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Sunday, August 9, 2015

Laverne and Esther (a sermon about privilege)

This is the sermon I preached at Emmanuel UMC in Laurel, MD this morning. I was invited to preach as part of a sermon series called "Old Testament Yearbook," with each week dedicated to a different character from the Hebrew Bible. I was asked to preach on Esther. I decided to share some lessons about privilege that we can learn from Esther -- and from Laverne Cox.


            A few months ago, the notoriously short attention span of the U.S. media focused for a brief moment on the experience of transgender people – folks who don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. The catalyst for this momentary fascination with a group that is often ignored or mocked in media representation was Caitlyn Jenner’s decision to come out as trans and subsequently to appear on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. I didn’t quite understand the media buzz; my fiancĂ©e had to explain to me that prior to coming out as trans, Jenner was well-known and loved as a Cold War-era Olympic decathalon gold medalist and All-American Wheaties box celebrity.  
            I don’t usually spend a lot of time reflecting on the U.S. celebrity scene, and this is the first and likely the last time that I’ve ever mentioned Vanity Fair in a sermon. But in all of the buzz around Caitlyn Jenner’s cover shoot, one response in particular caught my attention. The actress Laverne Cox, star of the hit HBO series Orange is the New Black and herself a trans woman, posted a reflection on her blog, of which I will quote only a brief excerpt. She writes:
“I am so moved by all the love and support Caitlyn is receiving….Yes, Caitlyn looks amazing and is beautiful but what I think what is most beautiful about her is her heart and soul, the ways she has allowed the world into her vulnerabilities….For me it is necessary everyday to celebrate every aspect of myself especially those things about myself that don’t align with other people’s ideas about what is beautiful….Most trans folks don’t have the privileges Caitlyn and I have now have. It is those trans folks we must continue to lift up, get them access to healthcare, jobs, housing, safe streets, safe schools and homes for our young people. We must lift up the stories of those most at risk, statistically trans people of color who are poor and working class. I have hoped over the past few years that the incredible love I have received from the public can translate to the lives of all trans folks.”[i]
            I was struck by the power of this reflection. I should mention, for those unfamiliar with Ms. Cox, that she is a woman of color. She is someone who has faced multiple forms of societal stigma – as a woman, as a trans person, and as a person of color – using the media spotlight to lift up the needs and voices of those with less privilege than herself.
            I – a white, straight, cisgender male – find myself deeply humbled by Ms. Cox’s witness. How easy it is for me, on a daily basis, to forget my privilege, the unearned status and power granted to me by USAmerican society. For me to learn a lesson about the importance of using one’s status to amplify the voices of those less privileged – and to learn this lesson from a transwoman of color – is to enter into a space of self-reflection and repentance that I associate with encountering the gospel of Jesus Christ.
            Ms. Cox does not identify as a Christian. She has spoken in interviews about her upbringing in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and how she has come to understand and practice her spirituality outside of the institution of American Christianity.[ii] But to me, her words strike a deep, resonating chord within the prophetic and pastoral tradition of our religious heritage. In her refusal to hide behind the power of celebrity status or beauty standards, and her decision to identity instead with those who share aspects of identity often targeted for violence, Laverne Cox reminds me of another celebrity woman: the biblical character of Esther.
            The book of Esther, as many commentators have pointed out, is not a historical record, nor is it particularly theological – God does not appear in the story at all.[iii] Rather, it’s something like a fairy tale – though a pretty grim one, if you’ll excuse the pun. It is a story of palace intrigues and political rivalries, of gender and ethnic violence, of the folly of power and the surprising ability of individuals to challenge the status quo. The main character, Esther, is a young, status-less Jewish woman who becomes a princess because she happens to meet the objectifying beauty standards of the Persian court. This, indeed, would seem like a fairy-tale-princess dream come true, if not for the horrifying violence on the horizon. In the scene which we read this morning, Esther’s cousin Mordecai informs her of a plot in the royal court to massacre all of their people – for no reason other than a petty rivalry between Mordecai and Haman, the king’s chief courtier.  
            At first, Esther, who has hidden her Jewish identity from the court, reacts defensively. She sends him new clothes, so that he will stop embarrassing himself with his public acts of mourning and protest. She tries to explain to him that she is a marginalized individual, with no power to change things in the king’s court. Her reaction is, I think, quite understandable – she is young, and scared, and sticking one’s neck out in this situation is likely to end with that neck on a chopping block.
            And Mordecai tells her, essentially: “Look, don’t think that your status will protect you. You’re one of us. We will all share the same fate.” And then, that powerful line: “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
            And suddenly, it’s as if something shifts inside of Esther. She has been largely reactive up to this point in the story, but now she orders her older, male cousin to take action; she commands a fast; and, over the course of the following chapters, she sets into place a clever strategy to get the king on her side and to disrupt the plot against her people.
            The story, like many fairy tales, ends violently, with a happy ever after for the good guys and a horrifying end for the bad guys. But it’s not the climax of the story that interests me today; rather, it’s this moment when Esther comes to see with new eyes and speak with a new, powerful voice – or should I say, her own voice, a voice that must have been waiting inside of her, longing to be let out. Esther stops hiding behind the privileged aspects of her identity and instead chooses to act from her most vulnerable, endangered identity. It is that identity which creates connection with others, rather than isolating her in the illusion of security and the desperate loneliness of affluence. She turns down the false promises of upward mobility, exchanging them for the risky action of societally-downward solidarity. In doing so, Esther is able to use her status and privilege to affect change, to challenge violent systems of power, and to save her people.   
Esther’s insight speaks powerfully into our situation today, as a church and as a society. We are terrified of vulnerability, terrified of shame – and, paradoxically, this prevents us, particularly those of us with a high level of status and privilege, from naming and claiming our own ability to make change. And so in 2014 when women responded to the misogynistic manifesto of a mass shooter in California by posting stories on social media with the tag, #YesAllWomen, many men responded – not by joining together to end sexist violence – but rather by starting their own campaign, called #NotAllMen.” When the #BlackLivesMatter movement began, protesting police violence against unarmed African American men and women, many white folks responded – not by joining the effort to end police violence and racism – but instead by insisting on the slogan “All Lives Matter.” In fact, just recently, several Black Lives Matter signs hanging outside of churches in Maryland and DC were vandalized to erase the word “black.”[iv] That’s privilege at work, denying rather than challenging violence and discrimination. And meanwhile, the church in the U.S. spends its time fighting amongst itself and worrying about whether or not it will survive for another few years.
Do we see how different this is from the decision of Esther? Do we see how much we have to learn from the risk-taking young princess of this Jewish fairy tale?
Centuries after the fabled Persian court portrayed in the story of Esther, another young Jew grappled with questions of power and vulnerability, upward mobility versus downward solidarity. Writing to the church in Philippi, the apostle Paul admonished them: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself.” Interestingly, modern translators have added the word “though,” which does not exist in the original Greek. We read, “Christ who, though he was in the form of God, emptied himself.” But the actual text reads something like, “Christ who was in the form of God, emptying himself.” We decided that there was some sort of contradiction between who God is and the idea of emptying oneself, of identifying with the vulnerable and the marginalized. We decided that choosing to give up power and status is somehow out of character for God.[v]
But the Christ we Christians claim to follow, the God we claim to put our faith in, does not shy away from vulnerability. This God does not hide behind power or status or beauty in order to avoid risk. This God, this Christ, identifies with the threatened and the excluded. This God, this Christ, tells us that beauty and power and status are nothing except opportunities to speak out for and with those who have been denied such privilege.
And when I am tempted to say, “Look, I don’t really have that much power. I can’t really change things. It’s too risky. I’m too vulnerable.”
Or when churches wring anxious hands about shrinking budgets and empty pews, wondering whether we will ever ascend back to our former glory at the center of societal prestige.
This God, I believe, speaks – though just like in the book of Esther, not always directly. God speaks through the scandalous grief and protest of those whose people are threatened with violence, through young women who find their voice to challenge the status quo, through trans women of color, through countless marginalized people all over our land – this God speaks.
And says:
Perhaps, you have come to your current place of privilege for just such a time as this.
            Amen.





