Friday, November 17, 2017

A Better Way





A friend recently expressed frustration that empowering people to take ownership and leadership takes a lot more time than doing something one's self. This is true... in the short term. In the long term, empowerment is the more efficient means of reaching a given destination because empowerment involves honest recognition of one's own limitations, the skills of others, the need for community and relationship, and the reality of having a few more eyes on an issue. 

As a person who often makes an idol of efficiency, I confess that I have sometimes let empowerment fall by the wayside. This is not because I lack the skills to empower others, but because I haven't taken the time to offer the opportunity or been willing to let something flounder when others didn't step forward. I have come to realize, through time and experience, that enabling is not actually an efficient path to any destination other than the Land of Resentment, Burnout Island, or Frustration Station. 

In the church, as with many other organizations, good leadership does not mean that one or two or even a small committee handle the majority of the work. Instead, good stewardship of the resources of people, locations, time, and money means sharing duties between those who have the necessary skills, those who could learn them, and those who would like to assist, but not be in charge. 

Lay leaders, as well as clergy, can be guilty of taking the enabling path by way of control (doing it alone resentfully or instructing how it should be done). They may also grow tired of doing a thing, but not let go of it- lest it be changed or "done wrong". Some may make a choice, certain that their way is correct and that change is good, and lead off- only to find that no one has followed. Others may distribute activities, chores, or roles without considering the skills, abilities, and desires of the ones whom they are pressuring as recruits. 

Empowering involves a certain level of vulnerability- a willingness to be honest with one's yes and one's no, the effort to ask for help or explanation, the patience to listen reflectively and with self-control, and a level of discernment via the Holy Spirit. None of these things are outside of the grasp of anyone in the church. Often we tolerate bad behavior because that's just "the way someone is" or because we don't like confrontation. Both of those options seem efficient, but are the way of enabling. 

The fruits of the spirit- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control- all contain an element of honesty within them. When we embrace and are embraced by this honesty, then we can become communities of empowerment, not enabling. And empowerment seems like the most efficient way to help one another live the baptized life of imitating Christ to which we have been called. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Jesus Test (A Corollary to The Rock Test)

In response to new/old news about powerful men abusing and manipulating women, blogger Anna Victoria Clark wrote a fun and true piece called The Rock Test: A Hack for Men Who Don't Want to Be Accused of Sexual Harassment. I recommend this piece and if you haven't read it yet, take a moment, click over, and then come on back for some theological reflection.

I like The Rock Test, but it's not totally great for my context.

Confession: I don't think about Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as much as I do about Jesus.

Thus, I'd like to propose that for a certain part of the population, "The Jesus Test" may be a more effective hack to prevent bad choices and encourage good (and godly) behavior.

Setting One: Passing the Peace

Sure, maybe you're a "hugger", but you know the person who has always stiffly held out their hand? That person doesn't want to be hugged. You don't know why. It may be taking all they have to be in the presence of all these other people. It may be that they have an illness where even light touch is painful. They may just not like to be touched. Your identity as a "hugger" doesn't surpass their desire not to be hugged.

Think of this Jesus:



This is when Christ appears to Mary Magdalene in the garden and asks her not to touch him. We don't know if he didn't want it because it would break his resolve to ascend to the Father, because it would be hard for her, or if it would disrupt some other divine part of His work. 

Jesus has the right to ask not to be touched and to have that request respected. Look at the person you are approaching. What are their body signals? What do their eyes say? If you know you are a person who is NOT good at reading those things, a handshake is always your best bet. If someone has a hand out, respect that hand. Noli me tangere, Jesus says, "Do not touch me." We listen to that from him and when he says it from within our neighbor. 

Pro tip: This applies beyond passing the peace. When someone asks you to withdraw your hand or to step back, additional commentary or pressure is absolutely uncalled for and unnecessary. No means no. It did for Jesus, it does for those whom Jesus loves. 


Setting Two: The Inappropriate Story

Are you in Bible study or a group meeting? Are you having a one-to-one with another person? Are you having coffee, drinks, or a snack with a group of 2-3? Are you leading? Are you a participant? Do you have a question you want to ask or a story that you want to tell neither of which is for the full edification of the group? 

Is your story because it gets a good laugh or because you like to shock people? 
Is your question to show how much you know, rather than to offer information? 
Is your goal to disrupt or unseat the person in charge? 
Is the purpose of the story or the question to show your power in the group and/or in the community? 

Would you tell this story to Jesus? Would you interrupt Jesus to ask the question? Is there a way that you would frame things differently if Jesus were the one in the front of the room or the one listening to you teach? 

Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing [CC BY-SA 3.0
(https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons



_____________________________________________________________________________


I began this blog post on 10/11/17, right after the Harvey Weinstein allegations came out and the "Rock Test" was fresh and viral. However, I never mustered the energy to finish it. Frankly, my dears, I'm tired of having to think of clever ways to say, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." 

It's not about how you would want someone to treat your mother or daughter. It's not about how you feel about your gay son or your cousin who is trans. It's not about whether you could see your Indian neighbor's face or your Muslim cab driver's family picture. The truth is that you either believe all people to be your equals in the eyes of God or you don't. 

And if you don't, if you don't... you won't- even if someone rises from the dead. 

If you don't, it's not about things being different in the era in which you were raised. 

If you don't, it's not about a boys' club or what was good enough for you or your father or your grandfather. 

The fact is that you think that you are better than people around you and that the rules that govern everyone else don't apply to you. 

My carefully constructed writing will not convince you that other people are not means to your end of power, perceived control, money, awards, rewards, or advancement. 



So, here's the deal. I will not be sad when you lose your job. I will not be sad when your empire collapses. I will not shed a tear if you find yourself without everything that you so carefully built, believing yourself to be invincible. 

Someday, when (not if) it happens, I will have tea with you. If you want. I will not be sympathetic to your plight. I will look you in the eye and say, "This was always going to be a totally shit time." 

And I will wait to see if you want to make it better or make it right. 

I will not offer cheap grace. 

That's the true Jesus' test. 

And many people are shocked to find themselves failing. 



Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Something New

Knitting a basketweave hat! 
I recently taught myself how to knit, with the help of videos, books, and a few friends. I ultimately want to make a certain kind of sweater and I can only find knitting patterns for that sweater. Knitting makes a different kind of fabric and would open up more projects for me. 

However, in order to start knitting, I had to stop crocheting (at least for a little while). To fully learn and grown in my new skill, I had to set aside other habits. While there was nothing wrong with crocheting, I can’t crochet and knit at the same time, so one had to be put down while I took up the other.

It seems that we often try to do two things at the same time, even though they are mutually exclusive. We harbor longing for change, but we do not set aside harmful habits or take up helpful ones. We try to fit complacency and courage into the same space at the same time. We like the idea of something new, but we don’t want to put the energy or time or thought into how it might come about.


The only way to truly change, to embrace a new way of being, is to set aside the thing(s) that cannot continue to happen at the same time. As we enter in the season of holidays, apocalyptic scripture readings, donation requests, and thoughts of a new year, let us remember that God promises to make “all things new” which is NOT the same as “all new things”. How do we lean into the renewal work of the Holy Spirit in this busy time? What are we being called to set aside, so that we might take up something new, grown in a new way, or be led down a new path?  

Friday, October 27, 2017

Human Being

I have been thinking about getting a new tattoo for over a year. For a while, I thought
about the phrase I read in a book by Augusten Burroughs: “Harder is just harder”. I felt comforted at the idea that harder isn’t impossible, it’s just harder. However, the right time and place for that tat never materialized.
That idea faded when I came upon another phrase: fida et audax- faithful and bold. I loved the idea of this motto and it made me feel strong and courageous to imagine it on my wrist or on an ankle. This was my plan until about 3 weeks ago.
A variety of life events came to a culmination and I found that I was exhausted, frustrated, and tense. Overwhelmed by all things that seemed insurmountable, I marinated in the idea that in this intense time, I couldn’t “do” very much. All I could do was be.
Be.
I’m not very good at being. I am good at doing. I am good at thinking. I am okay at feeling, but I tend to put that aside for what I think I should do.
I went to visit a friend in New York. She was with me in 2005 when I got my first tattoo. Getting my second with her was a natural choice, but as I thought about what I wanted, I realized that I couldn’t get fida. That was about doing. It was about actions, resistance, and persistence. Those things are very important to me, but if I was getting a permanent reminder... I don’t need one for how to do, I need one for how to be.
Then I knew... I would get sola gratia- grace alone. One of the rallying cries of the reformations of the 16th century, this phrase grounds me not in my own doing, but in God’s doing. In light of God’s doing, my response is to be. Being beloved. Being saved. Being healed. Being welcomed. Being held. By grace alone. Not by my doing, my thinking, or my successes or failures.
By grace. Alone.
So now it is permanently inked into my wrist. It is a reminder that what I am, first and last, is God’s. Thus, whether I am trying the hard thing, the bold thing, the faithful thing... there is always time to still myself. To know I am loved. To be washed again in grace alone.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Wholeheartedly

I've been having a lot of difficult conversations lately. Racism, sexism, classism, privilege, and anti-LGBTQ sentiments are all part of my usual fare. Then I have the occasional conversation with a person who is put off by religion or by religious people, so then I am in heavy listening mode. Good energy in patient listening takes away some of the energy I would put toward careful writing.

All this listening has changed my prayer life. I find now that my most common prayer is "Soften my heart. Soften my neck." I know that a hard heart and a stiff neck, both metaphorical, will interfere with the patience and kindness that I am trying to embody. I actively seek Christ in myself and in the other person by focusing on even my internal organs being gentled by the Savior.

This has caused me to pay attention to how often church people bifurcate their lives. Our bodies are our daily vehicle- the daily throne of God and inhabitance of Christ, driven by the Spirit. The experience of church, Bible study, the sacraments, and mutual building up for discipleship that happens in the fellowship of other Christians is a kind of fueling up for the rest of our time. It is not the only time we drive the car.

When I talk about living and dying for Christ, remembering that there is only one God, or yielding to pull of the Holy Spirit, I mean doing it in the grocery store, at the mailbox, in the bank drive-thru, and at the dog park. I mean that because I trust that Jesus means that when he explains discipleship to the apostles and all those gathered around him. A faithful life is a whole life. A whole life means every minute of every day. In order to live all our minutes faithfully, we may need to change how we pray, how we talk, and how we listen.

So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. Romans 12:1
There is not a part of the day when a Christian is not in Christ. There is no place that we can go that is outside of God's view or the Spirit's urging. There is no time that we are "off duty" and can make choices that have nothing to do with the faith we have been given. As much as Western Christians like to think of their faith as private and personal, being a person of Christ recreates your entire self, reorienting your understanding to comprehend that all that you have, all that you are, and all that is belongs to God.

Being a follower of Christ is our reality. It impacts our every decision. If we are not thinking about or considering that fact, it is not that it doesn't have an impact, it is that we are ignoring it. The non-religious people I meet who are grieved by or frustrated with Christians notice this the most. The actions of those who claim to follow Christ surprise them most because their Monday-Saturday actions don't match their Sunday words.

If you see yourself in this, I encourage you to adopt the prayer of "Soften my heart". Perhaps you need to be in my conversation schedule. We are compelled, by Christ's love for us, to witness to his love, call to turn around (repentance), and show his mercy in all we say and do, every day, in every place, with all people.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Confession for Healing from Racism

This was written for Stand Against Racism: A Community Prayer Vigil sponsored by the congregations of Anchorage Faith and Action- Congregations Together and three other congregations, including Congregation Beth Sholom. 

The base idea for this litany came from the ELCA's Service for the same purpose. 


In some religious traditions, confession is used a kind of internal housecleaning. Confessing one’s sins- things done and left undone, said and left unsaid- clears the spiritual detritus from one’s heart and mind and better helps a person perceive the truth and guidance of God. Confession to God does not eliminate the need to confess and seek forgiveness from one’s family, friends, or neighbors. Like physical housecleaning, spiritual housekeeping is best done sooner rather than later and with a whole-hearted effort. Confessing together helps us to acknowledge that none of us is any worse or any better than the other, especially before the One who Made All Things.

Gracious God, you are the source of all that is, was, and ever will be. We give you thanks for making one human family of all the peoples of the earth. We praise you for creating a wonderful diversity of cultures.
Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of fellowship
and show us your presence in those who differ most from us.

From the bondage of racism that denies the humanity of people based on their skin color or ancestry,
God, we want to be free!

From the lies of history that imply a hierarchy between cultures, classes, or genders,
God, we want to be free!

From the grip of silence in the face of white supremacy, bigotry, and false equivalencies,
God, we want to be free!

We humbly ask for forgiveness for how we have failed to acknowledge the presence and work of your wisdom.
Be merciful to us, O God!

We humbly ask forgiveness for our silence when we should have spoken, our nervous laughter in times of discomfort, and our doubling down in wrong behavior because we are afraid of change.
Be merciful to us, O God!

We humbly ask forgiveness for the history of racism, religious discrimination, and injustice that many of us have benefited from and that most of us have perpetuated in intentional and unintentional ways.
Be merciful to us, O God!

Guide us in the work of reconciliation, relinquishing of privilege, and lifting up of all people.
God of grace, unite us to your will!

Guide us toward relationships and fellowships that build peace, promote justice, and reward humility.
God of grace, unite us to your will!

Guide us toward the words and actions that will resist racism and hatred and will dismantle their false power.

God of grace, unite us to your will!

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Too Good to Not Be True (Sermon)

Sermon Text: Matthew 14:13-21

Sometimes I think we don't want to believe in grace.

It is easier, more rational, simpler, faster, more efficient to act as though miracles have a more basic explanation. The feeling of lack of control is fun for a minute, for some people, on an amusement park ride, but basically entrusting our life to that feeling is like wearing Keds (flat soled sneakers) as ice skates- no purchase, no control, slow progress. The idea of grace is amazing, but regular dependence on the stuff is a risky business. We've all had enough of a taste of grace to believe it's real, but most of the people I encounter still seem to believe that God's main currency is pain, shame, and punishment.

Recently, a person talked to me about a situation that was grieving them. After spilling out a story of a friend's pain and trauma, the person said, "I believe that God is doing this to bring my friend to her knees. That way she will come back to the Lord. It's the only way." [Insert Pastor Poker Face] Further into the conversation, the person asked, "Do you think God is doing this for the purpose I stated?"

I carefully said, "I believe that understanding is bringing you relief and consolation right now."

I did not say, "No, I do not think that for one second. If those who have seen the Son have seen the Father, does this sound like something Jesus would do? Does that sound like a God who pursues with goodness and mercy all the days of our lives? Does this sound like the God who renews covenants and considers them irrevocable?" (John 1, Psalm 23, Romans 11)

How can we hold the idea of amazing grace in the same hearts that believe in a punishing and vengeful God?

Is God jealous? Sure, God is frustrated by our daily attempts at control, our casual idolatry, and our lack of trust.

Does God correct us? Yes, but we are corrected within the context of being yoked to Jesus, the pain we feel is likely the pull and tension of our attempts to go a way other than that to which the Lord leads.

Does God cause pain and grief and sorrow? This goes hand in hand with the theory of substitutionary atonement: that God was so angry, a sacrifice was required to appease the Divine and Jesus was that sacrifice. If we believe that kind of deity is the ground and source of all that is, we do not fundamentally have a sin problem, we have a god problem.

If grace is true- a continuous and renewing sign of God's character and covenant-keeping- then the pain that exists in the world does not come from God. It comes from the forces that oppose God. It comes from the sin that exists in us and is manifested in our choices, thoughts, and deeds. It comes from the continuous pursuit of control that exists within humanity and the idolatries that grow out of that pursuit.

This week's gospel reading, Matthew's version of the feeding of the multitude, talks about Jesus' compassion. In the wake of learning of his cousin's murder, Jesus continued to heal the people who came to him for healing. He multiplied food so that people who were used to hand-to-mouth living could know the momentary grace of fullness. It seems likely that the people there responded to his miracle by the miracle of sharing what they also had. And the scriptures tell us repeatedly that Jesus is God. When we see the Son, we have seen the Father. The character and actions of the Son reveal the character and nature of the One who sent him. If the unity, but not uniformity of the Trinity holds through that description- then it seems a safe conclusion that Jesus also reveals and speaks to the nature and character of the Holy Spirit.

