Second Chance or Second Coming?

Micah 6:8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

A few years back, my husband and I traveled to Memphis, TN for vacation. Besides The FOOD (oh the food!) and THE MUSIC, (live, all day and night, everywhere) there was history. On one of our last days, we visited the National Civil Rights Museum. We arrived when it opened and wandered through slowly. Sometime later, I realized I had a killer headache. I looked down at my watch. It was 3 o’clock- six hours had flown by as I immersed myself in bombed out buses, videos of bigoted public servants and photos of dogs turned on crowds of people of color. Standing by, with looks of disgust and anger, sometimes holding signs with hateful slogans, were whites. These observers probably went to church on Sundays, just like the people they wanted to oppress.

Recently, I encountered shouts of hate and inaccurate railings against my personal views of Jesus Christ’s mission of love for us. I was both angered and confused. How-and better yet- why did one person’s understanding of Jesus become the standard for which I was meant to measure my own?  Did screaming at me further Jesus’ gospel of peace and love?

In the days that followed, I deeply felt sorrow for anyone who must face that kind of vitriol, especially in the places it is least expected: at a school, restaurant, clinic, hospital, even church. Whether we are talking about the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s or the streets of Fergusson, Baltimore, North Charleston or UC; at Stonewall in the 1970’s, or courthouses in Anywhere, USA this past month where folks elected to execute the law (i.e. dispensing marriage licenses) suddenly decide it’s their way; schools and hospitals during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s/1990s, Planned Parenthood clinics everywhere since Roe vs Wade: why is it acceptable to speak hate and tear down anyone who differs from us in theology, practice, or choice? What objective does that serve?

There are days when I agree with all the people who think the time is near for a second coming. With such vapid hate, which is worlds away from the message of love and mutual care that Jesus preached, it isn’t tough to demise that some house cleaning may be in order. However, if there is any message that is abundantly clear, it is this: our Lord is a God of second chances and third chances, etc. One more try to do better, be better, start fresh from a place of love and joy. Begin with Micah’s direction: do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with the Lord. It’s a solid place, a thin space, where love reigns. We could use a lot more of that these days.

Looking Good on the Outside

Job 8:22 Those who hate you will be clothed with shame, and the tent of the wicked will be no more.” (NRS)

I began my worship of Jesus Christ yesterday shrouded in echos of hate. Some folks decided to set up camp outside the main church doors and verbally harass anyone who walked into, or even by, the church. For some, this was infuriating. Others were frightened by the use of cruel language and a video camera (even in this culture, where we record everything- from make-up tips to kittens playing with boxes- the camera felt unnecessary). When I offered cold bottles of water to the people provoking such emotions, they harangued me with questions and shouts of condemnation. It was, in a single moment, the saddest, funniest and most alarming of situations for personal safety.

As a body of Christ, we took a couple of deep breaths, had some calming conversation and laid ourselves before God. We prayed for those who singled out our house of worship. We prayed for love in the place of hate and peace in the face of conflict. Then, we relaxed.

After worship, I was outside as the police watched the shouts and milling bitterness camped out on the sidewalk. My presence drew the attention of one person who called me out by name, as he had before worship. This time, he said something that struck me funny. He yelled- as I was walking away toward the church parking lot, “You look good on the outside but you’re … on the inside.”  Struck by the unintended humor, I turned and smiled, “That’s a compliment I will take. Thanks.” Then I continued my walk into the church.

This verse from Job is a small bit of a speech one of Job’s friends shares after Job’s life falls apart. Each one has a different take on why things are so dire- was it his sin, his children’s sin, a lack of repentance- that made his children die, his livestock and servants be consumed by fire and his body to be riddled with sores. (The term ‘friends’ feels like a loose interpretation once you’ve read the entire book. ) However, Bildad, the author of this advice, thinks Job needs to prove himself blameless before God and then it will all be set right. Why? Because God will not be associated with an evildoer, reasons Bildad, and won’t reject the blameless.

Bildad and I disagree on this point. I am not a blameless person, but I’m not an evildoer; which is perhaps why that slur about how I looked struck me funny. I am an imperfect sinner leading a church of imperfect sinners who seek a Savior to shepherd and guide us. We try our best to speak love to hate and create plowshares from swords. We profess faith in a God that loved us so much that God sought a mortal life among us, and in losing that life we find redemption. Christians are imperfect. We do look good on the outside but our secret desires, fears and emotional pratfalls leave us …on the inside. The people on the sidewalk and the people in the church were the same, spare for one thing: the people in the church have hope in God’s redeeming love. That’s why we show up on Sunday morning: to pray, to repent, to support one another on the journey. In doing so, we radiate the bright light of promise and love. Maybe someday we’ll conquer sin and look good on the outside and the inside.

Are you an Ally?

blogZephaniah 3:19 I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.

I have followed the TV show “I am Cait” with a deep sense of curiosity and interest. I grew up with Bruce Jenner on the Wheatie boxes of my youth and I have watched my fair share of the accident-that-I-can’t-look-away-from that is the Kardashians. I watch it because it simultaneously causes me to confront my own prejudices while opening up my heart to the experience of being ‘the other’ that Jesus so often draws our eyes to- the person society rejects, the person that we often deem unlovable by God for no other reason than the fact that they are choosing to be who they feel they are inside or who they have to be to survive. At times, the discomfort Cait feels from those she interacts with is palpable. You can see the internal hill the individual is attempting to climb as they combat their own ideas about gender identity, societal expectations of gender and dress, as well as the idea that a month ago this person was a guy. Pronouns get garbled, eye contact is poor- the whole thing is tough to watch.

Recently, one of Cait’s advisers was Kate Bornstein, author of the book, Gender Outlaw. (http://www.amazon.com/Gender-Outlaw-Men-Women-Rest/dp/0679757015) She has been a part of the transgender community for a long time. She was unflinching as she challenged Cait to admit that there was a societal ‘freak factor’ to being transgender. Since Cait has come into herself late in the game, not forty years ago in the age of Stonewall, one can see her eyes flash. You see, Cait is having trouble connecting this new sense of freedom with herself to a larger community. She wants to create positive press and enlighten ignorant people like myself to the inner struggles of transgender folk,  but she catches herself using language like “those people.” There’s a disconnect there and we can all see it.

Kate shifted gears a bit and began to talk about allies- a term I have always used to describe myself once I came into the world of LGBT and advocacy for tolerance and acceptance. Kate said she wanted an ally not to just stand beside her, she wanted an ally to ask her what she needs. I realize that I haven’t done that, even as I have had good intentions. I never asked what the folks I stood beside needed. She’s right, I wasn’t an ally after all. I was self-righteous about my acceptance, I was positive that this kind of inclusion is Jesus inspired and required, but in every way it was about me.

So, I write this as an apology for all the people I have unknowingly looked past. The transgender visitor who listened to me struggle with pronouns. The gay advocates who helped me to understand that sex lives are not up for informational conversation (not that I asked- by the way). The many, many people who have lived lives of intolerance and shame (both of which were directed to them by Christians and non-Christians alike) only to have me come along and never, for one minute, know the pain of that struggle. I am sorry. I am trying to do, and be, better.

I want to be an Ally. So I am asking for a second chance. What do you need? How can I help you to get it?

Your Epic Fail (volume 2)

1 Chronicles 28:20 David said further to his son Solomon, “Be strong and of good courage, and act. Do not be afraid or dismayed; for the LORD God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you, until all the work for the service of the house of the LORD is finished.

Recently, I attended the national gathering of my denomination in Cleveland, OH. It was my first time attending, and in many ways it lived up to my expectation.  I brought with me some key concepts for incorporation, one of which regards failure. I have written on this topic before, as it is a significant theme in my life, and in the lives of others, as well as institutions. Wherever you find people, you find self-doubt. So I put before you again King David’s words of wisdom through a different lens. Don’t be afraid to replace I with we:

Personally, the fear of failure transcends mere words for me. It is as present and palpable as the walls of my office or the chair I sit on. It holds me fast, and prevents me from reaching out for the brass ring (a ring that is ever changing, of course) or risking greatly. I don’t want to fail. I want to win. That’s what everyone wants, because our culture values winners.

I was empowered by a speaker in Cleveland who challenged us to fail. Why would anyone purposefully fail? Because, failure means you triedYou were strong enough to risk greatly- to venture out into uncharted waters and give a new idea, new experience or even an old idea another go. Even an epic failure will propel you forward with new knowledge of where things went wrong and how to make an adjustment for future success. Even in the losing, you win; if that win means nothing more being willing risk and overcome the multitude of reason why it is easier to talk about doing something than to actually do it.

I encourage you to risk the epic fail. To traverse the land of fear and unknowns will ultimately shape you in a way that talking never will. Oh, and when you fail, don’t be afraid to fail again. Success comes to the one who perseveres- sometimes in an unexpected way. I hope we can all share some epic fail stories, for in doing so we speak more loudly of ourselves that the failures themselves.

Bible & Baked Goods

Matthew 13:33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

    Before I moved from Ohio to Pennsylvania, I purchased sourdough starter. I threw it into the fridge and didn’t deal with it until this week. If you are wondering what that is, it is the essence that gives sourdough bread its distinctive taste. Sourdough starter is an interesting, living thing. It needs to be fed for several days. It interacts with the yeast spores in your kitchen and incorporates them as it develops. You “feed” it flour and water for several days, then you up it to 2x a day. Each time you discard all but a half cup, and that is the portion that gets fed.

It’s amusing to me that Jesus compares heaven to yeast and flour. It speaks to my daily ritual of starter upkeep, and it makes me feel less nerdy about being excited by a bubbling concoction of whole wheat flour and water, sprinkled with yeast spores that pollute our daily air. If you have never encountered it, let’s see if I can imagine what connection exists between heaven and my new obsession.

1. It builds over time Yeast doesn’t work instantly. It methodically works to create carbon dioxide from the flour and that takes a while. It requires patience, just like waiting for the sweet reward we hope awaits us in eternity. Just as you use your life to create levity and joy, you inadvertently create an earthly version of heaven.

2. It feeds off the world around it.  Wild yeast, and yes that’s what Jesus is talking about- there were no Kroger’s with Fleishman’s Yeast in the dairy case- feeds off the yeast spores floating through the air. It captures it, and together with flour it creates lightness and substance. Shouldn’t that be what heaven is like? A substance impacted by the goodness that abides within and around it?

3. It take the ordinary and makes it both satiating and extraordinary. What I love about baking is that you take everyday items (flour, water, salt… and maybe sugar and eggs if it’s a cake or cookie) and you create a space for magic to happen. Call it science, call it chemistry, call it the miracle of creation, but truly it is quite an amazing thing to generate something delicious and satisfying (not to mention fuel for the body) from dry flour and clear, tasteless water. It seems to give us confidence that even the dry and tasteless among us are heaven worthy as well.

I don’t know exactly what Jesus intends but I know that I have high hopes for heaven. It will be the best parts of this life amplified- people, emotions, love. Since I intend to be present, I’ll expect there will be tasty baked goods as well- perhaps a chewy sourdough loaf. Mmmm… sounds delicious!

The First Step

1 Chronicles 28:20 David said further to his son Solomon, “Be strong and of good courage, and act. Do not be afraid or dismayed; for the LORD God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you, until all the work for the service of the house of the LORD is finished.

In my mind’s eye, I have plans. I won’t attribute them to divine revelation, because they are not. They are born of my own ideas about the future, where I see myself ten years down the road, and the future of “church” which is a rapidly changing idea now-a-days.

The struggle is logistics- is it possible? Will all the factors that support that vision fall into place: money, time, intelligence, stamina? I admit I am rooted in place with fear. Fear of failure, fear of inadequacy, even fear of the unknown holds me still as if I was pinned down by a two ton boulder. Certainly, I have stepped off the proverbial cliff before on faith but back then it felt like the stakes were lower if I fell short of my goals.

The scripture from 1 Chronicles finds Solomon in a similar place. His father, the great King David, wants to build a temple for God. However it is not David’s temple to build, that is Solomon’s job. The plans and specs will be provided, but the ultimate responsibility falls to a young Solomon. With no experience and this being God’s house and all, the pressure is palpable. David, as well as the tribes of Israel have all made contributions. Expectation levels are high and I can only imagine the fear that Solomon feels as the task is placed before him.

These words above are David’s encouraging words to Solomon. It will take Solomon seven years to complete the temple, and he will be heralded for it. This verse encouragefirst steps us as well. Be strong. Have good courage and ACT. Do not be afraid. You will not be failed or forsaken until the work of the Lord is completed.

