Sunday, August 20, 2017

Celebrate whiteness--What are you talking about?


The best lessons surprise me and shock me into a new understanding. Recently, I heard something surprising from Dr. Felicia LaBoy, a vibrant, inspiring African-American minister, during an anti-racism workshop, “You white people, lay down the guilt.  God made you white.  Celebrate being white.  It is part of the incarnation that made you the way you are.”

Wait, what? I was confused.  Celebrate being white?  When for years, I have been learning about systemic racism and white privilege?  When my white ancestors enslaved, oppressed, and committed genocide upon people of color for hundreds of years?  When my “white brother and sisters” are protesting the removal of Confederate statues with violence and vitriol?  Whiteness seems to only signify oppression and racism.  Why on earth would I celebrate that?


As I let her words soak into my brain, maybe I understood her point just a little.  For whatever God-only-knows reason, I was born with white and middle-class, with pale skin and blue eyes and parents who owned a home and had steady jobs.  We weren’t rich and we weren’t highly educated.  I grew up in Appalachia, the southeast corner of Ohio, and we struggled to pay bills just like every other family I knew.  I was the first person in my immediate family to earn a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree.  We were just regular, white people, trying to make a living.  Why should I celebrate?


Maybe celebrating whiteness doesn’t mean celebrating racism.  Maybe it means acknowledging in a positive way the gifts of privilege and the culture that shaped me.  I grew up feeling safe and respected--at home, at school, at work.  Teachers understood my family dynamics, because they were similar to their own.  Police treated me kindly when they dealt with me, because I was not seen as a threat.  Most of my friends shared some version of my Christian faith and celebrated similar holidays.  I grew up feeling attractive and intelligent.  I had strong role positive role models.  People treated me as if they expected me to achieve.  They listened when I spoke, if I spoke respectfully and intelligently.  I learned that I had something valuable to contribute to a conversation. I grew up confident, self-assured, and eager to try new adventures. These are gifts.  They are gifts that every child should have, but every child does NOT.  But, maybe I can learn to acknowledge those gifts, even as I work to lay the privilege aside.


The gift of my whiteness taught me that if I work hard and treat others with respect, I can achieve success in life.  That was a gift and it served me well.  I know now that others have to work much harder than I did to get half as far.  I know now that others had to learn to endure hatred and bigotry with nonviolence.  I can celebrate the lessons I learned from my loving family and still acknowledge the patent inequity of society.  Understanding privilege causes me to understand the embarrassment of riches that has created my life.  

If I can celebrate what makes me who I am, and own my whiteness, with all the gifts that it brings, maybe I can celebrate others.  Maybe when I acknowledge the gifts of privilege, I can work for an equitable society, where the gifts of respect, tolerance, and understanding are truly given to all.


Monday, June 12, 2017

The Trinity, Community, and Forgiveness

Sometimes God smacks me in the head--literally smacks me in the head.  Like when I am planning a carefully crafted, passive-aggressive comment to a person who I am trying to forgive, and I literally walk into a wall.  I walk into a wall with such force that it brings tears to my eyes and raises a welt on my forehead.  In those moments, I wonder why I am so hard-headed that I keep missing the point.  I keep missing the point that God is calling us to forgive each other and to live in community with each other, not to speak with passive-aggressive words, but to speak the truth from my heart.

Recently, I heard a sermon on the Trinity and something struck me (not literally struck me, like the wall, but figuratively struck my thoughts).  God is a community in godself.  God is not one being with one will and one thought.  God is the blessed three-in-one.  God is a trinity of three beings, bound together by love.  If we are made in God’s image, perhaps that means not that we physically look like God, but that we are designed to act like God.  We are designed to live as a community, not one being with one will and one thought, but multiple beings, bound together in love.  We are not like God when we are alone in our plans and priorities, when we only think of ourselves, or when we put our own needs above others.  We are like God when we work with each other in love.  

