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:
      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:
[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.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Sermon -- "What We're Doing Here"

Yesterday was the final Tuesday chapel service of the year at Wesley Seminary. It was an honor to be invited to preach at the service, which was designed by the recipients of the seminary's awards for preaching, liturgy, and music. 

Below is the audio and text of my sermon, "What We're Doing Here," based on 1 John 4:7-21 and John 15:1-8

“I don’t even remember what I’m doing here.”
            I’m not much of a tent revivalist, so I’m not going to ask for a show of hands, but if I did ask people in this room to raise their hands if they have uttered these words during their time at Wesley Seminary, I bet it would look a lot less mainline and a whole lot more charismatic in here.
            “I don’t even remember what I’m doing here.”
            Maybe you came into seminary, fresh out of your campus ministry or your young adult mission program, or perhaps transitioning into a new career of calling and passion, fired up for disciple-making and world transformation.
            Maybe you thought that the seminary experience would be like Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together,[i] a time of deepening commitment and community and spiritual discipline.
            Maybe you came in having experienced the anointing of the Spirit, filled with passion for God’s Word.
            And then one day, you found yourself lying in bed or staring at a blank Word document, looking around for that fire, that spirit, that motivation, that discipline.
            Maybe it was the seemingly endless barrage of papers and reading.
            Maybe it was a mental health crisis or a physical health breakdown – or both.
            Maybe it was a disappointing encounter with a classmate or professor, or an experience of racism or sexism or homophobia in what you figured would be a safe space.
            But whatever it was, you found yourself saying:
“I don’t even remember what I’m doing here.”
            Call it burnout, or diagnose it as depression or anxiety, or name it the dark night of the soul, but I don’t know a single seminarian who hasn’t felt this way, at one point or another during their time here. And I would be remiss if I didn’t say, that it seems to me that if everyone has this experience, then maybe – with respect to all of the wonderful things happening at Wesley, and all the wonderful people – maybe we are doing something wrong, here.
            That maybe a system in which grade point averages seem to be weighted heavier than spiritual growth; in which busy-ness and burnout seem to be the norm; and in which monetary and staffing resources can be mobilized for recruitment or new buildings but are suddenly scarce when it comes to spiritual and mental health; is not just a system with some flaws in need of administrative fixes but an unhealthy system in need of some serious healing.
            If that sounds harsh, let me put it to you this way:
            I think all of us, whether graduating folks such as myself or first year students or the president of the seminary, all of us could use a good, healthy reminder about what it is that we are even doing here.
            Fortunately for us, I think our lectionary texts for this week offer us just such a healthy reminder.
Now, scholars debate the exact relationship between the gospel of John and the first epistle of John, neither of which, in the oldest manuscripts, are attributed to anyone in particular. But there are enough linguistic resonances between the two texts for most scholars to agree that there is at least a shared context, perhaps a shared community or group of communities, from which both of today’s passages emerged.[ii]  
            Both texts make the claim that there is no Christian community, no fruitful Christian discipleship, without a deep connection to – and an inhabiting of – the love of God. God’s love, made present to us in real and material ways in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, is the source of Christian life. It is the vine of which we are intertwined branches, the sustenance that produces fruit, the shelter under which we dwell.
            The literature of the Johannine community calls us back to the place we started, to the original source of our calling as disciples. I don’t mean our individual “call stories.” I mean the love that vastly precedes our stories, the fertile soil out of which our experiences of Christian community grow. These texts are a re-membering, a re-turning to, the love that’s loved us from the start.
            In English translation, the Johannine literature can seem complex, but that’s because we’re struggling to translate simplistic Greek without sounding redundant. Our own Dr. Sharon Ringe theorizes that the vocabulary had to be simple because the Johannine community was an in-between community, an immigrant community in the Jewish diaspora struggling to translate concepts between an Aramaic-speaking older generation and Greek-speaking young folks.[iii] African American New Testament scholar Thomas B. Slater refers to the Johannine epistles as an example of “Grandma Theology” – with simple, repeated refrains and riffs on traditional sayings that even your grandma can say “Amen!” to.[iv]          
            One of those repeated refrains is the Greek word, meno. The word shows up a combined total of 16 times in our two texts this morning, although English versions often obscure the repetition with various interpretive choices. You could translate it as “abide,” or “remain,” or “stay,” or “dwell,” or “live in.” It’s a word that speaks of rootedness in an uprooted world; interconnection in a world of disconnection; indwelling in a world of isolation and alienation. And it offers us exactly the healing antidote we need to that sinking feeling when we don’t even remember what it is that we’re doing here.
            The Johannine authors imagine this divine, loving interconnection with a three-fold directionality: from God to us; from us to God; and between all of us in community. First, God initiates connection. John’s Jesus is the vine from which the branches must sprout. No vine, no branches. The epistle writer puts it simply: “Love is from God,” and also, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us,” sending Jesus to atone, to reconcile, to overcome disconnection and alienation and to express solidarity and incarnational love. Before we can act, it is God who meno-s, abides, dwells, interconnects with us. So the first thing we are reminded of this morning is that when we do not know what we are doing, God takes the initiative to heal and to restore our sense of connection.
