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Have Red Shoes, Will Move to the Midwest

By now, it’s become social-media official:  as of August 1, I am leaving Flagstaff for the flatlands of the mid-Midwest, and a new call in Kansas City, Missouri.  I will be the Assistant Rector, and Day School Chaplain at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City.

I am excited about this, I really am.  The new parish is awesome.  They announced my birthday on Facebook with a math riddle.  They think my social media habits are amusing, and not terrifying.  When I shrieked like a toddler over discovering that the start of the Oregon Trail video game was actually in Kansas City, which meant that MY OXEN TEAM WAS NOT DEAD YET, OH MY GOSH, they did not count this against my obvious maturity and ability to be a functioning ordained person in God’s one, holy, and apostolic church.  (Gold star. Seriously.)  And they also have an amazing commitment to outreach and social justice, and sense of humor, and I can’t wait to work with them.  
But while I’m thrilled to start this new chapter, this also means I have to leave.  And I do not care for leaving.  Leaving means goodbyes, goodbyes imply loss.  
Leaving is never pleasant.  
For one thing, because moving requires me to truly come to grips with how many shoes and books I own, and reveal that information to unsympathetic movers.  (When I moved to Flagstaff, the mover made me promise to never move to a walkup higher than first floor again.  Or else sell every single book I owned, “because, lady, this is excessive”)
But most especially because leaving a place that I have liked as much as this one is never easy. 
The quirky, sweet parishes, the supportive and wise ministry colleagues, and the amazing, inspiring students, who have all conspired to make this job a joy-filled one each day, and who have taught me so much about persistence and bravery, faith and community.
I have been blessed beyond words to have been the chaplain here in Northern Arizona for the past few years, and part of the story of this place.  Now the story of the chaplaincy here moves on, and my own story moves on.  
But the wonder of stories like this is that they never end, not truly, and nothing is really lost.  As God spins out our stories, they carry forward all the fragments of who and where we were before, into the future that God envisions.   
So the imprints of the people we meet, the experiences we have are never far–even as we move on.  It always gets woven in to the next chapter, and the next and the next after that.
Whatever exactly comes next, it will be an adventure.  But I also know that this adventure will be accompanied by the mischievous love of God, which is nothing if not adventurous, and possessed of a better sense of humor than I ever will be.  
So here I go!

Knit Theology

Because my current ministry lacks a building, the local Episcopal church has generously allowed me to use a desk in a corner of their office bullpen.  I keep their deacon/office administrator company while I tend to my various college-ministry-office tasks, and she holds down the fort. It’s a good arrangement.  knitting

Last week, a young boy, “Zach”,* stopped by on his weekly rounds to pick up our recycling.  He is around 10 years old, and comes by every week to pick up our glass for us, for pocket money.  He doesn’t go to church, but our deacon has been working on him long and hard about this matter for over a year now.
This week, he stopped in the office with his mom, because he came to the conclusion that his father would greatly appreciate a hand-knitted washcloth for Christmas, and he was just the person to provide him with one.  Accordingly, he stopped in to procure knitting instructions from our deacon, “Beth”.
Beth whipped out the needles and yarn, and got right to it.  I scooted over on my chair to observe, since I am great at knitting, but bad at teaching it.  Within 15 minutes, Zach had a serviceable beginning to a washcloth, and was fixated on the second row, like it held the secret to Mideast peace.  “Now, Zach,” said Beth, “you really should come to our youth group here next week.  I think you’d like it.”
Zach was undissuaded from the knitting. “Why would I want to do that?” he replied calmly. “I’m not a Christian”  He announced this in a matter-of-fact, descriptive tone, like he had told us that he did not care for broccoli, or that magenta clashed with orange.  Facts were facts, ma’am.  Neither good, nor bad.
I found this fascinating. “Huh. So, what do you think makes a person a Christian, Zach?”
With this, he dropped the knitting, swiveled in his chair, and stared at me, jaw dropped. “Well, I don’t know.  Lots of things! But I’m not one.”
 After some more gentle pressing, he started to list things he did not believe in: God was not stuck in the sky on a throne.  God was not an old white man with a beard.  God did not control us all like puppets.
He was surprised when Beth and I agreed with him on these points, but not slowed down.  Once he got going, he was on a roll–a 30 minute roll.  Why, if Jesus died on a cross, did we now all wear crosses around our necks as the sign of Jesus?  Why, if God gave us free will, did God insist that we worship him, and “not just let us sit on a beach in Miami all the time?” (That made me laugh out loud.)
To the last, I admitted that it remained a deep mystery, but for me, personally, I worshipped God because I actually like God.  Chances are, if I didn’t love God so much, I would ignore God a lot more.  But, moreover, I show God my affection by trying to live the way Jesus lived, and by trying to love the people around me as much as God did.  Zach pondered this concept for a while, knitting industriously.
 “Well,” he finally said, “I’ll probably come to the youth group thing.  So long as I can ask more questions.”
We assured him that would be fine.  In fact, I told him that would be awesome, since his questions were among the best I had heard.  I meant it.
I don’t know what would happen, if we all took to the streets, sat on corners, and offered to teach whatever it was that we knew best to passers-by: be it knitting, cooking, basketball, singing, or hopscotch.  I don’t know what would happened if we went, offered what we had, and then listened to what people had to say about God.
But I have a feeling it would be amazing.
*I’ve changed the names, to allow for the possibility that other people don’t enjoy being featured on the internet as much as I do.

