Thursday, October 28, 2010

Never Walk Alone

I sat a bad example for my congregation this week: I went to the hospital alone. I downplayed the weight of the tests with my husband, allowing him to go to his own doctor's appointment instead of with me. I turned down an offer from a church member who offered to take me to the hospital and/or sit with Craig while I was being tested. I walked alone, and it scared me.

I realized as I was signing the forms that I had no one to watch my belongings for me if I were to lose consciousness. I realized that my husband would be in Fairfax and my other point of contact, my mother, would be in Colorado - far away from where my test was being conducted. It would take them a long time to be near me if something were to go wrong. I realized that I resisted the very thing the church should be - a community that walks together on mountains and in valleys no matter what. And, I left the hospital praying for a different reality.

I left praying that no one in my congregation would ever have to go to the hospital alone. I left praying that no matter the weight of life that no on would be forced to carry it alone. I left praying that no matter how sad circumstances might be that someone else would always be allowed to the inside. I left praying that my example of being so stubbornly independent would not be followed by others in our church or community.

Last night, as we gathered for our Wednesdays @ MVP to start the study, "Enough: Discovering Joy through Simplicity and Generosity," we talked about the role of savings and money. We shared around a table about how it is scary to think about
whether there will be enough for the rest of our lives. How much are we to save? How are we to invest for tomorrow? Where is God in the midst of this saving and investing? What is God's will for our money and resources?

As we talked around the table, one member of our church, the same member of the church who repeatedly offered to take me to the hospital and sit with me and my husband this week, shared what it is like to be a single person without children. He shared out loud his questions about who would care for him when he got older. The answer seemed clear to me as he shared. My mind was immediately filled with an answer, "The church will care for you. Of course we are called to care for you."

Can you imagine such a church? What if we really did pool some of our resources, welcome people into our homes who could no longer live alone, purchase a house where more people could live together, and take seriously the vision of the early church that is captured in Acts 4 where we read how the disciples brought all of their possessions together and ensured that there was not a needy person amongst them? What if we saw all that we have been given as not ours but as God's and really sought to be the community God calls us to be? What if we then extended this vision into the entire community, allowing our hearts to be awakened often each time we passed a homeless person, realizing with each passing how they are our brother and sister, too? What if we worked passionately until all people were cared for, until no one was walking alone?

Seriously. I never want you to walk alone. I never want you to be in any situation where you feel like you are all by yourself - no matter what the situation might be. I want to be with you, and I want our church to be with you.

I've been reading a friend's book. Enuma Okoro has just written incredible reflections on her life in a book titled, "Reluctant Pilgrim: A Moody, Somewhat Self-Indulgent Introvert's Search for Spiritual Community." I commend it to your reading, and she'll be in DC on Tuesday night to read from her book (email me for more information).

Listen to what Enuma writes, "I think that's what grace is, that God is sort of stalking us and preparing us in small yet significant ways for the shock of becoming church and trying to live into the absurdity of church. Really it's not normal. We do not naturally group ourselves with strangers who are different from us in so many visible and not so visible ways. We do not readily give up the things we want in order to provide for people we don't know or even necessarily like. We do not give our time, resources and privacy to just anyone. But that's what church calls us to do and that's why I have such a hard time with it..." (48).

I have a hard time with it, too. I am perhaps the most independent person I know. I am not naturally inclined to lean on others or to accept their offers for help. I am not naturally inclined to living community to its fullest. But, I'm letting you in on a secret today. I need you just as much as you need others.

Please promise me one thing.

Promise me that you will never walk alone.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Warning Signs

I was admitted to the hospital yesterday, branded with a white bracelet that stated my name and birth date and another red bracelet that branded me as one with an allergy. Each step of the branding process brought about different words of warning, caution and comfort, letting me know that the tests I was about to undergo were serious tests. It was not a casual procedure conducted in a doctor's office. Rather, I was a patient - a patient who was admitted with rights and responsibilities and countless things to think about.

I arrived at 7:00 for the check-in procedures. I was ushered over to a kind woman's desk. She entered the information on my insurance card and then asked me a series of questions before inviting me to complete different forms. The first form asked for who to contact in the event that I became unresponsive during the procedure. I carefully printed my husband's contact information along with that of my mother. She then handed me a form that encouraged me to leave all of my belongings with a loved one. "Please do not take any valuables with you into the hospital. The hospital is not liable for any lost belongings." Right, I thought to myself as I looked at my large work bag packed with my calendar and sermon books and my purse sitting next to it. She then asked me what my religious preferences are. "I'm a pastor," I said. "I don't really need a chaplain," I shared before thinking about how ignorant the response was. Everyone needs a chaplain while in the hospital! Then she asked if I wanted to be added to the visitation list, allowing others to know where I was so that they could visit me if given a room. "Of course," I said, thinking of how much visitors meant to me when I was in the hospital this summer.

