Forgetting Easter

James 1:25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act– they will be blessed in their doing.

It had been a busy week, newsletter weeks are like that most months. By the time I got to the final page, my pastoral message (technically, the front page) it was late afternoon and I was both grateful to see light at the end of the tunnel and mentally exhausted. I wrote about busyness, and how we fill up our days, homes, and lives to distract us from the work we need to do- on ourselves, our spaces, our assignments. Perhaps it was self-indulgent to write on a topic cluttering up my head with an assumption that others may be struggling with the same. I finished the task, satisfied and a little proud that it was completed within the work day and would not bleed into my homework time later.

The next day, I arrived to proof before we went to press. As I read the pastor’s message, it hit me- I didn’t mention Easter in my message. At all. It was spotty throughout the rest of the document, but it didn’t even garner a passing glance in my reflection, and we were only two weeks out from Easter. I uttered aloud, “I forgot to talk about Easter.” My secretary said, “Yeah, I noticed that. I thought that was weird.” I sat numb trying to figure out how I did it and if it could be fixed. I am a big complainer that, as a twenty-first century crowd, we put Easter away with the baskets and decorations; forgetting to ruminate on the gift/ mercy/ responsibility that comes with considering oneself an Easter person. We shouldn’t easily dismiss the power of living in hope, a gift of salvation to us, for which Jesus was willing to lay down his life.

And yet, I forgot. I, too, put Easter on a shelf and moved on without a backward glance.

There’s a bit of poetic justice in this colossal oversight. Perhaps I had busied myself too much with everything but living as an Easter person. In that sense, James’ caution, noted above from the first chapter, is correct: when we only talk about Easter, but don’t live out the hope of Easter, it’s easy to forget. A few verses before, James reminds us that it is like when we glance in a mirror and then look away, forgetting what we saw.

There have been times when I have been confronted with the less- than-desirable traits I possess. When I say a hurtful word or act in a way that is embarrassing to who I would rather be, it is like seeing my dark side in a mirror. I know better. I want to be better. And yet, after the conflict is settled or the apology is made I find that my resolve to change fades.

Living Easter as a person of action and not just a speaker is hard work. Then again, so is the work of true discipleship. Those first century believers knew that very well, even as they lived hopefully for Jesus’ return. If we can, let’s begin to see the world through their eyes, with a passion for discipleship that exudes focus and commitment. In that way, Easter will not be once a year, easy to forget, but everyday- as it ought to be.

 

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Two Little Words

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you   ~ Philippians 1:3-4

Occasionally, I will get a random text on a Wednesday or Thursday. It is a request from the leader of a drum corp, made up of college age young men and women. Their hope is that they will be able to descend upon my house with a day or so’s notice. Twenty to twenty-five youth will arrive around 1 AM Saturday morning and be gone around eight hours later, only to repeat the same pattern after midnight. Our paths crossed when the group wanted to use the church last summer and then again in this fall. The church can be a complicated space for a large group of unchaperoned young men and women- requiring supervision that no adult is really excited to undertake. Instead, I offered up my place.

It’s been awhile since I had teenagers in my house. I forgot how they never turn off lights, no matter how many notes you leave. I forgot how their gangly bodies drape over the furniture as they sleep. How they arrive with sleeping bags and snacks and take over the basement, filling every possible space. Within minutes of their arrival, they seem to infuse a room with a particular pungency- a mix of hormones, sweat and long days on the practice field. Like my own son, they really don’t need me. I learned that the first time around, when I made a huge breakfast and they shared that they already made plans to meet for breakfast. I was try’n to be their momma, even though they didn’t ask. They come and go, and afterwards I move from room to room turning off lights. Like the old days.

This last weekend they were here again. We went through our ritual: a text on Wednesday, me furiously cleaning Friday, then holing myself up in my room before they arrive. I always get up early Sunday morning to leave for church, when everyone is still asleep. When I entered the kitchen, I noticed a card & envelope on the table. I left it there and readied my dog’s breakfast before exiting.

When I arrived back home eight hours later, a card was sealed in its envelope and lying in the same place. There was no name on it; presumably because they don’t know my name, just the code to the garage door. I broke the adhesive seal and opened the card.  Immediately, I was overwhelmed by the sentiments expressed to a person they really didn’t know. Like a card written by one’s young child, the card had a few greasy fingerprints on it amongst the expressions of thanks. That made me laugh.

I am terrible about writing thank you notes. Really horrible. It’s my great shame that I never sent thank you notes after my wedding. I began them but never finished.  I had gratitude in my heart and good intentions, regardless I never followed through to share my thankfulness. The words Thank You hold a great amount of power. In print, they rarely relay the depth of one’s emotion, or lack thereof. And yet, when we know the author of the words- be it an itinerant evangelist and apostle like Paul or an anonymous group of young men and women- we know the heart that speaks.

I was surprised by the card. It wasn’t necessary, but I was touched. For all the hassle of last minute arrangements, cleaning my house, and losing sleep when my garage door opens and closes continuously at 1 AM, having them here reminds me of my son’s teenage years when the basement was full of rambunctious teens. Wonderful memories of feeding hungry boys-making pancakes for breakfast and cookies for snacks, hollering for the music to be turned down and encouraging them not to abuse one another physically.

Oh, and turning off the lights. They never turned off a light either.

All the things I never said

I have been thinking about writing for awhile. So many issues, so many topical items swirled in my head. In the end, what compelled me to put fingers to the keyboard was the ultimate equalizer: loss.

 

This morning, I learned that I lost my only first cousin. He was found in his apartment by his friend, who worried that he hadn’t shown up for a meeting the two had arranged. My cousin, 33 years old, wasn’t a drug addict or ill with a terminal or congenital disease. He was bright, magnanimous and intelligent. When I spoke to his mother, she thought he had a heart attack. To me, it feels like he vanished while I wasn’t looking.

I was talking to someone recently and I said that the people that seem to grieve the most at a funeral are often the ones with the most regrets. Perhaps it was the things they meant to do but thought they had more time. Then again, it could be the words they said, or didn’t say, that play like a song, over and over, in their mind. That’s the struggle with losing people in our lives- suddenly, we must face head on the fact that this life is a precarious thing. All the time we think we have, we don’t. All the tomorrows we are so sure of, may not come. Suddenly, there isn’t a future opportunity to work out that situation that should’ve gone better or say again the words that fall by the wayside in ordinary exchanges. Words like: I love you, having you in my life is a joy, or thank you for being you.

I have a flawed, fractured family pockmarked with undiagnosed mental illness. Depression, anxiety, and possibly even bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, dot the branches of both my maternal and paternal family trees. Because of decisions and behaviors that my sisters and I had no control over, my cousin was lost to us for many years. We reconnected eight years ago, after he graduated from college.  We had a few isolated meetings prior to this full reconnecting, but they were scattered over a fourteen year span.

This was our new beginning. travis

After that, we met up for a few holidays a year. We became Facebook friends and texted one another. We spent a week together 18 months ago while our grandmother slowly faded away from a stroke, telling one another stories and keeping each other sane. One day, we nearly got kicked out of a hospital lounge, for laughing too hard.

It was that week that he discovered our rumored Jewish history. Together, he and I submitted our saliva for a genetic profile, not only discovering things like our Ashkenazi Jewish genomes and shared DNA, but some new family members too.  We really enjoyed texting one another on Jewish holidays to acknowledge this newfound piece of our ancestral history.

We just texted one another on Martin Luther King Day. I wish I had called. I wish I had told him how having him back was just…the best. My sisters and I  grieved not having him with us for all those years.

I miss him terribly. He was my last connection to a whole other part of my life and history. My grief is more overwhelming than I can accurately capture in words. Perhaps it is all that time away that stings, all the things we didn’t know about each other. I know he was whip smart and funny. He was a terrific friend and always seemed just a little bit lonely. Sarcastic and quick witted, he was an engager of all things political and wrote code for apps. He knew we loved him and we knew he loved us.

And yet, I just can’t seem to stop crying over all the things I should have said.

 

 

Living in fear: where is God?

I sometimes underestimate my role in leading a church community. Chalk it up to poor self-esteem or a strong desire to seek humility, I forget that folks arrive on Sunday morning to hear what the pastor has to say when the world turns upside down. It was true after Sandy Hook, when Adam Lanza shot 20 children and six adults in their elementary school. Congregants waited to hear what the Sunday message would be: how could I as pastor help them understand how such a travesty could take place? How does God let young innocent lives be taken and suffering exist? That Sunday morning, I was clear that I had no clue what to say. I talked about God being present in the grieving, but my God would not condone or allow such evil to take away those tiny children.

Yesterday, I felt a similar pull to the pulpit. We had a planned message brought by a wider church minister already scheduled. I wondered if I should say something or not. I know that, by most measures, we are a liberal church. However I know that politics are a strange thing, and that we probably had a mixed electorate in the sanctuary. So, I spoke of the one thing that unites us, rather than what divides us: our testimony and commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Its call is deeper than loud mouth accusations and sky high promises, never to be realized. It requires us to do more than share a post or sign an electronic petition. The Gospel says that we must stand up for the downtrodden, the oppressed and the outcast. Simple. No vetting, no questionnaires, no political party affiliation check. It’s dirty work that leaves us depleted and uncomfortable.

I tried to be encouraging. I tried to be strong. But I am frightened too. As the cabinet and transition team of this new administration begins to take shape, I worry desperately about my reproductive rights. I worry about LGBTQ rights. I am terrified for my friends, who are Muslim, who have non-citizen or non documented family members and who are people of color- these are the very groups whose people who work hard to bring back my broken town, eulogized in the book Hillbilly Elegy. I worry because this new elected administration has emboldened the prejudice, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic and xenophobic striations that run through the ground of our nation. One could attempt to assuage my fears, but I take words seriously. So when a person talks about sexually assaulting others, it’s not locker room talk. When one heads an Internet news website that compares cancer and feminism as equally destructive, I pay attention. When one makes it their mission to legalize discrimination against the LGBT community, it’s no joke.

So, I guess I find myself wondering where God is in all this. This election, contrary to popular evangelical belief systems, was not God’s creation. This is all us, America. We created a world that elevated Donald Trump and his celebrity- mean tweets and all- to the status of president elect. We have emboldened a media structure that vets truth based on the entrenched side that station/site longs to promote. Everyone’s interested in their values and forgets that it will be our children who have skin in this ridiculous game we have played. They will inherit this nation divided under God.

I know God will be with us as we raise our voices in protest. God will be with us when we stand up for the oppressed. Not only is it liberation theology, by glory it is Exodus scripture, my friends. The children of God cry out and are heard. Pharaoh’s heart will be hard until the day we are redeemed from oppression. Be good to one another. Stand up for one another. Do not let yourself be drawn into factions, but keep your eyes on the disciple’s path- which, fair warning, isn’t smooth. God has not abandoned us, but is using us as hands and feet of love in a nation that revels in bigotry and division. Do not be moved or drawn into anything that doesn’t reflect God’s loving light- including a Twitter battle. There is much work to do.

 

Wake me when it’s over.

I just answered my fourth political call this election season, and I’m only counting the cell phone calls- not the man who showed up at my door and the countless calls to my landline. My email is filled up with twenty-five plus emails a day, the mailbox contains flyers calling for me to stand up for all that’s wrong with this country (sent by the opposite party of my political affiliation, no less) and I cannot even fathom a guess how many ads I see on Facebook & Twitter, on TV, in print and on the radio.

I’m tired.

In the sanctuary of my church on Sunday morning, people are calling for prayer for this splintered nation. In my community action work, my colleagues are frightened for the uptick witnessed in racism and anti-Semitism, not to mention homophobia, xenophobia and Islamophobia. They worry what November 9th will bring.

They’re scared.

In North Dakota, my native American sisters and brothers are doing their best to keep a pipeline off their land, which is ridiculous really; because why shouldn’t they be able to say no? Why is it even an issue that they are saying no? Why can armed white men take over a national park office and get acquitted but native Americans are getting arrested for saying no?

They’re frustrated.

Fatigue, Fear, Frustration. It’s the 3 Fs of our world right now, no matter who you are. At times, I pile on with the doomsday seekers, sure that this climate of hate will overwhelm us. Other days, I remember that in the early days, Christians were fed to lions, so maybe we’ll live to see another day.

Then I remember.

I remember that Jews were removed from their homes, gassed, and shot, by the German government while no one said a word.

I remember that Native Americans were evicted from their homes and marched to barren, cold lands. Their children were sent to boarding schools to assimilate them into “American” culture by taking away their names and language, by the American government and no one said a word.

I remember that my friends of color have struggled to retain their right to vote while being asked to answer ridiculous questions, show specific forms of identification and drive to polling places far away from their homes, all because of laws enacted by elected officials of this American government. (While I drive not even a half mile to the nearby church to vote.) And we don’t say a word.

I remember that fatigue, fear, and frustration are the tools of intimidation. I remember all the times that I have stood silent.