Adventures in Postmodern Ministry: We are not Family

Last Thursday, the diocese of Arizona had another educational summit for its clergy, this one on preaching.  These summits are a chance for all the clergy in the diocese, and sometimes lay leaders in the parish as well, to receive continuing education on various topics: children and youth ministry, spiritual direction, music and liturgy, etc.  (And also see our colleagues.  An added bonus of no small worth in a diocese as big as ours.)

Our presenter covered a lot of ground, but one of the points she touched on was that the meaning of language has shifted considerably in the past few decades.  Therefore, in her preaching classes, certain words are off-limits:  sin, grace, faith, hope, etc.  She dubbed these “Teflon words” because their meanings are so loaded and expansive that anything can be thrown at them with no effect, unless the preacher specifically defines them.
I agree with this Teflon concept.  Especially for folks who came of age in a post-Christendom world, there exists no one meaning for any of these theological terms.  Just as the pleasant concept of a unified theory of systematic theology has broken down into a multitude of varied voices singing in (one hopes) harmony, each of our nice theological terms now has a variety of meanings attached to it.  ‘Sin’ can mean what your mom says when you were 5, as well as what the crazy guy on the subway is yelling about as well as what Rick Santorum is currently pontificating about.  Plus, probably whatever the preacher on South Park says it means.
Which means a couple things:  #1, the average person is confused about theology and #2, preachers had better start defining their terms, unless they want their folks to be educated by the loudest voices in the room.  (Who are liable to be Rick Santorum, and South Park.)
And, #3. Due to this varied soup of influences, words have ceased to mean what you think they mean.  And perhaps, some words should only be used in the pulpit with the utmost caution.
To this latter list of Teflon words, might I add the word “family”?
I realize that I invite the shocked gasps of many throughout the church with this suggestion, as well as the writers of almost every parish profile I have ever read, but hear me out.
I understand that we would like the church to be a family.  But I also think that what we mean by this term is: “a group of people who support and love each other unconditionally, through good times and bad, richer or poorer, etc.”  It’s an aspirational goal;  it’s what we strive to be like.
Because many of us (most of us, maybe) do not come from families that operated like this.  Many of us came from families that did not manage to pull off the unconditional love concept, and who weren’t always so supportive of everything, all the time, always.  Families can, and do, split up.  Families can, and do, hurt each other and abuse each other, and store secrets for years and years.  Aspirational goals, and Hallmark cards, aside, the reality of ‘family’ as many of us know it is not really an experience that anyone would want to import into the church.  It’s not a life-giving metaphor; it’s covered with too much baggage.
Instead, why not be explicit with our aspirations?  If we want to be a community of people who support and love each other unconditionally, then why not say that?  Why not explain that this is, in fact, what Christian community is, and lay out exactly what our vision is?   And this has never been more important than now, when there are so many competing voices, clamoring to claim what is Christian and what is not.  What if we were to step forward and say, “Hey!  Shocking as it may sound, a Christian community is determined by its ability to love and accept the newcomer and stranger, not its ability to judge more harshly than anyone else in town.  Christian communities are built on love, not the skulls of the damned.”
Our ability to communicate the Gospel has never been more important, and it helps no one if we restrain ourselves to vague terms that are comforting shibboleths to us, but hopelessly baggage-laden to others.  We need to be clear, crystal-clear, even, and forthright with our vision for a redeemed creation: words and all!

