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.