So I answer the phone. I vote. I speak up. I stay woke.

In your mercy, Lord, lead us to live: separate but equal, unique and accepted, unified even in our dissention. Amen.

 

 

Lazy: A Pharaoh’s Expectation

But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and I will not let Israel go.” 3 Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has revealed himself to us; let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to the LORD our God, or he will fall upon us with pestilence or sword.” 4 But the king of Egypt said to them, “Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their work? Get to your labors!”  17 He said, “You are lazy, lazy; that is why you say, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the LORD.’ 18 Go now, and work; for no straw shall be given you, but you shall still deliver the same number of bricks.”

I’ve been feeling lazy lately, really lazy. Perhaps it is because I know what lies ahead in the coming months and I am feeling dreadful. Maybe I am storing up some down time for  when there will be none. I’m not self aware enough to understand it, but I can recognize it and I certainly feel guilty about it.

Interestingly enough, I came upon an email devotion where the author, drawing from one of his mentors, put forth a curious question: When have you been like Pharaoh? When I read the title, I asked myself what that could possibly mean. Am I enslaving church folk? Is this about boundaries? The answer lie within the text of the devotion. The author challenged the reader to examine the expectations we have for others and what expectations we hold ourselves to as pastors. Are we too hard on the people we serve? Are we too hard on ourselves? The answer to the first question is yes…and no. When we try new programs, create new worship experiences, plan for the visitor who hasn’t yet arrived only to find three people in the room: you and two other people who felt bad that the pastor might be alone. Do I rage or ruminate on failed attempts to create or provide new experiences? Not really. I know that, for millennials & Gen Xers, church isn’t social networking, it’s based on desire that competes against sports, kids, and work obligations. Instead, I go back to the drawing board for the “thing” that beats all those other “things” out.

But, to be honest, sometimes I do have a high expectation: that everyone could see change around them and want to flow with it. That we would embrace the things that keep us vibrant and current…in an ever-changing world. I guess I don’t want to have the church I serve be like my great aunt’s house: furniture covered in plastic with all the tea cups individually wrapped. She kept it like that because no one came and it was easier to keep the dust off. Think about that. No One Came to Visit. What a powerful thing to fear for the place that feeds and comforts you.

I pray that our laziness, mine and ours collectively, is temporary; a tiny bit of respite in a world full of forward motion. I pray also that our stillness comes from waiting on a word from God and not creating a museum to our own memories or hiding from what the world (or Jesus) asks of us. Lastly, I pray for forgiveness and open communication so we may meet one another in our own hopes and dreams and not wait for frogs, pestilence, or the shadow of death to decide our fate for us. Amen.

 

 

 

Historical truths

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. -Psalm 51:6

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius said that everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth. Recently, I found myself reconnecting with second cousins I hadn’t heard from in decades. It started on social media, where it seems most interactions occur nowadays, with a throwback post to a memory from my childhood. As the conversation flowed, our attention turned to both beloved family from our past and  distinct memories of visits and events. We discussed our parents and grandparents, most of whom are long gone. We analyzed situations with adult mindsets, even as we recounted the events witnessed with our child eyes. Somewhere along the way, our recollections drew us into the deeper parts of our personal histories and suddenly what began as a quick memory struck a sore nerve.

As one of our cousins expressed hurt and lashed out at our conversation, the rest of us grew silent. The embittered post, full of raw emotion, echoed in cyber space for hours unanswered. I lie in bed later that night thinking about truth, and how our truths are formed. In many ways, these words from 1800 years ago might as well have been spoken in my kitchen over a cup of tea: here we are as children all grown up sharing perspectives and opinions, all of which came from our parents. Parents that were quite different in the way they lived their lives and how they raised their kids (us).

My injured cousin wanted the truth she knew to be fact. I understand that because in discussing scripture we fall into the same trap. We want our interpretations of The Word to be fact. And, more often than not, that fact is more about our own perspectives than intractable truth. Perhaps this social media exercise in historical criticism was really a call to self examination. Our attention needs to turn to God, who is not concerned with earthly facts but true wisdom. King Solomon, when confronted with two mothers, didn’t ask for DNA tests or physical examinations- he didn’t even call a witness. He ordered the child divided and waited for revelation in the form of a love that transcends personal need. That kind of wisdom cannot be learned, it is gifted by experience with the Divine.

Living Lord, I call upon you to fill me with wisdom that speaks your truth, not mine. Amen.