The Lord Has Come: Lace Up Your Boots (A Sermon for Christmas Sunday)

Army-boots

22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses,Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”, 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
    you may now dismiss[c] your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31     which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
    and the glory of your people Israel.”

33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Luke 2:22-35

We’re now, officially, in the Christmas season on the Christian calendar. As with Easter, we Christians don’t settle for just one day in which to remember and celebrate the highest and holiest events in our shared history: we get a whole season. But because of the way that we observe cultural Christmas – doing most of our shopping and decorating and singing and eating and partying in the lead up to Christmas, during Advent – by this point, December 27, most of us are done. Right? Some of us are ready to get that tree down today. Get it out of the way. Clean up the mess, stop singing those Christmas carols, move on. We’re sort of of hungover from Christmas.

That’s one reason that it’s a challenge to preach on the Sunday after Christmas.

But this year, for me at least, something else is at work. Our cultural Christmas – and indeed, much of our “Christian” Christmas, the way we observe this holiday in our churches – feels toothless. It feels disconnected from real life. What is this season about, anyway? If you ask the person on the street (who in America, statistically, is likely to identify as Christian) what Christmas means, what answer will you get?  Family, generosity, being nicer to people than you usually are?  Maybe if you ask for the “religious” version of the meaning you’ll get to a virgin, and a baby, and angels, and shepherds, and peace on earth, goodwill to men!

Can we admit that it sometimes feels like empty sentimentality, like we’re drumming up good feelings and talking about this story as if something dramatic and wonderful is happening – and yet it doesn’t feel like it connects to the world in which we live?

Perhaps the sentimentality is unavoidable in a story involving a baby. Because who doesn’t love a baby? They’re sweet and cuddly and adorable! But is the world really different, because of that baby?

We lit candles in the Advent season for hope, love, joy and peace. But do we have those things, really, because Jesus has come?

Three years ago, right in the middle of the Advent season, the Sandy Hook shooting happened and 26 people lost their lives – most of them young children. I imagine some of those families had nativities on display in their homes that December, celebrating the Prince of Peace, and then they lost their children to an act of violence. Last year, December 16, terrorists attacked a school in Peshwar, Pakistan and killed 148 people; almost all of them children. And as we know, it didn’t end there. In 2015, in Nigeria, Kenya, Yemen, Syria, Cameroon, Iraq, Egypt, Russia, and France – globally, terrorism took its toll. And here, too, we were not immune to horrifying acts of violence, in Charleston and Chatanooga, Roseburg, OR and Colorado Springs – and in San Bernardino…

And that’s only looking at 2015 through one filter. We’ve also been transfixed by the plight of millions of refugees seeking sanctuary, by continuing racial tension in this country, by our political candidates saying one terrible thing after another. That poison seemed to spread like a virus and from people that I know – Christians that I know, personally -I’ve heard the most appalling and hateful rhetoric directed at the poor, refugees, immigrants, liberals, conservatives; against sexual, ethnic and religious minorities. I have lived half a century of Christmases, and more than ever before I understand why, in the middle of the Civil War, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the words:  “And in despair I bowed my head. There is no peace on earth, I said. For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

If we see the birth of Christ as a sweet, sentimental lovely story about the birth of a baby who (theoretically) was supposed to make everything better and sort things out, this post-Advent season can seem almost embarrassing. It can feel like escapism, like waking from a dream.  We sang, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” – and “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” – and he did, he came.  The question is, what difference does it make?

And so we come to Simeon in the temple. Mary is following the law that requires her to be present herself for purification, with a sacrifice, forty days after the birth of a son. Mary and Joseph are actually going beyond the letter of the law in presenting their firstborn son to the Lord in the temple, perhaps echoing Hannah’s dedication of Samuel to the Lord’s service. And it’s here that they meet Simeon who has been waiting, and waiting, and waiting to see the Messiah. We know almost nothing about this man except that at some point he’s received a promise that he won’t die until it he has seen Israel’s Messiah – and now, at last, in this forty day old baby, Simeon is seeing the salvation of God. Simeon prayers this beautiful prayer of Thankgiving, which in Latin is often called the “Nunc Dimittis” – “Now Dismiss”.  “Now, Lord, dismiss your servant….” or in other words, “You can let me die happy now, Lord.” But Simeon has something to say to Mary, too, and it’s not happy.  Not sentimental. Not sweet.“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against,  so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

This is a warning. The coming of the Messiah will not be like flipping a switch and suddenly the world is right, and uncomplicated, and everyone loves each other and nothing bad is going to happen. No, Mary, this child is going to causing the rising and falling of many. He will be spoken against. He will expose people for who they really are. And you, Mary, are going to experience great pain as this child’s mother. Buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

But I don’t think this surprised Mary. Do you remember her song, The Magnigicat?   The song she sang after learning that she would give birth to the Messiah?  There’s a reason that the theologian Scott McKnight nicknamed her Incendiary Mary.  Listen to part of The Magnificat:

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.

