting some today, at last.  As I burrow in on the ultimate snow day – retreat! – here are two slightly different takes on winter hibernation.

 

Afternoon light slants

Winter’s long shadows stretching

Golden sun descends

 

Netflix beckons me

Siren song of temptation

Ten seasons of Friends

 

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photo credit:  © 2015 by Woody Sherman


What we talk about when we talk about sex

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When I told the group of students in this semester’s Sabbath study that Sabbath is meant to be a time to explore and revel in what delights us that was OK.  When I said the Jewish tradition explicitly includes sex in the list of delights – that it’s actually prescribed as a Sabbath activity – that was OK, too.  When I made sure to say that, of course, the understanding is that these activities take place within a marriage, that was entirely expected and by the book, but it was not OK with me.

That’s what I am supposed to say.  It matches our common United Methodist understanding as expressed in the Book of Discipline.  I’m not sure how well it matches our lived experience as Christians in North America in 2015.  And I’m certain it’s not enough for most young adults to go on.  In this particular year of ministry at the University of Virginia I am increasingly uncomfortable with our church conversations about sexuality.  I wonder a lot about my role and responsibility as an ordained elder.  Is it merely to communicate current stances accurately?

I have known college students who have not yet experienced their first kiss and I have known others who’ve experienced sexual violence.  I’ve known students who are desperate to date and find someone and I’ve known others who don’t have time for that because they’re hyper-focused on the next academic and career steps.  I’ve known many students who date and have relationships while they are in school and many of them are sexually active.  What they all have in common is an appalling lack of religious language and imagery for full-bodied healthy sexuality.  Whether they adhere to it or not, they all know that in church circles sex is for marriage.  They know it’s a gift from God but it’s a pretty strange gift because it stays wrapped up in Christianese gift language without much exploration of how to use the gift.  “When you get married” is not enough of an exploration.  Leaving aside for now the huge problem that only certain people in certain places have the option for marriage, this is still a wholly unsatisfactory exploration.

As we discussed rape culture at the Wesley Foundation last semester, it became painfully apparent that unexamined, unexplored gift language can be a further assault to someone who has been sexually violated.  If, as some versions of the gift conversation go, this is the best most important gift God gives us and that’s why we need to save it for The One, then what is a raped woman supposed to do with all that?  What comfort and what level of conversation is available to her then, in a church community  that has only ever said this one thing about sex?  For that matter, what theological conversation is available to someone who is sexually active in consenting relationships, as many young adults (and older adults) are?  By our narrow focus and our silence are we communicating this is a “leave it at the door” kind of thing?

Our sacred scriptures contain extreme sexual violence (Judges 19 as just one example).  They also contain some of the most beautiful poetry, absolutely reveling and delighting in sexual exploration with one’s (unmarried) beloved (Song of Solomon).  Our central Christian story starts with an unmarried pregnant teenager and no matter how we understand those events and the notion of being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit as Mary was, those facts remain (Luke 1: 26-38).  What do these stories tell us about greed, betrayal, violence, and power?  About perseverance?  About resourcefulness? About mistakes and punishment?  What do they tell us about delight and the powerful connection to another person and that person’s body?  About the soaring wonder that we experience skin to skin?  What do they tell us about unexplained circumstances?  About loyalty?  About redemption and the holiness of embodied life and love?

These are just the tip of the iceberg, the first questions that come to mind when I read our community stories involving sex.  Notice how much more is going on than mere description of body parts or edicts about right behavior.  Notice how little we tend to say about the rest of it.

Saying only “save it for marriage” is not enough and it’s not a fair reflection of our own tradition.  In the case of someone who’s been sexually assaulted, if our sexuality conversation is so stilted, euphemistic, and childish that she can’t come (back) to church with the worst thing that’s happened to her, what are we here for anyway?  In the case of a restless experimenting teenager who already hasn’t “saved it,” where can she rejoin the church community conversation if she’s already out of bounds?

