Jesus Promises They Will Hate Us

 

Walking into Oceti Sakowin Camp with the sun rising, Standing Rock Sioux Nation, 11/3/16

A sermon preached on Luke 21: 5-19 and Isaiah 65: 17-25, on November 13, 2016, at the Wesley Foundation at UVA.

As I think you all know by now, last week I traveled to North Dakota, to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. I had been watching the news for more than a month, learning about the multiple Native tribes who had come together to camp out on the prairie to protect the water of the Missouri River, where a company from Texas has been making its way across four states with an oil pipeline (called the Dakota Access Pipeline), including plans to tunnel under the Missouri River, just north of the Standing Rock reservation. I had read about the original route for the pipeline, which was supposed to cross under the river north of Bismarck (about an hour’s drive north of the reservation). But the people in Bismarck thought that sounded dangerous and risky to them and their water, so the plans changed to avoid that town – but not to avoid the risks to water contamination all together. I had read about the peaceful prayerful protests and about indigenous people from all over the globe traveling to North Dakota to support and stand with the Standing Rock Sioux. Since last April, thousands of people have been camping and protesting and trying to protect the water. In the last month, a highly militarized police and security force began shooting rubber bullets at peaceful protestors and at even at their horses. A private militia hired by the oil company set dogs on protestors, some of whom were mauled. Authorities in riot gear have used pepper spray and sound cannons on peaceful, prayerful protestors exercising their first amendment rights – protestors and water protectors who are bathed every day in prayer and who pray daily for those officers. Authorities have locked up journalists who have tried to cover the events and have thrown over 400 people in jail on contrived charges in attempts to intimidate them into stopping and disbanding. In jail they have needlessly strip-searched people in order to humiliate and further intimidate them. They have shipped some of those in custody to jails several hours away, to make it harder to get back home again or find rides when they are eventually released, sometimes on bail as high as $1500 per person. When their court dates come around, they will be required to travel hours back to those other towns to appear. Police are using helicopters and drones constantly circling overhead and they have road blocked the main highway between the reservation and Bismarck. They constantly stand guard at the roadblock with additional forces keeping watch from the nearby ridges.[i]

As things came to a head and became violent in this past month, the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and other Native groups I’ve been following began asking explicitly for more people to join them. We need numbers, they said. We need them to see we won’t go away and we aren’t alone. Please help us. I kept reading and following and praying. I didn’t really think about going. It’s the middle of the semester. It’s a really long way away. Wouldn’t it be better to send them money for winter supplies? It didn’t seem reasonable or feasible. Then Rev. John Floberg, a feisty crusty old Episcopal priest who’s been serving in the communities on and near the Reservation for 25 years, sent out a call to clergy. It’s time to come, he said. I know it’s inconvenient and this is short notice but this is it. They need us. We can provide a protective witness for their struggle. He was hoping to get 100 clergy and over 500 of us answered the call. But I told colleagues and friends who were going “no” at least twice before I changed my mind. I told God “no” more than that. But it wouldn’t leave me alone. All the same “reasonable” things popped up – money, time, effort, inconvenience, family commitments… As I pondered and said “no” and delayed, the airline tickets kept going up. Wouldn’t it be better to send them $1000 for food and warm clothes and winter camping supplies? What am I going to do? But the Holy Spirit would not leave me alone and the people of Standing Rock kept saying, We need help. We need you to come. At some point in that epic week of wrestling with God about this decision, I realized that, unlike so many many things in the world, this is something I am qualified to do. I am a person who prays; I am a visible sign of the church; I have a body and I’m able and well enough to travel. I don’t know what to replace pipelines with or how to implement renewable energy plans. I don’t know how to map an alternate route for this pipeline. I couldn’t convene a meeting with President Obama or film a documentary about this struggle. But I was absolutely qualified to put on my clergy garb and say “yes” to my far away neighbors who needed help I could provide, and spend some money and travel in the middle of the night and stand in the middle of the prairie with them and pray.