The Magnficat is a song of social upheaval – anticipating the upside down Kingdom that the Messiah will bring in which the proud, the powerful, and the well to do are brought low. And you know what? When the privileged are threatened they tend to resist, to fight back, to use their power to try to hold on to what they have.  And so Simeon warns Mary. “Some will rise, others will fall, your son will make enemies, and it’s not going to be easy.”

Not sweet. Not sentimental. I don’t think Mary was a weak woman in any way, our portraits of her to the contrary. The incarnation required tough virtues, and I suspect that Mary’s strength of character is part of what qualified her for the job.

Over and over in the birth narratives we see how subversive this Messiah is, how much trouble he is going to stir up with the status quo. He is born in a situation that causes scandal – to a woman not yet married; to a couple who are virtually homeless, begging for shelter at the time of his birth. The angel army of God comes to announce the news of his arrival and they come to shepherds.  SHEPHERDS! Shepherds were seen as dirty, disrespected outcasts in Judaism.  They did the work no one else wanted to do, but everyone needed done (perhaps like many of our farm laborers today). and it’s to them that the angels appear. Can you imagine how offensive that idea must have been to religious leaders, that the angels of God would come to shepherds and not to the professionals?

The next worshippers that the narratives give us are the Magi.  Gentiles!  Pagans, probably!

And by the time that those Magi are traveling to see Jesus, this baby has already made his first political enemy, Herod, who rightly sees this infant as a threat and wants to kill him.

Any notion that we have that the birth of Jesus made everything sweet and lovely for either his family or his people, the Jews, is utterly destroyed by what happens next. After being warned in a dream, Jesus and his family flee from Herod and become political refugees in Egypt.  Our Savior was a child refugee.  But countless other little boys were unable to flee and died at the hands of those in power as Herod sought to kill Jesus. The slaughter of the innocents.

Matthew 2:18 says,“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning.  Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more. “

I posted that scripture online after the Sandy Hook shooting, and again after the school shooting in Pakistan. In some ways it seems the world has changed so little. The powerful still do whatever they need to do to hold on to what they have, and the innocents still suffer. I thought of the passage again this year, looking at the photos of little Aylan Kurdi – the 3 year old refugee whose body washed up on a Greek beach, representing so many innocents whose names we will never know.

But of course, we know that the story did not end with Jesus as a child refugee. He survived, he grew up, left his home, and one day Jesus walked into that same temple in Jerusalem and read this passage from Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me 
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind, 
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

And then Jesus went out and proved that he meant what he and said, and he did it right up until those in power killed him. Then, in the greatest plot twist in human history, Jesus conquered death itself.

Before ascending to his Father,  Jesus told his followers to do what he had done. All of it. Bring the same good news to the poor, the captive, the oppressed, the blind. Live in the upside down kingdom that will comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Be despised, mocked, rejected, hunted – don’t be surprised if some of you get killed for my sake. But don’t worry, because I conquered my death, and I’ll conquer YOUR death, too. And lo, I am with you ALWAYS – even to the end of the age.

Friends, there is nothing sweet or sentimental about that, nothing that denies the ugliness of a fallen world. And yet that is the gift of the incarnation. The incarnation is Emmanuel,  God-with-us. God-forever-with-us in the battle against sin, spiritual blindness, bondage, hatred, destruction and death itself. It is not a battle for the weak. It absolutely requires those Christmas virtues of hope, love, joy and peace – but radically redefined into something unbreakable. Hope born of our rock-solid conviction that what we see now is not all that is; that history is leading to the restoration of all that God created; love – even enemy love – that sees the image of God in everyone, that sees every person as worthy of the death Christ died for us. Love that is, as Dostoyevsky said, “labor and fortitude”. Joy that is rooted in being known and loved by God, in being sure that we belong to Him, in believing that even our suffering can be made into something beautiful by Him.  And peace that is not simply something we possess but something that we struggle to give, to create in the world around us. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons and daughters of God.”

In the world we live in, we need defiant hope, love, joy, and peace. We look straight into the face of the world’s evil and say, “I refuse to surrender to this. I will not be shaped by this but by the character of my king, the one who came for me. I will fight until my last breath to bring good news to all people.”

We are the citizens of a Kingdom that is now and not yet. It was established with the coming of the King; it will be fulfilled at his return – but in the meantime, we may feel sometimes that we live behind enemy lines (because we do), or that we are being asked to live upside down lives in comparison to the values of the world around us (because we are). And that’s hard. Not simply hard as in difficult (thought it can be), but hard as in firm, sturdy, unshakable…defiant.