            But our texts also make it clear that God’s initiative invites response. As God menos with us, we meno – we re-connect – with God. The language of John 15 seems harsh at first: “Whoever does not abide in Jesus is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” Sounds merciless. But have you ever felt that way? Cut off from the source of your life and your call? Withered, dried up, burnt out? I sure have. It feels a whole lot like, “I don’t even remember what I’m doing here.” How easy it is to lose our sense of connection with the divine. How easy to forget to pray, to forget to find spaces of worship and wonder in our lives. How easily cut off we are, how easily burnt out.
            The Johannine authors also emphasize that there is no abiding in God separate from reconnecting with each other in a community of disciples. The epistle writer is characteristically blunt: “those who do not love a brother or sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” Jesus doesn’t do the incarnational love thing so that we don’t have to. The branches of the vine do not exist in isolation from each other – they all intertwine.
            So there you have it. Three point sermon. God connects with us, we connect with God, we connect with each other. Easy, right?
            Of course it isn’t.
            Of course there’s a million and one things in this world that are trying to cut us off from God and each other.
            When depression and anxiety come calling, making us feel cut off and isolated – we experience disconnection.
            When shame and fear override our willingness to take creative risks – we experience disconnection.
            When stress and burnout obscure our vision and our call – we experience disconnection.
            When systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia inhibit us from seeing each other as fully human – we experience disconnection.
            When sexual violence becomes stunningly commonplace on college campuses --
            When yet another unarmed African American man is killed by police --
            And yet another transgender woman of color is murdered for who she is --
            And yet another natural disaster causes havoc and unmasks economic disparities --           
And yet another violent conflict fueled by U.S.-funded militaries breaks out in the Middle East –
 We experience disconnection.
            It is easy to sentimentalize this morning’s texts. It is easy to make words like “abide” and “love” into pastel-colored bookmarks and Christian bookstore kitsch.
            But it is hard, in the midst of a world fraught with disconnection, alienation, and isolation, to live lives of connection, lives of abiding and indwelling love.      And that’s our original call, vastly prior to any considerations about ordination committees and seminary degrees.
            A lot of us have been taught, I think, that we need self-care and spiritual practices and supportive community so that we can be rested and healthy when the time comes to go back out and do all that hard church work that we’re just temporarily taking a break from. The unintended consequence of this way of thinking is that we end up believing that if we just bear down, if we just push through, if we just finish one more paper or schedule one more meeting or create one more program, then we’ll have done enough, then we can rest, then we can enjoy life together. What the Johannine authors challenge us to see is that time spent abiding – praying and playing, connecting with God through the means of grace and with each other through the tough work of Christian community – isn’t a break from the real work of the church. It is the church. It’s who we are created to be. The fruit-bearing ministry of Christian discipleship is only ever a participation in the work of God in the world. And it turns out that God is up to exactly what God’s been up to from the beginning: overcoming disconnection and alienation; re-creating connection and community; through risky vulnerability, incarnational solidarity, and abiding love.
            What does that look like in action? As usual, there are more questions than answers, and more stories than how-to guides. So here is one such story. Last January I had the opportunity to spend a week or so in Baltimore with Wesley’s urban ministry immersion. We were a diverse group, with students from as far away as South Korea and as close to home as Sandtown. We were quite a sight, a gaggle of seminarians, African American and White and Korean and Latina, wandering around in a city which, like so many of our cities, is still largely divided along lines of race and power.
One of the sites we visited during our time together was the United Methodist Board of Child Care, a ministry for children who need levels of support beyond what the traditional foster care system can provide. As we toured the campus, one of those children, a young boy who couldn’t have been older than 10, turned the corner and found himself face-to-face with a big group of strangers.
He stopped in his tracks. He stared at us. And he said, with the sort of direct candor that comes naturally to kids:
“Who are all these white people and black people?”
What might it look like to reconnect with our original calling, to go forth to participate in God’s fruit-bearing mission of overcoming disconnection and re-creating connection?
Well, I don’t know, exactly. I’ve got a long way to go, myself.
But I’m pretty sure we’re doing something right when people stop in their tracks. And stare at us. And say:
“Who are all these white people and black people? Who are all these Korean people and African people, these Hispanic/Latina people and Filipina people? Who are all these gay people and these straight people, these cis people and these trans people, these people with varying levels of physical and mental ability? Who are all these people – together?”
And that -- not out of the mouth of the preaching award recipient, but out of the mouth of a kid who’s already been taught too many lessons about disconnection – that
Is what it is that we are supposed to be doing here.