God, Holy Parent, Holy Child, Holy Spirit, then is a God of abundance, a God who does not discriminate, a God who shows compassion, a God who is not cowed in the face of opposition, a God who heals, nourishes, and satiates (fills to enough!).

Is this, then, a God who seeks to drive us to our knees, to stir us to pain, to arm-twist us into faith?

Does this sound like a God at the ready to shame, blame, and frame us as wrong-doers and horrible people?

In order to live into the discipleship to which we have been called, in order to imitate Jesus in our daily lives, in order to be Christians- little Christs- in the world- we must wholeheartedly believe that grace is true.

Not only that, we must believe that grace is true, but also that it is abundant.

Not only that, we must believe that grace is true, abundant, and bigger than we can fully understand.

Grace welcomes, grace heals, grace feeds... and there are always leftovers.

I'm often told that people (you!) don't really like the idea of salvation being beyond our efforts... as in, there is nothing we can do to earn it. If we struggle with the fact that we do not earn our salvation, that Jesus has done that work for us and for all people, then we are struggling, in fact, with the idea that grace is true.

Just because earning our salvation is off the table doesn't mean there's nothing to do. There's all that grace to respond to. All that grace that is pushing us into the world. All that grace that moves us toward the work of listening, feeding, healing, praying, visiting, clothing, and advocating.

What does it mean to be evangelical. It means to carry good news.

Our good news is the news of Jesus Christ. It is the same good news that was learned, consumed, shared, and carried away from that hill in Palestine in 31 C.E./A.D. Grace is true and there's more than enough to go around.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

What Kind of Stranger Are You?

"What kind of stranger are you?"

The small black girl paused in her climb up the playground equipment and asked me that question. She was speeding around the playground with my white daughter and another little black girl. The three preschool age girls united in laughter, daredevilry, and energy were challenging each other to scrambling up, over, and under everything in sight. 

I tried to be inconspicuous as a spotter as they climbed on the equipment, trying to eye all of them equally for potential falls. Halfway through scaling the wooden framework, one of the little girls turned and looked at me. 

"Is that your daughter?"

"Yes."

"Can we play with her?"

"Sure!"

"Are you a stranger?"

"Um, yes, I am a stranger to you, but not to her." 

"What kind of stranger are you?"

I froze for a moment, cutting my eyes away from hers. For a kindergarten aged black girl in Anchorage, Alaska, what kind of stranger am I? What kind of stranger am I to her mom or dad, her older brother, her next door neighbor, her teachers, her cousin, her pastor or community leader? 

"Well," I said carefully. "I am the kind of stranger who you can ask for help if you are hurt or lost or scared. But you should not go anywhere with me or take anything from me. I am the kind of stranger who will be kind to you, but I still want you to know that not all strangers are the same." 

There's no way to explain to any child that strangers are not always the danger. That sometimes the danger is in your house or your school or the people in positions to protect you. I didn't say that I am a stranger who has fought for things for all Alaskans- like Medicaid expansion, more Medicare doctors, community policing, and more detox beds in the Anchorage Bowl. I didn't tell her that I'm the kind of stranger who wrestles with privilege and frustration and anger. I didn't tell her that I'm the kind of stranger who has a #BlackLivesMatter pin stuck into my bright pink pussy hat and I mean both symbols wholeheartedly. 

As far as she knows, I'm the kind of stranger who watches out for all the kids on the playground. I'm the kind of stranger who will push her on the swing. I'm the kind of stranger whose daughter will refer to other girls whose names she does not know as "my sister". (I don't actually know why she does this, but V told me once that all girls are her sisters. I didn't argue.) I'm the kind of stranger who will pretend to be a tickle monster under the slide, but will only tickle hands and arms of children to whom I am not related. I am the kind of stranger who will offer a bandaid for a scrape, but not a snack because I don't want children I don't know to be in the habit of taking food from people they don't know outside of an organized setting or a grownup's permission. 

I'm the kind of stranger who is not close to being perfect or even that good, but I'm strange enough to keep persisting in being better. 

What kind of stranger are you?