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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.

Staring Into the Light

As Ben and I were walking this morning, we rounded the corner and Ben started to whine. He had his hand over his eyes and I realized the change in direction put the sun rise directly into his eyes. It made me think about looking directly into the poverty, homeless and need that exists in our society.

It’s almost too much. It’s too much to consider that another Category 4 or 5 hurricane could hit another part of our country. It is too much to think about the fact that we have food and homes while others don’t and so just like Ben, we often shield our eyes from the reality, but looking away or shielding our eyes won’t change the needs of neighbors.

It will still be there when we open our eyes shaded by the comfort and security of our own privilege. Maybe it’s time to head into the light, as bright as it is because there in the light is where we find Jesus healing those who are sick, eating with those who are outsiders and preaching to anyone who will listen.

 

Why this Labor Day is Different

This Labor Day is different because of the Homelessness Coalition I attended last week where people all over Columbia who felt passionately about helping the homeless came together to learn. We learned about the fair housing, we tried to make ends meet through a poverty simulation (I bet you can’t make it 30 days), and we asked ourselves how we could work together to combat poverty and homelessness in the Midlands.

As a young professional who entered the job market in 2008, I understand the impact the recession had not only on me and my colleagues but also on the baby boomers who were just within reach of retirement only to find out that they had to start all over. I understand the changing dynamics of what it means to work. I also understand the negative impact of the myth of the American Dream.

The average worker has to work one month in order to make what a CEO makes in one hour. 1% of our population holds 40% of all of America’s wealth. 8 out of every 10 people only hold 7% of America’s wealth. 500,000 youth (18+) are homeless. In fact, America meets all three criteria for qualifying as a third world country: poor distribution of income, government run by the elite, political focus on stasis rather than change.

South Carolina is the 8th poorest state in the US. In order to afford housing that is livable and abides by fair housing regulations, an individual needs to between $12.5-$18.29/hour. The minimum wage in SC is $7.25 meaning that a person who is working a minimum wage job would have to work 120 hours/week in order to afford housing that abides by fair housing regulation. This is physically impossible, but again and again, the homeless population is blamed for being lazy and not trying hard enough. Four out of ten homeless people hold jobs and four out of ten have no savings, so when a big expense in transportation, deposits, or medical bills arise there is no way for them to pay for those surprise expenses.

NPR reported today: “Full-time employees have become the last resort. Companies will do anything to hire part-time, short-term, or contract positions.” In addition: “More and more people who are full-time employees need second jobs or side gigs in order to make ends meet.” Our world is not the same as it has been. The changing dynamics of the economy and the changing idea of what it means to work is changing young professionals.

If communities of faith want to be relevant to young professional, there has to be an understanding of the uphill battle they are facing when it comes to finding work and finding reliable income. Our neighbors are in need. What are we going to do to help?

The Aftermath

We are living in the aftermath.

We’re living in the aftermath of a major universal event that many have never experienced. 

We’re living in the aftermath of protests that ended in death.

We’re living in the aftermath of the storm that has destroyed a major city and left thousands stranded and homeless. 

We’re living in the aftermath of a statement from an evangelical group who claim to know what God says about marriage and what isn’t marriage in God’s eyes.

We’re living in the aftermath in which people are waiting for you. They are waiting to see how you will respond. If you will respond with statements of support. If you will respond with donations. If you will respond with silence and awe. If you will respond with a theological crisis. If you will respond with an identity crisis. If you will respond by continuing to live unimpacted and unchanged.

We are living in the aftermath; the ground shifting under us, inviting us to change, inviting us to new insight and new understanding. Will you accept?

The Ghosts of Our Past

I just finished reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved part of my commitment this year to read more books by women authors, authors from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and authors of different ethnicities and races. Morrison weaves a devastating tale of African Americans trying desperately to find freedom from slavery. Her main character Sethe is beaten when she is pregnant to the point that she will wear scars on her back for the rest of her life. In a pivotal moment, Sethe’s old owner finds her in Ohio and intends to claim his property back: her and all four of her kids. What is she supposed to do? That moment of decision plagues her for the rest of the book. Ghosts from her past keep her up at night, make her question who she is, and make her wonder whether she is a good mother.

I’ve often said I wish I could go back to the community of faith I grew up in now that I have found my voice and speak into the sexism and spiritual abuse I encountered. I wish I could stand up to that power and privilege protecting the hierarchy and often times missing opportunities to meet the desperate needs of the community. These ghosts of my past keep me up at night, make me question who I am, and make me wonder whether I am a good mother as the theology I grew up in taught that a woman’s most important role was to raise her children, not share God’s word, especially from a pulpit.

This weekend, we saw the ghosts of our past as a country in broad daylight in the violent protests of Charlottesville, VA. We saw the hatred and enmity as one woman was killed and nineteen others were injured. We saw the racism, sexism, and elitism that are usually subtexts and passive aggressive comments broadcast in public. We were confronted with the reality that our country was founded on the backs of treating people like property and animals. We discovered there are still some who believe that the past is not only ok but the way things should be.

The thing about ghosts of our past is that we don’t want to seem them. In fact, most of convince ourselves that ghosts don’t exist brushing aside the missed opportunities to offer a helping hand to someone in need, excusing the privilege we have enjoyed with defenses of why we deserve what we have (forgetting this means others don’t and can’t have what we have), and forgetting that what we saw this weekend, we helped create.

But being confronted with the ghosts of our past reminds us of where we have been and challenges us to ask the question who do we want to be. Do we want to be the kind of people who try to ignore the racism, sexism, and elitism that abounds in our country limiting the possibilities of other people? Are we going to brush aside people’s stories of racism, sexism, and elitism when we hear them blaming the victim? Or are we going to be the community that surrounds these ghosts of the past and exposes them?

At the end of Morrison’s book, there is a beautiful scene of the community gathering at the edge of the property where Sethe lives. They sing, they pray, they stay until she comes out of the house and they stop her from repeating her past. This is the power of community.

We can’t face the ghosts of our past alone. We need the power of community to help keep us accountable and courageous to become something more than who we used to be.