[i] From Laverne Cox’s tumblr blog: http://lavernecox.tumblr.com/post/120503412651/on-may-29-2014-the-issue-of-timemagazine
[ii] “Laverne Talks Spirituality with Miss Ross Live”: http://www.missross.com/laverne-talks-spirituality-ross-live/
[iii] Sidnie White Crawford, “Esther Introduction,” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 689-690.
[iv] Petula Dvorak, “The ugly message behind erasing ‘Black’ from ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs,” The Washington Post, 6 August 2015, available: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/the-ugly-message-behind-erasing-black-from-black-lives-matter-signs/2015/08/06/1d87a892-3c57-11e5-9c2d-ed991d848c48_story.html
[v] I owe this insight to a talk given by Brian McLaren at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Marco Island, FL, in March 2015.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Sermon -- "Jesus' Name"

This is a sermon I preached on Aug 2, 2015, at Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Washington, DC. It was part of a sermon series called "Who Do You Say Jesus Is?" Each sermon in the series focused on a different name or title that Christians have given Jesus. My sermon focused on the subversive nature of Jesus' own name. The texts were Joshua 6:1,15-21 and Matthew 1:18-21.



           Over the past few weeks, Dumbarton has been doing sermon series called “Who Do You Say Jesus Is?” which has looked at different ways that Christians refer to Jesus. You’ve heard sermons about Jesus as the Word of God, as Lord, as Lamb of God, as Emmanuel, and as Messiah. When Mary Kay invited me to preach this morning, she told me I could continue this series by talking about a name or title for Jesus that has particular meaning for me.
            So I decided that this morning, I will talk about the name that I most often use to refer to Jesus.
            Which is: Jesus.
            You might already have a sense that in the Hebrew and Greek in which the Jewish and Christian scriptures were written, names have importance and meaning. You might remember that Isaac means “God laughs,” because Sarah thought the idea of having a child at her age was so funny that she had to chuckle at the thought. Or that the Exodus story relates Moses name to the Hebrew for “draw out,” since he was pulled out of the water. You might remember that Abram’s name changes to Abraham, that Simon gets dubbed “Peter,” meaning “Rock,” or that Saul’s name changes to Paul. Of course, you also might not have heard any of those things before, in which case you can check out some of these stories and – to quote LeVar Burton from Reading Rainbow – “You don’t have to take my word for it!”
            Names have meaning, and Jesus’ name is no exception, although the way our texts are translated tends to obscure this fact. The name “Jesus,” you see, is an Anglicized version of the Latinized form of the Greek rendition of the Hebrew name “Yeshua.” (Did you get all of that?) While the gospels were written in Greek, Jesus and his disciples – like other 1st century Palestinian Jews – would likely have been most at home in the Aramaic language, a Semitic tongue closely related to Hebrew. So while we’re used to calling Jesus “Jesus,” his friends would have called him something like “Yeshua.”
            Yeshua, as it turns out, can also be anglicized into the common name “Joshua.” The Jesus of the gospels and the Joshua of the Hebrew Bible share a name. And that name has a meaning.  It comes from a Hebrew root meaning, “rescue” or “deliver,” combined with the first syllable of the name of God. So Jesus and Joshua’s name means, “Yahweh delivers,” or “Yahweh is salvation.”
            The translation of Matthew’s gospel that we heard this morning does a good job of representing this meaning when it says: “you are to name him Jesus – Salvation! – because he will save the people from their sins.” We’re getting an English translation of a Greek translation of a Hebrew play on words. Isn’t that fun?
            The author of Matthew’s gospel wants to make sure the reader knows, explicitly, that the name “Yeshua” isn’t just a name. It’s connected to what this Jesus will do. The name this newborn messiah is *called by* is directly related to the mission he is *called to.*
            Now, us North American Protestant Christians are so used to a certain narrative of how Jesus saves people from their sins that we tend to just zip right over that line from Matthew. Whatever you might personally think about the way the church has traditionally taught, a certain understanding of sin and atonement has tended to dominate the conversation so that we miss the implications of this little sentence in Matthew’s gospel.
            Matthew’s gospel, however, takes great pains to place Jesus in line with Jewish tradition. In Matthew, the first thing we hear about Jesus the Messiah is that he is “the son of David, the son of Abraham.” In Matthew, Jesus goes up on a mountain to teach, recalling Mount Sinai where the Law was given to Moses. There are more citations of Hebrew Bible passages in Matthew than in any other gospel, many of them accompanied by the formula: “This took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the prophet.” So when Matthew’s gospel says the Messiah is named Yeshua, “Yahweh saves,” because he will save the people from their sins, its original readers – most of whom, remember, would have been faithful Jews, not Gentile converts – would have had an instant moment of association with another figure named Yeshua.
            Joshua.
            The guy we heard from earlier, commanding the people: “Now shout! Yahweh has given you the city!  The city—and everything in it—is devoted to Yahweh for destruction.” Joshua, the guy leading the charge when the Israelites raze Jericho to the ground, killing all the men, women, children, and, for good measure, the cattle, sheep, donkeys, and pet parakeets.
            Joshua’s name – Yeshua – means “God will save,” and throughout the book dedicated to his exploits we get a pretty good sense of the type of saving that God is expected to do. It involves a whole lot of putting things to the sword and to the torch. A whole lot of saving the people from their sins of disobedience by making sure they know that, without total obedience to God, they will not succeed in their military conquest of the people who stand between them and the land they want.
