Pastor’s Note for April

I haven’t told a whole lot of people what really got me started on all this walking I’ve been doing.  Like most folks, I have known for years (decades even) what it takes to be healthy: regular exercise, a balanced diet, plenty of sleep, and time away from stress and responsibilities.  And like many folks, I was pretty much living at the opposite end of the spectrum for most of those areas.  And so, it was just a matter of time before I got the kind of news I heard right about this time last year.  

I had gone to an urgent care clinic for a sinus infection and my blood pressure was way out of control. As in, they wanted me to go directly to a hospital. Right that minute. Immediately, I was thinking about all the things I was responsible for and all the people I would be leaving in a major squeeze if I was in the hospital overnight. Or even for the next few days.  I didn’t have time for that. Who has time for that? 

So instead, I signed the paper releasing them from responsibility if I died before actually going to the hospital. Definitely not the smartest move I’ve ever made. Definitely not something I recommend.

But as I left, I thought to myself, Ok. Get past this crazy month – and if you’re not dead, it will be time to get serious about living.

I did exactly that. I managed to survive what was a really stressful, hectic few weeks, and then I got serious about making the changes I needed to make in order to live to see my 50th birthday.

There was a little bit of dying involved. I had to kill the idea – my own misguided belief that had somehow lingered since adolescence – that I was invincible.  And I had to take aim, one by one, at some of the habits that were making me sick. And I had to put to rest the biggest myth I had carried around: that I was not worth the effort it would take to make those changes.

I share this with you now because I want to say that we are past the point of antibiotics and rest. Becoming a healthy and thriving church again – it’s going to take a lot of work. A lot of energy and activity.  It will take persistence and trust in God’s resurrection power. It will take all the community and love we can muster when the inevitable misunderstandings and disagreements pop up.

But hear me, friends, when I say that this congregation is so very worth it.  You are worth all the effort it is going to take, all the pain we will endure, all the sweat and tears that are bound to fall. You are worth it because the church is God’s plan for the world to know all the love, grace, hope, and peace that we have experienced through Jesus Christ.  You are worth all that God has and will invest in you, and I am honored to be walking alongside you.

10 Random Things I have learned in the last couple of weeks

1. When your jeans are loose and you don’t have a belt, slippery undies are a bad choice.

2. Swimming is excellent exercise. You do not, however, get bonus calories for swimming in colder water… silly FitBit

3.  Baby pigs are adorable and actually enjoy being held and scratched behind the ears. Or at least the ones at our feed store do.

4. Even decades later, I can recite the Girl Scout Promise and Law. Well, most of it. At least as much as I can the Apostle’s Creed, so there’s that.

5. I am not excellent at processing giant emotional waves. Unless they are someone else’s, in which case I am all yours.  There’s some work to be done there, obvs.

6.  My gut is right more than I am willing to believe. Probably because it catches the stuff I don’t want to know, or hope is untrue.

7. Number 6 above sucks.

8. Combine numbers 5-7 in a week, and ugh.

9. I have a deep well of faith and hope, in spite of the truth my gut knows about people and life and even me.

10. I am loved.  Yeah- I kinda knew that already, but sometimes I get to learn stuff like this in deeper ways. And that counts, too.

Faith Built on Hope

Primary Scriptures:  Romans 5:1-11 and Luke 24:13-33

This time last week, I was on my way to Montreat for a conference for pastors in interim work. I am so very  thankful for your support and encouragement to continue learning and growing in my leadership.

While I was there, I met pastors from all over the country… mostly here in the southeast, since Montreat is close by. But there were a few from the west coast, even one Canadian

We spent time in seminars covering several helpful topics. We had opportunities to speak with the faculty members, many of whom have served several churches who find themselves between settled pastors. We also spent time in groups for peer coaching.

It was all great…

But you know the best part? Hearing all their stories. Stories of churches much like ours. Some smaller, some larger… some in cities, others in small towns or rural settings.  Each one unique, and yet it seems that we all find ourselves asking the same questions…
What comes next?
What is our place in the bigger picture…
What is our part in the Body of Christ?
What is our role in the larger community – the city that has grown and changed around us, the culture that has been shifting so rapidly in the last decade…

As you might imagine, many churches are on the road to closure. They are in the process of making really hard decisions about property and memorials and where their members will go to find care and fellowship. Those are very difficult conversations to enter into and even more difficult to stay in. These are oftentimes very sad stories. God-led and grace-filled, to be sure, but always hard for the members and those who are there to help the congregation finish well.

The good news is that many more of the folks that I met and talked with last week shared stories about walking alongside congregations in the midst of the work – the hard work –  of transformation. Transformation is always hard work. It’s hard to start, hard to finish, and even harder to maintain.

We come from a long lineage… a long heritage of folks who had to work hard at change.  Seriously, it goes way way back. In fact, next week, we’ll start the Lectionary year over again by heading back to the beginning of the great collection of our stories of faith, each in its own way a testament to the transforming nature of God.

And as we did last fall, we’ll travel through the Old Testament in the months leading into Christmas.  The thread running through the passages we’ll explore this year is Promise…
the promises God makes to our foremothers and forefathers.
the promises they make to God…
the promise of fresh starts…
the promise of new life…
the promise of a deliverer… the promised one… the messiah.

We’ll recall through these chapters in our great redemption story, the faithfulness of God.  The truth that even as humankind found myriad ways to go astray, God remained steadfast. God stayed with us.
God loved us.
The truth that God loves us still

And we’ll recall how, even as the prophets called the kings and people to repentance, speaking the truths that no one wanted to hear about sin and judgment and consequences…God also gave them a message of hope: If the people would turn to God, if they would change their focus, God would honor and bless them.  

The funny thing is, we read that as if God’s behavior is contingent upon the work of the leaders and the people under their care.