Ruth Everhart has posted several good pieces this week, asking preachers how we intend to deal with Valentine’s Day and sex.  Her posts are a good reminder that we need real, earthy, God-inclusive conversations about sexuality – and not just at Valentine’s Day.  The Atlantic published a thoughtful article last fall called “When ‘Do Unto Others’ Meets Hookup Culture” and we used it in our recent Wesley conversations.  The author points out that our basic ethic of treating others as we would like to be treated serves as a great starting place for conversations about sexuality.  This standard is more than mere consent and it requires attentiveness to the other person, the situation you are in, the relationship or lack thereof…It requires active engagement and moral reflection on an ongoing basis.

What if we in the church shifted focus from the before and after marriage conversation – what if instead of focusing on when to start having sex, we talk together about how we go about it, whenever it is we start?  What if we start from the supposition that God’s good gift of sexuality can be expressed in a variety of ways?  What if we admit it might be possible to have good, healthy, Christian sex for various reasons and in various forms of relationships, possibly even no relationship?  What if we start there because this opens our conversation up to the largest breadth of people and experiences?

When I hold “Ask Your Campus Minister” nights and students can put any questions they want to in a hat, I always pull one out that asks about sex.  Whether they’ve read it or not, they already know what our Book of Discipline says.  They don’t want to hear “Marriage.  Next question?”  They want something real that they can use.  They want something meaty and nuanced enough to carry them through the complexities of sexuality in its beautiful, surprising, confusing, God-given varieties.  Nothing less is OK.

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photo credit: © 2011 Renaud Camus , CC BY 2.0


If you had told me

welcome sign sullivans island

 

If you had told me I’d be writing poetry in a movie-set house

on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina,

on a grey rainy day in the middle of the week,

- as part of my job -

I might have believed it,

depending on when you’d told me.

 

The me who drank café crèmes in French cafés,

camped for the afternoon sipping

and pouring words into journals too myopic and lovesick to read now,

that me would have believed it.  No hesitation.

Of course, I’ll be a writer one day.  The set sounds perfect.

 

Twentysomething me, writer of the Bermuda short story

I showed every friend I had because, well, I was proud of it

and because I didn’t know what else to do with it,

she would have sheepishly asked, What kind of poetry?

 

Heartbroken me, would have sniffed, nodded,

looked up with red-rimmed eyes, knowingly.

What’s his name? 

 

Newly-minted seminarian me, the lonely one

still uncertain of her call after three years and a degree

who cried when the priest rubbed ashes on her forehead one Wednesday,

would have wanted to know What happened to ministry?

 

The oldest me

girl in a lavender bedroom

following the Ingalls family out west for the first time

would have – if you could have gotten her to look up from the book –

smiled

the unabashed smile of delight.

 


Permission not to take notes

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The competing voices in my head each sound reasonable.  That’s the problem.

One voice is the keep-track-of-it voice.  The one who wants to capture the precise moment with a picture or by writing down that perfectly turned phrase.  This voice knows that someday when I stumble upon the preserved memory I’ll stop and take it in again.  I’ll be so happy then that I kept it and can remember and relive it.

The other voice is the be-here-now voice.  The one who wants to be fully immersed in the present experience, not with one eye on the future memory of the moment I’m still trying to have right now.  This voice knows that whatever I remember, unaided, will be enough and just the thing I needed to know when the time comes and that, even if I can technically remember nothing from the present experience, it will have changed me somehow whether or not I can articulate or point to or recall it.

Being the kind of English major I was in college was the perfect combination of these voices.  I came to class with novel in hand, underlined and highlighted.  I opened my notebook to a fresh sheet and dated the page.  The things I wrote in my notebook were extensions of thoughts, an idea or something I wondered about because of the conversation taking place in class.  I rarely wrote down plot points of facts or direct quotes from the professor or my fellow students.  Mine were not the notes a friend would borrow to catch up on what she missed when absent.  My notebook might have only the word “sea” underlined, with no other words nearby, from a discussion of Mrs. Dalloway.  It might have the beginnings of an outline for the paper I conceived of during and because of the discussion.

As an English major, I was committed to living in the texts, wading around in them, feeling emotions because of them.  For me, class was an extension of the reading experience – a bunch of readers wading in together and seeing how swift the current was or how temperate the water.  Who needs notes to understand or remember that sort of thing?