Every journey begins with the first step. It may take one hour or seven years, but it will not begin until that initial act of faith- in God or yourself. It may not go as smoothly as you’d like, you may falter or even fall short of your goals; however keep in mind that this life we lead keeps putting before us opportunities to love and live in profound ways. If we root ourselves in fear, we miss out. Take the first step my friends. God will not disappoint you.

Lasso of truth

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven;” Luke 6:37 

“for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” Matthew 25:35

I want to be better.

I came to urban ministry nearly four months ago. Up until then, my concerns for outreach were centered around the phone calls I received in my rural ministries, many of which were from people dialing every church in the yellow pages until anyone answered the phone. The requests fit a myriad of scenarios. Some were ridiculous, “Help me pay my $1200 electric bill. It’s about to be shut off.” Others were beyond comprehension, “I’m calling for X. She wants to relocate from Baltimore. Would you pay for 6 months rent?” Many times, I would be asked which church was I calling from again, as they had called so many. On one occasion, I called a cell phone and listened to a ring back tone, which I had learned the week before costs additional fees on a cell phone account.

In my current call, the church is located in the city center. Nary two days go by without someone knocking on the door or calling on the phone asking for money (bills! bus fare! ID replacement! Refrigerator! My favorite- motel, because he wasn’t interested in the mission.) Sometimes they want food. One man wanted a blanket. Honestly, I am tired of trying to discern which requests are authentic needs, which are heroin funders (yes, I’ve been taken in twice) or poor money managers. Which one is the working poor or the fool adept at depending on the generosity of others to fund their life, with no effort on their part?

I want to be a vessel for love. I know people get the short end of the stick in this life. They are the product of their environments and their station. Addiction is no joke- in its death grip there is little room for moral decision making.

I am on the verge of losing my compassion. Lord, help me. Give me a lasso of truth or some kind of ESP to discern the addicts (drugs or handouts) from those truly in need. I don’t want to judge, for I know Jesus calls us to give like the widow (she who gives when there is so little) without asking for a track mark check or an income/expense statement. However, I know who gives the money for these requests, and very often it is the widow herself- fixed income, living on a budget, wearing clothes she hasn’t bought new in several years. Her nails aren’t done but she does do drugs- for cholesterol, diabetes and heart problems. Those pills are expensive and often she’ll weigh the cost of where the money should go: pharmacy, groceries or church.You could say she’s had advantages, regarding color or economic status, and perhaps she did.

All I know is that the weight of being the steward is one I bear with serious consideration. Since the requests won’t be going away, I’d like some divine help.

Anyone got a lasso of truth they’d like to lend?

Free Pass

Deuteronomy 5:33 You must follow exactly the path that the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you are to possess.

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Recently, a question was posed to me: if you had a free pass to go back and re-do any moment or event in your life, what would you change, fix or re-do? As someone who lives in a perpetual state of evaluation, always turning a critical eye to my decisions, words and choices, this question has a plethora of answers. It reminds me of a movie entitled Sliding Doors, where the story is told twice, based on a train both caught and missed. The unfolding of one’s life based on a moment can be powerful and perhaps a bit providential.

A few things come to mind: I could relive the last moments I had in my father’s presence, before he walked out the door. Our next meeting would be in the viewing room of a funeral parlor. I would choose words to say, rather than the silence that marked that moment. I could go back to the moment I found my grandmother in the throws of a fatal stroke. I would later know she could hear me and understand- a gift lost to her by the time I could finally focus on something other than emergency personnel and her health. I would tell her the things she already knew, but I would have wanted to say anyway. Over and over I cherry pick events that could be re-worked, nuanced by actions or language.

Ironically, those are not the moments I would choose. I would choose a time when I was offered a promotion by my boss. I turned it down because I doubted my skill set was adequate to excel at the position. A few months later, the company would close and I would seek the same position at a new company. My competition would be the gentleman who applied for and received the position (with identical education) and worked it for a few months. He was hired because he had experience.

I feel that moment of self doubt was defining. Certainly it set into motion a particular set of events. I often wonder what would have come of that trajectory. Would I have ended up in ministry after a time? All the experiences that have defined my recent past- like meeting my German friends (Martin and Dietmar are pictured above) or witnessing thousands of people line the Elbe river in Hamburg, holding candles and singing German hymns- are memories too important to squander on one moment.