When the admitting process was over, I gathered my large bags and was given a pager like the ones assigned at the Cheesecake Factory when all the tables are taken. I went to the bathroom and had not even finished my business when the pager started to sound. I reported back to the main desk and was told to go to the 4th floor where I encountered a gentleman waiting for me. He led me into a room, made me as comfortable as possible, and then carefully applied all kinds of goop to my head for my EEG. He explained each step and when the EEG was over, I was escorted to the 3rd floor, sporting a head full of wires along the way.

Once on the 3rd floor I was ushered into the tilt table test room and given another form to complete. This form had much more serious consequences. It alerted me to the fact that some people (could have been only 1 or 2) had died because of the procedure I was having. She made sure I had not eaten anything that day and then asked me to sign.

I signed my life away.
I was told not to worry about anything.
I was encouraged to leave my possessions behind.
I was assured a community surrounding me.
I was told to let go and trust that everything would be okay.
I was informed of the importance of what I was doing even though there could be consequences.

Sounds a lot like discipleship to me - discipleship at its best.

Sounds a lot like church to me - church at its best.

I don't think our commitment to follow Jesus and to be part of a church community is a casual commitment. I believe it is a commitment that is designed to demand our very best - one that is designed to change us, transform us and lighten our load as we let go of some things in order to embrace a heavy cross. We are encouraged to sign our lives away - to offer them into the hands of the potter who will shape and reshape us until we molded into the people this potter intends us to be. We are encouraged to let go of our possessions - the disciples were told to take nothing for their journey. We are called to let go of anything that is not really necessary (don't worry, like you I am still working on this one). We are called to surround each other with a community that will be present no matter what - which means that we can count on this community despite the circumstances of life we are enduring but also means that we are called to be present and part of the community despite the circumstances of life we are enduring. And, we are informed often of how there may be consequences to following Jesus - we may lose friends, we may discover that we're surrounded by wolves when we feel like a lonely sheep, we may see just how heavy the cross is, and the road may not be an easy one to travel even with Jesus leading the way. But, we may also see the power that comes when we trust in God and gather as a community - something extraordinary might happen. Healing may be made manifest before our eyes. The lame may walk. The lepers may be cleansed. The blind may see. The poor may have good news brought to them. Something remarkable happens when we are branded and have the courage to actually live out our baptism.

Annie Dillard offers what continues to be one of my favorite words on the church and discipleship. She writes,
"On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return." (Teaching a Stone to Talk, Harper & Row, 1982)

Give me a helmet. I'm ready to sign my life away. What about you?

Friday, October 22, 2010

A Powerful Essay and Letter

A friend of mine shared a blog with me today. The beginning words are powerful. The letter to her son made me laugh and cry. I commend it to you here. Seriously, take time to read this post, please.

Open for Change

My 20th high school reunion was last weekend. Several hundred people gathered in Columbia, Missouri to celebrate and remember their time at Rock Bridge and Hickman High High Schools. I received the invitation along with an email from a Facebook friend who encouraged me to go, but I never intended to go. I don't think much about high school. I keep in touch with high school friends only via Facebook. Rather than thinking about high school, I seek to keep those memories locked in a box that is rarely opened.

High school was a painful experience for me. It seemed as though there were two choices during high school - I could try hard to keep up with the Jones - the kids who had great clothes, drove fancy cars and gathered at the local swim club or country club for fun. I could try to keep up with a select group of people who were always invited to the parties even though I rarely made the list. I could put myself in a place of pain and disappointment. Or, I could coast on the sidelines and engage my time and energy in other places. I chose the later.

High school was a painful experience for me. I was surrounded by people who I grew up with from the second grade - the same people who picked on me while riding the yellow school bus while never picking me for their teams in gym class. I was in class with the same individuals who had teased me for most of my life for being the kid who weighed the most. I grew up with the people who always reminded me of how I was out while they were in.

