Monthly Archives: March 2012

It’s okay to not be okay. Wear your cranky pants. God can take it.

Last week it was revealed to me exactly how cranky I have been lately when a fellow student reveled that he kind of thinks that is just what I always am. I’m cranky. This isn’t who I am. Sarcastic? Yes. Snarky? Probably more than I should be. Cantankerous? Often. But I wasn’t going for cranky.

How did I get here? How did I become a person with only one pair of pants — cranky pants?!

Well, I’m living thousands of miles from my husband when there is a perfectly good (some might say excellent) seminary 20 minutes from my apartment. I am lonely. It is very hard to feel at home in two places at once. This week I am at home for spring break and I can’t remember if the stuff I want is in the fridge here or the one in Berkeley. I can’t write down the right zip code without thinking for a minute. I don’t know which clothes are here and which ones are at home. I spend most of my days with my heart in one state and my body in another. When I’m in California, it is hard to really dive in to relationships because my heart is in Seattle. People there know that too. I’m permanently transient. I think I feel like Peter on Fringe. I just want to get back to my timeline.

I’m frustrated with seminary. I am learning some really good things — especially though my classes at the GTU. But I cannot escape the feeling that my seminary is largely preparing us for how the church used to be and how it is today, not for how and what it will be in the future. I am meeting good people and making good connections but by the time I feel really solid with my people there, it will be time to come home. That is a weird future to face. It makes it hard to invest my heart and energy (I’m still working on accepting impermanence).

I’ve been sick. Like, really sick. I have a chronic disease that, when it shows up, is really, really painful. It makes it hard to think. I have actually read on discussion boards that the pain can be worse than giving birth. And it happens again and again and again. On top of that, I got a cold. Such a little thing that just made it all so much worse.

Then there are the things that are totally mine. I haven’t been praying/meditating enough. This happens when I get into a bad space. I know it is the opposite of what should happen. I am sick so I don’t pray and I don’t pray so I am sick. It feeds itself. But it is really hard to get out of bed and pray when I really don’t want to get out of bed at all.

But enough about me. I am not the only one struggling through seminary or through life. And it is you I want to talk to. You who are in a bad place, you who are struggling through grad school or a difficult marriage (or are dealing with the end of one) or who haven’t slept in weeks because you have a new baby or who lost your job and can’t find a new one. You who are depressed. You who have lost someone you love. This is what I want to say.

It is okay to not be okay.

Sometimes, it just sucks. Sometimes, you don’t want to be cheered up. Sometimes you want someone to say, “Dude, that SUCKS!” I’m with you. Some days, things just suck. Ever for a privileged, over-educated white girl like me.

I’ll speak for myself and say that it is NEVER helpful to be told that there are people who would kill for the opportunities I have or there are starving people in Africa or women without rights in Chad. Those things are all correct. I am aware of them. Thank you for making my day worse by pointing out how insensitive I am to the marginalized of the world and for being totally insensitive to the fact that I am in pain. My pain is real. It is not diminished by the pain of others. It is amplified. So, thanks for that.

It is okay to be in pain, it is okay to be pissed of at the world, it is okay to cry and take a sick day to watch crappy movies or to take a baseball bat to a pillow in the privacy of your own home.

God understands your anger and your pain. God understands your rage. God gets pissed off. There’s a whole lot of angry God in the Hebrew Bible, and he has some really colorful ways of expressing his anger (don’t try this at home,kids). Jesus got annoyed with the disciples and raged at the money changers in the temple. God gets it. Give it to God.

Dude, Jesus is pissed!

What is not okay is taking your anger out on other people OR ON YOURSELF. If you find yourself snapping at people who were just trying to be nice (even if it was super flawed), ask a friend for help. If you find yourself trying to escape your pain by drinking or getting high or having risky sex or cutting or any other way we find to hurt ourselves, tell a friend and then find a professional. Don’t let your pain destroy you. Give it to God. Yell at God. Scream at God. Throw full glasses of whiskey at God. God can take it. God has been taking on our pain for thousands of years. Whatever you can give, God can take.

