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:

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.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The problem with churches is that they are filled with people...

“Why don’t more people come to church?  Why don’t more people keep coming to church?” One of the most commonly voiced mysteries of church council and evangelism meetings is finally clear to me. I know the answer--because churches are supposed to be communities and becoming fully involved and immersed in a community is really fricking HARD!  At times, it is one of the more difficult things in my life, and I am a girl who likes a challenge.  I am a middle school special education teacher, for one, so every day is a special kind of challenge.  I love training difficult horses.  I love lifting the heaviest weights I can manage until my muscles shake.  Hard--I like it!  But, being a part of a community built on the kingdom of God, that is really fricking difficult.
Communities disappoint us.  Communities are built by people, flawed people, people who, even with the best intentions, drop the ball, make mistakes, and get angry.   A church relationship is like most other relationships, it starts with a happy, honeymoon period of wine and roses and Eucharist bread.  Everything is great and I go to church with a song in my heart, looking forward to the most peaceful and thoughtful hour of my day.  But, after a time, things get real.  
After a time, people disagree and argue and hurt each other’s feelings.  People disappoint.  People disagree.  Conflict inevitably arises whenever more than one person embarks on a project. The problem with church conflict is that it’s entirely optional.  When faced with a difficult conversation at work, sometimes I think, “Man!  I don’t need this crap!”  Well, when faced with a similarly difficult conversation at church, I may think, “Man!  I don’t need this crap!”  And, then I realize--it’s true.  I am not paid to be here.  I am not related to this person.  I am not married to this person.  I am not bound to this community by my work, my property, or my family.  I can just walk away and never, ever come back.
Two weeks ago on Sunday, I wanted to run out of church during the announcements.  I sat there, listening to updates on vestry decisions and I longed to escape. I had a visceral moment of fear and frustration, brought on by entirely mundane church business.  Something deep in my belly tightened and I heard these words in my head, “You don’t have to be here.  You can just walk out now and never turn back.  You don’t really need church.”   There is really nothing holding me to St. Ignatius, other than the relationship I’ve built with God through the community there, other than the community that has walked with me on my journey.  The thing that holds me is exactly the thing that pushes me away--the messy relationships with other people of Christ.
The problem with churches is that they are filled with people.  The problem with people is that we are filled with fear.  We miss the point again and again.  We let our fear lead us.  We try desperately to make a change, but the new thing looks just like the thing we tried to change.  We are flawed, broken people struggling up together.  It is tempting to abandon the whole thing, to destroy it.  After all, that is what people do, right?  We build something, a home, a career, a church, a family, a faith.  We build it and we are proud of it.  Then, it loses its luster and we leave it to build something new.  Or we can’t change it the right way, so we destroy it.  Then, we start over again.  The only thing that saves this cycle of production and destruction is relationship.  
That Sunday sitting in the sanctuary, I didn’t walk out of my church.  I was tethered to the pew by my children, but more than that, I was tethered to the community by the love of the people:  people who, like me, come back every Sunday, even when it’s inconvenient, difficult, and frustrating, people who, like me, strive to love each other.  If we cannot practice love with fellow followers of Christ, if we cannot serve with followers of the servant king, if we cannot sacrifice with followers of a kingdom built on sacrifice, what hope is there for the world?
Loving through growth, frustration, and conflict isn’t easy.  Sometimes we are prophetic, loud, and angry sometimes.  Sometimes we scream at those we love and sometimes we threaten to kick down the tower.  After the dust settles, we have to come together.  We have to hear the word.  We have to make confession.  We have to give the sign of peace and break sacred bread together.  
The only place where we can save ourselves from the sin of producing and destroying is in church. The only place where we can hold the paradox of survival and sacrifice is a church.  It is painful.  It makes me angry.  I can’t escape it, because I am part of it.  I can’t escape it.  The only thing I can do is weather the storms, love through the anger, and pray that we will all come out the other side together.  If we Christians cannot love through conflict within our church, we cannot do it anywhere.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Crumbling of my Straight, White, Ivory Tower

Disclaimer to the reader:  If you don’t understand why liberals are crying over the election, then you can just skip this blog post.  It is not meant for you.  Move on and spend your time more usefully.
Today, one of my friends messaged me to make sure I was OK.  One of my gay friends, whose new marriage soon may be no longer legal and whose child’s health insurance soon may be no longer available,  asked ME if I was OK after the 2016 election.  Ironic--because I really have nothing much to lose by this election.  My job and my husband’s jobs are reasonably secure, we live within our middle-class means, we have good health insurance, and our children have access to good public education.  Our lives are especially fortunate, as straight, educated, middle-class white people living in America.  A new President of the United States won’t really make our lives more difficult.  We are the lucky ones.  And, my gay friend asked me if I was OK.
My husband says I am being melodramatic over this election.  He’s probably right.  My Republican friends assure me that they voted based on the issues of limited government and personal freedom, that the family and friends I’ve known all my life are still the upstanding, moral, respectable people that I’ve always known.  They are right, too.  I know that a vote for a particular candidate does not mean sanctification of that person’s every action and word.  Certainly, I wouldn’t want to be held accountable for every action of the person for whom I voted.  I know that there are checks and balances in this country that limit the power of the presidency.  I know all of that.  And I am still crying.
What is wrong with me?  I am that classic whining liberal, crying in my Cabernet after my candidate lost.  But, it doesn’t just feel like we lost the game.  It doesn’t just feel like a peaceful transfer of power, the kind on which our country was founded.  It feels like my illusions about the nature of my country have been shattered.  It feels like the voters chose other issues over MY issues.  The voters chose issues of economy over equality, of rights for guns over rights for gay people, of pro-life over pro-choice for life.  My side lost, but that isn’t all.  It feels like the voters sanctioned racist comments, sexist comments, hateful comments, and I’m shocked. I am shocked that by the hatred and vitriol I see towards people who aren’t straight and white.  My gay friends aren’t surprised; they have lived this most of their life.
The straight, white, ivory tower in which I’ve lived my life has crumbled, and so have my assumptions.  I’ve been lucky; I have the peculiar privilege of a white liberal.  I can speak passionately about social justice, I can teach diverse children, I can write blog posts and share memes about equality and social justice, but nothing actually touches me.  If things get too heated, it’s easy enough to retreat into civility.  I am quite skilled at appearing armless and noncompetitive; I know how to make nice.  I don’t actually have to live through the conflict--that’s what privilege does for me.  But that privilege feels different now.

 I can no longer assume that justice will be done if I don’t speak up.  I’ve spent too many years making nice and hoping that things will be work out if we can all just get along.   I can no longer assume that my LGBTQ friends, my minority friends, or my poor friends will be cared for by society without my action.   I’ve spent too much of my time assuming that other people agree that society should strive for equality for all people.  I can no longer assume that most of society is working for equality and justice.  I can no longer passively move through life, protected by my own privilege, education, and peacefulness.
 I can no longer passively look to the government to save us.  Maybe that is my lesson, the lesson that my Republican friends mean when they tell me that WE are the ones to make change, that we cannot rely on a President, a Congress, or any government to build our country.  Maybe my lesson is to take off the blinders and see, truly see, the need in my community and my country, and to meet that need where I find it.   Maybe my lesson is to stand up for what I believe in, even in the midst of conflict.  I expect I will find allies from across the political spectrum, from the right and from the left.  I expect that my friends will join me, and I expect that it will NOT be easy.  The time has come to wipe away the tears and get to work.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

I can only pray... (thoughts on Election Day)

This election has me terrified, deep down.   There is a knot of anxiety deep in my chest that will not loosen tomorrow, even if my candidate proves victorious.  The other day, I read an article in Time magazine about a family of Syrian refugees that relocated to Iowa.  One particular point struck me dumb.  The family had been middle-class in Syria, attending choir concerts and planning family vacations.  Within months, civil war destroyed their peaceful, humdrum existence, and they were displaced people, struggling to find a safe home.  A common story, I know.  Reading those words, days before the end of the most divisive and hateful presidential campaign in my lifetime, gave me pause.  I had a waking daydream, of the fabric of our country torn apart by hate, by people who refuse to accept a peaceful transition of power, by people driven to desperation by the loss of their privilege and power.  I had a waking daydream of civil war, the kind that certain militia groups threaten if their candidate doesn’t win.  Drinking my Sunday morning coffee in my middle-class house in my middle-class town, it almost seemed possible.  And I was terrified.

My friends who happen to be married to people of the same gender, are terrified by more than just a waking daydream.  They are terrified by threats to rent their very families, so newly formed under the law, to invalidate their newly validated unions, and nullify their spousal benefits.  I am afraid that the health-care act that helped my family find affordable coverage for their child will disappear.  I am afraid that our country will no longer work towards justice for all--all skin colors, all genders, all sexual orientations.  I am afraid that hatred and racism will win. It breaks my heart that the biggest comfort I can find is to think, “It will be OK; the President doesn’t really have that much power, anyway.”

I cast my vote for the candidate who reflects my politics.  I’m proud to vote for the first woman President.  I won’t apologize for supporting her, or make excuses for her.  She is my choice.  Many of my friends and family disagree with me and I don’t begrudge them their vote.  We all have our reasons and we all make our choice.  As I say often, just because I have a strong opinion about something doesn’t mean I have to win.  I say it often, but I’m not usually this scared by the thought of losing.  

My friend, Bill, reassures me on Facebook that all will be OK.  Bill, the consummate fiscal conservative, is my go-to guy for silver linings.  I joke that he is the most optimistic Republican I’ve ever met.  Bill tells me that, no matter who wins, he or she will be our President, that it will only be four years, and that we will work together to continue to build a country with freedom and justice for all.   I can only pray that he is right.

I can only pray that we can all find common ground again, that we all honor the government that allows for disagreement and free speech, that we work together to build up what has been broken in the last months.  I can only pray…

Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges: guide the people of the United States in the election of officials and representatives, that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Âmen