I now have several Facebook friends from Columbia. I take delight in discovering where we are in life, becoming familiar with where our life journeys have led us. I have so enjoyed seeing pictures on Facebook this week from the reunion. I keep wondering how much people have changed. Had I traveled to Missouri last weekend, would I still feel like an outsider? Would anyone have worked any differently to make me feel included? Would I have arrived in a way reminiscent of my prom night - with only one friend and a date from the outside because no one on the inside really seemed to make a genuine connection?

What really changes in life? Are people and institutions open for change or are we all the same?

I was visiting one of our church members this week who resides in a retirement home where I have gotten to know the chief administrator. On my way to visit our member, I stopped to say 'hello' when I noticed the administrator's office door was open. We caught up on life and talked about the member I was going to see. She then asked me about the church, and I shared what was happening. I then asked her about her church.

"I don't go to church," she said. "I'm a relapsed Catholic who has not been to church in years." She then continued, "But I have heard that there are a few churches open to people like me. A lot of my friends tell me to go to the Unitarian church." I responded by telling her how she was welcome at our church. I shared how our church was different - how we had intentionally made a decision to welcome all people - especially LGBT people. She looked at me in disbelief and then said, "Well maybe I'll make it down there one day."

There are hundreds of people all around us just like this woman - "hurt-churched" people. There are countless individuals who have been told that they are outsiders from those who are inside the church. There are people who have been told that they are of sacred worth but not fully accepted unless they change. Our church buildings are less than half full while thousands of people walk by on their way to something else because the church has told them that they are not fully welcome - sometimes with words and oftentimes with actions. We have thrown a party each Sunday morning at 11:00 but have so often invited only the people who are like us - the people who live like us, dress like us, love like us. Oh how much the church has in common with painful high school days!

There are churches that are changing. There are communities of faith that are saying they are not going to continue with church life as we know it but instead make bold steps to change - to welcome people no matter what and to fill old wine skins with new wine. I have tasted some of this new wine. I love savoring its sweetness. But I am reminded all the time that we must go to great lengths in order to show people the change. Putting words on our sign might work for some people - but the best messages are the ones told by our lives.

I'm open for change. I'm part of a church that has changed and is changing in bold, daring, beautiful ways. I hope people believe me when I tell them of this change.

Perhaps I should have gone back to see what changes 20 years can bring.

There's always 2020.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Empty Church

I had the joy of worshipping this week in one of my favorite places. Duke Chapel is the place where I have experienced some of the most memorable preaching. It is a space where my heart has soared as I have listened to their choir. It is a space where I preached on the Sunday after my ordination. It is also the place where I was married. I love Duke Chapel.

On Monday evening, I gathered in Duke Chapel for worship along with some 500 or 600 other pastors attending Pastor's School and Fall Convocation. We gathered at the end of a day filled with wonderful lectures. We gathered to hear an inspired, renowned preacher. We gathered to worship. But, as hard as I tried, I had a hard time settling my mind and my spirit. I could not worship.

The space that is filled with so many memories did not speak to me. I was surrounded by hundreds of people, more people than I have worshipped with in a long time, but it seemed so empty. I stayed for the sermon and then quickly snuck out before the prayers. And, in full disclosure, I was checking status updates on Facebook during the sermon. I just could not make myself be present.

I've been thinking a lot about my reaction this week. How is it that the place that once spoke to me the moment I walked in the doors seemed so empty on Monday? Why is it that the preacher who has so much to say to millions of people could not get past the doors of my ears? Why is it that I could hardly wait to get out of the space instead of journey closer to the altar?

As I have wrestled with my emotions, I have realized that worship is so much more than the liturgy, the preaching and the music. These three things are vitally important - they are what mold us and shape us, drawing us into the presence of God and allowing us to see the beauty of God in different ways. However, I realized this week that I am unable to worship God without somehow being connected to a community of people who are worshipping with me and who will continue to keep me accountable during the week. I am not able to worship God on Sundays without knowing that our worshipful work will continue at different points during the week.

I had the opportunity to visit different churches this summer. One church sat on a beautiful spot in the middle of an incredible oasis. The worship was quaint and lovely. The congregation was diverse. However, there was nothing happening in the life of the church other than worship - the people were only coming together for an hour each Sunday before dispersing until the next Sunday. I kept hearing my mentor Peter Storey saying over and over again, "These people are just playing church."

Monday's service was designed to touch my soul, penetrate my heart and replenish me as a preacher. Yet, I could not get there. I wanted to escape - I wanted to run home fast to the community that is my church.