            Now, I could say a lot about the book of Joshua. Many theologians, such as American Indian scholar George Tinker and Palestinian priest Naim Ateek, have critiqued the conquest narratives of Joshua, arguing that for             indigenous peoples, such theologizing of conquest has justified subjugation and ethnic cleansing. Other theologians have taken pains to point out that Joshua is not historical record, but rather some combination of mythic account and theological argument for the power of Israel’s God.
            But Matthew’s audience would not have read up on the latest in historical critical scholarship of the book of Joshua. They would have known the stories, and they would have heard, “you will call the child Yeshua, because he will save the people from their sins,” and they would have known exactly what kind of saving this Jesus-character was going to get up to. They would have looked around at their own context – in which the Roman Empire had just destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, burned it to the ground, crucified anyone involved in recent anti-imperial activity, and sent others into exile – and they would have made some assumptions about the type of good news that would be announced by this Jesus, this Yeshua, this first-century-Joshua.
            And they would have been quite surprised by the story that unfolds throughout the rest of the gospel.
            Because it turns out that what Jesus is *called to* is a complete subversion of the name he is *called by.*
            It turns out that the type of salvation and deliverance announced by this Jesus is nonviolent rather than violent. That it’s found in solidarity rather than dominance. In seeming weakness rather than coercive strength. In taking up the cross rather than avenging those who have been put to the cross. In identifying with and loving the Other rather than purifying ourselves by expunging the Other from our midst.
            Jesus takes all the religious and political assumptions of his followers and turns them upside down, dumps them right on their heads.
            And that, I would argue, is what Jesus is up to no matter what name or label we try to apply. Word, Lord, Lamb, Messiah – you name it, Jesus subverts it. Jesus takes all of the things that we try to call him and turns them inside-out, into the question of what we are called to.
                        Now, if you’re a Dumbarton regular, this isn’t exactly news to you. You’ve heard plenty of sermons about how Jesus’ nonviolent ethic of compassion and justice challenges and subverts the assumptions of good religious folks.
            But I want to  go a step farther and suggest that one of the things God is still up to in our midst is subverting our religious language, turning inside-out what names we are called by and breaking open new understandings of what we are called to. And I want to suggest that this is true even when the religious language being employed is language that we like to use – us progressive Christian folks, us Methodists of the Reconciling persuasion at places like Dumbarton and American University. I want to suggest that God is still up to the type of language-subverting work that we see in Jesus’ name – even when the language that we like to use is good language like “welcome” and “inclusion.”
            Recently, one of the AU students that I work with sent me a quote from a Facebook discussion they were having regarding the inclusion of transgendered folks. I’ll read you part of the quote:
“When we talk about making a word or a space more inclusive, I think many of us imagine that this means those of us already included are, like, at a party in our house, and there are other people outside, and making it more inclusive means we open the door and let them in, where they will presumably take up some space and eat some of our food and the like. This model is problematic, because it implies a residual right of possession (the house, inviting people in) and a slight imposition on our part….Instead, we need to think of inclusivity like this: we are ALL already at a party and its not owned by anyone but there are far more people than chairs, and some people have been standing up for centuries. We need to get some more in and, if we can't get enough right now, we need to take turns. If that still doesn't do it, maybe we should move the whole party someplace else.”
           Now, I like the word inclusion. And I like the mission statement of the AU Methodists, which includes the words “Welcome All.” But I suspect that what God is up to inside of words like inclusion and welcome is bigger than what we’re often up to when we use them, just as what God was up to in words like salvation and deliverance turned out to be something deeper, something more surprising, than what those words meant to their first century hearers. I suspect that, as that quote indicates, God might not so much want us to invite those folks over their to our party as much as up and move the party somewhere else – or, even more so, to recognize that this party wasn’t ever ours to begin with, that it was always God’s party, and oooohhhhh the types of people that God has invited to that party.
         See God’s party, God’s church, God’s realm, isn’t a white party that maybe we could squeeze some folks of color into.
         God’s party isn’t a straight party that maybe we could squeeze some gay folks into, nor a cisgendered party but maybe we could find a few more chairs for some trans folks.
         God’s party isn’t an upper middle class party but, hey, maybe, if you ask nicely enough, we’ll let a few poor folks in.
         God’s welcome, God’s inclusion, is deeper and wider and way more radical than all that. And, I suspect, it isn’t about us welcoming those people to our church. It’s about uprooting ourselves from our comfort zones and our sense of ownership and displacing ourselves to the kinds of parties that Jesus attends – places that might be just as surprising to our religious assumptions as Jesus would have been to those who thought they knew what his name meant.