The truth is, God has been there, keeping all those promises all along.  It’s the people who lose sight of that truth as their focus shifts, as their gaze wanders.  Kind of like Jesus, walking along the road to Emmaus, having an incognito conversation with two disciples.

I’ve read and heard several interpretations of this encounter.  Some say that this episode tells us that our resurrection bodies – the ones we get when we are finally in God’s presence after this life is over  – that those bodies are somehow different, that we will be ourselves but not so completely ourselves that we are instantly recognizable.

Others say that it was the work of the Holy Spirit, clouding their vision so that Jesus could hear what they were saying without worry that they would stop telling their story.

Luke uses the verb “recognize” both at the beginning and at the end of the passage –when their eyes are closed and then opened to his identity. They saw him from the start, but they didn’t actually recognize him until the end, when he was breaking the bread.

This is an interesting echo of  the  wording used when Adam and Eve first opened their eyes and recognized that they were naked. And that there was something to shameful in their being so thoroughly revealed.

You see, Luke wants us to understand that this is a moment of deep recognition.  That “oooohhhh” moment when you see someone after not quite seeing them for who they really and truly are.

Jesus had walked a good way with them, teaching them and reminding them of all the ways that the prophets had been preparing the Hebrew people for his coming.  They had covered a lot of ground, literally and theologically,  before he took the bread and broke it. And they saw him for who he was…  

Seeing him, recognizing him, changed the conversation completely.  It awoke in them a passion they hadn’t felt.  It cleared the confusion and doubt away.

Seeing him, recognizing him again made space for faith.  Because he had made space for hope… Hope that the world didn’t have to be as it had been. That exile and oppression weren’t God’s plan That the empire didn’t always win.   

Seeing him, recognizing him again, set them off on an adventure that would change their lives and ultimately transform much of the world.  Even this part of the world. We trace our own faith to those first followers of Jesus.  The ones who literally sat at table with him, sharing the meal we will remember together today…

Paul never sat at table with Jesus. Never saw him face to face in a physical sense. Not during his earthly life, anyway.  But Paul recognized the transformative power of the resurrection at least as well as any of those who spent time with Jesus before and after. Paul understood the role of faith in our coming to truly know – to recognize – the saving grace Jesus offered.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul reminds us of our inability as humans to meet all the expectations of the law.  of the fallibility that would keep all of us from ever knowing God’s great love for us and for the world.

Paul writes of the reconciling work of Jesus- the life, death and resurrection of which the disciples were talking on the road to Emmaus – the revealing of the power of God’s love to redeem all of our messiness and sin.  And he says – not one whit of it is ours to claim…Except to claim faith in the truth that God did all that for us.

God is still doing all that for us. God continues to pour out the Holy Spirit, that we might grow deeper in our understanding – not of the law, not of the minutiae of doctrine – but so that we might fall deeper in love with God, and develop even greater compassion for the neighbors around us.

Paul prescribes in Romans and throughout the epistles, a protocol for strengthening our hearts. It generally starts with suffering, which we are to endure. Not on our own strength of course, but empowered by the Spirit. Paul continues, saying that endurance produces character – which, in turn, allows us to have hope.

Many of you know that I’ve spent time this summer walking and doing some work in the gym. I started out taking short walks around the block. As the summer progressed, I started setting some goals for myself. Go a little farther, then a little faster.  

Then I registered for the conference at Montreat.

I remembered how hard it was for me to walk around up there last year. I didn’t go exploring as far as I wanted because I couldn’t catch my breath going up all the stairs and hills, and I didn’t trust that my legs and knees were strong enough to handle terrain off the sidewalks.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I find changing my personal habits are hard. Even when I know what needs to be done, getting started is hard. Keeping at it is hard, too. It much easier to fall back into the old, comfortable and known way of being.

Until the pain of staying the same outweighs the pain you anticipate will come during or as a result of the change process, the status quo will do just fine.

But status quo wasn’t going to get me up any of those hills.  So I set some new goals and got to work

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If you could hear this picture, it would include my catching my breath between “wows”. The vistas were lovely.

I am happy to say that 400 miles – even on the flat sidewalks of Central Florida  – paid off. I went wandering all around the conference center, up and down some of the steepest hills. I even managed to get to the top of Mount Mitchell.  

It was there that I was feeling a little cocky and decided to do a ¾-mile hike on the nature trail. The sign said it was “easy” and I’d been walking some of the nature trails around Montreat.

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If you look closely, you can see the description of the trail.

I knew it was going to drop a good 200-250 feet in elevation as the trail meandered down to the parking lot, but it sounded way less steep than going back down the 300 yard path that went directly from the lot to the observation tower.

So off I went.

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Seriously – how hard can it be? The rabbit looks like he’s enjoying the trail.

Now, I can stroll a full mile in about 20 minutes, even on hilly terrain. So I was guessing maybe 30 minutes down the hill. Maybe a little longer with stops to read or take photos.

Yeah- at about 20 minutes in, I was maybe half-way through the trail loop.  I had already crawled up and over tree roots and boulders, hopped across puddles and begun to mutter to the unknown author of the trail description about our definitions of “Easy” not quite being aligned.

And then the trail made yet another hairpin turn. Once again, I found myself looking uphill for the white triangle blaze.  And there wasn’t really a trail any more. It was like a staircase made of big rocks and fallen trees with lincoln log notches cut out and a maybe a few grassy spots between puddles. Oh, and every step was a different height…

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No really, this is the trail. I wasn’t lost.

My knees were tired.
My lungs were getting a little chatty.
I could hear my heart thumping in my ears.  NOT my resting heart rate, in case you wondered.

And then I laughed.

I laughed because I had a choice to make. Sit down, go back to the start, or go on. None of them seemed good. It all seemed too hard.