I might not ever see this community contain 600 people. It might be years before there are even 200 people in the pews of my church home. I have never had my spirit soar because of music in the way that my spirit has soared at other places of worship. Yet, there is something about this community that I would not trade for anything.

We worshipped together today for an hour and a half but I could have easily stayed another hour. I could have stayed until each person had an opportunity to share - until each person had spoken and been listened to. We gave thanks for a new baby today and prayed for a couple struggling with infertility. We gave thanks for a new job and prayed for someone who is grateful to go through another day without drinking. We gave thanks for for someone who is home from visiting family in the Sierra Leone and prayed for people whose temporary storage site went away when bulldozers tore down a fence across the street yesterday. We came together - this beautiful, diverse group of people - and when I witnessed our community again, I was able to worship.

I would not trade this community for anything.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Dear Mr. Phelps

Dear Mr. Phelps:

I took time to walk by the Supreme Court today. I went out of curiosity to see if your church was picketing your very own trial. But I also went to pray. I went to pray for you, the members of your church, and the Supreme Court justices who are now charged with discerning whether or not you are liable to pay the family of Matthew Snyder for the hurt you caused them. You are in my prayers often, Mr. Phelps. I pray that somehow God will change your heart - that somehow you will be led to love people instead of hate people.

It was actually a gay person who told me how I needed to love you. He brought me an amazing picture taken near a place where you had been holding your signs filled with hatred. The picture was of a woman who was draped in a rainbow flag. She was holding a sign that read, "God loves fags, trannies and even Fred Phelps." Yes, Mr. Phelps, while I despise your actions and the way in which you cause so much harm to the church of Jesus Christ, I believe God loves you. And, I believe I am called to figure out how to love you, too.

Mr. Phelps, your daughter argued before the court today that Matthew Snyder died at the age of 20 because of gay people in our country. She then continued to add how God punished Matthew Snyder and his family because his parents had divorced. Mr. Phelps, who exactly is your God? We both call ourselves followers of Christ but we seem to have met a different Jesus.

Jesus changed my life. The one who is my Lord and Savior taught me to love instead of hate. He told me to love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me. He told me that all of the commandments boil down to two things - to love God with all my heart, soul, strength and mind and to love my neighbor as myself. I am reminded often that we do not get to pick our neighbors. Our neighbors are whoever come near us - like the man who was beaten by robbers and saved on the road by the Good Samaritan. Jesus told me that I cannot possibly judge another person because I have specks in my eye, too. Jesus taught me how to love all kinds of people - especially the people who seem to be lonely, lost or left-behind. Jesus calls me to love. Where, Mr. Phelps, do you get permission to espouse so much hatred in the name of Jesus?

Mr. Phelps, I do not believe God punishes people. I believe we sometimes have to lie in the beds we make for ourselves but I do not believe that God is a God of suffering and revenge. God does not test us. God does not kill our loved ones because of something we have done. We might see glimpses of this kind of a God in the Old Testament but I just don't see these actions or characteristics in Jesus.

You have come close enough to our church once. You stood outside, across the street at the Convention Center. Watching members of your church, especially children who are being taught to hate at such a young age, made my heart weep. I'm not eager for you to return, but I wish you could see the beauty I see each time I stand in our pulpit here. Every Sunday, I am blessed to see an extraordinary array of people, and I would not trade the diversity that is so apparent in this place for anything. My gay brothers and sisters have taught me how to love and how to offer so much grace. The fact that they are here in a denomination that often says something else humbles me to my knees regularly. They are Jesus to me - Jesus with arms wide open saying, "I'm willing to forgive and give you another chance."

Mr. Phelps, we lost another child of God way too early last week. Tyler Clementi died because he was bullied by people who took part of his life and exploited it. He was led to a bridge where he believed his only option was to jump because of people like you who choose to espouse judgment and hatred. Mr. Phelps, will you please stop? Will you please silently go into the hills of Kansas and be silent? Stop protesting. Stop espousing hatred. And if you cannot stop, then please do not call yourself a pastor of a church. Please, I beg you.

The justices have a hard case on their hands. Like many of them, I would be so cautious about limiting one's ability to speak. The First Amendment is what allows me to write this letter and to speak in many other places and formats. The freedom of speech is a precious gift. But, you are not only accountable to the court. You are accountable to a higher power - one who calls you by name, one who formed you in your mother's womb, one who loves you and calls you to do the same.

