Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Thank you.

Have you ever finally met someone who has unknowingly transformed your entire life?

Today I did.

About two years ago, I began reading the blog of a pastor out in Denver leading a mission start congregation - a pastor named Nadia Bolz-Weber.

At the time, I knew that one day I would pursue a seminary education in the hope of one day leading a congregation.  I knew that this pastor was doing something new and exciting, and that her preaching and teaching and leadership was compelling to many.

But I did not know that her writings - her reflections on life as well as her Sunday sermons - would so phenomenally transform my own faith and life, and my dreams both for myself and for the church.

Her writings enriched my commitment to Lutheran theology as a source of grace and transformation, as something true in the face of so much that is false in Christianity, as something that still has a voice and a meaning in the postmodern world.

Her writings awakened my liturgical imagination. Neither the liturgy of the Episcopal church or the charisma of the non-denominational churches exposed me to mobile spaces, to meals for worship, to artistic expression and cultural engagement.

Her writings awakened, more importantly, my congregational imagination - she opened my mind to new ways of "being church". Without her writings, I would not have come to Luther with a mind open to the emerging / post-modern church; I might not now be in a class on the Biblical and Theological Foundations for the Missional Church, with the intent to apply for the Congregational Mission and Leadership cohort and concentration, and the hope of being someday approved to serve in vitalization (or "congregational re-development") or new church starts. Because I have seen an emergent, post-modern, missional church work, I am now free to dream of my own church start.

Pastor Nadia gains a great deal of attention by being markedly different from other pastors. She is tall, with a fierce and compelling beauty, with striking tattoos from her shoulders to her wrists.  

By her own description, she swears like a sailor. And her writing is funny - like a Lutheran Anne Lamott. 

Her difference is compelling because it is in accord with who she is. She does not blindly comply with standards for women, or for pastors, or for emerging church leaders, or in accordance with the standards of any other boxes in which she might be categorized - she complies with herself and with Christ.

Her willingness to be different, to defy expectations, is transformative for me - not that I would become like her in order to be different, but that I might be more like myself, confident that my differences would not be a hindrance. Her integrity - the integrated wholeness of her life - and her excellent leadership demonstrates that I too could be integrated, whole-but-not-perfect, and still be a servant-leader of the church.

Most crucially, her writings have convinced me of the ability - even the need - for a pastor to lead out of open and honest brokenness.

She is open about, among other things, her former alcoholism.

She is open about her anger - at injustice, at annoying things, at G-d's apparent inability to protect us from the pains of this world.

She is open about her own inability to live up to the Christian ideal. She has no pretense about being perfect - not because she is more flawed than others but because she is honest about the nature of being human

Her openness permits my openness; because she has served, and served well, in her open and honest brokenness, I can dream of my own service. I can have confidence in revealing my own brokenness, because I have seen that its existence (either past or present) does not preclude my call.

In looking at her life - what slivers I see of it through her writing - I am freed to dream of the shape of my own. In looking at her call, and her church, I am freed to be audaciously hopeful.

Today I finally met someone who has, unbeknownst to her, transformed my entire life.  And in thinking of the gifts she has unknowingly given me, I am newly encouraged and transformed.

So I say now, as I said in that moment:

Thank you.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Teaching welcome is a long-term process.

Sunday morning, fourth through sixth grade classroom.

Me:  So Jesus says, "Love your enemies, bless those that mistreat you" [CEV, paraphrased].  For our next activity, I want you to think about people that you don't get along with --

Renee (sixth grade):  Like some girls at soccer!

Me: -- sure, people that you have to get along with, but it's hard, right?

Renee:  Yeah, I don't like the one girl because --

Eleanor (sixth grade):  Bullies at school!

Erik (fifth grade):  At my school I don't like this gay kid.

Me:  ... A gang kid?

Erik:  NO!  He looks at other boys!

Me:  ...

Eleanor:  There's nothing wrong with that!

Renee:  Yeah!

Eleanor:  My godfather is gay!