A voice in my head was reminding me that people who hike alone are much more likely to be eaten by bears….

But there was another voice…It was saying, “You got this. You can do it. You’ve walked way farther and in way worse heat and humidity than this. You’re strong enough to keep going.”  

I remembered working through the pain of those first walks and sore muscles, the endurance I had been building on sidewalks and treadmills, on bikes and in the pool. Looking back on where I’d been allowed me to have confidence- faith – in my ability to get up that stretch of the trail…

I was neither helpless, nor hopeless, in the face of an unexpected challenge.   

I’m not sure what the chipmunks thought of this human huffing and puffing her way past the ferns and lichen-covered stumps. I suspect that the crazy flapping of my arms as I balanced on slippery stones and logs scared off more than a couple of birds. But I was able to press on, and I realized that in addition to quieting the voice that was worried about bears, I was really enjoying myself.

Finishing the loop was no longer about surviving or successfully achieving a goal. It was about experiencing the joy that overtakes me in those all-too-rare opportunities to drink deeply of nature’s beauty

A friend of mine is a physical therapist. She works with all kinds of people, from young athletes to octogenarians. And she told me once that the most amazing thing about our bodies is the way they respond to the challenges we put in front of them. We are made to adapt and gain strength from the effort of overcoming.

Yes, the challenges need to be the RIGHT challenges. That’s why I needed to start walking earlier in the summer to be able to get up those hills this week.  But physical challenges reveal our character, our capacity for hope and transformation.

And that crazy little hike filled me with hope and faith for us in the days to come…

You see we, together, are a body, just as surely as each of us have bodies.  We, together, make up the body of Christ. And together, we can adapt and rise up to the challenges that come before us, overcoming all kinds of barriers in the power of the Holy Spirit.

I have a faith built on hope for us as we pray and work as a body here in this time and place.
That we can discern together the challenge God has for us to pursue.
That we can start small and learn how to use our faith muscles in new and different ways.
That we can work together, moving a little farther away from our comfort zone with every step, even as we  draw on lessons from the past.

I have hope that our eyes will be opened and that we will recognize Jesus in one another, in our neighbors, and in the people God brings to our table.

I have hope that as we keep God – Father, Son, and Spirit – at the center of our gaze, we’ll be able to follow the trail, no matter how rocky and hilly it gets.

I have hope that when we do this work in a way that honors our past and present, this congregation will have a future, and that future will be filled with joy and laughter.

I have faith, built on the hope and love that abide in Christ, and abide in all of us as we abide in Christ.  

My prayer is that the God who is able to do abundantly far more than we could ever ask or imagine, would grant us the wisdom, courage, love, faith, hope and joy we need for this and every day of our lives together.

Amen.

Something Just Broke

These lyrics from Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins capture that seismic internal shift that occurs in one of those culturally significant moments.  Like when an assassin takes out a president or a shooter takes out a nightclub full of people. Or you lose a child.

(the whole thing is worth a listen, but especially from about 1:50 onward)

In those moments, something just, well, breaks.

I remember where I was the day the verdict came back freeing George Zimmerman.  I was alone and heard something in my heart crack as I pictured Trayvon Martin’s parents weeping. Again.

Then came Mike Brown.  Tamir Rice. Freddy Gray.  Sandy Bland. I heard that sound again and again and again.

Alton Sterling.
Philandro Castile.
The Dallas Police.

I remember them all.  And too many others.
I remember where I was, what I was looking at or listening to when I heard the news.
And that sound.
And the deep deep anguish of lamenting a part of our world that I feel powerless to change.

It’s funny – I don’t remember that same feeling for those other world-stopping moments in my lifetime. Not when Reagan was shot or John Lennon. Not when we lost the Challenger.  Not even the September 11 terrorist attacks.

I suspect because as horrific as those were, I can distance myself from them.
I cannot remove myself from the systems and structures of white supremacy.

I am white.
I grew up surrounded by farmland that had once been tended by slaves.  But the local history never really made that clear.
I grew up celebrating Juneteenth with my black schoolmates.  But I had been taught to focus on the joy of freedom that arrived on that day, not the fact that men, women and children had been kept ignorant of their freedom for years after emancipation.
I missed out on segregation in schools, but never thought to question why none of my black- and brown-skinned neighbors lived on the same side of the baseball park we shared as the rest of my friends… the white ones.

I (rightly, it turns out) assumed that my life would include college, marriage, home-ownership, access to medical care, travel with only minor inconveniences, a decent job at fair wages.  I never once asked my classmates from across the ballpark what they imagined their lives would be.

I took all those assumptions with me to college, where I first encountered a history book that taught westward expansion from the First Nations perspective. And the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and Civil Rights from the African American perspective.  And I couldn’t quite make sense of it all.  I didn’t want it to be true.  And yet…

Remembering that semester, it was starting. The sound was still buried under too much naïveté to be audible. The weight of awareness and responsibility, too light to move beyond those initial misgivings.

If ignorance is bliss, as they say, willful ignorance is the offspring of bliss and evil. And racism is its bastard child.

I am ashamed to say that it took raising a child who was othered – a sexual minority, rather than an ethnic minority – for me to begin seeing the truth of segregation and oppression in this country. Standing on that intersection, I realized that I needed to learn as much about racial injustice as I had the experiences of the LGBTQ community.

The truth I found in the reading: I needed more than education. I needed to search my heart, but first I had to strip away all that my miseducation and willful ignorance had led me to wrap around it.

I confess when teaching and coaching young black men and women, I placed hardships on them and their families because I chose not to ask about transportation if I kept them after the busses ran or their friends left.  I made jokes about hair and hair products.  I made light of not getting their names right, even after I had been corrected.  I chose not to stop others who made “mildly racist” jokes in my presence.

