Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Who am I?

This post contains spoilers for Les Miserables. Read at your own risk!

It's really hard to see who people are sometimes. I unexpectedly made friends with one of the shuttle drivers that goes between the two campuses of my hospital. He is usually featuring some sort of classical music selection and I have an interest in music so I like to ask him what we're listening to. After a couple times, he started asking me about me. I'm a complete amateur but I know enough about music to be able to have some conversations about some of the technical aspects or history. This driver is usually the one who takes me back across the river to my parking garage at the end of the day, so we have been having these conversations for several months now, and I've pieced together bits and clips of his story. It turns out he has a Ph.D. in musicology and did some teaching, but because of the economy and the general climate of jobs in academia he's working this job and another unrelated one, both outside his field. At first, I was just making small talk because I was curious, but now I always ask him what we're listening to and what he's seen or purchased recently because I imagine that the history teacher in him is just dying to come out. If you just looked at him from the outside, you might think he was a bus driver with a passing interest in music. Instead, I have had the privilege of really hearing his story and witnessing the beauty of his passion and how he brings who he is to his unexpected career path.

On that note, I've been listening obsessively to the 10th Anniversary Dream Cast version of Les Miserables. I saw the recent movie and loved it with all my soul, and listening to it over and over (and over and over...) has been even more fulfilling, because I am starting to recognize which musical themes belong to which part of the story and notice the parallels intentionally drawn there. One of the things that I caught on this listen is the three or four repetitions of the question: "Who am I?" For a quick recap, the premise of Les Mis is kind of how it sounds: it's the story of the French Revolution and all the miseries that various people are facing in an incredibly unjust pre-revolution France. It follows a man, Jean Valjean, who stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving child and was sentenced to hard labor--literally to slavery--for almost 20 years. Upon his release, he finds the lawful Javert watching over him, waiting for him to slip up, which he does. Angry at his long imprisonment, Valjean spites the kindly bishop who gave him food by stealing the silver from the church. However, when he's caught, the bishop lies to Javert and gives Valjean even more of the church's valuables. Having received grace where condemnation was due, Valjean has a crisis and ultimately decides to dedicate his life to good.

Fast forward about five years, and Valjean has built a business which employs many poor people. However, a young woman there named Fantine gets into a conflict with another employee and unknowingly Valjean ends up allowing the man to unjustly dismiss her. With a child to support and her husband having left her, Fantine turns to prostitution to feed her daughter Cosette. Sadly, Fantine dies due to disease from her prostitution, but not before Valjean runs into her by chance and learns her story. He swears to right the wrong he committed by finding her daughter (who is being cared for by some greedy inkeepers) and raise her. The rest of the story is the drama unfolding from that. Valjean finds Cosette and they must hide to escape both of their pasts. Meanwhile, Cosette grows up and one day happens upon a young nobleman named Marius who is involved in the brewing Revolution. The French Revolution serves to highlight the bottom line of this story, which is that the world is not a just place for many people.

Through all of this, Javert, the lawman, continues to chase after Jean Valjean, and it's too complicated to explain it all, but the chief question that continually arises is 'who am I?' Valjean, who had been identified again and again by his prisoner number, asks it when he first receives pardon. Fantine asks it, the Revolutionaries are asking it, the young woman Eponine who loves Marius despite his love for Cosette asks it, and even Javert asks it in his final moments of spiritual agony. When I first saw the movie, I thought that the question was simpler, about behaving with mercy or "justice." But listening to it, I realized that the question is really who are we? We are a people living in the midst of agony, but are we a people of hope or of despair? Are we a people of love or hate? Are we a people of mercy or condemnation?

We spend a lot of our lives asking who we are, and defining ourselves both by our roles and by our works, and we do the same to others. Is it a lazy person or a person dealing with unimaginable financial burdens? Is it a bum, or a veteran? We define one another by our jobs and clothes and how well we adhere to a standard of success that is always moving a little further away. We look at the bus driver and see... a bus driver. Maybe we don't think much of his intelligence. Maybe we think he failed along the way. Maybe we don't think much about him at all because he's a servant, a prop taking me from point A to B. Maybe we are all so terrified of being judged by other people that we never actually reveal who we are to one another. Maybe we're afraid of who we really are.

Are we defined by the law--by eye for an eye? If you work hard, you will get this. If you do this, then this will happen. Or maybe, in the same way I got caught up in the details of these two opposing ideas of mercy and justice, we are just missing the big picture. What if the reality is that mercy and justice are not opposed to one another, because true justice is to know and be fully known. To hear the story, to see the 'who am I?' not defined by the label of a slave who fails to uphold the law, but by the question of 'who loves me?'

Luther wrote an amazing treatise called "Freedom of a Christian" which discusses the very backward and counter-intuitive understanding that to die to our old selves is to gain freedom. Jean Valjean was a prisoner, and all of the Revolutionaries recognized their prison within an evil system, and searched for freedom in different ways. But at the last, they all realized that they had to give up themselves to find themselves. This came in the form of loving others so intensely as to lay down their lives. Jean Valjean laid it down to save his nephew, and again to prevent an innocent man going to prison, Fantine laid it down for her daughter, and Eponine laid it down for Marius, Marius and the Revolutionaries laid their lives down for all of France's poor. And in the end they all finally learned that, to quote Fantine, "To love another person is to see the face of God."

The mercy/justice idea is a false dichotomy. Real justice comes through understanding the 'who.' It comes from seeing one another "face to face" as the apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians. It comes from loving another so much that you are transformed. And justice finally comes not from blindly following the rules, but from truly seeing the face of God in our brothers and sisters. Who we are, then, is a people who together wait for freedom from the agony of our bondage in evil systems, in pain, in despair, in grief, knowing that we are glimpsing paradise within our suffering. Who we are is beloved people recognizing the belovedness of other, and enacting justice by transforming the world one face, one life at a time. We go through so much of our lives seeing only dim reflections of ourselves in others, but what if we instead look for God? My challenge to you is to see. Go into your world, and see your bus drivers as people with hopes and dreams and struggles and pain. See your bag boys, your waitresses, your garbage men, your doctor or nurse, your husband or wife as a person full of as much love and fear and personhood as you, and so glimpse paradise through loving them all until tomorrow bursts forth to redeem all our misery.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Sweet Reunion

I'm sitting in my bedroom, having just received word from my husband P that he arrived safely in Michigan for a work trip he's taking. I'm a big baby about him going out of town, so this is the day I have been dreading since pretty much the last time he went out of town. It's funny, because when I was single I probably would have laughed at myself missing and pining over somebody like this. I've grown a lot since then, and have come to realize that the beautiful vulnerability involved in loving another person is also gut wrenching and terrible, but the solution to the gut-wrenching-ness of it all is not avoiding loving fully, but to embrace it. And so here I am, waiting for Friday night when he flies back, when I can pick him up from the airport and hug him and kiss him and feel the sweetness of being together again.

It's fitting that today, the first Sunday of Advent, I find myself in this position. Advent is the time of year when we remember the anticipation of the coming child-savior, and also where we savor the waiting for the day of Christ's return and that ultimate reconciliation. That, my friends, is something easier said than done. I'm currently reminded of the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, where so many hearts are broken right now because of pervasive, systematic violence that has taken place against the black community there and around the country. Like the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. writing from Birmingham jail, they are tired of waiting for equality and peace. Our hearts are weary from injustice, there and worldwide. Our hearts are weary from the pain of crime, the pain of addiction, the pain of family brokenness... and here we are once again being told to wait.

It's frustrating. Do you remember circling the tree as a kid on Christmas morning, waiting for the family to gather? Has there ever been such agony as the minutes ticking by while your brother stumbles around finding pants or your sister simply must take a shower before appearing? The kind of waiting we do now--for good news from a doctor, for word of a ceasefire, for change in legislation--that kind of waiting is tinged with a different kind of agony, and lingers longer still.

But there is a sweetness in the waiting, too. Like waiting for a spouse to return from a trip, we look forward knowing how beautiful that future day will be. Hope is that which sustains us by promising that joyful reunion. For our hurting world, the culmination of that advent is reconciliation, wherein those without power are made strong and those who are powerful become servants. Reconciliation is where our bodies no longer betray us, and resources are abundant, and lions and lambs rest in the shade of trees with leaves which are for the healing of the nations. That future is where we feel God's embrace fully, face to face, and the only tears are of joy.

