Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Seminary May Have Saved My Life

I arrived at Duke Divinity School to begin my M. Div. degree in August 2006. To say that moving 300+ miles to start a degree program may have saved my life sounds a little dramatic, I realize. It may be true, though.

I was in a pre-orientation program at Duke, and I remember that as we introduced ourselves on the first day, we were supposed to share one fact that no one in the room would know about us. My fact was that I was supposed to have been married about 3 weeks earlier. As I shared that, I realized I wasn't exactly devastated that I hadn't gotten married...but it did feel like an odd place to be, to say the least.

To be honest, I had tried to end that relationship months earlier and had come to the conclusion that it would have to wait until I moved away from the guy who wouldn't leave me alone. Ultimately, I was right. The relationship was on its last leg when I moved and 2 months apart ended it definitively--from my perspective, at least. Thankfully, I had made friends at Duke who talked me through the immediate emotional fallout of what I had been through, convincing me that I was not, in fact, damaged and undesirable beyond repair. Thankfully, when I started having a lot of anger about what had happened to me, Duke had a good counseling center for students and I got the help I needed. Thankfully, it just so happens that I had met this other guy who actually showed me how I should be treated (I married him instead, a while later). And perhaps best of all, I was, in fact, 300+ miles away from the man whose words and actions had chipped away at my boundaries and created deep fissures in my emotional stability and my self-esteem, for over a year...and I was safe. He had never been physically violent, but you never know what abusive words might eventually lead to.

What's the point of all this? Well, it's all to say that I didn't stay in the abusive relationship I found myself in because I already had a plan to be going somewhere else, far away from where that relationship started, and by the time I met him, not even he could deter the path I was on. I was lucky. I got out because I had a place to go and I could get there, and I had the means to survive without him. Going to seminary was the ticket I needed to get out of an abusive relationship.

Now, I don't wake up every morning and think about the fact that I survived intimate partner abuse; after 13 years, there are plenty of more important things that take up the space in my brain. I read some articles recently that made me think more of that "why doesn't she leave?" question people looking in from the outside of abusive relationships often ask, and I cannot stress enough (along with the writers of those articles) how misled that question is. She (or he or they) doesn't leave for a million different reasons, many of which those on the outside of the abusive relationship would not understand or consider valid. It doesn't have to do with intelligence or education. It's not because she's a glutton for punishment. It's not because she doesn't mind the abuse. Abuse steals everything--self-esteem, self-sufficiency, self-confidence, healthy boundaries, a sense of identity separate from the abuser, relationships with people other than the abuser, and in many cases, the physical means for leaving. The reasons "why" abound...but they also don't really matter!

So, don't wonder about why people "let" themselves be abused. Don't imagine you know better. Don't think you're smarter or worth more. Just don't. Sure, she has her flaws, but being abused is not just "her fault." There's much more to it. This Domestic Violence Awareness Month, if you want to help, donate to a shelter--be sure to ask what they need, instead of assuming you know. Listen to someone's story and don't give advice, as though you know better. Take a stand and refuse to let your church or religion or other beliefs be the reason that someone is held captive in an abusive relationship (hint: lots of Christians use supposed biblical precedent to tell women, especially, not to leave abusive partners). Quit asking the wrong question. Practice compassion and unconditional love. That's really hard to do, but I think it's always worth the effort. I mean, it's what Jesus did...

Seminary may have saved my life. Many women and children and men won't be able to say that. And it's not their fault. You could help save their lives.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Celebrating an anniversary!

Today is an anniversary for me! It's not the one I usually think about this time of year, though (that one is 2 days from now, and, as has been the case more often than not, Brock and I will again be apart on our wedding anniversary...welcome to life in ministry!).

Nope, I am thinking in these late hours of June 12th about another anniversary in my life. Eight years ago today I was ordained an Elder in full connection in The United Methodist Church. It was Pentecost Sunday. It was awesome.

I never meant to become a pastor, though. I only did it after a few years of resistance to the call and because I could no longer do anything else.

