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Nothing Could Be Finer…Unless You’re a Woman

I grew up in South Carolina and went to college in South Carolina. I’ve taught and worked in South Carolina for the majority of my professional career both as a teacher and as a minister. Although I love so much about the state, I am shocked at the number of people who don’t understand the realities we face in South Carolina.

South Carolina ranks #5 in domestic violence and is one of the top 5 states in the country for women killed by men. A recent report, just revealed that South Carolina is named one of 2018 worst states for women’s equality. Coincidence? I don’t think so. South Carolina continues to top charts in ignoring the reality that women in our state are in danger. They are in danger of losing their lives. They are in danger of discrimination, underemployment, and being looked over for promotions.

And none of this can change because women are severely underrepresented because we rank 49th in the political representation gap. Things will not change until we have more voices of women in leadership positions in our businesses, in our state house, and in our capital. Things will not change until we value the lives of the women in South Carolina as much as male counterparts.

There is much work to do.

A Season of Abundance

For the last three days, I have been a part of the MEI Grant program in Decatur, GA. As we have talked about the financial burden of young clergy, the changing dynamics of the economy, and the outlook for the role of the church and the minister on the future, I have been overwhelmed with new hope and new vision. It is so easy in ministry to be tunnel vision. We move from one week to another, especially when high holy seasons are so close together. There is always so much to do. I haven’t met a minister who says, “I think I am doing everything I can for the church.” We all want to do more and be more.

Ministers also have the pull of their families and many times other vocations (in fact, 21% of ministers, yes full-time ministers, have another job). This is not unusual to the current state of what it means to work in America, but the role of the minister is different. Whether you are full-time or bi-vocational, the ministry is a distinct profession because you are never “off.” There is no such thing as a part-time minister because of the great weight of walking people through the unexpected and predictable in order to encounter and experience the Divine. There is a reason why burnout among ministers remains so high in the first five years, not to mention that most ministers are in worse health than their congregations. Ministry is an isolated and often isolating call.

And yet it remains essential to the life and work of people and indeed to our country. While ministers carry the weight of being the presence of God through the good and bad, so too do we bear the weight of holding onto hope and holding onto to light in the midst of our current sociopolitical context. We are the ones people turn to in times of darkness and hopelessness. We are the ones offering the invitation to encounter the miraculous, transformative power of the resurrected Christ.

This time to be with other ministers who are working as hard as they can to offer this light and hope into the world has been refreshing and renewing. A certain and definite reminder that we as ministers are not alone that there is a rich abundance in fellowshipping together, learning together, and growing together during this Eastertide season of abundance.

Spiritual Abuse and Asking for Help

The people and stories I encounter in my ministry are not always easy ones to hear. They are weighty with pain and hurt. In these stories, there is almost always a point at which the person reached out to a religious leader asking for help and guidance.

A woman whose husband was physically abusing her was told that she needed to stick with the marriage because “God hates divorce.”

A woman who was being consistently being sexually harassed at church was told, “he is a good man and a servant of God. Your job is to submit to your husband.”

A woman was struggling with depression and wanted a recommendation for a therapist or a psychiatrist was told, “God is strong enough. You just need to pray more.”

Again and again, people reach out for help only to be told, there is no help. The dogmatic teaching doesn’t allow for divorce, victims speaking up, or needing help outside of the religious community. And instead of offering wholeness and freedom, the community of faith offers more hurt, more pain, and more isolation.

If you know that you know that you that you know that you are spending eternity in heaven then what you experience here on earth doesn’t matter all that much. If you have the peace that surpasses all understanding then you can overcome anything that you encounter.

This is spiritual abuse.

When we cling so tightly to doctrine over the people who are sitting before us bearing their souls, we are missing the gospel message. The gospel is not about continued and consistent hurt and brokenness. The gospel is about freedom and wholeness. This is why the Divine came to earth to offer new life.

When we focus so heavily on eschatological destinations, we miss out on living and being here on earth. We miss being in community with others who breathe the same Divine breath that we do. We miss out on seeing the miraculous transformative power of the Divine here among us working, changing, and offering hope to people desperately asking for help, asking to be seen, asking to be heard.

May our eyes be opened to see those who surround us and hear their needs, rather than explaining those needs away with an easy dogmatic answer.

 

 

Unexpected Turns

Last week, I found myself back in the classroom after two and a half years. Part of my position at Lutheran was to process applications for the Spiritual Direction Certification Program: a program and certification I had never heard of. Spiritual Direction has been a part of the Catholic tradition as well as central to Eastern faith traditions. While there are similarities between these faith traditions, “Christian spiritual direction is help given by one believer to another that enables the latter to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow intimacy with this God and to live out the consequences of the relationship.” (The Practice of Spiritual Direction, William A. Barry &William J. Connolly)

The more I learned about the certification program, the more drawn I was to the idea that one could train to help people to hear and find God’s voice in his or her own life. In a world that is so full of words and noise, there is great confusion. We can’t tell the difference between God’s voice and the voices of power and privilege. We can’t tell the difference between God’s voice and the voices of greed and oppression. We can’t tell the difference between God’s voice and the voices of religious leaders who misuse and abuse their positions of leadership.

Our listening skills have been overshadowed by our quick responses and heated defenses. We speak over people wanting only to be heard, rather than to hear. In our desire to be heard, we miss the opportunity to commune with Creator God who has always been willing to listen and converse with us. We seek affirmation from likes and comments and retweets because we can’t hear God whispering around us, inviting us to something deeper and more meaningful.

Perhaps what we’ve been desperately striving for is alive and well in listening and responding to the Divine at work among us. Emmanuel, God is with us, if we but open our hearts and minds.

Rethinking What We’ve Always Done

Last night, I took Ben to his first football game. No, it wasn’t college or an NFL team. It was the game between two of the youth who and another youth who was cheering. He loved it!  As I sat there in the bleachers with families from our church, I realized it was Wednesday night. I, as a pastor, should be at church. These families should be at church, right? Isn’t that the way we’ve always done it?

The almost five years I have served as a pastor has been unconventional, to say the least. It’s part of being a bi-vocational minister and part of being a pastor to relatively young churches that started out as church starts. We’ve had Maundy Thursday services on Wednesday and Ash Wednesday services on Tuesday. There is a flexibility and an understanding that schedules don’t always match up with the church calendar.

I know churches are struggling to rethink how to bring people, especially young families, into the church, but what if we started rethinking church? What if instead of always trying to bring people in, we sent ministers out to football games, to cheerleading competitions on Saturday mornings, to violin recitals? What if we rethought what it means to be a minister of a church?

I know the pressure is great to bring people into the buildings we are paying for. I know it comforting to have ministers in the offices we have decorated, but the model we’ve used for over fifty years doesn’t fit the lives and the experiences of the community in 2017

Church membership is declining, church attendance is declining, what will it take to rethink what we’ve always done? When will we allow space and conversations to dream about the future of the church? The future of the church that is meaningful and relevant to families and individuals who are living right now.

 

Reading Beyond Your Experience

I’ve always believed that reading transports and transforms you, not only in the way it introduces you to new worlds and new experiences but also in the way it endears and entices you to characters while causing you to wish for the death and destruction of other characters. Reading reveals your true nature. It reveals how within you there is both love and hate. It reveals your assumptions, your privilege, your generalizations and challenges you to confront your true self.

Reading, this very magical, mystical experience is why I trained as a reading teacher, why I represented authors as an agent, and ultimately why I launched Harrelson Press with Sam. We believe reading transforms and transports and that language has the power to heal and challenge even the most difficult and ingrained beliefs.

The reality of our culture today is that the majority of our population doesn’t read. We skim searching for sources, posts, and people who agree with us. When your mission is to be affirmed, you will find affirmation because of the myriad of content that exists and is readily available. When your mission is to never stop learning, you will open yourself to words, stories, and experiences of other people and to the possibility to you are in fact wrong about some things you were pretty sure you were right about.

I can’t help but think about the cosmic, divine coincidence that I finished a young adult novel called How It Went Down the night before I awoke to news of the largest number of people killed in a mass shooting in American history. I read this book as part of my commitment over the past year to purposefully read books written by authors who have been systematically discriminated against in the world of publishing, including women, people of color, and people from lower socioeconomic status.

This journey has led me to recognize and analyze my own privilege. Privilege I was sure I didn’t have. Privilege I was sure hadn’t had anything to do with my pursuing and achieving two Master’s degrees, accepting a Fulbright scholarship, or living into a call to minister as a woman in the Bible Belt. Privilege I was sure everyone was afforded.

I was wrong. I discovered I was wrong by reading stories written by people whose experiences I have never had and quite honestly probaly will never have.

People like Cheryl Strayed.

People like Ta-Nehisi Coates.

People like Yaa Gyasi.

People like Toni Morrison.

People like Margaret Atwood.

When we don’t read, we hear our own beliefs, our own privilege in our hearts and minds echoing, “You’re right. You’re right,” again and again. Reading changes that voice to, “Are you right? Are you right?” Asking you to reflect on how you see the world and why you see the world the way you do.

What we need more of is not certainty, but uncertainty that leads to reflection asking us to question what we have always thought was true; asking us to question who we are and who we will become over and over again as we learn more and understand more about other people’s experiences.

This is the Day the Lord has Made?

Part of our morning routine includes singing:

This is the day, this is the day.

That the Lord has made, that the Lord has made.

We will rejoice, we will rejoice

and be glad in it, and be glad in it.

This is the day that the Lord has made, we will rejoice and be glad in it.

In the middle of our singing this song this morning, I heard the news that over 50 people had been killed and over 400 injured and that those numbers would climb throughout the day. I read accounts and listened to interviews knowing that the people who experienced the horrific tragedy in Las Vegas last night would never, never be the same because The Body Keeps the Score of trauma.

This is the day the Lord has made? Certainly not.

This is the day we have made. We have made this day by insisting, demanding, and defending on protecting and preserving our own rights without reflecting or acknowledging how those rights can be transformed into massacre and madness in the hands of certain people; not willing to sacrifice our rights and our privilege for the sake of the common good so people can enjoy an outdoor concert, so kindergarteners can go to school to learn and teachers can go to school to teach, and ministers and congregants can have Bible study on a Wednesday night without losing their lives.

What most of us don’t understand about privilege is that we also can give up or sacrifice our own privilege for the sake of someone else. It isn’t that we lose our own voices, not that we speak on behalf of people whose experiences we haven’t had, but rather that we sacrifice what we think we deserve knowing that by sacrificing we, in turn, give someone else an opportunity, a chance, and indeed hope.

Most of us aren’t willing to do this.

Most of us aren’t willing to give up our privilege for the sake of other people’s safety or other people’s well-being because we’ve been taught in this individualistic culture that is America to stand up for ourselves, our beliefs, and our rights, which requires competing and ultimately trampling other people.

I have a right to bear arms as an American, but I give up that right.

I give up that right out of respect for the families who lost their children at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the ones who survived and relive that trauma in their dreams and in their flashbacks for the rest of their lives.

I give up that right out of respect for the families who lost their loved at Bible Study and the ones who survived and relive that trauma in their dreams and in their flashbacks for the rest of their lives.

I give up that right out of respect for the 59 people killed last night and over 500 people injured, fighting for their lives, and for the ones who survived and relive that trauma in their dreams and in their flashbacks for the rest of their lives.

I give up that right to try to solve the problem of gun violence and the fear and division it causes in our country.

What will you do with your right?

A Culture of Complaint

I didn’t sit outside today at the coffee shop, but rather at the point in the store where customers pick up their drink. I see the barista behind the counter working hard trying to keep up with the influx of Friday morning orders. I see him trying to smile as not one, but one after another, four people walk up and complain about their drink.

“Is this how this is supposed to be?”

“This was too milky.”

“This was too bitter can you sweeten it?”

“Why don’t y’all put the sleeves on the cups anymore? I don’t like having to do it.”

“I ordered light ice. This has too much.”

And I wonder how he does it. Person after person complaining about being served a beverage they didn’t have to make. I wonder about the customers too. Why did they order a drink that was full of espresso rather than sugar and then complain it was too bitter? Why did they order a latte and then complain it was too milky? The cynical part of me wonders if they are just trying to get two drinks for one since the barista patiently remakes and remixes drink after drink while new orders pile up.

We live in a culture of complaint. Our first reaction is to express what we don’t like before we express gratitude to the person who has served us. We expect that when we don’t like something or something differs from our expectations for someone to solve that without question.

Our first reaction is to express what we don’t like before we express gratitude to the person who has served us. We expect that when we don’t like something or something differs from our expectations for someone to solve that without question.

“I’m a paying customer. I deserve…”

Even as communities in Mexico City work together to search through the rubble; even as communities in Puerto Rico wrestle with the reality that they may not have power or water for six months or longer; even as people are diagnosed with life-threatening diseases, we complain about our coffee.

Thanks be to God for a lectionary text about a complaining prophet this week who is angry when God spares a people. May our eyes be opened to our own anger and complaining and give our mouths gratitude first.

A New Kind of Economy

I’ve been struggling with how to express the importance in revisualizing the economy and those who are struggling to make a living and find a home within the confines of the stilted economy we find ourselves in. But any conversation about the economy inevitably falls on deaf ears of those who entered the working world in a different economy. Those who entered the working world before the 2008 Recession are convinced that if you work hard enough, you will find a job that can sustain you and support your family. Those who entered the working world before the 2008 Recession are convinced that education can provide you opportunity and advancement in the professional realm.

Those of us who entered the working world after the 2008 Recession know these things aren’t true.

We know that there is a constant and consistent threat to having your job being cut, reduced in the number of hours and that benefits are not a guarantee of any job anymore. We know that working full-time doesn’t cut it and know that working 40 + hours at a regular job is just the beginning of your work. We know that you also have to develop and maintain a side hustle, something that isn’t in addition to your job, but absolutely necessary to make ends meet.

And we know, if you entered the working world before the 2008 Recession, that you don’t get it. You don’t understand the amount of financial pressure and burden we’ve born for the entirety of our working lives.

There’s no way we can imagine a new economy until we are able to see where our economy truly is. There’s no way we can combat poverty, homelessness, and debt until we understand the reality of how little wealth the majority of Americans have access to. There’s no way we can stop blaming those who are struggling for not working hard enough and not trying hard enough until our eyes are opened to where we are.

And where we are is in desperate need of a new economy. A change. A different way of working and living in relation to one another.

When You Exile the Dreamers

One of the first questions I asked my very first congregations was, “What do you dream this church would be?” In their answer, I saw their passion to help their neighbors in need. I heard their stories of being exiled from communities of faith, but most of all I heard hope.

This past Sunday, I asked the same thing of New Hope. “What do you dream this church would be? What has God been whispering in your ear?” And I’ve heard stories blueprints, ideas of why God had called this community of faith to form. I’ve heard of blueprints drawn up and since abandoned, but most of all I’ve heard hope of being God’s presence in the community.

The physical act of dreaming catches us in our most vulnerable position: unconsciousness. It reveals our passions, our fears, our anxieties, and our loves. Dreams can bring lost loved ones back for a conversation or a hug. Dreams can remind us of friends who we haven’t spoken to.

And yet our society has become one who longs for dreamless sleep. We don’t want to dream and imagine, we don’t want to put ourselves into the vulnerable position of revelation. This is evident in the announcement yesterday about DACA and the Dreamers.

When we exile dreamers from our society, we exile imagination.

When we exile dreamers from our society, we exile possibility.

When we exile dreamers from our society, we exile passion.

When we exile dreamers from our society, we exile healing.

When we exile dreamers from our society, we exile gratitude.

When we exile dreamers from our society, we exile hope

When we exile dreamers from our society, you enter a dreamless sleep of ambivalence and hopelessness.