Renee:  And my cousin is too!

Erik:  It's gross!

Eleanor:  IT'S NOT GROSS!

Me:  Okay, okay, whoa.  Erik, you do know that I'm gay.

Erika (his twin sister):  What?

Erik:  What?

Me:  And Pastor Mary is gay too.

Erika:  No you're not.

Erik:  No she's not.

Me:  Yes.  Pastor Mary is married to a woman.  And I am married to a woman.  We are both gay.

Erik:  No you're not.

Me:  Yes.  You know the blonde woman I sit with every Sunday?  We are married.

Erika:  No, she's your friend.

Me:  No, we are married. 

Erika:  No, she's your best friend.

Me:  No, we are married.  We love each other.

Erika:  Best friends do that.

Me:  We live together.

Erika:  Best friends do that.

Me:  [How explicit do you want me to get here, kid?]  No, we are married.  We had a ceremony and we promised to love each other forever.

Erika:  Yeah, like best friends do.

Renee:  Wait did you and Kristi have a wedding?

Eleanor:  Yeah, because you said we could be in it when you had it!

Me:  Hang on, guys.  No, we didn't have a big wedding yet.

Eleanor:  Because we're going to be in it when you do.

Erika:  I'm confused.

G-d bless us, every one... :)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Should I tell them the truth?

There has been a fantastically interesting debate going on over at Rachel Held Evans' blog, under the post: Dear Pastors: Tell Us the Truth.

Rachel writes:

Tell us the truth.

Tell us the truth when you don’t know the answers to our questions, and your humility will set the example as we seek them out together.

Tell us the truth about your doubts, and we will feel safe sharing our own.

Tell us the truth when you get tired, when the yoke grows too heavy and the hill too steep to climb, and we will learn to carry one another’s burdens because we started with yours.

Tell us the truth when you are sad, and we too will stop pretending.

Tell us the truth when your studies lead you to new ideas that might stretch our faith and make us uncomfortable, and those of us who stick around will never forget that you trusted us with a challenge.

Tell us the truth when your position is controversial, and we will grow braver along with you.

Tell us the truth when you need to spend time on your marriage, and we will remember to prioritize ours.

Tell us the truth when you fail, and we will stop expecting perfection.

Tell us the truth when you think that our old ways of doing things need to change, and though we may push back, the conversation will force us to examine why we do what we do and perhaps inspire something even greater.

Tell us the truth when you fall short, and we will drop our measuring sticks.

Tell us the truth when all that’s left is hope, and we start digging for it.

Tell us the truth when the world requires radical grace, and we will generate it.

Tell us the truth even if it’s surprising, disappointing, painful, joyous, unexpected, unplanned, and unresolved, and we will learn that this is what it means to be people of faith.

Tell us the truth and you won’t be the only one set free.

I read this and thought: Yes! Preach it!

And then I read the comments.

Many, many, many pastors and former pastors and pastors' wives and other ministers said:

Dream on.

You might want this, but the congregations? No way. They don't want to hear the truth. They want platitudes, and promises, and godlike pastors to lead the way in sureness and capital-T Truth. They want quick answers, not open questions. And when they're signing my paycheck, well, I learn to preach what they want to hear.

There's extensive debate (feel free to check out the comments if you have a half-hour on your hands) about whether Rachel's desire for honest truth and an experienced desire for objective Truth is a generational gap, or a spiritual maturity gap, or a geographical or educational or socioeconomic gap.

I definitely wrestle with this. I want to be honest with my congregation. I want to be able to talk about my social anxiety and my depression and my pains past and present. I believe that leading in pain and hope is better.

But will my congregation?

If I build my own congregation from the ground up (which I'm beginning to think I would like to do), it would be easy. Welcome to the new church; I'm your pastor and I'm in pain; if this does not help you, then it's not your new church home and that's OK. But if (like most of my classmates) I'm called upon to lead an established congregation (and one that's likely "dying", i.e. decreasing in members), then I will have to find a balance between what that established congregation wants (which might be easy answers) and what it needs (which is hard questions).