That doesn’t mean we all agree.  In the doctrine of the Trinity, we could assume that three separate and equal beings have separate minds and separate wills.  In our community, we should expect to disagree, sometimes with passion and anger.  When we disagree, we are called to behave like God.  We are called to confront each other honestly and to hold each other accountable.  The best example for behaving like God in human form is Jesus.  From the gospels, we have examples of Jesus.  We have examples of Jesus speaking for those on the margins of society, speaking for inclusion and love for all, speaking for standing up for the least of these.  We have examples of Jesus challenging his followers to greater learning and greater sacrifice.  We have examples of Jesus standing up to the forces of oppression and violence.  We have examples of Jesus healing people, forgiving sins, and holding people accountable for their actions.  We do not have examples of Jesus writing passive-aggressive emails, or gossiping, or dissembling in the face of a bully.  

In moments of crisis, often I am torn between forgiving those who have caused pain and standing up for those who were hurt.  If I allow those who have caused pain back into my life in order to forgive them, am I betraying my friends whom they have hurt?  I am afraid that I don’t have the strength and the wisdom.  How will I know when to confront and when to forgive?  How will I walk in love with my fellow Christians and still stand up to bad behavior?  How does a loving community deal with conflict and anger?  We will all make mistakes, sometimes really big mistakes.  We all need to practice forgiveness, and we all need to hold each other accountable to act in love.  It is not easy and I do not know the way forward most of the time.

These are not new words and new ideas.  Christians have been speaking and preaching the path of love for centuries.  And we still screw it up.  Some people, it seems, have the best of intentions but lack the clarity and discipline to enact their loving plans.  Some people, it seems, honestly desire to sow conflict rather than collaboration.  Some people, it seems, just plain wear us out with their mistakes, intentional or not.  Some people, it seems, (all of us) just keep screwing it up, again and again and again.  So, we preach it again and again and again and we try to learn to forgive.  We screw it up and we preach and we listen and we try to come together one more time, even if it seems that it won’t work or that we don’t have the strength.  We try forgiveness because it is the hardest thing, but the only thing that works.


As God taught me by smacking me in the head, the path forward is NOT through passive-aggressive words and gossip.  The path forward into love is to through direct, honest, and vulnerable conversation. God, please give me the strength and the wisdom to walk the path.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Called and Carried Together

An open letter to my friends at St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church, who are entering a period of transition. And to any other communities in similar situations.

Growth and change don’t come easy.  If they did, we wouldn’t learn anything.  We learn through stretching ourselves, trying new things, reflecting back on the progress, and sticking with the practice.  We learn the most when we are just a little bit uncomfortable.  St. Ignatius has an incredible opportunity for growth, change, and learning right now.  We have a chance to reflect on where we come from, who we are, and who we want to be in the future.

We now face an interesting time in our church history, a time of transition.  We have just said good-bye to our beloved priest and are beginning to find our way forward to a new vision.  We are in a moment where we remember our call.  What was it that brought us to St. Ignatius:  our family, a friendship, theological questions, or a longing for an inclusive, loving community?  Does that call still exist for us?  I believe it does.  We are still a committed group of people living out our mission as the body of Christ in the world.

During the anti-racism training at St. Ignatius, we learned a phrase, “called and carried”.  We learned that we were called into the work by the spirit and carried forward by the spirit.  That idea has stuck with me, especially in relation to St. Ignatius.  All of us were called here by one way or another--by our family, by our faith, by our friends.  Some of us were called by a baptism, a wedding, or a Pokemon hotspot.  The spirit called us into this community and carried us forward in the work of the kingdom.  When I say “spirit”, I mean the people of St. Ignatius.  We are the earthly work of the Holy Spirit, and we call each other and carry each other together.