I suppose this is not my usual exegetical expose because as I sit here waiting, I understand the need for encouragement in the midst of your waiting, more than analysis of the biblical precendent. We don't need Bible stories to understand what that kind of unresolved tension feels like. What I really want to do here is to tell you that you are not alone in this. Christ is here, not just in churches but tangibly, visibly by your side as you wade through this river of discouragement and grief and whatever else you are facing. The only thing I know to do is to remember the sweetness of Christ's promise, holding to the hope that the last thing will be the best thing. As I sit in my pajamas missing my spouse, thinking of his grin and his adorable accent and all the little things about him that I love, I am trying to be grateful for the promise of his return and what it means that I have him in my life. I am holding to the wonder of our love and the playfulness of our relationship and the absolute mundane intimacy we share about our daily lives.

Mostly, though, I am practicing patience, knowing that even though the waiting for the time of equality and healing and wholeness and being reunited with those we have lost is far more painful than missing my beloved for a few short days, that the fruition is that much greater than even the sweetest kisses. And in this way, we too, can hold not to what we lack but to what we have; bread and wine and community and powerful voices working for peace and justice and wellness. We can hold these things knowing that Christmas comes every year, and the grave always ends up empty. As much as we may try to ignore or avoid the pain of that waiting, we know that fully embracing the discomfort of not yet is the only way to reach someday. And we will reach it; and Christ is with you while you wait.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Living through Death

I have been thinking a lot lately about the nature of suffering and evil in the world because of my work. It's impossible to overstate the sheer amount of human pain and tragedy one can witness in the hospital, from the agony of a long illness to the accidental death of a young child. If I hadn't believed in evil as a force before, I certainly would now. That's not to say I believe in a devil-with-pitch-fork type of character with little horns and a pointed tail. Real evil is far scarier than this. But the fact of the matter is that the more I find myself standing in the midst of tragedy, the more I am reminded of the sacredness surrounding us all the time.

Not my idea of evil.
Robot Devil

I read a truly exceptional article called Why God Will Not Die this morning, and I was really struck by it as I read, particularly thinking about atheist/secular humanist friends of mine who struggle with similar questions that I do, and whose life philosophy, though starting at a different point, ultimately converges with mine. The article talks about the author's young attempt to find meaning and purpose in his life, which in his 20s he framed using a Bertrand Russell quote that can be summed up much less eloquently through the phrase: "Life sucks, then you die." (Something my father was quite fond of saying in his younger years.) But as he got older, he began to see that his grasping of that idea was his (rather immature) attempt to find some sort of simple closure to the ongoing question which is being human.

The question is most often: "Why?" and "What?" Why are we here? Why did God/evolution/the Universe/chance create us? What purpose do we serve? Why do bad things happen to good people? What laws govern the universe? These are questions that humans have been pondering since we had the cognitive ability to ponder them. Wisdom literature wrestles with these questions in profound ways. Isaiah wonders: "What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?" (Isaiah 8:4) and Job asks the unknowable question to God, "Yet when I hoped for good, evil came; when I looked for light, then came darkness." (Job 30:26) And we ask it: Why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this? Why do we keep killing each other? Why isn't there enough to eat? Why why why.

Slum in Mumbai

My view is that whatever happened at the fall of creation disrupted the natural order of God's world and introduced the power of death into our world. Ultimately, the root of most evil we commit to each other is committed out of the knowledge of our mortality, and the chaos of death is so ingrained in us that in permeates even creation where decay, illness, and natural disasters happen to us. And then there is this figure which stands up and says: "I AM the resurrection and the life!" Jesus says this defiantly, and acts defiantly against it by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, driving out demons, and fighting the inequality which kept people impoverished and outcast from those who would care for them. In a very real way, Jesus' ministry was spitting in the face of the power of death and the structures which lead to it, and the fear of it which binds us. 

This is why the gospel is so foolish, as Paul says. Because we live in death every day, watching our bodies grow weaker and older, watching our loved ones die off, seeing starvation and terrible disease, and witnessing atrocious acts of violence and war. And yet in the midst of it we have a story of this one figure who defies death one hungry person at a time, and then who himself dies only to rise. In the same way that Job came to realize his bigness to God through the smallness of being told: "Who are you to question me?" we realize our power by understanding our fragility.

Mother Teresa defying starvation

I said to a friend of mine that I believe we can "give the finger" to death through the act of living. By doing all the things we do, breathing, eating, thinking, we defy the death that surrounds us. And the irony of the gospel is that by our constant awareness of our finitude, we are empowered to cultivate life. Our despair actually has the power to give us hope when we start to see not how beholden we are to death, but how actively we can choose to fight it through service to our hurting world. Christ empowers us into this service, in the same way that he empowered his less than perfect disciples, so that through our dying we might live and live for others. And in knowing that we tiny humans can defy the tide of death a little, we may get a glimpse of the grandeur of God's ultimate victory over it.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Angels in the Outfield

I have probably mentioned this before, but I’m (more or less) a native Kansas Citian. I have lived on the Kansas and Missouri sides both at various points in my life beginning around 1990, and consider it my hometown. Despite having lived in the Twin Cities now for almost five years, there is one thing I simply can’t adapt to, and that’s Twins baseball. The Twins are fine, I guess, but they lack the personal something that I need in order to care about something that generally doesn’t hold my attention for very long (sports). They’re almost too good, having generally done pretty well during each season and have a large and loyal following that just makes them uninteresting to me. It’s no fun when winners always win! Even though I am a transplant to this area, one thing that will never change is that I’m a huge Royals fan. Why? Well, this article here pretty well sums it up.

The Royals are the ultimate underdog. Every season they start out with a pretty promising looking team, and somewhere around mid-season they totally choke and lose sixteen games in a row. Despite their epic losing streak stretching even before my birth, the Royals have something special, and it’s not just because I have fond childhood memories of the guys tossing baseballs to those of us close enough to the field during warm-up (which did happen, by the way). They play a clean game, and they live clean lives. I could be wrong, but I’ve never heard of some big scandal where one of the players beat up his wife or kid, or was put on probation because of his drug habit. What you hear instead are stories about how they buy game tickets for broke strangers on Twitter, and about how they buy drinks for people after games, and how despite their continuous losses, they still get out there and play the game because they love the game. And now here they are standing on the verge of the much envied title of champions.

We love a good underdog story. The movie Angels in the Outfield is a perfect example of the love of the little guy taking on the big guy with the right attitude and winning. It’s the Mighty Ducks, it’s the Bad News Bears, it’s David and Goliath, it’s Erin Brockovich and PG&E. Somewhere deep inside us, we have an understanding that sometimes the winner isn’t the biggest, the most powerful, the richest, or whatever, but the one who simply loves the game, or the one who just wants justice for the little guy. There’s a reason this story resonates with us, and it’s because we so often find ourselves as the “little guy.” Even if you’re accomplished in your career, rich, powerful, respected, or beautiful, we are all subject to the great equalizer. Working in a hospital is showing me that. When it comes time to die, the view from the ICU bed is pretty similar for the construction worker and the banker. We love a story about victory in unlikely circumstances because we live our lives, no matter how rich or powerful we are, subject to the randomness and the forces of death. We need to know that there is hope.

The Royals’ streak reminded me of this movie and how nicely it sums up this sense of the holy meeting the ordinary to transform lives. It’s about a boy named Roger who has lost his mother and whose father is somehow estranged. His father jokes that he can have a family again when the Angels, the dreadful local baseball team, win the pennant. Roger prays that the Angels will win, and his story is soon transformed by the appearance of real angels on the field helping the team, ultimately leading to a pennant and a family for Roger. This is a tale as old as time: in a situation of despair, we pray for intervention in our story. And the joke’s on us, because we often get it in ways we never would have expected!

I’ve been doing a lot of work with narrative therapy, theology, and the place where our narrative meets God’s narrative as transformative. I was, at first, thinking of this as an “intersection” but as I look back on my own life, I realized that this metaphor of two lines crossing is insufficient to explain the impact God has on us. Instead, I started thinking about the Hail Mary catch that Alex Gordon recently made in which he slammed so hard into the fence that he bounced about five feet while still holding the ball, and realized that this point is not an intersection but an all out collision. It’s the place where our underdog story, our lives with loss and sickness and failed dreams and missed opportunities and poverty and depression and despair and shame meet God’s story of victory. The result looks not like a continuation of the same old story of defeat, but like a totally new story in which thirty years of consecutive losses turn into a chance for a pennant, or where ten years of drug addiction turns into the ability to mentor others, or where the loss of your spouse turns into the strength you didn’t know you had.