I look back and am angry, embarrassed and ashamed. I could have done better. I could have educated myself. I should have asked questions – not of the all-white faculty, but of the parents and aunties and grandparents who came out to the games. I could have spent time listening to my students’ hopes and dreams, rather than projecting mine onto them. I should have been a better human.

I am getting better, but confess I have a long way to go. I am listening more and learning to see my defensiveness as a cue to shut up, rather than lash out or attempt to explain myself.   My heart is more tender, though not nearly enough.

I wrote this poem as events unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri, following the yessir of Muchael Brown. Tensions were high then, as they are now.  And I found myself reacting to that weird anxiety here in Central Florida. And in my own interior world.   I come back to this poem in my posts regularly, and it grieves me to say, I am still unlearning the ignorance and hate I have harbored for far too long.

I hate the part of me that hates

I hate the part of me that hates
others without knowing them
allowing the pictures and stories
consumed over time
to gnaw at reality,
to train me to believe
the person who dresses this way
or talks that way
is more dangerous
than 
this one over here
who
by dint of genetics and cosmic randomness
looks, talks
seems
more like me

I hate the part of me that hates
to be told
I am part of the problem
part the system that continues to place
them
in a different category
on a different trajectory

I hate the part of me that learned
on seeing the brown-ness of skin
to hate
to fear
to withdraw
so that I must recalibrate
and reorient
my vision to see the human-ness of skin

I hate the part of me that waits
too silent
too compliant
too complicit
too comfortable
I sit when I am called to stand
I speak when I am called to listen
I tolerate when I am called to love

I hate the part of me that hates
and so I pray
the part of me that hates
would  be no more
and would be no less
than the memory
that propels me out of my comfort
and into your pain

 

What did she do?

This week’s sermon request was more topic than question…   Broadly speaking, it asked us to take a look at the role or work of women in the community of faith. I could do a full summer, maybe even a full year’s worth of sermons on women in scripture, in the history of the Christian church, and in the modern church.  

I should say, I could now… there was a time that i had no idea how many women were mentioned in scripture. Growing up, most of the Bible Stories we read focused on the patriarchs, or Jesus and the disciples. Many of the passages that focus primarily on women are left out of the Revised Common Lectionary. And they don’t always fit neatly into the sort of topics commonly used for sermon series.  

Oh sure, there are a few whose stories are told often enough to be familiar…

Like Sarah, whose age made it laughable that she and Abraham would ever see their promised heirs outnumber the stars in the sky. And then, when she finally bore a son, she laughed with joy.

Or there’s Mary and her story of persistence and obedience, trusting that with God all things are possible, even parenting the Messiah.  

And of course Esther, the young jewish woman unwillingly placed in the court of a ruthless king. Esther turned out to be stronger and more capable than she ever imagined and saved her people from genocide.  

Most advent seasons, we hear a little bit about the women listed in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus:
Tamar, the twice-widowed daughter-in-law of Judah, who has to trick him into providing for her as husband;
Rahab, the prostitute who helped Joshua’s spies in Jericho;
Ruth, the Moabite whose loyalty to Naomi brought redemption and security through marriage to Boaz;
And Bathsheba, coerced into a relationship with David that cost her a husband and son.

There are many more women in the Bible who we can and should claim as our forebears in faith.  Their stories are less often told, AND their stories are often less carefully told.Too often, they become caricatures, stock figures, or object lessons.  It is easy to lose sight of the depth of their humanity, to miss the pain of their struggles and sacrifice, to underestimate the faith required to be such bold women in a culture that viewed them primarily as the property of men.

Like the daughters of Zelophehad, whose story is easy to skim right past, tucked as it is into several chapters outlining the census of the children of Israel… essentially a long list of nothing but the names of men and their sons and grandsons and nephews and cousins.  

Listen to their story from beginning of Numbers, chapter 27:1-11

This is powerful stuff -surprising stuff- dropped into the mundane cataloguing of some 603,000 people and their belongings… all based on their clans and lineage. It is powerful because that cataloguing is all about knowing who you are and where you belong. These women understood very well the way things worked in this patriarchal society. They understood that, as women, they were in danger because they had no brothers and no father – no men – in their lives.

They also understood that there was a bigger problem at play in their situation.  A problem of belonging.  Their lack of brother and father meant that they no longer belonged, that their whole family would be forgotten.

At this point, the promised land was to be divided among tribes and clans and families, each plot assigned according to the number of people. Their problem of belonging nowhere was about to be magnified by the problem of having no place in the promise that God had made to their ancestors. This is tragic, a situation made all the more poignant by its being told in the middle of 603,000 others who could say precisely where they belonged.

What did they do?

These women had already followed the system used by the people that started at the local judge, where small grievances and questions were handled. Only the hardest cases got passed up through the layers of judges to Moses for a decision.

According to system in place, the answer should have been no. Based on the previous three books of law, these women should have been sent off to marry to find a place in the community. But that’s not what happened. Instead, each judge at each level of the system has taken them seriously. They are all aware of the seriousness of the problem, of a family of faithful Israelites being forgotten and left out of the promise.

And so Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milca, and Tirza found themselves in front of Moses at the tent of meeting.  Where they  asked for exactly what they wanted: to inherit their father’s place in the community of God’s people. It was a risk for the women to ask the community to do something that had never been tried before.

But when Moses asked,  God’s answer was clear: “the daughters of Zelophehad are right”  In essence, God said to Moses: we have been too restrictive and closed and it is hurting my people.

I don’t want anyone left behind, because each of them matters.
Each one deserves to be remembered.  Honored.
Thus their stories are recorded and told and retold.
Even the stories of women.

In the midst of all these stories – both familiar and lesser-known – sits a Proverb that tells of a different woman. I have to say that – like many modern Christian women – I have a love-hate relationship with Proverbs 31.  

