Learning from my neighbors without homes

homelessA number of years ago, not long after I moved to Seattle, I was walking through the Capitol Hill neighborhood and a young woman with a sign asking for food caught my eye. I asked her if she would like to eat with me, and she said yes, so we went to Magic Dragon for some wonderfully gross pseudo-Chinese food. This woman’s story seemed to be homelessness’ greatest hits. Her mother was a heroin addict, she was gang raped by some of her mom’s friends at 15 and ran away not long after. She subsequently got addicted to heroin and had just recently gotten herself clean. She was working to get some of her friends clean and trying to get money to go to Hawaii, where she presumed it was a lot better to be homeless since the weather was so much better. Two things she said have stuck with me ever since.

  1. She told me that what really gets her is when people walk past her like they don’t see her, like she is invisible. Even eye contact reassured her of her humanity, kind words meant the world to her.

So often, we shuttle past the homeless because we don’t want to give to them or (and I think this is actually an and) because we can’t handle looking at them because they expose a lot about ourselves. The homeless people around us expose that we really do have a lot and we really aren’t willing to share. They expose our fears that we, too, aren’t too far from where they are. Were it not for a supportive family or a job or a variety of other things (things that amount to privilege), we, too could be on the street. Also, I think that we believe if we don’t look at the homeless, we won’t feel like a jerk for not giving to them. Or maybe that’s just me. I know that, for me, every time I walk past a homeless person, I hear Jesus in my head saying, “That which you did not do to the least of these, you did not do to me.” I deeply feel like I am ignoring Christ when I walk past a homeless person, like I have just denied giving food to a God who is often found in the weakness, the need, and the pain of others.

2. She told me that she gets why people don’t want to give homeless people money because they might spend it on alcohol or drugs. However, for her and some of her friends, drugs are how they get through the day. Without a strong support system, a safe place to stay, the option of psychological care and rehab, drugs numb the sting of life, the sting of homelessness, and fog the brain so that the trauma of your past impedes less on your present.

In the past few months, I have begun building relationships with the homeless people who sleep on my ministry property and my understanding of this have increased 10x. One day, a chronic alcoholic who sleeps out there came in really upset. Turns out the other guy out there with him had been doing heroin. I didn’t get why this pained him so much until he began to tell me his story. He was removed from his mother’s care as a baby because she was a heroin addict. He was in the foster system for the rest of his life, and experienced neglect and abuse in many of the homes that were supposed to care for him. He now fears living inside because of all of the bad things that happened to him in houses and drowns his pain with alcohol.

I ran into him today in front of the Safeway and he was shaking uncontrollably. I asked him if he had the shakes and he said, “Yeah. Withdrawal.” I went inside and bought him a beer. At that point, the beer was medicine for him. After you reach a certain point with alcohol, quitting cold turkey can kill a person. The figures are 2-5% of people going through alcohol withdrawal will die from it, but even without death, a person can have seizures, and delirium tremens — and the worse your drinking has been, the more likely bad things will happen (fun fact: this does not happen with Heroin withdrawal. It will suck, but it will not physically kill you). And experiencing  DT in the past makes it more likely you will die from it in the future.

Most of the guys around my building who are homeless have some kind of substance abuse problem. For the majority of them, its alcohol. For a few, its other drugs. For all of them, for better or worse, substance abuse is what makes life more bearable as they live out on the streets and try to forget their problems or use drugs/alcohol (which is a drug, but we make that distinction in our society for some reason) to deal with mental health conditions like PTSD, depression, or schizophrenia.

One of the guys who stays out front was making me really mad the other day. I needed him to leave and he just would not get up. I threatened to call the cops. Once he got up he came in and told me that he had been in a car wreck a few days ago and broke two ribs (he was clearly in pain) and had a heart problem from an infection he got while he was in the hospital for pneumonia. He was really sorry it took him so long to get up, but he was in a lot of pain and really just needed to lay down. The next day when I woke him up to move on he told me he just learned his father had died — he was trying to find a way to go north to help his family with the details and say goodbye. He found a way to leave today and gave me a huge hug.

The thing that kills me is how grateful they are because I simply treat them like fellow human beings. I’m not a saint. I’m not always nice. I kick them off the property regularly, I have words with them when they are drunk or on the odd occasion they are rude. But they always apologize and thank me — even as they walk off the porch into the rain. One day I almost lost it because I was kicking a guy out of the back (he had built a fort there, basically), and he kept thanking me. I was so confused as to why he would thank me and then it occurred to me that I was treating him like a human being, asking him to move his stuff, giving him a chance.

The guys who sleep on the front porch take great pride in the fact that they clean up after themselves. They found a broom somewhere and always sweep up after they leave in the morning. They bring in my sign when I forget. They protect me from other people who are being rude or belligerent, and they corral one another to clear out when the time comes. Every time they thank me, just because I am not being a dick.

There are groups that are trying to criminalize homelessness, towns that make things like being boisterous (Hi, Burien) illegal as a way to keep the homeless out of their area. This is insane. Making homelessness illegal will not stop homelessness. People don’t magically stop having mental health issues or addiction issues or get a job or a decent credit score or get an apartment because some city made a law that keeps people from being able to sit on the sidewalk.  Homelessness is solved through a complex web of education and access to resources, and much of what is needed doesn’t exist. There are 60 beds a night for people who  need to sleep it off, and a labyrinth to find your way through if you actually want to get treatment for addiction and can’t pay for it. Any given night in King County, there are around 4000 people sleeping on the street and 3000 shelter beds are full. Every year in King County 35,000 people lose the place they called home. This can’t be fought with laws that keep the homeless from sitting on the sidewalk or being boisterous.