We love an underdog story because we need hope. I certainly need it when I am bombarded daily in the hospital by the most tragic circumstances I can even imagine, and I need it in my own weaknesses too. That hope is brought by knowing that Jesus promises God’s story will transform ours. In some ways, this point here, prior to the World Series, prior to the ending, is sweeter even than the resolution, because it is pregnant with hope bursting into an unknown future. It’s the anticipation of that moment of two stories colliding that gives us the strength to carry on when it seems like the little guy could never make it. It gives me great pleasure to tell you that you are the Kansas City Royals. You are the little guy playing the game, even if you’ve screwed up a lot in the past, with the faith that it can be different. And that faith can move mountains, and change lives, and change you, because the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is your “angel in the outfield” making your life extraordinary. So I hope you can take a moment to stand in awe of the places where your story has been re-written, and wait with bated breath in the midst of the suffering of the cross and the world, for the ultimate Pennant victory.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Christian Identity and the Mighty Ducks

First, I recently posted a piece I did as part of my final independent study at seminary on my website. It is a theological look at how Christians can approach pop culture, and you can read it here. It's called Jesus Christ: Superstar! So you should check it out just for the clever title, if nothing else. :)

So onto the real post... 

I was recently watching D2: The Mighty Ducks because despite the awful cheesiness, it's a movie from my childhood and makes me feel nostalgic. In case you don't know, the premise of the movie is basically this team from Minnesota ends up being recruited to represent the US (with a few additions) in the Junior Olympic competition and Gordon Bombay, a jaded lawyer turned passionate peewee hockey coach, who had worked such a miracle before that he is offered a contract with a sporting outfitter to be the face of their gear as he coaches the team in. In order to get "the big contract" Gordon has to dominate in the tournament, and so when the team hits a snag, he turns into a jerk and works the kids way too hard. The kids and their tutor call him out, he has a "come to Jesus" type of moment and reforms his way. The point is that it's not about winning but about the love of the game and playing well. My husband kept pointing out how much bigger the other teams were from the ducks, and as I was watching Woo, a figure skater recruited to play, do a double axel over an opposing player in order to get close to the goal, my brain turned to theology, as it sometimes does.

I won't go into too much depth here, but the point of these movies, trite though they may be, is that good character and individuality are ultimately stronger than big beefy players that are in it to win it and don't care about how horrible they become to do it. So then I naturally started thinking about the Holy Spirit, and a conversation I had with scholar and professor Lois Malcolm from Luther Seminary, who says that the Holy Spirit acts not by creating conformity but by creating unity within diversity. In other words, if you look at the apostles and the early church, and particularly the teaching of Paul when he discusses the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians, it becomes clear that we are called to function with freedom within our own beautiful, God-given uniqueness for the sake of the church and the world. "For just as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body--though many--are one body, so too is Christ." (1 Cor. 12:12, NET)

This is important because it touches on a very common misconception about Christianity, and that is that it promotes conformity and insulation from the world. I read a very sad story of a woman who had been born into and living within the Quiverfull movement, which is a loose association of families within American Christianity that believe that the highest calling of a woman is to bear little Christian soldiers, and promotes a number of other harmful ideas about the roles of men, women, and children in the family and within the world. This woman had, understandably, felt extremely suffocated by the role that had been imposed upon her, and ultimately left both her husband and Jesus because she was sick of the message that she should conform to a certain way in order to be acceptable. I understand the frustration she must have gone through, but it's unfortunate that she failed to discover that this very fundamentalist interpretation of the Christian vocation is false. It's very common, though, even in less fundamentalist churches, to promote the idea of conformity: this is what a Christian looks like, acts like, or should be. Those who don't fit into this definition are excluded. Some do this intentionally in the name of protecting the community (and I have a whole other post about that), and some do it unintentionally, because they don't know any other way to be.

Despite that unintentional message, this is exactly opposite what the Bible says about how the body of Christ should be. According to Dr. Malcolm, some of the signs of the Spirit at work in a movement are expansiveness, inclusiveness, and diversity. God didn't create things to be the same. Just look at the diversity of plant and animal life on the planet. These things evolved in a million unique ways, and people are no different. To say that Christians should be in any way uniform is just silly. We live in a broken world carrying a variety of burdens that shape us into different people, and we are given different gifts meant to account for the diversity of needs around us. If we were all gifted healers, who would comfort those who don't get well? We need people with different gifts, talents, and skills to be a successful society, and the body of Christ is the same

Toward the end of the movie, we see Gordon, returning to his true self, gathering the team together with the duck call, reminding them who they are. In the same way that the lasso-swinging skills of the Texan and the figure skating skills of Woo or speed skills of Martinez ultimately make the Ducks more successful, the community of Christians is most able to live out our vocation of bringing about God's kingdom through service when we all act out of our uniqueness. That means that some of us are going to be very proper teachers who love grammar and hate swearing, and some are going to be spitting, cussing, tattooed bikers. Because the proper person is not going to be able to touch the world in exactly the same way as the swearing bikers and we need to serve the world in all places and ways. That's why we need the teachers and counselors and business people and accountants and musicians and stay at home parents and vets and janitors... If a community is calling you to uniformity, such as the Quiverfull movement, that is most certainly not a community acting out of the power of the Spirit of God. Rather, the Holy Spirit calls us to unity, bound by the transformative love of Christ which turns us towards others and brings new life out of our dead places, so that we may live out that common vocation exactly as we are individually equipped.

Who you are called to be is you, and to define your ministry not by the role but by the self that you bring to it. Now get outta here in peace to love and serve the Lord!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

What does a chaplain do, anyway?

I finally started my first big-person job as a hospital chaplain resident at a large hospital in the Twin Cities. People usually have one of three reactions. The first reaction is overwhelmingly positive. The second reaction is generally uninformed but curious. The final reaction is more negative or misinformed. There's an episode of Scrubs where Dr. Cox's super-Christian sister comes to the hospital and ends up ministering to a patient, much to his chagrin. They stand around all night praying and lo, and behold, a miracle! The impression is that chaplains are there because we think we'll be able to call healing miracles down Benny Hinn style or because we want to convert people. Having been met with a number of these reactions ranging from curious to confused, I have decided to write up a post. I strongly encourage people to take advantage of a chaplain's presence if they ever find themselves in the hospital, hospice, or other care setting, because it never hurts to have another person on your team.

So now that we've cleared up what a chaplain doesn't do, what exactly is it we actually DO do?

1.) Provide holistic care of the patient.

Being in the hospital, or even another type of care setting (assisted living, inpatient addiction treatment, etc) often feels like you are being looked at as a collection of body parts or as a "problem" rather than a human being. Doctors are great and gifted but sometimes look at people as if they are a liver with a side of intestines instead of a person who is 31 and unexpectedly ended up in the hospital with mysterious symptoms and a possibly really bad diagnosis. In my health system, we are considered "spiritual care" not because we necessarily deal with religious topics but because we see patients as whole people whose beliefs, values, sense of self and purpose also suffer because of medical diagnoses and, conversely, whose diagnoses can be worsened by these more spiritual concerns. There are scientific studies that show that patients who have their spiritual needs attended while in the hospital have better outcomes (are less likely to die) than those who don't! That's because the feelings of fear and dread that come up around illness and death can and do have a physiological impact. Sometimes these feelings and thoughts are mediated by organized belief systems, and sometimes they are not. Patients benefit from having a person who can help them integrate their current situation with their life philosophy and/or beliefs.

2.) Provide emotional and spiritual support for patients, families, and staff in crisis.

Being in the hospital is hard on patients, but it's also hard for family members and for staff. Medical and ancillary staff who work on ICUs or a hematology-oncology unit usually see more bad outcomes than good ones. There is a lot of pain, suffering, and death in these situations, and regardless of the spiritual or philosophical concerns, all of these people need somebody who is willing to delve into the emotions of the situation and address them. Usually this just looks like 'yeah, this is really hard, I'm so sorry' but you'd be amazed how helpful it can be to just feel heard when the world is going crazy around you and you feel totally powerless. I once ministered to a family of a different faith from mine during a terminal extubation (pulling life support). I didn't have the same traditions but I was able to draw from their traditions and mostly just sit with them, bring coffee and extra chairs, and help them talk about some happy memories as their love one died. What we do is walk into a house of sorrow and accept the pain and journey with them in it. It sounds simple, but when you just kissed your baby on the head for the first and last time, or when your wife isn't going to wake up again, it means a lot.

3.) Provide rituals and ceremonies, prayer, or facilitate contact with those who can.