You know, the one that starts by saying how hard it is to find a capable or virtuous woman…
It then goes on to describe someone who runs the household, AND runs a business, AND is the perfect wife, mother, worshiper and citizen.  

It’s as if someone created a “Godly woman” Pinterest board and filled it with Martha Stewart crafts, Frontier Woman recipes, Suzy Ormand investment recommendations and Oprah’s charitable efforts….  and then challenged everyone else to “get to it!”  

It’s just a little overwhelming.  Ok maybe more than a little.
So I mostly ignored it, until I read a modern story.  A few years back I picked up a book by Rachel Held Evans called A Year of Biblical Womanhood.  I was intrigued because had read one of the books that inspired her- a mostly tongue in cheek effort by a guy in New York to live according to the Old Testament for a year.

In her book, Rachel spent 12 months exploring 12 different laws, rules or customs for women that are often tagged as Biblical, She describes how these ideas came to have significance in the broader Christian community, how they have been understood, enforced, and sometimes reinterpreted over the centuries.  

One month she focused on how women are to live according to Proverbs 31.

As she began feeling overwhelmed by attempting to live up to this virtuous woman, Rachel sought advice from a friend in Israel, a woman who is a practicing Orthodox Jew. She laughed and reminded Rachel that the Proverb is a poem. Not a to-do list.   

And in the orthodox Jewish tradition, do you know who reads and memorizes the poem?  Not the wife, but the husband.  The husband recites this poem as a way to celebrate his wife.  

He calls her an ESHET CHAYIL.
A capable woman, a virtuous woman, or an even better translation: A woman of valor.  

ESHET CHAYIL! is also a blessing offered from woman to woman, acknowledging that small daily victories matter.  Like a Hebrew “You go, girl”  or verbal high five.

Conquering that pile of dirty laundry, filing the taxes on time, or figuring out logistics of getting a busy family everywhere they need to be week to week…
Eshet chayil- you’ve survived the day!

ESHET CHAYIL also honors the larger battles –loving  and living with the partner with dementia, loving and praying for a child who struggles with addiction, facing a diagnosis, chemo and radiation treatments with grace. Eshet chayil… Hail woman of valor.

Like our Jewish sisters, we come from that long line of women of valor: Deborah, Lydia, Rachel, Miriam, Anna, and those women whose stories have been passed down, but whose names are lost to history.

Noah’s wife.
We never learn her name, but we honor the woman who remained faithful to the man who built a boat and waited for a flood while there was no rain and who, by the way, was mother to the men  who  (with their wives) repopulated the earth;  Eshet chayil…

Jephtha’s daughter…
Her story is one of commitment and sacrifice, of following through on a promise that she didn’t even make.  As he led his people against the Ammonites, Jephtha swore an oath on behalf of Israel, saying to God

“If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.”

He is victorious, and on his return is met by his daughter, his only daughter… his only child. Dancing out of the door in celebration.  Jephtha’s vow to God was rash, to be sure.  Not a covenant like Abraham’s, but just as serious, and just as binding.  His daughter soon knew what was happening, and it was clear that there would be no last minute reprieve, no ram to replace the child.

What did she do?

Facing her death, she asked for time.  The scriptures say she mourned her virginity.  But I think we can take that a little further – she mourned the husband she would never marry, the love they would never share, the children she would never hold… the days that she would not live. She took time to mourn her lost future.

And after those two months, she was killed, just as Jephthah had promised. We read that the daughters of Israel went out to lament Jephthah’s daughter each year.  They must have wept their blessing, “Eshet Chayil, faithful one”

There was the Samaritan woman, the one Jesus met at the well.  Jesus offered the woman water… living water that will assure that she never thirsts. Water that will become a wellspring of eternal life.

The woman first takes Jesus literally, but when he talks with her about the details of her life, she begins to see something else… Perhaps he is a prophet…

As Jesus speaks to her of worshiping God in spirit and truth, she reveals that she knows about the promised messiah,the one who will come and make everything clear.  Jesus says, “I   who speak to you, am he.”   

It is at this moment… heavy with revelation and expectation…  that the disciples return and interrupt.  As Jesus begins to talk with them about food, the woman returns to her village, so distracted by this conversation that she leaves behind her jug of water, the reason she came to the well in the first place.  This man was no mere prophet.  And this woman would never see the world the same way again.

What did she do?

She ran home and told the story to all who would listen.  Like an excited child, she must have pointed back down the road toward the well.  “He is there- and he told me everything about my life… Could he be the one? Could it be true?  Come on!  Come and see…”

The people came, walking from the town to the well where they would meet this man who offered living water. They came, they saw, they listened, and they believed.  Many believed because of the woman’s testimony.
Eshet Chayil, your words have the power to change a community.

I could go on…

The fact that women are welcome to lead worship on this chancel, that I get to preach here week after week, bears witness to generations of women of valor:
The women Paul mentioned in his letters to the early church and the thousands whose contributions are now known only to God
The women who were martyred and the ones who survived to plant and nurture new churches across the Roman Empire and beyond.
The women who contemplated God in the desert.
The women who opened their homes to reformers;
Women who crossed an ocean in search of the freedom to worship God as they desired
The women who travelled the world as missionaries – alone and with their families.
And women who have given millions of hours and millions of dollars to serve the helpless, the outcasts, the little ones that Christ held so dear.  

We need not drive very far from this sanctuary to find churches where the contributions of women are defined more narrowly than in our denomination.  And so each time I put on my preaching shoes- no matter what color –  I give thanks for the women of valor who were among the first ordained as ministers of word and sacrament in our denomination. They are celebrating 60 years, even as I will mark my first anniversary of ordained ministry in a couple of days. And I give thanks for this congregation taking that step of faith with me a year ago.

That is really what it comes down to, if we want to understand what God hopes for women in the Body of Christ…  faith.

Faith that allows us to remember that we were claimed from the very beginning, how we have been and are being transformed, and where we belong, what we have inherited.

Faith that allows us – all of us – whatever gender – to live into the calling, the life, for which we were made by our loving God.  

Remember these words from the letter to the Galatians, as translated by Eugene Peterson:
By faith in Christ you are in direct relationship with God. Your baptism in Christ was not just washing you up for a fresh start. It also involved dressing you in an adult faith wardrobe— Christ’s life, the fulfillment of God’s original promise.
In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ.
Also, since you are Christ’s family, then you are Abraham’s famous “descendant,”  [Sarah’s famous descendant!]heirs according to the covenant promises.

This is where rubber meets the road for those of us who claim to be followers of Christ

When we understand what Christ puts to right by making us one — equally claimed, equally blessed, equally called to the ministry of reconciliation, regardless of what labels we place on one another…

When we see the gap between men and women filled by the waters of baptism…

We better understand the sin, “the misunderstandings”, the misapplication or misinterpretation that humanity has brought to God’s original design. In other words, Christ’s divine repairs allow us to see more clearly what human nature broke.   

Women were never meant to be property, treated like servants or breeding cattle – merely the means for securing heirs… From the very beginning, Adam’s Ezer, Eve, was meant to be a partner, she was the completion of God’s creation. When the church chose to place the weight of the fall squarely on the woman’s shoulders, it chose to ignore the contributions of warrior judges like Deborah and bold women like Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milca, and Tirzah to our understanding of community.  

For generations, the church has chosen to treat the very women that our forbears celebrated as of women of valor by including their stories – more like anomalies or oddities.  

Segments of today’s church pretend that the women of the early church- the ones who led among the first apostles, who were among the first preachers- actually just did behind the scenes work like baking pita chips…

When we silence the witness of women in scripture, we give permission to our families and our culture at large to diminish the contribution of women to our society.

When we choose not to tell the stories of violence against women in our sacred texts, ignoring torture, kidnap, human sacrifice and rape, or if we choose to tell them with euphemisms and make excuses for the men and our patriarchal God…   we are saying “boys will be boys”

We end up with women told they should stay in abusive relationships and pray because that is what good, submissive Christian women do.

We end up telling our girls and women to cover themselves, to be careful where they go and how they dress, holding them responsible for the catcalling, the inappropriate comments and worse.   

We end up with nameless victims raped behind dumpsters by young men who see women as objects to be claimed and used and left behind.

Dear ones,  this is not ok.  This is not God’s design

And no- it’s not all on the church, but yes, we have contributed to the mess in which we find ourselves.
But we also find ourselves in a position to make a difference.  We are part of God’s plan.

We have inherited a place in God’s family. Being part of the family means that we have inherited the family business…healing, setting free, reconciling
Loving the world.
Proclaiming the good news.
Speaking truth to power
Speaking in the power of the truth.  

Let us pray…

Yep. It’s time to talk.

Warning — this post jumps pretty quickly into pretty straightforward talk about sexual assault and its effect on my life, just in case you need to care for yourself and not read on. 

I let slip last night in a conversation with my mom that I had been assaulted on a date.  My first date, in fact.  Well, my first date with someone who wasn’t someone I’d known for years. It was the first time a guy asked me out because he met me and thought I was funny or cute or something.  And I said yes.

I regretted it later.  Both the date and the telling.

I wished for years that I’d said no to going out with someone I didn’t really know, that I’d been smart enough to anticipate what would happen, that I didn’t have to cross paths with him at school and feel the shame and embarrassment the memories of that night evoked. Every. Stinking. Time.

I wish I hadn’t seen the crazy mix of surprise, sorrow, compassion, pain and anger flash in my mother’s eyes.  I honestly didn’t mean to set her up to feel any of that.  I dropped that little truth bomb in the middle of a conversation about that rape case in California. The one that revealed in such stunning relief the insane culture in which we live.  I went on with my theory about learning by high school everything I needed to know about sex – except consent – just like so many of us GenX-ers. We then turned around and did an equally crappy job with our kids…

But I did go out that night, I was assaulted, and thirty-plus years later, mom finally heard about it.

What she didn’t hear was the other story.  The story that more closely resembles that of the victim in the case in the news.

The one in which I was more than a little drunk and sleeping at a friend’s house while a guy I was dating long-distance was visiting.  I woke up to find him on top of me and in me. Not because I’d invited him, not because I’d agreed, but because once before we had been intimate.  Therefore, apparently, my proximity was all the consent he needed.

I was too ashamed to say anything the next day, when he was leaving town. I was ashamed that I could be stupid enough to be the girl who was so drunk that I allowed this to happen… that my body had responded in a way that must have seemed like I wanted more…  that I was so groggy, I couldn’t think or speak until it was over.  And when he didn’t call back for several weeks, not even to officially break things off, I was a little relieved.

And yet, it wasn’t over for me. Not by a long shot.

When I hear the excuses made by the father of the rapist in California, by the judge who was so lenient, they echo the reasons I was so devastated. I was an athlete and a really good student. I had tremendous potential. I was going places.

If I could get past the confusion and shock and shame, and maybe get back to studying again.

If I weren’t carrying the child of my rapist. Who had apparently gone into the witness protection program, or had some other really good excuse for not answering my calls.

If I weren’t part of a community of churchy people who were appalled that I drank at all, much less allowed myself to get raped because of it. And considering where and how to get an abortion…

If I weren’t so frightened of disappointing my parents with being responsible for all of the above.

After all, good, smart, capable girls don’t…. and they sure don’t talk about it.

