Friday, February 2, 2018

Groundhogs, Jesus, and Five Years a Pastor

February 2nd is Groundhog Day and, only slightly less well known, the festival of Presentation of Our Lord. The Bible story sees the Holy Family showing up at the temple in Jerusalem (Luke 2). The elderly Simeon and the prophet Anna are both awaiting the promised Messiah. The weirdness of this scene is marvelous. Simeon scoops up the baby Jesus and dances around. Eighty-four year old Anna praises God and talks to anyone who will listen. It’s an impromptu, ecstatic celebration. It also happens to be the reading from my pastoral ordination with the good people of Augustana, five years ago exactly on the festival day of Presentation of Our Lord.

After five years, I love Jesus, the people, and the work. There’s work I’ve done well and there are situations I wish I’d handled so much better. Reflecting on these experiences is my own personal version of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Superstar Jennifer Hudson said awhile back, “Stop singing a perfect song and tell an imperfect story.” I love her line so much that I ended up preaching it on Christmas Eve [read it here]. There are several reasons that I can't let go of Christianity. Imperfection as a given is one of them.

Recently, I led the rite of individual confession with someone – hearing their confession and announcing to them the forgiveness of all their sins in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The power of that moment hung in the air of my office for a good while. There is nothing like being present when a soul is broken open by forgiveness. People are in pain, my friends, deep in their being. There are so few places to be held in grace and held accountable. The church is one of them, however imperfectly lived out. 

At this five year mark, I'm still grateful (and yes, on occasion, even ecstatic) for the chance to do this weird thing called church...

...and still having fun along the way...

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

My Dad, the U.S. Presidency, #metoo, and the Women's March (yup, all that in just a few words)

Dad roared, "I'm going to treat her like a woman should be treated!!" I was about five years old standing in the living room with my mother, older sister, and grandparents. 911 was quickly called to protect my mother. My sister and I watched the police lights through the lace curtains of the next door neighbor's row-house as Dad was taken into custody.  Obviously, there's more to the story but that's enough for now.

Alongside that memory, Mom tells the story of all of us driving along in our VW van when I was small. Dad waxed on about becoming President of the United States and he meant it. As the story goes, I piped up from the back seat, "Mommy, Daddy's crazy." And Mom burst into tears. I don't remember this moment but it was pivotal as Dad would be diagnosed with schizophrenia and become homeless in the years to come. When I was six years old, Mom packed laundry baskets in the night and my uncles came to help her move with the five of us kids. She's a fierce survivor that woman, my mother. 

So when Dad roared his infamous roar in our living room, it's easy to lay that on the crazy as if that's all it takes to explain it. Here's the thing, my father's words were NOT crazy. Calling it "crazy" too easily excuses the origins of the roar and his behavior. That roar was a cultural norm unleashed through the crazy. Let's not further shame people struggling with mental illness by piling on social ills that belong to all of us. 

When then presidential candidate, Donald Trump, revealed himself to be a pussy grabber and kiss pusher in recorded video, I thought his candidacy was over (listen here). I was shocked when the GOP solidified his candidacy and voters elected him to the presidency.

When then President Clinton, at age 49, had sexual encounters with a 22 year old intern in the Oval Office of the White House, the critique from his political supporters was fairly quiet. While respecting the intern's claim that the relationship was consensual, the power differential between the two of them and the lack of leadership on the political left to critique the president gives significant pause to consider "how women should be treated." 

The mistreatment of women is accepted as normative in the U.S. Presidency, so much so that someone can still get elected to the office with major strikes against them in this regard. I've been in recent conversations when people talk about the normalcy of men using their positions of power to stoke their own egos as if that explains everything and we should all go along with it because that's simply the way things work. Well I'd like to see the day when we collectively shout, "That's not how this works; that's not how any of this works!!"

At a very young age, I heard my father roar something that many people believe about women. I'm grateful for the #metoo movement begun by Tarana Burke to support young Black women that now frees women of all colors to speak their truth about sexual harassment and assault (read more here).  There are, indeed, amazing men on the planet who don't believe for a second that women should be thus treated. However, it's unsettling to me that the "treatment of women" is up for debate in terms of what is okay to say out loud about us and to do to us. Much, much worse is the daily experience of women and also men who continue to be harassed and assaulted with no recourse. 

So, I'll be at the Women's March in Denver this Saturday. Marching for family reasons, for myself, and for the many women who have yet to heal from their experiences or who are not free to march or who are fearful to tell their truth or who cannot safely get away from someone who is hurting them whether it be a customer, an employer or a family member or a President of the United States. Marching is the next right step for me.

"Why do you care so much about race?" Well, here's part of the why...

I’ve been wondering lately about how our stories fit into how we move through the world.  It makes me wonder how the different parts of our story work together to form our passions and work. Many of you know my religious background and church refugee status that led to my call to the pulpit. Added to this call is Martin Luther King Jr. Day and my experience of call as a person of faith to work in the breach between Black and White people in this country. There’s a lot in the mix there for me.  

