Friday, December 30, 2016

Uncharitable Thoughts

I had uncharitable thoughts toward Franklin Graham this week.  Those thoughts are nicely summarized in 2 words.  Shut up.  Then I added a third word.  Shut up, Franklin.  Then, my third word changed a few times.  Please shut up.  Just shut up.  Finally, I added 5 words to my 2 words, for the love of Christ, shut up.  I meant that last one literally.  For the love of Christ, shut up.

So, what brought forth such a response from me?  Well…this.  

I do not fault Franklin for his belief in heaven and hell.  However, this is not a pastoral response.  This is not an appropriate response.  I would go so far as to say this is not a truthful response. 

Yes, Franklin is right about one thing.  Jesus is recorded as saying “No one comes to the Father except through me.”   As I've pondered this response, I can't help but think of an experience I had many years ago.  My father had a heart attack, and everybody wanted to visit him in the hospital.  But, he needed rest.  So, when it was my turn to be on duty, no one came to my father except through me…meaning that I decided who got in and who stayed out.  My decision.  I wonder if this verse suggests a similar dynamic with God.  Jesus decides who gets in.  Not Franklin Graham.  And, not Lea Slaton.  Jesus decides.

And, for the Jesus I read about in the gospels, his decision will not be just a matter of belief.  He says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’  (Matthew 7:21-23)

What criteria will Jesus use?  Well, I don’t know the mind of God. My thoughts are not God’s thoughts nor are God’s ways my ways, but Jesus does give us a clue in Matthew 25 – he talks about all the nations being gathered before him, and he has the job of separating the sheep from the goats.  Here are his questions of discernment.  When I was hungry, did you feed me?  When I was thirsty, did you give me something to drink?  When I was a stranger, did you invite me in?  When I was naked, did you clothe me?  When I was sick, did you look after me?  When I was in prison, did you come to visit me? 

How do we do any of that for Jesus?  He tells us.  “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

It seems to me that Christianity sometimes behaves as if heaven and hell are the main points and that our faith is primarily about assuring our eternal destination.   I believe in heaven.  I do.  But, if our only reason to follow the teachings of Christ is to advance our status in the afterlife, have we not missed the point?  It seems to me that Jesus was pretty serious about what we do on this earth, too. It seems to me that Jesus was serious about being set free from resentment and anger and greed and the lust for power on this earth.  It seems to me that Jesus expected us to live by the rules of the Kingdom of Heaven right now.  Those rules fall into two categories.  Love God.  Love neighbor.  And, remember, when it comes to loving neighbor, "whatever you did for one of the least of did for me."

I don’t know much about Richard Adams, but news sources indicate that George Michael was a very generous man.  He gave millions to charity...and did not want anyone to know.  That's right!  He did not build charitable foundations in his name or take any credit.  He went out of his way to be anonymous in his giving.  He gave quietly.  Contrast that with individuals today who post every good deed and every donation on Facebook.  Type Amen if you agree.

Carrie Fisher was an advocate for the mentally ill – some might call those an overlooked “least of these” today.  She told her story, so that others who live with mental illness might find hope as well.  Carrie was a patron of the Alzheimer's Association, the Make-a-Wish Foundation, the International Bipolar Association, just to name a few of the causes she pursued.

It is beyond arrogant to post on Facebook about who we believe God will send to hell.   God can decide whatever God wants.  Exploiting death to threaten hell shows an incredible callousness to the grieving families.  Furthermore, for those who do not believe in God or heaven or hell, this kind of public rhetoric, though it may excite a certain base of Christianity, hurts the cause of Christ.  I can say with confidence that not a single non-Christian read Franklin’s remarks and said, “Wow, I want to learn more about this Jesus.”  However, I can also say with confidence that many non-Christians read his remarks and said, “A-ha!  This is exactly why I don’t want to have anything to do with Christianity – it is full of judgmental hypocrites who just want to scare you into believing.”

I wish the media would stop covering Franklin Graham.  He does not represent all of Christianity.  

Friday, November 25, 2016

Advent After the Election

Recently, I was asked if I thought our nation would heal after such an antagonistic campaign season.  I had to think about that.  I’ve heard calls for unity, for coming together…and that is all well and good.  But, no, I don’t think we will heal from this season.  I don’t think there is a recovery.

