Monday, May 11, 2015

The Mystery, Gift & Grace of Persistence

Almost 7 years ago, after leaving a church experience drenched in narcissism, I wrote a post about church anxiety disorder:


“It’s kind of like hydrophobia. Say someone was out swimming in the ocean and encountered a shark… Now they find themselves unable to go near large bodies of water, even if previously they loved nothing more than to swim… They can no longer participate in these activities, much less enjoy them, because they have no idea what’s ‘in there’.”


Occasionally, I still have sightings of shark fins, accompanied by the theme song from Jaws. A post or announcement from the church I left years ago shows up in my news timeline. It’s inevitable. I have friends who are still there, and Facebook thinks it knows what you want to see.


This time, it was an announcement related to a building project they had started when I was still an early member of the church plant. (Followed, naturally, by a request for more faithful pledges of money.)


According to the announcement, the church acknowledges they “have lost some along the way.” How and why those people are gone is not addressed. They are simply collateral damage. They weren’t patient enough. They weren’t persistent enough.


“You, on the other hand, have stayed the course by exercising tremendous faith, courage, and sacrifice that will soon be rewarded. Indeed, it is you who will soon share in the joy and for the rest of your life have a story to tell of God’s faithfulness.”


“Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m really awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than Gammas and Deltas…”


One of those quotes is from a famous dystopian novel, and the other is from the social media post. I’ll let you decide which is which.


So there I am. Hurt, angry, betrayed all over again by a community to which I had devoted several years of my life. Once again I had to remind myself that, despite what I was led to believe, I had not caused disunity by leaving – disunity was already present, and it was the catalyst for my leaving.


Or to look at it another way, it’s not that the ones “lost along the way” failed to be persistent. They were absolutely persistent in pursuing a life of faith apart from an environment and leadership that had demonstrated an unhealthy leadership style, leaving a trail of damaged former members.



1. to continue steadfastly or firmly in some state, purpose, course of action, or the like, especially in spite of opposition, remonstrance, etc.
2. to last or endure tenaciously
3. to be insistent in a statement, request, question, etc. 


I was persistent in that I stood firm in my course of action to walk away from a toxic situation, even when it would have been easier to endure, to stick around in a familiar place with familiar people.


I was persistent in that I continued to pursue faith and community tenaciously (if somewhat timidly) despite my negative experience.


I was persistent by being insistent on my right to ask questions, on my responsibility to stand up for those who don’t have a voice.


I was persistent by pursuing a practice of faith in which I listen to the doubts and questions of others, where I am open to the diversity of experiences as people walk in the spirit of god, where the power of love is prominent and the love of power is diminished.


Solvitur Ambulando.


It is solved by walking.


Sometimes it is solved by walking together.


Sometimes it is solved by walking away.


I value rootedness. But sometimes, it is necessary to transplant into healthy soil. It can shock the roots, but eventually they will take hold and thrive in the new environment. 


And then, in the midst of near despair, something has happened beneath the surface. A bright little flashing fish of hope has flicked silver fins and the water is bright and suddenly I am returned to a state of love again—till next time. I’ve learned that there will always be a next time, and that I will submerge in darkness and misery, but that I won’t stay submerged. And each time something has been learned under the waters; something has been gained; and a new kind of love has grown. The best I can ask for is that this love, which has been built on countless failures, will continue to grow. I can say no more than that this is mystery, and gift, and that somehow or other, through grace, our failures can be redeemed and blessed.” ~ Madeleine L’Engle

Monday, September 15, 2014

Pay attention. Listen. Try.

It's been 5 months since I've added anything to the blog - sheesh! It's been a week, from Peter Rollins to Chris Crass to the beautiful opportunity to speak to the congregation of First Presbyterian-Argenta on Sunday. I'm sure I will have much more to say on the first two, but for those who asked I've posted my sermon below. A few points:

1. Yes, I write everything out.
2. I write what I'm hearing, and I write it for a particular audience. So I'm preaching at me, really. And I'm speaking in the context of a particular congregation. I hope it translates.
3. It seems SO much longer when I try to fit it on the blog!
4. The scripture reading was from Exodus 3:1-15 - the burning bush.
5. I'd love your feedback. Is something I said unsettling? Anything you'd like to push back on? Anything you'd like to elaborate on?


It’s a pleasure to be with you today.

When I showed up last Sunday morning, I met Lori – and I told her I wanted to get a feel for the rhythms of the service, since I’ve only been here a few times – and ½ of those were Easter bluegrass.  She assured me not to worry about getting it wrong – that 1st Pres is a lot like that Island of Misfit Toys… an illustration I am WELL acquainted with.

I don’t know most of you, but I do know many of you (some who may or may not actually be in attendance today). I know some of your stories, and the history that you bring into the larger story of 1st Presbyterian - Argenta.