When I moved to California from D.C. at 9 years old, my very first friend Kim Gammel was Black and so was my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Gaines.  In sixth grade, my teacher Mrs. Lake – an amazing, strong Black woman – assigned the novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry about racism in America during the Great Depression.[1]  I spent four years at John Muir High School in Pasadena. It was 10% White kids and predominantly Black and Latino kids with an additional minority of first and second generation Asian and Armenian kids. 

Running in parallel to those details of upbringing is the picture of the South Carolina governor’s mansion hanging in my grandparents’ home because my Great-Great Grandfather, Hugh Thompson, was the governor of South Carolina.[2]  He led a battalion of Citadel cadets to fire some of the first shots of the Civil War against the North’s Star of the West as it entered Charleston Harbor.  And, on top of that infamy is my Great-Great-Great Grandfather, Thomas B. Clarkson, Plantation man and owner of 300 slaves – men, women, and children.[3]  

About a year and a half ago, my mother gave me a letter written by an abolitionist to my triple-great grandfather.  The letter congratulated him on his good care of the slaves. I suppose it’s good to know that he treated his slaves with some kindness. The bottom line for me is that he owned people. The odd thing is that I’ve known for many years that he was a plantation owner and it never once occurred to me that he owned slaves. Of course I’m not responsible for his choices but I am affected by them…so are we all. There is always something to be learned. The legacy of slavery for all of us in this country, but especially for our Black brothers and sisters, is part of how I understand the anti-racism work that I do with my multi-race, multi-faith colleagues of Together Colorado.[4] 

[1] Mildred D. Taylor. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976).
[2] Hugh Smith Thompson (1836-1904). 51st Governor of South Carolina (1882-1886).
[3] Suellen Clarkson Delahunty (my mother’s cousin). Information About Thomas B. Clarkson, Col.
[4] 2 Corinthians 5:11-21

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

My Heart on this 500th Reformation Day [a.k.a. Halloween]

There's this prayer about the church that includes the line, "...where it is corrupt, purify it." I love that line because it sums up being human. It's one of the optional prayers for Reformation Day that falls on October 31 every year (a.k.a. Halloween). This year adds up to 500 of those (1517-2017).  Martin Luther (monk, professor, saint/sinner) challenged the corruption of the medieval church at the time even as he added his recipe for antisemitic sauce. Catholics have long since instituted many of those reforms.

Here's where my heart is this Reformation Day. I'm grateful for the legacy of grace that loves first. A friend of mine recently told me that her teenage daughter doesn't wonder 'what would Jesus do' but rather that "he would love first." Love is the first move of God in Jesus. Through it we have some kind of shot at love being our first move too.  Corruption and purity, as the prayer names, are held in tension by every human institution, by every human, and by me.  No sooner do I say, "Love first," then do corrupt purity codes kick in - the things I hold close and dear can quickly become a measure of someone else's humanity and worthiness.

So today, Reformation Day, I remember that I am loved first. I'm pretty sure that love doesn't always win the moment. Inflicted suffering is evidence to the contrary.  But loving first is my hope - "knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts..."*

Hope is different than optimism. Optimism is a bit blind to actual human experience. Optimism says that things are going to work out in the end as form of denial. Hope sees corruption AND purity. Hope sees my own part in that murky paradox. Hope does not disappoint because it sees the truth of suffering and frees me to love first as I am first loved.  Happy Reformation Day.

Beyond by Colleen Briggs (2013)

*Christian Bible, Letter to the Romans, chapter 3, verse 5 [Romans 3:5]

Monday, October 23, 2017

Colleagues, A Love Language All Its Own

Yesterday I followed a whole heap of colleagues in formal procession and full regalia into a colleague's funeral. Most of us had also just been surprised beforehand by the news of another colleague's sudden death the night before - both were in their 60s. As we filled the sanctuary aisle on our way to the pews, the image came to mind of police officers lining the streets when they say goodbye to one of their own. An imperfect metaphor but one that gets close to describing the shared connection of work in common. My colleagues so often hold space for other people's big moments of life and death. It was different to show up for each other in this way, a motley crew covering the spectrum of grief, love, and loss.

Last Thursday, I picked up a colleague who had flown in for the funeral. He said he was grateful to be able to be with his "team." His gratitude is a bit of what I mean when I use the word "colleague."  There's a lot of love in the word. My colleagues represent a variety of kinds of work in the church world and, in my experience, it's one of the weirder professions one can be called into. The weirdness is part of the love. There are things that we understand without words because of common experiences that defy description. Honestly? There is much among colleagues that mystifies me after only a few years in the mix as a second career person. I can also honestly say that I couldn't continue to do the work without them. It's a love language all its own.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Defiant Faith: Red and Yellow, Black and White

I'm home writing sermons. One for Boogie Bob's funeral and one for Sunday. It was supposed to be a full day of writing but our Director of Youth and Family texted that she's down with the stomach flu so I ended up in chapel this fine Thursday morning with my church's preschool kids. I sang with them:
"Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world."

