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Thursday, December 18, 2014

In Celebration of the "Average" Church

You may have never attended an "average" church.

But you've certainly seen one.

Older buildings, often made of dark brick - with old-fashioned roofs that slope down from the center - possibly a bell tower and a steeple.

Maybe it's on the corner of that road you always drive down to get to work.

St. Stephen's. Redeemer. Hope. Resurrection. St. Thomas. St. Vincent. Beautiful Savior.

The names recall an age gone by, not just the 1950s, when neighborhoods walked together to Sunday morning worship, but also an age 2,000 years ago, when the world was changed by the witness of Stephen, the martyr, and Jesus' resurrection from death on a cross in Jerusalem brought freedom and life to a world hungry for God's love and redemption.

Their parking lots are small, if they have one - and in downtowns they often don't.

A hopeful banner hangs near the doors: "Join us for worship!" "Sunday School: 10 a.m."

If you've never been in an "average" church, or even if you have, long ago - you may wonder what it's still there for, after all. This Jesus who is coming again this Christmas, could he be housed in such a monument to the past -  a place often carried on by an ever-dwindling number of retirees who lament the lack of young people to serve on Altar Guild and tidy up the pews ...

The median American church has 75 regular participants in worship on Sunday morning. More than half of American congregations worship between 7-99 people each Sunday. They are strikingly homogeneous. In 2010, just 13.7 percent of congregations reported being "multiracial." Thirty percent of congregations still didn't have a website in 2010.

Reading these statistics, it may seem easy to despair - to drive by one church, and then another - to attend worship there on Christmas Eve - and wonder why you bothered.

Let me tell you why you - why I, a pastor of one of those "average" churches - still bother ...

A week ago I attended one of the most inspiring events of my life. I was surrounded by 43 of the brightest voices for American Christianity today: authors, founders of non-profits and non-traditional churches, activists, speakers, well-known bloggers and spokespeople.

Their communities of faith were anything but average: a hip-hop church in gritty Chicago, a Mennonite community in Raleigh, N.C., serving people experiencing homelessness; a woman and her family who were living amongst Somali refugees in Minneapolis; a 26-year-old dynamic founder of an organization working to combat sexual violence in sub-Saharan Africa; an author working to bridge the divide between the gay community and American Evangelicalism -- I could write chapters about the amazing folks I met there and the work they're doing to put Jesus' Gospel to action in America today, particularly when it comes to issues of justice.

While I heard their stories, I thought back to my seemingly average existence at my seemingly average church. My exclusively white family. Our weekly trips to Costco, Target, and Trader Joe's. Preppy sweaters and Christmas Dinners at church and a mundane American existence.

I wondered if an "average" American pastor at an "average" American church in the suburbs could make Jesus' words come to life, too: "he has anointed me to bring good news to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free ... "

In a year of Eric Garner and Ferguson and Peshawar and Boko Haram and Janay Rice - could the "average" American church speak Jesus' words of truth -- and would it make a difference?

In the midst of our time together last week a musician from the group came up to share a song, filling in the silence of our tears and shared prayers.

He told us about an evening he had once in Bosnia, in the aftermath of a war so terrible that they were burying corpses along the side of the highway; in the patch of grass next to the on-ramp - because all the graves were full and people continued to die.

He walked the streets that day filled with despair and longing for a taste of Gospel hope, of a reminder that death would not have the final say and Christmas - a Savior - might be born again, even in Sarajevo.

As the shovels broke the frozen ground to bury another body, he came upon a choir practice - perhaps in an "average" church building, on an average street in an average Bosnian neighborhood that had been torn apart by war, hatred, and death.

On this average night in this "average" neighborhood, they were having choir practice. And somehow voices from ethnic groups and religious backgrounds who had once wanted to slaughter one another were singing together verses of hymns about Jesus.

In the shadow of newly dug graves and unremitting death, when he heard their voices, he found he could hope again.

Choir Practice.

The words sent ice cubes down my spine.

See, at my "average" church, we have choir practice, too.

In fact on this very night our little "average" choir will gather together for choir practice. They'll listen to a conductor who immigrated from the Ukraine, where she was baptized in the middle of the night as to not alert the Soviet government. Men who had been bankers and advertisers and technicians would sing with women who'd been florists and administrative assistants and non-profit executives. A Russian immigrant would play the piano and a soloist from Israel would practice her verses in English, the language she was still struggling to learn.

Choir Practice. It seemed such a mundane, "average" part of being Church in America and yet in Bosnia Choir Practice became an instrument of justice and reconciliation. Choir Practice became a powerful witness to a new way of being in the world, where Power did not hold the final stakes and instead Love did and voices that weren't all that certain on their own could come together into beautiful harmony and tell the story of a Savior again and again and again and it never was quite average because He was never quite average and whenever He gets involved, peoples' lives are changed and justice rolls down like waters and righteousness flows like an overflowing stream, even in an "average" church.

Maybe this Christmas you're feeling like that "average" American church; on the corner of an "average" street in an "average" suburb with an "average" choir. Maybe you're thinking you can't make a difference for justice - for peace - unless you leave and do something grand in a grand place where things matter and people do grand things.

Maybe you'll go and do that.

But for now, remember that God chooses God's instruments with care. God chooses Choir Practice as an instrument of justice and reconciliation. God chooses the "average" American church as a place where an alternative way of living can still be lifted up - a way of giving and not only receiving; a way of hope, and faith, and love.

If you think you're average or your church is average and because of that you don't matter - you're wrong.

Don't forget the Christmas story. Jesus was born in Bethlehem - an "average" suburb of Jerusalem.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Christmas 2014: Hope in the Shadow of Ferguson and Ray Rice

Last night my husband Ben and I decided it was time to put the Christmas tree up. It was Dec. 3 and in three weeks it would be Christmas Eve so it had to be now.

It was our first tree in 10 years of dating and three years of marriage, and it turns out it takes longer than you'd think to unwind each and every tiny green branch of artificial pine, wrapped and boxed thousands of miles away in China.

With our 2-year-old Jake looking on - needing "mommy help" approximately every 4 seconds, we got the tree up and then had to race upstairs before we passed Jake's threshold from "I'm tired" to "I'm so tired I refuse to ever go to sleep."

It was close, but we made it. Then while washing my face I noticed a crack in the side of the bottle, and soap streamed all over the bathroom floor. I ran downstairs to wash the rug, brushing past Ben, who was standing on a kitchen chair trying to nail our mistletoe ball to the ceiling.

When I came back up from the laundry room he looked aggrievedly towards me, frustrated by the impossibility of this silly mistletoe ball and a slippery kitchen chair, and suddenly one foot went out from under him and he crashed to the floor, twisting the same ankle he sprained on Thanksgiving, missing the final step in his parents' basement.

We were exhausted, and Christmas seemed elusive this year. A week ago we'd sat in this same living room and watched as Bob McCulloch, prosecuting attorney for St. Louis County, dispassionately blamed first the media and then the eyewitnesses, tersely denying Michael Brown's family and America at least a chance at the airing out of evidence in a public trial of police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed the 18-year-old Brown in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 9.

As I wrote at the time, the whole incident seemed to play out an old American script of white police forces given free reign in predominately black communities. I wasn't convinced that Wilson was entirely in the wrong, but given the history - and the fact that a man had died - it seemed heartbreaking to see an entire community dismissed by a few words from the powers that be.

Ferguson wasn't only about race but about power - about the ways American society conspires to protect the powerful, even in the case of injustice - and as a defeated-looking President Obama addressed the nation last week following McCulloch's statement, he looked as though he'd all but given up. He'd once written that hope was audacious, and in the wake of Ferguson, and riots, and a sense of injustice, hope seemed not only audacious but unfounded.

Three days after McCulloch read the Ferguson grand jury decision, another case was decided in favor of protecting the powerful, at the cost of injustice to the oppressed.

This time the powerful entity was not the white police department of Ferguson, Mo., but an African American NFL running back. Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice won his appeal to the league to be reinstated, after commissioner Roger Goodell in September announced an indefinite suspension.

You may remember Ray Rice from the video: that video, where the 206-pound football star is seen dragging his then-fiance, Janay Palmer, out of the elevator. Palmer had passed out after a violent altercation with Rice; he punched her in the face and knocked her out. Then he dragged her out.

It happened, as these things tend to do, in a media frenzy on ESPN and TMZ. Everyone was watching the video, in that sort of sick voyeuristic pleasure that we take in seeing horrible things happen but not to us.

I never did watch it, but I could see the fear in her eyes at the press conference.

At the time, the NFL was all: "We stand against domestic violence," and the Ravens removed Rice's jersey from the pro shop and the league released commercials featuring female fans.

Janay knew, though, that like Michael Brown - she was up against money, power, and influence. Her hope was not only audacious but unfounded, and so she gambled with her life and stood by his side. It was the safe bet, because just two months later - fans in fantasy leagues across the nation were adding Rice back on to their roster as he quietly won his appeal to play football again.

What about that thing that happened this fall, that video, that girl? No one really remembered or cared. In the world today power wins and hope seems worse than audacious; it seems stupid.

***

Last night, Jake safely asleep in his crib, I came back downstairs and my sprained-ankle husband had somehow managed - miraculously - to finish it all himself. Our stockings were hung on the TV stand with care, and he was waiting under the mistletoe for a Christmas kiss.

