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?


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.


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.



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.


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?

Gone Fishin’ (and great news)

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

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


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

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

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

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


And now for the news…

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

Holy Scarcity, Batman


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perfection is always illusion.  Mastery is misguided.

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

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


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