It broke my heart open, choking back tears as these beautiful, little people of all the song's colors sang with me. I sang this song to my kids every night when they were tiny. It's simple. Pure. Defiant. So many moments this week have felt loaded with defiant faith. A refusal to let natural or man-made devastation be the last word. From a hospital baptism using a glass bowl gifted from dear friends to a 1:1 meeting about alternatives to prison to home communion with a 94 year old to the surreal painted lady butterfly migration happening through Denver to a super quirky screening of the new Martin Luther movie, it's been a poignant, strange week.

A week made all the more surreal given Colin Kaepernick's knee, carnage and grief in Las Vegas, and hurricane after hurricane. Made all the more surreal by patriotism and the common good being shaped in ongoing debates about protests, guns, race, health care, immigration, media, diplomacy, aid, education, gender, incarceration, taxes, and more.  All of this to say that a defiant faith is what fuels my hope, prayer, and actions. It's easy to give up and hide. It's easy to disrespect other people and turn up the volume on my opinions. It's much harder to fight for your humanity as I hold onto mine while we disagree.

Martin Luther King Senior came home from a trip to Germany and renamed himself and his son after learning about Martin Luther's 15th century commitment to non-violence as a way to turn self-interest and corruption upside-down so that all people could live. No small thing, that name change. I'm committed to non-violence right down to the way I talk about you. Do I get it right every time? Not by a long shot. Do I get angry? You bet.

On the docket is confessing on Sunday my part in the mess, receiving training on October 15th to better understand connecting conversations across difference, and remembering that my faith doesn't mean I'm good, it means I live a new life. Every. Single. Day. I get a chance to live. Because if Jesus loves all the children of the world, then that means you and I are in this together whether we like it or not. It doesn't mean I keep the peace for the benefit of the status quo while people continue to suffer. It means that I lean into the chaos of our present time and see what's possible for all of us so that we all may live.*


*Paraphrase of Jesus' words in the Bible (John 10:10) - "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Symptom: Coffee (or lack thereof); Diagnosis: A Week

Coffee is my job in our marriage. Rob handles a ton of practical details too. But coffee is mine. This past week, coffee served up humble pie. On Wednesday morning, I discovered we were out of coffee. This never happens. NEVER. Until now. Mom arrived later that morning from the West Coast.  Mom brought coffee.  Thursday we moved our daughter her first college dorm with our crack team of her dad, her grandmother, and me.

Friday, I took off to a quasi-remote mountain spot with Mom and my sister.  During the evening chit-chat, it dawned on me, no coffee; forgotten at home. With sheepish lack of eye contact, I broke the news. Not a problem. Mom had brought special coffee for my sister too.  Resourceful types that we are, we filled a baggie with beans and pounded out some grounds.  Not too long after that moment, my husband texted to see if I had stashed back-up coffee filters anywhere. Nope. No back-ups. Telling my mother and sister the latest, and third, coffee mishap, I started to laugh until I couldn't speak. We laughed until our stomach muscles couldn't take it.

Why am I sharing this coffee tale?  Because it's a symptom of the last week. With my daughter's move, we've experienced a season change in our home. One I know that will be fine but feels surreal in the happening. Her move alone would have been enough. Way bigger is the march under Nazi flags in Charlottesville and the response from the White House. Many of us are not surprised by the existence of racial hatred. What is appalling is the explicit display of white supremacy - that white people and their agenda is the ultimate and only agenda that is worthy.  Appalling, not surprising.

Angry on behalf of my black friends and Jewish brother's family, I've spent the week in conversation with them and thinking about their own shock, anger and worries.  My response to this moment in time and my self-assessment of how I consciously and unconsciously participate in a white-people-first agenda is also on my mind.  I've written elsewhere that my faith tradition allows for this kind of self-examination. We say that we are saint and sinner at the same time. It makes sense that this would be as true for me individually as it would be for a country that imported its first African slave 400 years ago, passed the Civil Rights law in 1964, and now incarcerates a much higher percentage of black and brown people than whites per population.

It's tempting to extend the coffee metaphor into poetry about racial hatred and more subtle forms of white supremacy. I'd rather lay down the challenge ahead more explicitly. Listening to people of color, their experience and their leadership, is paramount and THE place to start. I also need to look deep inside myself to weed out racial bias and how I benefit from white-people-first agendas.  This goes for city, state, and national policy as well as bias built into implicit social codes.

This morning in worship, my faith community begins with confession and hears a word of God's good forgiveness. The forgiveness is grace. It isn't earned or deserved. Receiving God's grace inspires and strengthens me to take the hard next steps into consequences for my actions and a reset to live as Jesus teaches us to do so. May grace abound so that all people may have life and have it abundantly.*


* Paraphrase of Jesus' words in the Bible, John 10:10 - "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."