Monday, November 28, 2011

Hate in a Smiley Face Card

I received my first anonymous hate mail today at my school.  It came in a card shaped envelope with my (misspelled) name typed on the front with my school address.  Inside there was a cute smiley face card.  I opened it and found a typed note – it was nasty and vile and attacked me personally.  The language was ugly and it sent me spinning for a bit.  I was not prepared for the reaction I had to it.

I have always taught my seminary students that there will likely never be a day in ministry when someone is not upset with them.  Often these folks let us know when they are frustrated with us either by confronting us in person or calling us to talk.  Sometimes they act out in a committee meeting or other group to let us know their feelings.  But this felt different.

I have been picketed by Fred Phelps’s church, Westboro Baptist, after being interviewed for the Kansas City Star followed General Conference in 2000 when they reaffirmed the language in our Discipline (church law) forbidding gays and lesbians from being ordained.  I stated in the article that I was pained by the decision and hoped we moved toward full inclusion someday.  Westboro picketed my church the next week.  It was nasty and painful, but this felt different.

This time it was anonymous.  In church ministry we often know when folks are upset.  When Westboro picketed me I knew who they were and why they were there.  But this was different – this felt so personal.  It was aimed at me personally.  So it felt personal.

The smiley face threw me off.  The cute and sweet smiley face that has always stood for fun and humor made it feel safe to open. That’s exactly what they expected.  They expected me to open it thinking it was safe.  And they expected it to hurt me, which it did.

And that made me mad.  I was upset about the power of that card to make me feel badly.  I have heard for years that “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”  But that is bunk.  Words do hurt.  And words have power.  We have to choose to use our words for good and to not give too much power to those that aim to hurt us.  I gave those words too much power today, but I also knew I just had to process it some.

This evening I found out several other seminary professors around the country got the same cards today.  So it was not just me – and that helps in some way but also makes me even more determined to NOT let them win.

We have made someone mad – by speaking the truth about our beliefs or about who this person believes us to be.  Whatever the cause I will not be deterred.  I will continue to be who God made me to be.  I will continue to speak the truth and cry out for justice in many different ways.  I will continue to try to counter hate with love.

And no little smiley face card filled with hate will stop me.  So whoever you are … you DON’T win.  Love does.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Being Part of the 10% ... Having An Attitude of Gratitude

A favorite image of forgiveness to preach about this time of year is the passage in Luke 17: 12-19 of Jesus healing the ten lepers of their disease.  In the text - as Jesus is passing by them - the ten leprous men cry out for him to heal them and he tells them to go show themselves to the priests. As they went they were healed. All ten are miraculously healed by Jesus but only one of them returns to Jesus to give thanks for that act of compassion. 

Much is made of only one returning.  Most talk about the lack of gratitude on the part of the nine who left and never returned.  Some will talk about the fact that the others may have been so overwhelmed with their ability to reconnect that they rushed to be with their friends and families or that they left to go profess thanksgiving in their own faith traditions, but the one who came back to give thanks gets the most mentions.  The nine are often chastised as being ungrateful, even though we have no clear idea why none of those nine returned.  The point of the use of this text is the gratefulness of the one.

So the logical question for this Thanksgiving Week is to ask how grateful we are. Do we have an attitude of gratitude? Are we part of the 10%?

I know this past week or so I have had some amazing experiences:

·         My son turned 13 and his team won their soccer league championship game
·         I became ill and had great health care options to get better
·         I was asked to preach at RevolutionNYC Church in Brooklyn and had a blast doing what I love
·         My father had foot surgery and came through with flying colors
·         I am off this week and get to enjoy some resting, writing, and being with family time.

These are all things that I am extremely thankful for, but there are so many more.  I am thankful for my home and the roof over my head.  I am thankful for the heat that keeps my family warm and the food in our cupboard that keeps us fed.  I am thankful for my education and experience that allows me to do what I love for a living.  I am thankful for my sisters who keep me sane and help me through tough times (even though they can sometimes also drive me insane).  I am thankful for my parents who are healthy and active into their late 70s and who have supported me so amazingly throughout my life. 

I am thankful for those people who have fought for my freedom in the armed forces and in civil rights and social justice movements throughout our history.  I am grateful for my faith and all of the people who led me to understand God in ways that make me strong as a disciple of Jesus Christ.  I am grateful for my church family that blesses me weekly with their worship and willingness to support each other.  I am grateful for my denomination, even though I disagree with it on several key issues.  I am grateful for new trends in creating and being church that gives me hope for faith communities of the future.  I am grateful for the school that my son goes to and for the education he is receiving.  I am grateful for friends and family who are special parts of my life journey.

I am grateful for the opportunities that living in America provides and for the responsibilities I have as a citizen to hold my country’s feet to the fire.  I am grateful for Occupy Wall Street and the ways they are calling for justice and economic balance. I am grateful for the election process that lets us get to know our candidates, even though they make me crazy with their limited plans, promises and partisanship. 

I want to be part of the 10% this week … but more than that I want to be part of the 10% all year long.  I want to live with an attitude of gratitude.  I want to turn around and walk back to the one who makes me whole and say “Thank you, Jesus.”

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Yikes … There’s a Teenager in my House

Tomorrow my son, Shelby, will turn 13.  When we brought him home from a small orphanage in Yekaterinburg, Russia 12 years ago, we never could have dreamed of the young man he would and has become – especially since he cried almost the entire way on the airplane from Moscow to Zurich to Atlanta to Kansas City.  We weren’t sure if this was a bad omen or not.  But we were just grateful to be bringing this amazing baby home to America.

Then he was a 9 month old with sparkling blue-grey eyes and curly blonde hair.  He was loved by the caregivers in his orphanage and was tagged as “extraordinarily healthy” by the Embassy Doctor in Moscow.  His passport picture looks like a wise and seasoned person of more years than his 9 months could possibly have experienced.  He was a compassionate toddler who rubbed the TV when he saw someone crying and begged us to stop their pain.  He was an active little guy who climbed anything like a monkey and asked more “Why?” questions than anyone could possibly answer. 

Now he is a mature and compassionate advocate for ending gun violence and watches C-SPAN for enjoyment.  He is a super soccer player and an electronics genius.  He is a great student and a loyal friend.  I have seen him stand up to bullies on his bus route and call racists on their inappropriate jokes.  He is funny, creative, and often silly beyond words.  He can still ask more questions than anyone could possibly answer but now they are sometimes even harder to answer – but not always.

Being 13 is a big thing.  It means being a teenager and making more decisions for himself.  It means his hormones will continue to change and there will be ups and downs in our relationship as he ages – but I am so proud of who he is and who he is going to be.  It means his interests are changing and his relationships with others are more complex.  Having a teenager in the house will be tough at times – but being a Mother is such a blessing.  He is a good kid and that won’t change just because the magic number 13 passes tomorrow.

So tonight I give thanks for his birth mother who chose to give him a better live by giving him up.  I give thanks for the caregivers who cared for him in the orphanage.  I give thanks to the agency reps, interpreters and drivers who helped us through the adoption process.  I give thanks for the members of my family who supported the adoption.  I give thanks to his coaches, teachers, and pastors who helped make him the young man he is today.  I give thanks to the many people who have been part of this journey.

And I thank God for him and for the opportunity to be his mother.  What a blessing.

Monday, November 14, 2011

being spiritual but not religious

I have read several blogs, articles, and research data lately about the numbers of younger adults who claim the label "spiritual but not religious." Some believe the number of persons claiming this status could be as high as 1 in 5 overall and as high as 72% of Millennials (18-29 year olds).  That is a significant number of younger adults claiming that status.

The first time I saw this data I was stunned by the honesty and audacity of naming who you are in these studies.  While it is also distressing to some degree as a minister of a mainline denominational church, I find the truth telling important.  Owning that you are not sold on how faith is expressed in the institutional church is becoming more and more common.  And denominational studies show us that the number of folks in the church is in decline.  So we need to pay attention to this information.

The truth is that sometimes I want to claim no connection to the church as well.  There are times when the church makes me feel so badly about Christianity that I want to flee.  There are too many people who feel hurt by the church to ignore that fact.  And there are too many people who see the current expression on the church as irrelevant to brush that off.

So what do we need to do?  Some say we should become more orthodox so that people know what we stand for (and by extension what and who we are against for way too many) explicitly.  Others say we should be more flexible in who we proclaim we are so that we attract many different groups.  Still others want to bring in all of the elements of modern culture to be more in tune with the very generation we are missing in our churches.  All of these ideas are short-sighted and cannot alone reverse the process of decline or the leaving of church by many younger people.

Part of the problem many churches have is that they are unsure who they are.  They are unsure who they are serving. And they are totally disconnected from the community around them. Many of our churches do not even know who the people are who live in their vicinity.  How can a church appear relevant if they sit in isolation with no clue what is happening in the homes and businesses next door and around the block?

Another problem is that many churches continue to live in the past.  They long for days gone by when they had more members or more money and they mourn that loss. Others know that “golden age” is no longer their reality but they worship, plan and live as if that was who they still were.  This kind of disconnect is dangerous and misleading to all.

A third problem is that the most public event we have as communities of faith - our worship and preaching - is too often listless, not awe inspiring and lacks passion.  Too many gather as social clubs to "do" worship without energy or enthusiasm about what we have gathered to proclaim.  Too many are going through the motions of doing church - not truly BEing the church in the world.

I have some ideas … maybe they will spark some thoughts and discussions for you as well.

So how do we begin to turn the tide?

First, we have to leave the comfort of our pews to live and work in our communities.  We have to build relationships with the people who live near our communities of faith.  We have to BE the church in communities by meeting people's needs where they live.  We have to be connected to the people around us in as many ways as possible.

Second, we have to create worship that feeds people from the feast that is our faith.  We often come to the feast starving but the food served is not something these "spiritual but not religious" folks are interested in eating.  Many are using 16th century liturgies, with 17th century building styles, and 18 or 19th century music in a 21st century world.  There is nothing wrong with tradition and for many still in the church these are important things to hand on to.  But we also need to create worship that enriches newer generations – that is relational, participatory, awe-inspiring, image driven, experiential, connective, and missional.

Third, we have to live out our faith in compassion and justice ministries.  We have to be active in making the world a better place.  Working to feed the poor by sending canned goods to a shelter without engaging those in need is good but it is also problematic.  Sending in a check for world mission is noble but it does not get our churches engaged in the world.  We have to do the work of living out our theology in public – calling for the end of injustice and working to make that happen.  It is time we live and work missionally IN the world.

Finally, we have to be open to listening to the needs of those who see the church as irrelevant and see what it is they are looking for.  That does not mean we have to give up everything to do what they want – but without the conversation we lack the option to be in that conversation. 

I do not claim to have all of the answers – but maybe what I have here are some options for a conversation that is sorely needed.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Time for the Church to Occupy!

Part of an interfaith service at Occupy San Francisco.

As I write this I am recovering from a viral inner ear infection called labrynthitis and sitting in my house with heat, electricity and cable.  When I got sick I called my primary care physician and got in the next day.  I received prescriptions from him and went to a local pharmacy and got them filled.  My insurance paid all but $8 of the bill. I have an amazing job I love that provides me with insurance and payments into my pension account.   My home is not luxurious but is quite adequate for my family.  I have money in my bank account and get to do things with my family that are fun and interesting.  My child goes to a safe and excellent school.  My extended family is relatively healthy and most have good jobs and stable families.  I am lucky. 

I know this intuitively but often get caught up in the issues of my days and weeks and forget.  I know this but sometimes I – probably like many of you – need a reminder.  A transformer blew outside my house yesterday morning and I was without electricity for all of 2 hours.  It was inconvenient but my house was warm and I had things to do to occupy my time.  I have friends in areas affected by the recent storms that are on day 5 without power.  I am lucky.  I know this.

As I write this Occupy Wall Street protesters are sitting in the cold and enduring the elements to protest an immoral, greedy, and unjust economic system that keeps the poor in poverty and protects the rich.  Members of the global community have been rebelling over the last few months in a number of ways.  The Arab Spring has removed dictators from several countries’ leadership and brought new levels of freedom to peoples of the world.  Women in countries where they have limited rights are crying out for education, driving privileges, and voting rights.  Seeking a better world and gratitude for these changes is everywhere – it seems.
Occupy movements are springing up all over the world.  Many are collecting donations of food and are feeding not only those in the movement but the homeless in their areas as well.  This kind of egalitarian and compassionate living is not just being protested for – it is being lived out by their actions.  They are doing what many of us would like to do – but we feel compelled to stay in our own cocoons of safety or are too scared to be part of it or we don’t know how to be part of it all.  Sometimes their purpose seems scattered and I wonder how their efforts may actually create change – but I am grateful they are there.  And I too am figuring out how I can be part of it.
Where is the church in all of this?  I think we ought to be right in the middle of these movements.  I know of clergy groups walking with Occupy across the country.  Ministers are offering pastoral care and Eucharist to those who wish.  Many churches have
Marilyn Sewell, in a recent article on Huffington Post, said, “The church's proper role is to stand on the side of the disenfranchised and to call out wrongdoing and injustice in our society. Jesus did not say," I have come that you might be comfortable." He said, "I have come that you might have life." OccupyWallStreet has given the church an opening, a decisive moment in history. The Holy Spirit is not on the side of safety and stability. When will the church find its prophetic voice?
It’s time to occupy a sense of thankfulness for all that has and is changing.  It’s time to occupy and take advantage of our opportunity to speak out against injustice, greed and immortality.  It’s time for the church to speak prophetically.  We sit too safely in the cocoons of our worship spaces – we need to meet the people in our communities where they are, we need to stand for something, we need to cry out against violence and abuse, and we need to be the church reaching out to the world.  We need to occupy the places where marginalization is happening and to close those gaps.  This is the time and the church is able.
We are fortunate, many of us, so we should be grateful and honor where we are in life.  And that allows us to speak – we have to utilize that right and responsibility. 
It’s time – let’s occupy.