The pastor in me says that God brings you to the place you are meant to be; but even as the words form I know that free will works overtime at creating sabotage. It takes great faith to sit idle or trust the path you walk and not attempt to control or undermine it. If you can stay present, loving yourself and others, it will go well with you, as it should.

Perhaps I’ll return my free pass. Turns out I won’t need it after all.

Now you’re speaking my language!

 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs– in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”  Acts 2:6-10

When I was seventeen years old, my family and I went to Disney World over Christmas. One day, we happened to be in the store that sold Mickey Mouse ear hats. I overheard a woman attempting to communicate to the clerk, but she only spoke Spanish. The clerk (unusual for Disney, but this was MANY years ago..) spoke only English. I was an overconfident teenager with four years of rudimentary Spanish under my belt, which foolishly compelled me to march over and offer assistance. Somehow, with my lacking skills and a whole lot of patience on the customer’s part, we were able to exchange the hat she paid for with the size she needed. It was exciting to help, but I was nonchalant. For the rest of the day, every time we ran into this family from Mexico (and there was a large crowd) they would shout and wave enthusiastically, much to my adolescent horror. They were grateful and unashamed to show it.

There is power in understanding. The ability to meet people where they are, be it a matter of language, experience or knowledge, will build a bridge quickly. The passage you create will be  sturdier than pandering and will withstand the test of time. When we feel known, we allow a vulnerability and a willingness to risk that opens doors and can set our lives on new and exciting directions.

I often place myself in this scripture. I have traveled to lands where my language was not spoken freely. I have felt the isolation of not knowing what people were discussing (although somehow I knew when they were discussing me) as they engaged in conversation around me. What it must have been like to hear one’s own language being spoken in such a powerful moment…could you imagine? Suddenly, you can rest into the embrace of familiarity. This message was meant for me. I am included in this great promise of salvation. I have a place in this new language of love.

When we’re lost, when we’re in need, or even when we just want a child size hat, speaking the language of our sisters and brothers can break down barriers that ultimately set us free. Speak a song of salvation and grace in every language- so all may know the warmth of unconditional love.

For my friend on the anniversary of her birth

This is for my dear friend, Valerie, who celebrates her birthday today. It isn’t a special, milestone birthday in the greater cultural sense. It’s one of those, “let’s celebrate this one with wine and cake” kind of birthday. But even though she is far away, I thought she may appreciate a gift of gratitude for the gift of God she has been to me.

I should say this first: I don’t make real, lasting friends easily. I put a lot of barriers in the way that preclude me from a sorority-like gaggle of women friends. I am friendly, but this dear friend is no acquaintance. We met at college 23 years ago. She is more loving and kind than I, but with a wicked sense of humor that inclined me to feel comfortable around her. She has loved me when I have been quite unlovable. She has not lost faith in me when I have made poor decisions.We physically see each other seldom, but fall immediately into step when we finally occupy the same space. We have been at important events in one another’s lives- graduations, ordinations, etc. I still want things for her that exasperate her- because she has everything in her life that she truly needs- and she somehow tolerates my continued asking.

I have often thought that perhaps we could have benefited from one of those oaths where you draw blood and grasp the hand of your partner, ensuring that secrets will stay secret; because she knows things about me that should remain unsaid. However oaths are only needed for those you don’t trust and I trust her implicitly. There are times I worry that she may not feel she can confide in me like we used to do so many years ago, but I know that in day to day life such conversations are quite rare. Please know, dear friend, I am here at all times.

Let me say before I close: I love you. You are in person the equivalent of  a soft blanket, straight from the dryer: warm, comforting and sweet. You give of yourself until there is barely a drop left, and then you squeeze more. You are talented and humble, you value people with more depth than anyone can realize and you truly embody the beautiful nature of Christ. You do this, and so much more, with a human edge and some crazy humor.

Today, I say a prayer of thanks to God for your generosity of spirit, your compassion, your patience and your loving friendship. Thank you for not abandoning me when time lapses, loving me flawed & floundering and always seeing beauty in the world. I pray this year will bring you hundred fold the joy you share with others, without expectation.

Happy Birthday, old and dear, Friend.