As I prepared this sermon I asked the Lord to help me find an example of that sort of defiant love, or hope, or joy, or peace – a practical example from the world around me. There are many examples from Christian history, of course – of missionaries and martyrs; of those who fought against slavery, and for civil rights, who served widows and orphans.  But something happened this past week, and I read about it in the news, and thought – this is a perfect example! Except for an ironic twist.

Many of you will have already heard this story. Somalia is the home to an extremist Islamist group called Al Shabbab. It was Al Shabbab that attacked Garissa University in Kenya, killing 147 people, specifically sorting out Christians from Muslim students and targeting the Christians for death. This is typical for Al Shabbab, and in fact, one strategy they use often is to cross the border from Somalia into Kenya and ambush buses traveling along the border – and then they will separate the Christian passengers from the Muslims, killing the Christians. In one incident, 36 passengers from one bus were killed.  It’s so common that buses often have police escorts these days.  But on this day, Dec. 21, the police escort had broken down and a bus kept going in this dangerous border region. Al Shabbab militants ambushed the bus, boarded it, and the militants attempted to separate the passengers into Christians and Muslims. But THIS time, the passengers didn’t comply.  More notably, the Muslim passengers didn’t comply.  Here’s a quote from one of the  Muslim men who was on the bus:  We even gave some non-Muslims our religious attire to wear in the bus so that they would not be identified easily. We stuck together tightly,” Abdi said. “The militants threatened to shoot us, but we still refused and protected our brothers and sisters. Finally they gave up and left but warned that they would be back.”

Many of the Muslims on the bus were women who shared their hijabs with non-Muslims women.  One of the women even reported saying to the militants, “Either kill us all, or leave us all alone.”

That is a demonstration of defiant love for neighbor – and a demonstration of practical peacemaking, of refusing to let the powerful write the rules for how the world will operate. Not on this day, not in this place, not on this bus.

And does it ruin the story that this act of neighbor love was performed by Muslims, and not Christians? I don’t think so. The story of God is full of unexpected people doing God’s work. From Ruth, to Rahab, to the Magi themselves and the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ parable.   Remember that the Samaritans were considered idolatrous half-breeds by the Jews, and the Samaritan is the hero of that story. I think those Muslims gave us a beautiful example of God-inspired, tough-as-nails love. The kind of love that brought God himself into human skin to suffer and die for us. The kind of love that gave Mary and Joseph the courage to birth and nurture the Son of God in the face of scandal, homelessness, and persecution. The kind of love that Jesus said would mark his followers.

I think again of what that passenger on the bus said, “We stuck together tightly,” “The militants threatened to shoot us, but we still refused and protected our brothers and sisters. Finally they gave up and left but warned that they would be back.”

As we leave another Advent season and celebrate the coming of our king, that’s a pretty good description of how we can live. We stick together – not just Christians with Christians, Americans with Americans – but treating all of those created by God as worthy of our care, of our risk. We refuse the demands of a fallen world that we see only us & them, that we place protecting ourselves and what’s ours above the good of our neighbor. We refuse hopelessness, despair, hatred, bigotry, rage and fear. Until our King returns evil will always threaten, the powerful will always try to have their way – but we know that the baby in Bethlehem really did change everything. For starters, he blew the gates off the kingdom of God – that’s how we got it.  He turned the world upside down, conquered death itself, and remains with us – God with us – God forever with us – through the Spirit who gives us strength to live tough-as-nails hope, love, joy and peace.

And so Longfellow, in the middle of the Civil War, could go on to write:   “I heard the bells roll loud and deep, God is not dead nor doth he sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail – with peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

The Lord has come, and the powerful won’t like it. The Lord has come, and it’s not going to be easy. The Lord has come, prepare to be tested. The Lord has come. Buckle up. Lace up your boots. Be strong, be courageous. You are soldiers of his Kingdom, sent to liberate a world that is still behind enemy lines.

Joy to the world, the Lord has come. May you live a defiant Christmas story.

 

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American Christianity’s no-cost discipleship

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A Syrian refugee and her newborn, photo by Russel Watkins, Dept. for International Development

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, leader in the German Confessing Church

Today one of my Facebook friends compared the Middle Eastern refugees to snakes. Not a few of the refugees, mind you, but all of them – complete with side by side pictures of a writhing pile of rattlesnakes and a crowd of refugees. When I tried to engage with him he suggested I post my address so that “they” (I guess he and the 165 people who had liked his status) could send refugees to my house. Frankly, I don’t care if refugees have my address, but I’m not offering it to 166 American bigots.