I am not telling you this so you will praise me or come tell me after worship how amazing it is that I went. I do appreciate the support and prayers from Wesley folks and others in Charlottesville as I answered that call, but that’s not why I’m telling you this now. I’m trying to let you in on, as best I can, how inelegant and clumsy and wrestling-match-like my discernment was – and how blessed I was by choosing to go where and when I was asked, to offer what was asked of me, and not to rationalize or monetize my way out of it.

Most importantly, I am telling you this in the hopes that when you hear someone’s request or see someone in need of help and solidarity, you won’t take as long as I did to wrestle it out.

The pipeline may or may not be stopped or re-routed and you may or may not think pipelines are a bad idea – but there are not “two sides” to this situation. For Christians, the only side is to stand up for and to stand with those who are being beaten and jailed and harassed and intimated without any just cause.

This sermon is not about the election, exactly. It’s about how Christians are called to act no matter who is in power, no matter how prosperous and peaceable the times, no matter how war-torn and uncertain.

Luke records Jesus saying, as the disciples admired the stonework and the architecture of the temple, “As for the things you are admiring, the time is coming when not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.” When Luke writes down those prophetic words of Jesus the temple’s destruction is already 15 years ago for Luke’s own audience.

Jesus says, This is impressive and beautiful but it will be dust. It will not stand the test of time. It will be destroyed. He stands in the shadow of the empire and the religious institutions of his day telling his band of followers that everything will crumble and war will break out and they will be arrested and persecuted – but that, even in the midst of all that, God is still counting the hairs on each of their heads. By enduring, holding tight to God alone, they will “gain their lives” (v. 18).

Jesus does not promise wealth or peace between the nations of the world. He does not promise that the institutions and the things they love about the current regime will be spared. He promises natural and human-made destruction, famine, health epidemics, kingdoms collapsing, prison, religious persecution, and betrayal by loved ones. Jesus promises that people will hate us because of him.

 

Since Election Day incidents of hate speech, graffiti, and intimidation, targeted at Muslims, Blacks, immigrants, and women, have increased. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center and as of 5pm on Friday night, there were over 200 such incidents since Election Day. People have been approached in the street, found graffiti on their apartment doors, been directly put down and threatened in school cafeterias, and more, told to “get out of our country” and “If you aren’t born here, pack your bags.” A Black woman was standing at a traffic light in Louisiana when a truckload of white men pulled up and shouted at her, “F*** your black life!” They laughed and chanted “Trump!” as they drove off. According to Inside Higher Ed, at New York University’s engineering college someone defaced the door to a designated Muslim prayer room, by scrawling “Trump!” across it. Even before Tuesday’s results, we here at UVA have experienced a spate of hateful speech and harassment directed towards Jews, the LGBTQ community, Black students, Muslims, and women. We have seen enough of this here that a collection of student organizations has come together under the name Eliminate the Hate and they are sponsoring a week of activities and events on Grounds this week, to speak out and up against this rising tide.

In the middle of another tumultuous and destructive time, Isaiah wrote (Isaiah 65: 17-19):

For I am about to create new heavens

and a new earth;

the former things shall not be remembered

or come to mind.

 

But be glad and rejoice forever

in what I am creating;

for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,

and its people as a delight.

 

I will rejoice in Jerusalem,

and delight in my people;

no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,

or the cry of distress.

 

Isaiah wrote these words to the war-torn remnant of Israel who were finally returning home after 60 years as captives in Babylon. They are words of hope but they must have been a teary and anguished hope to the people’s ears as their eyes took in their destroyed homes and vineyards and towns. Nothing was intact or as they had left it. They had to start over again. “The former things shall not be remembered or come to mind”…”be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating”…It must have seemed impossible to those returning exiles that they would forget what had happened, that standing in the rubble of their former lives they could ever forget the world-shifting loss or that moment or any of those long 60 years. It must have seemed insane to stand in that situation in that moment and be told to “rejoice” in what God was creating. Where, God? Exactly where in this mess is your beautiful handiwork?

But God promises that the houses and vineyards they build will not be in vain. They will make it through to live in them and to harvest the fruit. Their hard and faithful work of rebuilding will not be in vain. God promises to answer before the people even ask, before they call out again.

Spoken into a broken time of uncertainty and great fear, Isaiah proclaims that even though you may not be able to see it yet, God is still working. What looks ugly and destroyed is the fertile soil for what grows next. Hang on and hope, because here’s what you will see soon.