He just couldn't get the star to stick on top of the tree; it kept falling and he said this time if it fell again he was taking it off and throwing it out.

He jammed that 8-dollar Target special into that fake Chinese pine branch as hard as he could, and this time as he stepped down from the kitchen chair, he didn't twist his ankle, and the star didn't fall.

I wound up the manger scene snow globe and its tinny voice sang the first and last verses of "Away in a Manger."

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed ... And take us to heaven to live with you there.

Over and over again it played.

The lights were low and the silver 8-dollar Target star was bright. "Away in a Manger" played on and the snow globe whirled with snow and I sat there silently.

I couldn't speak. I couldn't move.

My eyes were drawn, irresistibly, to that silver styrofoam star.

It drew my heart up, swelling into my throat; and I imagined how those wise men in the East must have felt the first time they saw it. Inexplicably they followed it into unfamiliar land, without guarantee of safety or security. They followed it because ultimately they knew that hope would not disappoint them, that God does not protect the powerful but lets the oppressed go free, that God brings new life where we thought was only death.

We know that hope does not disappoint us, even in the shadow of Ray Rice's return to football, and Bob McCulloch's dismissal of justice in Ferguson - because God turns earthly power on its head. He uses the weakest entity imaginable: an impoverished newborn baby born to an unmarried, uninsured, migrant couple - part of an ethnic and religious group that was ruled by a faraway empire who held all the power.

God laughed in the face of Rome and he took the Cross and said I'll show you a thing or two about Power: it's fed by life and not by death; by hope and not by fear; by love and not by hate.

Hope was reborn in Jesus underneath the star. When I looked at that silly styrofoam star last night I remembered Christmas. It caught me. It stopped me. It reminded me that - all evidence to the contrary - what wins in the end is not earthly power but faith, hope and love.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What Families Want - and how the Church can Help

Churches have spent millions attempting to cater to the needs of the young families in their communities.

Come here! Bring your kids! We have a replica-sized Noah's Ark with real, live animals - a coffee shop that sells Pumpkin Spice lattes - cupholders in the chairs and state-of-the-art acoustics.

From a millennial mom: this stuff is great. We like it, especially the lattes. But what we really want - what we really need - might not cost a thing.

***

When I started about a year ago as Pastor of a small Lutheran church in the Chicago suburbs, one of my first priorities was to re-start the moms group that had been meeting at the church.

At one time it had served almost as a preschool drop-off, later it had been held down by one more mom and her friends, and as their children grew up; no one came to fill the void.

I wanted to make it more than a drop-off, though - I wanted it to be Christian with a Capital C. I made some tongue-in-cheek flyers with a black and white photo of a crying baby holding a Bible, and I called it Babies and Bibles.

Then, on a few Thursday mornings, I brought Jake to the church. A few curious moms emailed and showed up, but it never really took off.

Meanwhile, I missed the close-knit moms group I had in California, where Jake was born.

I was in the process of giving it all up for awhile, when one day as I drove to church God spoke to me:

"Why are you holding this at the church?" God asked. "It should be at your house."

As usual, God made a lot of sense. Our house had more places to sit right among toys for the kids. It had space for nursing and a kitchen where we could share goodies. We didn't have to work around the church schedule, and it made sense to open the group to my neighborhood - which just happened to be full of babies.

I thought back to my moms group in California. We'd all met at a weekly parenting class organized by the hospital, and now that the babies were 6 months old, we had to start paying each week. My friend, Alyssa, told her husband this - and he just shook his head.

"Why are you guys paying to get together? Just hang out at each other's houses."

The suggestion was so simple and yet it turned our group from a casual, occasional bunch of overprotective mothers into an intimately connected group of friends. At root - what we most needed as moms didn't cost a thing. We didn't need another class about baby dentistry or reading to your 2-week-old. What we most needed was each other, for no reason other than we lived in the same community and had children the same age.

We didn't have a whole lot in common. I was the outlier from the Midwest, which everyone else considered flyover country. Some women spoke Japanese in their homes, others balanced tech careers or real-estate or husbands who worked in the Middle East. We probably never would have otherwise met, yet we changed each other for the better.

So it was clear. Bibles and Babies would be held at my house. I even changed the name, to reflect the street that wrapped around our neighborhood, and to welcome moms of other faiths to the group. As a Pastor who loves Jesus deeply, this was counter-intuitive. Everything we do has to be about Jesus, right?

But sometimes being about Jesus starts with His grace rather than His name.

Last week, we had our second moms group at my house. We haven't gotten out the Bible yet, but the Word was present nonetheless. See Jesus talked a lot about the Kingdom of God, about how all were included and all the normal rules about society and who eats with who and who is first and who is last get reversed in this special community of Jesus Christ. And every once in awhile; it usually doesn't cost a thing - we get to experience this community.

I experienced it last week. In the warmth of my next-door neighbors who brought their babies of all ages; in the Latino woman from across the street who lives in military housing and whose husband had gratefully returned from deployment unscathed.

In the grandmother who came from a nearby suburb and brought Hungarian nuts for all of us to try.

In the woman from the apartments across town, who came even though she got lost and had just a half hour to spend before children's doctor appointments.

In the clinician who came from the million-dollar neighborhood just a few blocks south.

In the Russian woman who shared an almond kringle with the group, and whose daughter wore perfectly coordinated fur boots.

We may never have met if we didn't live near each other and have children the same age. And we found out that some of the most athletic moms had babies who were late to walk. And that it's hard for all of us to entirely eliminate TV. And that balancing career and work and spouse and babies is worth more than anything in the world but it also makes us tired, and we were so glad we knew other moms for support.

As a Pastor, looking out over too many empty pews on too many Sunday mornings, I'd often wondered: what do they want? The families who I meet at swimming lessons and brush elbows against during pick-up at daycare? What can we do as a church?

It's no mystery. Families today want what families - and human beings - have always wanted. We long for deep, real, genuine, simple community.

Today through Facebook and Google and Wikipedia and DVR -- we have access to nearly limitless knowledge and information. If we want to converse with our interest group, we can fill out online comments or join an online community or Facebook group.

We can Skype our relatives and friends across the world, and we can watch documentaries at the tip of our fingers, about Genesis and Creation and Quantum Physics.

Ultimately, I think what families - and human beings - want today is not more learning, more groups, more programs, more how-to's -- what they want, what I want, is real community in our real communities.

The Christian church started in believers' homes in Greece, in Rome, in Turkey. People of all backgrounds gathered together and shared a meal. It was radical then and it's radical now.

So what can the church do? We can get out of our venerated, beautiful buildings and into one another's homes. Invite people over and just spend time together. There will be opportunities for Bible Study and prayer, but first community must form again.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The 2014 Mid-Term Election: What does Jesus say?

I'll never forget the time I was handed a Voting Guide when I walked into church on Sunday morning.

It was 2008 and I was a 23-year-old single woman, attending a large Southern Baptist congregation in Florida for the very first time.

The high school football coach I'd just written a profile on for the front page of the sports section had recommended I attend his church. He was, I'd ascertained, a good man and a genuine Christian. Plus, he and all the other football coaches from the area attended church here. There was the potential of additional scoops, plus an opportunity to make friends - or more - with some of the younger assistant coaches.

It was an impressive campus, all palm trees and white arches. We sang some familiar music and to be honest I don't even remember the sermon.

I remember the seemingly harmless Voters Guide. It was 2008. On the second page, listed in alphabetical order, was the man who would become our nation's first black president.

BARRACK OBAMA

It could've been a simple typo, an auto-correct. But as we were all told to bow our heads and pray for awhile to end abortion, I figured out this little Voters Guide might have a slight political agenda. And perhaps that little agenda might have contributed to them not bothering to spell the Democratic candidate's name correctly.

Much as I would have loved going to the church of the football coaches, I couldn't go back after that.

Lest you think this is just conservative Christianity's problem - I've seen it on the liberal end as well. Pastors and leaders unable to even conceive of a person who follows Jesus casting a vote for the Republicans.

My Facebook news feed this Wednesday following the Republican wave mid-term election was filled with laments and lack of trust. There were a few cheers mixed in there, but as a former journalism student and a female pastor who has lived in Illinois and California, you can imagine I might see a few more liberal posts.

Rampant among the posts was the utter disbelief that any person elected as a Republican would have any merit to govern.

Meanwhile, as I worked out at the gym this afternoon, you couldn't help but see the smug smiles on the faces of the FOX News hosts.

***

Where is Jesus in all of this? Where is God during election week?

Sometimes when I read the vitriol from either side, I find myself empathizing with the 78 percent of my age group who didn't bother to vote on Tuesday. I think many of us just end up feeling disgusted with it all.

Somewhere along the line - maybe it was the cable news networks and political blogs and PACS and ... who knows - it seems we as a country reached the conclusion that the two major political parties have to be diametrically opposed - that to like one is to hate the other. That to support one is to have a sense of utter distrust for the other.

That just doesn't make sense.

There will, as we've seen, be scandal and lying and utter mismanagement and fraud from both political parties. Sometimes one will seem to be more transparent than the other, and sometimes one will seem mired in stupidity - but ultimately the pendulum will always swing back the other way.