Nope.  It wasn’t over for me, not until I lost many friends over all of the above, burned through a lot more liquor to dull the pain and silence the inner voices, moved back home, graduated, finally realized that being raped by someone I knew wasn’t a choice I had made, stopped drinking, and started living into that potential again.

It’s all part of my story, even though I haven’t talked about it with more than a handful of people. At least that choice has become more about privacy than secrecy as I healed a bit, walked a bit, then healed some more. But today, I feel like I need to stand with the countless other women who have made that trek and are well enough to say to those in pain “You are not alone.  You are stronger than the fear and shame that is trying to silence you.”

And by the way, there are too damn many of us to shush.

PS.  Mom- if you read this before we talk, maybe just consider this rehearsal?

The Minder

There are approximately 3,428 reasons for me to lose weight. The top 20 of these are written about regularly on all manner of mommy, health, feminist and click-bait blogsites. I see myself in the stories all the time.

See, I can totally related to the person who hates flying because they take up more than their fair share of the too-small rows in a plane.  And the person who walks past the gaggle of thin young people who begin to whisper and giggle, and is pretty sure that even though they aren’t pointing, the giggling is about them.

I can talk intelligently about the dangers of diabetes, heart disease, and any number of issues that are related to obesity.  I can prattle on about how being fat makes you feel ugly, not to mention guilty when there are so many people who don’t know where or where their next meal will come.

Then there’s the snoring.  And don’t even get me started on the clothes.  And several hundred  pictures that are full of friends, smiles, and wonderful memories… but always awaken that voice that says, “I wish….”

But reason number 3,249 is a date looming at the end of September.  Yep, it’s one of those birthdays that marks a decade.

About 2 weeks ago, after several weeks of false starts and failed efforts to get serious about small first steps (just moving more and eating better), I finally decided I needed a goal. Maybe one of those virtual marathon things that you do over time by counting steps and activity.

After some research, I ordered one of those health tracker wearables.   I figured it would be like the old pedometer things but without the need to track manually.

Oh no… I got so much more than that.  I now have a minder.  A tiny little nag that clips onto my belt loop.  And because the app/website that came along with it asked for baseline information and goals, as well as my name, it greets me and acts happy to go for a long walk.

And, it asks me for nutrition information, so that the mathemagical formulas in the app can tell me whether or not I’m “in the zone” for my slow and steady work on the number on the scale.

Here’s what is crazy: I hate details like calories and serving sizes and all that. I am prone to periods of hyper-focus followed by monkey-brained distractions that keep me in front of the screen for far too long at a stretch.  But this silent little tracking device with its numbers and icons and 15-character notes of encouragement makes me want to park at the far edge of the lot, eat the smaller amounts of the right kinds of food and haul my butt up and down stairs.

Turns out I can do this, I just need a minder.  And an app with pretend badges.

When it’s not my apology to receive…

Yesterday, I was in a day-long meeting with leaders from the ministry at which I work, along with faculty members from several Christian universities with whom we partner to help their students connect with opportunities for short and long-term missions in the States and abroad.  It was an interesting meeting, hearing the perspectives of these “outsiders” who work with college students in an academic rather than a parachurch context.

Totally unrelated to the business at hand, I got to chat with one of our visitors who was loving all the “small world” connections between his circle of friends and those of us in the room.  I talked about seminary and my current bivocational call to the church, and he asked what if our congregation had any denomination affiliation.

Because my work context is very evangelical-conservative and my denominational work/home is seen as progressive mainline, letting people know that I am ordained is enough to shut down a conversation.  Knowing the stories of some of my clergywomen friends who had completed degrees where he was on faculty, I expected a fairly swift pivot would follow.

So I tried to ease what might be awkward by laughing a bit when I said “PC(USA)… Because, they let women play there, too.”

Far from shutting down or pivoting, I got what might be the most sincere first-person apology I have ever heard from a man regarding the church’s views of women.  He apologized for women being marginalized in the church. He apologized for the way men ignored women’s gifts and leadership. He said “It is past time for the church to repent” for these sins.

I don’t know how to convey the look in this man’s eyes or the conviction in his voice, other than to offer up this testimony.  It was a powerful moment that cut right through my attempt to avoid being hurt.

I said thank you.  And that it meant a lot to me, and that I had been blessed in both of my vocations to be doing ministry among people who affirmed my gifts and call to ministry.  Which is true.

In some way, this wasn’t my apology to receive. I grew up in a church that ordained women as elders and ministers. I was surrounded by strong women in that denomination as I first discerned my call to leadership. When I found my way back into church via the PC(USA) there were so many more men supported me than were neutral or negative. I had choices. I had safe places to learn and grow and find my voice as a preacher and provider of comfort and counsel.

But having spent part of the night before reading tweets from and in response to the conference for “Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” and recalling the ways that co-workers in both of my work worlds persist in subtle (sometimes not-so-subtle) sexism rooted in scriptural interpretation, I wanted to let his words wash over me and cleanse some of wounds I carry.  And the wounds of my sisters in Christ.

So I stood and received that apology for the women who were told NO by the very institution at which this man has taught for 30+ years.  For the women whose male pastors made sure they quashed any move of the Holy Spirit in their churches to support women’s leadership. For the women who endured all-male classes in seminary and remain faithful in denominations and faith traditions that don’t yet recognize women as full participants in the life of the church.

There is much the church needs to confess and much repentance that is overdue. Our complicity in so many of the sins of our western culture is heartbreaking.  I am coming to believe that if I am unwilling to engage in the kind of one-on-one conversations that allow us to offer and receive apologies that are not ours alone, I am holding the kingdom of God at a distance.

My Presbyterian circles are wrestling with a proposed corporate confession and apology to our LGBTQ siblings in Christ. I am not sure where I land, having seen my friends to whom this apology is meant to be offered responding with mixed feelings as well. That is not my apology to receive, and I want to be mindful about how it is offered.