Camp is Wonderful; Church Signs are Terrible.

I spent the past week at Chapel Rock, our diocesan camp, training counselors for the upcoming Children’s Camp.  This year, Children’s Camp is Narnia-themed, which means that our Canon for Children’s Ministries went whole-hog and built a WARDROBE over a door.  (Pictures in a future post, so campers won’t be spoiled.)

Suffice to say, I spent the day of the wardrobe’s construction running back and forth through it like a maniac.  People, it even had MOTHBALLS stuffed in the corners for authenticity of smell.  (Behind safely stapled black fabric.  Accidentally poisoning children isn’t Christian.) 

It was a fantastic week.  Bible study every day with counselors, in which we dream-cast a movie of the Prodigal Son (Father: Morgan Freeman, Elder Son: Christian Bale, Younger Son: Charlie Sheen), and composed time-shifted versions of the Resurrection accounts.  

Then, home I came, and to Sedona, I preached.  They got more or less the following sermon.  


Mark 4:35-41

When I was a kid in Pennsylvania, we lived behind a Southern Baptist church, with a church sign out front. Each week, my brother and I would wait anxiously to see what message they’d put on that sign.  Every week, it featured some pun, or saying. “God answers Knee mail.” or something about Jesus: “Jesus: he’s coming. Justice: its coming too.”. So basically– of puns and vague threats. A certain, specific type of evangelism.

The one I really remember said “Tears bring rainbows.”. And it appeared the week my mother had a mastectomy, and I decided I just hated that sign. Because it came to encapsulate all of the token phrases people repeated, over and over, like magic words: hoping they would have some effect in the world, but repeated so often that they lose their meaning. Those platitudes we say all the time, without thinking, almost, like charms. God will provide. It’s God’s plan. Have faith.

It’s the easiest thing in the world repeat these. And to say them to someone else.  To tell someone else to have faith! Trust in Jesus! But what on earth does that actually look like? In 2012, at the end of June, here, today, what, does that actually look like? Because repeated words are well and good, and sometimes very comforting, but oftentimes, we need a little bit more of a concrete reassurance than that.

So how do we have faith? How do we trust in God?

Like most behaviors, trust and faith are learned. When babies are born, they learn that someone, hopefully, will be there when they cry to hold them, and feed them, and change them, and stay up all night with them, becoming horribly sleep deprived…but in this way, hopefully, we begin to learn the concept of trust. It’s also how peek a boo works. I’m gone! But I’m coming back.

And also like most behaviors, faith and trust are tricky beasts to master. All the world does not operate like a game of peek-a-boo, and so many of us also learn that occasionally trust can be misplaced. And that hurts. And we get cautious.  We get careful.

Observe the disciples. They have been following Jesus around for a bit now. They’ve left house and family, their livelihoods, and their security behind. They’ve seen him preach, and heal, and cast out demons. They’ve witnessed the massive crowds that are following him.

They’ve seen a lot, they’ve heard a lot. The action in Mark’s gospel up until this point has been nonstop. This is the first break Jesus has had since his ministry started– he’s been followed pretty continually by large crowds, and now he gets in a boat for some peace and quiet, and a nice nap. The introverts among us can identify with this.

And through all of this, the disciples have been witnesses of how Jesus has acted towards them, and towards others.

But their first reaction, when the storm hits, is “Ack! Jesus! Why are you abandoning us to let us drown in a boat!!!!”. You don’t love us, we’re all going to die, ahhhhh!!!”

It’s definitely a human reaction, to be sure. It’s a reaction of sheer panic. To be in a storm in a boat at sea is not a pleasant experience. I can see how they thought they were going to die.

But what in the world had given them the idea that Jesus was going to just let them all drown? The same guy who had healed the sick, conquered demons, and saved Peter’s mother in law from death was now just going to sleep through their collective doom?