What do we call Jesus? What assumptions are embedded in those names? And what is God up to in that -- subverting, shaking up, and redefining what we are being called to?

---


The quote is from a personal correspondence with one of the students I work with at American University. Their name has been withheld in order to protect their superhero identity. But if you want to support their ministry, you can donate to the AU United Methodist-Protestant Community 

Friday, July 31, 2015

a wound

"You have an old wound," she told me --
    cropped gray hair and sloping ceilings,
    for the dozenth, the hundredth, time.

"You have an old wound" --
     and how to take such a thing seriously

when in the West Bank the settlers have lit an infant on fire
while the guards at the border blithely deny another human home
and the videos from just a few states away
show the shooting of an unarmed man
and the quick lies to cover it up
which -- we must assume --
are entirely normal.

"You have an old wound" --
   what is such a thing in this
   this
   this world gone madder than me.

"You have an old wound.
  Here, in your heart"
-- she touches her own heart, lightly --
"and you can care for it."

Here I sit --
  touching my heart lightly --
watching the hurt.

Stepping into it.

Through it.

To a world whose wounds
are older than Cain
and as new as this morning's

awful

news.




Monday, July 20, 2015

Sermon -- "Tell Another Generation"

Here's the text of yesterday's sermon at Chevy Chase United Methodist Church. A few technical issues, so no audio file this time around. The text was Joel 2:21-28.


"Tell Another Generation"
As one of your United Methodist campus ministers at American University, a big part of my job over the summer is to participate in a series of New Student Orientation sessions. These sessions, held throughout June and July, are a chance for new students to meet each other, to learn more about the school, and to meet with advisors for academic planning and course selection. Each session includes a community involvement fair, where various student activity groups, such as the United Methodist Protestant Community, set up tables in one of the main dining areas in order to share opportunities for student participation. We hand out free candy, give t-shirts to people who sign up for our newsletter, and answer questions about spiritual life on campus.
Something that I’ve noticed over a few summers of these orientation sessions is a phenomenon that I call “Enthusiastic Parent; Reluctant Student.” What happens is that a parent approaches our table, very excited to find out that there are Methodists or Christians or whatever on campus, and asks us a bunch of questions. Meanwhile, their child, the new student, maintains a cool distance, physically separating themselves from the *clearly embarrassing* enthusiasm of their parents or at the very least not making too much eye contact with those of us behind the table. Sometimes, parents even complain out loud about their child’s reluctance to approach our table, which, as you might imagine, does not generally succeed at increasing the student’s level of interest.
I’m not sharing this in order to make fun of either parent or student – though this common phenomenon does lead to some genuinely funny moments. But in all of these encounters, I find myself really feeling for both the parent and the student. Both come into a new student orientation experiencing a complex web of excitement and anxiety, fear and hope. I’ve never been a parent, so I can only imagine the mixture of relief that a beloved child has achieved this milestone, mixed with anxiety about them being far away from home, mixed with excitement for all that is ahead of them, mixed, perhaps, with a bit of nostalgia and maybe even the fear of loneliness or a shift in parental purpose and self-understanding. I have, on the other hand, been an undergraduate student, and although it was more than a decade ago that I attended my own college’s new student orientation, I remember very well the swirling combination of anxiety, fear, relief, excitement, stress – you name it, I was feeling it.
And there’s something about a religious life organization table that just brings it all out. This phenomenon doesn’t happen as much to, say, the rugby club as it does to the religious life groups. All of those new college jitters get stirred up with the addition of another level of anxiety – for the parents, the question of whether the beliefs and values that they’ve tried to instill will remain important once their children leave home and begin their adult journeys. For the students, the question of how to claim their own identity, how to be their own person in a new setting free of the structures and parental influence of their childhoods. Faith, identity, meaning, purpose – this is deep, complex stuff that can sometimes surface over something as simple as whether or not they really need one of our free AU Methodist pens.
And these personal anxieties take form on top of a groundswell of deeper societal anxiety. Environmental catastrophe, racism, gun violence, sexual assault on college campuses – this is the stuff of internet newsfeeds and tense dinner table discussion. Our churches grapple with cultural changes and narratives of decline. Aging congregations ask, “where are the young people?”; young adults in the church ask “Why is it so hard for the church to change?” An older generation wonders whether they have created an environment unsafe for a younger; a younger generation wonders whether they have what it takes to change the world left to them by an older. Who is to blame for the mess we’re in? Who must take responsibility for changing it?
            “Hear this, O elders,” declare the opening lines of the book of Joel, “give ear, all inhabitants of the land! Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your ancestors? Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation.” Joel’s prophetic words are framed, from the very beginning of the book, as part of an intergenerational conversation, a passing on of wisdom and hope and challenge from one age to the next.
We don’t know very much about the person named Joel. We do know that his is a late entry into the library of prophetic literature. Many of the Hebrew prophets warn the nation of future exile if they fail to deal justly and mercifully with the most vulnerable members of society. Joel, however, writes after the exile to Babylon and the return to the land of Judah. The crisis to which Joel is responding is not the encroaching armies of foreign nations, but rather what us modern folk might think of as a natural disaster: a swarm of locusts has plagued the land, destroying crops and ruining livelihoods. In the midst of this ecological catastrophe, Joel calls the leadership of Judah to account for their unwillingness or inability to share the things of God with the next generation. “Call a solemn assembly,” Joel cries, “gather the people. Sanctify the congregation. Assemble the aged, gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy.”
Leave nobody out, Joel warns. Gather everyone. Everyone needs to hear what God is up to in the midst of this crisis. If there’s any way out of this locust-infested-mess, everybody better turn back and listen to God.
To our 21st century ears, Joel’s theologizing of disaster can seem strange, even harmful. Surely there are natural, scientific explanations for a locust and famine. Surely God – who, as Joel reminds the people, is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” – surely such a God does not inflict harm on people, including children, just to prove a point. The God that I believe in, the Jesus that I follow, does not go around causing natural disasters and random acts of violence in order to convince us to improve our behavior.
Yet there is something powerful about Joel’s reminder to seek for the voice of God in the midst of an age of anxiety. To stop and listen to what we might be called to do together when change is scary, when disaster strikes, or when violence seems to reign supreme.
“Do not fear,” begins the passage from Joel that we heard this morning. And in case we missed it, it’s repeated – “Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the LORD has done great things! Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green, the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield.”
Even as environmental and economic catastrophe rage all around, Joel calls God’s covenant community back to a hope in the ever-generous abundance of God. “You shall know that I am in your midst,” God declares. I am with you. I am with you. You are not alone.
And then – and here, perhaps, we come to understand why Joel has been so insistent that all the people, young and old, have been gathered to hear this message – we hear the words that have become familiar in the Christian tradition through the story of Pentecost:
“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old folk shall dream dreams, and your young folk shall see visions.”
For Joel, the culmination of the hope that he comes to offer the beleaguered and distraught people of God is a vision of intergenerational inspiration, in which people of all ages and genders – and we can add of all races, of all language-groups, of all abilities and orientations and political affiliations and national backgrounds – all find themselves dreaming anew, imagining anew, speaking out anew about the things of the Spirit.
            In the midst of ecological crisis, God says, “I will pour out my spirit…on all of you.”
            In the midst of violence caused by deprivation and distrust, God says, “I will pour out my spirit…on all of you.”
            In the midst of massive societal change, God says: “I will pour out my spirit…on all of you.”
            In the midst of intergenerational anxiety and tension, God says, “I will pour out my spirit…on all of you, young or old or anywhere in between. And you will dream new things, and see new things, and speak new things.”
            Now, it’s a bit strange being a guest preacher in a congregation that I don’t know very well. I don’t know each of you, and your unique stories and situations. I don’t know whether some of you are about to send a kid off to college, or if some of you are going off to college yourselves. I don’t know if some of you are worried about whether a younger generation is going to carry on the mission and ministry that you’ve put so much time and effort into cultivating; I don’t know if some of you are worried that an older generation will never get out of the way and let you lead.
            What I think I know is this: God’s still got some Spirit waiting to pour out on us. God’s still got some Spirit waiting to pour out on American University. On Chevy Chase United Methodist Church. On the church in the U.S. and around the world. God’s still got some dream-inspiring, vision-inducing, imagination-provoking Spirit to pour out on all of us.
            But we’ve got to take the time and make the space to receive it. And if sons and daughters are prophesying, and older people are dreaming dreams, and younger people are seeing visions – then we darn well better figure out some ways to share all that with each other. 
            As usual, there are no easy guides for how to do this, no quick 3-step solution to the challenge at hand. Instead, here is one story: last week I attended a big, raucous Christian festival in North Carolina, called the Wild Goose Festival. On the last day of the festival, I helped my friend Alicia facilitate a conversation about growing a new generation of leaders in the church. An intergenerational group – from 12 years old to 76 – sat together and shared their first memories of leadership, and the things that make them feel affirmed or discouraged as leaders. Youth shared their hopes and their fears. Older adults asked how they could be more supportive, and shared some of their own feelings of being pushed aside or not listened to.
            Of all the many wonderful things I experienced at that festival – and it was a wonderful experience – that conversation gave me the most hope. It felt like we were taking the time to listen to each other’s dreams and visions, to create a space of sharing and collaboration in the midst of a societal context of anxiety and fear and division.
            We can create such spaces – here, in our churches, in our communities, in our families. We can ask questions, we can listen, we can share from a place of honesty and of Spirit. What it might look like exactly, I can’t tell you for sure – but we can do it, and we must. Otherwise, we might just miss what it is that God is pouring out among us.
            So gather the people. Sanctify the congregation. Assemble the aged. Gather the children, even infants at the breast. Listen for what God has to say: “Do not fear. Do not fear. I am with you – all of you – always.”

