October 18, 2014

On Ebola

It seems like most people are either panicked about Ebola, or irritated by the people who are panicked about Ebola.

I am concerned, and I am sad. 

I am something else, too - something I'm not sure I have the word to describe. Shaken, I guess. Shaken that I have not one but two personal connections to the US cases. 

Three Kent State University employees are in quarantine, since they are family members who were in contact with the nurse who had contracted it while caring for Thomas Eric Duncan in Texas. Since I'm a KSU alum, I've been getting the updates from the university regarding the situation. It sounds like they are handling it well.

And then Rev. George Mason, the pastor of the grieving and quarantined fiancé of the late Mr. Duncan, was an early ministry mentor for me. We were connected through the Fund for Theological Education.

It startles me that I have two personal connections to this crisis, which had seemed so remote. The degrees of separation fall away.

But those two personal connections are mere coincidence. The connection that is cutting a bit deeper is less personal than universal. As with any tragedy, I can't help but process the Ebola epidemic through the eyes of a mother.

And that's why I found myself suddenly overcome this morning while I sat with my family in the coffee shop at Mariano's, listening to live polka music that was part of the Octoberfest we discovered in full swing when we stopped by for some post-soccer hot chocolate. 

I was thinking about this article I read, about how eleven of twelve nurses died of Ebola after they cared for a baby who had it (despite having tested negative for the virus). 

"They couldn't just watch a baby sitting alone in a box."

And I was thinking about how not long ago I wrote that a "deep maternal instinct kicks in for me when my children are sick. I love them even more than I did before they started yakking, and my empathy is so fierce it's almost as if I'm ill, too." 

And I was thinking how you would have to lock me in a closet and throw away the key to stop me from taking care of my children, no matter the consequences.

And then I wasn't thinking anymore, but weeping for the mothers who weren't just thinking theoretically about Ebola while their children waited for the face-painting to begin.

October 9, 2014

What's "Saving" My Life Right Now

Barbara Brown Taylor has written and talked about that question, "What's saving your life right now?" and I've honestly always been a bit cranky about it. Because, JESUS. While I do confess that it is Jesus who is propping me up and propelling me along, it's clear that the Blessed Savior is working in partnership. These are some of the things that have been extremely important to me lately.

In no particular order:

1. Yoga. I have gone to thirty-six yoga classes since the beginning of June. I'm hooked. I'm hooked on a physical and emotional level, but I'm also hooked on a spiritual level. I'm an unrepentant syncretist; I can't help but weave my own personal spiritual practices into my experience of yoga. As often as not, the intention I set at the beginning of class is to practice worshipfully, to pray, to experience joy in the Lord. Amazing. The pose that gets to me the most is Humble Warrior. It is the metaphorical posture with which I am called to engage the world.

2. Spiritual direction. I have an incredible Spiritual Director at the Well, which is a spirituality ministry of the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph. It has been a life-changing process. I started going in March and I am beginning to feel like these months of praying and seeking wisdom with more intention are beginning take root.

3. Todoist. This is new. Like, two days old. But I was feeling awfully freaked out about my overabundance of work, family, and writing commitments this fall. I set myself up to be far too stressed out. I've been using an adaptation of Tsh Oxenreider's Daily Docket for years now, and it's served me well. But I have to say, the format and syncability (is that a word? no? oh well.) of Todoist is making me feel a whole lot better about my time and task management.

4. Orthotics, sort of. I started having terrible foot pain earlier this year, a sort of "welcome to your mid-thirties" birthday gift. I have a charming and enthusiastic podiatrist (if one must have a podiatrist, it's best to have one with charm and enthusiasm) who fitted me for orthotics. I can't quite say that they are saving my life yet as I still have some pain, and I've struggled mightily to find (cute) shoes that work with them. I passed my beloved Frye boots on to my sister because there is no way I can wear them with the orthotics. I am deeply hopeful that the pair of cowboy boots that are currently in the mail will work. It would do wonders for my mental health to have a pair of proper cowboy boots. Once the boot situation has been worked out, I'll cross out the "sort of".

5. Marriage & family. I am a person who needs to be married, who wants to be married, who deeply values commitment and fidelity and sticktoitiveness and delight in the covenant of marriage. Neither Ben nor I are the easiest people on earth to be married to, but we are - if this makes sense - extremely married. And I am extremely grateful for this. And to be partners in parenting our girls - oh, those girls. They are growing up beautifully. (Appendix: not dealing with diapers anymore is also saving my life.)

6. Friends. It sounds braggy, and I don't mean it that way, but I have a ton of friends. And it's not a matter of quality over quantity; I have a ton of great friends whom I absolutely cherish. I love my evangelical friends, and my pastor friends, and my neighbor friends, and my church friends, and my mentor friends, and my dance mom friends.

