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On Missions

Last week I took six youth, one college student, and one young professional down to Conway, SC for Youth Missions Week. I am not a youth minister, but when I found that 25% of my current congregation was youth, I knew there was something missing in the life and work of our church. We needed our youth to have meaningful experiences. We need our youth’s questions and wonderings. We needed to invest in mission experiences and devotion times and jumping in pools and getting caught in the rain. These are the experiences that help our youth understand what it means practically to live a life as a Christian.

And so we packed up three cars with suitcases, food, and crafts and headed to the coast not knowing exactly what we would encounter. We knew of the good work Palmetto Missionary Baptist Church was doing with Palmetto Kids. We knew that partnering was powerful and so we showed up with willing hearts and willing hands to help pitch in. As it turns out, the teachers and youth groups that Palmetto Missionary Baptist Church usually have come to help them in the summers weren’t able to come this year: the same year we felt called to partner with them in their work. Crazy how the Holy Spirit moves and works things together, isn’t it?

As we taught and played game and painted and crafted, we were overwhelmed by the connection we formed with the Palmetto Kids. How could that happen so quickly? How could we do more to help at risks students? Our work was tiring, but inspiring. The faces of those kids, the laughter, and tears as we worked and studied alongside each other is not something we will soon forget.

This is church.

Accidental Resurrection

Three years ago during the Lenten Season, I felt such strong compassion for a bush in our yard that was being strangled by weeds. I could tell the weeds had so entangled this bush that the weed was literally taking the life from the bush. There were no blooms on the bush, but only dead limbs. I decided part of my Lenten practice was going to be to free that bush from the weed that was strangling it.

I am not a gardener. I do not have a green thumb, but I was determined. The weed was thorny and hardy. It didn’t come away from the bush easily. It put up a fight. In fact, it took me two sessions and numerous pricks in this bed to extract the weed from the bush. I watered this bush wanting so much for it to bloom. But it didn’t. I could see that there was life in the limbs again in the hints of green, but there were no blooms. The following Springs were the same, no blooms, but small pieces of evidence of life and growth.

I was disappointed. There were no Easter blooms. There were no butterflies that Spring to come to the butterfly bush. I was even more disappointed when I found out that what I had actually helped to resurrect wasn’t a butterfly bush at all, but rather a Bradford Pear tree that had been struck by lightning years ago. The tree had been removed, but the stump and roots remained.

My sweat and toil had accidentally resurrected a tree, not a bush. See I told you,  I am not a gardener. This accidental resurrection has been a running joke between me and Sam and the congregations I have pastored of my lack of gardening ability.

Yesterday as I pulled into the driveway, my breath caught. I spotted this white bloom. One bloom next to the rose bush we planted for our one year wedding anniversary. One bloom in the midst of a rainy and dreary day. One bloom after three years of no blooms. One bloom of hope in the midst of the darkness and wilderness of Lent.

For me, this is the picture of my own journey to weed out the effects of spiritual abuse in my life. The spiritual abuse that almost strangled me. The spiritual abuse that made me doubt who I am and my own worth. The spiritual abuse that threatened to overtake me. It’s been a long painful journey, but that one bloom is the perfect picture of the journey. I never thought I would be where I am, just as I never thought I was helping out a tree. What I’ve found on this journey of healing and wholeness is that my roots are strong. There is still life and hope. Resurrection does indeed come accidentally in the most unexpected and surprising ways.

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.

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?

Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: Alternative Facts

I ran across an article yesterday that there is archaeological evidence that in the early Christian Church there were female priests. Female priest administering communion. Female priests depicted with raised hands offering benediction, blessings, or perhaps even the word of God. I was shocked because I hadn’t heard this story. I was convinced that this was breaking news only to discover that the article was almost four years old.

Four years that there have been discussions about the role women played in the early church. Four years in which I have been ordained and called to pastor and I had no idea the conversation was going on. How could I, a woman in ministry, have missed something so relevant to my own life experience and calling?

Because we hear what we want to hear. Researches have discovered that the power of stating something that is false, is just as powerful as stating something that is true because:

“Once formed,” the researchers observed dryly, “impressions are remarkably perseverant.”

Impression is just as powerful as Truth? Surely not! Doesn’t Truth win out?

Even after the evidence “for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs,” the researchers noted. In this case, the failure was “particularly impressive,” since two data points would never have been enough information to generalize from.

The Stanford studies became famous. Coming from a group of academics in the nineteen-seventies, the contention that people can’t think straight was shocking. It isn’t any longer. Thousands of subsequent experiments have confirmed (and elaborated on) this finding. As everyone who’s followed the research—or even occasionally picked up a copy of Psychology Today—knows, any graduate student with a clipboard can demonstrate that reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational. Rarely has this insight seemed more relevant than it does right now. Still, an essential puzzle remains: How did we come to be this way?