            Amen. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A few scattered Wild Goose reflections

This past weekend, Leigh and I and a bunch of other folks hung out in Hot Springs, NC for the Wild Goose Festival, which is like this big raucous mashup of a progressive Christian conference, a rock concert, a support group for recovering evangelicals (and disgruntled mainliners), a meditation retreat, and a RenFaire. (There are no massive turkey legs, I am assuming out of respect for wild geese. There are kilts, though. And beer.)

I had the incredible privilege to share a stage at the Goose with Rev. Sarah Lund, a UCC pastor who is doing great work to break the silence around mental illness, particularly in churches. We spoke of our experiences with mental illness, mental health, and faith. A had a number of people ask me for resources afterwards, so I'm going to put a few things down at the bottom of this relatively brief post.

I had meant to record my talk so I could post it on here, but I got so nervous beforehand that it totally fell out of my mind -- and anyway, the content of it pretty much shows up in bits and pieces on other places on this blog.

But I will just share a few quick reflections.

Sarah and I, I think it's fair to say, are both new to the Wild Goose world. We weren't exactly the headline names of the festival. We spoke in one of the festival tents while at the same time, on the main stage, people like Brian McLaren and Rudy Rasmus and Sara Miles spoke. So we weren't quite sure how many people would come to our talk.

We packed the tent. My guess would be 250-300 people were in there, though I'm bad at estimating numbers.

I don't say this to brag. Just the opposite: to me, the fact that so many people showed up to hear relatively unknown folks talk about mental illness reveals just how desperately people want to talk about this. Mental illness and mental health struggle are such a part of our shared human experience, but so rarely are people given permission to share their stories of it. And so we gave people some time to talk to each other, and the tent filled with the sounds of honest and painful stories, and tears just streamed down my cheeks.

Afterwards, people asked me a number of powerful questions, most of which I didn't have answers to. I'm going to be pondering some of them and maybe writing short reflections over the next couple of days, but for now I just want to say "thank you" to everyone who came, to everyone who has supported me, and to everyone who takes the risk of sharing their own story.

And for any of you out there who are struggling, or who feel unable to share: hang in there. Try to practice self-compassion, as hard as it is. Know that you are not alone.

I will also just say that, if what I say whenever I talk about is true -- that the first step to healing for people struggling with mental illness is to reduce isolation -- then the fact that Leigh and my parents were both in the tent while I shared my story is a testament to the kind of incredible support and love that I hope everyone will be able to receive.

One final thought. The day after our talk, I helped my friends Alicia and Morgan facilitate an intergenerational conversation about leadership. I believe the youngest person in the circle was 12; the oldest was 76. It was, for me, the most important thing that I participated in during the Festival. Youth shared their experiences of being affirmed in, and being discouraged from, their leadership. Adults asked questions about how they could be more supportive, how they could listen better. And some older folks shared their own frustrations with not being heard or trusted by society.

It is my opinion that without this kind of conversation, happening everywhere, in as many different types of venues as possible, all of the other important conversations at a place like Wild Goose -- about LGBTQ lives and the spirituality of authenticity, about racial and economic justice, about mental illness and mental health -- all of these conversations will sputter for lack of intergenerational oxygen.

And I believe that we can be the people to ensure that these conversations happen.

All of which is to say: Thank you. Thank you. Wow.

A few resources on mental health and mental illness:
-- first, I'll reiterate that the most important resource for folks struggling with mental illness is people and communities who are willing to just show up -- to listen non-judgmentally and to reduce isolation
-- second, if you're in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. You can find out more about the Lifeline at their website or the website of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The Lifeline was just exactly that for me on a number of occasions when I was in crisis. 
-- many denominations have begun developing mental health resources for use in churches, such as the UCC's Mental Health Network and the UMC's Caring Community Program
-- I recently completed a Mental Health First Aid training, which I highly recommend for anyone, but particularly people -- from pastors to from security guards to church front desk volunteers to parents -- who often end up being the 'first on the scene' during mental health crises. I found a free training, and it was about six hours. Totally worth it.
-- A number of organizations like NAMI and Recovery International have peer-to-peer support groups. I don't have personal experience with these groups -- most of my group work has happened in psychiatric hospitals -- but they're worth checking out. 

-- Sarah Lund's book, Blessed are the Crazy, has a number of helpful resources in an appendix. Other books that have been helpful to me in my journey have been Andrew Solomon's The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression; Kay Redfield Jamison's An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness; and Jean Vanier's very short and easy to read Seeing Beyond Depression.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Refusing to Plead the Fifth

You have heard most, if not all, of the stories.

A young white man walks into a prayer meeting at a historic African-American church and kills 9 people.

The same week, Israeli religious extremists set fire to a historic church in the Galilee.

A man is stabbed while sleeping outside of the St. Luke's Mission Center, where many of my students have volunteered.

Even as millions celebrate the Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-gender marriage, many LGBTQ folk brace for backlash.

Black churches are set ablaze across the South.

I have not written much about any of these events. I have shared a post here or a status message there.

I have been quiet, not because I don't care, but because I have felt -- to use language that perhaps comes more comfortably from the mouths of some of my more evangelical sisters and brothers -- convicted.