7. Vocation. I've been thinking a lot lately about how I had a crisis of vocation several years ago; I wasn't sure if I wanted to be a pastor anymore. In 2009 there was a sort of holy conspiracy to renew my sense of calling, and I'm so glad for it.

September 22, 2014

Moms in Faith (a "how-to" of sorts)

A couple of Fridays ago, our Moms in Faith group at First Congregational Church of Western Springs had our fifth fall kickoff. This ministry, which had been talked about and hoped for but not implemented until shortly after I arrived in 2010, has been remarkable. It is a real source of strength and joy for a lot of mothers -and, by extension, a lot of families.

I'm asked quite frequently about advice and resources for starting a mom's group, so I thought I'd share a few things that have worked in our context.

1. Offer excellent childcare
Seriously. You can have pretty invitations and an awesome speaker and a lovely breakfast spread, but if you are expecting moms to line up their own babysitters in order to come, you're going to get nowhere fast. From the start, the church has underwritten childcare costs for the program - anywhere from two-six fairly paid childcare workers (depending on registration numbers). Obviously this can get pricey fast; it may be that you need to charge a fee to cover the costs, and that's fine. I also think it's important to run background checks and offer any relevant trainings to the workers, and to make sure that the nursery space is clean and safe. Several of our childcare workers have been working for us for years, and are known and loved by the kids. On related note, offering childcare at the church also allows the kids to know and love one another, and to have their own fun while the moms are meeting.

2. Establish a culture of hospitality and trust
It's one thing to say that everyone is welcome; it's another thing to actively practice hospitality toward  one another. We've always taken turns bringing treats. When we say that we'll pray for one another, we mean it. We hold confidences in confidence. We organize meal trains when families have new babies or experience crises. We try to be intentional about following up with people if we haven't seen them for awhile. Once a year or so I say that we are so thrilled to see you if this is your one chance all week to wear dangly earrings and cute shoes, and we are so thrilled to see you if the only way you could make it here was unshowered in yoga pants. We welcome church members and non-church members warmly, and don't have any hidden agenda. It's true that several non-members have gone on to join the church, but it's also true that we have always had many moms who are part of other churches or are happily unaffiliated, and they are every bit as much a part of Moms in Faith.

3. Generate peer leadership
During our second year in Moms in Faith, the co-founder (a lay member of the church) and I organized a Steering Team to help make decisions and attend to tasks related to running the program. This group has vetted books, tracked book orders, planned mission projects, coordinated hospitality, kept up with publicity, organized childcare, managed budgets, and led small group discussions. For that last part, I offered a couple of trainings for small group facilitation. We've tried to be careful about having healthy leadership turnover; generally, people serve for two to three years.

4. Have traditions, but be flexible
During our first year, we were all in one group. We started with a devotional (I often share things from [in]courage or Caryn Rivadeneira's Known and Loved, and then went around the circle answering an opening question. We talked about whatever the reading had been that week, trying to be mindful about making sure the extroverts didn't overwhelm the introverts (for this, I always use myself as an example because I am an extrovert who is entirely capable of causing introverts to collapse from interpersonal exhaustion if I'm not careful). Then, we went around the circle again and shared joys and concerns, and closed with prayer. That was great - except that by the end of the year we were a bit too big. So even though it completely intimidated me to tinker with a good thing, during our second year we started in that opening circle (devotion, opening question) - but then we split into two smaller groups, one discussing a parenting book and one discussing another book, and closed with joys and concerns in our small groups. Then we had more people, so we split into three groups, following the same pattern. For one session we had so many people registered we did four groups, but that turned out to be an overstretch.

For this fifth year, we've (almost) completely shaken things up. Many of our original members have moved on to other groups or commitments, though we've also welcomed quite a few new participants. We're back to one large discussion circle twice a month, a fellowship breakfast where we'll discuss videos from a Work of the People series about prayer in small groups around tables, and then - this is so new! and exciting! - once a month we're welcoming a guest speaker. To cover our extra costs, we've initiated a program fee to participate for the first time (though in the past, we frequently collected money to cover books). In addition to making it a little easier for busy moms to miss a week or two without getting behind on a long book discussion, we've also found a way to offer multiple formats that appeal to a broad spectrum of people, all within the same program. At least that's what we hope will happen; we haven't actually had a fellowship breakfast or speaker day yet this program year! The point, though, is that we've been actively responding to what people need and want from the group, and have taken risks even as we've kept up some of the rituals that feel central to the spirit and ethos of the ministry.