My staff and resident group has several Lutherans, a couple Catholic priests, some Unitarian Universalists, Muslims, Mormons, Baptists and a few other types of Christians. People form their lives around stories and often part of our story is the story of a group of people who came before us and believe like us. Believing in something bigger than us either as a Christian, Muslim, or a Humanist or whatever is almost a biological imperative. We make meaning. Even if your meaning is that 'there is no meaning' you are still writing your life story according to an interpretation. Feeling connected to something broader is important for many people, and as a chaplain my job is to understand people's religious, spiritual, or philosophical needs and help them be met. If that means finding a Jehovah's Witness to minister to a patient, then I call their central office. If that means locating a Qu'ran or getting a priest to do an anointing, then I do that. If it means praying with patients, I will do that in any way they feel comfortable with me doing it (depending on their beliefs and their understanding of mine). Often the difference between total anxiety and a sense of peace is a thirty second prayer with a chaplain, or maybe just a five minute conversation. My job is to assess the need and meet it to the best of my ability.

4.) Give patients a chance to vent their feelings or take a break from getting poked and prodded.

Sometimes I have a visit that is nothing but talking about all the places the patient has visited, or all of their 80 grand-children and what they're up to, or maybe the latest movies we've seen. Hospitals aren't fun places to be stuck if you're not getting paid (worse if you're paying an arm and a leg), and sometimes the best thing for a patient's healing is to not be bored and frustrated. That means sometimes we talk about nothing at all. They ask about me, I ask about them; we chat. Or maybe they're really frustrated that the nurse keeps waking them up and just need to be grumpy with somebody. There are medical staff members and social workers and nutrition workers and occupational therapy and physical therapy, etc etc etc and they poke and prod patients non-stop. I come in and ask nothing of the patient but what THEY need and want right now. Sometimes feeling like you have a little bit of control, even if that means kicking the chaplain out, is everything.

5.) Work on interdisciplinary teams to advocate for, listen to, and care for the patient.

Believe it or not, religious or spiritual issues come up more than you would think for patients. Should a Muslim patient be undressed by opposite sex staff members? How do we handle the patient's beliefs there? What if a Jehovah's Witness opts for a life saving blood transfusion but is feeling extremely anxious about that medical decision? Maybe a patient is in a vegetative state and the medical power of attorney is unclear? There are ethics boards, care teams, palliative teams, and a slew of other teams that are there to care for the patient. As chaplains, we sit in on many of these and make sure that the patient's emotional/spiritual needs are being accounted for in such situations. Chaplains are there to really hear and understand patients, and we work side by side with doctors, social workers, therapists, etc to ensure that the patient is receiving the best care possible that accounts for as many needs as possible. This includes treatment decisions, end of life decisions, or even pregnancy termination decisions. We put on a lot of different hats, but our job is to see the whole person and do whatever we can to see that their values and spiritual health are taken care of.

Ultimately, you want a chaplain in the room because professional chaplains are trained to be on your side. They are there to listen, to advocate, to mediate, and most importantly to love the patients. Sometimes we have our hearts broken by the tragedy we walk beside. I remember these stories sometimes as if they were my own. But for me it's an amazing, fulfilling opportunity to be the hands and feet of Christ to serve all people (of all faiths, beliefs (or not), and backgrounds). My personal belief is that Jesus and the promise of new life in the midst of all this crap that we trudge through day after day shows up through those of us dedicating our lives to serving the world. So I will continue letting the light of love shine in my hospital and wherever else I can for as long as I can.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Rethinking Church: A New Model for Ministry

I'm going to tell you the story behind this blog's name. A couple years ago I was taking a preaching class, and harassing my good friend N with videos of my latest sermon. He didn't have a lot of experience with church but he liked my sermons and told me I should start a YouTube channel. I was slightly horrified by the idea of putting my face on the internet for the world to critique but he kept bugging me with the idea. He had even thought of a name for the channel: My Little Parish. It was funny because it was like My Little Pony except like a magical online church world instead of a world with ponies and bronies and the like. I thought about it for a while but was ultimately too lazy and busy to record my sermons while trying to do ministry in a real-life parish (as opposed to a virtual one). By way of compromise, I decided to start a blog. Writing has always been my forte so I thought, what the heck, I'll give it a shot. I thought for a while about the name, but eventually decided that My Little Parish fit perfectly, not because it was as exciting and magical as a YouTube channel or Ponies, but because it fit precisely with the view of ministry that I have had since Clinton was president.

When I was a teenager I was friends with some people who, quite frankly, made my mother very worried. These were kids from broken homes who had dealt with things like sexual assault, drug use, unwanted pregnancy, and hiding their sexuality from their families. It wasn't that my mom didn't like them as people, but she was worried I would start doing dangerous stuff hanging out with them. Aside from them being awesome and fun people, I always saw my friendship as a sort of ministry. I remember once arguing with my 7th grade Bible teacher because he claimed that we should avoid hanging out with people who could be a bad influence because it could pull us away from the right path. I wasn't a very talkative kid in school but I raised my hand and said, "Um, excuse me, didn't Jesus hang out with prostitutes and tax collectors?" His response was a dismissive, "Well, you're not Jesus." But his class lesson didn't change my mind. I had always been taught that it is through our lives that others see Christ. These friends from messed up homes with difficult crap to deal with might never experience truly giving, unconditional love in any way but through me, and not even the principal himself could convince me otherwise.

A sacrament is something which manifests the reality of the risen Christ in our daily lives. Bread and wine, baptismal water, scripture, service, love, comfort, presence: these are things that break into our world full of illness, crime, disasters, accidents, abusive parents, rape, violence, war and proclaim the gospel of Christ. The gospel is the thing which proclaims that there WILL BE healing, there MUST BE peace, that the future which God is calling our world to is one of reconciliation, joy, brotherhood and sisterhood, and I see Christians not as some elect trying to stay pure in order to get to that future but as people who are put here to be doorways for that incredible future to come through every single day. We are to be living sacraments.

So what does that have to do with church? Well, for a long time, the church has looked like something very specific: parish ministry. Usually these parishes were based around small communities. They were a place where everybody in town gathered together to have the gospel proclaimed, to receive the sacrament of holy communion. They were central to our lives, and there was enough social pressure to keep most people within the church. The church became the place from which ministry flowed into the rest of the community. A hundred and fifty years ago, this model held true, and churches were doing pretty well until the last decade or two. Now, you can't swing a small catechism without running into a closing church. There are tons of dire statistics talking about how the church is dying. The emerging church movement has addressed some of the issues of the more traditional church, modernizing worship style, liturgy, and language to fit better with the culture of the people, and this movement is very important, but despite increasing numbers of churches like Humble Walk, Solomon's Porch, and even the food truck ministry called Shobi's Table (all Twin Cities movements local to me), there are still a lot of people out there who feel no real connection to a church community. The problem with these models is that for people outside the church, it doesn't matter if the pastor is wearing tight pants and hipster glasses, or if it gathers in a community center or school basement--it's still church.

Many people feel alienated from church. Talk to a few members of the LGBTQ community and ask about their experiences at church. More than a handful of these folks have been seriously wounded by negative attitudes at church. Talk to young women fleeing conservative churches in droves: they have been told they are worth nothing without men, that their destiny is to be a helpmeet, that abuse and violence are okay because they just need to respect and submit. Talk to anybody who has ever had the misfortune of being on the wrong side of a political battle in the church, or who dares to be the voice of justice while the louder voice is full of hate. Many, many people have been victimized by church communities that look like people gathering around an altar on Sundays. That's not to say churches can't be wonderful, supportive places; my current church is an amazing, healing place and I couldn't be happier to be a part of it. But there have been times in my life where I have wanted nothing to do with church because it hurt me badly. I am still healing from some of those wounds despite being in ministry and being in an amazing community now. But all that hurt or sense of disconnection (which happens for many reasons from hurt to introversion or social anxiety) doesn't stop people from thirsting for living water. Where does that leave us? How can we "re-imagine" church? Well, maybe we need to think like people outside the church instead of like church people trying to get more people to come inside. Maybe we need to go into the world.

We need to stop thinking of ministry as solely a part of the parish. Mainline denominations have an unfortunate tendency to think of ministry which starts in the parish even if it happens in the world, but if this was ever true (which I'm not sure about), I don't think it is anymore. Ministry is praying with an addict in recovery who is weeping in thirst for someone to tell him he is worthy. Ministry is studying the Bible with a family in the hospital before surgery. Ministry is serving food at a soup kitchen. Ministry is gathering clothes for women to go on job interviews. Ministry is anywhere we do work which presents the love of God. The church is part of that, but it's not the whole story. If we are a people who profess that the Holy Spirit is among us and our world like a breath that fills each and every one of us, how can we confine the definition of ministry to that which flows from the parish? Ministry is what happens whenever the Holy Spirit shows up, and the Holy Spirit shows up first in the world and calls us to gather in church. That means that if we think church has to look like a group of people singing hymns, reading scriptures, hearing sermons, we are mistaken. Parishes are, or should be, a training ground for ministry in the world. If that means ordaining people to carry out their vocation in the world as ministers of Word and Sacrament, we should do that!