This friend (who is no longer my Facebook friend) identifies as a Christian. He called 11 million men, women and children snakes, and he will go to church this next Sunday and pray to the same God to whom I pray. I am not convinced that we share a common faith.

Comparing refugees to snakes may be the worst thing I’ve seen, but not by much. Over the last few days I’ve seen Christians say, over and over, that the refugees are not our problem, might have diseases, might be terrorists, might cost us money, only want to use us, and besides, “They’re not even Christians.”

There is room to discuss vetting and funding and logistical concerns.  No one that I know is suggesting that we eliminate all security measures and hang out at the airport with “ISIS welcome here” signs.  But these days, even suggesting that Christians acknowledge the humanity of other humans is too much for some people.

A few months ago I saw the leaders of countless churches rising to fight against same sex marriage based on a handful of scriptures. There are hundreds of places in the Bible that address caring for the poor, refugees, widows, orphans, foreigners, and (because Jesus was nothing if not inclusive) our enemies. But where are those same Christian leaders? Where’s all that zeal for the Bible now?

Church, for the love of God, BE THE CHURCH. Jesus died for us, yes, but first he spent three years teaching us what it means to follow him and we have made obedience to him optional. We value our comfort and wealth more than the lives of our fellow humans.  We have come to believe that discipleship should cost us nothing.   This isn’t the gospel: it’s some syncretistic monstrosity – the Church of the American Way of Life.

I am starting to think that America needs a new Barmen Declaration, a new Confessing Church, and a whole lot more people reading Bonhoeffer.

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What, you too?

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“Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another: “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .” C.S. Lewis

I bought a t-shirt at the Storyline Conference.  It’s a great t-shirt:  a calming shade of blue, a very soft cotton.  I love it already.  I also love what is says:  “Your story matters.”

I spent days at the conference plotting out the major turning points in my life, examining my roles and relationships, learning how to craft a better story.  All of this was inspiring, but there was a big question below the surface, pressing in on me at every moment:  what next?  I’ve spent several months living with that question.  Having lost my minister’s license, how do I proceed in ministry?  God called me, the body that has been given the authority to affirm that call has said “No”-  so what  now?

I still don’t know the answer, which is fine.  Really, it’s fine.  I mean, you can’t expect a three day conference to sort out your entire life, can you?  Maybe I wanted God to split the heavens and show up with a five point plan for me, but deep down I knew that wasn’t realistic.

Nevertheless, I did get a revelation of sorts.  It came when I put on that t-shirt.  “You story matters,” my t-shirt said.  But why, specifically?  How?  If I’ve been called to the care of souls (which I still believe, license or not), how does my story aid me in that endeavor?

So standing there in front of the mirror in my new shirt, reading it backwards, I suddenly thought, “My story matters not because it’s unique,  but because it’s not unique.”

Boom.

Right?

I mean, I understand that in its sum total my story is probably fairly unusual.  I don’t know a lot of other homeschooling feminist film critic defrocked pastor-moms.  But the pieces of my story?  Not a one is unique to me.  And here’s the good part:  that’s what makes them useful.  That’s what makes them meaningful, in the most literal sense.  All language is a social phenomenon, and certainly that includes our stories.  In the play Shadowlands, playwright William Nicholson has C.S. Lewis say, “We read to know that we are not alone.” We write, I think, for the same reason:  for connection.

“Tell me your deep, dark secret; and I will tell you mine.  Is that your deep dark secret?  Oh, well, never mind.” – Vigilantes of Love

I don’t know if I’ve discovered some profound  insight, or something that everyone else already knows.  Either way, it feels new to me.  If I was the only mother who had ever failed spectacularly, why bother admitting to it?  If I was the only one who had ever strained against gendered theology, if every other woman was content with submission and domesticity, why bring it up?   I tell the truth about my life because experience has taught me that there is always someone out there who needs to know that they are not alone.  Do you want to know that someone understands something of your anxiety and depression, your crises of faith, body image problems, sexual shame, ADD, general rage against the machine attitude?  I’m your gal.

But that list of “issues” is not all of me, I realize.  And maybe I don’t talk about the rest often enough because I’m allergic to sounding like Pollyanna.  It’s not simply my pain that I have to share, but hope that’s come out of pain – because (to be a bit cliché) I’m not who I want to be, but thank God I’m not who I used to be.  My story includes significant growth as a parent, finding my voice as a woman in the church, relief from grief and shame, channeling my anger into advocacy, and….well, I still live with the ADD, as anyone who knows me well can affirm.   My story is an ongoing mixture of challenges and change, and I want to offer it not because it’s special but because it’s universal.  Because your story, too, is one of challenges and change.

Maybe, reader-friend, if we could meet for coffee this afternoon we would find the places were our stories intersect.  And I could say, “Me too!  You’re not alone.  This can get better. Let’s do this thing together.”

