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Quarrels Among Us

When I share with people that I come from a family of six, one of the first things they ask is, “Did y’all get along?” I always answer yes and no. There were six of us, which multiplied the possibilities of people you could quarrel in what I am sure felt, to my parents, like an unending roll of the dice.

There were certainly times that we had trouble getting along: a phenomenon not unique to our family, which I know because of the invention of the Our Get Along Shirt that I’ve seen on Pinterest. You take one big shirt and put both kids heads through the neck hole and then the each get one arm out. Parents, there’s a little practical advice for you this morning!

There’s always a point when you are living in community together as families or communities of faith or friends that there is going to be some sort of quarrel or bickering or picking at each other. It’s how we examine our own perspectives and how we develop empathy and sympathy for someone else’s point of view. The quarreling brings up issues that are important, but eventually if you want to survive and thrive as a community who is walking through life together, there has to be a resolution to these quarrels.

And this is the point at which we hear from Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians chapter 1 beginning in verse 10.

Hear now the word of the Lord.

10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters,[a] by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.[b] 12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God[c] that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

I have to admit that there’s part of me that is suspicious of Paul’s claim here in 1 Corinthians. Doesn’t it kind of sound like Paul is just saying that the people of the church of Corinth should simmer down with the allegiance to different people so that they are faithful to him? Sure, he uses the argument that we all belong to Christ, but isn’t he trying to undo the power of Chloe and Apollos and then throw himself into the mix just to appear humble?

It would be easy to interpret this passage with that understanding, but there’s something more to these divisions. This is not a Clemson/Carolina or more importantly, a Duke/UNC division.

These are deep quarrels. Quarrels that turn to us vs. them. Quarrels that turn to factions and groups standing on opposite sides unwilling to even hear the other side. Quarrels that divide. Quarrels that can’t be solved with a get along shirt.

Paul isn’t suggesting that there should be no quarrels, but rather that there should be no divisions among us as followers of Christ. We should quarrel. We should discuss. We should live together in community, which means that we have to struggle to be together and be there for each other. When we don’t quarrel and pretend as though we all believe and agree to the same things, then we are missing a huge part of what it means to be a follower of Christ.

The cross.

The cross as Paul recounts in verse 17 loses it’s power when we cling to our own side of the story or tenaciously adhere to a specific teacher or a political party or yes, even a sports team, because we aren’t willing to sacrifice ourselves as Christ did.

And that’s what Paul is encouraging this community of faith deeply divided to wrestle with. For being a follower of Christ cannot occur until we, like Christ, are willing to sacrifice our body and yes even our blood for someone else.

You know one of the things that inevitably happens when you find yourself in the Our Get Along Shirt with someone is that you have to consider the other person’s needs. If the other person is thirsty, you have to go with him or her to the sink to get water. If that person is tired, you have to sit with them and beside them. Your time and your plans are not your own because you are walking so closely with someone else.

If we did think of others before ourselves, if we looked around us and wondered how can I meet someone else’s need today, then I’d be willing to bet, we wouldn’t have much time for talking and debating whether we liked Chloe or Apollos or Paul better. We would be too busy being the hands and the feet of Jesus, the hands and feet that were crucified on a cross, to others in our communities of faith and in our communities who are in grave need.
Perhaps getting along, or being of the same mind and purpose as Paul puts it, has a lot more to do with walking and living with each other in community, touching shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip and understanding that everyone needs community.

Small Great Things

It just happened to be my turn on the hold list at the library to read Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult. It just happened to be my turn to read this incredible book on the week of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday when the title of the book comes from a Martin Luther King, Jr. quotation:

If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.

It just happened to be my turn to read this book that tells the story of a black woman who has struggled against racism her whole life, but has never wanted to admit it. It just happened to be my turn to read this book when women all across the country are preparing to travel to Washington, DC to march and if they can’t go to Washington, DC, then to join together in their own communities to march and walk together.

It just happened to be my turn to read the inner thoughts of a white supremaist who tells his story from his perspective in this book on the week we elect a new president. It just happened to be my turn to read this story of a black women, a privileged white woman lawyer who is a public defender, and this white supremaist and how their stories and lives interact.

It just happened, this week, of all weeks that this story enters my life reminding me that the small things that we do to listen to stories we don’t want to hear, people we don’t agree with, and try to understand each other better can indeed be truly great things.

“What are you doing all the way out here?”

“What are you doing all the way out here?” I asked her as we both shirked from the cold wind.

She started to tell me and then stopped, “Hey, wait I know you. You’re the lady who gave me that bread that you dip into that juice in that tall cup.”

“That’s right,” I smiled realizing I had recognized her before she had recognized me. “You know the cold weather shelter is open tonight. Don’t you want to go there where it’s warm?”

“There’s too much drama there,” she explained.

I hesitated not knowing at all what to say. Wasn’t it worth enduring drama to be warm? It was below freezing outside, surely it was worth dealing with people so that you didn’t have to sleep outside.

“There’s always someone who is looking for a fight and it’s just not worth it,” she continued.

I was trying really hard to understand where she was coming from, to understand the world as she saw it, knowing that privilege was hindering a connection. I was trying to respect her voice and choice, knowing that telling her what she should do would disrespect her humanity in ways she had experienced over and over again.

I had seen first hand what she was talking about, people in desperate situations guarding their reputations and their identities fiercely. I knew she was speaking truth, but I also knew there was no way I’d ever completely understand.

A humbling realization.

She had seen more death than I had seen. She had felt more desperation than I had seen. She had felt more hunger than I had. There was a gap that divided us, a gap I’ve been working for eight month not to eliminate or justify or defend, but simply understand.

But maybe on Wednesday I would see her again and that gap would be bridged for just a moment as we worshipped and fellowshipped and celebrated the Lord’s supper together, side by side.

A Year of Healing

I found myself lying on the floor staring at the ceiling next to a basket of unfolded laundry unable to believe that 2016 is almost over. The day had started with a celebration at Transitions with the youth of New Hope Christian Fellowship and our three kids where we sang carols, drank cocoa, and ate cake together. We fellowshipped and celebrated making it through Christmas, one of the hardest holidays for the homeless population we have been working with over the past seven months. I was thinking about the forty people we had crammed into the big day room and wondered what was going to happen if our numbers continued to grow at the rate we have been growing. This was already the third room we had been moved to because we had outgrown the space in the other two rooms.

But even as I reflected and breathed a deep peaceful breath that all of the planning from Advent and all of the celebrations with family were concluded, the overwhelming thought that kept repeating itself was, “I never thought I’d be here.”

Even though I haven’t been vocal about it, I make a commitment each year to concentrate on a mantra or discipline, something that will stretch and challenge me, something that I hope will bring me new insights and new understandings.

In 2015 I concentrated on new life and on rebirth as I stepped fully into the role of pastor without being a student/pastor. I concentrated on nurturing and feeding the baby that grew within me. It was a beautiful time of recognizing and practicing resurrection helping my first community of faith to see that there is always a new start and a chance for joining in creating alongside of a Creator who walked with humanity in the cool of the evening. It was a year of anticipation and excitement.

2016 has been one of the hardest I’ve chosen because it’s been a year of healing.

In January, I had to acknowledge the impact nine months of pregnancy, hours of labor, including back labor, two attempts at an epidural before one actual took had taken on my body. I learned what my grandmother meant when she said she was “bone weary” as we navigated cluster feedings and growth spurts nurturing and caring for a mini human trying to wake up to the world around him. It’s been a year where I have had to accept more help than I’m comfortable and leave more things undone than I’d like.

It’s been a year that I have wrestled to understanding my story, one that includes spiritual abuse and will always include people who would rather me not tell my story. It’s been a year where I’ve had to say goodbye to a community of faith so influential in my journey as a follower of Christ and pastor.

It’s been a year where we’ve had to wrestle with the question of what’s next for months and months of uncertainty and fear in a contentious presidential election and then attempt to find our footing after the results came in.

It’s been a year when I’ve finally felt strong enough to start running again: running a long race, running old paths. And just when I started to feel my body heal, we were confronted again with how our whole lives can change in a week as our journey of healing moved from me to Sam. I’ve wondered how it be so tiring to give your mind and body time to heal. Isn’t it supposed to be a peaceful and restful process? And the image of Jacob limping away from this wrestling creeps into my mind knowing what the long journey of healing he had ahead of him looked like. 

As I got up and reached into the basket and started folding clothes dividing them into three stacks for our three sleeping kids, I wondered why I had made those late night promises to God to take time to heal in the early part of this year. Why hadn’t I chosen a different word, a different journey for this year? But even as the questions came to my mind, I knew that this time of cocooning ourselves and trying to give ourselves time to heal has been so important.

And as I look to next week, next year I can’t help but wonder has this all just been a part of the metamorphosis to come?

What will 2017 hold?  

Signs from Above

[W]ise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

I know it’s too early to celebrate Epiphany. I know we are supposed to wait for Christmas and then for twelve long days after Christmas, but I need a sign from above now before the Christ Child is even born. I need wise men to tell me that they have seen something remarkable in the sky, something worth journeying and traveling in order to pay homage to a baby.

I need to hear the angels proclaim again and again, “Fear not!” this Advent season. I need dreams, signs, and angelic proclamations to know that the divine is with us. I need the story of the birth of the Christ Child born to outsiders. I need the story of the birth of the Christ Child to a poor couple, unsure and uncertain what their future holds knowing only they have to journey together.

I need to know Emmanuel, God is with us.

I need Christmas to be on a Sunday this year, so I can gather together with our community of faith and we can remember this story together. We need to gather to worship and remember that what we experience the other days of the week doesn’t change the truth and light that we hear on Sunday. We need to gather so that we can strengthen each other to have the courage to that the light of this Christ Child within us.

Come, Lord Jesus, come. Your people are waiting, dreaming, and looking for signs.

I Just Want You to be….Kind

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I admit it, I teared up as Handy Manny and his tools delivered gifts to the major for kids whose parents couldn’t afford presents this year. Maybe it was because Ben and I had just returned from Florence where we dropped off presents and bags of food for children who lost their homes or whose parents lost work during Hurricane Matthew. Maybe it was because I am overwhelmed by Santa pictures and Santa Christmas lists and am wondering how as a parent you teach your children to think of the people who don’t have food or toys during Christmas before they rattle off their own lists of wants.

Gross-Loh in her book Parenting Without Borders explains:

In 1970, the primary goal stated by most college freshmen was to develop a meaningful life philosophy; in 2005 it was to become comfortably rich.

This is disturbing because it means our children are thinking first of their own comforts and seeking those comforts whatever the costs. This lack of empathy is part of our culture now and engaging in some of the cultural practices especially around this time of year may just be teaching our children that this is what life is about.

Gross-Loh explains:

[A] survey of high school students from five different U.S. schools asked them to rank what they wanted in life. Did they want to be happy? Did they want to be good, caring for others? Two-thirds of the students ranked happiness above goodness, and said they believed their parents held the same goal for them.

Wow.

Perhaps as a parent, I need to revisit my own rhetoric and refrain from saying I want you to be happy or asking what would make you happy and instead ask what would be the kind response? What could you do to show you care for someone? Perhaps as a parent, offering the invitation for our children to choose between thinking about themselves first and thinking of other first would open up conversations and truths within our children we haven’t seen before. Perhaps it’s within this next generation that hope, love, joy, and peace reside if we but offer the space and place to let them be who they are rather than who we want them to be.

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A Divine Blended Family

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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.

A Hand Reaching Out

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When Ben and I arrived to jummah prayer service at Masjid Al-Muslimiin, we were immediately welcomed by women of all ages. A teenage girl approached asking what Ben’s name was and then helped me with my headscarf. As I looked around the community gathered in the courtyard, I was speechless that there was a whole community of faith who gathered right off the busy street of Garners Ferry in Columbia on Friday afternoons whom I had never encountered. How many times had I passed the sign and not wondered about this community?

