Saturday, April 19, 2014

holy saturday

Sometimes, life gets so squeezed and narrow that it seems small enough to shove into a tiny, dark tomb. This smallness takes a million forms, because there are a million ways we mess ourselves up, a million ways we screw each other over. Pay attention: narrowness is squeezing people into oblivion all around you. You don't need me to name the ways; you know all too well what they are.

The passage from John 10 has been haunting me for months, now. Jesus tells the Pharisees, who have been scoffing about his healing of the blind man, that he is the sheep gate. I don't exactly know what that means, but what it sounds like to me is that Jesus - after proving himself a healer of bodies and souls - explains to the doubting religious leaders how that is true: I am God, incarnate. I am no wizard or trickster or demon, I am God, come to be with you and live this human existence. I came through the gate, born of a woman, nourished at her breast and in the temple, grown up on the same flatbread and olives you fed your own children, suffered through puberty and growing pains, family arguments and hangnails. I am fully human, fully present here with you. And I am God.

God got small. Imagine the squeezing narrowness that took, disregarding divinity, emptying himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. If ever a thing felt constricting, if ever a circumstance felt unending, if ever a being felt as if she were being prevented from living out her potential…God must have felt claustrophobic.

Not to mention that anytime he tried to explain himself, his very best friends and most loyal followers looked back at him with dumb expressions of incomprehension.

God got small. God GETS small. And still, even in those claustrophobic years, we know that God found potential, possibility, that God made ways, that God made waves. Got got small, and lived like a human being. And even though no one could believe it, he still acted like who he was, constantly shifting expectations and bringing unexpected newness from dead-certain circumstances. Water turned to wine, sick made well, demons cast out, outcasts brought in, empires upturned, stories untold.

God got small, and experienced all those ways we narrow ourselves. And, at the end, God died from all the smallness, suffocated from the narrow-mindedness, crucified by dearth of wonder.

We should really stop skipping over that part. God died. God got small, and turned things in our tiny world upside down, and those openings and possibilities and augmentations got God in trouble. God got small, tried to tell us how to be bigger, and we killed him for it.

It's holy Saturday, and God is dead. Our smallness killed him, kills him still. Shrinking violets that we are, we can't even imagine a way out. And I suppose that is why we avoid this day, this day when God is dead: because we don't really believe that our smallness can be overcome. We don't really believe that if we do allow for death, that there can ever be anything bigger. We think this is the end.

And, well, isn't it?

Sunday, March 30, 2014

But…WE aren't blind…are we?

Sermon 3-30-14, MCoB
John 9:1-41
But WE Aren’t Blind, Are We?

There are lots of healing stories in the gospels. When you read the life story of Jesus as told by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the guy comes across as a troubadour, hiking from town to town, disciples in tow, freaking people out by healing women and men and children who have been sick all their lives: clearing up impossible skin conditions, stopping decades-long hemorrhages, making lame people walk, opening the eyes of those blind from birth and even raising people who’ve been dead for days. There are over thirty healing miracles in the ministry of Jesus as told in the gospels.

It’s hard to miss the miracles – there are so MANY of them, and they are so OBVIOUS.

You would think that stories like these, crazy, illogical, unbelievable healings and feedings, turning water into wine and mud into miracle drugs – you would think that these things would make us more attuned to the miraculous.

But somehow, that’s not how it works. Somehow, we miss the miracles.

We aren’t alone. The disciples missed the miracles, too. The temple teachers and religious leaders doubted their authenticity and grew afraid of the guy who kept performing them.

The unbelievable is happening right in front of our eyes, and somehow, we still miss the miracles.

This story from John’s gospel is a long miracle story. It’s just a simple healing – Jesus healed a bunch of other blind guys, and none of their stories took an entire chapter. But this isn’t a story about the miracle. It’s a story about missing the miracle.

Here’s how the story goes:

There was a man who had been blind since birth. Jesus happened to run into the guy in the course of his travels, and his disciples, who were always pestering Jesus with the wrong questions, asked him:

“Jesus, this man has been blind since birth. Whose fault is that? Is he blind because HE sinned, or was it his parents that offended God?”