We need more services. We need more services for people with mental health, substance abuse and general health issued. We need more transitional housing, more affordable housing, and more shelter beds (that aren’t bunk beds because while they make room for more beds, they also leave people open to attack and many won’t sleep in them). We need housing first policies that give a person shelter before asking they quit using, and a deeper understanding of the fact that within the larger homeless community there are lots of little communities and when people try to get shelter, that all too often means leaving the family they have acquired on the street.

In a nation, a county, a city as wealthy as Seattle, I shouldn’t have people seeking shelter under my eaves every night.

In a nation that has a tendency to claim Christianity as its faith, there shouldn’t be people hungry and on the streets, and I shouldn’t receive thanks from people just because I am not being awful.

Some of the people on the street are there because of bad choices — but most are not. And anyway, who among us hasn’t made bad choices? Who hasn’t taken a stupid risk? Just because some of us have the ability/support/resources to bounce back after a bad move doesn’t make others less than us. In fact, it should call us to remember that there but for the privileges I have go I.

TL;DR: sometime try talking to a homeless person, you may hear an amazing, heart wrenching story. Try to understand them; have compassion. If you’re a Christian, seriously think about that person being Jesus. Remember Matthew 25:31-46. And work like hell for public policy that provides services to ensure that, someday soon, this isn’t a problem at all.

 

Info on homelessness in King County: http://www.homelessinfo.org


Fear, hope, and Jesus the refugee

Cranach_Massacre_of_the_Innocents_(detail)

Twas the night before Christmas

America cried out in fear

of foreigners coming from far and from near.

“They might take our jobs, they might take our life!” the people shouted out, overtaken by strife.


Many seemed to forget the savior they claim

was also a foreigner with little to his name.

His parents, unmarried, far from their home,


as foreigners they were completely alone.

No room at the inn, they gave birth homeless, in a manger

to a son whose life would soon be in danger.


The baby, a king, born in poverty.

Lowly, unknown, a king he would be

.
A king who would turn the world on its head,

proclaim good news to the poor,

call for the hungry to be fed.

The embodiment of love, God in human form,

come to save us from the sin with which we all are born.

The way of peace, the way of love,

the way of the cross, and for these teachings he would pay the ultimate cost.

And so we remember, this wet winter night

what happened, what is now and what is not yet.


The hope that was born long ago in a manger

that love that calls upon us to love our neighbor

that peace which passes all understanding

come to Earth in Jesus Christ, our Savior.

Live into love, cast out all fear, act in the hope the Christ child is here.

 

Tomorrow, the church universal will celebrate the Day of the Holy Innocents. The day when King Herod, terrified of this baby of whom he had been told, this child he was warned would grow up to destroy all that he had built, called for all of the children under the age of two to be killed. Mary and Joseph, having been warned of Herod’s wrath, escaped to Egypt, where they lived until the reign of Herod had ended. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus became refugees, fleeing an oppressive government that threatened the life of their child. Had they not been able to flee, had the neighboring nations thrown up walls, fences, or red tape, we would not have the story from Luke today, the story of Jesus the smart, devoted, yet petulant twelve year old. We would not have the gospels. We would not know of this thing that God had done, coming to earth to be with us. The miracle would have ended just as it was beginning.

As we are given these stories of Jesus in his early days, we are given the story that Jesus was some of the things that we look down upon, some of the things we fear, some of the things we despise. Jesus was homeless. Jesus was a refugee. Jesus was a petulant preteen.

We do not have the details of Jesus’ time in Egypt, but they likely sought out other Jews, people with whom they had a common culture, a community of faith, people whose scriptures taught them to welcome the stranger, to welcome the alien for they had once been aliens. This is a heavy emphasis of Jewish scripture – scripture that we happen to share.

Were Jesus to be born today in a similar way, he could be born to a family in Guatemala, living in fear of gang violence, a family in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, Nigeria, or any of the many nations that are embroiled in civil way – a family running for safety, looking to find safe harbor in any nation that would take them – and the current dialogue in our nation would make it somewhere between difficult to impossible to come here. We would build walls, create red tape, to keep him and his family out, because we are afraid. We are so very, very afraid.

And I get the fear. The world seems to be a very dark place right now. As a campus pastor, I am afraid. I fear for my students safety. This fall, the day after the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, I was walking to campus and heard helicopters above and sirens seemingly all around me. My first thought was oh dear god, no. Not a shooting, not here. I quickly realized that the helicopters were for the fall startup activities on the quad and sirens were unrelated, but for a brief moment, I was terrified. This low grade fear lives within me – I am gathering the campus religious leaders to try to form a unified response to a shooting in the event we ever need one. I get the fear.

But we worship a God who tells us again and again to not be afraid. Fear is the enemy of love. When fear has a grip on our hearts love has a hard time finsing its way in. One cannot simultaneously fear and love ones neighbor. And so God says to us, through the scriptures, the ancient stories of our leaders and prophets, do not be afraid. Do not be afraid, the angels said to the shapers in the field, to Mary, to Joseph, to the prophets — to us. Do not be afraid.

Fear is the weapon of Satan. It is the sword Satan yields to keep us separate from one another, to engender strife, war, envy, hate… all of the things that lead to violence, all of the things that block us from the ability to love as God loves us, the things that cloud our hearts so that we cannot hear that still, small voice inside of us pushing us to love, to trust, to forgive – to be willing to give our lives for the lives of others. Fear keeps us not only from one another, fear keeps us from God.

Fear would keep us from welcoming this homeless, refugee baby into our nation, into our homes, into our lives. And the rhetoric of fear that pervades the conversation in the United States today is working. It is driving us to violate the Christian love we claim to hold so dear, to push away the stranger, to ensure that there is no room at the inn.

