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A Divine Blended Family


There’s something about the picturesque nativity scenes that have caused to me to ponder this Advent season. The cast of characters are usually the same in nativity scenes leaving out part of the story like the camel-hair wearing, locust-eating voice crying out in the wilderness. He’s just a little too out there. I mean how would we explain him to our kids?

Not only have I been wondering about why some people are included in these scenes and not others, but I’ve also been wondering about the peaceful expressions on these characters. Last Advent was a blur of new motherhood, but even though it is a blur, I know for certain our family certainly wasn’t this peaceful and put together. And as I’ve thought about our family and this divine family, I’ve been struck this year that they were a blended family. Did Joseph worry about whether his son would look at him one day and say, “You aren’t my real father!” like so many stepparents do? How were they going to explain to this baby that he was different than other families?

And as these questions roll around in my head and heart, I realize that although nativity scenes decorate our communities of faith during this Season, these questions of challenging truths don’t often accompany the scenes. Instead, we preach a peaceful, picturesque gospel that sits on a shelf, decorating our lives, but not transforming our lives.

If we really preached how revolutionary this blended divine family was, then we would have to question our nice, neat faith that allows us to worship both the Christ Child and Santa Claus at this time of year. If we really preached how this Christ Child gathered the outsiders and outcasts of society in a barn where animals slept, then we would have to question our pretty, festive church buildings. If we really preached what the birth of this Christ Child means, then we would have to accept the understanding that Jesus’ birth is a celebration and not a way of life for us.

There is nothing picturesque or peaceful about the birth of the Christ Child.

“Hope Is the Thing With Feathers”

“Hope” is the thing with feathers – (314)
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
Source: The Poems of Emily Dickinson Edited by R. W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999)
Hope is the thing with feathers,
the thing that can be blown away
with the hot air of hatred.
Hope is the thing with feathers,
that seems impossible to grasp
in the midst of violence.
Hope is the thing with feathers
that changes words of dissent
into words of peace and love.
Hope is the thing with feathers
that floats across hearts and minds
but can stay if we but grab hold tightly.

The Importance of Participation

I was recently at my parents’s house and found my box of awards. You know the one I mean: the one that has all those participation ribbons and those good works and the more special awards, the ones you worked really hard to receive and tried to act like you didn’t care if you got them or not, but you really did care: the MVPs, the honor roll, the good citizens award.

And I was thinking about those Award Nights throughout school in which I knew that by participating I was eligible to receive an award, but there was a big maybe hanging in the air. Maybe I would be called out or maybe I would watch as other teammates and classmates were (this was much more of my experience). And I thought about how vulnerable that place of uncertainty is: the not knowing, the hoping, the possibility of being let down. It would have been a lot safer to not have participated at all because then I would know that I wasn’t eligible. I would have taken myself out of the running.

And I know that’s where a lot of us are in our presidental elections. We’ve taken ourselves, our vote, our voice out of the running because we don’t want to participate because we aren’t happy with either candidate. And I get it because participating, signing up to vote, going to vote, and then waiting to see if your vote mattered at all, is vulnerable and risky and you find yourself in the same position as in school waiting and hoping, but not knowing.

But being in the midst of that scary, undecided, waiting position is one of the best position we can put ourselves in because it means we are depending and counting on a community of people. It means we are putting our control on the line. It means we are not going to be able to cop out with the “Well, that’s why I didn’t vote,” when the December rolls around.

Instead, we tried. We participated. We voted.

“I’m Not Good Enough to Take Communion”

This week at ministrieslab, we studied chapter 14 in Luke’s gospel where Jesus teaches his disciples a parable about the place of honor at the table:

14:7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 14:8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 14:9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 14:10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 14:11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 14:12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 14:13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14:14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

I told those gathered the story of my family and how growing up, we always had the same seats at our round, wooden table. I told them that the way it had ended up was with the youngest seated next to my mom and the second youngest (that would be me) sitting next to my dad, probably because we were the two who needed the most help. The older children had migrated away from my parents as they had gotten older and younger siblings had come along.

We knew we had a place at the table and we knew that we were welcome to the table.

For so many whom we have worshipped with at ministrieslab, this isn’t true. They aren’t welcomed to a table because they are without homes or because they have can’t see family, children, or spouses because of past choices.

And so when the man said he didn’t feel like he should take communion, I wasn’t surprised, I had heard this often in our worship and work. I said what I usually say, “Here are ministrieslab, everyone is welcome to the table. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been since you’ve been to church or what kind of church you attended. All are welcome to fellowship with us and remember Christ’s sacrifice.”

“Thank you, but not today, I’m not good enough.”

I looked him squarely in the eye and said, “I’m not saying that and our passage today is not saying that.”

“I know, I’m just working on some things.”

I smiled and nodded appreciating the reverence with which he engages in the sacred act of communion. Afterwards, he came up and asked if we would have chapel next week. I told him we would. He asked if communion would be served. I assured him it would.

“Good,” he responded.

“I look forward to seeing you next week.”

This radical act of breaking bread and pouring wine or juice and offering it to God’s people wherever we encounter them is transformational just as this parable in Luke. Perhaps if we concentrated on sharing God’s table with those who can’t repay us with tithes or designated gifts or invitations to feast together and instead invite those who can’t repay us to table fellowship, we would understand this parable more clearly and in turn we would understand what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

Don’t Change the Channel, Create Instead

Last night I sat down after picking up donations at Panera Bread for our service with ministrieslab and St. Andrews youth to watch the end of the RNC. As I did, I watched Twitter and Facebook only to see more and more people say they were changing the channel because they couldn’t take more of the same from the republican party nominee for president. I understand where they are coming from and certainly had moments when I wanted to walk away from what was going, but as I fought that urge and kept listening, I realized something important.

This is no longer a parody. This is one of presidential nominees. This is our reality.

One of our presidential nominees uses gaslighting as a main rhetorical device made obvious by bullying a reporter, and has given an acceptance speech that clearly indicates he has no intention of working with Congress or depending on historical precedent (or historical presidents for that matter).  When we turn the channel and ignore what is happening, we are giving up.

Instead, let’s create.

Let’s create art and writing and musics that inspires. Let’s create spaces where all are welcome to sit down and fellowship together. Let’s create opportunities to challenge our own privilege by opening our eyes to the need around us. Let’s create families who teach our children to love each other and love our neighbors. Let’s create churches who don’t ignore the hungry lined up every morning or the children’s homes or high poverty neighborhoods in our backyards.

Let’s create beautiful resurrection by not working for ourselves and our own agendas, but by communing and journeying together.

You Have Access

On Thinking Religion this week, Dr. Thomas Whitley and the Reverend Sam Harrelson talk about the access to information we all have at our fingertips. (How they get to this point is a really fascinating trail that’s worth listening to!) We all have the opportunity to read from a wide range of perspectives and we should. We should read about Donald Trump’s conversion experience and we should read about those who wonder if he’s conversion is a political stunt. We should read and we should read a lot about the future of technology and social media and how it is changing our jobs, our families, and our churches.

We should also understand the impact that these changing dynamics have on how we communicate with one another and how we form our religious ideals and beliefs. Even if you think that your absence from these forms of communications makes you immune to the conversations being held in the virtual world, the conversation is going to leak into our face-to-face interactions.

My move to co-pastor with Sam to create something different, a church without walls that has the flexibility to pop up and respond to need is an affirmation of what I believe is the future of the church. This is what ministrieslab is. If you’ve been in church recently than you know the conversation has shifted from going to church to being the church. This isn’t just a clever preaching takeaway, this is the future of the church. And if you think it’s not relevant that church news has been a part of Huffington Post, then you’re missing out on the importance of where we find ourselves in American church life.

All signs point to significant changes in the way church exists in America in the next five years. The question is where will you find yourself in the midst of these changes?

I know where I’ll be. I’ll be popping up in the midst of need with the person I love the most in this world.

You Cannot Work Here

Next week is Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s General Assembly, the annual gathering for those affiliated with moderate and progressive Baptist churches, the group that famously split with the SBC 25 years ago. 25 years ago CBF formed as the Baptist that supported women in ministry and upheld historic Baptist principles. Next week in the midst of the 25 year celebration, there will also be questions and conversation about the future of CBF.

Young Baptist are asking where there place is in an organization that is on the cusp of having its founders retire, but whose founders can’t quite retire because of lost income and retirement in the split. CBF is in a holding pattern waiting to land while the next generation of CBF looks up at the leadership circling overhead awaiting a chance to pilot CBF into their future. Part of that future has to include a conversation about whether CBF will remove its discriminatory hiring policy excluding members of the LGTBQ community from working at CBF. This conversation is even more important for supporters and allies of the LGTBQ community in light of the Orlando shooting.

In October of 2000, the Coordinating Council of the CBF adopted the following policy on homosexual behavior related to personnel and funding:

Because of this organizational value, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship does not allow for the expenditure of funds for organizations or causes that condone, advocate or affirm homosexual practice. Neither does this CBF organizational value allow for the purposeful hiring of a staff person or the sending of a missionary who is a practicing homosexual.

CBF’s stance barring openly gay people from working at CBF has caused some to boycott the CBF and others to question whether CBF will survive without changing this hiring policy. Those of us who have been told that they cannot work somewhere based on our gender or sexual orientation and not our qualifications, work experience, or education are anxiously waiting to see what CBF will decide.

Our hope is that we will not leave our annual meeting as our Methodist brothers and sisters did with the admonition to keep putting our lives and our very selves on hold.

