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.

*

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!

 

*

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.]


What Competes with the Gospel?

St Catherine church at St Malo Colorado

A homily on John 20: 1-18, preached on November 8, 2014 at the Charlottesville District Conference.

It’s a little strange for me to be preaching on this passage indoors, without my hiking boots.  For Easter sunrise, we Wesley Foundation folks are most often found on top of Humpback Rocks, huddled together in the early light – and sometimes the snow, misty rain, or fog.  It’s almost always cold.  Sometimes the guitarists have to whip off their gloves at the very last minute before playing a hymn and then stuff their numb hands back in again as soon as the last chord rings out.  Depending upon when Easter falls and where we are in relation to the spring time change, we have left town in our caravan of cars as early as 3am.

Maybe there are preachers who find worshipping outside to be distracting.  Like my high school teachers who almost never let us hold class on the spring grass because they were afraid they’d never get our attention again, maybe there are preachers who are irritated by the competition with God’s boisterous creation.  It can be hard to project on top of a mountain, with no walls to corral the sound.  At Easter sunrise worship, everyone’s looking out past me, to the brightening sky to the east, behind my back.  When I look out at them while preaching, I can sometimes see the rosy glow reflecting on their faces.

But here’s the thing:  if we’re worried about what competes with the gospel, I think we might be worried about the wrong thing.  If what I’m trying to share on Easter morning in the great glorious rest of creation singing God’s praise – if what I’m sharing at that moment can’t sing along, can’t chime in, or doesn’t hold up to the show unfurling behind me – well then maybe I’m not preaching the gospel after all.

We don’t have a better story of renewal than the resurrection at the heart of all our stories.  There’s no shining that one up to something more or better or relevant or nimble or attractive to young people or authentic or actionable or radical or effective…

You know where I’m going with this one?

That Sunday morning Mary didn’t know what she’d find.  She wasn’t looking for renewal or the next chapter in her story.  She was heartbroken, convinced that the life-changing story she’d been living with Jesus was cut short on Friday.  End of story.  In the past.  Done.

So she stands at the gaping maw of that tomb, weeping and wondering, newly wounded with this affront – someone has taken all that was left of Jesus.  Standing at the edge of death, she hears her name.

“Mary.”

A moment ago she thought the story was over.  She thought death had won.  Now she hears her name and opens her eyes.  She immediately wants to cling to Jesus, hold on for dear life.  But, as Jan Richardson writes,  “Where holding onto him might seem holy, Christ sees—and enables Mary Magdalene to see—that her path and her life lie elsewhere. Beyond this moment, beyond this garden, beyond what she has known. In going, Mary affirms that she has seen what she needed to see: not just Christ in the glory of his resurrection, but also herself, graced with the glory that he sees in her…on this day, the Magdalene we meet in the garden is simply one who has learned to see, and who goes forth to proclaim what she has seen” (“Easter Sunday: Seen” by Jan Richardson).

Right now, today, in the midst or our incessant worrying about attendance and membership and decline and money, God is speaking our names.  Are we listening?  Can we see?  Are we ready for the path that lies elsewhere, in the direction Christ leads, out away from what we’ve come to expect and all that we want to cling to desperately?

Who knows?  Maybe that call comes even through the things we’ve labeled “competition,” like soccer games on Sundays.  Maybe that call can redirect our gaze from the maw of death to the rest of the story unfurling into the now and the future.  Maybe we’ll see our selves and our church for the first time, if we listen.

Are we listening?

We’ve been entrusted with the best news there is – Love is strong as death, passion as fierce as the grave…Many waters cannot quench love… (Song of Solomon 8: 6-7).  The end of the story is never our own failure and violence but is, always, in God’s hands.  We don’t have a better story to tell because this one is enough. More than enough.  This one is Life.

It starts, strange and wondrous, by getting up in the middle of the night to look death in the face.  In a garden at a tomb, on a mountain in the cold, tomorrow in your own home.  And then, it comes on the wind… the whisper of our names, revealing the story we long to live, the one that’s a long way from over.

Thanks be to God!

 


Why I Watch The Walking Dead

 

I’m a squeamish watcher.  If it’s a cop show and someone gets shot in the leg, my hand instinctively grasps my own leg.  If it’s a horror movie, I involuntarily repeat-shout “Don’t open the closet!  Don’t open the closet!”  One time, watching the first X-Files movie, I started to wonder who in the theater was talking so loudly before I realized that coming from my own mouth was this high-volume mantra, “Oh, no!  Oh, no! Oh, no!”

So, I’m not a likely viewer of The Walking Dead.  [Spoilers ahead.]  I don’t care about zombies, just like I didn’t really care about vampires when I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Angel (in my book, still the only worthwhile ones among the many vampire-themed shows and movies).  I’m not especially interested in knowing the “rules” of how zombies are made and how they can get you and what attracts or repels them.  For me, zombies are just a vehicle for delivering story in a heightened and focused way.

Here’s the kind of thing I mean:  In season two of The Walking Dead I realized with a start that until that very moment I’d never wondered or even considered what anyone (besides Rick, the obvious sheriff) did before the world started to unravel.  During a scene on the sanctuary-for-a-while of the farm, Andrea and Dale are talking. Dale says to her “But you were a lawyer.”  Andrea, practically and matter-of-factly says “I’m nothing now.”  In that moment – a season and a half into watching the show – I realized I’d never once considered anyone’s previous jobs.  When’s the last time you spent time with anyone for more than ten minutes without obtaining this information?  What do you do? is almost always one of the first things we learn about someone.  I’d spent a season and a half with these characters and never even wondered about past lives because, in the world of this story, all that’s important now is what kind of person you are and how you can be part of the group in order to survive.