These words today from the Apostle Paul are a prescriptive against fear. To begin, we are reminded that we are holy and beloved. You, people of God, are holy and beloved. They, people of God, are holy and beloved. We are called to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. To bear with one another, and to forgive. To forgive, To forgive. Forgiveness which, through the power of God’s astounding love, frees us from hate, from anger, from the desire for retribution. Above all, writes Paul, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. This clothing sounds awesome. It reminds me of when you get a new pair of sweats and they are soon soft inside and you don’t want to wash them because you know that will ruin the amazing softness. It’s like wearing that, but a softness and comfort that will never wear out, like wearing that all of the time — to work! To the mall! To fancy gatherings! We would always be soft, always comfortable, always ready to love, no matter what the situation. We are called wear these clothes; to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts.

Fear cannot co-exist with this clothing. This clothing destroys fear and opens us up to be the people of God we have been called to be.

What would it look like were we to let go of this fear? What would it look like were we to let go of our anger, our hate, our suspicion of others, to give and love freely without worrying about what would happen next? To some, it may look like foolishness. But, for real, is this the most foolish thing in which a Christian believes? We believe God came to earth in the form of man, died and then was physically resurrected! So much of our faith can be called foolishness. To believe in God is not foolishness. To love without fear, without asking for anything in return is not foolishness. It is the Christian life. To live this way looks beautiful. It looks like heaven. What if were were to welcome the stranger, the refugee, the homeless, the petulant teenager into our hearts and homes the same way we welcome the sculptures of the baby Jesus that lives in our cresh?

Hope was born in that manger 2000 years ago. Hope that love would be the law of the land, that fear would be no more. Fear cannot coexist with hope – at least not the hope that was born in that manger. That hope is a living hope, an active hope that we live into each and every day as we wait for Christ to return, a hope that calls to us to prepare the way of Christ each and every day, to love as we are loved. This hope is alive, it is calling to us to put down our weapons, to put away our fear, to say yes to love, to say yes to Christ.

Because we are loved. Deeply. Without requirement, without payment, without earning it, we are loved. The proof of this lovelies in a manger, in the child of an unmarried couple without a home, who would soon become refugees, This proof of love lies in the man who would die so that we might live an abundant life, a life free of fear.

Hope is calling. Listen, do not be afraid.


30,000 youth excited about Jesus, service, and justice — let’s not fail them

30,000 youth praising Jesus. (@laurenapollo)

30,000 youth praising Jesus. (@laurenapollo)

I was, admittedly not excited about going to this year’s ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit. I had responsibilities that, leading up to the gathering, had been really stressful. All I could focus on was my Synod Day not being a total failure. I just wanted the gathering to be over so I could stop stressing it and get to my vacation in Cleveland. Then, Friday night, that all changed.

At the Friday night gathering at Ford field, I witnessed something amazing. I witnessed 30,000 youth repeatedly give rousing applause and standing ovations to people talking about social justice, structural evil, Jesus, and the role that young people can play in living out the kingdom in our world. I watched them sing along to praise music. I watched them dance, hug and celebrate the Word of God. As the Motown Experience finished and Rev. Steve Jerbi took the stage I wondered what would happen — 20 minutes of Motown favorites is a hard act to follow. As Rev. Jerbi talked about the heartless, racist murder of his young parishioner Darius Simmons, the crowd fell silent. Kids leaned in to his words, hanging on them, pulled in to his pain, vulnerability and passion. His sermon reached crescendo and he had the whole crowd chanting, “Jesus!” on a move of his arm. Students were standing, banging chairs in response to his call for justice, love, and compassion in this world — all rooted in our love for Jesus Christ (link embedded and you really should listen to it because it is awesome).

I heard kids talking about their joy in the service they were able to do. My cynicism over the ELCA slogan, “God’s work, our hands,” melted as I heard kids repeatedly talking about how this is how they view their lives in this world. They know they are called to be God’s hands in the world. I stood in line behind kids signing pledges and getting tattoos from Reconciling Works, our denomination’s organization that works for LGBTQ equality. I watched them carry water jugs across a conference center to learn what it is like to have to walk miles for clean water. They wandered the exhibition hall talking to all kinds of justice organizations about how they can be the change they want to see in the world. They gave away free hugs. They were so excited for Jesus it was palpable.

And then I was filled with excitement and hope. I was not watching a dying church. I was bearing witness to a church filled with life and hope, calling for Jesus and looking to do his work in the world. In these 30,000 young people lies a vision of the possibility of the kingdom on earth not yet beaten down by cynicism. It was beautiful for behold. 

They have had a mountaintop experience and they are bringing it home. 30,000 youth just spent a week being really excited about Jesus and doing God’s work in the world. We cannot let this energy die. We cannot let them walk away from church. We must find ways to take this excitement and build on it if we want all of this talk about the death of the church to be nothing more than the wringing of hands of an older generation afraid of change.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 10.47.18 AMThese young people want Jesus. They want to be connected to something larger than themselves, they want community — in short, they want church.

In far too many cases, they will return to congregations in which they matter in words far more than action. They will return to congregations in which their needs are silenced. They will go back to congregations that are not interested in examining their worship services to make them more accessible to young people, but want to keep doing what they have been doing for 50 years. My colleagues in youth ministry will return to senior pastors who shut them out or see their jobs as silly or irrelevant, to repeatedly have their activities  left out of announcements. The kids will be seen as cute, encouraged to be on committees only to have their needs and desires ignored. Their excitement for church will fade and the youth gathering will be a memory of a really great time they had once. Maybe it will spur them to service or to pursue their own spirituality away from church. But if we choose to not listen to their experience, to not learn about what excited them and then act on it, this will be another generation we watch walk away from our congregations to develop their own spirituality without the support of the body of Christ. We cannot let this happen.

Colleagues in ministry, church leaders, parents, adults in the church, I implore you — listen. When they talk about how much they loved the worship services, don’t discount it or focus immediately on how your congregations can’t do that or won’t like it or how it isn’t Lutheran. Flip it. What can your congregations do to add elements of what worked for your kids into weekly worship? Were they fired up about the sermons because they related to their everyday lives in the world? Because they were powerful, fiery and passionate? How have your sermons been lately? Can you change? Did they love the music because it was upbeat? Can you occasionally retool a beloved hymn to a different beat? Can you help the youth empower themselves to create a worship band that works for your congregation, maybe once a month on a Saturday night?