Since I got the right to vote in 2003, I've seen dramatic swings in elections and advantages. In 2004: Advantage: Republicans. 2006: Edge: Democrats. 2008: Democratic. 2010: Republican. 2012: Democratic. 2014: Republican.

I think behind these dramatically changing political tides is the general disgust or frustration that most of us feel with our politics. I can empathize. In my moves from solidly red districts in Florida and Kansas to swing state Nevada and blue California to blue of an altogether different kind in Illinois -- I've felt my own internal pendulum swing. Like many young people I was caught up in the excitement and dream of President Obama in 2008.

Like many young people I've found myself disillusioned in the past six years.

We drift from one party to the other. Yes, this party is the Golden One - they will save us this time.

***

After my sophomore year of college I had the privilege of serving a congressional internship for a moderate Republican from Minnesota. He had always won huge margins and was known for working across the aisle. His staff was dedicated and honorable. I worried that summer I'd lose my faith in politics but instead I gained respect for what it meant to be an elected official - all the while keeping under wraps my moderately Democratic leanings. I think I whispered it once to a staffer, who didn't seem to mind.

Such an amicable environment and respect across the aisle seems almost unimaginable in many places today. Districts have been drawn and redrawn so many times that many are barely even contestable by the minority party. Many Americans live in ideological ghettos: our Twitter feeds and Facebook news feeds are dominated by those who think like us. Our towns are increasingly dominated by one party or the other. When you don't know anyone who is a Democrat - or anyone who is a Republican - it's easy to demonize entire groups of people.

***

As a Pastor, I've seen the office of ministry just outright abused time and time again for the purpose of politics -- not just in the "Barrack" Obama gaffe at that Baptist congregation in Florida.

Whether it's subtle or screaming, the dismissal of an entire group of people from our churches is inexcusable: whether we're dismissing Republicans or Democrats.

We walk a fine line, of course, because sometimes Jesus does call us to political action: to advocate for the oppressed - to loosen the bonds of the captives - to allow all people dignity, life and freedom.

Jesus' dictate of loving your neighbor offers a sharp critique to an extreme Libertarian position, because it requires us to consider other folks besides ourselves when making political decisions.

Jesus' insistence on His way critiques an extreme liberal social school of thought, which assumes that through human goodness and strong government we might achieve heaven on earth.

His death on the Cross flies in the face of any political policy that claims to realize what only God can promise.

Jesus stands over the polls, I believe, and he watches us vote and he bids us to remember the words of the prophet Micah: "What does the Lord require of you? But to do justice. And to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God."

I pray our newly elected officials: Republicans and Democrats, consider abiding by Jesus' words. Do Justice in your office. Love kindness, even across the aisle and even love groups who don't support you.

Walk humbly. Admit that sometimes the other side might have a better idea, and that through collaboration the best idea might be allowed to flourish.

***

I don't think Jesus is just scolding or admonishing us, though, when he watches Americans vote - as about 83 million of us decided to do on Tuesday.

I think there's still a part of him that's proud - that's glad.

In the midst of FOX News and MSNBC and preening pundits, we often forget that a peaceful transfer of power, as happens nearly every two years in Congress, is impossible in many countries across the world.

We forget that in simply being able to go to the polls and have our votes counted, we've already experienced something amazing.

And despite our bickering and imperfections and allegations - politics has done some good things in America.

On Tuesday in a Chicago suburb I stood in line to vote in front of an African-American man.

As we waited for the folks in front of us to figure out a mishap in the new electronic voting machines, we shared a smile about choosing the wrong time to come to vote.

When I walked out of the polling place five minutes later, a thought struck me.

One hundred fifty years ago, neither one of us would have been able to vote at all. By our mere presence in the polling place, we were doing something remarkable - we had chosen the right time to vote after all. And returning to the polls this year, despite all the corruption and all the lies and all the disappointments - our presence there reminded me that Jesus' hope is burning bright in America after all in 2014.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Why "All are Welcome" is Hurting the Church

I see it on nearly every church sign, every church mailing; on the inside fold of every bulletin:
All Are Welcome!

Worship at 9 a.m. Sunday, All Are Welcome!

Bible Study at 7 p.m. Wednesday, All Are Welcome!

Potluck Dinner at 5 p.m. Saturday, All Are Welcome!

Vacation Bible School 9 a.m. Monday - Friday, All Are Welcome!

As the Pastor of a Lutheran congregation outside Chicago, I find myself tagging it on - almost thoughtlessly - to our invitation cards and mailings as well.

It's almost an auto-signature for churches today: All Are Welcome!

And the impulse is a good one. For centuries the church has been exclusive rather than inclusive, despite Jesus' desire to the contrary. We have excluded women, black folks, immigrants, gays and lesbians, people with special needs, senior citizens, single folks, 20-somethings -- at times the church has been downright discriminatory.

I remember all-too-well the heartbreaking tale told to me by a friend of mine. A devoted Christian and professional musician, my friend was desperate to find a church where he could not only worship but perhaps join the choir and get involved with music ministry. He brought his friend, another professional musician, to check out area churches.

They found one they liked and were surprised when the minister asked them into his office. Ascertaining that they were both, indeed, gay - the minister said: "Well, you can attend. But just sit in the back row."

Thanks be to God - my friend didn't give up his search nor lose his faith. He has since found an affirming congregation and leads incredible music there.

But too many of us have these stories. The congregation that saw single folks as irrelevant. The congregation that scorned Spanish-speaking immigrants. The place that found people with special needs disruptive.

Fortunately, churches became aware of these problems and the way they contradicted the primary, freeing message of the Gospel: that all may be one in Christ Jesus, and that there is no longer Gentile or Jew, man or woman, black or white, slave or free, gay or straight, rich or poor ... (from Galatians 3:28).

As a needed corrective to become inclusive rather than exclusive, churches have hit upon a simple formula. It goes something like this: "Let's add ALL ARE WELCOME to everything we publish. Let's make WELCOME the center of what we do."

The plan worked. Now, in churches across America - that three-word slogan reigns supreme. More than Praise the Lord or He is Risen - All Are Welcome is No. 1 in "church-speak" today.

Here's what I think, though. The plan didn't work. Saying: All Are Welcome may reflect a genuine, well-meaning desire to reflect inclusivity. But in reality, this slogan seems to have lost its meaning. Here's why I've found it's hurting the church.

1) Too often, All aren't Welcome after all

If a church says: All are Welcome - it has to practice what it preaches. Too often, we don't. We say All Are Welcome, but we don't at all plan for anyone new actually coming. Our bulletins say: All Are Welcome, but we don't introduce ourselves to new folks. We stare at them uncomfortably when they sit in "our pew." We don't explain how to do communion or what it means to Pass the Peace. We stare at those who are different than us or simply new. We create hoops for outsiders to jump through without even realizing what we're doing: all stand at this time; everyone magically know where to find coffee after service; avoid passing the plate to the new person.

When we say All Are Welcome - but then act as if only insiders are really welcome, we're perpetuating the church's unfortunate reputation for hypocrisy.

2) All Are Welcome: Including Bullies

There is one sense in which the church is called to be exclusive rather than inclusive. Paul writes extensively about the importance of maintaining the Body of Christ, which refers to the Christian community - or the church - here on earth.

The writer of Ephesians calls early Christians to transformed lives: "you must no longer live as the Gentiles live ... they have lost all sensitivity and abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity ... you were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self ... to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness."

We're called to be transformed. To live in community, in humility, in kindness - and that our churches might reflect those same attributes of changed lives, which are only possible with the promise of life after death.

Churches then have a prerogative to embrace a unique community - one that is shaped by the Gospel message of Jesus and not the fear and competitiveness which is shaped by the ethic of the world.

Too often - All Are Welcome has meant that churches have scorned their Jesus-given imperative to maintain the body and to reprimand and lead to repentance all individuals in the community, including those who have let gossip and bitterness divide the body of Christ and hurt those in its midst.

All Are Welcome in some church bodies has meant that pedophile and abusive priests and pastors have been allowed to shuttle from one congregation to another, without being reprimanded and called to task for their actions against the Gospel and against the Body of Christ.

All Are Welcome in some churches has meant that for decades a small cadre of bullies has been allowed to dictate the tone and timbre of the congregation. These bullies will create a closed society of insiders vs outsiders, and they will run out any Pastor or church leader who attempts to refocus and reopen the church to the freedom of the Gospel. All Are Welcome has meant instead of following God's leadership through prayer and discernment, oligarchies have formed around individual church leaders, who prefer tight holds on power to openness and growth.

Because All Are Welcome, Pastors and lay leaders are afraid to confront these church bullies or to reprimand them for the damage they've done to the church body. But in this case, welcoming these bullies who would hold the church hostage means that really no outsiders are actually welcome at all.

Maintaining an inclusive church means having a clear understanding of standards for the community. Of course forgiveness and mercy are paramount within the body of Christ. However, forgiveness and new life hinge on real repentance and desire for change.

3) All Are Welcome: And No One's Needs are Met

In modern churches' desire to be inclusive to all, many have become poor imitations of Wal-Mart or Target: attempting to appeal to all people at the lowest common denominator.

The truth is though - no church is grand enough to be the right church for every single person. Churches are encouraged to seek their particular place in the broader body, or community, of Christ. The body of Christ does not need 400 million self-sustaining organs but instead needs 400 million uniquely placed organs that meet particular needs: feet, hands, and eyes are all needed - though none functions on its own, the body needs them all. Churches, like Christians, are encouraged to discern their spiritual gifts and how these gifts might serve the needs of the community.