And in all this, I'm expected (at least, in the present model for pastoral leadership) to earn a paycheck from them.

This is why I really hope that what Pastor Marc said is true.

But if it's not...

Should I tell the truth?

Guess I'd better polish up my resume

In the Concord this week, Pastor Marc Ostlie-Olson from Saint Anthony Park Lutheran warned us:
I believe that in just a few years, most of us in the ministry of Word and Sacrament will also have day jobs in order to pay the bills.
One of the Concord editors told me, "This worries me."

And I said:  "It excites me."

The idea of not having to be beholden to a congregation's wants and whims for my own financial survival sounds freaking awesome.

Of course, the idea that I'm spending four years in school to then find a job in a likely unrelated field in order to secure financial survival is rather terrifying.

But it honestly sounds easier than trying to balance what needs to be said with what will keep people in the church.  If I end up in an established congregation, I won't just get to do what I want to do, nor what I think is theologically or Biblically or spiritually or G-dly sound; I'll have to comply with the existing community and its expectations and traditions.

Obviously, if I think that those expectations and traditions are antithetical to the body of Christ, I will work to change them.  But it will be a lot easier to do that if my paycheck isn't riding on it.

Bring on the new life!

[ like a lightning bolt, your heart will glow ]

I've been experiencing a weird phenomenon the past six months, and I wanted to sit down this morning and sort it out.

My heart hurts.

But not in an emotional, heart-broken way.  And not in a physical, angina way either.

I can't think of a good word to explain the feeling.  This is probably what distresses me most of all; as someone who puts a word to everything, it bothers me that there isn't a simple concept to explain what I'm feeling.

I experience a sense of my sternum being too tight, as if something inside is trying to expand.  It is a physical sensation which could be described as discomfort, although I don't find it upsetting or painful.

I also perceive that something is happening outside my skin as well as inside - as if whatever is trying to expand is attempting to join something directly on the other side of my breastbone.

It is very weird.

It happens at very specific moments, in specific situations and under specific emotional conditions, which makes me think that it does not have a physical origin.  It happens in worship.  It happens when I'm around friends.  It happens when I pray.  It happens when I look at Kristi.

So I think it has a spiritual nature, whatever it is.

Some of you know that my mom is a Healing Touch practitioner.  As such, she has studied a lot of Eastern medicinal practices, including the chakras - a Hindi word for the "force centers" controlling the body.

There is a chakra over the sternum.  Called the heart chakra.

Now I am generally wary of getting too far into the chakra stuff, because I have secret orthodox tendencies.  (It comes from being a rule girl.)  But I have seen it be effective for my dad, and I trust my mom, so I read into it further.  

At first I was disappointed because the bulk of information on the heart chakra and its opening depends on spiritual effects rather than physical.  As far as physical effects go, all that I found was "You will feel a sensation."  Cheaters.

But the spiritual effects:

"When your heart centre is properly balanced, you will feel at ease with yourself and with other people. You will understand others and accept them for who they are. You will also fully accept yourself and appreciate who you are.  You will easily understand the pain and joy of other people – you will feel it in your heart. Furthermore, you will know whether people lie or are honest with you. You will also become a more caring, joyous and appreciative individual."  Heart Chakra Opening, Balancing, and Clearing

"When our heart chakra is truly open, we have the experience of the woven-ness of reality. We are not as separate as we seem. When another person is in pain, we have the knowledge of their need, and may respond to it appropriately."  The Joys and Pitfalls of Being an Empath


Because this is how I feel when this experience happens.  I don't live this constantly - not even close - but in the short moments when it feels like my chest is too small to hold my heart, this is exactly how I feel.

I feel connected to everyone.  I look around the chapel, or the cafeteria table, or at Kristi, and all I can feel is love and compassion and connectedness.  I feel loved and accepted.  Everyone's face shines with the image of Christ.