[i] I totally stole this line from Leigh Finnegan.
[ii] See C. Clifton Black’s discussion of this topic in “The First, Second, and Third Letters of John – Introduction,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume XII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 366ff.
[iii] I owe this idea, and many of the ideas driving this sermon, to Dr. Ringe’s class on the Fourth Gospel that I took in the spring of 2014. Many of Dr. Ringe’s insights about John’s gospel are capture in her book, Wisdom’s Friends: Community and Christology in the Fourth Gospel (Louisville: Wesminster John Knox, 1999).
[iv] Thomas B. Slater, “1-3 John,” in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007), 504.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

"Who Told Us" -- a song about the human struggle with shame

I wrote this song for my final 'communication event' for a class that I'm taking called Hebrew Bible and Pastoral Practices.. It's about how humans struggle with shame, and it's based on a reading of Genesis 3 in conversation with the work of Dr. Brene Brown. If you want to hear a beautiful sermon that inspired me to take on this particular project, then take a listen to Stan Mitchell at GracePointe Church in Tennessee.

Here's the song -- as usual, just a rough recording on my phone. Someday I'll have the time and money to do some higher quality recordings:

And here's a summary of the project and the lyrics:

In my paper, I tried out a reading of Genesis 2:25-3:24 in conversation with the work of BrenĂ© Brown on shame and vulnerability. In her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (New York: Gotham, 2012), Brown defines shame as “the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection….Shame is the intensely personal feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” (68-69). 
What would it mean to understand the story of the man and the woman in the garden, not as a story about “original sin,” but rather as a story about the harmful effects of shame on our human need for connection and belonging? In fact, while motifs of shame and nakedness figure prominently in the story, the Hebrew word for sin is entirely absent. This way of reading the story makes God’s second question to the humans – “Who told you that you were naked?” – just as important as the question about eating the fruit. Who told us that we are naked and need to be ashamed? What voices tell us that we are lacking, deficient, or unworthy of love?

Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Colossians 3:14).
                                                      “Who Told Us?” – David Hosey, 2015

Once naked and unashamed
Now hiding from the One who gave us our names
Once not a thing we lacked
Now exposed and not sure there’s any going back

Who told us?
Who told us we should be ashamed?
Who told us?
Who told us we’re naked and afraid?

Once made to be one flesh
Now hopelessly estranged, or else hopelessly enmeshed
Once believing we were enough
The voice whispered, “You could be gods – why settle for just being loved?”

Who told us?
Who told us we should be ashamed?
Who told us?
Who told us we’re naked and afraid?

So let’s clothe ourselves in Love

Try to cover up with leaves
Or with awards and items on our CVs
But all of it just falls apart
We’ll be naked again – we’ve been naked from the start

So let’s clothe ourselves in Love

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Failures and Fallow Times (a Holy Saturday blog about all those blogs I was supposed to write)

At the beginning of Lent, I decided I was going to once again take on the spiritual practice of blogging as I had a few years ago, this time focusing on reflections about life transitions.