So back to the name. I consider this blog to be a "parish" in the sense that it is a gathering place for people to come, to hear the gospel, and to take that message of being loved and called and turn right around to be ministers in their own world. That's what I hope you are doing if you are reading this. I want to empower you to live out your vocation as a servant and minister in the world. This is a parish, because it is a gathering place, but this isn't church. YOU are the church. The Christians you bump into out in your world, they are the church. The church is meant to go to the rest of the world to show it the gospel. The goal shouldn't be to get butts in pews, but to get feet on the ground, and until we stop counting "the church" as congregations, headcounts, and offerings, we're doing a grave disservice to the mission we have been called to.

Now stop reading this post and do something! Go in peace to love and serve the world!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Gift of Life

[This post contains spoilers about the book and movie The Giver.]


when we were young
and the whole world of adventure
and possibility lay beyond.

Bright eyes stared
ahead with visions
of love and fame
and money.

Instead debt,
lonely days and failure,
tears and fights, and
many disappointments.

But also work,
and laughter and
creation of new life and
so much growth.

when we were young
and had no idea
how amazing a plan
not ours could be.

G. Powell (2014)

My husband and I went to see The Giver on Sunday. Lois Lowry's writing was a momentous part of my childhood. I probably read it the first time in middle school, and then again in my early twenties, and remember being so struck by the themes of identity, but the movie really drove home themes about love and humanity. For those who don't know, The Giver takes place in what appears to be a rather utopian society, where all kinds of evil and meanness has been eradicated. The people live in a community in which food is distributed so that nobody goes hungry, jobs are assigned so that everybody has important work, and the people don't even see color because that would highlight differences. The evil and inequality of the world led the creators of this utopian society to go to what they call "sameness" and to exterminate all memories of what the world was like before.

On the surface, this seems innocent enough. A bit controlling, but what do you do? Nobody is going hungry or being raped or murdered. There's no war. Who can ask for more? The story follows a young man named Jonas who is of the age to be assigned his job that he will have for the rest of his life. He is also on the cusp of manhood, and after having a slightly erotic dream about a friend, he is started on a new medication, which we later find out is to curb these sexual feelings. In fact, the people seem to experience no deep emotions at all, and talk plainly about all the more fleeting ones. No intimacy, no love, only duty and responsibility. Jonas doesn't know any different until he starts his new job, which is to be the "receiver of memory" for the community. Because the community did away with all historical knowledge and memory in order to keep out anything that could cause dangerous conflicts, the memories are kept by one elder who advises the others when a situation comes up that they aren't sure how to handle. Jonas is to be given these memories so that he can fulfill that role.

The Giver begins gifting memories to Jonas, and at first he's thrilled. Soon he begins to understand concepts like color and excitement and deep passion, like the feelings that were so quickly quashed after he admitted to his sexual dream. He experiences joy for the first time. But darker emotions and experience exist as well, and Jonas has to receive these to understand why his community had to "go to sameness." The beautiful parts are glorious, but the pain is awful and the community founders wanted to spare the people.

Meanwhile, Jonas' father has brought home one of the infants that he cares for in his role of nurturer of new citizens, because the boy is not growing as he should. His father feels some kindness toward this baby and thinks maybe being at home will help him. Jonas begins to get very attached to the boy. Along the way, however, he learns about "release to elsewhere" which is the end that criminals, elderly, and sickly people all meet. He discovers that these people are simply killed, and because he has experienced the joys and pains of life through the Giver, he understands what death is and what a horrific thing his community has been doing in the name of peace. The baby that his father has brought home will meet this same fate, he learns, and so decides that he must flee.

Now, we also learn that the memories are tightly contained within these people, but it turns out that if the keeper of memory crosses the boundary out of the community, all of those memories would be released back to where they belong. The book and movie diverge a bit in how this all happens, but the end result is that Jonas realizes that by taking away the "colorful" experiences of life and the potential for pain, the community has also lost the capacity for love, and the result of that is this darwinist, emotionless, empty society with no real depth or beauty.

This is where the poem above comes in. I was thinking about how my expectations of my life are so much different than I ever thought they would be. I have no idea how it happened that I ended up working as a chaplain, married to the amazing man I met, living where I am, meeting the people I meet, but I did. And it was not totally painless along the way. There were lots of fumbles and screw-ups and lots of sadness and misery as I tried to awkwardly figure out who I am called to be. But somehow out of the chaos of this journey has always come something new, something alive, something urging me forward, creating in me a more authentic relationship with God, and a more real way to relate to the pain of the world. The Giver raises the question of what it means to be truly human, what it means to suffer. We don't know why we suffer or what pain really means or where it comes from, but what we know for certain is that God meets us there and promises us new life.

In many ways, pain and suffering cultivate in us a deeper capacity to touch the world around us, and to understand a God who loved us so much that s/he could send Jesus for us. It is that love which weeps that makes us new, the same way that power comes in weakness and life comes through death. When we lose the capacity to love as Jonas' community had, we forget the value of human life--especially the weak or the old or the invalid--and truly lose our power to bring about a better future. Jonas sees the subtle costs of this forgotten magic and does the only thing he can: returns love with the hope that as a people we may, as the Giver said, "choose better." Sometimes love and pain are two sides to the coin, but in the same way that Jonas hoped, we hope for a new future where we may choose only love and thus God's promised future of no more tears and pain and war will become a reality. The path to that future may not always look like we expect, but we humans are rarely wise enough to choose our path well. Thank God for a Creator and Redeemer who sends the Spirit of love and newness into our lives every day.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Christian Vocation: Thoughts on Ferguson

"I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness." -Romans 12:1-18

The story of Ferguson, Missouri is on my mind lately, not just because I grew up partly in the state, but because this is a narrative that is becoming tragically familiar. A young, black man is killed by excessive force, and the outcry of the community is met with more violence. Some people seek to justify the young man's death all the while knowing that had he been white he would likely never have been stopped, let alone shot multiple times past the point of surrender. Do I know if Michael Brown robbed that convenience store, or even if he acted aggressively toward the officer who stopped him? No. But I do know that he was unarmed, and that there are ways to use force in less deadly ways, yet when it comes to black men, it's the same old story: shoot first, ask questions later. The narrative that focuses on his actions places blame everywhere but where it should be, which is on all of us for our role in institutional racism, a cycle of poverty and violence which keeps people, particularly people of color, in a hopelessly inescapable landscape that breeds more violence, more crime, more tragedy.

As Christians, we are called to be in the world but not of it, to not be conformed to the world. The "city on a hill" mentality has often led to Christians believing that they are called to live on this planet while remaining apart, somehow, from the problems and violence of society. However it has never been more apparent in all of human history how hyper-connected a life we all lead. The pain of our broken hearts crying for the tragedy of the world should tell us, even if we choose to interpret this passage otherwise, how we are all brothers and sisters. When my black brothers and sisters cry out in the agony of institutional racism and systematic oppression, I should also groan. We should all be groaning right now, not just because of Ferguson, but because of Syria and Iraq and Gaza and Ukraine and everywhere else that people are crushed under the yoke of oppression.

Not being conformed to the world doesn't mean taking the city on a hill approach. It also doesn't mean that being Christians somehow makes us better, different, or apart. Rather, it means that those of us who believe have undergone a radical re-orientation to the reality of the world, where we see not the thrill of power and privilege, but the grief for sons and daughters lost too young to drug addiction, prison, gang violence, and murder. We understand that although we all, in some ways, benefit from and take part in maintaining the social order which continues to segregate the rich from the poor or the white from the black or the man from the woman, that that reality of one stepping on another is a product of brokenness, and the reality that we are called to is that of no Greek or Jew, man or woman, slave or free. It means using "sober judgment" as Paul says, to recognize our role and break away from the biases and say no to the status quo and use our power in society for the good of others. It means understanding our interconnectedness as creatures and using our God-given gifts to usher in the kingdom of God, because we have a God who from the beginning has been about liberation of the oppressed.

Being transformed means re-orienting towards the future to which we are called. That future is the reign of God's kingdom, and it looks not like a people set apart from the world, but a people so deeply moved by the everyday trials and hurts that we stand up against what sometimes feels like overwhelmingly powerful systems. It looks like a people who take on the yoke of the oppressed as if it were our own burden, who fight for the rights of our neighbors as if they were our own rights. God's kingdom looks like brothers and sisters acknowledging and fighting for the right of the other to be fully, uniquely and genuinely who they are as a person also created by the same loving God as you and me.