This does not stick.  There are lots of people who I look at in that moment and love, who annoy the crap out of me later in the day.  I am not dwelling in love constantly (not at this point in time, anyway). 

Yet the writer in me needs something to express what is going on in those unpredictable, spontaneous moments of unconditional, compassionate love.

But, to say that I'm "opening my heart chakra" is a bit co-optive.  I'm trying to be more cautious about the Christian tendency to pick up anything from the surrounding cultures that "works" and, knowing very little about its actual meaning, baptize it into a Christian practice.

And I believe whatever is happening to my heart is Christian; that is, it comes from the G-d revealed in Christ.

I've been turning over different phrases in my head, trying to find a way to express what's going on (even if only to myself).  Heart warming?  Heart rending?  Heartache?  A tug at the heartstrings?  Bleeding heart?  All of these get at something that I'm experiencing, but because they have other connotations for me, they don't work.  

As a distraction last night from trying to figure this out (or, y'know, chugging away at the hundreds of pages assigned for next week), I went through my YouTube favorites and sorted them into lists.  (I'm sure this will be useful at some point in the future.)

I'm a sucker for the It Gets Better videos, partly because I love my little queer brothers and sisters and want them to be well, partly because it did get better for me, and partly because I'm still living into a better life.

And I'm especially a sucker for Katy Perry's "Firework."  The rest of her body of work I can take or leave, but when the "big" girl decides to jump in the pool with the rest of her friends?  and the guy getting mugged has birds shooting out of his coat?  and the scene where everyone's running around in the square with fireworks shooting out of their chests and dancing in unison?  Call me a sap (because I am) but I get teary every time.

So - 

like a lightning bolt, your heart will glow

I think my heart glows.


Monday, February 7, 2011

Concord article, for the theme of "Modern Day Prophets"

I feel terrified that I wrote this, but I had to write something.


We ended Churchwide Assembly 2009 with "bound consciences" - vowing to work together in the unity of Christ in the midst of our diversity of views on the ordination of people in "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships." We know that many find this unsatisfactory; the varied sides have been raised and re-raised by meaningful, powerful, and spiritually grounded voices.

We might wish to dedicate our energy elsewhere, to "more important" matters, to easier questions. But the news of the suicides of eight gay teen boys last fall, and two more this January, stand against that wish. The overwhelming torment in which LGBTQ people live - and die - is a summons to faithful members of Christ’s body. The question cannot be "Will we do something?" but "What will we do?" Will we proclaim acceptance and welcome, forgiveness and redemption, alteration and righteousness?

This issue will not be settled easily, nor soon, nor by more debate, but by the passage of time. Statistically, younger generations are more accepting of LGBTQ people and of their relationships. If churches and Christian leaders wish to welcome youth and young adults, we will have to clearly demonstrate policies and practices of acceptance and welcome - or defend well a literal application of Scripture.

I do not know which "side" will "win." But I know which vision I believe - in a liberating cloud at the side of the Red Sea; in the deuteronomic scribes who wrote of the Jubilee Year; in the cries for justice by Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos and Micah; in the Son come to save even the Sadducee and Syrophoenician; in the Spirit descending on the unwanted Gentiles; in Paul who proclaimed the impossible unity of Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female.

The trouble now is convincing the world that such a vision is Christian - not because our Scriptures do not testify to liberation and inclusion, but because our actions have not. The church catholic has participated in structures of oppression since Constantine, and growing numbers of young adults today view the church as intolerant, hypocritical, and judgmental. The roots of Scripture which have fostered systemic abuse of LGBTQ people need reclamation; and not without conflict with Christian brothers and sisters who share a different vision.

A "reconciling" vision is not quiet acceptance but cultural disruption, within the church and without. Yet conflict cannot become a reason for silence. Bound conscience cannot mean complacency. We are called upon to lead in integrity and openness. Each of us must know what we believe, and practice and defend it. We must be learning now know ourselves, and then to live in love - even among those we cannot understand.