Here’s what I am fairly certain about  – I cannot expect a corporate confession alone to reconcile me and the one my words (or my church’s words) have driven away.  Not any more than my colleague expected me to feel fully welcome on his campus without knowing I had at least one friend, one person who “got it” deeply enough to say the words that invite an exploration of reconciliation.

Walls are Hard on a Body

Just after Christmas, I pulled out the calendar for 2016 and thought, “huh… January and February look pretty full.”

Seriously.  Full doesn’t even begin to describe the last several weeks.

There was a lot of really good stuff in there. Teaching and speaking about things I am passionate about – to people who really engaged the topics. Leading music with the guitar alongside other gifted musicians.  Ash Wednesday – always a favorite.  Writing and taking a part in a Reader’s Theater to help refocus missionaries on the fullness of the gospel. Writing a blog post for a project with the potential for a significant national audience.

But every single one of those good things was in addition to my normal work load. Plus – as is often the case with ministry – the bonus meetings and funerals that can’t be anticipated, calendar-wise.

I knew that this Sunday was the end of this crazy long stretch, so I was pressing through last week, counting down the last of the program elements for the conference, thinking about a sermon that would be written Saturday, and then it happened.

The text requesting One. More. Thing.

Sigh. Ok.

Oh, and we need it done in the next 48 hours.

Sigh. Ok.

At 8:14pm Saturday, the One. More. Thing. was complete.

The sermon for 11:15am Sunday was not.

It was on the other side of a wall. A wall that I had to push through in order to get any rest that night, even though it meant pushing the beginning of that night’s rest back by another 3 hours or more.

It was not ok. I was not ok. But I pushed through.

Here’s where I say that this is not an endorsement of exhaustion, of saying YES to too many things. I am saying this:

Pushing oneself up to and then through walls is a very very bad idea. I was physically, emotionally and spiritually not well Sunday morning. I felt like I was on the verge of tears, of throwing up, of going rogue verbally.

I am thankful for the grace of God that was unleashed right before worship – in the form of someone who saw and spoke into my not being wholly myself. In a moment of quiet support, I was able to pull down the mask and admit being on the edge, which allowed me to be held in prayer and walk back away from the edge.

I am thankful for the grace of God that was poured out in abundance through the hymns and the anthem that were interspersed in the service. None of them connected to the theme of the sermon or even remotely fit with the passages on which it was based. Which annoyed me for about 1 stanza of the first hymn, at which point I noticed they were all about rest. Huh. Just enough rest in every segment of the ordo to get this goober through to the next one.

And the next one.

And into a sermon that I could preach with the energy that came from being held in prayer and given over to the only energy and power that matters on a Sunday (not mine, clearly).

Did I get some rest?  Yes.

I napped Sunday afternoon. I slept about 25 of the last 36 hours, in fact. The hours I was awake, I ignored email and most online interactions. I spent face time with people I love. I spent some time reading and praying – not in preparation for anything, just being God’s grateful and beloved child.

And I’m looking closely at the next 3 months, making note of where the big events are landing and where I need great big NOs written in around them.  Because I really would like to reduce the number of walls I bang into this year…

All Will Be Well

In which I “get real” (aka whine) about some of the challenges a pastor faces on the way to worship.  

It was one of those mornings. The sort where you’re cruising along, feeling pretty good about the way things look to be going, right up until you arrive at the church, where…

You overhear yet another conversation that makes you wish adults could be forced to watch Sesame Street lessons on playing nicely with others.

You run into someone you think will greet you warmly and you get “oh, hi.”

You head over to the sanctuary to find the furniture you removed from the entry area (so that people can enter and leave without feeling like they’ve gone through a funnel) has reappeared, requiring a conversation about space and welcoming and trying this just for a couple of weeks to see how it goes…

You come back to the office one more time to find an elder poring through the Book of Order (No one does this on a Sunday morning before worship just for s%!#s and giggles. Actually, I can’t think of a time anyone would be reading the Book of Order for giggles, not even while on the toilet) and thus must begin probing tenderly, covering your concern with curiosity…

The choir director comes over to let you know that a conversation about the bare chancel has turned into “let’s move those plants back up there” even though everyone who moves to the pulpit looks like they are searching for Dr. Livingston in the jungle…

You are putting on your robe and stole at the last minute and the back of the button in the middle of your chest decides it will cut right through the thread meant to hold it on. No time to repair, no time to undo all the buttons and swap out for the other robe…

So you warm up with the choir, hoping the colorful stole distracts from the missing button because really, it doesn’t matter.And when you head over to pick up your mic, you see that the visitors (!!) coming in have no trouble getting their wheelchair through the vestibule and are being warmly welcomed by the deacons.

And when you go up to the chancel, the dreaded jungle is still stashed away in the back of the sanctuary, and everyone nods in agreement when you speak about the emptiness of the chancel and missing the Christmas greenery. And then, as you pass the peace, the warm smile you expected early is combined with a hearty handshake and laugh.

All is well.
And all would have been well with furniture and foliage where I didn’t want it.
Or if 20 people noticed the button.
Or fussed about the typos I missed in the bulletin.
Because I am loved.
I am claimed.
I am called.
I am gifted for the work I came to do this morning.

Because the sermon and the renewal of baptismal vows and sharing of ordination and installation promises that I had prepared, mixed with the music we had chosen for the day.. all to help our congregation hear and believe those truths, also renewed and reminded me that walking in the way of Christ is messy, that serving is not about being served, that sweating the small stuff just makes me sweaty.

Maybe I should add to the list above that I am a goober.
And a bit of a cliche.
And that when I remember rule number 6, it’s easier to trust that all will be well.