Then I didn't. 

As far as commitments I've reneged on in my life, this one is pretty minor, I suppose. I'm not going to beat myself up about it, or anything -- which in and of itself is representative of a pretty major shift for me.

Still. There's something disappointing about an idea un-realized, a practice un...well...practiced. And Holy Saturday seems like a good day to reflect on that. 

Holy Saturday is different than any other day in the Christian year, I think, because it's a day dedicated to nothing. It doesn't have the liturgical melodrama of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. It's an in-between day, for waiting and for silence. 

"First there is an ending," William Bridges writes, "then a beginning, and an important empty or fallow time in between."

What very few resources we have for those empty or fallow times, those times that seem wasted, that time when any growth that exists is invisible, when the conditions for future growth are being restored in intangible, unnoticeable ways.

What very few resources we have, as a church and as a society as a whole, for failures and for fallow times.

Here, then, is a fallow time. A day of nothing. Of sitting. Of waiting. Of pondering old habits half-returned to, and new habits not yet fully formed. 

A day, not for the intensity of Good Friday lament, but of the numbness of month fourteen after your loved one has died, when the pain hasn't subsided, really, just turned into a steady, numbing throb. 

A day, not for the deep throes of the depressive breakdown, but for the six months out of the hospital, when people have stopped checking in on you but that sense of things not being put back together lingers on.

A day, not for the collapse of the church or the organization or the family, but for the weeks following, when nobody is quite sure what to do.

A day for failures and for fallow times. 

I didn't blog for Lent this year. Not a big deal, in the scheme of things. A very minor thing, to be sure. But still, a little commitment unmet, worth noting and pausing on for a second before moving on.

A prayer, today, for the fallow times: for the invisible restoration of the conditions necessary for future growth. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Sermon - "Just Hanging Out"

Well, now that I've been approved for licensing by my District Committee on Ministry, I suppose I'll share the sermon that I submitted to them for review. Thanks to Emma Claire Martin for filming and Rachel Ternes for reading scripture (Mark 6:30-44)...and all the rest of the AU Methodist Protestant Community for being awesome. 


“Just Hanging Out”
February 26, 2015
Kay Spiritual Life Center
American University


Fifty-five years ago, in January of 1960, four college guys were hanging out in their dorm room, just as they had been doing every night since they’d started as students at North Carolina A&T University. They referred to their nightly hangouts as “bull sessions” – unstructured time to bounce ideas off each other, reflect on life, and grow in friendship. On this particular night in 1960, one of those young men, by the name of Joseph McNeil, had something to get off his chest. Joseph had spent his winter break at home in New York, and while returning to school, he’d been denied service at the Greyhound bus station in Greensboro, NC.
            See, Joseph and his friends weren’t just college students. They were black men living in the Jim Crow South, facing all of the racism and segregation that entailed. So when Joseph shared his frustrating experience with discrimination on that night in January of 1960, the four men decided together that enough was enough. The very next day, on February 1, they went and sat at the “Whites Only” lunch counter of the Greensboro Woolworth’s. They sat there for half an hour, until the store closed.
            The next day, they went back, with twenty other college guys and four college women. And they kept coming back. Even as they faced heckling, harassment, violence, and arrests, their group grew and grew:
From four.
To twenty-five.
To hundreds.
To more than a thousand.
            Within two months, there were student sit-ins in 55 cities across 13 states. By July 26th, six months after Joseph McNeil shared his frustration with his friends during their late-night bull session, the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC was officially desegregated. And according to the International Civil Rights Center in Greensboro – which, by the way, is housed in the old Woolworth’s building:
By August 1961, more than 70,000 people had participated in sit-ins, which resulted in more than 3,000 arrests. Sit-ins at "whites only" lunch counters inspired subsequent kneel-ins at segregated churches, sleep-ins at segregated motel lobbies, swim-ins at segregated pools, wade-ins at segregated beaches, read-ins at segregated libraries, play-ins at segregated parks and watch-ins at segregated movies.[i]