Mr. Phelps, I really cannot stand you. But, God loves you, and because God loves you, so do I. Will you please, please, please stop shouting, stop hating and try to love instead? Let go of the shackles and chains in which you have placed yourself and so many other people. Come to the other side and experience the goodness of Christ. Come and meet the Jesus I know and love.

Again, you are in my prayers,

P.S. If anyone else is reading this letter and wondering if all churches are like Westboro Baptist, let me assure you that they are not. I am grateful to serve a church where all people really are welcome - where we celebrate the diversity amongst us - where we are working hard to make sure that LGBT people are not only welcomed but affirmed and given access to every other blessing the church can offer. There are different churches that exist. Please do not think we are all like Westboro Baptist. Please!

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Keys, Please!!

I filled up my car with gasoline for the first time today since the beginning of August. The price was rather high at $2.71 a gallon but I did not complain. Rather, I gave thanks for the ability to drive again.

It was on August 16 when I was told not to drive for a while. I left the hospital with a certain diagnosis that was anything but certain. In fact, three doctors have since told me that I was misdiagnosed at the hospital - that the doctors were too quick to draw a conclusion with no substantial evidence to back it up.

I grieved for several days at the thought of not being able to drive. I spent a lot of time pouring through train schedules and bus schedules trying to figure out how best to get around. I bought new shoes and a weatherproof coat. I purchased an iPhone, getting a smart phone for the first time. I woke my husband up early on Sunday mornings, eagerly accepting his offer for a ride downtown. I inquired of a couple of people if they would be willing to drive me somewhere. And, I cried. I cried a lot.

I saw a neurologist a few weeks ago who first told me how he thought I had been misdiagnosed. He referred me to a cardiologist affiliated with the same hospital, and I went to see this doctor last Wednesday. Prior to my appointment, I asked several people to please pray for me.

I had a specific prayer, "Please pray that the doctor will tell me I am okay to drive again." I did not ask people to pray that we would find a specific diagnosis. I did not ask people to pray that I would be healed. Rather, I asked people to pray that I would have control again. I asked people to pray that I could be in charge of my schedule again with me behind the wheel instead of on a bus, train or in the car of another. In all honesty, the hardest part of these last six weeks has not been knowing that something might be wrong with my heart but rather losing control. I like to be in charge. I prefer being independent instead of dependent. I don't like relying on others. I hesitate asking for help.

The doctor granted me my wish. When I inquired, "Can I drive again?" he immediately replied, "Of course you can. There is absolutely no reason why you cannot drive." I rejoiced. I literally went skipping out of his office. I got what I asked for - but we're not anywhere closer to discovering what exactly is wrong with me. I got what I prayed for. Yet, there still could be something wrong with my heart.

We're good at asking God for control. We are rather proficient at telling God exactly what we want. We tell God how God needs to provide us with a larger house, a new job, a baby in our womb, a new best friend, control over a certain situation, a way out of some relationship, a winning lottery ticket, a better working environment and the list goes on and on. We tell God exactly what we believe we need. We're good at treating our relationship with God as though we are the ones who are in control - as though we are the people who know what's best for our lives. We know what we need. It does not matter what God thinks. And even when God gives us what we ask for, we so often fail to express thanksgiving. Rather, we continue the illusion of control.

But I realized last week that I may have gotten it all wrong. I've thought a lot about how I may have missed the mark in my prayer request. Perhaps I fell short of asking for what I really need - a clean bill of health and not the keys to my Jeep.

In Jeremiah 29:11, God tells Jeremiah, "For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future filled with hope." God continues, "Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord..." God is working with Jeremiah, trying to get Jeremiah to trust God again. God wants Jeremiah to know that God has a plan, that God is in charge, and that God will bless Jeremiah. Jeremiah simply has to trust. God does not tell Jeremiah that he will get exactly what he wants. Rather, God tells Jeremiah that God will be with him and that the gift of God's presence will be enough.

Proverbs 3:5-7 reads, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes..." The wisdom of the Proverb is found in trusting God's ways and not our ways. The blessing is discovered when we let go of trying to control things, trying to figure out things, trying to solve each puzzle placed before us.

God invites us to trust - to let go of the control. God beckons us to turn the keys over and see where we'll be taken. God invites us to offer our full lives into the hands of God.

I have so often believed that I knew what was best for me. I have told God regularly what I need. All the while, I have often failed to pray, "God show me what you believe is best for me. Help me to relinquish control and trust in you fully. Show me your way, your path, your plans."

I'm driving again - but I'm praying each day that I can continue to relinquish some of the need to be in control.