Those note-taking enterprises were entirely different from, say, attending a workshop on saving for retirement, where the terms are not organic or natural to me and where remembering the feeling of the workshop isn’t an adequate action plan to take home and implement afterwards.  That kind of endeavor needs 1-2-3 and if/then.

Theology and religious life seem much more like my version of English class than like a retirement workshop.  I don’t mean we don’t need rigor and specifics when studying theology or biblical texts, but it does seem we are meant to wade in and see what happens and let our minds free-associate and our hearts feel.  I think I used to do that more.

I resist the preacher-with-all-the-answers model of ministry, though too often I have looked for the right or best answer.  I’ve let the questioner or the question back me into a corner rather than seeing him or it as an invitation to go swimming.

I notice a strange thing happening these days.  As we concoct more and more easily retrievable means of “remembering” (phones and computers and email that can store ridiculous amounts of info, texts, photos, correspondence, recordings…) I’m increasingly worried over forgetting, misplacing, or missing out on something.  Strange since it is actually hard to lose track of our information now and easy to save it without once thinking of whether it’s worth saving.  (Recent research indicates our devices don’t help us with recall as much as we might like – or as much as old school pen and paper.)

At a fall conference on theology and storytelling, I didn’t feel like preparing for the right answer or being the good note taker.  I knew for sure I would forget finer points but I was tired and I was thinking of the time away as a deep well.  I needed water, not documentation.  So out of exhaustion more than intent, at first, I gave myself permission not to take notes.  I sat with an open page and wrote very little.  As I watched others in the conference typing and writing furiously, I felt conspicuous at first.  I heard the voices in my head arguing.  They both made their good points.  I was positive I’d forget some things worth remembering – but the permission to be fully present while it was happening was freeing and more important than being able to tell someone else exactly what the speaker had said later on.

I’ve been trying to do this more.  Permission not to take notes is an invitation to step in and try the water.  I’m guaranteed to forget a few things, maybe even some important things.  But that was always going to happen, no matter how copious the notes or diligent the note taker.  Besides, I can jot down a few impressions of the experience later, while I dry off on the bank.

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Photo credit:  “Mark Cantrell taking notes” © 2009 Gary Peeples, USFWF,   CC BY 2.0

 


What An Old Monk Can Teach

flood sign in water

I was visiting a 90-something-year-old who had just asked how things were going.  I admitted I had too much on my plate and felt overwhelmed by it at that moment.  She said, “I can’t remember the last time I was overwhelmed.”  I was annoyed and ungenerous in my heart.

About that same time, early October with gorgeous colors ablaze in the trees and perfect crisp weather, a very nice woman at church asked if I’d been doing any hiking.  My first and most accurate response, which I somehow managed not to say out loud was, “Are you f*@#ing kidding me?”

Yes, I know I have a problem.

Between college and seminary I worked for 3 years in Appalachia.  I lived just outside of a town with one flashing light, on the side of a mountain where I could hear cows mooing from the other side of the mountain and, standing on the front porch, I could look across the ridges to Tennessee.  This makes it sound like a simple life and a slower pace.  From my current vantage point, I’m tempted to think that way, though it’s not entirely true.  I worked for a non-profit hosting huge groups of volunteers doing home repair, with full blast, no-stopping seasons of activity and slight pauses to catch our breath at other times of year.

During that time I first ran across this quote from the Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander):

“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

I highlighted, starred, and dog-eared this quote.  I read it and re-read it.

I posted it next to my desk when I first began in campus ministry.  Back then, observing the pace at which students were living, I was convinced that one of the best things we could do in campus ministry was to convince students to slow down, empty out, take a day off, and even skip a class here and there.  I was dismayed to hear students talk about skipping class – to finish a paper for another class.  It was never to lounge on the grass and read poetry or contemplate the sky.

Unfortunately, it’s still just as applicable in campus ministry today, more than a decade later.   Even more unfortunately, Merton’s quote is still just as applicable in my own life now as it was when I first read and seized upon it on that hill in Appalachia 25 years ago.

Temptation is great.  Memory and will are weak.  This time, I can get it all done.  This time, I’ll fit in everything everyone wants.  This time, it won’t break me to work and never rest.