In about two weeks, Christians around the world will be observing the time in history God took on all of our crap. All of our pain, all of our brokenness, all of our dirt, all of our evil. Check out a picture of the crucifixion. That’s God, taking on all of the crap you feel right now (well, he wasn’t white, but you get my point). Channel it there. That’s what Jesus came to do. Then leave it there. Leave it at the foot of the cross. Let it go. Let the pain and anger enter into Christ’s wrists and feet, into the lashings on his back and know that you are understood. Know that your pain matters to God. Know that God takes it on willingly, and in love. Give it to God.

Put it all there, on him, at his feet. He's got it.

When it comes back, which it might (which it will), let it. Don’t shove it down into that little box in your soul where you store the things you’d like to think you’ve forgotten. Sit with it for a minute. Call a friend and let them know that it’s back. But don’t let it stick around. Let it go. Go outside and give it to the earth (that’s God’s too, God will get it). Go to church and place it at the foot of the cross. Go put it in the ocean. Give it to God. God will take care of this.

This is extra hard when you’re living in a situation that keeps bringing it back. Like, you know, being separated from your husband in the name of a higher call. But it can be done. I’m sure of it. I’ll let you know how it goes 😉


White Christians sleep while young black men die

If you're white, there's a good chance this person scares you. Deal with it. Sit with it. Think about it. Then try and do better next time.

This is largely addressed to my white brothers and sisters, particularly those in the church. I’m a white woman, was raised in an almost all-white town and have spent most of my life in predominately white faith communities. White people don’t like to talk about racism. We like to pretend it isn’t real and we don’t benefit from it. This has got to stop.

When Barack Obama was elected president, there was all kinds of talk about the United States being a post-racial society. This was, and is, total bullshit. It was (and is), however, a really nice bedtime story us white folk can tell to our kids and to ourselves. Rest easy, everyone. Racism is dead. No need to worry about race anymore. Go to sleep, sleep. sleep…

Every once in a while , we (by we I mean my white brothers and sisters) wake up from our little racism-doesn’t-exist slumber. When a celebrity says something out loud that we know is something you just don’t say (inner voices, white brethren) we get all up in arms and demand an apology. Then we go back to sleep. While we sleep, some of us clutch our purses on the train, lock our doors when we drive through minority neighborhoods or cross the street when groups of dark-skinned men stand in our path. We tell ourselves that we are doing it for our own safety, if we realize we are doing it at all. We make assumptions about people’s intelligence, responsibility, work ethic and a whole host of other things based on the color of a person’s skin. I do not exclude myself from this description. I do it too.

Then, in the middle of our nice black-man-is-president, post-racial dream, a young black man is killed for walking through a neighborhood in a hoodie carrying some skittles, an iced tea, and talking to his girl on the phone. We wake up. We are sad, we are shocked (really? shocked?), we are horrified. We call for the ousting and jailing and public shaming of all involved. Our eyes are getting heavy. All of this sadness and dismay about racism is tiring. We’d like to go back to sleep.

FOR THE LOVE OF GOD PEOPLE, STAY AWAKE!

Jesus said this to his followers a lot. Maybe not in those exact words, but he did tell them to stay awake directly and in parables. Jesus knew his followers would have a hard burden to bear once he left. He knew that they would want to fall asleep. He knew they, like most humans, would prefer a life of comfort to the life of the cross he was walking them towards. He implored them to keep awake.

What did that mean to Jesus? Be aware of what you are doing and saying, be aware of who is around you, be aware of your inner thoughts and your prayer life. Be aware. Be awake. Know yourself — know your weaknesses, know what sets you off, know what you are afraid of. Keep awake. Know the difference between what the world tells you and what God is saying. Keep awake. This is how you stay faithful to God and keep the devil at bay. Keep awake.

2000 or so years later, we are asleep. This is, in no small part, a fault of the church. Christian pastors and churches want to keep our numbers up, so we strive to keep people comfortable. We profit off of people staying asleep. I know that there are good Christians out there and good churches working hard to keep people awake. But this shouldn’t be the work of a few churches well suited to social justice work. This is the work of all of us.

We (white people) are complicit in the murder of Trayvon Martin and all of the other non-white folk who have been killed over the years. We are complicit in the wage gap between people of color and the pigment-challenged. We sit idly by as we watch the number of young black men in prison grow as the unemployment rate for the same demographic in the United State is around 17%. This happens because we are asleep.

