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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 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



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.”


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:
      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.