Jesus, kneeling down in the mud, scoffs at their question.

“No one sinned, you guys. You should know by now that isn’t how the world works. Haven’t you been hanging out with me long enough to know that God doesn’t punish his children like that? No, we ran into this man who has been blind all his life so that the power of God might shine through his life.”

And with that, Jesus picked up a handful of brown dirt, spit into his hand and mixed it up into mud. He spread the spit and mud across the blind man’s eyes, and told him to go wash in the pool of Siloam. The man did what he was told – wouldn’t you, given the possibility of sight? – and came home able to see.

Icon from Holy Transfiguration Monastery


His neighbors didn’t believe it. They argued among themselves. “Is that really the blind guy who used to wander around the streets here?” “Nah, it can’t be him. Must just be someone who kinda looks like him. That blind guy was so sad and aimless. This guy is dancing and singing!”

The man kept trying to tell his neighbors who he was – “it’s me! It’s really me!” But the neighbors kept asking him how it could be, how he could have suddenly received his sight, something he never had. “Who could have done that to you,” they kept asking him, and he kept telling them, “It was this guy named Jesus! I don’t know where he went, but he healed me!”

The neighbors were skeptical. So they told the church leaders, who were supposed to be in charge of all miraculous happenings in the area…or, if not in charge, at least apprised of these strange goings on. The Pharisees didn’t understand what was happening, either, so they called the man in for a hearing. “How is it that you are suddenly able to see?” they asked him.

“It was this man named Jesus,” he replied. “He made mud with his spit, spread it on my eyes, and told me to go wash in the pool of Siloam. I went and washed, and now I can see!”

The Pharisees were skeptical. First of all, whoever this miracle man was, he was healing on the wrong day – it turns out that the day Jesus healed the blind man had been a Sabbath day, and no one was allowed to do any work of any kind, including healing, on the Sabbath. Inappropriate, the Pharisees thought. But something must be up with this Jesus guy. “What do you think of him?” they asked the man.

“He is a prophet.”

The Pharisees didn’t believe him. They thought maybe the man was pulling one over on them. So they called in his parents for a hearing. “Is this really your son?” they asked them, “and has he REALLY been blind since birth?”

“Yes, this is our son,” they said, “and yes, he really has been blind since he was born. But we don’t know how he received his sight – it is a mystery to us! Ask him, he’s old enough to tell you the truth himself.”

So, completely unsatisfied and getting nowhere in their inquisition, the Pharisees called the man back into the hearing and asked him a second time: “How did this man give you your sight? He must be a sinner! He must be using evil magic!” But the man only said, “I do not know how he did it. All I know is that I was blind, and now I see.”

The Pharisees kept pushing. “But what did he DO to you? How did he open your eyes?!”

The man, frustrated by now, said again and again, “I TOLD you already! Weren’t you LISTENING to me? What, are you trying to get more info so you can follow him and become his disciples? What’s your problem?!”

And still, they protested: “Look. We follow Moses. We know how God works. We know how miracles happen – you know, kids saved for leadership by being sent out on the river in a reed basket, wooden rods becoming serpents, seas being parted. THAT is how miracles happen! None of this dirt-and-mud stuff. None of this healing on the Sabbath. We don’t know who this guy is. He can’t be working miracles if we don’t even know him!”

The man answered, “Well, isn’t that something? You don’t know this guy and yet he healed me, opened my eyes, turned my life around! If he weren’t from God, how could he heal me like that?”

But still, the Pharisees would hear none of it. “You were born entirely in sin,” they yelled, “and now you’re trying to teach us, the leaders of the temple, the teachers of the land! What disrespect!” And they threw him out of town.

Jesus was still hanging around, and he heard what was going on with the Pharisees. He found the man thrown out of town and asked, “Do you believe that I am the Son of Man?” The man answered, simply, “Lord, I believe.”