We are asleep to our fears. We deny that we are afraid of people of color because it sounds so ugly. No one wants to be that person. But we all are. In some way, we all are. We are asleep to our assumptions. When we make assumptions about a person’s intelligence or capabilities on the basis of the color of their skin, we shrug it off. We tell ourselves that some stereotypes are that way because they are true. When someone defies our expectations, we assume that it is because that person is exceptional, not because our assumption was wrong. Most of all, and I believe, most importantly, we are asleep to our power and privilege.

If you need a primer on the benefits of being white, check out the essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh. What can you think of off the top of your head? How about not being afraid of the police (unless you’ve actually done something illegal or are high and therefore, paranoid)? That’s a great privilege. I had a black friend in high school who refused to visit me because he knew he would get pulled over in my 99% white town. Not getting followed around in a store — that’s pretty cool. Most of the people of my race I see on TV are heroes. Nobody looks at my skin and assumes I have a bad credit score. Read the essay. Learn. Be aware. Be awake.

And another thing: rid your mind of the idea of reverse racism. Reverse racism is not a thing. Yes, white people are occasionally judged on the color of their skin. This is race prejudice, and it happens. Racism is different. Racism = race prejudice + power. And white people, as a whole, still hold the power. I know that this is complicated and there is a hierarchy of power that includes all sorts of things like wealth, education, gender, sexual orientation, nation of origin, immigration status and color. But the top of that hierarchy of power is white. And until white people like myself are ready to talk about this, nothing will get better, it just won’t.

Next time you find yourself clutching your bag or crossing the street or making an assumption about a person stop. Think. Ask yourself what you’re doing and why. Admit that you might have been racist right there, for a moment. Admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery, right?

Next time you get a sweet interest rate, your credit check is waived, you get out of a traffic ticket or have the police drive right past you without even glancing your way stop. Think. Ask yourself what’s happened and why. Admit you have power and privilege. Admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery, right?

Most importantly, my white friends, wake up the people around you. Wake up your churches. Talk about race. Deliver sermons about race. Have workshops about race. How much do we not talk about race? I was hard pressed to find a friend who went to a white church where Dr. King was talked about on Martin Luther King Day. We can’t even talk about it when we’re honoring one of the greatest prophets of our time. We are comfortable. We are asleep. People of color in our country don’t have this luxury.

In Jesus’ stories, the ending is never good for the people who fall sleep. Stay awake, therefore. Stay awake. Stay awake. For the sake of the world, stay awake.

If you want to talk about race, racism, power and privilege in your community, check out CrossRoads. They do excellent anti-racism training.


Conquering death every day

Ephesians 2:1-10
You were dead through the trespasses and sins 
2in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.

4But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,7so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

There is a woman at the University of Texas Dallas named Brene Brown who researches shame and vulnerability. Some of you may have read her books or seen her Ted talks. She began this work by researching connectedness – this, according to her, is why we are here. Connection gives purpose and meaning to our lives. What she discovered was a lot of disconnection. So she stepped back to look at the cause of this disconnection and she discovered that shame was at the root of this disconnection. People have things about themselves that they fear will cause others not to like them. I would venture to guess that we all know what this feels like. We all know what it is like to have some perceived imperfection that we fear will make others turn away from us. Many people, faced with this fear of rejection due to their perceived imperfection will build walls around themselves, hide their true selves from the world in order to not be rejected, in order to not be vulnerable. So shame leads to disconnection. When we are ashamed of who we are, we are afraid we will be rejected by each other and by God. We hide. We wear masks. We keep ourselves from real connection. We drown in our shame. Shame is the death of you and of me.

Far too many people seem to think that shame is the pathway to righteousness, that if we can really make someone feel ashamed of what they have done (or worse, o who they are), they will see the light and change. How often is this approach effective? When someone has told you that you should be ashamed of yourself, have you taken in that statement, analyzed it for the truth, seen the error of your ways and become a new person? Or have you gotten angry or defensive and told the person they could screw off? Has shaming ever strengthened a connection?

We point out the shame of others because it is so much easier than dealing with our own shame, with our own darkness. Because putting our shame out there makes us vulnerable. Admitting that I am not perfect leaves me vulnerable and that is what we are truly afraid of. Because when we are vulnerable, we could get hurt. So we fight our vulnerability. We intentionally deaden our lives through shopping and drinking and sex and television and you tube and drugs and food and all sorts of other things. We are dead in these things.  And we do a lot of them on purpose.