Wrong again.

In these months of being overwhelmed and undernourished, when I want to snap at pleasant people in church and nonagenarians, I return to Merton’s wisdom.  In this Advent season when we hear the invitation to repent (“turn around”), I am trying hard to turn around – again – and to move in the direction of life.  Or at least, more life and less death.

It’s been too long since I “skipped class.”  I’ve been missing out on poetry and the gorgeousness of the unearned sky.  The two hardest things I did in the past week were when I said “No, not now” to people asking for my time or attention.

I’ve been living with this quote for a long time now but it’s newly occurring to me that, yes, it’s about me and choices I make and the encouragement it gives to choose otherwise.  But it’s also about a lifelong practice.  I used to think I could learn this and embody it and move on to other issues.  Now I think maybe Thomas Merton was even wiser than I knew.  Maybe his advice is also about the continual staunching of that tide, about the necessary maintenance we must undertake on the retaining wall holding back that persistent hillside of “too much.”

I don’t know that I’ll ever “fix” this as I once imagined was possible, but I hear the call to tend to it.  To turn around and tend to my spirit, even as many other things and people need tending.  My prayer-in-practice in these waning Advent days is to be met in my turning, to realize at bone-soul level that my best work is to behold and receive.  Every time I turn, there’s God.  This is my prayer for all of you, too.

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photo credit:  “Overwhelmed Flood sign, Upton-upon-Severn,” © 2013, Bob Embleton , CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Emmanuel

 

An Advent homily, preached 12/7/14 at a Wesley Foundation at UVA & Wesley Memorial UMC joint worship service.

If we can’t find the connections between what we do here in this place and what’s happening out there, we aren’t really trying.  In this messy, desperate, trauma-filled semester at UVA and in our country, if we wonder what Advent and Christmas have to do with all that, then we aren’t thinking at all.

This is the time of year when we sing and pray, Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus…Come, O Come, Emmanuel…..Come and be with us.  Come to our aid, be who you promised to be, God-with-us.

And even though we use royalty purple as the color for Advent, the Prince we got came without an army.  The Prince of Peace entered defenselessly, in the dark of night, naked, unable to take care of even himself at first.

The Savior of the world came as a despised Jew, born in poverty in a borrowed barn.  When God decided to come down here Godself, it was to an unexpectedly, shamefully pregnant teenager.  Right from the beginning, God incarnate – Jesus – chose an inexperienced, poor, minority, female teenager to be the first one to hold him.  A nobody, easily overlooked.  A girl, with no power, who was lucky her fiancé Joseph believed in his dreams enough to marry her and be part of God’s strange plan, rather than leaving her disgraced.  (Because some things haven’t changed nearly enough in 2000 years, one of those being our inclination not to believe what women tell us about their own lives.)

Jesus is still showing up in places just like this.  Who’s paying attention?

If I say to you Jesus is as interested here and now in sexual politics and violence towards women as he was when he chose to be born to an unwed teenage girl, does it seem like too much?

If I say to you Jesus is showing up right now in Ferguson and New York, looking like a black teenager wearing a hoodie, does it seem out of line?

In a couple of weeks we’ll hear again those beautiful words Mary sang when she and her cousin Elizabeth met, both pregnant and full of promise (Luke 1: 52-53):  God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

The sides are not as simple as some of us want them to be:  frat boy/ first year woman…real threat/ police officer….protestor/ law-abider … white/black …reporter/subject…

And yet, this is the language Mary sings…powerful/lowly…hungry/rich.

I can’t hear her song this year and not also hear echoes of the old protest song Pete Seeger sang in the 60s, “Which Side Are You On?”  The sides are not as simple as we sometimes think but Jesus’ side is always the same one.  Lowly, powerless, poor, hungry, vulnerable, defenseless.  The nobodies everyone else ignores.

In the past I’ve leaned heavily on the waiting imagery of Advent, the tension of this time when we’ve tasted and glimpsed the full reign of God but we’re still struggling, waiting, for it to come in all its fullness and glory.  That’s all still true and Adventy.

