Tuesday, July 3, 2018

God's Story

Years ago, as a gift for some occasion I have now forgotten, my father gave me a series of four photos he took of a stone sculpture located outside the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. The four photos are framed together and progressively zoom in on the sculpturerendering of the prodigal son being welcomed home and embraced by his father. 

This sculpture bore particular meaning for my father—a United Methodist pastor’s kid who became a pastor himself, then became father to two United Methodist clergy. My father wasn’t the oldest, responsible son—no, he readily identified with the prodigal son. My father was the pastor’s kid who ran from church as he cruised through his teenaged years in Frederick County, Maryland where there wasn’t much for a teenage boy to do besides get in trouble on some back county road. He entered what is now Frostburg University because that year it had topped Playboy’s party school list. Dad was a walking illustration of the story of the prodigal son. 

Dad’s story led him home, back to God. It started when a couple guys invited him to a Bible Study in college, and continued, he admitted, when he and his best friend realized the college girls liked guys who played guitar, especially praise songs. His journey was shaped by a profound call not only back to church, but also to ordained ministry. 

Like many prodigal stories, my father’s didn’t end with one return home. Dad would have several periods of wandering—literally and figuratively. His understanding of God as primarily a God of grace, love and forgiveness was a thread that carried him through both joyful highs and deep, dark lows. 

You see, Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) is not first and foremost about the son (neither the younger, prodigal son, nor the older, responsible—and bitter—son). This is a story (as are ALL of Jesus’ parables) about God and God’s kingdom. About the awesome, unmerited, extravagant love of our God. Our Father. 

This sculpture by Heinz Warneke powerfully captures the Father as the center of the parable—it is the Father who is the core of the sculpture. The son practically fades into the Father’s embrace. 

When I look at the photos—mounted together in a frame which will soon grace the walls of my office here at Calvary—I understand that my father wanted to convey to me not his own story, but God’s story. God’s love.  

It is as if my father, who went to be with his heavenly Father several years ago, wanted me to hear his words each time I see the photos, “Never forget God loves you like this, so unending, so limitless,” and “Tell people this. Just this. All of this.” 

May all the new season you are entering, including this new season I am entering with the congregation at Calvary UMC, be an opportunity to be continually reminded of God’s extravagant love for us, and may we be committed and energized to share our testimony of God’s love, grace and forgiveness with others. 

Pastor Sarah al son, nor the older, responsible
and bitter
son). This is a story (as are
ALL of Jesus
parables) about God and God
s kingdom. About the awesome, unmerited, extravagant love
of our God. Our Father.
This sculpture by Heinz Warneke powerfully captures the Father as the cent
er of the parable
it is the
Father who is the core of the sculpture. The son practically fades into
the Father
s embrace.
When I look at the photos
mounted together in a frame which will soon grace the walls of my office
here at Calvary
I understand that my father wanted to convey to me not his own story, b
ut God
s
story. God
s love.
It is as if my father, who went to be with his heavenly Father several years ago
, wanted me to hear his
words each time I see the photos,
͞
Never forget God loves you like this, so unending, so limitless,
͟
and
͞
Tell people this. Just this. All of this.
͟
I give thanks to God for the season we are now entering together. May it be an
opportunity to be
continually reminded of God
s extravagant love for us, and may we be committed and energized to
share our testimony of God
s love, grace and forgiveness with others.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Liminal Phases


Years ago, I suspect in college, I learned about what experts call liminal phases, but what peoples throughout the ages have simply understood as necessary transitions or rites of passage.

Wikipedia defines the related term “liminality” as,
“the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rites, when participants no longer hold their preritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete. During a rite's liminal stage, participants ‘stand at the threshold’ between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the rite establishes.”

Every appointment transition I have entered (changing from one church to another) has felt like a liminal phase for me. An in-between place. There are rituals for a pastor as they leave a church, and practices as they enter a new church, but the time in-between is empty. That is somewhat intentional—a Sabbath time between what are quite intense periods for a pastor—but it is also disorienting.

I am less than a week away from beginning my new appointment as pastor at Calvary UMC in Waldorf, MD. As our bishop asked transitioning pastors, I took the last two Sundays off from my previous appointment. But I have been aware through these past ten months, after leaving my appointment before that at Arden UMC as my family moved to follow my husband’s newjob, that I was living in a prolonged liminal phase.