In this moment, fear trumped the faith that they had learned. Fear overrode what they knew to be true about Jesus. They knew who Jesus was– they knew that Jesus was not going to abandon them, and hadn’t abandoned them. They knew that Jesus didn’t do that, wasn’t going to do that. But fear is a primal force at times, and can speak pretty loudly, while faith is quieter.

It’s a challenge to keep listening to the quiet voice of faith, even in the midst of fear. It’s a lot easier sometimes to fall back into our patterns of cautious behavior. Easier to go back to believing that trust hurts, faith gets broken, and God acts like everyone else who’s ever hurt us.

 And so, when storms strike, we fall back. When disaster strikes, we revert. We accuse God of hurting us. What caused the earthquake, the hurricane, the wildfire? God must have been punishing someone’s wickedness. What caused the cancer? God must have been trying to teach a me a lesson. Why are we sitting in a boat in the middle of a storm? Jesus is trying to kill us.

 It’s easy to listen to fear, and to forget that none of that fits what we know about God. Certainly, none of that fits what we know about Jesus. The loving God who promises to be with us always, who stayed with the Israelites, even when they complained for 40 solid years, the healing Christ who made whole torn up and sick people. God doesn’t send disasters and sickness and death as punishment, or to teach us lessons. God doesn’t abandon what he has created. God doesn’t manipulate people like that. God suffers when we do–and has suffered with us, in the person of Jesus.

God doesn’t leave us. And will never leave us. Jesus is right in the boat with us, even when we are scared, and even when we panic, and cover our eyes with our hands. Jesus is still right there in the boat with us.

That’s what we know. That’s what we have faith in– a living, loving God-in-Christ. Even when we’re scared, and most especially then. Thomas Merton expressed it in this prayer:

Lord,I have no idea where I am going, 

I do not see the road ahead of me,

I cannot know for certain where it will end.

Nor do I really know myself,

And that fact that I think

I am following Your will

Does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe

That the desire to please You

Does in fact please You.

And I hope I have that desire

In all that I am doing.

I hope that I will never do anything

Apart from that desire to please You.

And I know that if I do this

You will lead me by the right road,

Though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore I will trust You always

Though I may seem to be lost

And in the shadow of death.

I will not fear,

For You are ever with me,

And You will never leave me

To make my journey alone.



New Structure, New Church, Same Jesus

Last week, before I left on retreat (Beautiful Authority Conference, which was amazing) I received in the mail a book from the President of the House of Deputies.