But this year I can’t stand here and encourage you to wait, if waiting means the status quo…if waiting means more of the same…if waiting means blind trust in the ones with all the power…if waiting means not looking too closely at my own power and my reticence to use if in service of the powerless…

One of the best things we Christians do is re-tell our stories.  There is no way to hear all they have to say in just one telling.

This story bears repeating.  We may have occasionally gotten a little too cozy, fuzzy-focus, Hallmark about hearing and telling it again, amidst our decorated homes and churches and trees and holiday parties.  We may have replaced our religious fervor with uncomplicated nostalgia, gazing at the familiar manger.

Don’t settle for cozy when God’s offering emancipation.

Where is God calling you this season?  “To the manger” is not the answer, unless you are an especially metaphorical person.

Where is God calling you?  Always, again and again, to the places and people who are hungry, powerless, poor.  The overlooked and unimpressive nobodies, by the world’s standards.

Don’t wait to meet them.  Don’t wait for things to settle down.  Don’t wait for that sweet manger-baby to turn into a nice young man.  Emmanuel, God-with-us, is here for nothing less than a revolution – and he thinks it’s worth dying for.

What we do here is meant to carry over out there.  It may not look the same in my life as in yours.  For some of us it may look like volunteering with a sexual assault support group.  For some of us it may mean becoming reporters and reforming ethical journalism.  For others it may look like a “die-in” or a march on Washington or crossing over the color lines at UVA to meet someone on their own turf and terms.  For others, it may begin with paying attention to our own language and the ways we abuse our own power and injure others without meaning to or realizing we’re doing it.

There are a million ways to choose to see and support our neighbors as fully human brothers and sisters.  There are a million ways to meet God in the process.

The story we tell and re-tell – the one we long to hear and live out in its fullness – is a story about God-with-us, Emmanuel.  The long-expected Jesus who came into a real body in real time and a real place – who still comes, and who will not stop coming, no matter what.

Come and be with us!  Come to our aid, be who you promised to be, God-with-us.

Thanks be to God!

 

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photo credit: “Black Lives Matter,” © 2014, Gerry Lauzon , CC BY 2.0

 

 


When did we see you raped?

uva rotunda at dusk

A sermon on Matthew 25: 31-46, preached 11/23/14 at the Wesley Foundation at UVA. 

The Fluvanna prison we visited last week is about a half an hour away, on a rural two-lane road.  When you pull into the parking lot you see a series of low, one-story buildings arranged in a campus and surrounded by tall fencing.  The buildings are in good condition but have that generic unimaginative school look to them.  When you go in, there’s a small lobby with a guard’s desk and a metal detector to walk through, and an X-ray scanning machine like they have in airports.  Everyone and everything has to go through those devices.  After that we step into a space between two locked doors, 5 at a time.  One door locks behind us and then the other door opens to let us out into an outdoor passageway, locked on the other end and surrounded by that tall fencing.  The groups of 5 keep going into the Sally port and then into the outdoor cage until we are all standing outside.  From there, it’s about a 10 minute walk through another building, back outside into “the yard” between the cell block buildings, and then into the final building at the far end of the prison campus.  We walk all the way to the far end of that building and we set up for worship in the gym.

After “count,” when every prisoner is in her cell and counted to be sure all are accounted for, the guards’ shift change happens, then the women are brought for worship, one cellblock at a time.

It’s virtually impossible to get movie and TV images out of your head before you go in for the first time.  If there are women in the yard, it’s easy for your mind to think, in language you might not ever utter in real life, “I hope she doesn’t shiv me.”  When the women start coming in for worship, some of them look tough or scary but many, many of them look like neighbors, grandmothers, or as young as first year UVA students.  We have a lot of time on our hands as they file in and we wait for worship to begin and mostly we just watch them come in and take their seats.  Even before worship begins, just watching them, it’s already a little hard to keep the movie images in our heads.

Last year, by the time we walked the length of the campus and entered that last building – before we even encountered any of the women – one student said, “My whole idea of what prison is like is already changed.”

This is what happens.