Were they passionate about the social justice teachings? How can your congregation become more active in the community? How can the Bible studies they go to in church reflect this passion? Did they love the service? Can we help parents and kids find more ways to structure service into their lives?

What hooked them? How can we keep them hooked?

One of the struggles of a campus pastor is that we allow our worship services and activities to be shaped by our students — we follow their passions and help them use Lutheran theology and tradition as a guide to create worship that is meaningful to them, to have scripture studies that speak to their needs and to do service that hooks into their passions. Then they graduate and go into congregations that have little interest in truly involving them beyond the excitement of, “OMG!!! MILLENNIAL IN CHURCH!!!!” I keep reflecting on this as I see all of the excitement around what happened in Detroit. We are so proud of our youth for the work they did, the excitement they felt and the connections they made with Jesus, multiple communities and themselves. Will they come back to congregations that will build on what they experienced in Detroit, or will Detroit be an exciting one-off in their lives in the church, showing them what church could be before returning them to a church that is still firmly rooted in the 1950’s, with little interest in change and little honest interest in what youth want or need?

It’s up to us.

Let’s not fail them.

We are the body of Christ, and they are our blood, renewing us and giving us the energy to walk forward into this world with the boldness to proclaim the love of God with our words and deeds.

They are our sheep begging to be fed.

They are not only our future, they are our present.

We must not let this moment pass.


What it means to be bisexual in the world and in the church (and what LGBTQ equality means to me)

This is evil. This is hate. This is the attitude that drives  LGBTQ people to have a higher rate of depression and suicide than the general population. This is not the way of Christ.

This is evil. This is hate. This is the attitude that drives LGBTQ people to have a higher rate of depression and suicide than the general population. This is not the way of Christ. Also, I have yet to go to hell.

I remember the first time I really noticed women. I was 11 or 12 and traveling in London with my parents. There were these risqué postcards of late 80’s one-hit-wonder Samantha Fox all over the underground that piqued a little more than my curiosity. So it would go over the years, slowly realizing that I was not only interested in boys, I was interested in girls too. I remember driving around at 17 talking to one of my best friends and  coming out to one another as bisexual. Then we didn’t speak of it again until we were in college and both were dating women. It wasn’t a safe thing to talk about. At that time, in the mid 90’s, it wasn’t cool to be bi, girls weren’t passing around polaroids of themselves kissing another girl for the reaction/titilation of the boys around them. It was considered gross (I actually heard a conversation between classmates that expressed nothing but revulsion at the idea of being bisexual, much less gay). In a world in which one of my high school desks had “Eat meat, drink beers, beat queers” carved into it, I knew that my best choice was to remain silent until I was in a place where I was safe — if that time/place ever presented itself.

I have been out in most of my relationships for some time now. My students know. My family knows. To some of you this might be news, for many of you this is in no way surprising, because you have met me. I have been thinking about writing this for some time now and, well, I guess I am ready. If the above paragraph wasn’t clear, I am bisexual. But this is only in part about me. It’s also about the LGBTQ community, the church, and society. It’s about us.

Travel with me, if you will, to the fall of 1999. I’m out watching a meteor shower with one of my best friends in the lovely Blue Ridge Mountains. This friend is a woman with whom I shared a tight bond because of our faith. We were both Christian in an environment where that was, shall we say, unpopular. We had both been raised at church camp. Her dad was a pastor, her mom worked for the church, and I wanted to be a pastor. As we lay there on the hood of my car talking about our futures, our desires, what we wanted out of a relationship, and watching the meteors fly overhead, we came to a realization. This was more than a friendship. We began to fall in love.

We prayed together, went to church together, led Bible study on our campus together. Until recently, I considered this woman the love of my life, the one who I foolishly let get away. It wasn’t lust (at least that wasn’t all it was), it wasn’t confusion, it was a deep and abiding friendship, a romance, a relationship of mutual respect, support and caring, unlike almost every other relationship (with men) I have had — before or since.

And yet this relationship, this relationship that was the ONLY relationship in which I have prayed with my partner, the ONLY relationship in which I attended church, studied scripture and talked theology with my partner was also the ONLY one I ever had to hide. It was the only relationship in which I had to be careful where and how we expressed affection (even/especially in church), the only one I couldn’t talk about in my church circles (and with some friends as well), the only relationship for which I was told I was going to hell. My marriage to an atheist man was far more acceptable in my church world than it was for me to be in love with a faithful woman.

In the fall of 2001, I entered seminary in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The ELCA was still years away from deciding it was okay for LGBTQ folk to become ordained or to be married in the church. It was still studying it (as Lutherans, we study things a lot). I was the object of study, but not the object of acceptance or unconditional love. Like some monkey in a lab, I was the subject of curious interest: kind of human, but not fully human. I could not tell anyone about my relationship for fear it would get around to my candidacy committee or someone else who thought that, in spite of hearing my call to ministry in the 8th grade and working towards it ever since, because of my sexual orientation I should not be allowed to lead a congregation, to preach and teach and administer the sacrament (never mind our theology that states that the person administering the sacrament played no role in its efficacy). I lived in fear of people finding out, of accidentally mentioning my girlfriend. When I did tell a small group I was in about my sexual identity, I then fielded a dozen really gross and intrusive questions from a classmate that would never have been asked of a straight person.