There are millions of people walking around the city today who are dead. There are people in this room who are dead. I think I’ve been dead at least 4 times today. We are hiding ourselves, protecting ourselves, afraid of being vulnerable. We trade connection for safety. We trade our true selves, the people God created us to be, for a sanitized version of ourselves, the version that has no problems. We live into the pressure of being that person. When we can’t perfect ourselves, we try to perfect the people around us. When we can’t control ourselves, we try to control those around us. When we don’t get it, we assert that we totally get it. We do this with ourselves, we do this with people we love, we do this with God.  And it is all death. We are surrounded by it. It stinks and it is rotten and yet we bring it on ourselves because we don’t want to be vulnerable, we don’t want to be judged – we don’t want to be loved. Just in case that love might let us down someday.

I shared this passage with a friend of mine who is totally unchurched. All she heard was judgment. And, the truth is, there is plenty of judgment to hear. The writer is all – You were like this, until you discovered Christ. The others are still like this. But you’re alive now, and they’re still dead.  The truth is that we are saints and sinners, we are dead and alive at the same time. The ultimate both/and. Both alive and dead. We hear the Grace and love of God in Christ because we KNOW the grace and love of Christ. Others hear judgment and death because they have heard a lot more of that than they have heard love.  And that’s our fault. In our attempts to deny our death, our shame, our vulnerability, we shame others. What if, in our attempts to be loved, we loved others?

Getting from death to life is not easy. It is hard work. It means dealing with ourselves, admitting our short comings. In many cases, it means realizing that those shortcomings aren’t shortcoming at all. It means accepting that we were born this way, damn it! In others, it means really working on old wounds (though that could apply to shortcomings that aren’t).  But we have got to let go of this need for perfection for ourselves and for others. We have got to stop holding everyone to this ridiculously high standard.  It is time to open ourselves up to vulnerability and there in, to live.

Because here’s the thing. The only way we can let God in is if we are vulnerable. That’s what faith is, right? That’s what this passage is telling us! We are saved when we trust in God. We are saved when we let God love us, when we let God see all of our warts. We are saved when we let God love us, when we let God’s love penetrate our hearts until they break open. This is how God gets us – because we can’t selectively be vulnerable to God and no one else, it doesn’t work that way. And once we let God’s love in and realize how deeply loved and accepted we are there is nothing that can keep us from being alive. There is nothing that can keep us from connecting with God, nothing that can keep us from deeply connecting with our brothers and sisters. Once we allow ourselves to be totally, amazingly, profoundly loved by God good works will flow out of us. Love will flow out of us.

This isn’t an overnight process. It is a daily cycle. Dead and alive, dead and alive, dead and alive. We are saved every moment of every day. We are loved every moment of every day. We are loved with all of our flaws and screw ups and in the messiness of every day life and in our daily deaths.  And it is because of this that we have life eternal every day, now and forever. Amen.

 


Forgiveness and power: A sermon on the wicked slave

‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.”Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’ — Matthew 18:21-35

Okay, so, forgive people or be tortured until you have paid for all of your sins. Got it? Good. Dismissed!

If only it were that easy. If only forgiveness was something we could just make happen. Like, you wave a magical forgiveness wand and it’s all good. Sometimes, it is that easy. I’m pretty good at forgiving things like someone bumping into me (unless I’m super crabby), a friend breaking something of mine, and lots of little things like that where the person is truly, contritely sorry.

Then, there are the deep things, the big hurt. Lies, deception, breaking of promises that break relationships, physical violations, words that cut to the soul. There are things that cut us so deeply we fear we may never heal. How do we forgive for that? How to we honestly look someone who has scarred us for life in the eye and say that we forgive what has been done? It’s not so easy. Not easy at all.

For most of us, there are two main ways we react to being hurt. One is to get sad, to withdraw, to curl up with our pain in a corner until we are ready to let it go. Often this is a reaction to the pain that is no one’s fault — a relationship that no longer works, the death of someone we know and love whose time had clearly come. The other is to get angry, to rage at the world, at God and at the people involved in our world who brought about our pain.

Sometimes we put our pain on display, showing our scars off to the world. We want the world to know our pain, to know that we are holding on to anger – we want those that hurt us to see our anger and to see it as power, as something they should be afraid of.

Other times we are more quiet about our grudges. We even think that we have them under control, locked away in our soul. We don’t realize that we are building our world around them.