Recovery is defined as “a return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.”  I will take a guess that God has little interest in “returning” us anywhere.  If that is what we are waiting for – to be returned to some idealized state of well-being – we misunderstand the power and mystery of this holy season of Advent.

God did not bundle up in our flesh, walk this earth, teach us, eat with us, die in front of us, and be resurrected for the purpose of giving us a “return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.”  No, the Word became flesh for our transformation, not our recovery.  This is not just a play on words.  This gets to a deep truth of our faith.  Jesus was not simply returned to life after the crucifixion.  He was resurrected!  Transformed into a life that was and is and will be forever.  That is a promise for us today.

Life with Christ is an exercise in transformation right now.  We have received grace upon grace right now.  We are the children of God right now.  We’re not just waiting for heaven in the sweet by and by, we are waiting for transformation right now.  We are practicing for transformation right now.  Christ makes us different than we were before. 

Sometimes, Christians miss that point.  We put our attention on protecting our beliefs rather than living our faith.  That’s a human thing to do.  We put our attention on clenching our fists around our stuff and our rights, rather than stretching our hands out to embrace and serve others.  That is a human thing to do.  We make our faith about life after death rather than growing the fruits of the spirit in the here and now.  That’s a human thing to do.  We find more passion in enforcing our rules and our moral codes on the rest of the world than in basking in the mysterious grace of “I will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32)  That is a human thing to do.

But, as Brian McLaren reminds us in “We Make the Road by Walking,” “Jesus’ birth signals the beginning of the end for the dark night of fear, hostility, violence and greed that has descended on our world.  Jesus’ birth signals the start of a new day, a new way, a new understanding of what it means to be alive.” 

That’s why we wait.  That’s why we hope.  That’s why we work.  We live in a new day and we must share it with others.  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor."

People, it's Advent, and we have work to do!

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Apologies and Epiphanies

With all of our election news, I am struck by how often politicians end up apologizing for words that they have spoken or actions that they have taken. In my ponderings, I've had an epiphany!  First, though, I have a few pre-epiphany thoughts on what makes a good apology.

A good apology owns the words or the actions that were wrong or that have offended.  There are no ifs, ands, buts, excuses or justifications in a good apology - just a complete ownership of the offense.  There are no accusations against others in a good apology.  For instance, if I steal money and want to apologize, I need to own what I did NOT point out that so-and-so stole, too.  Or, everybody steals.  Or, that's just the way things are, and grow up.  No!  It's my offense.  I need to own it.

Second, I need to specifically ask for forgiveness.  This part often gets omitted because owning offensive behavior is humbling enough, but asking for forgiveness, well, our egos can hardly take it.  Asking for forgiveness implies that our well-being is at least, in part, impacted by someone else's welcome or rejection of us.  Yet, if we want to make a good apology, the request for forgiveness is non-negotiable.  We need to do it.

However...and here's my epiphany, good apologies are not the Christian ideal.  John the Baptist did not say, "Apologize!  For the kingdom of heaven has drawn near!"  Jesus did not say,, "Unless you apologize, you will all perish."  Peter did not say, "Apologize and be baptized, every one of you."  Paul did not say, "They should apologize and turn to God and do deeds consistent with apologies."

In faith, the apology is not the ideal.  In faith, we are called to something much more difficult.  We are called to an ideal higher than an apology.  We are called to repentance.  Repentance is the ideal.  The ideal is actually turning from the behavior, changing the behavior, not doing the behavior again, and perhaps even asking someone to help with accountability for the behavior.  Repentance, a change in direction towards God, is the ideal.  Intentional, deliberate, and tenacious repentance is how we begin to come into line with faith.

Repentance is a challenge because it requires an ongoing effort to "do right," be fair, and be charitable in our comments and hospitable in our relationships.  Repentance requires us to constantly evaluate how our lives line up with "loving God and loving neighbor."  Repentance requires us to relentlessly inventory our lives to determine where we are being selfish, offensive, demeaning, and dishonest.

Repentance requires that we change.

In reality, nobody likes change.