My girlfriend came to visit me on campus, and we had to keep a calculated distance from one another, emotionally  and physically, while in public spaces (which we had kind of gotten used to while living in the South — the calculating the safe spaces, never being too sure if we might get the shit kicked out of us for being in love — and it never stopped sucking). No one could suspect my secret. For this (and a few other reasons like distance and me being an idiot), we determined our relationship could not continue. There I was, in a relationship with someone I loved deeply, someone I respected and had a ton in common with, someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, to have children with, to grow old and grey and cranky with, but it had to end because it wasn’t going to work this way. We couldn’t have a relationship we would have to hide until the church and the world came to a different understanding of who we were and decided to let us fully take part (and holy shit am I overjoyed that we are coming to a place where this is becoming a real possibility).

In my first year of classes, one of my professors (whom I greatly admire) started talking about LGBTQ issues in our Old Testament class. He said, “You know, I get being gay. That makes sense to me. But I don’t get being Bi. We are only supposed to have one partner, not to have sex with many people at once. I believe in monogamy.”

I was flummoxed. What the hell? That’s not what being bisexual means, I thought. But to correct him meant possibly outing myself. So I sat there and listening to a few more minutes of wrong thinking about what it means to be bisexual.

There were people in seminary braver than I was, but they paid for their bravery. One of my classmates got outed by a supposedly “safe” internship site that interviewed her. They asked for her to be put up on heresy charges. Other colleagues left the ELCA for the Episcopal church, as they were quicker to decide to include LGBTQ folk on their ordained roster. To be gay in the church mean for many, and still means for far too many still, to have to hide who you are for fear of marginalization, at best and outright hate and harassment.

I have watched as friends of mine who identify as gay get kicked out of their families. I have watched my ex girlfriend fret over her father’s desire to marry she hand her partner of over ten years because she didn’t want him to pay a price for love (but they’re married now and I am so happy for them!).  I have watched people I love dearly get excluded from the one place that is theoretically all about love and grace. I have lost two people I care about dearly to suicide because they internalized the message that they not only didn’t fit in the church, but that God didn’t love them.

We have watched as the national spotlight has shown on the agonizing rate of suicide among LGBTQ youth, yet so many in the Christian community insist on continuing with the message that these people must change who they are in order to earn God’s love. This, inspite of the apostle Paul’s writing in his letter to the Romans that nothing can separate us from the love of God, in spite of the knowledge that Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to redeem the world (Jn 3:17), in spite of my church’s focus on grace and love. Out of fear, we focus on hate and exclusion instead of the sanctifying love of God. We continue to drive people away from the church, away from that which is (in theory) the body of Christ, continue to push people away from a community that could offer so much to the world and to individuals. While we worship a God who went out of his way to welcome outsiders (the woman at the well, Zacchaeus, most of the disciples), we instead create outsiders. We push people out of our doors.

Conversely, I have wept in joy at knowing my friends are finally able to marry their long time loves. I have seen those friends weeping as their love is publicly, legally, and sometimes religiously recognized. I have had young people willing to re-enter the doors of the church because of the good Christian folk they met working for LGBTQ rights. I have heard some of the most amazing sermons from colleagues who are members of the LGBTQ community, and know that their inclusion is a gift to us.

I am a mixed up ball of angst and joy watching the conversations about LGBTQ inclusion in society and the church. Some of it is so beautiful, some so amazingly vile, fear-based and hate-filled. While I am hopeful about the future for the LGBTQ community, I’m also aware that publishing this could jeopardize my ability to get calls in certain places, but if they don’t want a minister who is a member of the LGBTQ community, I don’t want to be there anyway (aka, mom, don’t worry about me doing this. Yes, I did think it through).

One of the best ways to overcome fear is relationship (I recently heard Walter Bruggemann talk about how he no longer argues theologically for LGBTQ inclusion, because he knows that people’s issues are about fear not theology), but another can be knowledge. With that in mind, I wanted to use this as space to explain a little about what it means to be bisexual (at least for me, but I feel like most of these are pretty good generalizations) as well as to advocate for inclusiveness in the church. So, with that, here are a few things (in addition, here’s a great blog post on bisexuality, bi-phobia, brasier, etc):

Being bisexual isn’t a phase, it doesn’t mean I am into flings or that I am just gay and can’t admit it. While it is true that many gay folk first come out as bisexual because either they are still figuring it out or because it’s just easier to ease one’s way into coming out as gay by first becoming bi, it is equally true that some people are just bisexual. End of story.

Bisexual people are attracted to/ interested in people regardless of gender. It’s just not a factor I consider. Like, were I to fill out a profile for Tinder, I would be open to both men and women and then find folk of either gender whom I find attractive with whom I share interests.

Bisexual does not mean polyamorous, nor does it mean a a bisexual person will just sleep with anyone and everyone. Yes, there are bisexual people who are into open relationships, are in committed polyamorous relationships, or who just like to have a lot of sex. There are also straight people, gay people, and trans people who are into these things as well. How many people one is in a relationship with at one time is in no way related to or limited by one’s sexual orientation.

Just because I am bisexual does not mean I am into you. Check your ego.

No I will not show you pictures. But now that you have asked, I know that you are not a person I want to be friends with, much less be in a romantic relationship with. Seriously, don’t ever ask this. I am not here for your entertainment, my life is not a porn movie, and I am not bisexual for your titillation. One of the reasons I started dating my now ex-husband was that he was the first person in a really long time to NOT ask me something along these lines.

Being bisexual (this goes for all members of the LGBTQ community) doesn’t make a person a pedophile or sexual deviant. One of the most terrifying things about publishing this is the fear that those for whom I have been a youth director or camp counselor will suddenly think I may have had untoward thoughts towards kids. This is not a fear straight youth workers (or people) have to live with (while we all have a sort of low-grade awareness that we have to be careful, it is very different when one is not straight). Kids are just that, kids. They are not sexual objects. Pedophiles are mentally ill and the psychology for pedophelia is very, very different from the biology of being LGBTQ.