And it all started with four college students. In a dorm room. Just hanging out.
            Don’t get me wrong. A movement like the sit-in movement required a massive amount of coordination, planning meetings, and strategy sessions. But isn’t it remarkable that such a massive movement had its inception in a late night dorm room conversation that, on other nights, might just as easily have been about sports, or school work, or – if it happened in 2015 – what was getting the most upvotes on YikYak.[ii] There is something important that happens when people share together in the unstructured time of friendship building, joke telling, and idea sharing – the kind of informal conversations that happen in the dorm room or dining hall or on the campus quad. Somehow, it’s when that kind of time gets interrupted by the pressing needs of the day that inspiration can strike and that the seeds of action can be planted.
            Tonight we heard a passage from the gospel according to Mark. Biblical scholars have often noted that in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is on the move. There’s a word used in Mark’s gospel that’s usually translated as “immediately” or “right away.” That word appears about 40 times in Mark, though we miss it because translators use so many different English words for the same Greek word: “At once the Spirit forced Jesus out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12). “Immediately on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and began teaching” (Mark 1:21).  “Suddenly, there in the synagogue, a person with an evil spirit began screaming” (Mark 1:23). “Right away the news about him spread throughout the entire region of Galilee.” That’s a lot of immediacy – and that’s just in the first half of the first chapter! Jesus, according to Mark’s gospel, is nothing if not a man of action.
            And yet in tonight’s passage Jesus seems a bit weary of all of the immediately-suddenly-right away-activity. The disciples have returned from their mission in the surrounding villages, casting out many demons, anointing many people with oil (as we’ll do later in this service), and healing. They are sharing stories with Jesus, telling him “everything they had had done and taught.” And the text says that they kept getting interrupted by people coming and going, so much so that there wasn’t even time for a snack. So Jesus says: “Come by yourselves to a secluded place and rest for awhile” (Mark 6:31).
            What follows is a story that’s familiar to anyone who grew up going to Sunday School, and probably even to a lot of people who didn’t. From just five loaves of bread and two fish, Jesus miraculously feeds five thousand people. It’s one of the few stories that appears in all four gospel narratives. Matthew even tells it twice. And each time this story is recorded, it’s preceded by Jesus taking his disciples and withdrawing from the crowds, from all the frenzied activity of healing and preaching. Perhaps, in the midst of the stressful and dangerous work of being a disciple, Jesus felt that some unstructured time was needed. Time to share stories, to encourage each other, to rest. Maybe even time to tell a few jokes. Time, you might say, for just hanging out.
Of course, Jesus’ planned time of seclusion and rest doesn’t quite work out. Word gets out, Mark tells us, and there’s a hungry crowd waiting for Jesus and the disciples when they arrive at their retreat spot. And yet I find it remarkable that even Mark’s action-oriented, always-on-the-move, immediately-at once-suddenly Jesus finds it necessary to look for some time alone with his friends. I imagine that, even as they “departed in a boat by themselves for a deserted place,” as the text tells us, they continued to spend time together, hearing about each other’s journeys, sharing frustrations and joys, getting to know each other better.
We aren’t given any details about what Jesus and his disciples talked about during this time together. And I don’t know much about what those four college guys – whose late-night dorm room conversation sparked a movement – talked about on all the other nights that they spent hanging out. I assume that often their conversation turned to their experiences as African American men living in a city ruled by Jim Crow. I imagine it was no accident that they allowed their time together to be interrupted by their calling to enact social change. But I also imagine that they talked about all sorts of other things, school and relationships and family.
So I wonder: What if there’s a necessary connection between informal conversation among friends and the ability to respond with passion and determination to the interruptions of injustice and human need? What if that’s why the gospel writers tell us that Jesus withdrew with his disciples prior to this miraculous feeding of the multitudes? What if there is something important, even for the miracle-working Jesus, about unstructured time? Something that allows for transformation and healing to occur, instead of burnout and bitterness? What if there is a link between sharing a meal together and being able to feed the hungry?
What if there is something very, very important – something very faithful, very spiritual – about just hanging out?
Now, American University is a place that prides itself on activity. Last year, the Princeton Review rated AU as #4 in the country for Most Politically Active Students.[iii] There are a lot of things happening here, events and meetings, internship fairs and job interviews, teach-ins and protests. And many of these things have an air of urgency about them. You need to get an internship – at once. We need to respond to this international situation – immediately. When you graduate, you’ll need to find a job – right away.
You can get a lot done that way. And often, situations of injustice and human need really do call for urgent response. And yet, I worry. I worry that in the midst of all of the frantic activity, all of the urgent doing, we can forget how important it is to just be with each other. Even here, within the United Methodist-Protestant Community, it’s tempting to over-program ourselves, to pack our calendars with organizing and events and agendas and planning meetings.
Don’t hear me wrong. I love that you all want to do so many good things. I love that you put to shame all the shallow stereotypes about lazy Millennials that get strewn over various media outlets. And you can’t do that without planning meetings and agenda items. But I guarantee you that when you look back over your college experience, the most transformative aspect of your time here will not be in any single event or conference or activist campaign. What you will miss the most about this place is the time you spend just hanging out with each other – in the dining hall after the our weekly planning meeting; on the floor of the chapel after a worship service; in dorm rooms and apartments and out on the quad.
Like Jesus and the disciples withdrawing together before the miraculous feeding, unstructured time for informal conversation is not to be confused with apathy or a denial of the urgent problems of the world. I’m not talking about sitting alone in your room binge-watching House of Cards. I’m talking about spending time together, steadily building friendship and listening to each other’s stories. It’s what we call Christian fellowship. When we do that, we are somehow preparing ourselves to be faithfully interrupted by injustice and human need. We are tending the seedbed out of which transformative action may grow. And in so doing, we are reminded that as followers of Jesus, what we are seeking for and praying for and hoping for is not, ultimately, the next big activity or the next successful event. What we are seeking for and praying for and hoping for is something so much more than that. It’s summed up in the words of our communion liturgy, which we will share together in just a few moments: “until Christ comes in final victory, and we feast together at the heavenly banquet.”[iv]
We’re looking forward to a feast. To a party. There’s going to be great food – way more than a few pieces of fish and some bread. And you know what? I bet we won’t need a set agenda for our conversations there. I bet we’re going to get to just spend time with each other, singing and laughing and sharing stories.
Funny, isn’t it: that the great, hopeful vision of our faith seems to have less to do with hectic activity than with – well – just hanging out.