Sunrise over Oceti Sakowin Camp, Standing Rock Sioux Nation, 11/3/16

One of the things I noticed at Standing Rock was how the Native people referred to others as “relatives.” There is a loudspeaker in the camp and as the morning was getting started around the sacred fire, someone came on and said, “Good morning, relatives!” When indigenous people from around the world arrive at Standing Rock, they say, “Our relatives from New Zealand and Hawaii are here.” This deep recognition of their connection as indigenous people, across country and landscape, is the basis for this huge gathering of tribes (nothing like this has been seen in more than a hundred years).

Since I returned home, I’ve been following Lyla June Johnston, a Navajo woman who spoke to the clergy group and joined us in our prayer and protective action. She impressed and humbled me when she described the Walk of Forgiveness she was organizing for the Sunday after we were there. She talked about how important it was for all of us to join them in their stand and encouraged those of us who are white, descendants of colonizing settlers, to be proud of our own family lineage but also to admit to what our people have done. She said, “Your job is to acknowledge what happened and Native peoples’ job is to forgive.”

This week after the election she posted this prayer to Facebook:  “Creator may you bless my dear uncle Donald Trump. May you help him to heal. May you help him to feel Your Love. May you help to ease his fears and help him to sense Your True Blessing. Help him to forgive himself and others so he may be free. And most of all, just give whatever blessing you would have for Your son, and my uncle. May we continue to retain our nature in the spirit of Your unconditional and restorative love and forgiveness. May we continue to work for health and justice with love for the unhealthy and the unjust. #NotMyPresident #JustMyUncle #Ké” [K’é means kinship]

This is the result of seeing one another as relatives. This is what a Christian prayer ought to sound like. This prayer has meat on it and it’s more daring and courageous and faithful than the mere lip service we sometimes give to the theological understanding that we are “brothers” and “sisters” in Christ. This is the kind of prayer that seeks to create connection and solidarity with some people – and might also make others hate you. Just as Jesus promised.

I don’t think it is a surprise to many of us that we live in a divided country. But it seems this week that we were surprised by just how divided. Almost no one thought Trump would win the election. No one thought the vote would be half and half.

However you voted, half of our brothers and sisters, our relations, voted differently than you did. What I’ve heard most Americans saying this week is “They” didn’t know how many of us there were, or, “They” didn’t know how dangerous their vote was. I have not heard most Americans this week confessing that we have been just fine up until now not knowing or caring about those other relations in that other half. Those aren’t my neighbors.

Rev. John Floberg, who called us out to Standing Rock, reminded us on the night before our protective witness with the Native people, that the police officers we would see across the divide, that barricaded highway bridge, were not our enemies. He reminded us that on the cross Jesus did not rebuke, he forgave – with his dying breath. So, John Floberg said, “We greet the officers with prayer and love and compassion, too.”

This is hard.

Those stones are beautiful but they will be rubble one day. This will not stand.

My life is not in the Democratic Party or even my personal shero Hillary Clinton. My neighbor’s life is not in Trump or the Republican Party or Bernie or any candidates or parties. Our lives, patriotic and democracy-inspired as they may be, are not in these United States. Or in the dream of moving to Canada or making this country “great again.”

Our lives are in Jesus Christ.  They will hate us because of Jesus. Keep going. All this destruction and despair? Raw materials for the beautiful new creation of God.

This is not the time to keep your head down and wait for the uneasiness to pass. This is not the time to think I’m not a racist/ I love Muslims/ I don’t sexually assault women/ I welcome immigrants / I care for the disabled and then be done with it as if you have completed your task. This is not the time to think I’m happy with my vote and I’m nice to people and that’s enough.

The election may or may not have gone in the direction you hoped for – but there are not “two sides” to this situation of increased, targeted hate crimes and speech. For Christians, the only side is to stand up for and to stand with those who are being harassed and intimated simply because they are Black or Muslim or immigrants or people with disabilities or women or….

This is not the time to put your head down in prayer and hope it will pass. This is the time to lift your head up, take in the destruction you see, and stare straight in the face of hate while you proclaim and enact and witness to Love.

Love in these times means refusing to eliminate half of our country when you consider who your neighbors are. That means you don’t have “elite” and “uneducated” neighbors; you simply have neighbors with different life experiences than yours and if you don’t understand those, it’s time to learn and to meet some new people, and work on loving them. Love in these times means resisting and standing up to hate in its many insidious forms. Speak out, stand with, and offer to walk alongside those in this community who are targets of bigotry. Literally, offer to walk with students in unsafe situations around Grounds. Use the Just Report It system. Call for help. Keep watch when something seems off. Do not remain silent when people are degrading and demeaning and intimidating and targeting others in speech or action. State unequivocally that hate speech and “us” and “them” commentary is not OK with you. Attend the Eliminate the Hate teach-in to learn about your own blind spots and to walk across some of our community’s divides to meet your relations.

No matter how uncertain and fearful the times, no matter how unfamiliar the landscape, no matter how unknown and un-relatable our neighbors, our relatives – God is creating a new heaven and earth, right now. In the middle of this huge mess. Believe it.

The only temple that will not fall – not even in the face of death itself – is Love. Let’s work with God to build it.

Thanks be to God!

 

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Photos are my own.

 

Endnote:

[i] This is a compiled account from months of reading and following the news. A few good places to learn more and follow the ongoing stand are: https://www.facebook.com/Indigenousrisingmedia/

http://www.democracynow.org/topics/dakota_access

http://standwithstandingrock.net

http://ictmn.lughstudio.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/DAPL-Magazine-2016_PREVIEW_r1.pdf

http://westernjurisdictionumc.org/wjumc-bishops-send-letter-to-president-obama-in-support-of-standing-rock-sioux-nation/

http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-showdown-at-standing-rock-20161108-story.html

 

 

Prayer, pizza, and blazing signs of hope

post-election-prayer-and-pizza-at-wesley-at-uva-on-11-9-16

The table was set at Wesley last Wednesday night, and they came.

It’s been a long week, folks.  If you are preparing to preach or to listen to preaching this weekend, you have my heartfelt sympathy and blessings as you make your way to that moment and beyond.  In the midst of all this, it’s been a hope-filled week in campus ministry.  I hope you will head over to Ministry Matters today to read my latest reflection.

 

Belief’s back side

Ruined book cover_everhart_aug 2016

It was when I lived in the heart of Appalachia for three years between college and seminary, that I started to cringe whenever I heard sweet, well-meaning folks say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I knew what they meant, these generous volunteers from around the US who spent vacation weeks to help repair and build homes for low-income people. For some of them, it was a huge step to get to the place of uttering this phrase. It meant they could see how similar they were to the people they had come to help. When people said this, they meant it was hitting them fresh in the face that a paycheck or an illness or birth into a different family would have put them in the same position of poverty and need.

My cringe response developed because of what was not said. If – except for the bounty of God’s grace – you might be in the same situation as that person over there, does that mean God’s grace ran out for that person? If the only thing separating you from that person over there is the grace of God, does that mean God does not bestow grace upon him?

Ruth Everhart calls it the “back side” of our theology, these second-thought obvious questions and holes exposed by our first-thought confident statements of faith. It’s a helpful term, focusing on what’s behind/beside/beneath what we say. Everhart’s new memoir, Ruined, explores the experience she and her college housemates had of being sexually assaulted in their home, and how her life, love, and faith unfolded in the years that followed. As she and her housemates attempted to make sense of what had happened to them, the language and theology they used to do so betrayed the differences in their experience and theology.

One housemate, Cheryl, had not been raped. Everhart overhears Cheryl saying to another friend, “I just kept reciting the Twenty-third Psalm over and over, and I guess God heard me.” Everhart continues, “Didn’t she know that we’d all been saying that psalm while our heads were smashed into the nap of the carpet? I kept my distance from Cheryl after that. She’d had her own experience of the crime and her own reaction. Her belief that God had intentionally spared her obviously gave her comfort. Who knows? Perhaps in her shoes, I would have felt the same. But Cheryl seemed unaware of the back side of her belief about being spared. What did that mean for the rest of us, who had not been spared?” (Ruined, p. 79).

Everhart, who was raised in the Dutch Calvinist tradition and eventually became an ordained Presbyterian minister, frames her story with stark markers of “back side belief.” She begins the book with this sentence: “It happened on a Sunday night, even though I’d been a good girl and gone to church that morning” (p. 3). In the epilogue, she reflects on the moment, decades later, when one of her young daughters first learns about the assault on her mother. Her daughter finds an old news clipping Everhart saved: “’Rapist-robber? Oh, Mom’ – your face twisted up – ‘you mean you weren’t a virgin when you married Dad! Poor you!’ It was a shock to realize that your understanding of sexual violence was being filtered through the language of sexual purity” (p. 317). It was shocking to me, as a reader and a Christian, to consider her daughter’s reaction. How odd to have compassion (“Poor you!”) so misplaced (“you weren’t a virgin”). How strange and twisted a “Christian” belief whose back side is worry over purity/virginity rather than over a violent attack.

What we profess is important. But if we have not examined the back side of those beliefs, we don’t know what we are saying – or what we really believe.

There is so much to recommend Everhart’s book, beginning with her writing, that manages to be both incisive and humorous in exactly the right places. Everhart is not an untouchable hero in this story, making all the “right” choices about her life, but she is deeply relatable, even if your own experience of sex, violence, and faith have been different than hers. I admired the intentional way she attempts to overcome her fear of black men after the attack. Everhart is white, from an overwhelmingly white community and church, and had very few interactions with black people before the black attackers broke into her home. As she describes her post-attack encounters with black men, she is honest about her unflattering knee-jerk reactions while also being kind with her still-terrified younger self. Her later church shopping struck me as genuine and wise, when she trusts God’s “Spirit to do something important in this hour every week, even if I didn’t know exactly what that was” (p. 275).

This is an honest and important book – especially for the church, where we so often have trouble discussing sex and sexual violence and where the unexamined back side of our belief heaps harm upon violation, for those in the pews and for our neighbors.

If you have read a blurb about Ruth Everhart’s memoir and were pretty sure it wasn’t going to make your reading list, I hope you’ll do yourself a favor and read it anyway. Despite the title, this is not a story of ruin, but of profound and inviting redemption. If you’re brave enough to accompany Ruth as she so beautifully describes her life and faith, you realize the only thing ruined was the theology that claimed that word.

 

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Full Disclosure: I received a free advance reader copy of this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Photo credit: Ruined book cover. Used with the permission of Ruth Everhart.

This summer I went swimming

swimming in lake george_2016

Almost anything can be a spiritual practice, if you let it. It’s about the practice – the routine and prioritization of it, the days upon weeks turning into months of it – in the presence of an open spirit, willing to learn and be led. Molded, over time. Swimming is like this for me. I’ve written before about how swimming helps keep me focused on the present moment, and how flip turns are teaching me about energy, rest, and resilience.

Well, this summer I went swimming. A lot. A very few stormy days I swam inside at the gym, but most of the time I swam outside. I was a regular in the lone roped-off lap lane at our neighborhood pool, I practiced with a group in a lake in Richmond, and I competed in my first open water swim in another lake near Charlottesville. (And came in third in my age group. And got a medal. But who’s keeping track?) When we visited family at another lake in New York, I recruited my husband to kayak alongside me as I swam so boats wouldn’t run me over. In South Carolina, I swam in the bathwater warm ocean, but the best swims were in the outdoor lap-swimming-only pool that was cooled. (Yes, they “air conditioned” the pool and it was so scrumptious I don’t really care how non-environmental that may sound.)

To throw yourself into something you love is, simply, delicious. Giving yourself over to its rhythms and routines, watching yourself with curiosity to see where the love will unfold and take you. Allowing yourself to be unreasonable and devoted, depleted and good-tired. This is what I did this summer, when there were very few rules and obligations, the expansiveness of summertime and sabbatical overlapping. I absolutely organized my days around my swims.

And it was worth it.