“One thing I do know:  I was blind, but now I see.” – John 9:25

For now, aside from any credentials I may or may not receive, this is what I know about my ministry.  I am useful insofar as I am willing to share my life with others so that they won’t feel alone; so that they will feel less ashamed; so that they won’t give up.  My story contains a lot of crap.   Also a lot of grace, more love than I will ever deserve, some really funny stuff, and increasing amounts of hope.

I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to go around being emotionally naked, or that we should all be constantly spilling our guts.  That can be a shtick, and Lord save me from that shtick!  Even vulnerability can be faked.  But I don’t know…it seems to me that all that’s been stripped away in recent years has brought me to this place:  not much reputation to protect, not much to lose, with a hunger to connect over true stories.  Yours. Mine.  Flawed central characters.  Crazy plot twists.  The occasional villain.  Stories leading some place good, stories that haven’t yet reached their ends.  And always, always stories that allow us to say to each other, “What?  You, too?”

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First, Compassion: Compassion Fatigue Can Come Later

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Mohamed Azakir/World Bank

We’re exhausted.  My last post was written in the days immediately following the SCOTUS same sex marriage decision, and it seems the entire summer has been one long stream of public controversies, celebrity scandals, tragedies, disasters and culture war battles.  This week alone our social media feeds have been filled with dead police officers, Kim Davis, Lila Perry, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, destruction of historical sights by ISIS, and the latest outrage quotes from Trump.  We are worn out with arguments and laments and calls to action.

But in the middle of all of of this noise, there were photos of a tiny boy in velcro sneakers, lying face down in the sand.

Aylan Kurdi insisted upon our attention.  Thank God, after the first few hours we began to see photos showing Aylan in life, smiling next to his brother, Galip – who also died in the waters of the Mediterranean, along with their mother, Rehen.  Suddenly the stories we’ve heard about this refugee crisis, the numbers we’ve ignored – all of this white noise behind our outrage over dead lions and marriage licenses and Ashley Madison –  it had faces and names.

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Mohamed Azakir/World Bank

But this is how social media works:  in the past two days I’ve seen dozens of stories about Aylan Kurdi, and dozens more about the refugee crisis.  It is front and center, which means it is momentarily inescapable.  We are grieving and distressed and horrified together, and all of this emotion is our collective catharsis.  Soon we will have had enough of thinking about it and we will play a subtle trick on ourselves.  We will believe that our thinking and feeling was actually doing something.  A few days of reading statistics and weeping over photos will serve as what we owe to Aylan and Galip and Rehen, and the millions of other refugees clinging to leaky rafts, crowding train stations, squeezing through barbed wire fences.

“I can’t take it.  I can’t think about this anymore,” we’ll say, and most of us will experience compassion fatigue without having actually done anything.  I know this cycle because I go through it over and over again.

UNHCR/D. Kashavelov

UNHCR/D. Kashavelov

Please, if you are like me – quick to feel and slow to act – can we do better this time?  Can we do something in response to the largest refugee crisis of my lifetime?  Can we take seriously the brotherhood of man, the idea of loving our neighbors – beautiful notions that mean nothing, nothing, nothing if we are never moved to act.

Others  have already done the work of finding ways we can help, and I will pass a few of those along to you.   You may not be able to do very much, I may  not be able to do very much, but we can do something.  Let’s pay attention a bit longer; let’s stave off the very valid excuses until we have performed at least one small act to relieve the suffering of our brothers and sisters.  The compassion fatigue can wait.

Mohamed Azakir/World Bank

Mohamed Azakir/World Bank

Churches of the Nazarene (my denomination) are caring for Syrian refugees in both Jordan and Syria.  To learn how to donate toward their work, go here.

My friend Cris sent me the link to a fundraiser for a Syrian Christian community (in one of the remaining safe zones) that is caring for 800 refugee families.

Ann Voskamp has written an extraordinary post on the refugee crisis, including five ways we can act.

Catholic Relief Services does good work, and is serving refugees both in the Middle East and in Europe.

Finally, here’s a whitehouse.gov petition asking our federal government to commit to the resettlement of 65,000 Syrian refugees (we’ve accepted less than 1,000 in the last four years).

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At Pride, in the name of love

pridefest1I was at St Louis Pride this weekend.

Saturday night, as I felt more and more anxious about being “outed” as a Pride attendee, I decided I needed to write about it; face my fear head on.

I could tell you that I was there in  my capacity as a pastor (or pastor-without-papers, as I think of  myself as the moment), and that would be true.  God told me to go several months ago, and I kept trying to figure out a way to really represent Him.  Carry a loving sign?  Hand out some kind of scriptural trinket?  Counter-protest the protesters?  I never came up with a good plan, though,  and that was part of the reason I was anxious that first night.