I serve in a church that is a human institution, broken in many ways. I have hope for the future of that church, and I have hurt for so much that is going on within it. Some folks think I am wrong for some things I believe. Terms like unorthodox, heretical, disobedient, and even rebelling against God get put out there when people who disagree with me talk about people like me--someone who believes in the full inclusion of members of the LGBTQIA+ community in the life and leadership of the church. In 10 years under appointment, I have been called these things and so many worse things, all by people IN the church. I don't wonder why so many people my age and younger stay away from the church. There are times I have only gone to church because I had promised to keep showing up...because I was the pastor.

God has never stopped showing up, though. The Holy Spirit hasn't quit breathing into the broken fragments of all our lives. The disturbing and disruptive winds of Pentecost still blow. I have trouble believing that the Holy Spirit works things out by 53% to 47% votes. I have trouble believing that the Holy Spirit condemns young people, like several of my students, whose faith bears fruit far beyond their years, just because of whom they are attracted to. I'm not comfortable with a lot of things about my church right now...but I imagine that may just be where the Holy Spirit needs me (and all of us?) to be, for the winds to blow some more.

So, I guess I'll wait and see what happens next. And I will trust in God's grace to lead me, like I did 8 years ago on Pentecost...like I did 2 years before that, when I was commissioned and started serving my first 2 little country churches...like I did 6 years before that when I said to my campus minister, "Um...what do I need to do if I think maybe God is calling me into ordained ministry?"...like I did when I was 13 years old and my pastor asked me to decide if I was ready to be confirmed...

The Holy Spirit sure does get in there and mess things up, sometimes. Tonight, I am thankful for that, as scary and uncertain and wonderful and awesome as it is. So here's to 8 or 10 or 30 more years, trying to follow where you're blowing, Holy Spirit. I sure am tired, and I have no idea where this thing is going, but if you're in it, I want to be in it, too. Come, Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Everybody Wants to Feel Special Sometimes

We moved a while back, which meant we left behind a number of people we had gotten to know and appreciate, and one of those was our pediatrician. Dr. Landon had seen us through a lot with both of our munchkins. He was very kind and very thorough, and he always acted happy to see us. He told jokes, which was not necessarily my favorite part of visits with him, but it was unique, at least. A visit with Dr. Landon left me feeling like he knew my kids and me and cared about us. Upon mentioning this to a friend who was also a doctor, she noted that he probably said these same things to all of his patients, that he likely treated everyone the same. This revelation left me in a quandary. It feels good to feel special. Thinking that Dr. Landon had a special interest in our family, or some kind of special connection with us, felt good.

I've been reflecting on that desire we have to feel special to people recently. I remember a long plane ride next to some guy from England, whom I thought might ignore me the whole time. When he finally did talk to me, we learned a little bit about each other. We exchanged email addresses. I wrote him a few times after that. For whatever reason, I couldn't abide the thought that he didn't have any interest in knowing who I was. Maybe it was my own issues that caused me to want that human connection, but I think there's a place in all of us that wants people to think we're unique, special, someone they need in their life--someone they should inherently be interested in.

I've thought also about a time when I did something hurtful to a friend of mine. Eventually, in remorse, I apologized. I confessed feeling like a terrible friend and not a very good person. His response was something along the lines of, "We're all terrible people. That's why we need God's grace." Those were not exactly the words I was expecting, though, considering that he was in seminary at the time and eventually became a Lutheran pastor, they seem pretty on point for him.

So many things we do make us feel not very special. It's a lot easier to feel like a real screw-up than to feel special. Maybe that's why we like it when we do feel special, and why, all to often, we make it to mean more than it does. After all, don't we practically pay people to make us feel special? Don't we like it when a server at a restaurant makes us feel like we're the best customer they've had all day? Don't we expect people in "helping" professions--doctors, teachers, pastors, social workers, etc.--to act kindly and make us feel good or better about ourselves, in some way? Yes, we have so many ways that we can feel unique, so many connections we make with others that feel special, whether they really are, or not.

What is it about us that makes us want to be told we are good people? We want to feel special...but the truth is, we're kind of a lot like everyone else. I think that's the conundrum of faith, in some ways. Knowing God has the effect of making us feel both special and minuscule at the same time. If God made all the things, then what would make me think I am a special thing among all of those? The universe sure is big. I sure am small, compared to it. But then, that's why scripture is more than just one story about God, more than the creation of all things. Scripture tells us that God is far away...but also near. We are each part of a creation whose breadth and depth we can't ever understand. AND we are beloved by the God who created all of that. We are each so special...just like everyone else.