Part of what sustained spiritual practice teaches you is how much you need it. I am not the same swimmer I was in May. I am not entirely the same person.

pre race cgl_july 9 2016

It may surprise you, but the open water swim was not the most daunting thing I did this summer. It was the open water practice swim I joined a couple weeks before that in Richmond. I had to drive over an hour away to a place I didn’t know, to meet up with people I didn’t know, to try out swimming in a body of water I’d never seen, while wearing my bathing suit in front of complete strangers. Buttons were pushed. I almost bailed. I woke up that day feeling nervous about it, uncertain about whether I could keep up, whether I’d be able to site the buoys, how thin and athletic all the other swimmers would likely be. I wasn’t sure I’d even like open water swimming, so wasn’t this kind of a waste of time and money?

I talked myself down. I recognized all those demons and agreed they could even be right. And I agreed to go to this one practice session anyway and just see. If I hated it, fine, no obligation to continue or do other open water swims after that. But I was not going to bail based on fear, anxiety, lack of confidence, and what ifs. (During the academic year, it would have been much easier to bail. The time and money concern trolls would have had a lot more sway if that evening’s jaunt to Richmond had been sandwiched in between meetings and a buzzing phone.)

I was glad I went. Not everyone there was athletic and skinny. I was not the slowest. I loved it when we swam straight out into the middle of the lake to make a loop around an instructor standing on a paddle board. I loved it even more when the complete stranger I got paired up with said to me after one lap, “You go first and don’t worry about me. I could barely keep up with you.”

Spiritual practice involves repetition and new territory, ritual and change.

I was never particularly worried that I might have drowned, but when I heard Lucy Kaplansky’s “Swimming Song” for the first time late this summer, I recognized my own bravery and playful pride, swimming my way up and down the waters of the east coast. Kaplansky sings, “This summer I went swimming. This summer I might have drowned, but I held my breath, and I kicked my feet, and I moved my arms around.” Sounds simple and it kind of is, but simple can also be hard.

Spiritual practice takes trust and bravery, allowing yourself to be held up by something you are participating with but that’s not you. This is also one of the “tricks” to open water swimming, especially when you get scared or unnerved by the vastness and the murky depths. The key is to remember, “The water wants to hold you up.”

1-mile medal_cgl_july 9 2016

Today the cicadas are singing summer towards the door. We are experiencing an unusually temperate and humidity-free start to the week and we got to open up the windows again yesterday. It won’t last long. By Friday it will be sweltering, but that won’t last long either. Fall is on the way.

I’ll get in a few more swims in the neighborhood pool before it closes for the season. And I have designs on a quarry, where a new friend swims as late into the fall as she can. I’ve started wondering about open water swims for next year. In the meantime, after a summer of peripatetic swimming, I will log a lot of miles in the gym, same place each day, but never the same “river”—or swimmer – twice.

 

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Photo credit: Photos ©2016 by Woody Sherman. Used with permission.

Adding the flip turn

Practicing open water swimming in the lake. No flip turns required.

Practicing open water swimming in the lake. No flip turns required.

Flip turns have a mystique about them. Walk up to any pool and watch folks swimming laps. Your eyes will immediately go to the swimmers who do flip turns at the walls. It doesn’t matter if they are faster than the other swimmers, they will look fiercer because of the flip turn. Conversely, if, instead of doing flip turns, you saw Katie Ledecky or Michael Phelps sticking their heads up at the walls, gulping air, turning awkwardly half out of the water, then plunging back in for the next lap, they would seem significantly less fierce.

On swim teams in junior high and high school I did a lot of flip turns. Even with the flip turns, I never looked particularly fierce but they were a regular part of my swimming. When I started swimming again a few years ago, I gave myself permission not to include flip turns. It seemed like a good deal: expend my limited energy on the strokes and the laps themselves and give myself a little extra breath and time at the walls. I made this decision intentionally and unapologetically. The goal was more swimming, not “perfect” swimming. During these past few years, I have reserved the occasional flip turn for special circumstances, like the time I felt strong and energized hitting lap number 100 and joyously flipped at the wall to celebrate it.

Lately, I’ve been adding the flip turn back into my freestyle laps. I’m not entirely sure why. I’m considering an open water swim this summer but flip turns are completely unnecessary in lakes, so that’s not it. This most excellent and inspiring ode to the flip turn encouraged me but didn’t push me over the edge. I think it’s just time. Like it was time to get back in the pool a few years ago. Back then, I gave myself permission to swim without flip turns. Now, I’ve given myself permission to flip again (and sometimes, not to flip – as with the earlier deal with myself, I’m not after perfection and I’m not requiring all or nothing).

One of the things I hope this summer’s sabbatical will show me is how to distinguish between the need for rest and the need for persistence. How do I know when I’m hitting a groove I should explore and stick with, versus knowing when to back off, versus knowing when to go harder even though I’m already losing steam? Maybe I’m seeing part of the answer in swimming.

When you hit the wall you have several choices: 1) call it a day, stop swimming, and hang on for dear life, 2) grab as much air as you can every single second your head is out of the water while you turn around inelegantly but practically, then push off and carry on as best you can, or 3) make the turn as smooth and seamless a part of your stroke as possible, flipping around and using the wall itself to propel you in the next direction. They are all valid choices. I’m thankful for my unapologetic miles logged choosing #2. And really curious to see where #3 sends me.

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Photo credit: Screen grab of video shot by P. Chambers, June 2016. Used with permission.

Campus Ministry Stocking Stuffers

There comes a time when you need to make a list and leave it out next to a plate of cookies… Here’s one I made, with a few suggestions for campus ministers (and others) who are looking for new books, shows, and resources for enlivening faith and community. Take a look over at the National Campus Ministry Association blog…and feel free to leave your browser open where someone jolly might see it and pick up a thing or two for your stocking.

WoodySherman2014_close up Xmas tree with bow and lights

Expectations Met

Blaha_1024px-Serpentine_wall_UVa_daffodils_c2010

What did your parents tell you to look for or look out for when you headed to college? What are you telling your own kids as they leave home? What we say – and don’t say – matters.

Do you know what your church says about campus ministry? What’s that – you’ve never heard anyone say anything about campus ministry? Unfortunately, you are not alone on that one. I’ve got a few thoughts about this, over at the blog for the National Campus Ministry Association.

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photo credit: “Daffodils and serpentine wall,” © 2010 by Karen Blaha, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Time for a big hit

The RevGalBlogPals group sends a weekly email with encouragement, highlights from blogs around the group, and a short article and a prayer for the week at hand.  I wrote this week’s article and prayer (below) on the theme of fall break — for which I am very ready!  I hope it reminds you to enjoy a break soon.

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When my dad was growing up on a tobacco farm in Southside Virginia, the family ritual was to take a mid-morning break right there in the fields. My great-grandfather would say, “I think it’s time for a bit hit,” and that was the cue to sit down for a few minutes for a snack, which was always the same: a Pepsi and a pack of Nabs. Simple and satisfying, enough to go on until lunch.

In campus ministry, the first big hit of the year is fall break. We start fast and furious in mid-August and steamroll our way to the third week of Advent, when exams end and my congregation leaves me until the season after Epiphany. It’s startling how much can fit into the first six or so weeks before fall break – and how tired I can be so early in the year, so far from Advent 3.

I have been tempted to use the weekend without my usual preaching gig to get ahead, and then to keep at my desk Monday and Tuesday while the university is a ghost town, to get more things done. Instead, I give myself full permission to be off these precious four days when students are off. My husband and I often take a short trip and indulge in ways we usually don’t, like last year’s ridiculously long naps in a hotel right on the beach. I make no apologies.

The thing about a big hit is you know when you need one. In my ministry and my life, I’m trying to trust that and give myself what I know I need when I need it. I’m constantly surprised at how easy that sounds and how hard I find it to do. So I’m thankful that this weekend the university has called for a big hit and we are pointing the car towards the mountains, with napping, hiking, slow meals, and something bubbly to drink in our very near future. Simple and satisfying, enough to go on until Advent.

God of the six days of creation and the seventh day of rest, remind us of how we are made in your image. You are not too busy or important to rest and relax, and neither are we. Give us the rest we crave and the fearless hearts we need to accept this. Amen.

How long?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How long, O Lord?

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drowned by God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Oh, UMC. A Lament.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now imagine how hard it was for her.

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

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

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

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