“How will I justify this?  How will I explain being here to the people who would freak out over me being here?  I’m not doing anything special.  I’m not being especially Jesusy right now.  I’m sitting on the grass listening to music, surrounded by – to be frank – a lot of gay people.  This is exactly the sort of thing that gets me in trouble with other Christians.”

My friend Tina was with me at Pride.  She’s a free-spirited Jesus-loving hippie who has no concerns about what the church folks will think of her hanging out at a Pride Fest.  She was delighted to be there, basking in the general laid-back, accepting attitude.  Tina is not gay, but she still somehow seemed to be in her element.  As for me….I was struggling a bit.  It wasn’t culture shock or disapproval.  It was just that creeping fear of being found out by my church, my extended family, my homeschool friends.  What would they say if they knew where I was?

And so here I am, making a decision not to hide where I’ve been this weekend.  And what’s more, while I hoped that God would use me as a gracious presence at Pride the reality is that I received far more grace than I was able to give.

What did I see?  Lots of color.  People of all ages.  Many, many families.  A two hour parade.  Lots of dancing.   Very few things (but admittedly a few) that curled my hair.

pridefest2What did I do?  I ate Greek salad, clapped and waved during the parade, collected free swag (mostly beads),  sat on the grass and listened to music, danced a little, did a lot of people watching.

At lunch on Sunday, Tina and I shared a picnic table with two men named Anthony and Mike.  Anthony is married to a different Mike, but his husband had to work and so Anthony was doing Pride with his best friend.  Both Anthony and Mike were friendly and cheerful and a little bit silly.   Anthony mentioned that his 18 year old daughter was at Pride for the first time, and he was trying to keep his drinking under control for her sake.  “She goes to church with her mother,” he said, “so she’s getting a lot of messages from that.  But she knows that we love her.”  Mike interjected to tell us that Anthony’s ex-wife still think he can “pray the gay away”.

Tina and I were standing in a line when a young man turned around and said, “You two are gorgeous, I want you to know.  And you’re inspiring.  I want my boyfriend and I to be just like you someday.”  We were puzzled by this, and Tina laughed and said, “Well, we’re just friends.”  The boyfriend spoke up and said,  “How long have you been friends?”
“Two years.”
“Really?  You give off a vibe like you’ve known each other for a long time!”  I replied, “It does feel like we’ve known each other for a long time.”  Then I basked in the glow of being called gorgeous.

We spent a long time sitting on a curb listening to cover bands, watching the crowd in the street.  One 30-something lesbian couple caught our attention with their exuberant dancing.  They must have noticed us, too, swaying back and forth as we sat on the curb.   One of the women ran over and grabbed both Tina and I, pulling us onto the street to dance.   And so we joined the crowd and danced along to a medley of Michael Jackson songs.  At the end of the dancing there were hugs all around.

What I saw this weekend was mostly people relaxing and having fun.  Yes, some people were drinking too much and behaving accordingly – but that’s true at Cardinals’ games and wedding receptions, too.  Daytime Pride, at least, was far more family-friendly than I expected.  The mood was jubilant (in part because of this past week’s SCOTUS decision, I’m sure), and it really did seem like a place where every age, every race, every body type, every style was accepted.

People want to be accepted, you know.

At Pride, straight couples and gays and lesbians and trans folks sing along together to a cover bands version of “Don’t Stop Believing”.  Children get their faces painted and teenagers play volleyball and it all seems so benign, so much like every other public gathering in these parts.  So why was I afraid?

This post is not about sexual ethics or politics or court decisions.  I think religious pluralism requires that we practice our various expressions of faith alongside each other without imposing religious convictions on each other.  For me, that means that a distinction between civil and religious marriage has always made sense.   But I’ve said that before.

This post is about me wanting the relief of not hiding, of speaking the truth – even if the truth is just that I went to Pride because I heard God calling me to go.  But in the end, I didn’t go to preach.  I just went to be with people.  I laughed at Anthony’s jokes, and cheered for the band in the parade and hugged friends I ran into and enjoyed the event just like everyone else was enjoying the event.  I think I felt safer when I imagined somehow having a “purpose” that would protect me from criticism.  But I’m letting that go.  Many of the people I was with have never had that protection, and never will.   I’m afraid to admit I went to a festival, but they’ve lived with fear of rejection (or worse) all their lives.  We Christians often talk about being “above reproach” and while I get the point, I think we sometimes just like to be “above”.  I am tired to trying to be above.  I want to just be among, for a change.