Five years ago, when I first looked up St. Ignatius’s website, I noticed a bunch of pictures of a bunch of activities.  I was looking for a church with a traditional, high-church liturgy and a commitment to ministry and social justice.  I had read about the universal, catholic grace of Christ and I wanted to join the party.  On the website, I saw a vibrant community of people doing live nativity scenes, turkey dinners, rummage sales.  I thought, “Those people look like they really like each other.”  I began  looking for a church because of my theology and a longing for Christ, but the images of people gathering together in a loving community called me into St. Ignatius.
We challenge and we carry each other in this mission.   We say things like, “Hey, let’s create an incredible live-nativity program.  Let’s get some camels!”  “Hey, let’s get Nadia Bolz-Weber (a famous theologian and author) to speak at our church!” “Hey, let’s build a resale shop!”  and “Hey, let’s expand our resale shop and make it bigger and better!”  We call to each other and inspire each other to move forward with the Holy Spirit.  And then we carry each other during the work.  We lean on each other, we confide in each other, and we work with each other.

As we embark on the journey of self-reflection and discovery in this community, we will remember what called us here and preserve it.  We will continue to challenge each other and to carry each other through those challenges.  We are a church that builds barns, stages live nativities, and creates resale shops.  We are a church that flies proudly a symbol of inclusion for all, that stands up for those in need.  We are a church that grows together, learns together, and loves each other.  We are called and carried into this work and, together, we will not abandon it.

Blessings to all of you in the time of growth and change.


Saturday, April 8, 2017

Tattered and Torn and Holy

Last May, my church, St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church, took a risk.  We posted a bold symbol of love.  We staked our claim for rights for inclusion of ALL.  We flew a rainbow flag from our church flagpole. This week, we took the flag down.  It had grown a little weather-beaten and tattered.  It had done it’s job and earned a retirement.  A new, crisp, bright rainbow flag stepped in to do the job.




Our old flag bears the scars of lessons learned.  It flew proudly from our flagpole, standing up for those who needed a symbol of inclusion.  It bore the wind and the rain and the sun.  It bore our conflict, our pride, and our anger.  It bore all faithfully and now it is tattered and torn, but flying high and still standing for inclusion and love.  Our flag is tattered and torn and beautiful, like the life of a community.  Living into the kingdom of love isn’t always easy.  Living with each other in community and making our way forward will rip at our seams and fade our colors from time to time.


We can see the ups and downs of community in our gospel lessons, especially during Holy week.  In one week, we traverse the highs and the lows of the human condition, just like in our communities and in our lives.  St. Ignatius put the flag up on a “Palm Sunday” kind of day.  We put it up in a moment of glory, proud to stand for those we love.  Along the way, we had some “Good Friday” and “Holy Saturday” kind of moments. We had some times of conflict, of doubt, of anger, of frustration.  We had some days where we hurt each other, failed to listen, failed to care.  We had some days where we put own own needs before those of others.  We also had some beautiful moments of reconciliation and understanding.  Our lives swing between selfishness and sacrifice, between conflict and consideration because we are people--people flawed and beautiful, making our way forward, struggling in love.

This Holy week, we realize the truth once again, year after year.  We don’t worship a pretty God, all nice and pleasant and clean and whole.  We worship Jesus of Nazareth, a God that sacrifices himself to the basest, ugliest natures of human nature.  We worship the Trinitarian God, a God who lets our hate kill him so he can kill our hate.  We worship a God who lets all our brokenness into himself and makes us whole.  We worship a God that is, like our rainbow flag, and like ourselves, tattered and torn and wholly holy.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Why I don't go to church...

In this “godless age”, why do people bother to go to church?  In the age of the spiritual-but-not-religious, the find-your-own-bliss post-post-modern society, why does anyone spend time doing ancient practices for an ancient God?  
There used to be easy answers to this question.  When I was young, people went to church to be seen as a “good person” and to raise their children to be “moral citizens”.   Some researchers challenge the idea that religion actually produces “moral people”.   In a recent Los Angeles Times article, author Phil Zuckerman argues that “Many nonreligious parents were more coherent and passionate about their ethical principles than some of the ‘religious' parents in our study,” Bengston told me. ‘The vast majority appeared to live goal-filled lives characterized by moral direction and sense of life having a purpose’.” (Zuckerman)   
So why do I need church if I my kids will turn out just fine if I teach them to play nice with others Why do I get out of bed on Sunday mornings instead of sitting around in my pjs drinking coffee? Well, I don’t go to church to become a moral person, or to help me raise my children with good values.  Any morality instilled in my family is a result, not the goal.  


I don’t go to church to teach my children to follow the golden rule. It isn’t values and the morality that call me into the Eucharist.  It is longing--desperate longing for a connection to the love in which we live and move and have our being.  The kind of longing that is only filled in company of others, others who also long for God. I want to lay down my burdens, my failures, my inequities, acknowledge them, and be forgiven.  I want to feel the yoke of pride and selfishness lifted from my shoulders and replaced with the love of Jesus Christ. I want to partake in the mystery of the body and blood, freely given in love and grace.


I don’t go to church to be surrounded by other “good people”.  I go to church to be surrounded by other fallen people, struggling up together.  I go to church to be an active participant in the work of the kingdom of God, building a community of love.  My fellow Christians are far from perfect, and that is why I love them.  They support me when I struggle, comfort me when I grieve, frustrate me when I am impatient, challenge me when I am lazy, and love me when I am flawed.  In our best moments, we are no better than anyone else.  In our best moments, we are all beloved children of God, loved in spite of all our failings.  We act out the love of God when we love each other.


I don’t go to church to be “a good person”.  I don’t go to church to build up my spiritual skills or to flex my morality muscles.  I go to church, because, well, because GOD.  I go to church because the world is filled with pain and suffering.  Bad things happen to good people.  Bad people seem to thrive.  Humanity is capable of a great deal of evil, self-inflicted and other.  I go to church because I am a flawed product of a flawed world and I make mistakes--all the damn time.  I go to church because in the midst of this pain and suffering and inequity and evil, God loves me.  Somehow, I know God loves me.  And I go to church to remember that, to honor that, and to show up for God.


Zuckerman, P., 3 March, 2017.  How secular family values stack up.  Los Angeles Times.  Retrieved from: http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-oe-0115-zuckerman-secular-parenting-20150115-story.html


Sunday, January 22, 2017

Fishing for Men and Building a Community

This is the text of a sermon I delivered this morning at St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church.


"Come with me and I will make you fish for people." One of the most beautiful metaphors in the New Testament starts with some seemingly random guys putting in a day's work, when they are called into a new life by a stranger. When Jesus meets Simon Peter and Andrew as they are fishing and he invites them to join us, we see a moment of decision and of building new identity within a blessed community.

It is a transcendent moment of conversion for Peter and Andrew.  I mean, there they are, regular guys on the docks, and someone comes up to them and tells them, “Hey, come with me and I will make you fishers of men.”  And, they GO with him! He must’ve been pretty impressive, standing there on the docks, surrounded by seagulls and dead fish.  These guys left their lives and their livelihoods and took off with a travelling rabbi.  Something amazing and inspiring happened there.  Something like the Holy Spirit moving their hearts to follow Jesus.

Simon Peter and Andrew made a decision that day, chose a path in a moment that forged a new identity.  I wonder how much they considered it.  I wonder if they weighed all the positives and negatives of their humdrum, hard-working life as fishermen against the adventure of following an itinerant rabbi.  I wonder if they did a cost-benefit analysis of their new career path.  Or, maybe, they just took a leap of faith.  They left their jobs, their homes, and their families, because they saw a new identity.  Jesus told them he would change them, “Come with me, and I will make you fish for people.”  Come with me, and I will make you fishers of men.  That’s beautiful!

Maybe you can remember moments of clarity, moments of choosing a new identity, moments of supreme leaps of faith.  Maybe it is the moment you say, “I do” in a wedding ceremony, the moment you quit a job that sucks the life out of you or the moment when you accept a job that brings you life.  Maybe it is the moment when you become a parent.

Can you remember the moments in your life when you were called into the Kingdom, when Christ saw you, named you, and called you into a community of service?   Maybe it was the first time you walked into a church and professed your faith.  Maybe it was when you took on a ministry, like teaching Sunday School, or serving on the vestry, or volunteering in the resale shop.  Maybe it is the first time you wore a cross in public, or prayed with a stranger.  Can you think of a “Damascus moments”, where you were struck blind on the road,  where you made a choice?

Do you remember the excitement?  The euphoria of setting out on a goal?  The clarity and conviction of following God’s path?  Picture those fishermen, laying down their nets.  I bet Simon Peter and Andrew were excited.  I bet they were laughing, smiling with glee, walking down the dirt road punching each other on the arm, talking about the new possibilities that lay ahead of them.  I bet they were so high on the Holy Spirit emanating from Jesus that they couldn’t handle themselves.  I bet they got a few miles down the road before any of them even asked, “Dude, did we bring any snacks?  Where are we headed?  I hope we can find somewhere to rest soon. I really wish I’d brought my good sandals, because my feet are killing me!”  They probably were well on their way before they asked a question about the details.  As Jesus went about his business of miracles and ministry, someone had to figure out the logistics of daily life.  And that’s when the excitement wears off and the disagreements begin.

We see this squabbling over daily life in Corinthians.  Paul writes to a church in division, not the type of divisions the prohibit gathering together, but the type of divisions that keep the community from growing together .   People are fighting over which group they belong to:  baptized by Paul or baptized by Cephas.  That’s kind of like fighting over what kind of music to play in church, or how to balance the budget, or whether to expand a resale shop.  Again, the people face a decision, but not a transcendent decision to leave all they have known and follow Jesus on an adventure.  Not an exciting crossroads, but rather a decision to safely steward their resources, or to define their identity within a changing world.  I bet that each one of those Corinthians had his or her own “fishers of men” moment, that moment when they were unmistakably named, called, and carried towards the kingdom of God.  The time when they laid down the nets of their old lives and followed Christ.  They probably remember the clarity and euphoria of the moment of conversion.  But, that euphoria faded with the details of daily life. They are no longer starry-eyed; they are tired and cranky and arguing with each other.

Paul avoids the whole argument by pointing to Christ.    Paul isn’t the point; Christ is the point.  Paul’s job is to preach the gospel of Christ crucified.  “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”  Paul doesn’t settle the argument by explaining who is right; he just reminds the Corinthians of Christ and of love. The way of the world is to divide ourselves, to place categories and divisions between us and then to argue and fight over those divisions. The way of the cross looks foolish to those following the way of the world.  The way of the cross is to bridge the divides, to find common ground, and to sacrifice with our brothers in the name of Christ Jesus.  The power of God, the power of the subversive Kingdom, comes from listening and loving others, especially through the details and the disagreements.

It is easy to love our brothers when the spirit has just lit us with tongues of fire.  But it is the ordinary time, the time of deadlines and details, that forges the true building blocks of the kingdom of God.  We cannot always chase that euphoric excitement of moments of conversion; we have to come back to earth sometime and worry about paying the bills.   We do the work of the kingdom when we come to consensus on commitments, balance budgets, and plan campaigns.   We do the work of the kingdom when we plan Sunday School lessons.   We do the work of the kingdom when we vacuum and dust.   And, sometimes, the work of the kingdom is boring or difficult or makes us cranky.  Sometimes we lose the luster and we lose sight of Christ.

How do we navigate the lull after the storm of the spirit?   Eugene Peterson, author and theologian, calls it “a long obedience in the same direction”.  We do it by showing up again and again, by greeting each other, by reading and singing and praying together, by saying confession and by giving each other the kiss of peace and seeing Christ reflected in the eyes of our neighbors.  We do it by setting the table and breaking the bread and drinking the wine.  We show up in our flaws and our frustrations, and we join a community of fallen people, struggling up together.  We show up, as often as we can, and we let the mystery of the liturgy and the Eucharist turn us towards Christ and fill the cracks in our souls.