A church located near a large population of Spanish-speakers might be well-served by hosting a service in Spanish, with music and traditions appropriate to the surrounding community, and led by those from the community.

A church located in an area with a high percentage of German and Scandinavian retirees might be well-served by holding a traditional and liturgical Lutheran service, with hymns and an organ.

A church located near a large population of young professionals and working families might be well-served by creating a preschool or day-care center.

But the church in the neighborhood with lots of retirees probably isn't best-served by creating a preschool.

Nor is the church in the neighborhood with young professionals best-served by holding lots of activities during the day, or lots of activities without available child care.

Churches - like individuals - are called to know themselves: their strengths and weaknesses, and discern a clear and specific mission to where Jesus is calling them to act and witness in their individual neighborhoods. Yes, compromise to serve a variety of populations will be needed, but too often All Are Welcome has caused churches to become unsuccessful generalists, attempting to please everyone and pleasing no one in the process.

Churches have become afraid of bold action or commitment based on particular mission to one group of people. And there is a sense in many churches that the only group they should seek out for membership is young families - neglecting in the process college students, single adults, retirees, widows and widowers, etc. Many times churches actually do have in mind a particular subset of people with whom they'd like repopulate their congregation. Many times this particular subset looks an awful lot like the current membership of the church, albeit 20-30 years ago. Often, though, neighborhoods and needs have changed. And a vital ministry: perhaps to immigrant workers, to retired folks, to single adults - is forgotten in light of chasing the ever-elusive "young families."

To have a particular mission and goal does not mean neglecting All Aren't Welcome, but it does mean doing the hard work of discernment, prayer, fasting, spiritual discipline -- making tough choices -- to attempt to see the path where God is leading the Church.

Saying All Are Welcome is easy. What's difficult is 
1) really being inclusive and making churches friendly and navigable by all sorts of people, confronting hidden biases and prejudices

2) Confronting bullies in churches and calling brothers and sisters out in repentance, so that power is put back into the hands of God and called and elected leaders in the church

3) Discerning God's particular mission for your community and developing a specific plan to carry out that mission, even if it means neglecting the needs of other groups

In the church - and at the wedding feast of God's coming kingdom - all really are welcome. But for too long churches have paid lip service to saying: All Are Welcome without doing the hard work of inclusivity, accountability and discernment. For the American church to really begin to resemble that welcoming wedding feast that Jesus tells about in Matthew 22, we've got some hard work to do. "For many are called, but few are chosen." (Matthew 22:14) And of course, many we invite will never come.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Hey Millennials, don't quit - take a break and re-commit

If you're a Baby Boomer reading this article, you might be thinking: Why is she telling millennials not to quit their jobs? Most of them don't even have jobs. One of them is sleeping on my couch at this very moment.

See, these are the kind of biases us millennials have to put up with all the time: I'm 29 in case you were wondering.

Like any other generation in history, millennials are diverse: from wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg to your neighbor's son who has to be reminded to rinse off his dinner dishes at age 25.

This week, attending a church conference about Making Room for Millennials, I heard that 91 percent of millennials plan to change jobs in less than three years - the implication being, of course, if they can't even stick with a job - how do we expect them to stick with our churches?

Attending a church conference about millennials as a millennial pastor was sort of like inviting a teenager to a conference about why teenagers don't listen to their parents. When I heard the statistic about job changing I looked over at my friend, Matt. We smiled.

The stat was nothing new. For years we'd heard the Pastor Protocol: three years in a first call.

There was no logic or data to it, of course. Some pastors stay 33 years and others nine months. The gift of call and fit and the wiles of the Holy Spirit don't always obey guidelines. Yet the mythical number stuck in our heads, and as we found ourselves wondering how to make room for commitment to a church by a generation who has resisted the church and resisted commitment - and as we saw in ourselves that same resistance to status quo church and commitment to a church, I wondered what Jesus might have to say in the midst of it all.

He didn't answer me right away, but the question stuck with me the next day as I listened to a seasoned pastor - an expert in transition of pastoral leadership - tell a room full of Baby Boomer and Millennial preachers that he was convinced his church didn't really trust him until about year 7 or 8 -- that the process of leadership and change was a slow, diligent one.

We'd heard it said before, but we also came into congregations full of anxiety - our own and theirs. Budgets that had been bleeding red for decades and members who were dying. Buildings in states of disrepair. A whole generation of our peers who needed to come to church now or - or else ...

The church was dying - the Church is Dying! We'd heard it in seminary and in sermons - in the newspaper and on TV. We didn't have eight years - we didn't have one year. We could feel their anxiety as we came in and we could feel our own, too, heaped on our backs with tens of thousands of student loans and the prospect of no health insurance.

Two days of conferences - data - inspiration - excitement - anxiety. A millennial pastor at the age of 29 who bucked the trends and even got married and had a baby and bought a house - you'd think I'd feel content but instead I felt that same old restless itch that has become characteristic of my generation.

Why do millennials have trouble settling down? Quitting jobs? Waiting to get married? Committing to a church?

                We sense limitless opportunity.

                Growing up as the Internet grew with us gave us a sense of unlimited possibilities. We wanted to see the Great Wall of China? Click on Google Earth! Want to apply to Duke, Harvard, and Princeton in 35 minutes? Use the online Common Application. Meet a friend in Stockholm? Book a flight to Timbuktu? Find the answer to just about any question you have?

                 As we've graduated high school and college and entered the working world, we still have that sense of limitless opportunity - even in a climate of sometimes-scarce job prospects. There's the Peace Corps or Teach for America: just apply online. My husband, a mechanical engineer, gets several messages from recruiters every single day. As most millennials know, our sense of opportunity doesn't equal real job prospects. Most of the recruiters who contact my husband give him leads for jobs that don't at all fit his experience or education. But the Internet gives us a sense that we could always be doing something else. We've seen the Wide World - and we sense that we could grasp it, if only we make the right choices of the seemingly limitless opportunities before us.

             Nobody gets promoted or raises anymore.

              When's the last time you heard of a millennial friend or relative getting a raise or a promotion in their current job, excluding a new degree or new job? Almost never, right? Employers rarely give raises anymore, outside perhaps a standard cost-of-living adjustment. If we want a new opportunity, we're told we need a new degree or certification. Most often - we have to switch jobs. Job hopping is often the only way for us to move ahead. I know friends who are waiting a backlog of managers or supervisors who (might) retire in 5-10 years. The choice is clear: wait out a long retirement or force their hand by getting a different job. This is by no means only true in the secular world. Pastors have been hearing for decades about the wave of Baby Boomer retirement that will open up calls in churches across the country. Mostly, we're still waiting.

             My husband, the engineer - you know, that recession-proof field - got his first significant raise and promotion last year. He got it because he had been made a similar offer at another firm, so his company matched it to keep him. But even stories of raises and promotions like that are rare among millennials.

             Social Media doesn't allow us to take a break, so we become frenetic.

             Here is I think one of the biggest unknown reasons for millennials' struggle to commit: to work, to relationships, to religion. Committing means stopping: being where you are in the moment even if sometimes it hurts. In a narcissistic world of constantly publicizing our lives - see: selfie culture - we're afraid of being left behind when we commit. We won't have anything new to share.

              I'm almost 30 now, so I can almost sort of see outside myself and realize what I'm doing - instead of the blind flight from one passion to the next that sometimes overtook my 20s - and I can see in myself when that restless itch comes over me, and I know it's partly from Facebook.

             Sometimes, fellow millennials and millennial pastors - your first job or your first call is not particularly photogenic all the time. Sometimes what you're doing is not selfie-worthy or performance-worthy but sometimes it's worthy nonetheless.

           Being together - making a commitment to trust one another and listening in the quiet is perhaps not worthy of a status update. I would not tweet to my followers: I've decided to keep doing what I'm doing! But maybe sometimes we should, to show each other that it's OK to decide to stay: to commit, to a job, to a relationship, to a church - even if it's not perfect.

                 It's OK to take breaks, too. There are seasons of change and activity and seasons of patience and preparation. Ecclesiastes 3 says that for everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die; a time to kill and a time to heal; a time for war and a time for peace. A time to go and a time to stay. Sometimes what we need is not a major life change: an application to Teach for America; raising chickens; brewing beer - sometimes what we need is not to Go but to Stop.

 Jesus knew that breaks - perhaps not worthy of a sermon soundbite or placed on a Bible bumper sticker - were nonetheless essential to his ministry. He had to retreat or he could not continue his mission, and he knew his mission and he was committed to it. We millennials are so devoted, so focused on determining our mission that sometimes when it finds us we have trouble committing to it because we don't know how to take breaks. We're finally there: the mission is upon us - and we don't know how to stop searching.

Jesus often bids me forward but today I feel him telling me, telling you, to stop.

He keeps pointing me to this verse and I read it anew today as I seek my own stopping place of refuge: "... for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls," (Matthew 11:29b).