I believe that the death of Michael Brown should serve as a wake up call to us, that there is still violence in the world because of inequalities large and small, obvious and subtle, and that as Christians our call is to solidarity with those in the world who are suffering. Paul calls us to be renewed; not to be conformed with the world that says that violence and inequality are the way of things, but to be transformed to the reality that God wants liberation for all God's people, who is always for us, who is always faithful, and who is calling us into greater communion with one another. May we all be remade daily so we may more fully learn how to weep, pray, and fight for our brothers and sisters in Ferguson and all over the world until God's promised reign of peace becomes today's reality. Amen.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The City of God

Then I saw coming from the heavens
a holy city, unlike any on earth,
not with an iron dome and military guard
But at the gate of the city, welcome,
and waiting to greet all those who draw near.

Those who entered were not refugees
and came not with terror and grief
but ecstatic joy for the Lord would
dwell there, and make them forget their pain:
the fear of gang violence and rape.

Then seated on the throne was the Son,
not a despot ruler killing for money,
oil, power, and territory, but a King of true goodness who
promised from the ashes of destruction
a sprig of life would burst forth.

I walked the streets of the city,
paved with lustrous gold, every building bright.
Here the gold was for all the people,
not just those with the most guns and militants
but for all to share as kin.

Then I saw a rushing river,
it was clean and clear. No corporate dumping,
or signs warning of toxicity,
only fresh water nourishing the plants on every side,
unadulterated and verdant with wide leaves.

Along the bank of the river were thousands of trees,
with different fruits that filled bellies of hungry
people so that no child would go to bed with the pain
of hunger or disease. The fruit of the trees was a balm
whose magic was in its ability to heal more than hearts.

Then I saw a Lamb, and it came to dwell with the lion,
but the lion could not look upon it
for it was like the sun, shining on all the people.
There could be no night here,
nor would darkness triumph again.

These things I perceived, not a fantasy
or distant hope, but a vision; a glorious
promise to dry tears and mend wounds,
and sure as these words appear here,
so shall this dream become our future age.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Alchemy of Grace

A sermon based on Matthew 13:24-30;36-43, for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost

My heart has been broken watching the news these days. Jews and Muslims break their fast together in the contested areas of the Gaza strip as bombs explode destroying more homes and lives bare miles away. In Syria, a hundred thousand refugees cower from a tyrannical government, and right here in the US, thousands of children huddle together in fear while Americans argue about what should be done with them. Should they be sent back to death, or brought into a country increasingly hostile toward them? In Ukraine, the war fueled by Russia and its sponsored separatists has resulted in the deaths of almost three hundred innocent people in the Malaysia Air Flight 17 crash—Dutch, Malaysians, Americans, men, women, children. I was talking about all this to a woman where I have been volunteering and she looked at me seriously and said, “we need Jesus.” Our hearts break with our need for Jesus in our hurting world.

It's easy to let that heartbreak turn to anger. I have had many a heated debate as of late. What is wrong with Russia and the separatists and their continuing violence? What is wrong with Hamas and the Israeli government that they can't come to terms? What is wrong with politicians and people protesting against Guatemalan and Honduran children—children who are literally fleeing here for their lives as refugees? What is wrong with humanity?

So often that heartbreak turns into blame; into pointing fingers at one another and saying 'this is your fault!' The other day I happened across an article that said that people who protest the migrant children in Texas cannot be Christians. Can people who wrongfully believe propaganda be Christians? Can people who financially support repressive regimes or slave labor through their purchases and investments be Christians? Our heartbreak leads us to declare ourselves somehow able to discern the heart of another person based on what we see, but how presumptuous that is, to imagine that we can see our fellow human beings, broken and flawed as we all are, as God does! But our righteous and often justified indignation sometimes leads us to our own sin of arrogance, of hatred. This is the condition of our world, and it only feeds more evil. And yet in the midst of this wasteland of despair, we have to ask what can a Christian do to stem this tide of evil?

Jesus discusses this problem in the parable of the sower. He explains that one day the master of a household went out and started sowing good seed in the ground, but that in the night the enemy came and also planted weeds. When the seeds began to grow, the slaves of the man discovered the copious amounts of weeds springing up and reported this to their master. The master explained that an enemy had come to plant the seed, and slaves then asked if they should pull up the weeds. This is often what we're compelled to do, isn't it? It can be done in the best intentions, but we get so angry at people we see as “bad seeds” that we want to prematurely damn them in thought and sometimes in action, shunning them, pushing them out of our lives, and poisoning our own hearts with hate.

Contrary to the gut reaction of the servants, the master tells them that they should leave the plants alone, seeds and weeds, and when the harvest comes he will sort out the wheat from the weeds by sending his reapers, the angels. In other words, only God knows the hearts of the world, and our job as people of faith is not to separate sheep and goats or wheat and weeds. The story doesn't say what the servants did after that, but I imagine them going, albeit with some reluctance, back to the fields and, maybe grudgingly, tending all the plants there, watering and getting rid of bugs on the whole field, not knowing which plants the master would ultimately keep or throw away. I imagine it this way because Jesus makes it pretty clear elsewhere in scripture what is required of a servant of his: love God, and love your neighbor. That's it. If you love God with your whole heart, that relationship will transform you so you can't help but care about your neighbor. This is a little easier said than done sometimes, though, when our hearts are crushed by the suffering in the world.

That's not to say we ignore evil in our midst. As Christians, we are also called to defend the weak in love, but I believe this parable tells us that we should reserve our judgments to the evil actions of others and not presume to know what God can do for their hearts. After all, if Jesus can bring the dead to life and turn water to wine, surely he can turn a weed into wheat. It is the alchemy of the Holy Spirit that turns hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, and this often happens through the love shared by Christ's followers. It is in this way that our own hearts that are broken by the suffering of others can also be mended—not through hate and judgment, but through the transformative power of God's love, the only thing in the universe stronger than evil, pouring through us. That's why Palestinians and Israeli's dining together is so radical. That's why praying for our enemies is such a powerful act of rebellion against our human tendencies. Because only love can be so transformative in light of so much violence and evil.

Micah 6:8 gives us a beautiful job description for a person of faith, saying “What does the Lord require of you? Seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” Our pursuit of justice must be tempered by mercy and a heart that follows the example of the one who defended the weak, healed the sick, fed the poor, and comforted the grieving. And we must always do this humbly, knowing that we too have "fallen short of the glory of God." (Romans 3) This is possible because of the faith which tells us that we are to be freed from the bondage of sin and death and hatefulness and war and violence and religious disputes and slavery and all the other evil in the world (Romans 8). 

Judgment hardens human hearts, but love breaks those hearts open so that they can be recreated full of hope for the future of peace that God has promised us. My prayer for we servants of the master is that our grief for the pain of the world lead us not to despair, but to a deeper appreciation for the dawn breaking upon our darkness, revealing the peace which surpasses all our understanding. We pray this in the name of Jesus our Lord, who promises a bountiful harvest on the last day. Amen.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

What does victory look like? (A prayer for peace.)

My last post about How to Train Your Dragon got me thinking about the problems of war. Christianity sadly has a long tradition of war and imagery associated with it. One of the best known Lutheran hymns called "A Mighty Fortress" envisions life as a spiritual battle and God as our defender. It conjures images of a castle, a strong arm, a shield and defender. These are wonderful images in the right context, but when juxtaposed on the often bloody history of the Christian faith, from Constantine's forced conversions to the Crusades and the Salem witch trials, it leaves a lot of us anxiously trying to distance ourselves from such images, and sometimes from the faith itself--with good reason. As I mentioned, we have plenty to atone for on a global scale, and those terrible events don't even consider the daily violence of hypocrisy and judgment that many people suffer at the hands of Christians.

At the same time, images of conflict are sort of central to the faith, whether that be in the form of an external conflict between people or internal ones. In the Old Testament we see Egypt against Moses & the Israelites, Israel against its various neighbors, Assyria, Babylonia, or even Israel against a prophet like Elijah. In the New Testament, it's Jesus and the Pharisees, and the young church in conflict with the surrounding Pagan society and those who would persecute them or give them false teachings. Spiritually, there is the cosmic conflict of good against evil--God vs. Satan, or the holy against the demonic. Our lives are set up this way too, with faith meeting a world which largely dismisses belief as a fairy tale, or one belief system against another. In human terms, conflict usually ends badly, with one side winning and one side losing. That's what happens in war, right? Two sides fight, one of them wins and one loses. Except in the kinds of battles we have, both in war and among ourselves, the winner has usually faced such a cost that they have lost, too.

Think about a marriage. Every couple fights, and in my experience, usually both sides are a little bit wrong. One person did something inconsiderate or hurtful, and the other person becomes disproportionately upset about it (usually stemming from some personal insecurity and not actually because of their spouse). Say the couple has a huge blow-out fight and one person storms out of the house and refuses to come back until the other apologizes. Desperate to keep their spouse from leaving, the other side apologizes, but secretly still feels very hurt. The fight may end with an apology and apparent forgiveness, but it doesn't really end there. It will pop up again, because ultimately this kind of battle without true reconciliation leads to another fight or resentment bubbling under the surface. Ultimately, no marriage can survive unresolved fight after fight or slow burning aggression bubbling under the surface for long. Words were spoken, the battle was brought to a close, but neither party won. War is the same way--one side is victorious, but both sides have suffered atrocious loss. What is the cost of that kind of victory?

For God, victory is not the aftermath of a bloody battlefield, with lost limbs and lost lives and post-traumatic stress disorder and scorched earth and tenuous peace. We are a violent, selfish people as we see again and again in scripture and in our own lives. David, one of our great heroes of the faith, set up a man to die in battle so that he could steal his wife. We do things just as nefarious to one another all the time, and even if we win in the short term, we are ultimately all losing because we have left a torn up battlefield in our wake. I think much of the atrocities in Christian history can be attributed to a misunderstanding of what it looks like to be victorious. For us, it looks like getting our way at any cost. The cross shows us that real victory is not "living by the sword" and forcefully converting people or imposing our culture and values on others, but instead real victory is self-sacrifice which leads to reconciliation.

When this happens, the result is not a bloody body left to rot, but an empty grave. True victory looks like two partners crying with each other, both acknowledging their wrongdoing and asking forgiveness in humility. That kind of vulnerability mends broken hearts and rebuilds lost trust. True victory looks like Christians protecting Muslims during a revolution so that they can pray safely. True victory looks like humbly offering apology for past wrongs perpetrated against GLBT people, and it looks like forgiveness in return. True victory is a message of love that speaks louder than a mob of hate. Real victory involves reconciliation, and reconciliation involves truly understanding the other.

That's why, despite our biggest failures and best efforts to twist the gospel, this faith has endured so long: because ultimately the message of the gospel is about the calm after the storm. The good news of God's love is about picking up the pieces of our broken lives, and it calls us again and again to the kind of justice that restores rather than subjugates. Christianity has been responsible for a lot of evil in the world, and we need to humbly ask forgiveness for the wrongs we have committed and continue to commit. But we also need to remember that we boldly proclaim this message because it has also sown a seed for real freedom, justice, and shalom (wholeness) that continues to bloom in spite of all our sin and tragedy. Victory is not an empty, bloody battlefield, but about the promise of what can come after: enemies embracing, lions laying down with lambs, and trees whose fruit is a balm to heal the nations (Rev. 22:2).

When we understand what real victory looks like, we can once again sing of God our fortress and shield knowing we harken to images of life rather than death. That message of hope endures because we so badly need it in a world with dictators and violence against women and environmental abuse and all sorts of evil. As a body of Christ, we must hold tightly to that message and try to live according to its truth in a world that so often pulls us towards conflict and rewards power. Glory be to God who promises to transform our blood splattered battlefields into a holy city of peace, and let us live our lives striving for God's victory. Amen.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Gospel According to How to Train Your Dragon 2

[This post contains spoilers for How to Train Your Dragon 2: Proceed at your own risk!]

If you haven't seen this movie yet, you need to go see it, like yesterday. Seriously, I'll wait. Are you back yet? Okay, great. In case you've been living under a rock and haven't seen these seriously phenomenal movies, let me give a brief synopsis. In the first movie, Hiccup, a young Viking living on a remote island discovers that the dragons that his people thought were their enemies are actually amazing, loving creatures. Hiccup befriends a Night Fury, the most deadly of all known dragons, which he shot down. Through this friendship, Hiccup learns that the dragons are actually stealing sheep and attacking their island in order to feed their evil "alpha" type dragon that controls them. Unfortunately, the rest of the people can't get out of their mindset of killing dragons, and it takes Hiccup's dragon (named Toothless, ironically) defending the Vikings bent on attacking the main nest from the evil dragon for them to realize that dragons can be their friends. The first movie ends with their little island of Berk being overtaken by these pet dragons.

The second movie opens with Hiccup missing a dragon race because he's out exploring and trying to map the world. His girlfriend Astrid eventually comes out to find him, and they go flying together only to be shot down by a dragon hunter who brings back dragons to an evil man named Drago, who is building up a dragon army. Hiccup and Astrid return to Berk to warn Hiccup's father Stoick who is also the chief of the community. Stoick immediately locks down the village and tells the people to prepare for war. Hiccup is not the type of man his father is, and rides off to try to talk to this Drago character. He and Astrid, along with some of their friends, get intentionally caught by the dragon catcher in order to be brought back to Drago, which is successful. However, Hiccup is captured by another dragon trainer named Valka who turns out to be his long lost mother. She has been rescuing dragons and keeping them in an amazing sanctuary for the last twenty years, trying to protect them from Drago and others who would hurt them. Meanwhile Astrid and the others are brought to Drago, who learn of Berk's dragons and set off to find them. Drago attacks Valka's dragon sanctuary, and destroys the good dragon who has been caring for them. Somehow, Drago controls another alpha type dragon and he sets it to take control of Toothless. Hiccup's father has tracked them down, and in an effort to save Hiccup from a mind-controlled Toothless, Stoick is killed.

The story sets up a classic conflict in Hiccup's identity: he wants to be a great man and leader like his father, but he hates war. He wants to find peace and achieve it through understanding as he did with his dragon. At the same time, he sees that a man like Drago can't be stopped by conversation. This is the conflict that Bonhoeffer dealt with in WWII, and it's the same conflict that we often deal with today. Do we use violence to achieve peace, or do we swear off violence and allow ourselves to become victims? Great men like Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. thought there was a different path to follow, and sometimes there is, if your foe is ruled by some morals. But the kind of peaceful resistance that worked on the US or British governments doesn't always work against totalitarian rulers. Hiccup and his dragon were the best, the strongest in all of Berk, and if they did the Christ-like thing of laying down their lives, who would defend those who were weaker? So Hiccup decides they have to fight to save Berk. He and his friends have lost their dragons to Drago, except the babies in the sanctuary (who pretty much don't listen to anybody), which they use to fly to Berk.

There, Hiccup confronts Drago who is riding Toothless. Toothless doesn't recognize him but Hiccup keeps reaching out to him, reminding him that they are best friends, and that it is loyalty that binds them rather than the sick control that Drago wields over him. Miraculously, Toothless is able to fight off the Alpha dragon's hold on him, and dump Drago. The Alpha dragon fires ice at them both and encases them, but instead of killing them, the ice begins to glow—it's Toothless. Realizing that Hiccup is going to die if he doesn't do something, Toothless becomes quite fanged indeed and challenges the Alpha. Despite being unimaginably bigger and much stronger, Toothless is fighting for love—to protect Hiccup, Astrid, and the people of Berk. He fires his dragon breath repeatedly until all the dragons are freed and standing behind him to defend Berk. Unable to stand a chance against those odds, the Alpha and Drago flee. The end of the movie shows Hiccup being made chief in his father's place.

Hiccup's central struggle is his identity—what kind of man is he going to be? Is he going to be a man of war like his father, or a man of peace? He wants to forge a different way. The reality is that there is some evil that can't be overtaken in this world with love and kindness. I am a pacifist at heart, and I love the writings of Martin Luther King Jr.--but was the United States wrong to join Britain in fighting against the Third Reich? I don't think so. We live in two kingdoms, as Luther wrote, and although God's way is amazing, and I strongly believe that ultimately God's power will overtake all evil so that the lion really can lie with the lamb, we live in the “not yet” part of the two kingdoms. Sometimes, as much as we like to, we can't stand by and let others fight their battles in the name of neutrality. If we aren't fighting against evil, we are for it. That raises the question of how we delineate ourselves from those who commit violence for the sake of violence?