5. Know your people, and select material accordingly
One of the most challenging parts of facilitating this program has always been finding the right materials. After several years of reading and discussing books together, we're reading blog posts and a handful of studies from The Thoughtful Christian. This has made it quite a bit easier, though I don't for a minute regret that we read all those books together. (Okay, maybe I regret one or two.) It is a tricky, tricky thing to pick a parenting book that will be enlightening and entertaining and something very busy and very tired mothers will make the time to read each week. And then, because inevitably the moms will get worn out on talking about parenting and remember that, oh yeah, we can still talk about other things! - it is also a tricky, tricky thing to pick a non-parenting book that will be enlightening and entertaining and something very busy and very tired mothers will make the time to read each week. Plus, we want it to be rooted in the Christian faith, but we don't want it to be rooted in an expression of the Christian faith that is so culturally and theologically conservative that it doesn't resonate.

All that being said, these are some of the books I recommend for this kind of group. We've done most but not all of them; most we discussed week by week, either a chapter or section at a time. A few we discussed in a one-off evening summer book club. They're in no particular order.

In the Midst of Chaos
Hopes and Fears: Everyday Theology for New Parents and Other Tired, Anxious People

The Five Love Languages of Children
Building Resilience in Children and Teens
The Hole in our Gospel

Notes from a Blue Bike
Momumental: Adventures in the Messy Art of Raising a Family
Eat With Joy
Love Wins
Siblings Without Rivalry
Carry On, Warrior

You'll note that some very-well regarded Christian parenting books are not on this list. Grace-Based Parenting is a perfect example. I just could not quite picture it translating well to our progressive United Church of Christ context. It presumes an evangelical subculture that we're simply not a part of. That being said, if that's your context, I give that one two thumbs up as well, as well as Sally Clarkson's books. Know your people, and select material accordingly.

If I were consulting with a start-up mothers' group in a mainline Christian church, the two books I'd recommend starting with - and in this order - are Hopes and Fears and Say Goodbye to Whining, Complaining, and Bad Attitudes in You and Your Kids (which is kind of a terrible title and the cover is even worse, but this is my all-time favorite practical parenting book). You can find a free discussion guide for Hopes and Fears online; Say Goodbye has questions at the end of each chapter. Sometimes it's enough to simply ask, "what stood out to you?" and let the conversation flow from there.

6. Do other stuff
This is kind of the "junk drawer" of this how-to. Invite everyone to a Moms Night Out, including the working moms if your regular meetings are during the day. Go on retreats. Get your kids together for church Valentine and Halloween parties. Engage in mission projects together, either during your regular meeting time or as special events. Do an evening summer book club. Go to Family Camp together. Nurture meaningful Christian community.

Hope this is helpful!

September 15, 2014

Unity, Harmony, & Diversity (Oh My!)

(This is what I preached yesterday, on Psalm 133 and Romans 12:9-18. It is honestly not a sermon I thought I'd get to preach, at least not so soon. But so much has changed in the last ten years. I am deeply glad to report that I received hugs and words of gratitude from people on all over the spectrum. Oh, that the Church may be One...)

“How good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”, the psalmist exclaimed. “Live in harmony with one another,” the apostle Paul exhorted. “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” These are the words that I hope are written on our hearts. These are the words that I pray can surround our congregation, weaving us together into one body, the Body of Christ, a community marked by unity and harmony – even as we are a community marked by diversity.

Before I launch into the topic at hand, I must confess that I have never been blessed with an abundance of courage in the face of controversy. Well – that’s not exactly true. I used to be a bit of a firecracker in my youth. When I argued a theological or political point, I was utterly convinced that I was right, and unafraid to push as hard as I could to persuade anyone who dared to disagree. Then I became a pastor, and I quickly discovered that it wasn’t my job to be right. It was my job to be loving, to be humble, to honor the many different ways the Spirit of God works in people’s hearts and minds – even when those hearts are in a different place than my own, even when those minds are filled with opposing convictions. So, please pray for me in this moment. Pray for us all: to be courageous, to be humble, and above all, to be filled with Christian love.

Most of you are aware that last spring, Illinois joined the ever-growing list of states in which same sex couples may get married. Marriage, as you know, is a unique institution: it is both a legal contract and, at least for people of faith, a religious covenant.
The only time I ever have “power invested in me by the State of Illinois” is when I am celebrating a wedding ceremony. In addition to conferring the blessing of the church upon the happy couple, I also sign the document that makes it official in the eyes of the government.

Many congregations were crystal clear about their stance on this matter. A lot of pastors would never even consider officiating a marriage between two men or two women. Many churches actively lobbied against the change in the law. On the other hand, many churches – particularly in the United Church of Christ, our denomination –declared themselves to be Open and Affirming toward gay and lesbian Christians years ago. These churches were lobbying on the other side of the issue, and their pastors all but raced to the courthouse to offer their services to gay and lesbian couples eager to wed. 