[i] This quote, and the information preceding it, may be found on the website of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, NC:
[ii] YikYak is a social media site that is popular on college campuses. 
[iii] From the American University website:
[iv] “A Service of World and Table I,” The United Methodist Hymnal, pg. 10.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

"First there is an ending, then a beginning" -- an Ash Wednesday reflection

"First there is an ending, then a beginning, and an important empty or fallow time in between." -- William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes


"From dust you've come. To dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel."
Some of you already know this: I've been working on a directed study this semester about campus ministry as a resource for life transitions. One of the books I've read for this project is by William Bridges. It's a bit more self-help-y than the things I usually like to read, but it has some solid insights, chief among them that transitions begin with an ending. Bridges suggests that one tool for navigating the inevitable transitions in our lives is to reflect on how we deal with endings. 

"From dust you've come. To dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel."

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the church season of Lent. It's an odd day -- people reflecting on their own mortality and walking around with smudges on their foreheads does not seem like the kind of thing people would still do in 2015. 

If it's the kind of thing that you're into, you go to a service, and confess your sins, and then a priest or a pastor smears ash on your forehead and says:

"From dust you've come. To dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel."

You might think that means, "You're going to die, so admit your sins so that you don't go to hell."

But actually, it's more like: "You are human. You are mortal. You are prone to error. Believe the good news that you are loved, that you are forgiven, that your soft, vulnerable flesh is beautiful in its transience." 

"First there is an ending, then a beginning, and an important empty or fallow time in between."
"From dust you've come. To dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel."

Lent is 40 days, not including Sundays. People often "give something up" for Lent -- a few years ago, I blogged about things I wasn't going to give up on for Lent -- while others take on a spiritual practice.

I'm going to blog again, this Lent. This time, about transitions. About endings, and how we begin with endings.

About how I've dealt with endings in the past, and how I'd like to deal with them in the future.

About some of the big endings coming up in my life, the endings that will begin new and very exciting beginnings.

"From dust you've come. To dust you shall return."

We begin Lent today, with palms burnt down into ashes, smudged onto our foreheads to remind us that we are human.

Because we begin with endings.