But, in faith, we live in a different reality.  We live in a reality that says loving God and neighbor are the most important things we can do.  We live in a reality that says, "What goes into someone's mouth does not defile them, it's what comes out."  We live in a reality that calls us to store up "treasure in heaven" not treasure on earth. We live in a reality that tells us we are blessed for the sole purpose of blessing others.  We live in a reality that compels us to welcome the stranger, visit the prisoner, clothe the naked, and heal the sick.  We live in reality that tells us to stop poking at the speck in our neighbor's eye and take a look at the log in our own.  We live in a reality that is tired of hearing weak apologies for not doing these things.  We live in a reality that calls us to repent and change our behavior so that our witness is one of integrity.

How has this ideal been lost?  I'm not asking to point fingers and say, "He lost it for us, " or "She lost it for us."  I'm asking, how have I lost this ideal?  How have you lost this ideal?  How have each of us forgotten the call to repentance...and how can we get it back?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Bee in Bonnet

I got a bee in my bonnet this week.  A new church is starting in an adjoining town, and they've put up yard signs in our community...of course, that is their right.  However, within a 3 mile radius, we have at least 9 churches.  I digress.  My bee came to my bonnet with the media coverage...a recent article noted that "There are many churches in and around why start a new church?"  The answer from the new church's pastor was, "I would actually agree that the last thing Smithfield needs is another place where people simply gather on Sunday morning - if that is all we accomplish, then that is not a worthwhile mission."  He went on to talk about wanting to "make a difference."

I realize that as a pastor of a church that is over 140 years old, I can be overly sensitive about new church starts.  I also realize that the institutional church has earned its reputation of being judgmental and  unwelcoming.  When we are more interested in our building than in serving, we earn a bad reputation.  When we are more interesting in sin management rather than transformation, we earn a bad reputation.  When we are more interested in judging and leave no room for questions, we earn a bad reputation.

And, yet, the church I serve is not this way.  As I scroll through our church facebook page pictures, I find plenty of evidence that we are out and about...all the time!  We are indeed making a difference in our community.

Even the larger institutional church has made and continues to make a difference.  The larger church has made a difference in medical care with many of our hospitals having their financial start from institutional churches.  Disaster relief often comes from funds provided by the institutional church.  The means to have clean drinking water is often provided and funded by the institutional church.  Blankets for refugees and the homeless are given by the institutional church.  Counseling services, medical care, emergency food, emergency shelter, help with power bills...all supported by the institutional church.  Worship services after tragedies like the Charleston tragedy, the Orlando tragedy, 9/11...offered by the institutional church.  Many efforts to change policy to address homelessness,  poverty, sickness, and how we treat strangers are spearheaded by the institutional church.

And, frankly, my faith was born and nurtured in the institutional church - perhaps not a church I would wish to belong to today, but as a child, the institutional church taught me that "Jesus Loves Me, This I Know," and I should help people.  That is a great foundation.

I guess I just felt all lumped in with this misconception that area churches only gather on Sunday  mornings without any intent of making a difference.  That is just not true.  Many of our established churches are very intentional in getting to know their communities, befriending their communities, and being an active, helpful part of  their communities.  

The article also noted that "you won't see a suit and tie wearing preacher here. Pastor...will usually be seen wearing blue jeans and a t-shirt." Newsflash:  you won't see a suit and tie wearing preacher at WMCC either.  You'll see a woman in a robe.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Never Seen a Woman Preacher

We've had lots of painters and tilers and builders in the church over the last few months.  We are working on a kitchen renovation that has been a long time coming.  Yesterday, the painters showed up, and as I had not met this particular crew, I walked to the fellowship hall to introduce myself.

"You're not the pastor, are you?"
"Yes, I am."
"I met your husband earlier. Never seen a woman preacher before."
"Now, you have!  And, you should come hear one on Sunday morning."

At this point, I'm not much offended to still be a novelty in some circles.  I long ago gave up the need to defend my right to be here...mainly because it is not a right, but it is a call.   I digress.

Later in the day, the painter came around the outside of the church building to seek me out in my office.  His church was in serious decline, he said.  Only 14 members, he said.  We need some young people, he said. Then he asked, "How have you gotten people here?"

That question is like pushing a start button for me!  I am passionate about this topic.  I do not believe the church's purpose is as much to "get people here" as it is to take church to the people, to serve in its community,  and to care for the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God...and all that jazz.  So, we talked for a while about the nature of church.  About the angst that comes in watching a church dwindle down.  About our unique hope that God is always doing a new thing and bringing life out of death.

My friend suggested that this encounter was like Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night...this painter sneaking around the building to talk to this "woman preacher" because he could not do it under the scrutiny of his co-painters.  Yet, he recognized that our church is very much alive.  And, he wants that for his church.

I think I made a new friend.  I hope he recognized that we "women preachers" are normal people trying to do our work as faithfully as we can.  I know that I recognized that painters think deeply about things as they put color on walls.  As different as we are, we love our churches.  We love God.  Yesterday, that was enough.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Churches and Ageism

I've been meaning to write this post for some time now. 

I read obituaries.  I am interested in which parts of a life get tagged as “important enough” to consume another line in a ridiculously over-priced obituary.  I also read the classified ads…for churches.  I am interested in goals that congregations set for themselves and the traits that they believe their new minister must have to make those goals a reality.  I see a disturbing trend in these ads.   As a specific example, at the very top of the list of “personal/professional qualifications” desired in the new pastor, one church listed “young/young thinker (age 25-45).”

What an incredibly ageist statement.

We would never dream (at least I hope we would never dream) of listing race or gender or marital status or height or weight or financial worth as a “qualification” for ministry.  Yet, we don’t even flinch when “those over 45 years of age need not apply.”  We do not even blink when churches set goal after goal to reach “young families.”  We don’t think twice about the barrage of articles and workshops that address our obsession with getting millennials into church.

What about single adults…of all ages?  Are they less worth our time and energy?  What about couples who have no children?  Are they less valuable to God in their service?  What about older people?  Are their lives less worthy of hearing the Gospel? 

I’m a pastor.  I get worrying about the church’s future.  I get the desire to have young people, lots of young people, actively participating in congregations.  In 2016, I get the need to have leaders who are technologically savvy and who are unafraid of cultural change. 

However, a minister’s age or family status is never an appropriate credential for ministry.  Ministerial membership in a certain age group cannot guarantee anything about the church’s future.  For crying out loud, look at Bernie Sanders.  The man is 74 years old. Born in 1941.  His hair is white.  He’s a grandpa…and yet, the Washington Post reports that Bernie Sanders has “remarkable dominance among young voters…. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are well on their way to becoming their parties' 2016 nominees for president.  Among young voters, though, Bernie Sanders has more votes than both of them — combined.”

My point is not political.  My point is that the age of the leader is not a deciding factor in his or her charisma, nor is it a deciding factor in his or her skills, talents, and God-given abilities.  That reminds me…let us not forget God. Let us not forget that in the church, we are talking about God-given abilities and God-given call.  We insult younger people – all people, for that matter - when we assume that their allegiance can be manipulated with something as fleeting as age.  We insult older people – all people, for that matter – when we assume that their age limits their abilities.  We insult God when we fail to acknowledge the vibrancy and value that can be ours at any age.

I guess this little tirade is my attempt to urge churches to give careful thought to the words they use to describe their ministry's goals and the qualifications they seek in leadership.  If you want someone with a certain theological bent, then by all means, include that in your profile.  If you want someone with a certain amount of experience, then by all means, include that in your profile.  But, do not discriminate.  Do not insult God’s pool of leaders by seeking only those who are “young” or “old” or “middle-aged.”  Age – whatever it may be – is a gift from God, and it should be celebrated as such.

Thursday, February 11, 2016


This has been a full week of church!  Kitchen renovation committee on Monday (thankfully, my attendance was not required), Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper, HOPE meals on Wednesday followed by our Ash Wednesday Service, and tonight, handbell practice.

