Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Grace upon Grace upon Grace...

For the first part of this week I was at a denominational gathering of thinkers…and at times I was frustrated, and at times I was intrigued, and at times I was bored, and at times I was curious and restless.

At the end of the event was worship that included a sermon and Eucharist.  I convinced myself to stay, willing to be transformed by the experience of worshipping in a “new” community.

And the word I received has me pondering all the moments of grace that have shaped who I am and where I am…all the other lives transformed so that is also transformed and becoming each and every day.

John Wesley talks about “preventing” grace – the grace that goes before us before we even know about Jesus, before we recognize the breath of the Spirit that surrounds us, before we recognize the gifts we receive each day at the hands of a creative, loving God.

My maternal grandmother was “rescued” from a hard home by what I imagine as my dashing, albeit balding, blue-eyed and witty grandfather after meeting a gathering of the Wesley Foundation on the University of Illinois campus in its very first year…not just the first year of the Wesley Foundation at U of I; no – the very first year of ANY Wesley Foundation.  The movement of gathering young adults sprouted there, and two of the young adults gathered happened to be Will and Edna.

My father should not have been conceived.  Edna her had lost a baby and was not in good shape…she wasn’t supposed to get pregnant so soon.  And she did. And Charles Everett came into the world.

My parents met (of course) in an MYF meeting…but they didn’t immediately hit it off.  In fact, they were off.  And then Eileen had a tragic and horrific sledding accident that left her in a body cast, and the good pastor at the local Methodist Church implored his son to go visiting while she was bed-ridden in a body cast.  Chuck really never left her side again.

Chuck and Eileen had four beautiful stair steps in five years between 1954 and 1958. They were making the baby boom – and their names were Linda, Glen, Sharon and Debra. 

In 1968, my dad’s older brother, Jim, took his own life after a lifetime battle with mental health issues.  The family struggled to understand.  I have to imagine that for a pastor’s family when these things were not the stuff of open discussion it had to be a sad season.

But then along came a little surprise in 1969 – 11 years after Debra earned the title of youngest child.  Laura entered the world, the fifth child to Eileen and Chuck.

Chuck wasn’t big on church.  But I went to Sunday School and VBS and to youth group.  Youth group was my sanctuary during awkward and sometimes lonely years while Linda, Glen, Sharon and Debbie launched into adulthood.

Chuck was diagnosed with cancer (the first time) when I was 15 and told he had 6 weeks to live.  For the record, he lived another 25 years.

There are the deep stories about call and arriving at seminary and wilderness and confession and repentance and reconciliation and more and more abundant grace.

But before all that there was this family tree…this series of happy accidents.

Grace upon grace upon grace.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

My Whole Self...

To say there is a lot going on in my life would be an understatement.  Some of what is going on is well known.  Some is more personal.  All of it is real.  And it turns out that when "stuff" is going on in life, it takes up space - emotional, chronological, intellectual, spiritual.  It takes up all the spaces.

One of the things going on is the last steps of preparation for ordination.  This is the culmination (we hope) of a journey that I've been on for about 12 years now.  It involves swimming in and describing, through the lens of my ministry, who God is and how God moves in the world.  And I'm super-focused right now on incarnation.  We are bodies -- flesh and blood, muscles and minds -- made in the image of an amazingly creative God.  Our bodies are vessels called into the world by God to be hands and feet, to be the very likeness of Jesus in the world to serve others.

It is not lost on me, then, that in the midst of all the things (so many things) going on, my body is carrying the stress and strain and anxiety of it all.

This was made very plain to me on Thursday night.  After years of quipping about my large personal space, about my big bubble of safety, I had a massage as part of a plan of care with a chiropractor addressing some long-term and emerging issues in my neck, back and hips.  It turns out that my body is rebelling a bit about running 24 miles a week.  Or maybe my body is rebelling about all the things to which I say "yes." Or maybe my body is rebelling about the way I cope with the world. A while ago, a dear friend looked at a photo of me in tree pose and commented, "I'd like to see your shoulders further from your ears."  Turns out my body would like that too...

The bottom line is that things hurt, they are kinked up and out of alignment, and my neck and back are making some crazy awful crunching sounds.  Joy-stealing.