After the ecstasy of the moment of conversion, comes the drudgery of finances, budgets, and supplies.  Through those disagreements, through those details, through the love we find for each other as we work things out, the kingdom of God is truly born.  We bring the kingdom to bear when we show and roll up our sleeves with our fellow travellers.  My friends, the Kingdom of God is near.  You see it in the eyes of the person sitting next to you.  Now, let us lay down our nets and get to work.



Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Growing the Church: a Both/And Question


“How can we grow the church?”  Someone usually asks this question at every annual meeting or strategy session. This month, the vestry (the church leadership board) read some papers on church growth.  The literature divided churches up into three types, family church, pastoral church, and program church, based on membership and culture.  We discussed the similarities and differences of the three types and how the size and culture of a church affect church growth.  Church growth is a difficult topic, sometimes.  We all want our church to grow; we want to share the joy we find in this community.  We want to share the gospel as it comes to life in the people of St. Ignatius, as we bring the kingdom of Christ to bear in the world.  We are eager to expand our “family”.  
But there is another side to church growth, a shadow side, so to speak.  As members of a capitalist society, as members of an institution with financial obligations, we also want new people to share our burdens.  We want new people to pledge financial support and to volunteer for our missions.  We almost cannot help it, because we are focused on accomplishing a goal:  funding church projects, resale shops, Vacation Bible School, and altar flowers.  The conversation of “how do we expand our family” quickly devolves into “how do we find other people to fulfill our needs”.  It only takes a few turns of the conversation before we are asking the wrong question.  This is where I become frustrated and end the conversation, because it seems wrong to look for new people to serve our own needs.  Rather, we should long for new people so that WE can serve THEM.  When I express this frustration, the conversation circles back around, “Of course you’re right, Linda.  We want to meet new people and serve their needs.  But, we still need to keep the lights on.  What should we do?”
This familiar argument usually leads me to impatience and anger.  But this Christmas season, I am beginning to see things in a new light.  Like so many other things in the Episcopal faith, finding new members is not an either/or question, “either we seek new people to serve them OR we seek new people to serve our own mission”.  It is a both/and question, “we seek new people to serve their needs AND empower them to serve the mission of God.”
I’m becoming acquainted with some of our newer members and they are BOTH looking to fill a need AND to serve.  One new couple, who brought their exuberant daughter to baptism last month, are already looking for connections in our community and asking how they can help.  Another new member, whose son will be baptized on January 8, has offered to help repair our church Blazer.  They all come to Sunday School, eager to share and to learn, eager to bring treats to church socials, and to volunteer their services.  These new families are transforming our community with their presence, their acceptance of sacraments, and their willingness to serve.  
Just a little less than five years ago, I was new to St. Ignatius.  As a new member, I longed to find a niche in the community, to be challenged to serve and to use my gifts.  I found a true blessing in working on rummage sales, vacation bible school, and various committees and events.  Becoming an active part of this community is one of the most challenging and rewarding parts of my life.  St. Ignatius served me by needing me, it isn’t an “either/or” proposition; it is a “both/and” situation.
After all, our faith is not an “either/or” faith.  Our faith is a “both/and” faith.  We worship a God who is both human and divine, both transcendent and immanent, both always coming and always with us.  We worship a God of possibilities, incarnated from a poor, unmarried girl, born humbly and celebrated by peasants.  We worship a God of paradoxes, who defeated death by dying and who overcame hate with love.  We do not need to squabble over whether to serve the community OR balance our budget.  Rather, we should find a way to invite people into the blessed work of the kingdom, serving the community with their gifts and helping responsibly steward their resources.  Rather, we should challenge our community to engage with each other:  care for our building, our staff, and our mission, AND care for the community outside our doors.  Through our work in the community, our love for each other, AND our joy in service, we will spread the gospel.  We must have faith that through doing Christ’s work in the world, we will find the resources to successfully minister to ourselves and the world.

Rather than argue about EITHER attracting new members OR serving them, we must BOTH serve the community AND serve each other.  We must BOTH spread the gospel AND balance the budget.  Through serving in faith and not fear, we will find what we need.