Some might say that not only has this been a full week of church, but it has been a week full of too MUCH church.  In fact, because I have been at church at not at home in the evenings, I canceled by piano lesson today.  No sense in having a lesson if I have not had time to practice.  That cancellation prompted me to think about how my life is completely centered on the life of the church.   This is not new.  I grew up with a father who served as minister of music and a mother who served as church pianist/organist.  Here is what that is like.  Family dinner times are set by church events (and seldom are family dinners not interrupted by calls from someone needing a key to something). Vacations are planned around church events.  Weekends are defined by church events.  Social life is often limited to church events.  Hobbies are pursued that fit around church events.  Holidays are celebrated within church events.  Holidays are also interrupted by emergencies resulting in additional church events.  

When church events called, we were present and accounted for!

Sound oppressive?  Well, sometimes I do feel resentful about things like canceled piano lessons, but after our service last night, I felt so very fortunate that my church attendance today is mandatory…by nature of my job.  I am fortunate because whether I like it or not, my attendance puts me in a different rhythm - the rhythm of the church year.  For instance, I’ve started Lent now.  My head was marked with an ashen cross and I was told to “repent and return to the Lord.”  Not only that, I had the honor of marking the heads of others – from the tiniest of children to our oldest members – it was a powerful moment of connection and community.  We really are all in this quest to live lives of faith together.  We really are!  If not, why would any of us bother to show up for something as silly as having ashes put on our heads?  We show up because in these ancient practices, we chase Jesus. The church year and all of is events is where our lives and the life of Jesus cross each other. 

We re-live his story as we remember his story.  We find our place in his story.  And, somewhere in that, our spirits get re-formed and reshaped.  Joan Chittister wrote, “In the liturgical year we walk with Jesus through all the details of his life – and he walks with us in ours.”

So, although I am tired today and ready to head home instead of playing bells, I am thankful to be in this sacred rhythm.  Thankful to be moving through Lent, intentionally doing the hard work of spiritual formation (and all of the little deaths that come with that), and waiting for the Resurrection.  I am thankful that I will then wait for the wild and wooly Spirit of Pentecost.  Thankful then to wait through the lessons of Jesus and to grow in ordinary time.  And, thankful then to prepare to meet the newborn presence of God.

The church walks me through all of that.  Some days, it feels like too much.  Some days, it feels like not enough.  But, my hope is that as my calendar builds itself around the community of faith, maybe my heart will do the same.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Where I'm From - Word Made Flesh Edition

Over the summer,  I took our "church ladies" on their annual retreat to Christmount - one of our exercises was a writing exercise based on the poem "Where I'm From."  You can read about the poem here and you can read the retreat efforts here.

I thought about this poem as I pondered John 1:1-18 and the word becoming flesh.  Jesus, no doubt, would have a very colorful "Where I'm From" poem.  So, I took a little creative liberty and wrote "Where I'm From," the Word Made Flesh Edition.

I’m from sawdust piles and dinner tables, from fishing boats and healing mud.  
I am from unknown years lost to history, and imagination set on fire – it feels mysterious and as inviting as the taste of fresh baked bread.  
I am from olive trees and salt water stinging a blistered heel.  
I’m from silly puns and storytelling late at night, 
from Joseph with a bruised thumb that got caught between hammer and nail, and 
Mary with her spontaneous singing that seems to welcome the world.  
I’m from weird cousins, and Peter, James, and John, from Martha and Mary. 
I’m from laughing at inappropriate times and overstaying my welcome.  
I’m from “Child, why have you worried us like this?” 
and “I’m your mother, that’s why.”  
I’m from Yahweh, the God of my ancestors, 
from faith that commands me to love – God, neighbor, and enemy.  
I’m from Bethlehem or Nazareth, depending on which book you read.  
I’m from red wine and broiled fish.   
I’m from God’s heart with choirs of angels singing into the night.  
I’m from a teen-aged girl awkwardly greeting exotic kings bearing incense and oils. 
I’m from an old book with gold-trimmed yellowed pages curling up at the edges.  
I am from flesh.  I am from heaven.  
I am from diapers.  I am from Gloria in excelsis Deo.  
I am from shepherds.  I am from stars. 
I am from the word.  I am the word.  
I am from everywhere.  I am from nowhere.  
I am the word becoming flesh and pitching a tent in a camp full of nobodies, and together, we become somebody, so that I can be born in the heart of everybody.”