Holding on to a grudge makes us feel like we have power. Power over our pain, power over those that have hurt us. We hate feeling vulnerable — and forgiving makes so many of us feel vulnerable. We fear that forgiveness takes power from us, at the least and gives power back to those who have hurt us, at the worst. So we hold on.

Putting our pain in a safe little container and organizing our lives around it is another way of trying to have power over our pain, trying to control out world. If we let the pain out, if we let it show, we might lose control of ourselves and open ourselves up to more hurt. So we put it away, holding on to it, so that we can keep our power and control

Sometimes we try to let go in all honesty and earnestness. And we can’t because either we don’t know how or we haven’t realized that we are holding on for a reason, we are holding on to keep our power.

In this parable from Matthew, the king is the man with the power. He has the power to sell the slave or forgive him. It was not really in the kings plans to forgive the debt. The slave got himself into this mess, and it is his turn to pay. He’s a very old testament king. The slave begs for more time and the king does him one better – he forgives the whole debt. Yahoo!!! Yay!!! Freedom!!! The slave saunters out of the palace just having been forgiven his debts. He runs into a fellow slave that owes him some change. Having just been forgiven, he… completely fails to pass it on or to let his cup runneth over or anything like that. He sees the power that he has over this man and grabs him by the neck, asking for repayment. The debtor cannot repay the one who has been set free. The one who has been set free throws the debtor in jail. Ha-ha! Who has the power now?!

The king, actually. The king has the power now. The slave never did in the first place. We don’t have the power — we have choice, we have agency, but we don’t have the power. God has the power. And God has used it to forgive us for everything we have ever done and everything we will do. We are forgiven.

And still we insist on telling ourselves these myths about power and anger and forgiveness. We insist that holding on to our anger, to our grudges somehow makes us better people. We are superheroes when we hold on to our anger! We can structure our lives so as to never experience that kind of pain again, as long as we don’t forgive! We can make sure that we never get hurt again, as long as we don’t forgive! We can make sure that person knows she is a horrible, horrible person by showing her how much she hurt us.

Only none of this is true. Holding on to anger eats away at our soul – and our physical health. It keeps us from being fully in relationship with others because we are always waiting for the shoe to drop, always expecting to be hurt. We avoid situations where we might end up running into the person who hurt us. We runaway from our past but we end up hiding from our future. Holding on to the power of the grudge leaves the grudge making decisions for us. Holding on to anger means anger is just right under the surface, ready to go off whenever our wounds are grazed. We build walls around ourselves to keep from being hurt again. We keep others at an arms distance. We only punish ourselves.

The king handed the slave over to be punished until he paid his debts. God hands us over to ourselves. We are our own torturer.

Let’s replay the scenario. The slave has been forgiven by the king. He swaggers out of the palace, brimming with new life. He sees the slave who owes him, walks up to him and says, “Hey man, it’s all good. Don’t worry about what you owe me. We’re square.” The other slave is shocked and can only smile at his colleague. The slave who forgave keeps on his merry way, overflowing with gratitude and joy.

Now, most of us don’t walk around feeling as forgiven as we are. We aren’t walking around feeling like we just won the lottery of love and forgiveness — even though we have. The forgiveness given us by God in Christ is something we are kind of sort of aware of in the back of our mind and when we go to church or read about it. But we aren’t constantly brimming with forgiveness. We don’t always feel our cup running over. But it is.

This is why I love communion in the round. One of the times when we should feel that cup running over is when we participate in the sacrament of communion. That bread and wine are reminders of the price that was paid for our sin. When I commune in the round I look at all of the other people communing and remember that they are all forgiven, just like me. God loves them, just like God loves me. I can think of all of the other people God loves that I struggle to love. It humbles me. I realize that the power is God’s, but the choice is mine. And, it’s not that easy. But maybe it is.

If nothing else, we can remember those we still can’t forgive when we pray, “forgive us our trespasses, as you have forgiven us.” It is after all, the least we can give for all that we have been given. Our cups overflow with forgiveness. Pass some on.


Dreams and mystical things

Only in dreams

A year or two after my father died, I had a dream that I hold close to my heart. I was in a laundromat (I think?) and my dad was there. He told me that my grandfather would tell me something important; my grandpa would tell me something that my dad himself wanted to say to me. I try to remember all of the dreams I have about my dad. They’re like little visits with someone I can’t see anymore. I consider myself very lucky to have dreams like this. Sometimes, they are weird and make no sense and I can be pretty sure that it is just my brain recycling and filing information. This dream felt different. So I held on to it.