And boy did I feel that.

As United Methodist clergy we serve, in the phrase we are apt to use, “at the pleasure of the bishop,” which for us captures the uncertainty of the appointment process and the knowledge that the bishop could move us at any time. In reality, however, the vast majority of us serve regular appointment year cycles (with transitions July 1) and have some expectation of how long we might be at our church. Still, the transitions can be disorienting, and re-aligning.

You see, liminal phases are not just about disorientation and ambiguity for their own sakes. Life can bring enough of that. It seems to be that liminal phases are about becoming. About noticing things about ourselves, the world, others and God in ways that are difficult when we are settled into expected patterns and places. And living into newness.

This is one reason I have such fondness for camp and retreat centers (and I suspect one reason I was drawn to my husband, whose life work is to order and operate such spaces). We do our best and deepest growth when our moorings are loose.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like ambiguity or disorientation. These past ten months have been challenging as I’ve had the opportunity (and yes, even been forced) to look at my life, ministry and the world around me in new ways. And like many liminal phases, I suspect the fruits of that growth may not be apparent to me until I settle into this next season.

But I give thanks for God’s faithfulness in this (and all) liminal phases. For patience, though often hard-fought, when I wanted to rush through it. For strength when it bore down on me. For support from others as I’ve processed this phase. For love and care of congregations on both ends of it and indeed, inside of it.

We all walk through liminal phases. The in-between times. Job transitions, life changes, grief and health challenges are just some of the experiences which can bring us to these spaces.

I give thanks that we worship a God who knows these spaces well, and who is able to use them to guide, strengthen and renew us.

May your liminal spaces and phases, even with all their ambiguity and disorientation, be an opportunity for growth, grace and new glimpses of God’s power in your life.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Don't Look Away


I hate pain.

We all do.

Much of life is spent in a passionate journey to avoid pain.

Indeed, humans spend immense amounts of time and energy each year—indeed each day—to avoid pain and suffering, both theirs and that of those they care about. Our lives are filled with stories of the wonderfully successful ways we and others have avoided pain and discomfort—as well as the tragically destructive attempts made.

One of the simplest ways we often seek to avoid or minimize pain is to look away.

You know the drill—the nurse comes to draw blood or give a shot. She gets your arm all prepped and then you close your eyes or turn your head. Those who are able to just look straight at the spot where the pain (albeit brief and generally for a good cause) is often seem to have trained their bodies and mind to overcome what seems like a basic human reaction to pain—avoid and flee.

We are fast approaching one of the most difficult times—if we dare look—in the Christian calendar.

Holy Week.

Those days which mark the final days of the earthly life of Jesus Christ, the hours which mark his trials and crucifixion, and the dark, slow hours that fell over his followers and the world in that painful interlude between death and new life.

It has become so cliché for clergy to note all the people who rush from the “Hosannas” of Palm Sunday to the “Alleluias” of Easter that we’ve begun fighting a guerilla war of sorts in which we have quietly co-opted part of Palm Sunday worship for “Passion” Sunday focus—because you can’t really see Easter if you don’t look through the pain.

But we don’t like looking.

Looking means not only looking at Jesus’ suffering. It means also looking at our own sins and participation in those final days and hours.

We have a hard time being willing to be observers let alone acknowledge our complicity in that pain. Over the years Christians have at times preferred to scape goat those present—in space and time—in those final hours.

We sing songs about how Jesus died for our sins, but we point fingers at the bad guys with whom we foreswear any similarities.

But we can’t claim Jesus’ love for us through suffering if we look away at the suffering our own sin and brokenness created.

Throughout Lent, my congregation and I have been walking a journey through the final hours of Jesus’ life using the props, the symbols, of those experiences. We’ve reflected on those hours, that pain, through items such as the rooster which crowed to book end Peter’s denial, the coins Judas received as payment for his betrayal, and the dice with which the soldiers callously used to make sport of Jesus’ pain and suffering as he died.

The soldiers, we readily say, didn’t even bother to look away. They looked at the pain and suffering and it didn’t affect them at all. How horrible.

Indeed, perhaps our own sins involve not only looking away, but also looking and not seeing.

When the soldiers nailed Jesus to the cross, we forget that it was for our sins that he died.

Theologians through the years have explored exactly how and why that grim exchange of pain and sin and forgiveness works. They have posited theories to explain it. This work is important, but for us, it ought not distract us away.

From looking.

And seeing.

Seeing the very real pain which our sins—even those which seem so small, and even which go unseen by others—cause.

The pain our willful pride and casual self-interest breeds in our own lives, the lives of those around us, and indeed, the heart of God.

This past Sunday, we passed out nails to each person in worship and I invited them to consider what the last nail was—the most recent sin, opposition to God’s will, act of self-justification and division from others—they committed. And then to not look away.

To look and see and feel the pain.

Recognize the pain that each of us have gotten far too good at avoiding.

Because Easter is a fairy tale, a lark, when not grounded in the pain. The pain which must be seen.

This Holy Week, I invite all of us to recognize that we stand at the foot of the cross not as observers, but as participants. As those who walk around, hammer and nails in hand, ready to participate in the pain and suffering of Jesus—God’s very self—and indeed the pain of ourselves and others. But doing so by looking away just enough that it almost seems ok. Soon enough it does feel ok. A small thing.

May you be convicted this Holy Week, by the callousness and avoidance which has been infecting your life. May you pour yourself humbly before God, be willing to see yourself truly and clearly in all your pain and capacity to inflict pain, and in your openness, may God renew your very life, give you eyes to see the path to healing and wholeness. And may you glimpse and be drawn into the redemptive power of God’s love and forgiveness.

Don’t look away.

The best is yet to come.

Monday, October 2, 2017

My Family's Gun Story (Why I Believe Guns Make Us Less Safe)

Last night a gunman opened fire and killed over 50 people, injured over 400 and once again brought the discussion of (among other things) gun safety into the public dialogue here in the US.

Today, in the midst of everyone’s grief and expressions offering their thoughts and prayers, some have spoken out for increased gun safety (which yes, means increased gun restrictions). The response from some has been, “Today’s not the day, that is a political debate.”

Nope.

Today IS that day.

Public safety is NOT a political issue. How we achieve it may be, but NO. I don’t accept the argument that today we should not talk about gun control. Today is totally the day to talk about it. Let’s stop having mass shootings, and then sure, any day would be a good day to NOT have this discussion.

I do know that we all come from varied perspectives on the use and possession of firearms. Those perspectives are informed by many things, including how we were raised, the type of area we live in, what we think guns are used for (personal safety, hunting, fun, whatever).

Many people have their story—why they believe what they believe about guns. I believe guns should be harder to get, require more in depth background checks, and be easier to take (from, for example, those dealing with mental health issues or those maybe accused of and certainly those convicted of domestic violence).

Here’s why:

My brother Dan, the second of the four of us (I am the oldest) did not grow up with guns. A few family members had some, for protection (and some worked in law enforcement), but we were not raised shooting guns or generally believing a normal person needed a gun to be safe.

As an adult, Dan became a pastor in the Baltimore suburbs and one day his house was robbed by what turned out to be the druggie son of a church member. His back, basement door was broken during the break in. His church did not fix the door for quite a while. At that time, my sister also lived in the house with Dan. Dan was scared. At first they didn’t know who robbed him, and finding out didn’t make him feel safer. The door was still broken. It would have been easy for someone to get in.

That was when Dan bought his first gun.

In college, Dan had struggled with depression and once had called campus security because he was feeling suicidal. They came, and he voluntarily checked in to a mental health bed at the local hospital for a few days. Then he was released, put on anti-depressants, and he got better.

For years, he seemed well.

That was when the break in happened. By the time (or soon thereafter) that the church finally fixed the door that the robber had broken, Dan owned two guns—for protection. Two guns legally bought.

I later found Dan’s copy of his gun license applications. He had answered everything honestly. One question asked if he had been involuntarily committed to a facility for mental health treatment. He answered no. That was the truth.

Then things started to go horribly wrong for Dan. Our father died suddenly and unexpectedly in his mid-fifties of a heart attack. Dan’s life began to spiral out of control.

And he still had two guns.

There are many, many things I regret about the months leading up to June 2014.

So many things I wish I (and others) had done differently.

But if there was just ONE thing I could have done differently, it would have been this: I would have asked Dan if I could take his guns until he was feeling better. Or even whether, since his door was fixed and he house that much more secure, he could just get rid of them.