Evidently not. We believe what we want to believe. We don’t research to determine if what we are saying or what we are passing along is Truth and once we leak these impressions, they’re hard to shake in our own minds and in the minds of the people we’re sharing with.

If there is a place where this happens again and again, it’s in communities of faith where reason is often placed on hold and making a leap of faith is encouraged, but when faith begins to be tainted with manipulation and coercion, when false impressions are giving with the purpose of oppression and silencing people, it is not faith. It is spiritual abuse.

It’s hard to swallow the truth that there are ministers and communities of faith who are interested not in the work of God, but in increasing their own wealth and their own power and their own prestige. But there are. It’s hard to swallow the truth that there are victims of spiritual abuse who have been told they aren’t good enough and shouldn’t trust themselves on purpose to ensure adherence to dogmatic teachings. But there are.

These are not alternative facts, but real people’s stories.

Perhaps churches wouldn’t be in decline if we were able to accept this Truth rather than clinging to impressions of what we want to be true, but I know some of you won’t believe this because you don’t believe study after study that reveals the churches are in fact in decline. This is what happens when the need to cling to impressions is stronger than the desire to search for Truth.

I Need Maundy Thursday

This Wednesday during our weekly chapel service at Transitions, we observed Maundy Thursday. We washed hands and took communion with the youth of New Hope Christian Fellowship and as we fellowshipped, we remembered the night Jesus supped with his disciples and gave them instructions to remember. Last night we gathered at New Hope to observe Maundy Thursday with foot washing and communion and darkness.

This day that is so often skipped in the days between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday has become important to me. I need Maundy Thursday. I need to know that those who walked closest with Jesus looked at him that night trying to understand what his was saying, but not able to understand. Because I too have these days of darkness where I hear the words of Jesus, but don’t know what they means. I need to hear the declarations that those who followed Jesus most closely would not deny him, knowing that in just hours, those words would prove untrue. Because I too declare I won’t deny that I have been called to follow as Jesus’ disciple and then deny that call. I need to hear the uncertainty and the confusion in the voice of the those who followed Jesus so closely on that night. Because I too find myself sitting in the midst of uncertainty and confusion.

I need this part of the story of what it means to be a follower of Christ. I need to be reminded that uncertainty about the future, doubt, and darkness are a part of what it means to follow after Christ. I need to be reminded that this journey asks me to be vulnerable and uncertain and yet to still follow, even when it’s in darkness.

You are inherently good.

For years, I believed in the depravity of humanity. In other words, because of what took place in the Garden of Eden involving Adam, Eve, and a serpent, the rest of humanity inherited a sinful nature. It was preached over and over again in churches, youth camps, and revival events. “Everyone must repent because all of us bear the mark of original sin.”

Even through my seminary years as we studied the theology of sin and the theology of good and evil, I couldn’t grasp a firm understanding of what it would mean to consider that perhaps humanity was not in fact inherently evil or sinful. I couldn’t fathom the possibility. It was too much for my theological framework to bear. I knew if I took that one block out and analyzed it, deciding whether it fit into my understanding of theological history and interpretation history the whole Jenga tower of my fragile theology would tumble.

I have always believed I was not good enough. Not that I was bad necessarily (even though the voice of religious authority in my life ensured me that even though I was saved, I was still sinful by nature), but there was always more I could be doing to gain favor with the Creator God. I believed that my role in this life was constantly try to make up for my sinful nature through any and every means possible, knowing all along that I was fighting an uphill battle I would never overcome.

In my studies as an educator, I believed strongly in the power of a strengths-based perspective rather than adhering to the deficit-perspective that the age of accountability and standardized testing was capitalizing on. Even though I had students who couldn’t read in my third grade class, I worked tirelessly to find some sort of written communication they understood whether that was a video game, a label on a t-shirt, or even their own name. And there was always some strength that could be built upon. That strength gave them confidence and courage to keep learning. 

What if the same were true of our faith? What if instead of reminding ourselves and our congregations of the sinful nature, of the depravity of human souls, we instead, for argument’s sake, consider the possibility that humanity is inherently good? What if it was the very divine breath that was breathed into our nostrils started a transformation in the Garden of Eden not towards evil, but towards good?

It’s taken me six years to even offer this as a possibility, but I am overwhelmed with evidence that suggests that perhaps this is in fact closer to our human nature than what Calvin suggested. In the midst of the 2015 flood relief, I saw people of a mobile home community who had been without potable water for one week desperate for survival, make sure that other people had water before they did. I saw them self-monitor making sure everyone got one case of water before ever taking another case for themselves.

I see this every week in our work at the homeless shelter. When stripped of power, position, and privilege something miraculous happens: community and fellowship. If there is one person who has a bag of cough drops, she shares it around the table making sure that everyone gets one, even if she doesn’t know if she will be able to buy another bag.