A few days later, I got a letter from my grandfather. In it he told me that my father loved me very much and would be very proud of the woman I had grown into. I lost it, into full on ugly cry.

Now, this letter may sound normal to anyone who doesn’t know my grandfather. Grandparents, in theory, say this kind of stuff all the time. Not Grandpa R. I clearly remember the first time he told me he loved me. I was about 16 and it was his 85th birthday. I called him to wish him a happy birthday and he sounded kind of sad and told me he loved me. I was so shocked by this I handed the phone to my dad saying, “Um, I think grandpa’s drunk. He told me he loves me.” He wasn’t a big drinker, but that was the only reason I could think of that would explain his informal and (in his world) unseemly expression of emotion. So, this letter was not his normal way of expressing himself. It was kind of a big deal.

The letter itself seemed almost Godsend enough, when my dream (that I had the day my grandpa sent the letter) is added, I can find no explanation other than one that involves God, the world beyond this, the Holy Spirit and general mystery. There is too much happening here, too much I can’t make logical sense of. And that’s okay with me. Because I think it is wicked cool that, somehow, my dad visited me in a dream and told me to look out for a message from him through an unlikely source. I’ve had some pretty cool dreams in my life. I’ve had dreams that have helped me to see that I’m going down the wrong path in life, dreams that helped me let go of things I had been holding onto, and a really awesome lucid dream in which I defeated Darth Maul. But this one is still my favorite.

Why share this? What is the point of my story? I share it because it is real, for me anyway. It is very, very real. And my experiences will be readily and easily dismissed by people of faith. People who believe that a man was physically raised from the dead and then, after hanging out with his friends a bit, disappeared. People who believe in an afterlife, in God, in the invisible mover in so many things that are intangible, will  think that my dreams are nonsense and/or just a psychological projection of my grief.

Why are we so afraid of things we can’t explain? Why do we have to understand everything, to parse fact and fiction in the Bible and in our spiritual lives? Why do so many people I know dismiss the idea of the healing power of prayer (or make it psychological)? Why do we stick to the rational and the safe when Christian lives are built on a faith that is wholly irrational and strange?

This handicaps us as individuals and as leaders. As individuals, our insistence on the rational and quantifiable takes the mystery out of life. Where is wonder when everything has to be defined and answerable (and answered)? Where is the Holy Spirit when everything has to be concrete? Why bother praying for healing if it doesn’t actually do anything? I have seen many rational, all-head Christians end up a total wreck when they are facing death or pain because they had spent their whole life thinking about God and not experiencing God. There are mysteries in life, there are things we don’t and can’t understand. This is okay.

As leaders it hampers our ability to communicate with those outside our world of rationalist faith. A few weeks ago, in a workshop with Ian Mobsby, there was a lot of talk about the numinous and people’s renewed interest in spiritual things. He called our times post-secular: more people than in the past are curious about the spirit. Strangely, technology plays an important part in this reawakening. He calls this techgnosis. We spend all of this time with these crazy new inventions that broadcast our thoughts into space and put it somewhere else and it has created a new sense of wonder (even though, logically, we know how all of this works, or at least that it is science). So, we have all of these people in our churches and our communities who are having experiences with dreams and sunsets and gardening and hiking and computers and who knows what else. When (if) they come to us, we look at them like they’re nuts because their reality doesn’t match ours. Then they walk away, and never come back. We haven’t killed their sense of wonder, but we have told them that their observations and questions don’t fit in our box, and therefore, they are not welcome here.

So, yeah, I sometimes have freaky weird dreams that seem to be more than just my brain resorting my life. Sometimes I feel God’s presence so strongly it makes me want to cry because of a song on the radio that met me at exactly the right time and I feel like God is speaking to me through the radio. I’m putting this out there because I think we need to hear more of it. We need to talk about our experiences of God that are beyond explanation, that are a little weird. So many people have this happen to them and are embarrassed or don’t know what to do with it. I know I’m still afraid that if I share some of my experiences of God, people will think I am a) crazy and b) either not Christian or possessed by the devil. We have to get over this if we want to walk into this post-secular time as effective ministers of Jesus Christ, we have to be able to listen to people’s stories of the mysterious and to talk about our own. We also have to do it because we shouldn’t be embarrassed by our encounters with God. Not that we should brag; that’s not what this is about. It is about being open to the presence of the weird and mysterious Holy Spirit in our lives and in the lives of others in ways that we cannot explain. Because she is there, and she wants your attention.