There is a privilege that comes along with being bisexual that the rest of the LGBTQ community does not have: I can live my life as straight and find partners with whom I can have a fulfilling relationship. I have largely done this for a wide variety of reasons. Make no mistake that one of the reasons is that my life is a hell of a lot easier when I date men, both in my career and in the world.

We are a church built on Jesus Christ, built on the idea that God came to earth as a human to love us deeply and to overcome hate with love, even to death. Our God looked out at the people torturing him and loved us anyway, forgave us anyway, and asked us to do the same to our brothers and sisters. We worship a God who time and time again crossed boundaries of gender, race, nationality, religion, status and more in order to love others. It’s about time we start doing the same. All the time. Everywhere.


On (white) progressive fragility

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Black folk have been targets of violence in the United States since the inception of our nation. There have been times were the bursts of violence are significant enough for national attention, mass killings, lynchings, church burnings, police violence and more have exploded in ways that interrupt the national (white) consciousness only to fade as we move on to the next (less disruptive to our lives as privileged folk) moment of national attention. But the black community never gets to stop thinking about it. The black community never gets to stop being afraid, never gets to let fear entirely leave their consciousness. The white community’s ability to forget, to not mention, to not think about racism is our privilege. It is our reward for simply being born with lighter skin.

I cannot imagine what it would be like if I knew that there were groups or individuals focused entirely on killing, say, white women named Elizabeth, or Lutheran pastors, or any other group of which I am a part. While, as a woman, I experience a low-grade fear when walking alone, it is nothing compared to what my brothers and sisters of color face every day. While I know what it is like to be talked down to because I am a woman and because I am young (at least in my career field), I don’t know what it is like to know that much of the society in which I live and the culture in which I work values me less because of the color of my skin.

These past few months have once again brought violence against people of color, primarily black Americans to the forefront. We have  been having some necessary conversations about race and privilege in our world and in our church. Yet even with the media attention focusing on killing of African-Americans, even with my church body being intimately touched by the killings at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston, we have the privilege to forget. That is privilege. And when that privilege allows a gathering of people for religious purposes to remain silent during a worship service of theoretically progressive allies, that is structural racism.

We can make excuses for our silence. We can say that it wasn’t the right time, or it wasn’t the purpose of our gathering, but if when we gather as a group to worship we reamain silent (as happened this past week at a gathering of my colleagues), we are perpetuating structural racism. Here is how one black woman described her experience of the event. 

This is hard to face. As progressive religious professionals, we want to believe we are good allies. When presented with the pain and anger of members of a community reeling in grief and anger, when confronted about our willful blindness to the pain in our midst, we get uncomfortable. We want it to not be about us, about our behavior, about our privilege. But it is.

When we, as allies, are called out for forgetting, we are called to pause. To think. To consider what it might be like in the shoes of those who are in pain, who are being terrorized, who are straight up pissed off about something that looks and feels like being ignored. Again.

As I write this, I am nervous because I want the approval of my colleagues. I want everyone to like me. I don’t want to hurt anyone by putting this out there. But I also have to say it. Because I was disturbed by our silence. I was disturbed my some of the conversations I was a part of. The longer I think of it, the more it bothers me, & the more my heart hurts. And to not say anything because I want people to like me and because none of this directly affects me is just another way I engage in white privilege.

As privileged people, we have the power. Because of our power, we are called to slow down instead of react. We are called to love, to listen, to put our pride and our own concerns aside to hear the grief and pain in the voices and lives of those who are suffering.

We shouldn’t wait to be confronted to act. We need to always be remembering the marginalized in our world and constantly asking ourselves if we are working to perpetuate or dismantle the system. If a member of our community comes to us and says dudes, you missed that, we have not done our job. 

We should never ask that someone aplogise for expressing that they are angry or hurt at being ignored or having something close to their hearts met with silence instead of prayer, lament and action. 

When we ask those suffering to calm down, to wait, to find a more appropriate time or medium to express their feelings, we diminish their grief. We tell them that they are not important enough to be heard, that their pain is not important enough for us to listen to this minute, that they must wait. That’s the pastoral equivalent of having a student show up in our office reeling in pain and fear and telling them to hold on a sec, we have a bulletin to finish editing first.
Now is the time. Now is the time to listen. Now is the time to be intentional about observing the grief and pain and fear of the marginalized. Now is always the time.

Now is the time to measure our words carefully, to examine our systems and structures and ask who we are leaving out. Not later, not when it is convenient or appropriate. Now.

When talking to a colleague about events this past week, events in my church body at a conference I attended, I used the phrase progressive fragility. I don’t know if that is a phrase, but it definitely is a thing. Those of us who consider ourselves progressive and who want to believe that we are allies and/or accomplices get really, really hurt when called out on our -isms. More often than not, we react to these moments defensively, either attacking or deflecting so that we don’t have to look at the fact that we might have just been not-so-progressive. We don’t want to admit we have failed in our ally-ship. When we react, we diminish and silence. When we react we use our implicit power to perpetuate the system. I have seen this when I have called out men who claim the title feminist yet mansplain things to me, or when people expect me to be less competent because of my age and/or gender. I have felt my face burn when a friend has pointed out to me that I just asked all the guys in the room to lift the heavy thing and when my brain points out to me that I’m being racist. But for true structural change to occur, we have to put down the defenses and listen. Really, truly, deeply listen.

When confronted with the hurt of a (marginalized) member of the community, especially a hurt that was either directly or indirectly caused by you or your organization ask yourself:

1)  Did you stop.

2) Did you breathe.

3) Are you listening?

4) Are you practicing grace, love, empathy and understanding. Be the Good Samaritan. Be Jesus encountering the woman at the well. Be the mother hen gathering in her children.

5) Instead of thinking about what the person telling you of their hurt could have done differently, can think about what you could have done differently?

6) Have you thought about how you might be able to act differently in the future, how you can use your voice to disrupt the system, and how you can tear down the structures that perpetuate racism.

7) will you continue engaging in conversation.

I love my church. This past week I engaged in and overheard some great learning and important conversations about structural evil. I know the people with whom I was gathered want to do better, want to be allies, want to fight racism. I also participated in some really disheartening conversations and observed structural evil at work. I know many people were hurt by conversations, by social media, by snide comments and by silence. We can do better, my friends. We have to. It is our call as ministers in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, as Christians, and as humans moving in this world.

Everything is sacred.


A new kind of attractional ministry (or: the church has done this to itself)

If You Build it They Will Come... Just Kidding...

A while back, I was listening to an episode of On Being with the amazing Joanna Macy. Macy is a buddhist and environmentalist, and if you don’t know who she is, go and read The Great Turning then come back. I’ll wait.

The host, Krista Tippet, asked Macy about her journey from Christianity to Buddhism. Macy was raised Christian, but her life changed when she went to volunteer with refugees from Tibet. As she tells it, she saw that these refugees who had nothing and were living in incredibly difficult circumstances had this light inside of them. They seemed to radiate joy and peace inspire of their circumstances. Macy says she thought to herself, “That. I want that.” From that point she began to study Buddhism and has become an amazing teacher and activist for peace and environmental justice.

As I listened to her story, something clicked. That. That is what we in the Christian church are missing. We have busied ourselves for years with changing our congregations so that we have the “right” programs, the “right” worship service, the “right” small groups. This is called attractional ministry, or the Field of Dreams way of doing ministry. If we build it, they will come.

But this hasn’t happened. We have built it and they are walking away. We have tried to alter our way of doing things in order to attract people to our ministry instead of altering our way of being so that we might attract people to Christ.

Many of my friends who don’t do church have this listed in their reasons for staying away. Church appears to be a group of people who gather each week as one would at a social club, nothing really challenging is said, no one really emerges as changed, they just sit for an hour listening to a bunch of words and then go home the same person they were when they woke up in the morning. What’s the point?

A colleague of mine recently told me of a conversation with an older colleague who explained that, in his day, it wasn’t thought of as the pastor’s call to change people; the purpose of church was to make people comfortable. And comfortable we are, but changed we are not.

Now, let me be clear, the change I am talking about isn’t people coming to church and instantly changing their outward behaviors to become more socially acceptable people (or, worse yet, changing who they are to fit into some narrow idea of what Christian looks like). It isn’t becoming less obviously sinful or bad or whatever, changing the outward behavior in hopes of becoming more holy or something (though one hopes that through regular encounters with God’s word, change will come). We will always mess up, we will always fall short of the goal, and changing acts means little without a change of heart. The change I am talking about is the re-orientation of life that comes from communion with the holy spirit, from hearing the radical love of Jesus Christ proclaimed from the pulpit every week, from deep involvement in a community rooted in Christ, and from a discipleship journey that includes regular engagement in spiritual practices. This kind of change comes from being both mentored and challenged in faith.

Too often leaders are afraid of challenging their people. Afraid of rocking the boat, afraid of having congregants get mad because they were made to feel uncomfortable. But, the thing is, faith is uncomfortable. The gospel is incredibly disruptive. It tells us that all of the messages society gives us about what matters in life (material possessions, worldly power, etc) are wrong. The gospel tells us that every single person is loved and worthy of love — this includes people we hate, people we don’t understand, people who have hurt us AND ourselves when we are at our worst. Jesus came to proclaim good news to the poor and to flip the narrative regarding whose side God was on.  This is incredibly challenging stuff. It will make people uncomfortable, but this is the message we are called to proclaim. Every week.

Repeatedly hearing of God’s radical love for all of creation, or God’s unapologetic inclusiveness and the Biblical call to serve the oppressed will change people. Giving people spiritual practices they can use to engage with will lead to transformation.

This will lead to communities in which “All are welcome” is more than a slogan, it is a way of life. It will lead to Christians doing work in the world towards justice for all people. It will lead to people who overflow with God’s love, pouring it out into the world, leading people to look at Christians and think, “I want that.”

This is not a simplistic faith. It is not a faith defined by doctrine and dogma, but a faith that is deeply connected to God and to the world. A faith that recognizes that bad things happen, but God is with us, and we are God’s people called to walk with others who are struggling. This is a faith that cultivates a deep resounding joy that is different from fleeting happiness, a joy that helps us get through difficult times because no matter how hard things get, we know the love of God. It is a faith that recognized the broken in the world and in ourselves and boldly proclaims that love is still alive, that love wins, defeating hate and violence and death.

When we are able to love others and ourselves despite our sinful nature, when we are able to love others and ourselves as we are, we are able to create radically honest communities that love loudly and boldly beyond all of the superficial smiles so many congregations seem to feel they are required to wear on Sunday mornings. When we create spaces into which people can enter when they are not okay, we create spaces into which anyone can enter at any time and know the love of God.

We often look to a growing church for guidance on how to fix our congregational problems. In the past few years, ELCA (and other) churches (as well as the institution) have been looking to House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver for the solution. What do they do there that has helped them grow? How to they attract so many young people? What is the magic pill and how do I get it?

I have been to HFASS, I have friends who have been involved in the community and I think I have an idea what it is. Here’s the magic: excellent, challenging preaching rooted in the gospel message of radical inclusion, bold proclamation of the fact that we are all both sinners and saints and we are all equally loved and valued by God, administration of the sacrament, and a radical inclusiveness that lets you feel welcome in church when you feel like crap, when you have screwed up, when you feel totally unworthy of love, when you have a past you would rather forget about, or any of the million reasons people stay away from church on a bad day (or every day). That’s it (as far as I see it, anyway).

HFASS is not the only community doing this, but it is lifted up so often by the ELCA (and torn down by others), it is an easy example of the gospel as the solution to our current wailing about church decline. It is an excellent example of a new kind of attractional ministry.