This is what happens when we go where Jesus calls, expecting to be a little nervous and unsure of ourselves, but also expecting to encounter sisters (or brothers) in Christ.  This is what happens when we don’t take the word of Law & Order or Oz or Prison Break but go and see for ourselves.  This is what happens when we stop saying, “I don’t know those people.  Those aren’t my people.  I’m just a student.  That issue is too big for me to do anything about.”

 

I really don’t know what happens when we die.  I have hopes and mostly uninformed ideas about what it might be like, but who knows?  Even when I read something like this passage from Matthew, where Jesus is describing the judgment that will occur when he returns, I don’t quite know what to make of it.  But it doesn’t seem as hard to figure out what he’s saying in the rest of the passage.

He’s talking with his disciples and this comes immediately after the Parable of the Talents, which we read last week in prison.  In that parable, Jesus describes two slaves who take unexpected gifts and make use of them, versus another slave who is so racked by fear that he hides his gift underground.  At the end of that parable, Jesus says that fearful slave is thrown out into the darkness where there’s weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Then he tells another story about action and inaction, faithful versus fearful living.  It’s this sheep and goats story and it comes immediately after the parable.  To those sheep he separates out and puts at his right hand, Jesus/the king says Come and receive.  Come and inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began.  I was hungry and you gave me food to eat.  I was thirsty and you gave me a drink.  I was a stranger and you welcomed me.  I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear.  I was sick and you took care of me.  I was in prison and you visited me (Mt. 25: 34-36).

Those right hand sheep have no idea what he’s talking about.  When did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison?  When did we see you and offer you help like that?  (vv. 37-9)

Jesus/the king says, When you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me (v. 40).

And the opposite happens with the goats on his left.  He tells them to get away from him and go suffer in fire and eternal punishment because when he – and his brothers and sisters, the least of these – were hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, they did nothing.  They did nothing for the least among them.  They did nothing for those who were vulnerable and powerless.  And when they turned their backs or walked the other way or were too busy to help, then they turned their backs and walked the other way and were too busy to help Jesus himself.

When did we see you?  Both groups of people – the right and the left, the sheep and the goats – are surprised to hear they’ve seen Jesus before that.  No one is smug and self-righteous – Told ya that was Jesus who was sick that time!  No.  Everyone – the ones who saw and tended to their brothers and sisters and those who didn’t – is surprised to hear their actions described this way by Jesus.

It’s hard to tell where and when Jesus will show up and who he’ll look like when he does.  It’s never up to us to decide who needs or deserves help.  It’s up to us to assume they are all Jesus.

In a week and a semester like the one we’re experiencing here at UVA, we need this message.  Most of us are outraged by the Rolling Stone article and there are petitions and demonstrations and SlutWalks and demands for policy change and justice.  Statistically speaking, most of us are not implicated in the specifics of the article or in the Greek party culture or in perpetrating or experiencing sexual violence.  Statistically speaking, some of us are.

Theologically speaking, we all are.

I know it’s hard to see friends at other schools pronounce on social media, “I’m so glad I never went to UVA.  At least I feel safe at my school.”  It’s hard to hear this about a school you love when you yourself have felt safe and loved here, when the atrocious violence described in the article hasn’t touched your life directly.

But it’s also hard, knowing what we know now, to ignore it.  It’s hard not to look for Jesus in the messy midst of this.

How is “Jackie” our sister?  How are those fraternity brothers our brothers?  When we find ourselves in a sheep and goats separation scene, will we be surprised at how we saw and tended to Jesus?  Or will we be surprised and ashamed at how we looked right past him and left him hungry, thirsty…raped?

Once you have visited prison, it’s hard to watch prison movies the same way.  Once you know Jesus was gang raped across Grounds and might be sitting in class with you, the choice to be involved in this is still yours, but the decision is much clearer.

We cannot say, “I don’t know those people.  Those aren’t my people.  I’m just a student.  That issue is too big for me to do anything about.”  We also cannot merely say, “If I ever saw an assault happening or found someone who’d been hurt and left alone I would help her.”  We have to start saying and doing more than that.  We have to start looking into the faces we see every day and insist on seeing Jesus there.  We have to notice the woman who seems teary in class and doesn’t talk to anyone.  We have to speak up when the guys in the dorm are telling “bitch” jokes.  We need to believe someone who comes to us, scared and shaken saying, “Something happened.  Something bad…”

Wesley’s recent rape culture conversations were a good start but where will we go next?  How will we be part of transforming the current culture?