 Jesus, as Augustine once suspected, is the only complete source of respite in our world - for only a man and a God who would die and rise again is complete and humble and awe-inspiring enough to eclipse all our worry and our death-defying pursuit of the seemingly endless opportunities. And so us millennials desperately need churches, where we can commit and are nourished and become a deep and true part of the fabric of the community, by stopping and staying and even taking breaks. Our drive and desire is needed in corporations and congregations across the country: not just as a flash in the pan year-long employee or occasional joiner for Christmas Eve services - but as an integral, long-term, committed part of the culture. We're tempted to leave but it is in staying - in learning to take breaks and then recommit even more strongly - that we will most permanently change the world, and the Church, for the future Jesus has prepared for us.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Function of Sadness and a Jesus who Weeps

Two years ago, almost to the day, my son Jacob was born.

He came into the world with his fists clenched and his mouth open wide, bellowing louder than seemed possible for a 7-pound, 11-ounce newborn baby.

Lying down in the hospital, I remember at that instant what immense relief I felt when I heard his cries. Until I heard those cries I had never quite allowed myself to believe that all was OK. Those were the happiest cries I'd ever heard.

Of course that didn't last long.

Like most parents, I would from that instant go on to a lifetime of attempting to ensure that Jacob never had anything to cry about again. Happy children - not smart, not wealthy, not athletic, not beautiful - but happy children, are the Holy Grail.

Be happy, be happy, be happy! the world screams. Buy these yoga pants and say Namaste. Juice. Drive this car. Take antidepressants. Smile! And when you do, make sure your wrinkles are smooth and your teeth are white.

Commercials filled with sulking faces are replaced in an instant, with a cold beer and a juicy hamburger; whitewater rafting and ballroom dancing - and a flash to people smiling and slapping each other on the back.

Tears are hidden. It is a shame to be sad.

We shun the sadness among us because we know its side effects. Depression, isolation, addiction, suicide, obesity, anorexia. Yet sadness itself does not cause depression, isolation, addiction, suicide, obesity, anorexia -- rather it is our inability to healthfully deal with and go through and share sadness that makes our modern society so susceptible to these silent killers.

I have been deeply sad in my life, and at times I have slipped into situational depression. 

I have felt the weight of sadness. The death of a family member. The end of a relationship. The loss of a job. A major health scare. Betrayal. Fear.

In these moments I have felt not only sadness but shame for my tears. It is embarrassing to be sad. 

So in the shame and isolation our sadness grows and blossoms. It slows down our movements to a crawl, inching out of bed, listening to that same song on repeat, eating nothing all day and then an entire bag of chips at night.

Sadness has been put into the closet. And in this closet of fear and isolation: depression, addiction, suicide, obesity, anorexia, self-doubt -- they grow to become insurmountable and life seems impossible.

It wasn't always this way. For Jesus, sadness was a necessary part of life and even of salvation. People were sad together, and out of that shared sadness - new life began, even out of death.

In Mark, chapter 5, Jesus is summoned to the bedside of Jairus' daughter, who has died. When he comes to Jairus' home, he sees "a commotion of people weeping and wailing loudly."

In John, chapter 11, Jesus goes to visit Mary and Martha after the death of their brother, Lazarus. Many friends and neighbors had already come to their home before Jesus to mourn with Mary and Martha. They even followed Mary to the tomb, to accompany her as she wept. As they walked on, they were weeping with her. Jesus was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. Soon, he began to weep.

Mary's friends didn't surround her and say: Don't cry, Mary. Be happy! Everything happens for a reason! 

Jesus' mother didn't follow him, begging: "Don't cry! I want you to be happy."

Despite his status as Savior of the world and God Incarnate, for most of his life Jesus was not a particularly happy man. He had moments of joy: in the temple as a young boy; in his friendships; on his baptism day in the Jordan River as his Father blessed him.

But the Bible never says Jesus was happy. It never says Jesus smiled, even. No, instead we are granted a portrait of a God who weeps.

On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus wept so hard his tears became tears of blood. He was in great anguish as he prayed alone. Then an angel came to give him strength, and Jesus went to go and wake his friends.

Somehow, the Bible seems to say, we are not meant to hide our tears - but in crying together, in reaching out and sharing our tears, sadness finds its function.

Sadness creates empathy and real relationship. It is through the pain and sadness of betrayal and death on the Cross that God is forever changed in relationship to human beings. In Jesus God experiences the depth of human sadness, and as a result God understands forever how we feel, how death feels - and God decides by God's plan to forever save the world from death by the gift of eternal life.

If I have never felt sadness I can never share in full relationship with my brother or my sister who is sad. But when we have known sadness together, we are confident we can defeat it together. Through the presence of my brother or sister in the midst of my sadness, I can see beyond the closet doors of sadness into the future of a redeemed life in a world touched by the presence of Jesus.

As a ninth grader I read Brave New World, about a utopian society where no one feels pain, anxiety or sadness - and a savage named John who chooses to feel and die rather than live in a superficial world of "happiness."

At the time John was my hero and there was no question what I'd choose. "I claim the right to be unhappy!" I shouted with the tragic hero.

As a 29-year-old wife, mother, and pastor - sometimes the artificial ease of soma sounds somewhat more appealing. Life's burdens are too heavy to carry alone. But rather than squeezing our eyes tight and trying to pretend our burdens don't exist, perhaps we're meant to share the load.

When I cry, Jesus does not say: "Don't cry. Please be happy."

He says: "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."

Thursday, October 2, 2014

These Royals Make You Believe in God

Big Game James sat on the bench in the dugout. He hadn't taken his glove off yet because he was trying to pretend it wasn't real - that manager Ned Yost hadn't taken him out of the game at the biggest moment of his life, winning 3-2 against the Oakland Athletics in the first postseason appearance for the Kansas City Royals since Color TV was a coup in motel rooms, and phones were attached to cords.

Twenty-nine long, aching years - and now the Ace was on the bench, watching rookie Yordano Ventura, in just his second career relief appearance, give up a 3-run homer to A's designated hitter Brandon Moss. Two more runs would score before the disastrous inning was over, and James Shields just kept staring at his hand, wondering how the dream had died so easily and without him in it.

He had led this team all year: 14 wins and a 3.21 ERA that made Kansas City a contender in a league that long ago had written off the Royals as rejects.

Wal-Mart executive David Glass brought a "save money" philosophy to Royals baseball, but the Royals weren't "living better." Kansas City hadn't had a winning season in a decade when they finally burst out in 2013, rallying despite Glass, a paltry payroll, and second-tier status in a league where cash is king.

Cash was king, and as the Dodgers and the Yankees and the Red Sox and the Tigers shelled out tens of millions for marquee free agents, the Royals kept building their farm system and rushing players to the big leagues too soon, watching prospect after prospect either bust or leave for greener pastures when they finally matured.

Royals. The name itself became a mockery, the crowns at the K overlooking a shadowy downtown with no mass transit system and few skyscrapers, a Midwestern cow town with a newly built arena where no NBA team would come to play.

They got their name not from royalty but from a Kansas City livestock show that started in 1899. Royals, rising from manure and hay and cud. Somehow it was fitting.

Baseball fans around the country didn't even know what state the Royals played in, or where Kansas City was.

"Oh I like Kansas," said many a well-meaning American, hearing of a pending trip to Kansas City, Missouri.

As playoff hopes started to become real again in 2014, behind an impenetrable bullpen, the Ace Shields, and clever, improbable baserunning - the Royals took on a new anthem, a new slogan. The song, written by New Zealand teenager Lorde, was inspired by Lorde's viewing of a photo of George Brett. The lyrics could have been more optimistic, but again somehow they fit a team full of heart that was winning against all odds:

I'm not proud of my address ... in a torn-up town ... no postcard envy
And we'll never be royals ...

We'll never be Royals. The song blared over the sound system at the K and even though they were the Royals somehow it made sense because they never would be Royals, like the Yankees or Dodgers. They didn't have the cash, the clout, the history, the famous fans and luxury boxes for the stars. 

They had barbecue: brisket smoked in basements on 18th and Vine, cooking skills honed by African Americans who took the trials of slavery and segregation and gave America barbecue, jazz, and a rich soul. Kansas City has a barbecue soul within, a tangy sweet flavor that's better cooked slow, hidden beneath two innocent-looking pieces of cheap white bread, served by a surly line cook: Can I help you? Hey, can I help you!?

We'll never be royals.
We crave a different kind of buzz.

It was a different kind of buzz all right, when a boneheaded call by Yost decided to attempt a double steal with lightning steed Billy Butler playing Pickle in the Middle with a man on third in the American League Wild Card game.

Butler flubbed the play, first baseman Eric Hosmer got tagged out at home to end the inning, and as Oakland scored its runs in pristine fashion, with two home runs by Moss and textbook hitting and baserunning, the Royals scrapped hits, bunts, wild pitches, and base stealing together like a homecoming dress made of duct tape worn by a homecoming queen who took her tractor to the school dance.

Royals catcher Salvador Perez was ugliest of all, chasing pitches in the dirt, a foot outside, contorting his bat in the air like an old man trying to swat a fly. Royals legend George Brett had tried to get Perez to take a pitch every once in awhile, but he was like an overeager puppy - so sweet was his desire that even in a Major League game that was all about business, you couldn't help but love his heart even as Perez struck out twice in the Wild Card game, leaving three men on base.

Then it was the bottom of the 12th and by the grace of Hosmer the game was tied, somehow, magically - with bunting and stealing and wishing on a prayer - the Royals had come back and the fans could taste the win on their barbecue-stained fingers. 