To quote a well known question: do the ends justify the means? In other words, does it matter how you get there if you end up at the same place? Of course it does! Ultimately, Hiccup ended up in the same position as Drago—in control of a lot of people and dragons! The difference is that Drago gained his power by subjugating all those who stood in his way, not caring at all about them and doing violence indiscriminately. Hiccup achieved his power by so strongly loving Toothless that the dragon fought the most powerful dragon alive and won. And the reason Hiccup was victorious in the end is because love is more powerful than hate. There is nothing as strong in this whole messed up world as love, which can mend hearts and heal wounds the way no act of force ever could. Because love is a gift which grows with the giving. How can it ever be defeated if it only grows as it is spread from person to person, life to life? It can't be. Real power is in risking everything for another, in protecting, in caring so much about somebody else that you don't care about yourself. That's the same love that compelled God to become one of us and walk beside us all the way to the cross so that we could be raised. That's the power that is ultimately victorious over all sin, evil, and death.

Like Hiccup, we must discover our identity as Christians, which is ultimately to be known "by our love." (John 13:35) In a perfect world, talking things out would always resolve evil and transform the hearts of those who do it, but it doesn't. Sometimes we do have to take a stand. But we take our stand in love, to defend the weak; for justice, not for revenge or the kind of power which dominates others. True power is the power which frees us from the terrible tragedy of subjugation which hurts this world so badly, and we pray for that love which surpasses all our understanding even as we sometimes choose the path of conflict for the sake of those around us.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Song as prayer

Yesterday, P and I drove back from Kansas City where we had been spending a few days with my family. When he drives, he likes to listen to books. I find that they pull my concentration from the road, so I prefer to listen to music. We were both pretty tired, but I found myself driving the last two hour leg, and given that my iPod was dead and I had only brought two cds, I ended up listening to a mix of Christian music over and over again. The CD features songs from Jason Gray, TobyMac, Francesca Battistelli, DC Talk, Brandon Heath, and Newsboys. (Hey, don't judge, I like to rock it out old school sometimes.) I call this my "resurrection mix" because most of the songs talk about being brought to life and where God is in tragedy and loss.
Last year on my internship, this was especially necessary for me. I would sometimes find myself listening to the same song in my office over and over as I fought back tears and despair. Somehow, this would calm me. Music has a way of getting into you. I'm sure you've had the experience of tapping your toes along to a song you don't even like, or even singing along thinking 'why am I singing this stupid song??' It grabs our concentration, while somehow simultaneously letting our minds wander.

So as I was driving on I-35 singing along to the words: "speak life to the deadest, darkest night" or "nothing is wasted in the hands of our redeemer" I found myself moved. I kept listening, and as I was listening, I realized that what I was doing was confessing my sins right along with the singer, and professing truth about God, which was full of hope, and giving praise and gratitude to God at the same time. And even though the words came from somebody else, I realized that I was joining in with those musicians in a sort of corporate prayer, which permeated my body and made me really believe that something beautiful could come out of the war in Ukraine, and made me really grateful for the amazing people in my life, and made me remember the promise of forgiveness that has been given to me. I, not an ordinarily prayerful person, spent two hours talking to God and hearing from God through my husband's cd player.

The best part is that this is an effect that lasts much beyond the listening because of the way that music gets into us. My husband, ordinarily listening to his book while I listen to music, took out his headphones and listened too, and was later humming along to the music while making dinner. I found myself whistling it later, remembering the words I had been singing in the car. I think this is why singing is such a universal human behavior: because there is something a bit divine about music, whether that's a concerto or a hymn or a song on the radio, that gets inside of us. It is an incredible gift that is done universally in cultures around the world.

I suppose the title of this post is the revelation: music can be a really powerful way to pray. Thinking about it that way makes it much easier for me to figure out how to get in some prayer time, and I share it because I know how hard it can be to generate prayers, especially when you're in a bad situation or are scared or tired. I write this so that maybe you can also let yourself be guided by the words of other Christians when you're overwhelmed with despair, or can't quite find the words to ask for help, and remember that "the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words" (Romans 8:26) when we don't know what to pray for.

Here's one song that makes for a great prayer. :)

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Ways to get involved in our hurting world

I recently wrote an article which I am hoping will be published at Huffington Post or another online resource, which calls for Christians to be a people of action in our world where so many are suffering. I am trying to compile a list of concrete ways for people to help out different causes. If you have a favorite charitable or aid organization, please take a moment to comment with the name and link to their websites.

Help Ukraine

Razom for Ukraine

Help Syria

10 ways to help in Syria

World Hunger

Feed My Starving Children
Stop Hunger Now
U.S. Hunger


Girl Rising
The Malala Fund


How to Help the Homeless
Stand Up For Kids


Nothing But Nets (Malaria)
IMA World Health
International Health Partners
No AIDS Task Force


World Relief
American Red Cross

Friday, May 2, 2014

What is liturgy?

I went to a conservative non-denominational high school that was a loose association of families (mostly from the same church) who home schooled their children but wanted them to have certain types of classes available. I won't explain the long story of why I was in this setting (maybe another time) but I remember a really funny conversation I had with a classmate the Wednesday after Easter. My family was attending a Lutheran church at the time, and as you know from my recent post on the subject, Holy Week is a Big. Freaking. Deal. for Lutherans. So we were understandably tired the day after Easter and skipped school, and so my classmate was inquiring about that. After I had explained about the week-long church marathon, my classmate looked at me and asked quizzically, "Why would go go to church that many times? Are you Catholic or something?" I was really offended! Not because there's anything wrong with being Catholic but because as kind of the original protestants which made their non-denominational worship a thing at all, I felt like people should recognize that there are protestant traditions that are deeply ritualistic but which also profess a different doctrine than Catholicism. I didn't want to be lumped in with another denomination whose theological commitments were different than mine! I felt so very misunderstood.

Aside from demonstrating what a dork I was even in high school, I'm telling you this because that was the first moment when I realized that liturgy is not well understood by a lot of people. What is the point of all those calls and responses and all that jazz? To non-liturgical traditions, it can feel stuffy or formal. To non-Christians it's just strange. It's a shame that it looks that way, though, because to those of us who know what it's all about, the rituals of worship are deep and beautiful expressions of our Christian identity. And so, as usual, my goal here is to explain a little bit about it.

Now, when I say liturgical, I don't necessarily mean a denomination that is formal with incense and robes and organs and such. Liturgy can be formal or informal, but it is basically the form of the worship service, or the things you do and say in it. For some, the parts are set and everything is the same each week (or depending on the season), and for some the parts can be moved around and change slightly from week to week. A Lutheran worship service will vary quite a bit in the order but generally has the following things: greeting, confession & forgiveness, prayers, readings, sermon, confession of faith (creed), holy communion, and benediction. There will be hymns interspersed throughout. Again, this can be formal with organ and lots of bowing and robes to super informal with t-shirts and rock bands. Liturgy refers to the things you do and say as part of the worship service, not how you do and say them.

So what's the point? These things can look silly, especially everybody reading the same text in a monotone, and if you do them week after week you can slip into not thinking about it. Why not keep it simple and have music, a scripture reading and sermon, and maybe some prayers? The answer is that liturgy gives shape to the service. It tells a particular story, and we go through these motions to remind us of what ties us together as a people, and what the important parts of our faith are. Skip Sundberg is a professor at Luther Seminary, and he contends that a worship service is itself an act of confession and absolution. Through the liturgy we acknowledge that we are broken creatures, and then we have forgiveness declared to us again and again, through the reading of the gospel, through prayers, and especially through communion. The real beauty is that regardless of what exactly you believe (and there is a lot of variety), you have an awareness of being called to a community.

The importance of the community can't be underestimated, and for me this really answers the question of why you go to church at all. It's not because God will be mad at you if you sleep in (trust me, I sleep in sometimes and I do this church stuff for a living!), but because being part of a community ties you with other people who can have faith when you are too weak, hurting, or scared to do so. I remember being a teenager and questioning the whole Jesus thing, and at that time I couldn't bring myself to say the creed. I just couldn't do it. But people stood all around me declaring it, and it was okay for me to not have faith then, because somebody else had faith for me. Going through these motions as a community can also help you to recognize your sin and humble yourself when you're too prideful, because you're saying the words and that practice transforms you even if you're not aware of it. And most importantly, through these rites and rituals we declare to one another, profess publicly before one another, and hold for one another the truth of the gospel that despite our sin, we are forgiven, and despite our brokenness, we are healed. We worship together and do so in particular ways because we are all tied together by Jesus who came for the world, and gives a formful expression to the things we believe, so that our faith can feel tangible even when God feels distant, and so that we remember who we are and to whom we belong.

There's no right way to worship, and liturgies come in all shapes and sizes from a jazz service to the highest high church you can imagine. But for those of us who love this style of worship, there is something deeply moving about standing next to people you may not know at all, but knowing that we, as Mother Theresa said, "belong to each other" and that their confession is mine and my forgiveness is theirs, because we are all Christ's.