What else can I say?  I love my Jesus, who befriended everyone.  And I love that he’s pulled me out of my insular shell and into places I would never have gone before.  I was wrong in the past for thinking that people who are gay are any more screwed up than the rest of this screwed up human race.  I’m sorry that I ever said one word that made them feel less precious to God than I am.  Right now, I have nothing but love.

By the way, I did have a sign, and that’s basically what it said (with credit to Derek Webb).  I held it for a while in the parade, and then set it down so that I could clap.  It blew away from me, across the barricade and landed face up on the street.  The sweet young man to my right said, “Isn’t that your sign?”
“It’s okay, I was getting tired of holding it.”  And ironically, I think more participants in the parade read the sign on the ground than had noticed it in my hand.  It was just a disembodied message now, but I hope it was exactly what someone needed to hear.

I was wrong.  I’m sorry.  I love you.

pridefest3

Posted in Christian Ministry, Christianity, church, homosexuality, spirituality | 13 Comments

17 thoughts on not being a pastor

stopsign1.  I never much liked the title anyway, so that’s lucky.

2.  When I first heard that I might not be relicensed this year I was panicked, angry, hurt, and desperate to get the Credentials Board to change their mind.  By the time the door closed firmly behind me (yesterday) I knew it was in everyone’s best interest for us to part ways.  So thank you for that, God.  I almost feel relieved right now (though I know that grief is on its way).

3.  You can explain and explain, but sometimes people are just not going to see things the way that you do.  That doesn’t reflect negatively on you or them.  It’s just reality.

4.  I am very slow in learning #3.

5. I’m much stronger than I used to be and quite capable of advocating for myself.  Yay, me.

6. To be honest, I  wish I’d made a career plan at some point.  I  mean, another career plan.

7. When God asked me to give my life to His church, I thought He meant in the church.  Frankly, though, I don’t feel like my ministry in the local church has been very fruitful.  The most meaningful work I’ve done in the last several years has happened outside the church walls.  So maybe, like John Wesley, the world is my parish.  Or at least the coffee shop, or Denny’s, or the movie theater, or the internet.  That’s not so bad, is it?

road  closed8. I keep telling myself that the classes I’ve already finished were not wasted.  Ordained or not, I’ve gained a lot valuable information.  And if anyone has a job for someone who who has completed most of the course load for ordination in the Church of the Nazarene, I’m your gal!

9. I am, and will remain, a a church geek.  I still want a copy of Mildred Bangs Wynkoop’s “A Theology of Love”.  I will never stop wearing my “Female Theologians Rock” button.

10. I love my church, and I remain convinced that I fit somewhere in my denomination.  It’s still a big tent.  Unfortunately for me, ordination comes through a much smaller and regionally-determined tent.

11.  I have nothing to hide, so if you want to know why I wasn’t relicensed, I’ll tell you.  But ask me privately (in person , in an email or Facebook message, whatever).  I’m afraid if I try to explain it in a post I’ll either misrepresent the Credentials Board’s perspectives or my own.  I assure you that it’s nothing scandalous; just irreconcilable differences.

12.  If you care about me at all, please don’t use me as an excuse to bash the Church, or I’ll just feel super guilty and compelled to rush to Her defense.  #askmehowIknow

13.  Everything that has happened feels, to use a “Law and Order” phrase, like the fruit of the poisonous tree.  The extra scrutiny from the Credentials Board started with the false accusations I wrote about last summer.  It certainly rankles my sense of justice that someone lied about me in order to prevent me from being ordained, and now that all the dominoes have fallen he’s getting his way.  I remind myself often that I can’t frame this as winning and losing….but it’s not easy.  You guys, I’m struggling a lot with forgiveness.  It’s so hard when the other person won’t acknowledge that they’ve wronged you, and some of the people around you diminish what’s been done, and you feel like “the wicked prosper” while you’re flattened, and humiliated and feel like damaged goods, and there’s no real recourse.

14.  That got a little dark.  Sorry.  I know Jesus understands being betrayed by a friend, so that helps.  And I trust that eventually this pain has to dull.

open road15.  Here’s what I won’t miss about being a licensed pastor:  being afraid to speak.  Maybe  my compulsive, possibly pathological, need to share what’s in my head would have inevitably gotten me in trouble – even without the poison tree.  Pastors are expected to be very, very careful and to not admit to too many questions.  And I am a fool who rushes in and has tons of questions.  I want to tell my truth without fear again.  I look forward to that.

16.  I know that even sharing this much will be considered bad form and un-Christian by some people.  We have this idea that we protect the church by promoting the good stuff and hiding the bad stuff, but I’m an increasingly bad hider.  In case you haven’t figured this out yet, I love the church.  I don’t tell my story to shame the church but because it’s my story.  And I want to tell it.

17.  I’m still crazy about Jesus, and I know He’s crazy about me.  He’s brought so many beautiful people into my  life in the last several years, so many rich experiences, and even though I have no idea what’s ahead I trust Him with it.  Somehow this is going to be okay.  I wanted you all to know what’s going on because some of you have been with me on this journey since I embraced God’s call.  I don’t know what’s next, but to quote Gungor (and my next tattoo) “This is not the end.”

Love, Sharon

Posted in Christian Ministry, Christianity, church, religion, spirituality | 8 Comments

Religious Freedom, Priorities and a Terrible Anniversary

freedom for all hoosiersMy thoughts are a bit scattered today.  I’ve been remembering.

Have you been paying attention to the news out of Indiana this week?  Gov. Pence just signed their Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law despite a loud outcry and threats of losses to the economy over what many perceive as granting the “right to discriminate”.  They may have a point, since the bill was proposed shortly after Indiana legalized same sex marriage, and the law effectively gives businesses the right to refuse service to gay customers on religious grounds.

But there’s more to religious freedom than this one cultural behemoth – same sex marriage – isn’t there?  I’ve been reading article after article on Indiana’s new law and on similar laws in 19 other states, and the federal law which preceded them all, signed into law by President Clinton in 1993.  Maybe, I kept thinking, these laws have real importance for protecting religious minorities.  Maybe we should be talking about that, about how to protect Sikhs and Muslims and Orthodox Jews, and all of the other groups in this country that are vulnerable to religious oppression.  Why must this be framed as the anti-gay bill?  Why must we always go straight to the narrative that tells us that Christians are out to get gays?

And then I was reminded of what happened just over a year ago.  March 26, 2014, World Vision – the massive Evangelical child sponsorship non-profit – reversed its decision to open hiring to gay Christians in same sex marriages.  That policy of openness had lasted only two days.  As soon as the decision to hire gays was announced a tsunami of criticism hit World Vision, with high profile Christian leaders accusing the organization of rejecting biblical authority and caving in to the “homosexual agenda”.  Richard Stearnes, the president of World Vision and a man who had devoted his life to serving the poor, was now a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  Within the first 24 hours the Assemblies of God had counseled its members to disassociate from the ministry.

And disassociate people did.  Before it was all over, World Vision had lost 10,000 child sponsorships (Update:  World Vision’s end of the year report  now calculates between 15,000-19,000 sponsorships lost due to the controversy).   Think about that:  thousands of Evangelicals weighed priorities in the balance and decided that the battle against same sex marriage was more important than feeding, clothing and educating children that Jesus might well have called “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine”.

I was heartsick and angry then, and I said so.  In a comment on a blog post I said that I was no longer comfortable calling myself an Evangelical because of episodes like this.  And to be clear, I was upset both by what was happening to innocent children and by what that said to our gay brothers and sisters.  I remember one gay Christian writing, “It’s as if thousands of people have just said, ‘We hate you so much we’d rather starve children than let you have a job in a Christian organization.'”

I know what will be said.  “This isn’t about hate, but about truth.  We are just trying to uphold traditional marriage.  We won’t compromise.  We may hate the sin, but we love the sinner.”

It felt like hate, even to me as an observer.  I’ve watched people rush to Phil Robertson’s defense after he said vile things (repeatedly), and brutally attack Jars of Clay lead singer Dan Haseltine after he had the temerity to express sympathy for civil same sex marriage.   I’ve seen Christian pastors counsel parents to shun their gay children and I’ve heard this defended as a loving choice – even while the stats on homelessness and suicide in the young LGBT community pile up.

So last year the reaction to World Vision felt like the last straw and I said, online, that I wouldn’t call myself an Evangelical anymore.  I wanted to be an ally for my LGBT brothers and sisters, I said, and it seemed there was no room for someone like me in the Evangelical movement.   I said things I shouldn’t have said, and I was held to account for my words.   It turned out to be kind of an ordeal, and I got through it only be clinging to Jesus and telling the truth.  But whatever flack I took for losing it online was nothing in light of the losses to World Vision and the pain suffered by gay Christians.

And here I am a year later thinking, “No wonder so many outside the church think Indiana’s new law is targeting gays.” I remember last year, I remember the clear priority of so many people who call themselves Christians, and I want to mourn.  If the world sees the church as anti-gay even more than pro-Jesus, well, who is to blame for that?

I am still an Evangelical in the best sense of the word, but I’m afraid that the best sense has been swallowed up by politics and hostility and fence building.  If it seems crazy or paranoid to you that gay people in Indiana are afraid that Christians will oppress and ostracize them if given the chance, just remember this time last year.  There were 10,000 votes sending that very message.

Posted in Christianity, homosexuality, politics, spirituality | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments