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Believing When You Cannot See

Since Easter, I have been ministering in this space of uncertainity and doubt, wondering if I heard correctly that I was supposed to step out into the unknown yet again. Sam and I are celebrating a new phase of life as he takes on a new position as Director of Marketing for a Columbia-based company and as we create ministrieslab, but this is not where I expected to be.

But this has held true for so many aspects of my life. I didn’t expect to teach overseas, I wished and I hoped, but I didn’t expect it. I didn’t expect to be a private school teacher, but I was and I met my partner in life, in parenting, and in ministry. I didn’t expect to change careers, especially after investing in an advanced degree in education. I didn’t expect to find a church that would call a female pastor because of the people who told me that churches weren’t ready. And I certainly didn’t expect to be experimenting with the future of the church through a pop up worship experience.

But more than anything I didn’t expect to be living a life without a long-range, color-coated plan like the ones I made every year before I started teaching. Each time I have been overcome with the wrestling of my call to ministry, I have been asked to step into the unknown. I have been asked to confront my need for a plan and my fear of not been successful. Each time I have followed that call into the unknown, I have discovered more about myself, including my privilege, my assumptions, my stereotypes, and my past. And each time, I have found a community of faith that supports and encourages me on the journey. Sometimes those words of encouragement are dreams that the person offering them could step into the unknown. Sometimes those words of encouragement are in the form of questions and intrigue.

I can’t find evidence in scripture that we get the whole plan and get to see before we believe, before we follow, but again and again we do find crazy God and Jesus followers who are stepping out, without knowing fully what they are stepping into.

So, I’ll keep packing communion elements and taking them to people who need to hear that they are loved, that they are valued, and that they are children of God welcomed to table fellowship with God as we worship the crazy journey that is following after Christ.

When Church Walls Prevent Us From Being the Church

As Ben and I were enjoying our afternoon Panera coffee break (he just had water), we met an Assembly of God minister who was interested in what we were doing at ministrieslab. He explained that church starting had started to be a conversation in the AG church and church starters were encouraged to find a theater or a school to meet in. Then he asked, “Where are ya’ll going to meet?”

I responded, “We’re not going to have a place. We’re going to be the church and pop up in the midst of need.”

He considered that for a minute and then drew the connection to the early church movement. I smiled as he continued to reflect on the changes in church and the emphasis on having bigger and bigger congregations and buildings. He concluded his reflection by saying, “But a lot of those churches don’t have missions as their center. They just want to have more people.”

“Exactly,” I agreed. “Whether we like to admit it or not, having church walls has changed our perception of church. Most people believe church is a place to go to and not a way to live your life.”

In working with the homeless population in Columbia, I’ve heard numerous stories of people who have invited the clients to church, but they can’t go to church because of their limited mobility. It made me think of the number of times I have been invited to church and these invitations have always been to a certain place at a certain time on a certain day, but didn’t Jesus command us to go?

Church walls confine our ability to dream about the future of the church. Church walls ask us to label and separate children, youth, and adults into age-based Sunday School classes. Church walls confine our ministers to office and office hours limiting their ability and mobility in the community.

Church walls limit our creativity in thinking about the future of the church. Perhaps it’s time to break down some of those walls that exclude and label and dream of what we could do if we were the church instead of if we went to church.

Because ministrieslab doesn’t have a building, Ben and I met a fellow minister at a coffeeshop. A fellow minister with whom we got to fellowship and who also provided a donation to the work we are doing.

Want to join us in our mission to pop up in the midst of need? We’ll come to you.

As You Go Ministry

If you haven’t heard or experience a pop up consignment shop, restaurant, or community meal, then you are missing a big part of the current economy. Maybe the idea came from the flash mob phenomenon that made you feel like you were part of a musical. Maybe it came from the millennial movement patterns. Maybe it has to do with the changing economy that has pushed for people to be more creative.

I honestly don’t know the why of it, but I do know that musicians, business owners, and restaurant owners are not letting doing things the way they have always been done get in the way of their ideas and dreams. They are creating a place and space for them to follow their passions as they go. This allows flexibility, mobility, and creativity to flourish.

As I have read about and experienced these pop events, I couldn’t help but draw the connection to Jesus’ ministry. Isn’t this what Jesus did?

He popped into town after town, found his way to the synagogue and often found his way to teaching a crowd of people. And when he was on the way from one town to the next, he healed and taught and fed the people he met along the way. There’s a movement to Jesus’ ministry that is often missing from our communities of faith. We make the trip to our place of worship, but as we go to those communities of faith, we often ignore or pass by the need that surrounds us. We get so focused on getting somewhere or getting from one place to the next that we miss the people that pop into our path.

Whether you believe in providence or not, there is no doubt that we are traveling through life with people. People we know. People we don’t. People who are like us. People who are different us.

But all people who need someone to pop into their lives and see them and hear them and love them. Maybe that’s what the pop up culture can teach the church: no matter where you pop up, there is a need for community and a need for healing.

 

On Pastoring a Transient Congregation

Yesterday at ministrieslab, we popped up at Transitions homeless shelter. It would be easy to think if you have been following the journey of ministrieslab that we have created a predictable time and space to worship. And we have. It would be easy to think we have developed a community of faith with regular participants. And we have.

But these are not the norm. Over the course of three months, we worshipped with thirty-five different people. Yesterday we had fifteen people only two of whom who had worshipped with us before.

Pastoring a pop up church has taught me that my desire to have an order of worship that we follow every week with a community of faith that has familiar faces is part of my privilege. In the three months of co-pastoring ministrieslab, I have learned more about my own privilege, stereotypes, and assumptions than I expected or really wanted to. I have been reminded of my experience teaching in high poverty schools and the shock when I came back from Christmas break to discover that one third of my class had moved and one third of my class was now new. When you are working in the midst of need, you are working with a transient population.

My privilege has allowed me the certainty to plan for where I will be from week to week. My privilege has allowed me the certainty that when I get involved of a community of faith I will be accepted and welcomed and allowed to serve and learn and grow. Coming to terms with the truth that my worship experiences as a congregant and as pastor has been filled with privilege has been tough to swallow.

We will need ministers ready and willing to challenge their own privilege to lead us the church into the future. The process isn’t easy. It’s humbling and vulnerable and disorienting, but this is the future of the church.

Ministry is Disruption

If somehow in the midst of your journey to answer a call to ministry, you’ve thought that ministry is a stable, secure profession, it’s not. Ministry disrupts your life and your plans. Ministry puts you in the middle of shootings, in the middle of assembling bleach kits for a needle exchange program, and in the middle of a group of people waiting for the door of the homeless shelter to open so they can have a place of refuge for the day.

As I held our eight-month old on one hip and a bag of donated bread in my other hand saying, “Good morning,” to the people who were waiting to get in, there was a fleeting moment where I wondered if I should have brought him with me. Maybe as a parent, I should be shielding him from the man sleeping on newspaper and the clients who live at shelter who are dressed and headed to work, just like they do every morning. Maybe I shouldn’t be showing him the Lexus SUVs and Sedans of the staff who are scanning into work while others wait outside having not eaten since the night before.

But this is exactly what I want our son to see. I want him to see and understand privilege.

I want him to be on the outside with those being kept out and monitored. I want him to understand that ministry is disruption whether that’s a disruption morning routine in order to drop off donations or disruption by trying to give bread to people waiting outside of the homeless shelter until the security guard has to come out and explain that all donations have to go inside to be reallocated later in the day.

We have convinced ourselves that ministry is predictable, patterned, and planned because that’s easier, safer, and more comfortable.

Ministry is not comfortable.

Ministry is not predictable.

Ministry is disruption.

 

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.

On Pastoring a Church in Which I Am the Minority

For eight weeks, Sam and I have been co-pastoring ministrieslab,a church popping up in the midst of need. This week, as we gathered for our weekly service at Transitions, I was struck by the overwhelming task of preaching on the Good Samaritan as a white woman in community of faith in which I am a minority.

What could I say?

I had no words for the violence experienced. I had no words for the systematic discrimination exposed. I had no words for the lives lost. I had no words for the way we were all able to be witnesses these deaths through technology over and over again. I had no words for the way I had been challenged and reminded of my own white privilege throughout the week.

And in the midst of being tongue-tied, a question came from one of the people in our community. He asked me about my journey into the ministry. I told him about not being accepted or affirmed because of my gender. He was shocked as were some of the other people gathered that there were churches who did not believe women could preach.

And as we worshipped and prayed and mourned and feasted on the word, I was reminded of my call to pastor. I was reminded of my call to preach. I was reminded that when we don’t listen to the still, small voice that calls us to take up our cross and follow after Christ, then we end up walking on the other side o f the road when people are in need. I was reminded that when we truly see each other, then we bear each others burdens: burdens of despair, of grief, or hopelessness.

As we concluded the service, the same man who had asked me about how I became a pastor said while looking me straight in the eyes, “Thank you for coming and blessing us today.”

“Thank you for coming and worshipping today,” I responded.

But what I wanted to say was, “Thank you for seeing my need. Thank you for seeing my wounds of rejection and being excluded and tending to them. Thank you for reminding me of what it means to be a good neighbor regardless of our race, our gender, or our religious beliefs.”

Words Floating Overhead

For as long as I can remember, I had words floating overhead and in my head and around my head. But for a long time I didn’t have many words to share. I was an incredibly shy child.

For a long time the words floating overhead were overwhelming, intimidating, and unreachable. I knew they were there. I knew they were there for me. But I didn’t know how and when I was supposed to grab them and let them enter into the world of conversations and discussions among people.

I remember in high school the words weighing heavily on my shoulder when I was being encouraged to prepare to be a godly wife and to learn what it meant to be a lady in waiting. I remember thinking to myself, but what about these words. These words that need to be said. Words that need to be heard.

I tried to articulate this and was asked why it had to be me who spoke. Why was I the one who had to share these words? Couldn’t I give these words to a father or brother or my future husband to speak?

I knew I couldn’t because these words are my words; words only I can share. But I also knew these words weren’t words that people would want to hear. They were pot-stirring, trying-to-get-something-started words.

And so for years, I left them there floating overhead not wanting to stir anything up, wanting people to like me, not wanting to disappoint.

But these words are too important now.

Something has to change.

We can’t keep identifying as people of faith and not seeing each other. We can’t keep pretending to be people of faith and engage in an economic system that offers us privilege while our neighbors starve. We can’t keep calling ourselves Christ followers and not associate with the very people Christ ate and fellowshipped with.

And we can’t keep justifying our places of privilege because it makes us comfortable or because we are scared for the future of our families. There are too many of our neighbors who have been afraid of their futures and afraid of whether they will have a future for too long. If we loved our neighbor as ourself, we would be fighting against systems and institutions that discriminate, exclude, and belittle.

But we don’t.

We love ourselves. We love our houses. We love our stuff. We love our privilege.

The Future of the Church and Spiritual Abuse

I was asked recently by a reader whether I thought there was a connection between spiritual abuse victims and the repression of spiritual gifts, which made me think about a connection that has been ruminating in my heart and mind for quite awhile. From the number of people I have heard from who have experienced and are recovering from communities of faith that engaged in spiritual abuse, I have to wonder whether the use of spiritual abuse to coerce unquestioned adherence is the culprit for the decline we see across the board in mainline Protestant congregations. If spiritual abuse results in power retention in those who already have power, then there is a whole generation of young people who were raised in churches and communities of faith tainted by spiritual abuse whose voices, ideas, and, yes, spiritual gifts have been silenced. Those young people raised in these community of faiths would now be adults. Adults whose age happen to correspond with the missing demographic in most churches: the millennials.

Perhaps the rise of the nones and the decline in church attendance is because of the rampant spiritual abuse that has crept into and overtaken our communities of faith. Perhaps the next generation of church leaders and ministers weren’t ever allowed to voice or express their calls to ministry, and so instead have found places to express their calls to ministry in other ways. Perhaps the next generation of ministers have created churches in bars, nightclubs, clothing stores, financial advisor offices, and restaurants because that’s where they have been able to find employment. These would have been ministers can’t help but pour drinks, DJ, restock shelves, plan for your retirement, and serve food without using those spiritual gifts that found no place in their communities of faith. They, like Mary and Joseph, have found no room or warmth in churches and so instead have formed congregations, places of worship, and spaces for others like them to bring their gifts to lay at Jesus’ feet in the most unlikely places.

And now churches are interested in drawing in millennials because churches are starting to realize that millennials have overtaken Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation. Churches can no longer depend on the financial safety net of Baby Boomers. So, churches are desperately trying to woo the millennial back into their sanctuaries and back into giving pledges with overhauls in worship style and book studies about millennial culture, all the while avoiding the difficult conversations about spiritual abuse that’s being practiced through exclusion of members of the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and women. Those who have experienced spiritual abuse and have fought the hard battle of recovering and found faith again, are not going to be willing to participate in communities of faith still tainted and overrun with spiritual abuse practices.

The most important issue our communities of faith need to be addressing is not the decline in church attendance or giving, but why this is happening. Answering that question will require churches and church leaders to take a long, hard look at how they have participated in a culture of hate, exclusion, and spiritual abuse. But don’t expect these conversations to happen without a fight. Those who have engaged in spiritual abuse practices in order to maintain power have proven they are willing to use any means, even holy scripture, to protect their positions of power and privilege.

I’m Sorry You Felt That, But…”

I haven’t always talked about the things that are difficult to talk about, the things no one wants to talk about.

I used to avoid conflict and difficult conversations like mosquitos in the summer SC heat. The reason I didn’t push or probe or question was because often when I did, I would get the response, “I’m sorry you felt that, but…” followed by an explanation of how my instincts and intuitions were wrong. I heard it so often that I learned to silence and squelch the feeling I got that something was just not right.

And I know I am not alone.

I know there are many, many people, particularly women, who have found themselves in discriminatory environments and practices and have voiced what they instinctually and intuitively know is wrong only to be met by, “I’m sorry you felt that, but…” This rhetorical dismissal of a legitimate concern about creating equality for men and women, members of the LGTBQ community, and immigrants and outsiders, is something we can’t say we feel sorry about and then dismiss the way we continue to protect and maintain the status quo with an explanation that alleviates our guilt.

This is privilege at its worst.

I simply can’t ignore the way rhetoric is used to create spaces that are unsafe for victims and the marginalized because when we do, we continue to create entitlement and privilege that leads to systems that protect the abuser and discriminates against the victim. We create systems where former children’s ministers are not held accountable for inappropriate behavior and are then employed by school districts and charged with inappropriate contact with a child. 

Dismissing and belittling someone’s experience by saying, “I’m sorry you felt that, but…” sets the stage for continued silencing, oppression, and manipulation. Silencing, oppression, and manipulation set the stage for sexual harassment, molestation, and sexual abuse. And when this happens in communities of faith and theological interpretation is added for dismissing someone’s concern, it becomes spiritual abuse.

When you say nothing, do nothing, and dismiss others by saying, “I’m sorry you felt that, but…”, you are contributing to silence and oppress voices that matter; voices that have already experienced too much hurt and pain; voices of the people who Jesus ate with and healed.