I don’t know how he would have responded.

But I wish I had tried.

After Dan’s suicide—using one of those guns he had bought to keep himself safe, the police asked my sister (who was on the scene, supporting my mother who faced one of the most horrific experiences any parent could face) if she wanted the guns. She said no. They pressed, explaining that the guns had some value and that if she didn’t take them, they’d have to be melted down.

She told them to melt the damn things down.

My brother was less safe because he had guns in his house. Guns he bought for just the same reason so many people claim they own their guns—and for a reason I think anyone would be hard pressed to think was illogical (if you’re of the mind to think guns are ever a reasonable safety measure).

There are tons of statistics out there about the risks of guns in the homes of those with mental health issues. Statistics that flat out demolish the argument, “Well, someone who wants to kill themselves will find a way to do it.”

Nope. You’re way less safe if there’s a gun. It is far too effective a tool to end human life.

A little while later, my husband and I, with two young children, were talking about our own safety after some thefts in our area. We were scared. It was the first time we ever had the discussion, “Would we be safer if we had a gun?”

We talked about it. We researched it. We kept in mind we had small children. We decided our family would be less safe with guns than without them.

I don’t know how I could live through what my family lived through, know what I know about gun statistics (what little we do know, since the gun industry has successfully prevented detailed statistics even being kept), I cannot help but conclude that widespread, poorly-limited gun ownership makes each person, and our entire society, less safe.

This is not a political debate. Maybe it’s a family argument. And we each have our own stories. But there are too many stories like mine.

This needs to stop.

We need common sense gun laws which limit people’s ability to buy guns, restrict what kind of guns they can buy, make it easier to take a person’s guns when public or personal safety suggests it, and we need to lift ANY restrictions on the kinds of statistics and research officials can do related to gun usage, violence, injury and death.


By the way, I don’t know WHY anyone would oppose any of these (many gun owners support these) but I especially don’t know why we are afraid to study gun violence. After all, if it’s not really a problem, what are we hiding?

Thursday, September 28, 2017

On Crying Out for a King

We are coming up on about a month since my family and I made a major transition, as my husband Chris received a promotion and our entire family moved across the state to settle in and start our own “news”—new job for me, new schools for the girls.

I could make quite a list of all the “news” but if you have ever made such a move yourself, you know.

One of the patterns which has changed for me in this time has been to have come to a place where each week—really each day—I am balancing reflections on at least four different portions of scripture: 
  1. Our family devotion—Chris and I decided for this year to follow the Abingdon Press Deep Blue curriculum with our girls, so we have a text we read and reflect on for each week.
  2. My personal devotion—challenged by my colleagues at this summer’s Pastors’ School in Zimbabwe, I’ve committed to reading through the Bible in a year, though the move slowed my pace and I need to up my game to make that goal!
  3. My sermon preparation—being in a new appointment, I’ve decided to follow the lectionary, and for now at lest, generally preach on the Gospel (it’s hard to go wrong with, you know, Jesus).
  4. My Bible study preparation—starting this week, my church’s Friday eveningBible Study restarts and I’m tasked with teaching, and for the fall I’ve decided to move through a selection of Biblical passages that speak to who are called to be and what we are called to do as the people of God.

Whew!

Generally I try to have fewer threads out there, but it’s been interesting, as you might imagine, to see these various paths cross, conjoin, and diverge. Already it is feeling like some crazy Biblical cacophony that at times weaves into the most beautiful (or beautifully challenging) symphony.

This week, our family devotion is the story of Samuel anointing Saul as king. (If you’re using the Deep Blue curriculum at church, you’ll know we’re behind a week or so, but hey, don’t tell anyone!)

I have been struck this week, as each morning with our girls we have read a different translation or telling of this story. Our girls’ curriculum has the story filled with repetition—the people calling again and again in words like, “Long live the king!”

If you know this account you know that the people of Israel until then had been led by a rag-tag succession of judges and leaders who primarily saw themselves as those conveying the will of God. But in a move any parent of small children (or you know anyone trying to keep up with the Joneses) can recognize, they see that the other peoples around them have a king and so they cry out to God for one too.