Slut shaming (Jesus says don’t do it)

Slut shaming. It’s the new thing. Well, it’s not new at all, really. It’s at least as old at the prophets, who repeatedly refer to Israel as a whore and a prostitute (two different things, mind you) for being untrue to God. Over and over again, Biblical imagery paints Israel as a woman who is verbally and physically abused by YHWH (God) for being unfaithful, for straying to other Gods. It is really painful to read this. It would be even more painful if I read these words as God’s words and not the expression of a community of faith trying to come to grips with horrific suffering. These are the scriptures of my faith. This is my holy book. And, at times, the things it has to say about women are pretty ugly*. Sadly, things haven’t changes much in the past 2500 years.

Clearly some things have, at least in the wealthier nations. It’s pretty uncommon to sell your daughters or to kill women who aren’t virgins when they get married, at least in the United States. These things are also illegal here. However, as mouthpieces as diverse as Rush Limbaugh and Bill Mahr have recently demonstrated, it’s still okay make women less than due to their sexuality. As it has been true throughout history, a pretty quick and easy way to take down a woman is to call her a slut, whore, hussy, tramp, prostitute, or bimbo. Call a woman’s sexual activity into question and she’s done. This is even more clear when we examine how quick everyone is to say that the woman Limbaugh insulted, Sandra Fluke, is NOT a slut, she is NOT promiscuous, she was just standing up or a friend who needed birth control for medical reasons. What if she did sleep with a ton of people? Would that have somehow made Limbaugh’s take down of her okay? Would it have been totally reasonable to disregard her testimony because she was *gasp* having a lot of sex?
This is tricky territory as a female Christian leader. I don’t want to strap women in chastity belts or conscribe us to lives of submission, nor do I want to make anyone feel dirty or ashamed of sex or their bodies. However, I don’t want to glorify having a lot of sex with random people. It is my observation that women tend to have random sex to fulfill other needs — the need for emotional connection, self-esteem, or approval — and usually end up not only not fulfilling these needs but usually feel worse afterwards. I also fully believe that sex is best had within a loving, committed relationship. This is where emotional and physical needs can be met (even spiritual needs), where you can talk about what you like and what you don’t like, where you can experiment, where you can cry during sex without being a total weird-o, and where you will (in theory) both be physically safe from disease and (also in theory) where you will be better prepared if a life is created from your coital joy. However, there’s something else I believe.
I believe that when Jesus said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” he meant it. He said this to a crowd that was about to stone a woman who had been caught in adultery. He took on an angry crowd that was about to kill a woman for having sex by drawing a line in the sand and challenging the status quo. He stood up for the sluts of the world. When all the men went away, he asked her, “Woman, where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you?” I love this part. He takes the time to point out to her that no one has any room to judge her, freeing her from her internal voices of judgement. “Neither do I condemn you,” Jesus replies. “Now go and sin no more.” So, he’s not saying, “Have at it sister!” But he’s saying she’s alright, but she might want to change her ways. He doesn’t lecture her, doesn’t demean her, doesn’t take away any of her humanity. He loves her. He implores her to fix her brokenness. At no point does he judge her. And, as he is Jesus (and therefore God), if anyone gets to judge, it’s him.
So, in conclusion, STFU, angry mob of slut-shamers. Jesus said so.
*I’m still working on the roles of women in the prophetic texts. If anyone has words that will make me feel better about the whole God raping the woman Israel thing, I’m all ears. Or, in this case, eyes.

Want to make a mainline protestant uncomfortable? Ask for prayer. Out loud prayer.

Some of the most powerful experiences in my ministry have involved prayer. More specifically, they have involved other people praying or forcing me to pray. This is because I am Lutheran, and public and partnered prayer make me wicked uncomfortable (more on that later). When I was a youth director, my mission trips were insane. Ask anyone. They were awesome, but they were totally insane. One summer, my youth, a brave volunteer, and myself headed  CLE –> CHI –> MPLS. We were going to be really late getting to Redeemer Lutheran in MPLS, but that said that would be fine. They had a prayer service at six pm and they could let us in. We weren’t getting in until at least nine pm, so I was nervous. No way would a Lutheran prayer service still be happening after three hours. We arrived a little after nine and the church was unlocked. In the sanctuary there was a group of people drumming and praying. They prayed for us and our journey, for the lives of our youth and their families back home. We were all flabbergasted. Lutherans praying for hours? My kids couldn’t stop talking about it. They loved it. They wanted more.

A few summers later, we went from a coal town in WV –> Asheville –> Charleston. In WV, we were participating in a YouthWorks trip. At the end of the trip, there was a worship service during which the leaders were asked to lay hands on the kids and pray (yes, I know how wrong that sounds. Minds out of the gutter, please). I was TERRIFIED. I was going to have to be really, really intimate with these kids. Some of them I knew way better than others. I hate praying out loud with others. Too much intimacy, too much pressure, too many eyes on me (yes, I know that it’s not about me. But it is). All of those eyes on me meant I had to do it. So I went around and prayed for my kids and my volunteers, one by one. I was totally panicking inside, asking God for words. Please, God, give me words. And God did provide. None of the kids ever said anything to me about it, but I heard from parents afterward that the experience was incredibly powerful for my kids. It was one of the things they talked about most. And me? I discovered (again) the power of prayer.

This past Tuesday, in my Indigenous Ways of Knowing class, our teacher (a Lakota chief) opened up the class in song and prayer (as he always does). I realized that this has NEVER happened during my time in seminary. Maybe at my last seminary; that was a long time ago. But certainly not in the past semester (and if it happened at all at my last seminary, I venture a guess that it was not often). This seemed weird to me. Does it seem weird to you? I asked a professor about it and she said that there are some people who don’t think it is appropriate, that prayer is not what we are here to do. We are here for intellectual pursuits. ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?!!! For real? I’m learning to be a pastor. I will spend a shit ton of my time praying (that is a mathematical term, btw. The vulgar system of measurement). Apparently, this is another thing we are already supposed to know how to do and/or will learn during teaching parish/CPE/internship. We pray before meals, giving thanks for the food and the hands that have prepared it, asking that it nourish our bodies. Shouldn’t we do the same with the information that goes into our heads? A little giving thanks for the people who have gone before us and shaped out theology and a request that it shape our brains for good gospel witness to the world?

This isn’t just about prayer in seminary. This is about prayer in our lives. Most mainline protestants I know are as terrified of one-on-one prayer as I am. We do it because we have to, and we generally only do it when someone is sick or dying or otherwise really needs our help. Often, we wait until we are asked. I am in this boat too. A few weeks back, a student from another denomination started class with an activity that involved one-on-one prayer. My partner was the professor. We nervously chatted the whole time. What is it about praying with another person that is so frightening?

This is what I feel like doing when asked to pray.

When we pray, we are naked. We are needy. We are vulnerable. Most people, particularly most leaders, don’t want to be seen that way. We don’t want to bring our open wounds into the public arena. We don’t want to ask for help from someone else (many of us have a hard enough time asking for help from God), we don’t want to open ourselves up that much. We want to be strong, perfect leader-types. But we aren’t perfect. We are just as broken as our parishioners, just as broken as the rest of the body of Christ.

Prayer, more than almost anything else we do, forces us to give up power. In prayer, the power is God’s. We have to let go of ourself and let God come through. We have to stop making it about us and make it about God and the other person/people in the room. Are we afraid our prayer will reveal how weak our own prayer life is? How tenuous our own relationship with God is? Many of us are afraid we might say the wrong thing. This is where depending on God comes in. And, if I say the wrong thing, chances are no one will notice. If I say a really wrong thing, I’ll apologize. It will happen. It is a part of our brokenness. That’s ok.

Whatever our problems with prayer might be, whatever it is that makes so many of us react to a mention of prayer with resignation, internal panic or the sudden desire to run away (or any combination thereof), we have to get over it.  Because prayer has a profound effect on those with whom we pray and on our own damaged souls.

Sometime in the next few days, ask someone to pray with you. I dare you. Be careful: if you ask me, I just might take you up on it. I gotta get over myself. True story. Maybe you do too.

A lesson from Rev. Hammer: