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On Creating Sanctuary

Over six months ago, churches all across the United States scrambled to answer the question, “How do we worship online?” We have fought and struggled with technology and with the Divine wondering when we would have to stop answer this question and when we could safely come back together.

I can remember distinctly the first Sunday of worship and the way I purposefully and intentionally created an outdoor chapel on our porch knowing that the signs of Spring blooming as a backdrop would serve as the perfect picture of hope in the midst of uncertain times.

Just two short weeks later, I discovered that the Columbia heat isn’t great for devices and that when they overheat, they just turn off abruptly stopping and cutting the connection not caring whether you were in the middle of preaching or not. This interruption led to creating an indoor chapel with my grandmother’s quilt draped over boxes for a makeshift altar and a painting of a cottage in the woods surrounded by flowers.

Now that the seasons are changing and the breeze is whispering of cooler weather and beautiful changes, I am asking the Divine to help me create again. I am searching our home for inspiration asking myself not how to we worship online, but rather how do we create sanctuary?

Molding Communion Bread

Last week, I went to the church for my weekly check of the building. On my list was organizing the non-perishable food donations that were collected through porch drops in order to pack bags for our neighbors in need. Also on my list was checking messages, checking the mail, and something I had been avoiding for weeks, cleaning out the refrigerator.

Mainly I didn’t want to be reminded of that refrigerator filled with food for after worship, fifth Sunday fellowships I didn’t want to be reminded of the Sunday baked goods that would serve as our Wednesday Bible study snacks. I didn’t want to see that moldy communion bread I was sure was in there.

But it was time.

When I opened the refrigerator, I found what I expected: moldy communion bread, moldy potato salad from our last fellowship meal, and stale baked goods. I couldn’t hold back the tears that came. The way we get together, the way that we are church together, and the way that we help our neighbors in need has all changed so drastically in such a short period of time. While I was sad, I also was overwhelmed with gratitude for a congregation who is committed to keeping each other safe and committed to continue to worship virtually until it is safe for ALL of us to come together in person.

I tossed the communion bread in the trash. Sometimes communion bread is blueberry poptarts, sandwich bread, or whatever else we can find in our own homes. As I walked out, I saw the food items piled up ready to be distributed to those who are hungry and thought, “Oh wait…that’s our communion. We are offering food in the form of peanut butter, granola bars, and soup to those who are most in need right now. We are offering the miracle of Jesus’ body and blood by recognizing the great need that surrounds us in these uncertain times.”

This do in remembrance of me.

A New Way

As we were doing our weekly grocery pick up, our four-year-old asked which walk we were going on. I reminded him that we were going to get the groceries and he insisted, “But which walk way are we going?” He was trying to orient himself and determine where he was in relation to our house and to our neighborhood. Over the last four months, the majority of our mornings have started with a walk. We’ve developed loops and turns and he has given each of the walks a name.

Now that he is exploring these same ways that we have walked on his bike, he has developed some favorites. Just yesterday I told him that he could choose the way we went. He was so excited to show us the way for a change. As we go I’ve always pointed out the different roads and the different ways that would take us back to our house. I was so impressed that he led the way on a 2.5-mile loop without ever making a wrong turn.

As we have been in this period of quarantine, our community of faith was finishing a study of Acts. Something about the followers of the Way took on a new meaning for me as we were literally developing a new way of life, learning, and being together.

Acts 9 talks about Saul who was persecuting followers of the Way saying:

so that if he found any men or women belonging to the Way, he could bring them as prisoners to Jerusalem.

This new Way was so threatening to the establishment that they were bringing in followers to try to stop the movement.

We are developing a new way of life. It is a threat to our capitalistic, individualist society because it means we are valuing time together, time outdoors, and simple acts of kindness like food left on a neighbor’s porch. We are finding paths and ways in our neighborhoods rather than traveling out of our communities.

This is the Way of caring for each other and being community together. Let us walk bravely into this new Way.

Racial Reckoning

The death of George Floyd took me back to the shooting at Emanuel in Charleston, SC. At the time of the shooting of the Emanuel 9, I was at Emmanuel teaching Bible Study. I was in my first pastorate. The shooter was born and raised just minutes from our church.

In the midst of all the protests and all the voices crying out that systemic and cultural racism is wrong and has continued, my ears and eyes have been opened again. For someone who was often the one in worship planning meetings who asked the question, “But what does it look like to have only older, white males on chancel for worship? Doesn’t that make it look like we don’t affirm and welcome women into worship leadership?” I hadn’t asked myself the question, “Whose voices am I listening to? Whose voices am I reading?”

I took a critical look at my social media feeds and realized, I am listening to white voices. I had been intentional with what I was reading. I was reading POC books and articles. I was listening to podcast interviews with those same authors, but my social media feeds were inundated with white voices.

And so I began to listen to recommendations of others and follow the voices of Black women in particular. I sought after those authors I had been reading and found their social media accounts. I looked at the white voices I had been following and decided to let go of a few of those voices who didn’t acknowledge the racial reckoning.

Then I began to listen to the stories of Black classmates from my white, independent liberal arts college. I began to listen to the stories of blatant racism from students and faculty. I began to confess for all the times that I have been in a system that not only is racist but chooses to continue to be racist. Again and again, the stories are stories of encounters and conversations I didn’t know where happening. Again and again, I was confronted with my white privilege.

As I have been reading Austin Channing Brown’s I Am Still Here, this passage struck me:

When you believe niceness disproves the presence of racism, it’s easy to start believing bigotry is rare, and that the label racist should be applied to only mean-spirited, intentioanl acts of discrimination. The problem with this framework – besides being a gross misunderstanding of how racism operates is systems and structures enabled by nice people – is that it obligates me to be nice in return, rather than be truthful. I am expected to come close to racists. Be nicer to them. (pg. 101)

It is not Austin’s or any other Black person’s responsibility to do my work. My work is to make sure that I am not adding more work to the work that so many Black people and women, in particular, are doing and have done their whole lives. It’s time for me to wake up and realize that I am part of the problem and intentionally choose to be a part of this racial reckoning. I will work to challenge and dismantle systems that oppress Black voices and experiences and values white voices and experiences. I will continue to acknowledge my privilege. I will continue to cull my social media accounts to include POC voices and experiences. I will continue to do the work to listen to voices that I haven’t listened to for so long.

Want to join me on this journey? Let me know what you have been reading and listening to!

Here are some of the resources I have been reading and listening to:

What White People Can Do for Racial Justice

I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown

White Fragility

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Case for Reparations Ta-Nehisi Coates

UCC Stop the Hate

Racial Justice Resources 2020

Brene Brown and Austin Channing Brown on I’m Still Here

On Being: Notice the Rage

On Being: Imagining a New America

On Being: The History is Long, the History is Deep

On Figuring It Out

This week has been marked with our four-year-old learning how to pedal a bike with training wheels. The first day and the first tries were frustrating especially as he accidentally reversed his feet and brought the bike to a complete stop not knowing there were foot brakes on the new bike. I watched his face as he tried to push the pedals down. He was trying his very hardest and wanted to figure it out so badly.

Now more than ever, we are trying to figure out how to be community together, how to be family together, and how to be church together in a way that keeps each other safe. It is frustrating when technology doesn’t work and when we know that we will have to continue in this struggle for a longer period of time as we watch case numbers rise. It is a struggle to teach our brains new patterns. It is frustrating to continually create, innovate, and imagine each and every day.

Figuring it out is exhausting, but this struggle is teaching us not to take each other for granted. This struggle is teaching us to adapt and to believe in ourselves. This struggle is making us stronger.

Even before breakfast, our four-year-old was asking to get back to his bike. By the end of our time outside yesterday, he was able to do a loop without stopping. He woke up ready to confirm to himself that he had figured it out.

I pray that we will find that four-year-old confidence within us as we figure out new ways to be church and be community together.

Turning Into Something New

Over the course of our e-learning, we found a lot of things that we could turn into new things. Used toilet paper rolls turned into binoculars. Use milk cartons turned into bird feeders. Pillows turned into rocks to jump through rivers of lava that were threatening the side of the boat which the ottoman turned into. Putting away laundry turned into trips to Mars, the Moon, and the Sun the laundry basket rocketship transporting us to the different destinations.

Creativity and imagination guided our learning and changed my eyes.

There is so much in the world and in our lives today that is limiting. We feel restricted because the life we use to know was taken from us quickly and swiftly. We feel angry that local leaders are telling us that we must wear masks in order to keep other people safe. We feel overwhelmed that the things we used to do like going out to eat or gather with friends and families now require risk assessment and the constant monitoring of our own bodies and our loved ones to see if those gatherings were dangerous.

In the midst of trying to manage so much, our creativity and imagination have been switched off. Our survival instincts are on full throttle.

It’s not until we reactivate our imaginations that we will be able to reimagine what life can be. It’s not until we access our creativity that we will be able to switch from being defensive about all the changes to seeing those challenges as invitations to experience a completely new way of life.

I remember the times when a letter of acceptance to college, a summer program, and a scholarship to teach overseas came in the mail. My heart started racing and my breath shortened because this was a doorway leading to a completely new experience.

So too is this time and this place a doorway, not a closed door. The question is will we step through to create a new scene, a new chapter, and a new story of what it means to be family and community together?

On Having More Work to Do

Yesterday, was the five-year remembrance of the fatal shooting of the Emanuel Nine. It was particularly powerful for me that this anniversary fell on a Wednesday night, the same night that a young white man walked into a community of faith’s Bible Study, sat with them, and then opened fire. When this happened, I was pastoring a church in Lexington, SC, the place the shooter was raised. The overwhelming revelation that came was that we still had much more work to do.

In the last three weeks, as I have watched and listened to the voices of protestors, I have been overwhelmed at the depth of discrimination that exists in law enforcement and in our culture. Again the revelation washed over me that we still have much more work to do.

The global pandemic has made us tired and scared. We have felt exhaustion, numbness, anxiety, and so many other emotions. I have heard many people say that they are tired of doing the work of trying to determine what activities are safe or not safe. And now they are also tired of being reminded that racism still plagues our society and that people with white skin have enjoyed privilege and opportunity from this broken system.

I think Austin Channing in conversation with Brene Brown said it best: “Y’all might think you are tired, but we were born tired.”

Five years later and racism still plagues South Carolina even after we took down a symbol of hate and division. Five years later and churches still have to have safety plans in place. Five years later and protesters are still marching because the system is broken and unjust. Five years later and there’s still more work to do.

Entering Eastertide: Hope

We are just days away from Pentecost, which marks the end of the fifty days of Eastertide. In the season of Eastertide, the church calendar follows the stories and journeys of the apostles who have received the Spirit of Truth and have preached this good news all over. This is where the story of the life, death, and resurrection spread so that we are still talking about it today.

If you follow the book of Acts, you’ll find that there is a pattern where Paul goes into the synagogue to teach and is the message of hope is received by the Jewish people. Then after a day or two, the Jewish leadership gets involved and they either run Paul out of town of beat and imprison him. This is when Paul is often taken in by a Gentile and the message of hope transforms whole households.

Our congregation was already studying Acts before the pandemic and before the Eastertide season began and now as we study together, I am amazed at how much we need these words. We need the hope of those first apostles. We need the courage of those first apostles. We need the imagination of those first apostles.

Because we are creating church together in the most unusual ways. We are spreading the message of hope to new communities in new ways. Thanks be to God for the Spirit of Truth that leads and guides us on our way.

Entering Eastertide: Endure

This is incredibly difficult. If you find yourself uttering at the end of the day, “Why O Lord?” or perhaps, “How long O Lord?” You are not alone. This is our prayer together.

Over the past three weeks, the reminder I have received was to find joy. Find joy in time to make better coffee. Find joy in hidden pathways to the pond. Find joy in siblings that get more time to play together. This has helped immensely. It was as if I was given a scavenger hunt each day. There was something out there that would bring joy.

This week the reminder has changed. Again and again I have heard friends comment, “This life isn’t sustainable. Something has got to give.” If you have thought this or spoken this, you are not alone. We are all feeling this.

But with reports coming out this week of churches who have gathered and now have to close back down because of the number of people who were infected by just one worship service, it would be good to remember that the virus hasn’t gone away even as places open.

Perhaps the reminder for all us is the reminder I received from Barack Obama’s Dreams of My Father:

Her voice sounded different to me now. Behind the layers of hurt, beneath the rugged laughter, I heard a willingness to endure. Endure-and make music that wasn’t there before.

Endure. Don’t lose heart. We are only just getting started in this new life even though politicians and business owners and even at times church leaders try to convince us that it’s time to get back to normal.

Endure. May God grant you the strength and perseverance to continue to keep your family and the most vulnerable among us safe.

Leaning Into Lent: Finding Light

For all of the Lenten season in which I have pastored, I have always challenged my congregants to resist the temptation to skip the darkness to find the light. I have asked them instead to sit in the darkness and to contemplate why it is so difficult for us to sit in darkness and why the darkness makes us so uncomfortable.

This Lenten season is different.

We are experiencing new things and change at such a rapid pace. I think this Lenten season the invitation for all of us is to see the darkness. See the changes that are rapidly surrounding us. See the way these changes and this upending of our “normal” is having an impact on our physical selves as well as soul selves.

And as we see the darkness, see also the light. See that around us there is still new life blooming. See the people who are creating content for children and families who are out of school and who are in a new normal. See the companies whose CEOs are giving up their salaries to try and support the workers they have had to lay off. See the companies that are shifting to provide things like hand sanitizer. See the way people are not going out and who are social distancing in order to give the most vulnerable in our population.

See the light in the midst of the darkness. The Spirit is still moving and God is still speaking.