And then there’s us. The First Congregational Church of Western Springs is neither kneejerk conservative nor gung-ho liberal when it comes to social issues such as the marriage equality movement. We’ve never gone through the process to officially become Open and Affirming, though I don’t doubt that we are nevertheless welcoming to all who cross the threshold of this holy place. The thing about our congregation is that we aren’t merely congregational in our governance. We are congregational in our theology, too – which is to say each and every member has the right and even the responsibility to faithfully discern his or her own conscience. We aren’t told what to think, what to believe.

This is wonderful – but it is also risky. It means that you probably disagree with the folks in the pews around you about any number of issues – spiritual, practical, political, theological. For some people, this is too much of a risk. For some people, diversity is taken as a sign of disunity. For some people, worshipping God alongside people who read the Bible differently or interpret the meaning of Jesus differently would cause deep discomfort and even shame. And so it goes that many churches split over issues like same sex marriage.
The people who say yes go this way, and the people who say no go that way, and the Body of Christ is broken. Again.

I long for us to be a people who find our unity in diversity, who practice harmony in the midst of multiplicity. I long for us to be a people who can outdo one another in showing honor even – especially – when we disagree with one another. I long for us to be a church that is truly united in Christ, and whose trademark is love.

Last spring we were approached by a same sex couple seeking to bind themselves to one another in the covenant of Christian marriage. Though they decided to wed offsite, we knew that this would not be the last such inquiry. Now that same sex marriage was not merely a theoretical concept that people could have theoretical opinions about but a legal reality that demanded a thoughtful pastoral response, we brought the issue to the last church council meeting in May.

After a brief but remarkably civil conversation, the church council approved a thoughtful statement affirming their “support of the pastoral staff in our discernment of performing marriages regardless of sexual orientation.” Please note what this vote did not do, which is to make a statement on behalf of the congregation. Rather, the council unanimously entrusted your pastors to respond as we see fit to the couples who seek to marry in this sacred place.

My colleagues and I have been open about our support for marriage equality. I know that any of us would be happy to discuss how we came to hold these convictions. We will not try to change minds, but we will try awfully hard to maintain relationships. And since relationships are dependent upon trust and openness, we wanted to be clear that in the months and years to come, each of us will likely celebrate same sex marriages. I know that this grieves some of your hearts even as it makes other hearts soar with pride. I rejoice with those who rejoice, and I weep with those who weep, and I hope you can join me in doing the same for your sisters and brothers in Christ. I hope we can sing with integrity that old Christian song: and they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

Lastspring, I read a beautiful, powerful testimony by a writer named Jen Hatmaker. The thing you need to know about Jen Hatmaker is that she and I fundamentally disagree about homosexuality. Yet her words resonate no matter where you stand. In the midst of yet another ugly, public battle about Christianity and homosexuality, she wrote this:

Why homosexuality has devolved into such an isolated war, I am uncertain, but as I lay in bed last night, listening, still, prayerful, God reminded me of the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), which Jesus told after a very smart expert of the Law asked how to inherit eternal life.

“What is written in the Law?” [Jesus] replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

… When I get bogged down, I always remember Jesus: Love God and love people. There you are. Do this and you will live.

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

…This is so human. What is the morality clause? Who can I omit? Who gets to stay in? Who are the outsiders and insiders here? What are the categories?

Then Jesus told a devastating story about a man beaten, stripped, robbed, and left for dead on the side of the road.

As I lay in bed, it was instantly and perfectly clear that the gay community has been spiritually beaten, stripped of dignity, robbed of humanity, and left for dead by much of the church. You need only look at the suicide rates, prevalence of self-harm, and the devastating pleas from ostracized gay people and those who love them to see what has plainly transpired.

Laying next to them, bloodied and bruised, are believers whose theology affirms homosexuality and allows them to stand alongside their gay friends. (Again, you don’t have to agree with this, but there are tens of thousands of thinking, studied people who hold this conviction.) The spiritual gutting of these brothers and sisters is nothing short of shameful. The mockery and dismissal and vitriol leveled at these folks is disgraceful.

Also wounded on the side of the road are Christians who sincerely love God and people and believe homosexuality is a sin, but they’ve been lumped in with the Big Loud Mean Voices unfairly. Painted as hateful intolerants, they are actually kind and loving and are simply trying to be faithful. The paintbrush is too wide, the indictments unfounded.

Boy, this debate has wounded many travelers, hasn’t it?

Friends, let us not wound one another. Let us instead be neighbors to one another, kindred who please God and one another by living together in unity, united by the One who came to redeem us all. Amen.

Disqus for any day a beautiful change