The Hope of the Franchise was up to bat with Christian Colon on first. Alex Gordon was born for this moment, in this stadium. He grew up a Royals fan in nearby Lincoln, Neb., and was the second-overall pick in the 2005 MLB draft. If the Royals were going to have a Welcome to the Big Boys Club moment, if they were about to be inaugurated into the ranks of the MLB's finest, this was it. 

If they were the Yankees or the Dodgers, and their star was up to bat, he would've homered. The crowd would've erupted and the team would win games how you're supposed to win games, with money and solid fundamentals.

Gordon popped out. The crowd at the K sighed, and somewhere across the Missouri-Kansas border, a group of young teenagers tipped over a sleeping cow. 

Anyway this wasn't Big Boys Club baseball, it was Royals baseball. They have to make you think they're going to lose before they win in the most impossible way imaginable.

An overly eager Perez came to the plate. The count was 2-2 and Perez had already swung three times. Conventional wisdom said Jason Hammel would throw another nasty slider and Perez would reach for it, stupidly, then head back to the dugout, head down.

But this was Royals baseball, where even a misguided manager and a team searching for a slugger would find a way to win in October. It was almost October, and a 2-2 count to the one player Royals fans hadn't been able to count on all night at the plate.

The camera cut over to the bench and there he was, the Ace who'd been de-aced too soon. Big Game James was smiling. 

We're bigger than we ever dreamed
And I'm in love with being queen

The slider came. Low and 84 mph, fast enough to earn you a ticket driving through the Grandview Triangle from Overland Park to Lee's Summit; slow enough to catch Perez's anxious bat.

It ripped down the third-base line, right where it had to go to score Colon; and George Brett, in his box, was smiling, too. He'd never given up, on this team, on this town, and for a moment: they were Royals, in their own way.

***

People say that professional sports fuel what is worst in us. Our greed, our impatience, our willingness to ruin our bodies for the sake of fame. Our glorification of the worst human impulses, our blindness to the crimes these athletes sometimes commit.

Many a minister laments the confirmation student absent again for basketball practice or baseball practice; the Sunday School student whose hockey practice always comes before Sunday worship; the church member who watches their ESPN Gamecast during the sermon.

It's been said that Baseball, or Football, is America's religion and because of that we've lost our footing.

Maybe that's true when the Yankees win the pennant, or the Patriots take the Super Bowl.

But when the Royals win the Wild Card and play in October for the first time in 29 years, Jesus smiles back at George Brett and James Shields.

Jesus won like the Royals win. He rose like the Royals rise, when everything seems impossible and people don't even know what state you're from or what the Bible even says anyway.

Jesus was King like the Royals are King. He was a small-market franchise, loved by a small but devoted group of followers who took a risk on a long shot because We Believe.

Being a fan of the Royals is different than being a fan of the Yankees or the Dodgers. Most of the time it's worse. You lose and lose and lose again and players never want to stay. 

Being a follower of Jesus is different than being a follower of consumerism or fame. Most of the time it's worse. You're compelled to give your money away, you have to forgive people even when they do terrible things, and even though you follow the Savior of the world, you and your loved ones still die.

Sometimes, though, and ultimately, being a fan of the Royals is better. On Sept. 30, 2014; being a Royals fan was better. They won with heart, with tenacity; when they were down they were really down but when they were up they brought their city up with them, and this flyover cow town was filled with immense pride. All of a sudden people were saying We and hugging and thinking that maybe just maybe there was a God and good really could win in the end.

Sometimes, though, and ultimately, being a follower of Jesus is better. He won with truth, with love; when he was down he was really down and he died on the Cross and for three days the dream died with him. And then he rose again and when he rose he brought his world up with him, and this broken-down world was filled with immense pride and faith and hope and love. All of a sudden people were saying Grace and hugging and thinking that maybe just maybe He really was God and good really could win in the end.

Maybe sports are America's religion right now. And maybe sometimes Jesus takes on sports and uses America's religion to remind us that We Believe - the sixth inning and ill-advised Ned Yost and the Cross and ill-advised human beings are not the end. Most of us, especially those of us in those states the news forgot, will never be royals like the song says. But Jesus says in the end we will all be a Royal Priesthood. 

And in the meantime, he'll give us his Royals to remind us We Believe.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

To My 2-Year-Old Son

To My 2-Year-Old Son,

Today is the last day that you are 1 year old. Tomorrow is your birthday and you will be 2.

Being 2 means lots of excited talking, repeating the same phrase again and again until finally I get it and your face lights up.

Being 2 means stamping your feet for more cereal and playing with cars and "go to the park!"

Being 2 means saying I pooped but being scared of the potty; asking for "sing" before you go to sleep, and lifting your arms at the top of the stairs, even though you know how to climb down:
"Carry?" "Carry?" CARRY!!!!"

I'm glad we can talk like this.

Every little word you say, even over and over again with your head thrown back in exasperation, is a miracle to me. You are a miracle to me.

Ten years ago - I know, FOREVER - me and Daddy met in college and way too soon we started talking about Jake. We imagined, can you believe it, even your name and your red hair and your blue eyes. We saw you in a baseball cap headed out the door to play catch; you liked to play.

Somehow we knew about you already.

But we were in college and someday when you're 19 you might understand this. We were impatient and selfish and didn't listen to each other. Sometimes today when you're really upset about something, like the berries being all gone or not getting your juice fast enough, you're able to get over it and laugh hysterically, about something like HORSIES or SOCKIES or OUTSIDE!

Sometimes when we were 19 and 20 and 21 and 22 we forgot how to laugh together and so we spent time apart, Mommy in Florida and Daddy in Las Vegas. You've already visited Las Vegas for your baptism, but when Daddy moved there for work he enjoyed other parts of the city besides church, like poker and late nights and other things you can experience when you're 21.

Almost three years later, Mommy and Daddy reunited again on New Year's Day in Florida and the dreams we used to have about being together and about you, Jake, burst before our eyes and we decided that maybe those dreams were real.

You're only almost 2 today but I hope you always believe that dreams come true, because you were a dream come true to us, and the dream of you and what we could do together, made us overcome our stubbornness and frustration and laugh and dream together again.

We moved to Minnesota. Not as many people visit Minnesota as Vegas and Florida, but Mommy is from there so I hope you love it, too. You've already been to the State Fair so I'm making sure to indoctrinate you early.

We got married a year later and then we moved to Vegas together and this time we moved there for church. I think both of us still always dreamt of you in our minds, but now we were older and married and the dream was more possible so we didn't talk about it as much.

We weren't really ready to have a baby, but I'll tell you this secret: Nobody Is. And when I found out I was pregnant I didn't quite believe it because when dreams start coming true sometimes we tend not to believe them.

Sometimes the truly wonderful is almost harder to grasp than the truly awful. I hope you can always enjoy what is truly wonderful in your life and not worry about it too much, like Mommy does sometimes.

The whole church loved you even when Mommy stood before them to preach with a huge belly and swollen feet and they joked that I was having twins but they loved you and I will always love them for that reason and many others. Some of the ladies there made you a quilt with your name, and all kinds of knitted hats and blankets. They wrote messages in books and on diapers for you. You were destined to come into a world of love, and maybe when you're older and sometimes you feel like church might not be for you, I hope you remember that church in Las Vegas that claimed you as its own and loved you even before you were born.

Our time there was short, though. Mommy's internship at church lasted only a year, and a month before you were due to be born we moved to a suburb of San Francisco, where we knew no one.

In Missouri in College, your Minnesotan mom and Missourian dad used to dream we'd live in California with Jake, who liked to play and had red hair and wore baseball hats.

Now that we were almost 30 the California dream was real and kind of scary. Our furniture got lost in Reno and Mommy, who was not small at this point, slept on an air bed. One night, Daddy and Mommy stood on the airbed to try and tape curtain rods to the 1-bedroom apartment's walls.

You and Mommy were too big to stand on the air bed and it popped, so Mommy and Daddy had to drive 45 minutes at 11:30 p.m. to Walmart to get a new airbed.

We found out in California that you were breech - upside down in Mommy's uterus, which had previously meant nothing to me but now meant unexpected C-Section surgery in an unfamiliar place. Thank God everything went fine, but we were scared. In Minnesota and Missouri and Las Vegas we always had lots of help and now you were here and it was just you, Daddy, and Mommy.

You might notice as you get older that sometimes Daddy and Mommy are really overzealous about things. We were that way when you were first born, too. You lost weight in the hospital so we tracked all your feedings and timed them on our phones and charted your poops for weeks.

Don't worry, you were a great pooper. One day we used more than 20 diapers but that's mostly because Mommy and Daddy didn't put them on right and you peed everywhere.

We learned that everything was washable and nothing was perfect. That mistakes were inevitable and we were bound to be scared; but we loved each other and we loved you so much that in the end our love protected and preserved us.

As you grow up I hope you know too that everything is washable - forgivable - and nothing is perfect. You have our genetic material so you'll probably try really hard at everything and want it to be perfect but sometimes it won't be. Sometimes you'll make mistakes and sometimes others will make mistakes that hurt you. It's all washable. Our love and God's love for you, his special child, will protect you and preserve you - and the love you have for others will protect and preserve you, too.

When Daddy went back to work, you and Mommy had to learn to adjust. I spent too much time worrying about my seminary classes and not enough time sleeping while you slept. I worried about your schedule and timed too many things; I was embarrassed about my post-pregnancy body and not sure how to satisfy your needs sometimes.

We survived together. You looked up at me and the first time you smiled I felt the purest joy and incredible relief.

You looked at me on the changing table one day and tentatively spoke: "ah ... Ma Ma!" It got clearer and clearer and I couldn't get enough.

I was young and inexperienced and unprepared but you knew I was your Mama.

See I was worried because I thought the other mommies I knew in our classes did everything better than me. They took the pain of nursing like it was nothing and gave up everything in their diets except organic nuts to sacrifice and feed their babies, while you had to have non-organic bottles after three painful and unproductive weeks for both of us.

They made their own baby food and talked about all the research they'd done; they had their own homes with designer nurseries while you shared a room with mom and dad in the apartment we'd just gotten a month before you were born.

Seeing you happy and laughing with me and growing up just fine even with a mom who wasn't perfect made me realize that love is not about being perfect. Love is about the morning in March 2013 when for 45 minutes you were in your jumper and I knelt behind the bathroom door in that silly apartment where you had no nursery, and you laughed anyway and I surprised you over and over again, taking picture after picture after picture.

The pictures look like perfection but it wasn't perfection. It was tiredness and happiness and a cramped apartment in an unfamiliar place with parents who had no clue what they were doing but somehow God brought you joy and me joy through you.

You drove to Berkeley with me twice a month that spring while I finished graduate classes. We flew to Missouri and Minnesota in January and you watched me graduate seminary and be ordained as a Lutheran pastor. You raised your fist to say: "Go Mom!" and I couldn't believe it was real, you sitting in that pew in the sanctuary where I got confirmed and then married and then ordained, and the Pastor who baptized me was now talking about you as he preached the sermon that would help make me a Pastor.

We moved again to Chicago, to another cramped apartment while our townhome was being built, and you met a new church family who didn't know you or Mommy and Daddy yet. This time Mommy was the Pastor in charge and you had to go to daycare and some days Mommy wondered if she was enough of a Pastor or enough of a Mom or too little of both - and sometimes, like Jake and Mom days on Fridays, or when you came to Bible Study with me and you high-fived all the ladies - I felt like maybe Love was protecting and preserving us still.

Now we've got it together, sort of. We own a townhome and you have your own room and tons of toy cars and books you love and a park we can walk to almost every night. You are so happy. You are your mommy's son so you like to do what you want to do when you want to do it.

You like to push the stroller instead of riding in it; you like to do it on your own as much as you can, but sometimes you still say: Carry, or Help, or Sing, and I know you need me.

I hope you always know that we need each other, and no one can make it on their own. Life is about leaning on each other and leaning on God - and sometimes you're the leaner and sometimes you're the leaning post - but in the end when we lean nobody falls all the way down.

A year ago you just started day care and you weren't quite sure about it, and this year when you come in to school you and your friends immediately start talking and playing with balls and cars and making art and singing songs and reading books.

You have friends - friends! - who are coming to a birthday party for you and even though we moved you yet again, community has surrounded us and all kinds of people in Chicago and Vegas and California and Minnesota and Missouri are wishing you a happy birthday. You are still so loved, and in another new place Love has preserved us and protected us.

I know you're only almost 2, but maybe you can keep this letter and read it someday when you're older.

Maybe when you read it, it will remind you - like it reminds me - that dreams often come true but often not in the way you expect them to.

You were and you are our dream, our Jake, with red hair and blue eyes who likes to Play and wear baseball hats and laugh like nothing in the world could ever make him sad.

When we first dreamed about you, in Columbia, Missouri, in 2004; we never thought we'd live in Florida or Las Vegas or Northern California. We never thought we'd buy our first home in Chicago and I'd be the head Pastor of a church here before I'm 30, with a 2-year-old son.

Today is the last day I can call you my 1-year-old. Many more milestones will pass in our lives and sometimes we'll forget to celebrate or we'll rush forward with worry without remembering all the worries of the past and the way Love obliterated them. Sometimes we'll shout and forget about our love, and the love of a God who rose Jesus from the dead and promises to raise me, and you, and Daddy, and Grandpa and Grandma and the whole world as well.

Today on the last day you're 1, I pray you and me will never forget that Love, that God of Love, who preserved and protected us through it all and always will, from 1 to 2 to 22 to 82.

Love you, Jake. Happy Birthday.

Mom

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Key to Real Community: Tear Down that Firewall

Yesterday morning at 5:30 I woke up to a disconcerting email:

Suspicious Sign-In Prevented. Please check your Google activity immediately.

In my half-asleep bleariness, I clicked the link and filled in my password.

Then I realized I'd been scammed.

Recognize was spelt recognise - and the account email was from Googlemail.com, not Google.com. Otherwise, the email was identical to those I'd gotten from Google in the past.

The next two hours were spent frantically re-securing my life. Changing passwords, adding two-step verification, application passwords.

I suddenly realized how much of my life was online. My Facebook page was a chronicle of my wedding, my jobs, my son's first 2 years of life.

Most people my age are the same way. Sometimes it's easier online.

The first people to find out about my pregnancy three years ago, besides my husband, were members of an online birth month group at WhattoExpect.com. Weeks before we told family or close friends, we shared intimate details about morning sickness, headaches, and faint lines on pregnancy tests.

Why do we do this? Somewhere, all of us, in Fantasy Football groups and pregnancy groups and dog lover groups and gluten-free groups: we're longing for Real Community.

With the advent of the Internet, Cable TV, security systems, and suburbia - community has changed a lot. Most of grew up with parents who were a little cautious about letting us run free in the neighborhood. We got Caller ID. We weren't allowed to sell Girl Scout cookies door-to-door to people we didn't know. And increasingly, in our neighborhoods, we didn't know the people around us.

Trunk or treats in parking lots replaced trick or treating at our neighbors' doors.

Fear and wariness replaced openness and hospitality.

My parents have lived in the same neighborhood since 1980. I remember one summer afternoon, home from college, I had a terrible bike accident and an ambulance came to my parents' house to take me to the hospital. Days later, walking around the neighborhood, I couldn't believe how many folks came out and greeted my mom by name; asking if I was OK.

I didn't even know we knew these people!

In a way I'd rarely felt so loved. So secure. There was this whole community surrounding my home, loving me, watching out for me.

I've tried to recreate that community but it's tough. I haven't lived in one city longer than two and a half years since college. I lived a whole year in an apartment near San Francisco without ever meeting my next door neighbors. Same for a townhome in Vegas.

In Florida in a gated retirement community for 2.5 years I never did meet a single neighbor.

In Minnesota my roommate and I baked cookies for our townhome neighbors and tried to share some small talk in the mornings. I at least remember one of their names, but that was it.

So many of us are desperate for real community, for real security. For that feeling I had as I walked around my parents' neighborhood, and people rushed out their front doors: Angie? Are you OK?

So often our first response is the one I had yesterday morning when I learned a hacker had gotten my Gmail password. In search of better community and more security -- we build more fences and firewalls. We think the answer is more passwords, 2-step verification, separate groups for status updates on Facebook, private profiles; even applications like Snapchat that delete messages right after they're sent.

We probably do need more online security.

But in order to get that Real Community that so many of us are searching for, I think in real life - the key to real community is making your life less secure.

Tear down the firewalls. Remove the passwords. No verification needed. Get to know your neighbors. See - really see - that person in front of you, as even more real - more vital - than your iPhone screen.

This past weekend I did a little sociological experiment. I'm the Pastor of a small church and also recently (seven months ago) moved into a new townhome community. It's a pretty friendly place, and so filled with babies that I've taken to calling it the Fertile Crescent.

We had a big event at church coming up, and I've been wanting to get to know more neighbors, so I decided to knock on some doors, introduce myself, and also invite people to our upcoming fair.

The look on their faces at first was usually one of dread. Who are you and why are you at my door on a Sunday afternoon?

Most people visibly relaxed when I said I was from the neighborhood. We shared a bond. A moment. We really were neighbors. I had the first password.

If they were parents of young children, the two-step verification went through easily. Oh, I have a 2-year-old!

Smiles abounded. Access granted.

I knocked on 150 doors. Most people opened them and were generally friendly. I had to swallow my own nervousness as well as my firewalls came tumbling down. I was talking - talking! - to complete strangers. Me, the one who usually buries my head in my phone screen while waiting in line at Starbucks; who wears earphones at the gym, who darts in and out of yoga class without making eye contact.

Lowering our person-to-person security is much more difficult than raising our online security. The passwords are more subtle, the two-step verification more unwieldy. Racism, sexism, and classism build fences in our interactions with the people standing right in front of us. We let garbage workers, delivery people, and construction workers blend into our surroundings as we read our Facebook News Feed.

Four days after lowering my defenses and knocking on neighborhood doors - and two days after upping my online security, what sticks in my head most are two interactions with my neighbors.

Three doors down from me, in the same townhome block, more than halfway done meeting my neighbors; I rang the doorbell.

A young guy about my age answered the door wearing a San Francisco 49ers shirt, NFL games on in the background. A pack and play for a young baby sat on top of the stairs.

I had the trifecta for access granted: we were the same age, the same race, both recent parents, both apparently transplants from San Francisco to Chicago.