Now, I love to read, and I love books, and so I am disinclined to question when free books start appearing in my mailbox.  But this book was an actual, physical BOOK #1, and #2, it was explaining to me the glorious history of the governance structures of The Episcopal Church, and how it makes us who we are.
And, it does.  But the problem is, who we currently are, in all its vast complexity, is not all we ought to be.
Like I said last time (or the time before the Trinity Break), currently, we’re doing an excellent job pretending to be some odd corporation.  Occasionally, on smaller scales, we like also to be a country club.  And, at points in our history, we have also tried to be a full-on kingdom.
We aren’t good at any of those things, nor are we called to be any of those things.
We’re called to be a church. The embodiment of Christ at this time and place on the earth.  We are called to be turned outward, and serving the world in Christ’s name, like chaplains to the world.
In almost no way are we currently set up to do that.  We’re set up to form committees, and to issue recommendations, or build stuff, or argue.  (We are fantastically good at arguing.)
But as far as dealing with a world that is not predominantly Christian, and not so inclined to listen to our recommendations, learn our language, or venture into our amazing buildings, we are not set up for that.
We need to build a servant structure: and not just servant in terms of “serving the mission of the church”, but servant in terms of serving the world.
And (brace yourselves) but the first thing we need to do is combine the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops.
Each diocese gets their active bishops, two clergy, and two lay votes.  I didn’t come up with this brilliant plan; Tom Ferguson+ and others explain it quite well. (We can keep the Presiding Bishop to play with the other primates, for however long we get to stay in the Anglican Communion, and to organize annual Bishops’ Gatherings.  Otherwise, the presiding officer of the new Joint House should be elected from any order of ministry, for the term of the General Convention, banging the gavel and whatnot.)
There are several practical advantages to this plan: it decreases the cost of General Convention dramatically, it lessens the financial pressure on individual dioceses, it decreases the silo effect between House of Bishops and House of Deputies.
Also, it forces us to put our money where our mouth is with regards to ministry of all the baptized.  Since the 1979 BCP came out, we’ve worked hard to establish that you do not receive special powers when you are ordained.  However, neither do you lose your baptismal powers and obligations when you are ordained.  I am bound to respect the dignity of my fellow human beings just as much now as I was prior to donning the plastic collar, if not more so.  When we say everyone is equal before God, then everyone really does need to be equal in the eyes of the church’s structure, and that should include being in the same room to hash out how we’re going to be church together.  And if you’re too intimidated by your bishop to vote a different way, then may haps you, and your bishop, need another lesson in baptismal theology.
So now that everyone’s in one room together, we really no longer need doubles of the committees.  Hooray!
And, we’re going to impose two new rules to guide the work of said committees:
1. Don’t Say it, Do it.
2. Everyone is 3 years old.
Rule #1: Don’t Say it, Do it. 
The first rule is stolen gleefully from Scott Gunn+.  In essence, we need to get out of the mindset that we still run the world, in the manner of Coca-Cola, or Constantine, and that, via efficacious speech, the world will bend to our righteous will.
The Korean Peninsula will not reunify just because we pass a resolution saying we are in favor of that.  The Cuba embargo will not be lifted either.  Nor will a two state solution be reached in Israel/Palestine through the power of our paperwork, EVEN IF we send a copy to the president.
What we should do instead is ACTUALLY DO THINGS.  Want a two-state solution?  Disinvest in Caterpillar, Motorola, and companies that do business in the Occupied Territories.  (This worked to end South African apartheid.)  Want to help heal the planet?  Ask churches to convert to those swirly lightbulbs, and give them incentives to do so.  Ask them to investigate solar panels, and give them incentives.
We can’t just state what we think about things any more and assume people care.  We need to do things, and then explain why we are doing them.  Any committee that can’t fulfill its mandate in actionable steps needs to reconsider its mission.
Speaking of that:  Rule #2!  Everyone is 3 years old.
 We need to explain why.  All the time. Why do we care about global poverty, and universal healthcare?  Why do we care if everyone is included in the church?  Why do we care about transparency in the budget?  Why?  Why? Why?
We need to pretend that the entire world is populated by extremely cute and lovable toddlers who keep asking us, “Why?”
We cannot assume that people understand the connection between Jesus and taking care of the poor.  We cannot assume that people understand the connection between Jesus and loving your neighbor.  We cannot assume that people understand who in the world Jesus Christ, as portrayed in the gospels and as we know him, actually is.  We need to remember that for many, many years now, there has been a concerted effort to use the name of Jesus to bash people who are different, and to justify all manner of hateful actions.  To begin to undo that is perhaps one of the most powerful acts of mission we can engage in.
Last night on the Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert had on his show both Sr. Simone Campbell, who heads NETWORK*, and Martin Sheen.  Both are devout Roman Catholics, and both have been noted for their activism on behalf of peace and poverty issues.  (It was an awesome Roman Catholic grand slam.)  What struck me is the audience response.  When Stephen Colbert (who teaches Sunday School at his church, mind you) asked Sr. Simone why nuns were such ‘radical feminists’, and spent so much time serving the poor and sick, she came right back at him.  “That’s the gospel. That’s what Jesus taught us to do.” The crowd burst into sustained applause.
Ditto when Martin Sheen came out.  “Why are you such a liberal commie-type?” queried Colbert, “Well, it pretty much is about that gospel that the sister was talking about.  I’m following Jesus and this is what Jesus taught me.”  Again, the crowd went nuts.
In a period of less than ten minutes, an actor and a nun evangelized a non-churchy audience much better than most Episcopal churches ever do.  Why are we doing this?
Because of Jesus.
Ultimately, the structure we need is answered in that.  Make a structure that serves the world, and invites the question, so that everything we say, do, and are is answered by, “Because of Jesus.”
*NETWORK is an progressive Catholic group which “educates, lobbies and organizes for economic and social transformation.”