Sometimes You Need Permission to Be Yourself

Elisabeth and I talk a lot about being women entrepreneurs. We talk about the stress of trying to secure work each month in order to pay the bills. We celebrate the good times, and we allow each other the space and grace to share the times we mess up and give up.

More than anything, we provide each other the permission to be ourselves.

Creating something new and different, something that is your own is unnerving to a lot of people. It makes them wonder and question how you spend your time. It makes them challenge you and try to doubt yourself because it’s so different and unusual.

But here’s the thing. No matter what anyone else says to you or about you, you have the deciding power to let it dictate who you are and how you see yourself. When we do take on those names and labels that other people try to put on us, we are giving up our voice to decide who we are. No one really gets to decide who we are except the voice inside of us.

Sometimes you need permission to be yourself. Sometimes you need permission to do the things that center you, that remind you of who you are, what you believe in, and the people who are important to you. Sometimes you need permission to say, “I am a good writer. I am a good pastor. I am a good partner. I am a good mom. I am a good sister. I am a good brother. I am a good dad.”

You have my permission to chose one of these statements and wear it instead of whatever label other people have tried to put on you.

Ready, go!

Don’t Tell Your Story

In my work as a publisher, I encounter many people who tell me they have a great idea for a book. I find fewer people who tell me they are writing a book. I find even fewer who tell me they have written a book.

But lately, I have encountered more and more people who have told me they have been told not to write about the very thing they believe they should write about: their personal experiences. They have been advised by editors not to relay their personal story. Curious about the reasoning they were given not to write, I asked them a little bit about their stories. I quickly discovered that these people were told not to write their stories because of what their stories would reveal about the church, about the world, and about how life really is.

Whether we like to admit it or not, we crave the story with the happily ever after. We balk and boycott stories that reveal the brokenness that exists in the world because somehow being reminded of the brokenness in the world, reveals the brokenness in ourselves. We find ourselves telling people not to tell their stories, silencing the brokenness in the world so that we too can silence the nagging reality of our own brokenness.

These would-be authors are often those who have been oppressed and silenced throughout history: women, children, blacks, immigrants. They tell me that the advice they’ve been given is that no publisher would ever publish a story so raw and controversial. I tell them, maybe you just haven’t found the right publisher.

I tell them write your story and send it to me. The world needs to know your story.

On Getting the Last Word

I was in Target, which is not an uncommon place for me to find myself as we await Baby H’s arrival. As I was standing in line, there was a frenzy of activity in the returns and customer service section. As I waited, I was trying to determine what was going on. There was a white, middle-aged woman who was searching for something, maybe something that had been put on hold, and she was insisting that she be allowed behind the counter to just look for it herself. The manager and the checkout clerk were both very attentive as they tried to help her and understand what she was trying to find, but it seemed as though the item or one of the items wasn’t there.

Finally, the woman gave up and very abruptly said to the young, black checkout clerk, “Fine, just let me get that and could you hurry please I’m in a rush and this has taken forever.”

The checkout clerk responded, “Of course,” and proceeded to check her out.

As she was handing the bag to the customer, the customer had to have a parting word, “This is the worst customer service I’ve ever received.”

I’ll be honest, if the interaction had ended there, I would have understood the woman because dealing with large companies is often frustrating and hearing that there is nothing that a checkout clerk or a manager can do to help your situation is infuriating. Isn’t this why so many of us avoid those customer service phone calls that we all have to make to straighten out a wrong bill or an insurance issue?

But she didn’t stop there.

Her parting words to the checkout clerk (who by the way hadn’t enjoyed the interaction she had just been having anymore than the customer had) were calling her a name, which I didn’t hear, but to which the checkout clerk responded, “As are you.” I couldn’t help but wonder why that interaction had to get to the point of demeaning and name-calling. Sure, it was a frustrating experience, but it was for both parties involved, not just the customer.

This past week’s lectionary passage was on taming the tongue and the power of the tongue to start a fire. Although I’d rather not admit it I’ve been on both sides of similar interactions. I’ve been the one to receive a tongue-lashing from a simple miscommunication or misunderstanding. I’ve also been the one (more often than I’d like to admit) that has to get that last word in and who turns interactions into personal attacks.

We see this everywhere, especially as we are the midst of presidential debate season. We have lost the ability to discuss and debate without demeaning and degrading people. I think this is what the author of James was trying to encourage us to do. This doesn’t mean that we are to be quiet or silently brood over the state of the world, but rather that we are to model what it means to have control over our tongues, so that our tongues and our words are used to provoke change and to challenge the status quo. You might find me naive, but I think as rational, human beings we can do this without stooping to demeaning and degrading other human beings who carry God’s breath of life.

Or at least we could try. And in so doing, we are accepting the invitation of Creator God to participate in creation and making this world “good” again.