When did we see you, Jesus?  Where are you, Jesus?  How can I help you right now, Jesus?

Thanks be to God!

*

photo credit:  ”Rotunda-dusk”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons  (UVA Rotunda at Dusk, taken by Todd Vance March 25, 2007)


Full-On Fire Hydrant of Grace

fire hydrant spraying on city block in philadelphia

A sermon on Matthew 25: 14-30, preached 11/16/14 at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women.

I’m not sure we’re meant to know all the answers when it comes to Jesus’ parables.  I am sure I don’t have the key to unlocking all the wisdom of this one.  But I know that when Jesus starts talking in parables, he wants his disciples to pay attention.  He’s saying, Listen up, because this is how God operates and it’s not what you expect.  It’s never what you expect.

Parables are funky, surprising little stories he tells and they almost always start, like this one does, with “The kingdom of heaven is like…”  The kingdom of heaven is like the man who sold everything he had to purchase the one pearl…The kingdom of heaven is like the woman who swept the entire house until she found the coin she’d lost…The kingdom of heaven is like 10 bridesmaids who fell asleep waiting for the bridegroom to show up… (Mt 13: 45-46, Lk 15: 8-10, Mt 25: 1-13) 

…The kingdom of heaven is like… a man who is heading out on a journey and he calls in his three slaves and gives them astronomical amounts of money.  To the first one he gives 5 coins, to the second he gives 2, and to the third he gives 1. 

It’s helpful to know that all together those coins were worth 120 years of daily wages.  120 years!  Let that amount sink in for a minute.  120 years worth of daily wages, handed over without instruction, to slaves who probably didn’t even earn a year’s worth of normal wages in a year.

Then the man goes away.  Right away, the 5-coin slave and the 2-coin slave start investing their money.  Using money to make money, as they say.  Maybe they lend some of it out and charge interest.  Maybe they buy things that increase in value and then sell them for a profit.  Whatever they do, both of them double the amount the man entrusts to them.  And that third slave digs a hole in the ground, puts his one coin in, and leaves it there until the man returns.

I’m just going to say right here that the only one who did the sensible thing is that third man.  No one in Roman or Jewish culture at that time would have given this kind of extravagant fortune to slaves to manage.  And we’ve already been told that the man gave them amounts in accordance with their abilities, though it’s unclear what abilities, exactly, those are.  Anyway, it makes complete sense that a slave who would probably never see this amount of money in the course of his entire life, would be scared of having it stolen or of losing it.  How would he know anything about investing?  Especially since he’s considered to have the least ability of the three?  

The man is gone a long time.  When he comes back, he comes looking for his slaves and asking about the money he left with them.  The first two show him how they’ve doubled his money and he’s very pleased.  To each of them he says, “Well done!  You’ve been faithful over a little.  I’m going to put you in charge of much more.”

A little??!?  Those two slaves were given over 100 years worth of wages between them.  That’s a little??!?

Anyway, then he invites them both, “Come celebrate with me.”

Then he comes to the third slave who hands back the one coin he was given and says to the man, “Master, I knew you were a hard man.  You harvest where you didn’t plant.  You gather up crops where you weren’t the one to plant seeds.  So, I was afraid.  And I hid my valuable coin in the ground.  Here it is.  Have what’s yours.”

The man is furious.  He says, “If you knew I would harvest crops I didn’t plant, then you should have turned my money over to bankers so when I came back you could have given me the coin plus interest.  You’re an evil and lazy servant!”

Then he gives the one coin to the slave who already has 10 coins and he says, “Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need.  But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them.  Throw this worthless slave out into the darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

I have to say, he does kind of sound like a hard man, doesn’t he?  Even though what he says, makes sense – if the slave really knew that’s how the man would act, he should have at least put the coin in a bank.  That behavior would have matched what the slave says he believes about the man.  But still, throwing this slave out where he no longer has a home or work or anyone to care for him?  Calling him evil and lazy?

It’s hard to hear, isn’t it?

It’s hard to hear that those who have a lot will get more and those who don’t have much will have it taken away.  It’s hard to hear the man yell at this slave.  I mean, he’s already a slave and he’s the one in the bunch who has the least ability and now the very little he has is being given to the 10-coin slave and he’s being thrown out into the street.  Maybe that seems like a good deal – the street part – but unfortunately, it doesn’t mean he’s free now.  He’s just a slave without a home or food or work.  He has no means at all and the man who still owns him has disowned him.

It’s hard to hear.

And the kingdom of heaven is somehow like this story?  Really?  Jesus is the one telling this story?

Really.

The kingdom of heaven – the way God sees the world and all of creation, the way God intends things to be…on earth as in heaven – the kingdom of heaven is like this.  How?

Listen to the story again.  The kingdom of heaven is like…

…Like a rich man who can give away 120 years worth of daily wages and consider that “a little” money.  And he gives it away to the people considered slaves.  Not to investment bankers but to people who have nothing and have never seen this kind of wealth.  And he gives it to them with no instructions and leaves without saying when he’ll be back.  He’s gone a long time.  While he’s gone, two of the men he’s given money to use what’s been given.  They go out and double the amount.  They seem to have fun doing it.  When the rich man returns they’re proud to show him how much they have now.  And the rich man is proud and happy.  He praises their accomplishments and invites them to celebrate – come to party and let’s feast.

But that third man, with the one coin, is afraid from the start.  He assumes the worst will happen.  He assumes the worst about the wealthy man – even though he’s just handed him 15 years worth of daily wages.  That extravagance doesn’t compute with the third man.  He doesn’t know how to live in that kind of world, where owner trusts slave and deals generously with him.  So that one-coin man chooses fear over a leap of faith.  That one-coin man chooses safety and sameness over the hard-to-believe generosity and trust of a new path.  He chooses to hide his gift in the ground rather than making use of it.  And everything that happens from there, happens because he lives from a place of fear.  Even when he hands back over that one coin when the rich man returns, he doesn’t apologize.  He doesn’t say “I’m sorry I couldn’t do more but I was so afraid.  I couldn’t see straight.  I didn’t know how to do any better than this.”  No, he turns all that fear out in anger and accusation toward the rich man.  Remember, the last time he saw the rich man was when he gave him this amazing, crazy, over-the-top amount of money.  This is the very next conversation or interaction they have.  And it’s like he spits on the man and his gift, blurting out his fearful hateful words and throwing a dirty dug-up coin at him.

I believe in the God of second-chances.  And I have to believe that, even if the one-coin slave had done just as we’ve read and had only 1 coin to show for his time, if he had said to the rich man, “I’m sorry.  I messed up.  I didn’t know a way out of my fear.  Please show me how to change and do it better next time…”  If he’d said anything like that, I believe the parable might have ended differently.  Without the darkness and weeping and teeth-gnashing.

I believe this because I believe in the God who loves each one of us enough to be born into a human life and live it amongst us and die painfully for us.  I believe in the God who is dying on the cross and uses one of his last breaths to say, “Forgive them.  They don’t know what they’re doing.”

That’s the kind of God who entrusts each of us with unbelievable gifts, way beyond what any of us deserves or could get on our own.  The grace of God flows into our lives with extravagant abundance – not a trickle of grace but a full-on, living water, fire hydrant of grace!  And God lets us choose what to do about that – every day.  And when we choose well and try to live out of love rather than fear, God says, “Well done.  Come celebrate with me.”

It’s never too late.  It’s never too late to dig up the coin you’ve hidden, to get honest about fear, and to trust love.  It’s never too late to hear those words, “Well done.  Come celebrate with me.”

Thanks be to God!

*

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


How to Host a Guest Preacher

sunset with steeple denver

You know when someone invites you for dinner and, from the moment you arrive, you feel thoroughly welcomed and properly hosted?  I don’t mean stiff-but-proper Martha Stewart style hosting.  I mean the kind of hosting that seems both effortless and personal, as if they’ve been waiting all along for you to show up.

Preaching at someone else’s church should be more like this…

[Click here for the rest of the story over at the Ministry Matters website.]