"Hi, I'm Angela. I live three doors down from you."

His eyes narrowed.

"Do you need something?"

Flustered, I fumbled with my invite card.

"Looks like you have a baby! We have a 2-year-old, too. Maybe you've seen us out playing with him. He has red hair."

"Can I help you with something? I'm pretty busy."

Defeated, I backed away.

"Well I'm also the pastor of a nearby church and I just wanted to invite you to an event we're having next weekend for families."

He snatched the card and shut the door. I haven't seen him since. Hopefully I won't need to borrow an egg anytime soon.

A friend of mine tells a story about getting locked out of his apartment in 120 degree heat in Las Vegas in the summer. He had no one to call and no way back in, so he banged on his neighbor's door. He could see them inside, watching TV.

They ignored him for an excruciating 45 minutes, until his roommate came home and let him in.

"I was banging desperately. They just ignored me."

His story and my experience with my neighbor made me think about the people I've ignored; the times I've looked right through the person standing right in front of me.

As a follower of Jesus I try to put His words into faithful action, and imagine how he might respond in similar situations.

Jesus says the most important commandment is to Love God and Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.

I've spent way too much time ignoring my neighbors. The pain of being ignored was real.

"Do you need something?"

What if I'd said then what I really felt:

"I need to love you, because you are my neighbor. I need to take down my passwords and firewalls and disable my verification settings and I hope we can let each other in and rely on each other when the road floods or my son is sick or my car breaks down or you need a babysitter for a few minutes while you run up the street."

"I know it might sound weird but I need to know you and I need you to know me because we're right here together and neighbors are meant to be loved."

Even as we reveal ourselves online we're building firewalls between us and our neighbors, and we can't see each other through them. We're blocked. Unfriended. From a chance at Real Community.

I had another experience four days ago, walking through my neighborhood and risking forever branding myself as that Crazy Christian Lady who tried to get us to go to her church. This experience makes me swell with joy and love even as much as the other fills me with pain, sorrow and shame.

I walked up to my neighbor's door and rang the doorbell. I'd never met her before.

She opened the door and extended her hand broadly: Hello! Do you want to come in?

She introduced me to her baby and told me about her life; she and her husband had been renting an apartment nearby after moving from Bolivia. She hadn't met many people yet. It was hard, she noticed. And she was looking for a park where she could walk with her sons. She said Thank you, Thank you; so many times.

I told her about our church event and she cradled the invite card in her hands as though I'd handed her a bar of solid gold.

"This is a great opportunity for me," she said, looking me in the eye. "I will certainly be there."

When I walked away we had exchanged phone numbers and cleared our security settings and emptied out our cache. We had allowed each other open access. I took a risk and she let me in. She accepted me and even loved me, just because I was her neighbor.

In her eyes I was a person worthy of love and friendship. We shared a holy moment. Jesus walked between us and said do not fear, for I am with you always.

So I'm still working on it. My firewall surrounds my car when I block out the person next to me trying to merge in. When visitors come to our church I'm sure they're met with strange passwords and firewalls and verification codes that make no sense and leave them blocked from Real Community.

They don't know the hymns or where certain people sit week after week; how to pray at the right times or stand and sit down according to tradition. We're working on it. Jesus is helping us take down our security settings and showing us how to love our neighbors without firewalls.

And every once in awhile, by the grace of God, community happens. Firewalls come down. Hackers become friends. Strangers hug each other after a funeral. Children from different schools who speak different languages become friends. Believers and non-believers experience grace. And in the bosom of Real Community, I feel more secure than I ever did with even the strictest Facebook privacy settings.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Why I Refuse to Watch #RayRice

Have you seen it?

The Ray Rice video?

The one where he knocks out his then-fiance, now-wife?

You should know about this, they say.

You should see this, they tell me.

I haven't.

#RayRice is one of the most popular trends on Twitter today. People can't get enough of the video. That video.

I typed Ray Rice into the YouTube search bar and the site finished my thought for me:
Ray Rice ... (knocked out fiancee).

The top three hits: all various footage from that now-infamous night at a casino in Atlantic City, N.J. More than 5 million views.

Ray Rice and his fiancee, Janay Palmer (now Rice), arguing. He punches her in the face. She is knocked out, cold. He then drags her out of the elevator, face-down. His expression is blank.

First down. No lost yards.

Rice and Palmer were both charged with simple assault. No injuries reported.

A month later, things change. Rice is charged with third-degree aggravated assault. Palmer's charge is dropped.

A day later, Janay Palmer marries Ray Rice.

Two months later, a press conference. Ravens tweet:
"Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident."

The Incident.

Often we use words to cover up ugliness we'd rather pretend didn't exist.

The Ravens would have rather imagined that Ray Rice, who was trained to be violent on the field, was a lamb off of it. That he didn't physically abuse his fiancee and even knock her out.

That his abuse wasn't so complete, so mental as well as physical, that she was compelled to hold herself responsible for the punch that knocked her out.

That our society isn't complicit in violence against women.

"She must have done something to deserve it."

"He wouldn't just punch her like that."

"This is a private matter. Let them handle it."

And so children grow up and watch their fathers beat their mothers.

Ray Rice's monster touchdown on Sunday excuses him from the fact that that body, honed in preseason workouts with top-notch trainers and equipment, was a machine designed not just to terrify tacklers but also to terrify the woman who loved him.

His hands were not just built to cradle a football but also trained to destroy whatever stood in the way of his needs, of his desires - not just on the field but in the elevator. I used to cover professional sports. Athletes have special rules. It's not cheating when you're on the road.

Athletes are used to getting their way. This girl doesn't want to have sex? Someone else will. Get in line.

The same impulse that says Michael Brown of Ferguson was equally at fault for his death at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson is the same impulse that says Janay Rice-Palmer is equally at fault for her lost consciousness at the hands of Ray Rice.

There's a power differential here.

Whites are not losing their lives or their freedom in altercations with police officers of another race.

Men are not losing their lives or their freedom in altercations with their female partners.

The numbers in both situations aren't even comparable. There is a power differential: between a white police officer and a young black man; between an NFL running back and his wife.

Some statistics:
A woman is more likely to be killed by her male partner than by any other person.
About 4,000 women die each year due to domestic violence.
About 75 percent of those women were killed as they left the relationship, or just after leaving.

So have you seen it?
You should see the video.
Millions of others have.

I haven't seen it. I won't watch it, for the same reason I won't watch the YouTube video of a woman being stoned for adultery. Of a woman being forced to marry her captor. Of "rape porn."

We're sickeningly fascinated by violence.

Each time somebody watches the video, Janay Rice-Palmer loses a little bit of her humanness.

Punched, passed out, dragged out.

Can you believe she's Tweeting anger at the media?
Is it about money? Does she really care that much about money?

Domestic violence is about power and control. Ray Rice exerts that power and control over Janay. It's no surprise that he got her pregnant. Pregnancy is often another way of exerting power and control.

Imagine if 5 million people watched a video of you being knocked out by your husband.

Her voice has been taken from her yet again. One more time. It's not about the money.

When I lived in Las Vegas I took a three-month course on domestic violence offered by SafeNest. Part of the course involved a simulation of the choices offered to abused women. We moved from station to station; each station had a card with two choices on it. I chose to go see my Pastor.

He told me to Pray. That Jesus said women should be submissive to their husbands. That Jesus said divorce was against God's will.

My next card showed me back with my abuser. In the hospital with a broken collarbone.

#NotMyReligiousLeader

We are failing women every single day.

When you watch that video with a sick fascination. Then turn on Monday Night Football.
"What a hit!"

Churches are failing women every single day.
"Wives, submit to your husbands."

#NotMyJesus
#NotMyBible

Biblical traditionalists often forget to mention that the language of submission in the Bible is grounded in mutuality. For each instruction to women, Paul has an instruction to men as well. Relationships, love, is meant to be sacrificing, loving, and kind. Violence, vengeance, of any kind - is condemned from the Old Testament to the New. Vengeance is mine, says the LORD in Deuteronomy 32.

Jesus himself says this, in his first sermon: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me ... to proclaim liberty to the captives ... to set the oppressed free," (Luke 4:18-19, quoting Isaiah).

Jesus died so that no person might lose her personhood. So that no one would be controlled, manipulated, and abused. The love Jesus practiced and preached was a love that lifted up those who were brought low; a love that set people free from the roles society gave them and left them identified by an eternal life, an eternal light that could never be extinguished.

Domestic violence puts out that light. As Janay Rice-Palmer crumples to the ground in that video, she is reduced to something less than human.

She tries to reclaim her identity with a Tweet. I do have power. I am loved. That wasn't me.

So, out of respect for Janay Rice-Palmer, a woman, a wife, and a mother just like me: I won't watch that video.

But I will advocate for tougher domestic violence laws.
I will fight against police departments and policies that tend to slap both the man and the woman with a charge, while women die.
I will listen and watch for any opportunity to be an advocate for women in my life.
I will put Jesus where he belongs, standing between Janay and Ray: protecting her and keeping her from her abuser.
Jesus isn't neutral. His forgiveness isn't free. He stands with Janay, and he encourages us all to do the same.

Don't watch the video - watch yourself and those around you. Stand against domestic violence and support women today, so Ray Rice's daughter, Rayven, won't think that love = power, control, and being punched in the face.