We, as Christians, are called to allow ourselves to be changed by the gospel. We are called in baptism to a new life in Christ, a lifetime of discipleship and practicing being Christian. As pastors, we are called to create disciples. Are disciples people who can recite church dogma, people who can quote scripture, or people who hear, smell, taste and see the gospel and “Go and do likewise?”

What’s more attractional?

What will make people like Joanna Macy look at us and say to themselves, “That. I want that?”


Ministry in Grand Central

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This past week, a colleague gave me an analogy for campus ministry as ministry at a bus stop. It’s a pretty good analogy — everyone is coming an going, no one will be there for long. As I thought about it, I thought a more apt description might be ministry in Grand Central. Some people are rushing towards their destination, others are wandering. Some know where they are trying to go, some think they do but change their minds, and others are just lost. People are hungry, tired and burnt out. For many, this is their first time away from home and the station is overwhelming and bewildering — they are seeking direction. Some have friends with whom they travel, others are traveling on their own. Given the amount of time most of them will be in the station, they will be seeking out fellow travelers to hang out with, eat with and form community, many looking for those who are traveling to a similar destination or who have similar travel styles. All of them will leave at some point, some sooner than others.

This is our situation. And it is up to us to figure out how to provide for these people while they are in the station — to talk to them, figure out what they need, and to try to meet these needs the best we can, all in the name of Jesus Christ.

When I talk to students around the University of Washington, one thing comes up again and again — students are seeking connection and community. Even the kids are me who are in fraternities, which, in theory, should be providing that. As a called an ordained minister of word and sacrament, it is often thought that it is my job to provide those things in this place, but, all too often, the way word and sacrament is practiced are too narrow. There are so many students here who desire to be fed, but preaching and eucharist don’t meet the students where they are, at least not at first. There are students who have baggage around “church,” students to whom our rites are foreign and strange, and students who are drawn to check out a community grounded in the teachings of Jesus Christ but aren’t ready to worship yet. if all we offer is a traditional worship service, how do we meet the needs of everyone else at the station? How do we minister to those who are wandering, lost, looking for company, yet for one reason or another aren’t ready for or interested in what we often call traditional, liturgical worship? If I am called as a minister to the entire community of the University of Washington through the Lutheran Church, is it not my call to minister to the needs of the community, even (is not especially) to those who do not feel called to worship God in the ways we have traditionally worshiped? What if, instead of practicing word and sacrament with my tiny community, we learn to embody word and sacrament, to embody grace, and to create spaces where that grace can be experienced by others not yet ready to practice word and sacrament themselves?

Many of my colleagues, particularly those of us on the left coast, are facing these issues. A colleague of mine had students coming for dinner but leaving before worship. Other colleagues have seen growth in gathering around meal with liturgical elements (often called dinner church), while others have been using gardens, conversation, and a dozen other things to help students gather in Christian community — even if not all of the students are ready to call it that or are even aware that Christ is moving within and through the community as it gathers.

I regularly encounter students who are hungry for community, for love, for grace, for hope — for the gospel, really — but are suspicious of religion and its trappings. They fear being sold to, they don’t want to come to dinner and worship (our current pattern) because they don’t want the bait and switch. They don’t want to be invited to share a meal and then be told they are getting Jesused, whether they like it or not.

What would it look like for communities to gather in ways that are rooted in the gospel without constantly talking about the gospel? If we found ways to be Christian community without hitting people over the head with it, then invited those who were enjoying the community to learn about Christ’s presence within the community? To provide a gathering space that is Christian under the hood and then to leave space and opportunity for the students who realized they were hungry for more to come to more?

One of the things I love about campus ministry is that those of us in this call are living out the struggles the church will be facing in the next 10-20 years (if they aren’t already). We are on the front lines of ministry in a changing world that often looks askance at people of faith and at the institution of the church. We are all, whether we know it or not, in the business of transit center ministry. Those of us who live in big cities and/or work with millennials know that our people are moving, moving, moving. They likely will not be in our congregation or our neighborhood for long — so how to we provide for them meaningful, deep, community rooted in the grace and love of Jesus Christ while they are around, and how do we do that in a way that is accessible to those at many points in their faith?

For some, entering into a church deeply rooted in tradition and liturgy will be a welcome trip home, even if they have never done so before. Some people just connect with the rites and rituals and are drawn in by the history, humanity and holiness of the creeds, the smells and bells, and the wonder and mystery of the eucharist. Others have deep wounds which these elements rip open. For many, these rites are unapproachable without a good deal of preparation and understanding — isn’t it kind of weird to demand people worship a God they are just getting to know?

We need many different types of churches and worship styles, but we also need places for people to gather that are rooted in Christian community but don’t shout it out loud, and ways for people to enter into the possibility of worshipping Christ and to explore what that means and what it looks like before they are ready for the full meal deal. We need to create opportunities for people to encounter the beauty of community rooted in Christ that *aren’t* worship, that aren’t liturgical, but allow exploration of those things along with exploration of the scriptures and experience of Word and Sacrament that are more akin to wading in than diving. If we are in the transit station, we are managing a host of different opportunities to experience the living God so that the people at the directions kiosk can direct people to the part of the station that is appropriate to the person. Some will want to stay at the precipice and not enter more deeply into the community or a relationship with Christ. And that is okay. Maybe at the next stop on their journey they will want more. Maybe they won’t. But they will have been fed and supported in the meanwhile, they will experience one form of God’s loving grace — community rooted in Christ’s love.

This may be a little all over the place, so — TL;DR — if we want to bring more people into Christian community, if we want more people to experience the beauty and mystery of liturgical worship and word and sacrament, it is up to us to provide entry points beyond worship services and one on ones, to experiment with what Christian community looks like, then to offer to walk with people on their journey through their stop at the transit station, however long it lasts.


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