And as we gathered in the small room designated for the women sitting on the red-carpeted ground, I was overwhelmed by the sense of community that was palpable in the body heat of the women and children gathered. I resisted the urge to keep Ben close and let him wander through the sea of arms and legs just as the children for whom this was their faith family were doing. He tried to follow another little boy out of the door, but before he escaped, a hand reached out to stop him. It was a hand of an elderly woman in a burka and as he turned to look into her face, her smile spread across her face. She passed him a lamb stuffed animal to play with while whispering to him in Arabic. He sat beside her mesmerized and I stopped and watched as I held back tears.

We insist on so many boundaries and barriers in our American culture. We insist and protect our privacy, our right to free speech, our right to worship or not worship, our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We are missing so much life-giving, life-affirming love that comes from sitting together and reaching a hand out across those boundaries and barriers. Thanks be to God for this community of faith for their courage in inviting us, outsiders, into their community of faith for truly this is divine, mysterious, transformative, radical hospitality.

On Bearing the Weight of Responsibility

There’s still a part of me that can’t believe the election results. A part of me that feels stuck in The Truman Show or Westworld or a narrative that takes an unexpected turn. I can’t believe the results because once I do believe them, I will have to bear the weight of responsibility of the role I played in these results.

I will have to admit and accept the times I wasn’t willing to engage or listen to someone who didn’t believe as I did. I will have to admit the times I have ignored, minimized, and judged complaints or hardships as no big deal from those I decided were too privileged to truly understand being an outsider. I will have to admit that I didn’t know there were so many people for whom our president-elect would strike a chord and speak to their realities in a way that offered hope.

But even more than these admissions, the hardest admission will be admitting that as a minister, I haven’t pushed hard enough to welcome and affirm all. If I’m honest with myself I have welcomed and affirmed those who have agreed with me, affirmed and supported my call as a woman in ministry, while holding those who don’t agree with me at arm’s length.

Most merciful God, I confess that I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what I have done, and by what I have left undone. I have not loved you with my whole heart; I have not loved my neighbors as myself. I am truly sorry and I humbly repent, for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on me and forgive me; that I may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Episcopal Book of Common Prayer

I accept the weight of the responsibility of the part I played in the divisive, defensive, and judgmental rhetoric and all the times I have left undone the opportunities to offer hope and healing my neighbors, all of my neighbors. Thanks be to the merciful God who offers resurrection and new life.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The presidential election results have sent many into a whirlwind of emotions. For some, these emotions are of finally being heard. For others, these emotions are filled with lost hope that they are central to the fabric of American life.

In the midst of these emotions and trying to come to terms with these emotions, ministers and communities of faith are wrestling with the role they will play in helping shepherd and guide their congregations. If our country is as divided as the presidential elections revealed, then our communities of faith have deep barriers to overcome in trying to offer a word from God and trying to stay together as a communities of faith.

Would it be better if we just divided into sides? Would it be better if we avoid any talk of political discussion in our communities of faith? Or has this election cycle revealed how our communities of faith shy away from dealing with the issues that American people have passionately and publicly voiced through their vote are important to them?

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Where do we go from here?

We know the evangelical right played a critical role in the results of the election, but those claiming the identity of evangelical also share something else in common:

The key to understanding Trump’s support among evangelicals is to realize that some evangelicals’ commitment to the faith is shaky, too. Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.

Or at least they didn’t in March of this year. We’ll have to wait to see if the election results changes that trend, but this isn’t surprising since church attendance and identification with a religious denominations has been on the decline and communities of faith have felt the impact of this trend in budgets, but could our communities of faith’s fear of addressing with hot button issues have contributed to the results of this presidential election? Could we have impacted the leadership of our country by addressing issues that are plaguing Americans rather than shying away in favor of safe, easy sermons? Could we have been more relevant in our teachings and in our ministries?

These are questions we will have to wrestle with as ministers and communities of faith as we desperately try to play catch up and regain our voice in the lives of millions of Americans who are now not only hurting, fearful, and angry, but are also divided into us vs. them.