Huh? Yeah, that's the thing about God, right? How can God love all the things so much? How can God make each and every one of us feel so special? Maybe that's one of those questions to save up for heaven. Until then, maybe it's better to think a lot about how much God loves us each, how special we all are to God, and then try really hard to remember that all of that applies to everyone else, too. That sounds like enough work to keep me busy for a while...

Saturday, May 5, 2018

What Does the Fox Say?

It's been a couple weeks since we've seen them. They were so cute and adorable, 5 little foxes running and playing in our backyard, with their beautiful mom keeping a watchful eye. It was inevitable that they would leave, of course. That's the way things go--they are wild animals, after all. Their presence in our backyard, taking up residence under our shed for two weeks, taught me a couple of lessons, though, so I share those with you now.

It was late on a Tuesday that we first heard the sound--I thought it was some dog gone hoarse, barking when we let our dog out at night. It was a very eerie sound. After we heard it for 3 or 4 nights, Brock finally saw the fox one morning as he was tracking down the dog on her trek through the backyard. Not long after that, cute little fox babies started showing up, popping out of the hole their mom had dug under our shed.

Two or three times a day they would come out and play, depending on what else was going on in the area of our backyard, their mother keeping a watchful eye, running off if any threat arrived, as the kits scampered back under the shed. She'd run far enough to be out of danger, but close enough to see when the coast was clear and then return.

I understood her concern. I wished there was a way to let her know that I wasn't really a threat to her, that I thought she was wonderful and beautiful, and that I would do anything I could to help her. I also wanted to let her know that I understood being concerned about the kids playing in that yard: I only have 2, and I get worried they're going to get hurt or fall down the hill and land in the creek/drainage ditch...stuff like that, you know. I can't imagine how it was to try to keep track of 5!

In my musings about the momma fox, it began to dawn on me that the fox was teaching me some things about God...or God was teaching me through the fox, is probably more like it. That fox was beautiful; I was thrilled just to see her roaming around the backyard, watching her kits, barking (or whatever it is) at my dog. She was this delightful, amazing gift. I felt silly about it, but I wished there was some way I could make her understand how wonderful I thought she was and how much I would love to make sure she was protected and provided for, if there were any way that I could. This all seemed slightly unreasonable, though--I mean, she was a wild fox, and she showed up in my yard, dug out a spot under our shed for her babies, and made our home her home, for a while.

I began to wonder, is this how God feels when looking at me? Does God find delight in seeing me be me, doing the things God made me to be able to do? Does God think I'm beautiful and lovely? Does God desire the best for me, long to see me safe and flourishing? Does God wish I would understand all of that? Maybe so. Maybe this is the beginning of understanding it better than I already thought I did.

As for the foxes, I'll be looking for a flash of orange in the woods all summer...maybe I'll catch of a glimpse of them in the wild, doing what God made them to do...

Oh, and if you're wondering what the fox says, watch a women's tennis match--that loud scream/grunt so many tennis players make these days is the closest we've come to finding a similar sound...

Thursday, January 4, 2018

But It's Not Fair!

In the "better late than never" category, here is my sermon from my Longest Night of the Year Service on December 21. If you've read much of this blog, you know that I post this sermon every year. Now that I'm in campus ministry, I did not have a Christmas Eve service because I had no students to have a service for! This was certainly a change for me, and I am grateful that the pastor of the church I now attend allowed me to lead a Longest Night Service in his church.

Without further ado, here are some thoughts for these long winter nights...

“But It’s Not Fair!”
Luke 1:5-25, 67-79
Longest Night Sermon 2017

As a parent of a 6-year-old, I am learning a lot about what is not fair in life. Maybe you are familiar with this…maybe not. Here are some examples: It’s time for bed…but that’s not fair! It’s time to put your video game away…but that’s not fair! No, you can’t eat dinner in front of the TV tonight…but that’s not fair! (The list goes on, as you can well imagine.)