I routinely look away when zombies are eating or when something particularly gruesome is happening – I don’t need to see (or hear) that in order to get the point.  But I can’t look away from the show as story because it’s telling some of the most soulful, character-driven stories out there…  Who are you when everything and every one you knew and loved is gone?  How is community created and sustained?  What do we retain and preserve from our previous lives and culture when the rules have completely changed?  Where’s the line between caution and hospitality?  In what ways does violence change who we are and in what ways does it show us who we are?  What does leadership look like?  How do we make ethical choices when all the parameters for ethical behavior have changed?  How to we (re)define good or bad?

One of the most beautiful, pregnant-with-meaning, but spare scenes in the series to date was during last week’s episode.  Rick and Tyreese are standing outside a white wooden church in daylight.  They’re both holding shovels, standing in front of holes they’re making, with bloodied sheets covering a pile of dead bodies next to them.  The bodies are those of several people they’ve killed the night before in a kill-or-be-killed battle.  The dead had previously held them captive and were intending to butcher and eat them – that was their answer to survival in this bleak time.  But Rick and company – though they knew they had to kill the cannibals in order to live and so that others might live – do not leave them uncovered and unburied where they’ve fallen.  Because of Rick and company’s answer to violence, ethics, and survival, they are taking the time to bury the people who acted like animals and who had treated them that way.

The scene would have been enough just for that.  Enough just to see Rick and Tyreese completing the sweaty, hard work of burying people behind the church, working side by side to keep the smallest semblance of order and dignity and ethical behavior in a crazed and panicked world.

It would have been enough.  But they say just three lines of dialogue.

Rick says to Tyreese, “I never asked how it was for you, making your way to Terminus [the place the cannibals lured them].”  Tyreese, who had to kill a child along the way, says, “It killed me.”

They keep shoveling in silence.  We are watching them in a wide shot, edge of the church in one corner, pile of bodies covered with a bloody sheet next to the holes, green woods behind them, birds singing incongruously.  Not breaking the rhythm of shoveling, Rick says, “No, it didn’t.”

No, it didn’t.  Those who are dead feed on others.  Those who are dead don’t bother to properly bury the dead.

This is why I watch, sometimes holding my hand up to block the parts I can’t watch.  I watch because when everything else civilizing has been ripped away, what you do with the dead and who you become in the places you thought were dead tells the story I need to hear.

[Bonus:  For those who weren’t geeky enough to pause this week’s episode and copy down the Bible passages listed on the wooden board in the church, I’ve got you covered.  They deal with life in and after death, God bringing life to lifeless places, suffering, and resurrection.  I imagine the priest putting those up on the board after everything started going down, long after there were parishioners left to read them, in an effort to make sense of the terrifying new reality in terms of God’s promises. Here they are:  Romans 6:4, Ezekiel 37:7, Matthew 27: 52, Revelation 9:6, and Luke 24:5.]

*

photo credit: “Zombie Apocalypse” © 2005, Stephen Dann, CC BY-SA 2.0


Do Not Disturb

door hanger sign in hotel

Come to think of it, “working” is more prominent than “do not disturb.” Pretty disturbing.

 

We went to the beach in October to rest, just the two of us.  We ate an amazing meal, got our feet wet in the ocean, walked in the sand, watched and listened to the surf from our beachside balcony, took naps, watched baseball, and slept all night with the sliding glass door open to the cool air and the constant rumble of waves.  Aaaaah.

So imagine my surprise to find no resting option on the “do not disturb” door-hanger at our hotel.  Both sides said “do not disturb” but they also both offered the explanation  “working,” accompanied by a picture of a very frazzled, business-suited man standing on his head, tie like a floppy noose, in front of a stack of papers and his cell phone.  The only way to ask folks not to disturb you at this hotel was to claim the excuse of working.  Not sleeping or resting or enjoying passionate sex.  Nope.  Working was the only acceptable way to claim undisturbed time and space.

This makes me so sad because I’m sure it wasn’t a printing error.  Though I flipped the door-hanger back and forth several times to be sure I wasn’t missing something, I’m sure they didn’t mean to put a different message on the opposite side.  Why bother asserting my right to some down time when I’m just in the room reading email on my phone?  Why bother claiming to sleep when that seems so much more disturb-worthy than working?

This is what it’s come to, folks.  Choosing work all the time means eventually it’s the only choice left.

This sad revelation made our pre-vacation decision to stay off email even more meaningful.  For me, it was a total offline weekend, no email and no social media.  Woody stayed away from email but checked into Facebook here and there.  That’s what worked for us on this trip.  The point is, we thought about it and talked about it in advance.  We set up our perimeter so we could enjoy the pace and place and each other.

If you don’t set and practice your own boundaries, no one else will do it.  Even in a beachfront hotel room on a day off.


Period.

IMG_0953

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

wesley.hillel light writing at hinton_c.a.stiles.2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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


Who Wants to Pray?

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

photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Dogged and Wooed by God

lake george from the little dock_w.sherman.8.14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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