It has seemed to me to be too easy to write in outrage about events in South Carolina, or to wax poetically about the death of a man I did not know in DC, or to write my thousandth post about what we can do to bring some sanity to the violence we sponsor in Israel/Palestine. It has seemed to me too easy, as I relax in my apartment in the far north(white)west corner of Washington, DC, or sit in the comfortable office at the private college where I work, to rage about racism or gun violence or religious extremism.

I've felt convicted. Indicted. Called to the witness stand to speak for myself.

And I'm wondering what it looks like to refuse to plead the fifth.

The city that I live in has deep racial and economic divisions. The faith communities of the city tend to reflect these differences. The university where I work, and the beautiful and lively faith community that I minister with there, is situated -- geographically and demographically -- within those divisions. Students at American University or Wesley Theological Seminary could easily spend years in DC without ever going east of the Anacostia River.

I can easily do that.

What am I doing to change that?

I could name a few things here, a few things there.

I am the beneficiary of the systems of racial and economic injustice that makes these divisions possible.

What am I doing to change that?

I did not know Joel Johnson, the man who was stabbed at St. Luke's. The man who slept outside of the building where I take students to do some good. We volunteer inside the building that people sleep outside of for want of shelter; and until he was stabbed, I did not know this man's name.

What am I doing to change that?

We're deeply connected -- in usually unhealthy ways -- to the violence that happens half way around the world.

What in my life challenges that? And what in my life simply upholds it and allows it and enables it?

That's how I'm feeling. Conflicted. Indicted.

I don't mean that I feel guilty, in the sense of personal guilt. I mean that I feel the world calling me to task, posing me with a question: What about your life?

The great Quaker mystic Thomas Kelley once wrote, "We cannot die on every cross, nor are we expected to."

But, of course, he was referencing another old mystic, who said something like, "If you want to follow me, you're going to have to take up a cross."

I have no illusions that I can take on every cross that this world has to bear.

But surely, there is one.

I step into the witness stand, and the prosecutor says, "Some churches burned, and some looked away, and some walled themselves off. You stand accused of complicity. You stand accused of bystanding. How do you plead?"

I don't know, yet, what I could respond. But I refuse to plead the fifth.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

"happier now, of course" (a poem about endings)

I remember --
   a pen that my grandfather gave me
And I remember the day its ink ran out.

The last few lines,
    scratched desperately on a journal page
    the last letters fading into grooves.

I am happier now, of course,
   and yet something in my fingers
   remembers the gift,
   and misses that desperate scratching --
     word upon word
     wound upon wound --
   in the time before I knew words like:
      baseline
      mania
      diurnal variation.

I remember --
   a self-styled holy man
   expansive beard and booming voice
   declaring to a crowded auditorium:

"We are like this pen,
    useful for God as a writing tool
    but easy to cast aside when we are dried up."

Thrown away when no longer useful, he said.

And I remember --
   saying to myself,

"That is not faith."

Faith, you see, looks forward in hope and,
  in times of dryness and fading
   
             imagines the poems that are yet to come.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Sermon -- "Why Are You Standing Here?"

This is a sermon I preached for Ascension Sunday at Epiphany United Methodist Church in Vienna, VA. The texts are Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:1-11. I talk a bit about the recent Pew Forum report and also, because I'm a bit of a scavenger, reuse a line from my Holy Saturday post. Audio and text:




“Why Are You Standing Here?”
Ascension Sunday at Epiphany UMC, Vienna, VA
17 May 2015
Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:1-11

---
            It’s a pleasure to be invited to preach here at Epiphany while your pastor is traveling in the Holy Land. As it happens, I’ve spent some time in Palestine and Israel as well – from 2007 to 2008, I lived in Jerusalem as a young adult missionary with Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church. And for much of that time I lived at the Lutheran World Federation hostel at Augusta Victoria, at one of the sites often associated with the Ascension stories that we heard this morning. As with most places associated with the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, there is a big church at the site; and as with most such places, different sects and denominations disagree about the exact site, so there are multiple heights and corresponding multiple churches associated with the Ascension just as there are multiple churches and tourist booths associated with Jesus’ birth, baptism, burial, and just about anything else you can think of.
            I share this not to denigrate pilgrimage to the land where Jesus lived and ministered, died and was raised. I have a deep love for that land and for its people, including the Palestinian Christian community that invited me into communion and shared ministry during my time there. Rather, I thought about the proliferation of holy sites while reading this morning’s passages because I think it’s characteristic of a very natural human reaction to the experience of the divine. We want to hold on to holy moments and spectacular happenings. We want to commemorate, to memorialize, to keep our eyes directed toward the times in which it seemed so clear that God was present in our lives.
            This very human desire to hold on shows up in the scriptural accounts of the Ascension, which we heard this morning. Now, we have to remember that Luke and Acts are written by the same author – so our texts this morning blend into each other on purpose. First, we heard the final verses of Luke’s gospel, in which Jesus gives a summary of his time with the disciples. He interprets scripture to them, charges them with a ministry of witness, grace, and transformation, and affirms the promise of the coming Spirit. Then, he leaves them. The beginning of the book of Acts, addressed to the same person as the gospel of Luke, gives a fuller account of that leaving, what we have come to call ‘The Ascension.’ In this second telling of the story, we get a number of fascinating tidbits, including two people dressed in street clothes who show up and say to the disciples:
            “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”
            Or, in a more modern translation:
            “Galileans – why are you standing here?”
            A bit obtuse for heavenly messengers, aren’t they? I mean, you can imagine the disciples reacting: “Why are we standing here? Well, that was Jesus, who we saw perform miraculous signs and healings, then watched him get tortured and killed, and then he sort of was alive again and talking and walking and eating, and now he’s been whisked out of sight by some sort of magical cloud. What do you mean, why are we standing here? That was spectacular! Maybe we should build a shrine or something…”
            I sympathize with the disciples here. It’s a perfectly natural thing to do, to stand there, staring up toward the heavens.
            And yet – and here’s the rub – the perfectly natural thing to do isn’t always what the church is called to do.
            There is work to do, the mysterious messengers seem to be saying. And it seems obvious, for folks who are familiar with the story of the early church as told in Acts, what that work must be. They are to get out and preach the gospel, to spread the church to the ends of the known world – right?
            Well, actually, not exactly. Not yet.
            You see, in both Luke and Acts, what the disciples are ordered to do first is to go back into Jerusalem and to wait.
            Before they rush off to spread the good news and grow the church, they are to hang out in the city, praying and sharing with each other and waiting for the promised coming of the Holy Spirit.
            It’s a strange, in-between time that we, as modern disciples, are invited into this morning – a distinctive pause between the definitive end of Jesus’ ministry on earth and the new beginning of the church, the latter of which we traditionally celebrate not on this Ascension Sunday but rather at next week’s festival of Pentecost.
            I think this in-between time is important, and often overlooked. As much as we have a tendency to stand still, to stare up at the heavens or back at the glorious accomplishments of the past, we also have the opposite tendency – to rush frenetically into the next thing without taking a moment to pause, to breathe, and to be mindful of the change that has taken place.
            The author William Bridges, who writes about life transitions, puts it this way: “First,” he says, “there is an ending, then a beginning, and an important empty or fallow time in between.”[i] This fallow or in-between time, according to Bridges, will be perceived by many as “apparently unproductive,” when in fact it is a time for “the important business of inner self-transformation.”[ii] It is thus of vital importance to give the in-between times their due, to honor them as periods of disorientation, discernment, and rest.
            Recently, we’ve seen this dynamic play out in the U.S.American church. This past week, for example, the Pew Research Forum released an annual report on the state of religious attitudes and beliefs in the U.S.[iii] For anyone who’s been paying attention over the past decade, the report contains no surprises: a smaller and smaller percentage of our population identifies as Christian; more and more people identify as religiously unaffiliated; the drop is particularly notable in the mainline Protestant denominations and among young adults; our own United Methodist denomination continues to age and shrink. But what has been fascinating for me to watch is how we react to such news.
            Some of us want to stand exactly where we are, to stare up at the heavens or backwards at the ‘good old days’ of packed church pews and societal prestige. We’re not ready for a new beginning. We want to hold on.
            Others of us want to rush off to start new programs or new ministries, to try to do something – anything! – to stop the trend of decline. We don’t want to admit that there’s been a fundamental shift in our society, a definitive ending of the way thinks once were.
            What is very, very hard for all of us, I think, is to sit with the in-between time. To return to our version of Jerusalem – I don’t mean some holy city, but rather, our own communities, our own neighborhoods, here in Vienna, VA or in the Washington, DC Metropolitan area. To neither close ourselves off in the past or anxiously try to alter the future. It is hard to sit with the in-between times, because we are afraid.
            “Why are you standing here?” the heavenly messengers ask the disciples.
            “Stay here in the city,” Jesus tells them.
            If we have eyes to see underneath the spectacular nature of this morning’s texts – with miraculously disappearing saviors and magically appearing messengers – we find something that is actually quite surprising: a call to start at home. To take time to pray for the Spirit of God to fall afresh on us, so that our witnessing – whether it be in the DC Metro area, or across the United States, or to the ends of the earth – is not empty talk and frantic activity but rather a cooperation in God’s activity and God’s mission.
            At the conclusion of this morning’s worship service, we will sing a hymn called “Lord, Whose Love Through Humble Service.” One verse of the hymn begins like this: “As we worship, grant us vision, till your love’s revealing light in its height and depth and greatness dawns upon our quickened sight.”[iv] It’s this connection between worship and loving service to the world that the words from Luke and Acts call us to this morning. When the disciples want to rush off to the next thing, Jesus says: “Stay in Jerusalem. Wait and pray.” When they want simply to stay on the Mount of the Ascension, staring in awe, God’s messengers ask them, “Why are you standing here?” We live in between those two messages. We return to Jerusalem – to Vienna – to Washington, DC. We dedicate ourselves to prayer and to discerning the signs of the Spirit. We participate in communion and community. We share with our neighbors. We do the slow, patient work of learning the ins and outs of our communities, paying attention to what God is most assuredly up to, right here in our midst. It seems very simple, and it’s all, as it turns out, quite challenging. As the pastor, author, and Biblical translator Eugene Peterson once wrote that dedication to the spiritual disciplines – of prayer, worship, scripture reading – “has not been tried and discarded because it didn’t work, but tried and found difficult (and more than a little bit tedious).”[v]
            And so I offer a prayer, today, for the space between Ascension and Pentecost. Between the definitive end and the remarkable new beginning. I offer a prayer, this morning, for the fallow times. For the invisible restoration of the conditions necessary for future growth. 





[i] William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (Cambridge: De Capo Press, 2004), 17.
[ii] Ibid., 135.
[iii] Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape: Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population, Unaffiliated and other Faiths Continue to Grow,” 12 May 2015, available: http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/
[iv] Albert F. Bayly, “Lord, Whose Love Through Humble Service,” United Methodist Hymnal 581.
[v] Eugene Peterson, Living the Message: Daily Help for Living the God-Centered Life (New York: HarperOne, 1996). 86.