And, as they stood there, the man whose eyes had been opened worshipping his Lord, Jesus said “I came so that those who are blind may see and that those who see may become blind.”

There were still some Pharisees hanging around, and they saw the man worshipping Jesus and they heard Jesus say this.

And then, those Pharisees,

the ones who heard the story of the miracle first from the townspeople and then from the man who had been healed and then again from the man’s parents and then yet another time from the healed man a second time and finally from Jesus, the healer himself;

the ones who had every opportunity to open their eyes to the miracles that Jesus was doing right in front of them;

the ones who should have been teaching about the grace and power of God available to each and every one of God’s people and instead spent their time dragging the recipients of that grace in for interrogation and eventual excommunication;

the ones who simply closed their eyes and turned their backs to the story of salvation being enacted before their very eyes;

those Pharisees turned to Jesus and said:

“But surely WE aren’t blind, are we?”


This story from John’s gospel is a miracle story, yes. It is a healing story, yes. It is a story about Jesus getting on the nerves of the religious leaders, setting up his eventual trial and crucifixion and resurrection, playing right into the climax of the Easter story that we are on a journey toward ourselves in this time of Lent.

But mostly, this story is about the Pharisees, the ones who missed the miracles.

And it makes me wonder…how much like the Pharisees are we?

Think about it. We are some of the richest, most educated, most powerful people in the world. 

We are pretty secure in our knowledge of the world, of the church, of God’s ways.

We are pretty comfortable in our habits and our assumptions.

We are pretty insistent on checking out our sources, vetting the candidates, consenting only to trust a person or a newspaper or a bit of gossip when it comes to us by way of familiar channels.

We are slow to believe and quick to scoff.

And all that caution, all that responsibility, has its benefits.

But I wonder…how much like the Pharisees are we?

How many miracles are we missing?

Because Jesus is here among us, healing the sick, opening the eyes of the blind, setting the captives free.

A new world is coming, and I suspect that, like the Pharisees in John’s gospel, it is happening right here, right under our noses. A new world is coming, where everybody gets to be part of God’s people. The miracles are happening.

Do you see them?









Wednesday, March 26, 2014

so do it differently, then

There's an awful lot of Christian crap out there in the world this week, including para-church flip-flopping and corporate chastity belts being supported in the Supreme Court. As much as I enjoy a good, snarky wallow in the comforting mud of self-righteous moral outrage, my better self knows that the only way things get done differently is by, you know, doing them differently. And it's good to remember that Jesus talked a lot about small things like mustard seeds and yeast and pearls - and said some pretty strident things about empire and riches and pharisaical behavior. So, here are some tiny things I see happening right here, right now, that are not completely of the modern-day dystopia that is American Christianity:

A teenager whose life is splitting a bit at the seams wanting to join our congregation because it's "like a place of…safety. No, not safety, but, like…security," and because people there "want to know me."

My friend S., who is fighting a seemingly never-ending battle with the US government with more grace and stamina than I can imagine mustering in an entire lifetime, who spends her days while unable to work volunteering all around town.

The 43 BVS volunteers that I spent last week with, who are spending this year living simply and serving whoever crosses their path in the place where they've been sent.

A pastor inviting other pastors to her birthday party in an attempt to forge connection and fight isolation.

The way a few - nowhere near all, but a few - eyes lit up when I dared to mention my semi-secret master plan to quit the world and live in community.

Tomorrow's monthly potluck dinner and discussion group, where a bunch of people with varying degrees of connection to church hang out, eat, pray, and talk together.

The youth advisors in my Roundtable small group who answered my semi-desperate plea for advice with reassurances that presence & consistency are better than any weird, commercial, ad-filled YOUTH MINISTRY ™ statistically proven youth group strategy.


Also, and always, these guys:


Sunday, March 16, 2014

i miss the mountains

The sun rises slowly at my parents' house. Tucked back into a corner of a hill on the edge of Green Ridge and Brushy Mountain, it takes a while for the morning's light to make its way over ridges and into windows. I stay in the attic when I'm there, where the vaulted ceiling catches those first rays and cradles them over my sleeping self. I love my parents' attic. It's cozy, and collected, and when I'm there, I sleep with the assurance that my Dad and my Mom are right down the stairs, snoring away in their own bedroom. That attic holds me, and the mountains hold that attic.

I hate not living in the mountains, hate it with more passion than I can muster up for almost anything else in life. I miss the Blue Ridge with visceral longing - I can feel it rising in my chest and welling up in my tear ducts. There are not enough words to explain how or why or in what manner those mountains have held me, shaped me, patterned me after their own lifespan.

But I do not live there, and have not lived there for some time, now. It's hard, to go home. I left a long time ago, lived across the state and across the continent. Appalachia works on its people in ways that other places' peoples do not understand. Honor is a thing, there, and family, and tradition. But so are kindness, and hospitality, and welcoming the stranger as if she were your sister. There's a thickness to Appalachia that I cannot explain and I cannot shake. Life feels so strung out and so thin, everywhere else.

It is not always a good thing to be this way. "Thick," "dense," "opaque," "impenetrable" - the connotations certainly apply. We've got racism and ignorance in spades, outdated gender norms, backwards politics and crazy-ass snake handling religion. People in my own family argued against education when I left for college, warning me about letting all that thinking rob me of my Jesus.

But the thickness serves a purpose. Relationships are netted. Everybody knows everybody, and everybody knows how you know everybody else. Doing things the same way means there are certain practices that are slowly, slowly being perfected: barbecue, for one and bluegrass, for another.





And then there's the strange collusion of thickness and pressure, producing some precise, particular beauty. Like the thin seams of coal hidden in the core of so many of these mountains, all that thickness has potential. It can run steam engines and heat human homes. And should it find itself under extreme pressure, in extreme heat, that thick carbon coal can sometimes become a bright, clear diamond.

I suppose that's what I wish were true: that all the thickness of home is thick for a reason, that there is pressure being applied, that the mountains are bearing down upon us in order to transform us, to perfect us, to change these dense and dusty coal mining people into precious, priceless diamonds.

But I don't really believe that to be true. If I did, I'd return there and live there and subject myself to the refining weight of the Blue Ridge, shoulder the mountain yoke and bear the burden of honest identity. Instead, I am up here in No-Man's Land, running from responsibility and wriggling out of my mountain inheritance. The sun rises quickly, here outside the valley's protection. But it sets just as soon, and its rays are thin without the refraction of the ridges.

I miss the mountains.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

the surrendered life


“The Church of the Brethren has several women who are much honored…but they’re never listened to.” That’s how the Church of the Brethren archivist, Bill Kostlevy, introduced an article by Anna Mow a couple of weeks ago during the denominational staff gathering.

The article, “The Surrendered Life,” ran in the October 7, 1950 issue of the Gospel Messenger magazine, but it originated from a speech given to the 1949 Annual Conference. Anna, born a Southwest Virginia girl like me, had quite a life by 1949 – international missionary, author, mother, church leader and professor. She was a Bethany Seminary professor living in Chicago, hosting (as her biographer Dorothy Garst Murray puts it) “an international roster of Who’s Who of Chicago” in her family’s home.

And here’s what Anna argues in “The Surrendered Life”:

One of the most devastating things we can do to anyone who wants to follow the Lord is to let him get the idea that he can be partially consecrated. Actually it is psychologically and spiritually impossible to be half surrendered to God. Surrender is ‘without reservation’ or it is not surrender.

She goes on to skewer just about every major denominational programmatic effort and talking point: “simplicity,” Brethren Service, fundraising, “holiness,” “fellowship,” conferences, camps, parties, interest groups, “peace,” the beatitudes. Anna wrote in the 1940s, but she may as well have been sitting there with us in Conference Room B at the Church of the Brethren General Offices in Elgin last month.

To be fair, Anna never worked as a denominational staff member, or, for that matter, pastor of a congregation. She did not inherit a crumbling institution built on 70-year-old cultural assumptions. She was never forced to answer to 100,000 vehemently divided people as to how and why she would maintain theological integrity in the face of division. She never had to balance an institutional budget or fire faithful staff. She never sat in the seat of an employee whose surrender is contractually expected to be to the Church.

Which is probably one of the reasons she was able to say the things she did:

The ‘surrendered life’ might be a life surrendered to the church, to service (even Brethren Service), to missions, to temperance, to peace, to a certain interpretation of doctrine, even to prayer – and still fall short of the will of God. The surrender must be to God, as revealed in Jesus Christ, our Lord. It is not a commitment to a cause or to an institution, it is a commitment to a Person, the divine Person, first of all.

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There’s an old guy at my church who is always telling me how much I remind him of Anna Mow. The other day, he sank down into the rocking chair in my office and told me, “I listen to you preach and it’s just like Anna Mow. You just can’t be contained.” I mostly have no idea what he means, and I suspect that his comparisons are - at least in part - an attempt to draw me into conversation through flattery. But the thing is: it works. I love Anna Mow. She’s a theological giant in my tiny little corner of the world. I love that she never wrote systematic treatises, that she was perpetually translating gospel truth into practical knowledge. I love that she grew up in tiny towns in Virginia then grew up to travel the world, that she spent her later years hosting foreign dignitaries and writing and speaking to kids. I love that she was known for her big, joyful laugh. I love that her theology can’t be pinned down to satisfy any of us who want to hold her up as a paragon of any particular virtue: feminism, pacifism, Biblicism, evangelism, Brethrenism.


One of my favorite Jr. High kids impersonating Anna at a lock-in last month. I find the resemblance remarkable.


I love Anna Mow, so comparing me to her is a sure way to get my attention. The old guy at church knows this. But Bill Kostlevy was right – I love Anna, admire, honor, surrender my image of myself to her, but rarely do I sit and listen to what it is she is saying. Yes, yes, bestow on me the laud and honor, but no thanks, I’ll just wriggle out of that nasty little complication of actually paying attention to what that might, in fact, require of me.

Because here’s what Anna is saying:

It is required of us only that we be faithful. The question is not ‘Will the way be hard or lonely?’ The only choice for a Christian is ‘not my will, but thine,’ to be followed by a courageous ‘arise, let us be going.’

I am trying to listen – to Anna and to Christ. 

It is not easy.

Friday, February 07, 2014

entrusted

I’ve been wondering, lately, about a few possibly related things:

President Obama, in his most recent State of the Union address, vowed to govern by executive order so long as Congress can make no real progress.

The Tea Party, in their recent years of political favor, have gotten elected to Congress in order to govern the country and then promptly refused to…govern the country.

Virginia’s new Attorney General Mark Herring, a week after vowing to defend the state’s constitution, announced that in an ongoing challenge to Virginia’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, he would not…defend the state’s constitution.

Several ministers of several denominations have been brought up on charges/taken to trial/subjected to ethics hearings due to their performing wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples, generally a direct violation of their ordination vows.

The connective thread, it seems to me, lies in the public response to each of these blatant declarations of refusal to carry out the duties of one’s office or oath. In each of these cases (the presidential power of governance by executive order may be the most tentative), an elected or called official has explicitly refused to abide by or fulfill a covenanted requirement that the people of the state or the people of the church entrusted to him (and, yes, they are all men so far).

And in each of these cases, supporters of that official have gleefully celebrated the blatant refusal of oath and covenant:

Obama can’t get stuff done by cooperating with Congress? Heck yes, he ought to go rogue and expand the powers of his office as far as they’ll go as long as he’s there!

Tea Party congress people disagree with the options offered to them in funding the federal budget? By all means, throw a tantrum and refuse to participate!

Our Attorney General doesn’t agree with the constitutional amendment we voted to approve by 57% of a popular vote? Well, heck, then he doesn’t need to defend it!

Your pastor has convictions that go against his denomination’s polity? Then let him act as he sees fit, and DARE anyone to hold him accountable!

That’s a little flippant. Probably most people aren’t thinking in such baldly partisan terms. But there’s a common reaction to these leaders going rogue: if they agree with me, then give them free reign!

This is troublesome. I’m still sorting out all the ways in which it is so. But the complete void of accountability for elected or called leaders is disturbing. Those we entrust with leading us need us to hold them accountable to those duties that they have vowed to fulfill.

I’m not the President or the Attorney General or a member of Congress. But I am an ordained minister. And I’d perform my gay son’s wedding in an instant. But I would also completely expect that violation of my ordination vow to “live in harmony with the principles, ordinances and doctrines of the Church of the Brethren, being at all times subject to its discipline and governance” would incur the necessary and appropriate accountability. In other words, I’d be ready and willing to lose my ordination for violating those vows.


There’s something amiss when we celebrate our leaders’ blatant refusal to fulfill the duties of their oaths and offices. If we’re fine with an Attorney General who refuses to defend the constitution just because we ourselves disagree with the constitution, or we celebrate a pastor who violates the trust of the Church that called him just because we agree with him, what will happen when our leaders start doing things outside their oaths that we DON’T agree with?

Friday, January 24, 2014

strangled by mammon

I left seminary seven years ago with $38,657.74 in loan debt. Next week, I'm going to pay the last $1,006.98 to the US Government and be done with it. Kind of.

When I finished seminary, I went into BVS - a long-term volunteer program that emphasizes simple living and whose participants lived, then, on $60/month. There was a grace period for some of the loans, but it only lasted a year or so. When I decided to extend my time with BVS, working as an intern with a slightly higher income, my family graciously agreed to pay off the $15,000 worth of loans with the higher 6.8% interest rate, lightening my load and lowering my monthly payments. I still owe them. But paying back my family feels so much lighter than paying back the federal government.

This is not a post of complaint, or whining, or even a case for legislative change to curtail the ugly business of student loan financing. It's just a post about money. It's a post about money and debt and stewardship, because we do not talk about those things. And like anything we refuse to talk about, the silence strangles us.

Money. Shudder.

There are all kinds of ways to talk about economic decision-making. I can work my way through logical trajectories that cast my financial choices in lights both flattering and staggeringly stupid.

Flattering: Short-term sacrifice (BVS) combined with familial safety net led to the relationship and experience to land myself this particular scale-paying job in a wealthy area of the country, plus a contract gig whose stipend has been completely dedicated to paying off loans these last few years. Win!

Staggeringly Stupid: Knowing nothing about money, I chose the most expensive option for seminary. Financial aid packages made it such that Harvard would have been cheaper. Harvard. (Though there are few if any orthodox Jews with Georgia accents in Cambridge, I imagine, and those were some of my favorite parts of seminary life.) Then, having graduated from said expensive institution with towering loan debt, I chose to work for nothing. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

There are all sorts of things to be said about this money business: reform of the student loan business, re-thinking pastoral training and employment practices, educating young people on what debt looks like, and expanding our imaginations of what school is good for, and what it is not.

There are days when I am sorely convinced that spending 7 years in school and double that paying off the debt from it was SO not worth what it is I’m doing now. I mean that both ways. There are plenty of days I think (oh-so-humbly!) “I went to school for 7 years and am paying $1,000 a month to get out of educational debt in order to BE YOUR TRAVEL AGENT/CUSTODIAN/COPYWRITER?” But there are also plenty of days when I think: “What the HELL did those people in seminary think they could teach me that these saints couldn’t?”

I’m drifting off topic. Money is a tool to be used, and in general, I’m pretty content with the ways I’ve used it. But it is also a status symbol, a means of clawing one’s way up to privilege, a divisive wedge, and has some weird vortex-like power over people. We don’t like to talk about it.

So I’m just saying, HEY, you guys: I did some stupid things with money, and then I caught some breaks and then I did some kind-of-responsible things, and I’m probably going to throw a loan-repayment party next week (wanna come? you're invited. it's a potluck.), and now I am going to tell you about it. Because I don’t like being strangled by mammon anymore than the next gal.