Anyway...a massage. Something I've joked with good friends about over the years.  A stranger meticulously working on my flesh with their hands.  Anxiety producing just to think about.  And at my age, it is time to get over that because I know the way muscles work.  I know that after years of accommodating a twinge here and an ache there, muscle groups knot themselves around unstable vertebrae and joints.  And in order to straighten things out, things have to move back into "right" places.  Which requires loosening up the knots. Which requires unbinding tissue.  Which involves some pain.

I had knots in my shoulders.  The chiropractor warned me -- this therapeutic massage was not going to be a delight. It was going to involve discomfort.

YOWCH.  Here's the thing.  My neck and shoulders are a mess.  Between typing on a keyboard, hunching over books to study, and carrying the stress of work and parenthood these past few years (ok...maybe 20 years), my shoulders bear the burden literally.

And as this talented, muscle-bound, tattooed and mohawked massage therapist tended to my knotted neck and shoulders (yowch...I used deep breathing labor), I came to grips with how "pent up" I have become.  And that has profound implications.  Because when I am knotted up like that, I can't show up in relationship.  I can't show up in service.  I can't show up and be fully present.

And while I could pile on and feel inadequate and think of all the ways I need to do more, the bottom line is that I need to care for myself more.  Which means I probably need to find rest.  To find stillness.  To find mindfulness.  To tend to my body differently.  To realize that I don't have to keep chasing (literally -- 24 miles a week sometimes) perfection and goodness and success.  I recall the advice of a beloved mentor, "you have worked really hard.  You need a season of rest."

Because "all I ever have to be is what You made me...any more or less would be a step out of Your plan" (lyric credit - Amy Grant).  I know - intellectually and even spiritually - that I am enough.  But it is time for that to be more than an intellectual and spiritual mantra.  It's time for it to be embodied.

Because I fearfully and wonderfully made. And I am enough.  

Monday, May 29, 2017

It's Complicated - Thoughts on Memorial Day, Peace and Justice

I sat in church Sunday and listened to a very difficult story about a young woman, a nurse, embedded with a Ranger unit that was killed when she stepped on an IED while moving forward to help another soldier wounded by another IED. The story was being told, as it should be, so that we who sit in the comfort of our homes and churches and schools and workplaces remember that lives are sacrificed for our freedom, and for the freedom of others around the world.  This young woman was part of a forward operating group because she was a woman with whom the Islamic women in the area would converse.  She had "opted in" because she knew it was important work.

My goodness. It is such important work.

Stephanie reached over and touched my hand.  Does this make you nervous?

Yes.  Yes it does.  And she left her hand on mine.

I don't believe in war.

How is that for idealism?

I follow Jesus the best ways I know how - with lots of imperfection - and I am pretty sure Jesus went to a cross because he wasn't much into the way of declaring right and wrong, good and bad, in and out.  I'm pretty sure he went to a cross because he believed everyone deserved love and mercy and grace and compassion.  And the world doesn't get that.  It doesn't really want that.  Because...well, where's the "win" in all being equal?

And wars happen. There are forces of evil in the world - like Hitler was, like some radicalized people (please note I would say of ALL religious and ideological stripes).  And we live in a world where the only way to stop evil is to fight it.  I get that.

And there also mistakes in judgement about where military troops are involved.  Because ... well because... humans.  Humans make mistakes.  Humans charged with big decisions get it wrong sometimes. For reasons beyond their control.  And we end up in places doing things we probably shouldn't do.

And now, I have a son who has committed to serve his country in the way he understands his grandfathers served - with loyalty to democracy, to a country built on the idea of freedom, to shared responsibility for making the world a safer, better place where more people have freedoms.

(But oh my, our world is so broken right now.)

As his proud mama, I will cheer him on. I will wear my Go Army shirt, put a decal on my car, watch Army play Navy in football each year.  I will pray for our troops.  I will #runinblue #forthefallen...because God forbid ...just God forbid.  Enough.

It's complicated.

To my friends who are devout pacifists, I see you.  I respect you.  I love you.  Some days I could be you.  But not when it costs me the opportunity to mourn with those who mourn their fallen. Not if it costs me the opportunity to advocate for justice and good policy making to make our war time decisions the very best they can be (because we're already at war...).

It is so very complicated.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Exploring lonely - the empty nest, leadership, mid- and clergy-life

I was sitting with my pastoral counselor one day when she asked.... "Are you lonely?"

I was stunned.  Of course not.  I'm an extrovert.  I am surrounded all day by people.  I interact endlessly.  I draw my energy from those around me. My natural empathic connection means even if I don't know much about the person next to me, I know something about them. Lonely! Ha! As if...


I'm not lonely.

(insert chirping crickets...)

I sat with my reaction to that question in the coming weeks.

What is lonely?

What do I do when I am "alone?"

How am I filling my time when someone doesn't NEED something of me?

Who are my friends?

Not colleagues.
Not the kids who are all testing their wingspan in the real world.
Not my spouse.
Not my mom or my sibs.

Who are my friends?

And it began to sink in.  At 47, I've been super-busy being in relationship with people who need something from me. Who help me feel like I have a place and role and purpose in the world.  Food, clothing, administrative skills, counseling, teaching, leadership, fundraising, management.

But that hasn't left much room for cultivating girlfriends. People with whom I can just kick back and be.  People who will listen to my hard day and just say, "Wow.  That sucks.  You have so much going on.  Red or white?"


Thinking about it, I've spent 23 years in relationship with three beautiful beings, shaping them, helping them stay safe, learn life skills, grow strong.  And they need less and less nurture. And their lives take on greater and greater risk.  And my job is to stand by, cheer them on, process when they want to process, respond to the occasional crisis.  Occasionally provide the funds for life - tangible and emotional.

And I think I've got the hang of marriage - I have a great friend and life partner.  And we can't be the only one bearing the others burden. We can't listen objectively when we might get hurt, be in the wrong, want to "fix" the other's challenges.

And it turns out this clergy work requires a LOT of duty to care.  But it isn't a source of care for me.

And it turns out that emerging as a leader professionally isn't always popular or fun or collegial.

I appreciate my pastoral counselor.  I pay her to listen.  That's ok.


It's lonely.

Yes.  Yes.  I am lonely.

I find myself filling hours pouring over facebook, waiting for responses, waiting for engagement. Checking email.  Work and personal. Because someone might need me.

I see that now.

Lonely, I think, has something to do with learning to be alone.  I suspect it has to do with learning to be comfortable with yourself.  After years and years and years of being present for others.

And when I think about it that way, it seems like an opportunity.  Like -- if I learn to like myself as my own company when I am alone...maybe that isn't lonely.

Here's the thing.  I am aware. Sometimes I am sad.  I am exploring and learning, naming and claiming.  Watching what shows up. Trying not to judge what shows up. Not to judge my feelings.  Because it's ok to be sad. Or lonely.  Or sometimes scared of what comes next.

And I am aware that when I push lonely out of the way, sometimes God shows up differently too.

Clergy boundaries.


Saturday, April 29, 2017

When the bubble bursts...pondering global community

"This" conversation cannot be accomplished in soundbytes. Or Facebook posts.  The world is too complicated - the world of church, and the United Methodists, and human sexuality.  You can't talk about these things without talking about empire, and colonialism, and reformation, and scriptural authority, and the rule of law, and evolution, and science, and globalization, and fear, and politics, and...

I think you get the picture.

Last Friday, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church issued a series of decisions that reinforce language in the Book of Discipline (the law book of the church) which declares homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching and establishes that clergy are not to be "self-avowed practicing homosexuals."  The ruling actually expands the definition of "self-avowed practicing homosexual," and leans heavily on the definition of marriage being between one man and one woman. Essentially it says that if two people of the same gender are married, they are admittedly self-avowed practicing homosexuals.  (And, I see the logic in that conclusion.)

Which is NOT where the United States is legislatively.


Although it can hardly be argued that we have achieved wide "consensus" as a society on what marriage is, how it is codified, and how civil marriage and "church" marriage relate.  I think that in the current presidential administration, we will see this issue resurface again and again.

Did I mention that it was complicated?

And really, that's before we address ethics.  Or love.  Or community. Or God's authority and call.

Let's be clear that the responsibility of a judicial council is to rule on matters of church law.  There are ways for church laws to be changed, through the General Conference, the global legislative body of the church that meets every four years.

As a woman who met Jesus at a well at midday, received living water and is charged to go tell others where to find that water, let me go on record saying that I believe that love wins. So does grace. Always.  I believe that God's grace is bigger than all our petty expectations about our own salvation or who else is in or out.  I believe people should have the right to find a soul mate who completes them, even if that soulmate is of the same gender. And I believe that people of all sexual orientations and gender identities are called by God into various roles including calls to be Elders and Deacons within the United Methodist Church.  Fundamentally, I believe we are all created in the image of a creative God who does not make mistakes.  Nor does that same God call people into places to be stopped by other human beings.

And rationally, I also understand why the judicial council ruled the way the did.  And I can see the complicated situation we face as a denomination moving forward.

The United Methodist Church is a global denomination.  Its greatest growth is occurring in the southern hemisphere.  Most of my dialogue partners on this matter are here in the US.

The reality is that there are parts of the world that simply don't share the emerging US acceptance of gender identity and sexual orientation.

I feel like my ability to see the diversity of God's creation and to accept has an element of privilege. Confession: I don't know what to do with that.  I don't know how to be part of a movement that encourages a wider view of grace globally. (And as I type that, I'm pretty sure that a counter voice in another part of the world says that they don't know how to be part of a movement that encourages a wider view of piety and holiness...) Words and their definition and the context in which we use them matter so much.

We gather as a denomination once every four years.  In my experience, the average member in the pews of a UM church is barely cognizant of how the global connection works.  I've heard so much sputtering about leaving the church, leaving religion.  Here's the thing...progressives, liberals, whatever you want to call them, are getting a reputation for throwing up their hands in disgust and walking away.  If we want to have a real conversation about the God we share, we have to stay in the conversation and explore scripture.  And we have to be willing to hear one another's lived experience.

Several someones have mentioned to me recently the way that homosexual activity happens and is buried as taboo in several African cultures.  I haven't heard that firsthand, but if my brothers and sisters in Africa fear for their very lives, of course they are not willing to advocate for sexual orientation that is not understood as "normative" in their culture.

That's not the same as my lived experience.

And as a global church do we find common ground?

Disagreements standing in the way of unity are not new.  Paul's epistles are mostly advice about how to get along, how to distill what matters most, how to be one in Christ.

John Wesley is quoted saying, "As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think."  The denomination's own web pages about doctrinal history continue on:  
But, even as they were fully committed to the principles of religious toleration and theological diversity, they were equally confident that there is a "marrow" of Christian truth that can be identified and that must be conserved. This living core, as they believed, stands revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal and corporate experience, and confirmed by reason. They were very much aware, of course, that God's eternal Word never has been, nor can be, exhaustively expressed in any single form of words.

How is it that we engage to understand personal and corporate experience across so many cultural differences?  Especially with a mounting backdrop of scientific evidence about the complexity of sexual orientation and gender identity? And in the case of Bishop Oliveto, there is a moving account of how her election was a movement of the Spirit among delegates in the Western Jurisdiction. Who judges the Spirit's movement?  (I assure you, there are many on all sides judging the Spirit's movement on this one...)

Both a gift and curse of my call is that I am located in the context of theological a place that is United Methodist but also has a wide range of denominations represented.  For nearly all of my 10 years there, I have described one major strength of the seminary by describing the surface tension of a bubble.  The magic of the Wesley community is that often we are widely-divergent thinkers and believers staying in conversation, stretched out like the surface of a soap bubble. Our faculty and students value varying insights and the result is the bubble seldom "pops."

But it is a lot harder to maintain that surface tension throughout the whole of a single denomination. How is it that we communicate, share, witness so that we are one holy community.  I suspect it is nearly impossible to agree on most things across our beautiful, God - created diversity.

But I hope we can agree to do no harm, to do all the good we can, and to stay in love with God.

I hope we can agree to love one another.

I hope we can agree that God calls people. That grace is abundant.  That mystery still exists, miracles happen and only God sees it all.

I don't have an answer.  I understand the complication.  I love the beautiful diversity of people.  And I love the church that is enlivened by and attuned to the Holy Spirit.

Come, Holy Spirit.