Samuel, being a prophet of God and so a bit wiser and less reactive than everyone else, essentially tells them to be careful what they wish for. And in a move that boggles my mind, God finally concedes and tells Samuel to anoint Saul. (SPOILER ALERT: it won’t go well, for neither Saul nor almost any of the kings which will follow.)

As our nation continued and deepened into discussions of patriotism—specifically whether one ought to be able to knee during the playing of the national anthem at a football game—as well as ongoing debates about the nature of government and its role and most deeply, how we as a nation have been co-opted by the worst, darkest sentiments we carry especially around issues of race and privilege...well, I couldn’t help but be struck each time we would read that story and the people (voiced by my children) would cry out for a king.

We like power.

This is a sad, painful truth of humanity. It is rooted in the darkest part of who we are, as it was seen first in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve didn’t crave community, love, even provision—they HAD all those things. What they wanted was power. Wisdom. To be like God.

And we have continued the struggle. It is as base what Christians for generations have understood as Original Sin. It is on its face today racism, bigotry of all stripes, economic disparity, gender inequality. Human power is always POWER OVER. 

And dammit, if anyone is going to have POWER OVER, it should be ME.

As I watch, read and listen to accounts of our political leaders, our church fights, and even the brokenness in our homes and communities, I hear the echoes of this ancient yet disturbingly contemporary sentiment all around us.

Meanwhile, my sermons these weeks have led me and my congregation through some of Jesus’ parables, especially those which challenge us to worry about ourselves (not others) and our own faithfulness. Last week we read Matthew’s account of Jesus’ parable of the workers. Some workers worked all day in the hot sun, and though they received the fair pay promised, they balked that others who worked only an hour also received the same. They felt like they deserved more. But the landowner essentially says, “You got what was fair and what was promised, why should it bother you if I’m generous to others?”

Well, because.

Because otherwise how can we know what we need to do to have POWER OVER others. If God’s grace isn’t based on merit, then perhaps this entire competitive, power-hungry game we’re playing is based on the wrong rules.

And we can’t win. Because winning entails POWER OVER.

But we can’t admit maybe we’re not called to have POWER OVER so we get angrier and more belligerent and we stop listening to each other all together, because we know that to listen often leads to sympathy and even, God forbid, changing our minds and maybe even having to face truths that force us to need to confess and change. Rather than having POWER OVER, maybe we’re called to submit and humble ourselves.

And after all, this Jesus thing is great, but no one told us it might lead us to have to give up some (or all) of what little POWER OVER others we have.

Dammit.

WE WANT A KING.

LONG LIVE THE KING.

We want someone to come fix everything and protect us and hey, we’re willing to give them some POWER OVER us if only they’ll protect some of our POWER OVER others.

I’ve reached the point in my reading through the Bible that I’m wading into Leviticus (see, I told you I was going slowly)...and so far I’m really struck by how God’s laws are directed at “you.” Now I know God means this communally, but I also kind of take it individually. Like here’s what to do if YOU make a mistake. I know later I’ll read about what to do about other people. But I’m kind of struck now by the ways God’s laws, as absolutely communally-oriented as they are (and should be) also encourage us to STAY IN YOUR OWN LANE. 

Many years later Jesus will remind God’s people of this when he tells them to worry about the plank in their own eye before trying to pull the splinter out of their neighbor’s eye.

This week, as I begin this new BIble Study with my congregation, we’re looking at Joshua 24–Joshua’s speech to the people as they prepare to enter the Promised Land. The part where he tells them, “Choose this day who you will serve.”

Maybe that’s our problem. From the beginning. That God gave us a choice. 

We’re good at making bad choices.

And given the choice between faithfulness or God or striving for POWER OVER others, we almost always choose the latter.

After all, from the very beginning, in the Garden of Eden, faithfulness to God has always been the OPPOSITE of POWER OVER.

So that’s where I find myself this week. Cringing when my children recite cries of, “Long live the King!” Because I know I’ve cried those words in so many different ways.

Convicted by the ways my POWER OVER (both the power I’ve gained and the power I was given through often arbitrary biological traits) drag me into fights and battles I too often feel I have to join without stopping to think whether they are faithful battles to fight at all.

So this week, I’m trying to ask questions of myself about when and how I have chosen the wrong battles, and when I have chosen the wrong sides...and who, this day, I will choose to serve. Perhaps you might join me in the same.


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