Sometimes, I think that of all the people in the Christmas story, Zechariah had the most reason to judge the unfairness of his situation. I can’t blame him for being scared out of his mind when an angel showed up, and for asking what the angel thought were too many questions--for wanting a little more information. Who wouldn’t?!

In those 9 months that Zechariah couldn’t speak, I wonder how many times he thought to himself, “But it’s not fair!” Did he see Elizabeth struggle with her pregnancy and want to comfort and reassure her, but couldn’t because he couldn’t speak? Did he see his neighbors with questioning looks and want to say something to them…but he couldn’t speak? Did he hear the news about Elizabeth’s relative Mary and want to say something about it…but he couldn’t speak? It hardly seems fair for an old man who had been faithful all his life to go through what Zechariah went through…just because he wanted to know more. As an inquisitive person, myself, I am totally sympathetic to Zechariah’s interest in asking for more information from the angel.

As a person who thrives on order, I am sympathetic to some other ways that Zechariah may have felt things just weren’t fair. Here, he and Elizabeth had been faithful people all their lives long. He was even a priest, and yet they still had no children! Of course, they had no knowledge of biology and fertility issues…they just knew that the one blessing they most desired had not materialized, and it didn’t look in any way hopeful, before the angel showed up that day. Now, how is that fair?

I know a number of people asking that same question this time of year—a number of clergywomen whose deepest desire is to have babies of their own, yet they find themselves preaching about Elizabeth and Mary, year after year, with no miracle child to rejoice over, themselves. It is painful…and it seems totally unfair.

We gather here tonight with a lot of “but it’s not fairs” crying out from our souls. Though this is “the most wonderful time of the year,” it doesn’t seem fair that Christmas is coming and that person we have loved for so long isn’t here to share it this year. Though every TV commercial is about giving or getting the perfect gift, the bank account balks at spending money to give those gifts, and it doesn’t seem fair. Though we want to sing “Joy to the World” with joy, our minds and our hearts are heavy with the burdens of the every day, with the weight of caring for our bodies and souls and the bodies and souls of others. We see friends struggling or grieving, and their hurt doesn’t seem fair. We know of church members who face insurmountable odds, grief too painful even to mention, and we want to know from God why things are so unfair. Though we talk about the Light of the World, we feel like people walking in darkness. It’s just not fair. Maybe we’re all there with Zechariah, and that’s why we came here tonight. We want to know how God is really going to make things right, after all that has gone wrong. We see where there is darkness that longs for light. We wish we could avoid it ourselves, and protect others from it, too. But we know we can’t. We want to know why this world is still so broken, after all this time. And we want God to fix it—and to fix us—now!

Zechariah had 9 months to wait, to see what would happen, to meet this promised child, to be able to share his thoughts aloud again. Maybe in 9 months, I will understand more how it’s going to make me stronger, or my friends, or family members, or church members, that all these unfair things have happened. Maybe in 9 more months, my friends who want so badly to have children of their own will have different news or a different understanding of how God is calling them to be parents, even if not of their own children, or a peace that they desire so much right now because of this emptiness they feel without a baby to hold. Maybe in 9 more months, my friends who grieve this Christmas will have found more strength from the journey of grief, from getting themselves out of bed each day, even though knowing it would be another day without that loved one who has died.

After 9 months, Zechariah could talk again. I bet he had a lot to say! Because it just wasn’t fair, what happened to him! But that’s not what he talked about, as the scripture tells it. He didn’t rant and rave about what he’d been through, what God had put him through, how life seemed unfair. No. He prophesied. Instead of all the “it’s not fair” thoughts, Holy Spirit words tumbled out of his mouth, proclaiming praise to God, recounting a history full of God’s goodness and mercy, and seeing into a future no one would have guessed but everyone would dream of.

Zechariah’s story reminds us of something the Bible shows us time and time again: that even from those who despair and who face what may seem unjust, for those who are righteous, there is somewhere deep inside of them the knowledge that God is good and that there will be reason to praise God again, after the silence, after the darkness, after the waiting, after the pain. We see this in the psalms—that the psalmist is willing to cry out to God and say things about what he thinks aren’t fair—things we have been told you should never say to God! And most of the time, the psalmist says the hard things, shouts out his feelings and his discontent with his situation and even with God…but then almost always ends up by recounting how good God is. Zechariah’s story ends up this same way.