Perhaps it is the fear of losing our power, privilege, and position that reveals our insecurity about who we are and why we were created. In this uncertainty, we become disciples of the hierarchy and importance of our culture’s values: beauty, wealth, and comfort. We become such ardent believers that we disguise our very core nature. Perhaps it is in the best interest of our culture’s need to preach consumption that we are reminded again and again that we are not pretty enough, not wealthy enough, and not comfortable enough that we engage in transactions that make us witnesses to a gospel of the depravity of humanity. Perhaps this is not of God, but is of the gods of capitalism and consumption.

If we believe that inherently God’s creation is good as Creator God uttered after each day of creation in the Genesis 1 account, then we will treat each other differently. Instead of looking for flaws, we will look for each other’s strengths. Instead of distrusting intentions, we will believe in the goodness and the divineness that was breathed into our lungs to give us life. Instead of attacking each other with divisive words, we will instead choose to encourage. Instead of engaging in business and activities that bring about the kingdom of a culture of consumption, we will instead invest our time and resources into the subversive acts that uproot this culture and bring about the kingdom of God.

Maybe it just takes one voice crying in the wilderness:

You are good.

Creator God, said so, and so say I.

Am I Doing this Right?

As I was burning the dead plants from our garden in preparation for our Ash Wednesday services, I was overwhelmed with uncertainty. Am I doing this right? While we practiced baptism, leading communion, and discussed funerals and marriage ceremonies, we never burned ashes. Perhaps it’s because the celebration of Ash Wednesday isn’t all that common in baptist churches or perhaps it’s because there is ample opportunity to buy ashes already burned and ready for imposition. Perhaps it’s because part as communities of faith, we often assume that the way we’ve always done things will hold up.

As I watched the dead plants become ash while trying to keep our 16 month old a safe distance from the flame, I remembered the first time I had seen someone bearing the mark of the cross on an Ash Wednesday. It was my best friend who I knew attended the Catholic church across the street from my Southern Baptist Church and when she arrived to school, I tried to clean her forehead hoping to save her from embarrassment of having dirt on her head, which is what best friends do in middle school.

She stopped my hand as I tried and said, “It’s a cross. I went to mass this morning because it’s Ash Wednesday.”

I didn’t know what to say. I was embarrassed to wear my cross earrings to middle school and often hid my WWJD bracelet under my long sleeves, but here she was bearing the mark of the cross on her forehead for all to see. Her profession of faith and confession that she was dust and to dust she would return didn’t match my understanding of Catholics as “the others” and “nonbelievers.”

19 years later, as a I prepared the ashes for our own Baptist Ash Wednesday service, I was overwhelmed with the question: Am I doing this right? Am I including all? Am I welcoming all? Am I remembering that we are all the people of God overcome with our own dustiness at times and wanting only to find the divine breath that made us come to life? As a minister, am I challenging our human tendency to group ourselves into us and them, believer and nonbeliever, faithful and unfaithful? Am I questioning the times that we turn a finger to blame someone else for handing us the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil unwilling to admit that we did indeed take a bite?

And as the tomato stalks that had yielded fruit only to be eaten by bugs and plagued by blight turned to ash, so too did my question. Maybe it isn’t whether I am burning ashes “right” or ministering “right,” but rather that I am a witness to the miraculous power of creation to die and rise again. I am a witness that out of dust can come to life because the Divine walks among us.

A New Hope

Yesterday, New Hope Christian Fellowship called me to be their pastor and I said a wholehearted YES!

A New Hope…started a journey and ongoing battle between the dark side and the Jedi. A journey that has continued onto this generation in the form of new characters, missing story pieces, and a bond of love for Star Wars between parents and children. Perhaps new hope does just this, unites us, challenges us, and invites us to participate in a greater story.

Anew hope…If there has ever been a time that our world and our church needs anew hope, doesn’t it seem like now? As a millennial, I have certainly found myself in periods of church hopping and church knocking and church blocking. All of these stages and phases indications of my desire to find a place to serve where my experiences match the need surrounding a community, but I know so many other people who are looking for communities of faith to belong to. People to gather to worship with. People to gather around the table and eat with. People to call when life is so overwhelming that you know you can’t do it on your own.

People looking for a new hope. Thanks be to God for the community of faith called New Hope Christian Fellowship who are dedicated to learning, growing, and ministering to the community together. What a joy it is to be called Pastor by you!

 

Clergy, beware of eisegesis!

Clergy, beware of eisegesis,

disguising as prophetic preaching,

reaffirming your long held beliefs,

tempting as the apple from the tree,

reassuring you, you are right.

 

 

Clergy, beware of eisegesis,

propaganda for the American people,

endorsement for political parties,

violation of the Johnson Amendment.

 

Clergy, beware of eisegesis,

the people of God in desperate need,

of hope and healing and change,

left with nothing,

but your words

rather than God’s words

burning their lips

blinding their sight

transforming.