It’s dark tonight. We feel a bit broken. We may feel like people who have no ability to say what needs to be said, not because an angel came and visited us but because life isn’t fair and darkness gets in there, disorients us, pours fear and anxiety into the holes in our souls where Christ’s light should be shining through. Zechariah sat mute, perhaps in a personal darkness that seemed entirely unfair. Let his words remind us that the darkness does not win, that what we are waiting for gives us the hope to face new days and even dark nights: “Because of our God’s deep compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79 CEB)

The light will come again. Life may not seem fair yet, but we wait with hope for the day that the light dawns, that justice and peace reign, that all things are redeemed, and that God’s deep compassion pours over all creation again. We wait with hope. Even when it’s not fair. Because God is good. Because God is with us. Because Christ will come again. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Meeting Jesus

I wrote this a little while ago, and it's finally making it here...

As I was leaving the food pantry yesterday with both kids, Jesus caught me, needing a ride to the doctor. He was a woman, probably in her 50s, with thick, curly hair, tan lines on her feet from other sandals, and a penchant for sharing more information than people wanted to hear. She wouldn't get into my car until I had cleared the entire floorboard in front of the front passenger seat. Her cell phone fell apart--the battery cover coming off and the battery falling out--as she got in the car. She claimed she was waiting for the public transit, but that driver was taking lunch, and the doctor had called and told her she needed to come in and see him. She said she didn't know why, but she hoped it was nothing bad. She rattled on about where she lived--in that yellow trailer on the corner in the mobile home park just down the street, but she really didn't like it there--that she had to go to Kingsport in the morning and wouldn't have time to eat breakfast before that long drive...she asked what I thought of "that clip," referring to the solar eclipse that had happened the day before. She talked about how long she had been going to church and how often she prayed. When I dropped her off, she offered me money for gas, but I declined, noting that we are supposed to help each other out. She hugged me and thanked me and told me she loved me. She said she was hesitant to pick up hitchhikers, too, but that she's a nice one, she's always nice to people and she loves everybody. Yeah, I'm pretty sure it was Jesus. I almost missed him. I'm sure glad I didn't, though.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Let's Go Now!

Let’s Go Now!
2016 Christmas Eve Sermon
Luke 2:8-20

At the church-related elementary school I attended, the kindergarteners always acted out the Christmas story while the older classes narrated, reciting from the King James Version of Luke 2. At the appropriate time, the angels stepped onto a riser about the same height as the kneeling rail, so I suppose they were to appear as, in some sense, suspended in the air. The spotlight shone on them as the good news was pronounced to some poor shepherds down on the floor. The heavenly host consisted of 3 5-year-olds in converted white bed sheets with nylon wings and gold and silver garland halos. The year I was in kindergarten, my twin sister and I took our places on the riser, and the video evidence will forever show that my sister did not assume the appropriate cherubic posture quickly enough to suit me, which resulted in a swift elbowing from me and an emphatic show of standing the proper way. I am certainly thankful YouTube did not exist then!!
I wonder, what was it like when that first angel appeared to those unsuspecting shepherds? Was there any sort of warning? Did the hair on the back of their necks stand up, like when lightning is about to strike nearby? Did a vortex appear in the clouds, like in a science fiction movie? I imagine that when the heavenly host appeared to the shepherds, there was more coordination than 5-year-olds elbowing each other, jostling for the appropriate position. Though we think of angels as sweet and beautiful, with really nice singing voices, there must be something more to them than that: something very frightening. Perhaps you have seen the movie Dogma, a late-90s spoof on Catholicism, where an angel appears in bedrooms in the middle of the night, with a great deal of commotion, loud noise, a deep booming voice, and some fire and smoke. (You haven’t seen it? Well, don’t go rent it this holiday season…unless you already know who Jay and Silent Bob are and you like their movies…) While much of that movie is very irreverent, perhaps they are on to something with how angels appear: there must be something terrifying about a member of the heavenly host showing up on earth! There’s probably good reason the shepherds quaked, as the song says. Here was heaven, coming to earth suddenly, unstoppably, forcefully, even, as a whole host of them show up and start singing—singing not of their work but of what God has done, off yonder in a manger somewhere, a baby born to save the whole world. It was good news, but it sure was a surprise!
We don’t know much about the shepherds. Maybe they were outlaws. Maybe they actually owned their own sheep and were just working-class guys. Undoubtedly, they were smelly and dirty, and very unusual guests in a home in Bethlehem in the middle of the night (or did they arrive after daybreak—how long did it take to walk there?). No matter how much they might not have fit in there, though, they went—because when the heavens are torn open and God’s glory is revealed, you go—“Let’s go now,” they said. “Let’s go now and see it!” And they headed out, maybe still a bit scared, also very excited…and not skeptical. They didn’t say, “Let’s go see if this is really true. We’ve never seen angels before, so we don’t know if they’re really trustworthy…” Nope. They got themselves up off the ground and headed out: “Let’s go now to Bethlehem and see about what God has revealed to us!” And off they went!
Few people that I know of have ever seen anything like a messenger from heaven breaking through the atmosphere and setting up a racket to get their attention and sing about what God is up to. We’re just not that attuned to heaven coming near to earth—it seems a bit out of place, most of the time. We’re asked to believe a lot of things at this time of year. It seems that just the time some kind of feel-good story makes the news, someone’s questioning or debunking it. How much can we really believe? In our ordinary lives, angels don’t just interrupt our work or our sleep; bushes don’t burn without being consumed; donkeys don’t talk; the sun doesn’t stop in the sky. Though we may look for God in many places, so often we are attuned to how very “normal” our lives are. What is supernatural seems unlikely, maybe even unwelcome. What is not “normal” must have a scientific explanation. Everything can be explained. Everything.
But Christmas is a special time of year. Maybe we expect a random miracle, this time of year—or a brief glimpse of heavenly light, a faint sound of angel’s wings fluttering by. For all our explaining and planning and doing what we normally do, we stop at Christmas and expect something big to happen—maybe just because we know the story and we believe it, despite the skeptics. Hearing the Christmas story year after year makes space in our lives for the wonderful, the strange, the mysterious, the unexpected—the surprise of the supernatural—even despite ourselves, sometimes. One wonders if the angel tried to appear to shepherds in another field, but they were asleep or too busy to pay attention…not so for us, in this moment. In this moment, no matter how much we may have ignored it the rest of the year, we hear the angels; we know that heaven has touched earth. We may have been busy the whole rest of this season. Maybe Advent has come and gone and we hardly paid attention. But we’re here tonight. We have gathered expecting something. Finally, we have stopped and come to the place where we know heaven and earth meet because God is here. Though we may not expect God to show up anywhere else, we know for sure that God will be here, in church, especially on Christmas Eve. And we hear the good news now, too. With the shepherds, we see the angels show up—it’s scary and amazing and exciting, all at once! The news is that the world has been changed, that heaven has come down to earth, not just as angels breaking through the skies, but as a baby, placed in a manger, in some tucked away corner of Bethlehem, to some quiet, unknown parents (and they’re not even married yet!).
“Let’s go now,” the shepherds said. “Let’s go now and see about what God has revealed to us.” And after they went (with haste!) and saw, they told everyone there what they had seen and heard, and they left, praising and glorifying God. Once they saw the Savior of the world, they weren’t done being excited! They kept on praising God for this good news, even as they went back to the place they had come from—back to their normal lives, with smelly, dirty sheep…maybe checking the heavens every now and then, just in case…just in case…

Let’s go now. You and I. Let’s gather before the manger and see the creator of the universe, come as a helpless baby. Let’s gather and see the one who is able to redeem us, to make us spotless before God. Let’s gather at his table, hear the words of life and grace and love and peace we need to hear—not from angels but from the very Savior himself. And then, let’s go. Let’s go out into the world, glorifying and praising God, along with the shepherds…along with the blind who see and the deaf who hear and the lame who leap…along with the oppressed who are freed and the hungry who are fed…let’s go now, and share the grace and love of God. Love has come. Christ is born. Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors! Merry Christmas!