Some of you come from toxic environments, where you were hurt or dismissed – it made it difficult for you to trust others, and to trust God.

Some of you come from communities you loved, that you poured your heart and soul into, only to see them crumble, or slowly dissolve away.

Some of you come from perfectly fine and seemingly healthy congregations, where you just never quite fit in.

And I’m told a rare few of you are actually dyed in the wool Presbyterians who always found your place in a church very similar to this one.

This week we get a picture of Moses the misfit - raised in a Hebrew home, adopted into Egyptian royalty, and never quite fit in either place. The scriptures jump right from Pharaoh’s daughter adopting & naming the child, to Moses entering adulthood:

One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. The next day he went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, “Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?” The man said, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “What I did must have become known.” When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian, where he sat down by a well.

That well proved serendipitous, as it led to Moses getting a job, meeting a girl, and finding a place to settle in. And he did settle in, as well as someone can who’s not quite Hebrew enough for the Hebrews, not quite Eqyptian enough for the Egyptians, and now finds himself a stranger in a strange land.

Scripture goes on to tell us, “During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.”


Storytellers need a good arc. Obviously we are not told every mundane detail of Moses’s life. (Or the Israelites’… Or God’s…) I’m going to venture to guess that God hadn’t been oblivious to the Israelites suffering. God had long seen their suffering, long heard their cries, long held concern, and long remembered the covenant. But it makes for a better storyline if God suddenly heard & noticed – because it means the action is about to pick up.

One of my favorite scripture references is the advice in Thessalonians to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands.”

I would have made an excellent Hobbit.

Of course, if you know the story of The Hobbit, or the Lord of the Rings trilogy, you know that sometimes even comfortable little Hobbits are called beyond the life of the Shire, called to an adventure, called to live beyond themselves.

As dear Sam reminds us in The Two Towers: “We shouldn't be here at all, if we'd known more about it before we started. But I suppose it's often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that's not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually — their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn't. And if they had, we shouldn't know, because they'd have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on — and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same — like old Mr Bilbo. But those aren't always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we've fallen into?”

Moses certainly fell into a tale. He was out in the fields, leading a quiet life, minding his own business, working with his hands.

And then he saw a burning bush. A bush covered in flames, yet not consumed. He was drawn to the spectacle. And while he was paying attention, God spoke to him. God told him to take off his shoes on holy ground. God told him he had seen the oppression and heard the cries of his suffering people. God said he was here to rescue his people. And then God said:

“So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

So now go.

I am sending YOU.

Come again, God…?

“But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?””

Who am I?

I’ve been there. I don’t fit in. I tried to help and I messed up. They didn’t even want my help. Nobody wants me there. Nobody will listen to me. I mean, what am I supposed to even say?!

God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”


I’ve got to be honest with you. I don’t really do conflict. Or change. Or chaos.

Did I mention the Hobbit thing…?

So there are many parts of the sweeping epic of scripture, of the sweeping epic of human history, that disturb me. The land wars and the pillaging and plundering. I could do without it.

Yet I’m drawn to the sociology in things like The Lord of the Rings or, say, The Walking Dead. I’m drawn to the parts of the story that show how life goes on despite all of the destruction, the hopelessness, the oppression, the sorrow and the loss. How we walk through it – together.

When I first started pondering the scripture for today, my mind drifted to burning bushes of hashtags. Those little symbolic words that tie together posts in our hyperconnected world, that help us stay current on events around the globe, to see the chaos and confusion and trauma that is occurring not only in our own communities, but in our neighboring communities, our neighboring countries, and to the uttermost parts of the world.

It can be incredibly overwhelming to get a picture of just how much turmoil and destruction, hate and misunderstanding, greed and apathy have a presence in our world.

Whether it’s a hashtag or a headline, these stories capture our attention. They call us to notice oppression. They call us to listen to the cries of the people. And knowing how and when and where to respond can be a great challenge.

We may throw up our hands and say it’s too much to deal with.

We may make the mistake of thinking we can fix it all, and in the process break down.

We may insist that we’ve already tried.

We may ask, but who am I to do anything about it?


I want to insist to you today that being here, in this community, is a brave act.

Like I said at the beginning, I know many of your backstories.

You have all traveled here from different places and different experiences. You carry those places and those stories with you. Maybe you wore yourself out serving in every ministry under the sun. Maybe you were told you were not worthy to serve. Maybe you felt like the gifts and talents you had to offer weren’t valued, or maybe your time and energy were bled dry.

Putting yourself out there – offering yourself to community is brave.

Other people force us to face us.

To face our hurt. To face our brokenness. To face our own oppressive natures & destructiveness. To be honest about our doubts and fears and secret hopes.

Community forces us to face the reality that bad stuff happens. And there’s nothing we can do about it except sit with one another until we’re strong enough to stand, stand with one another until we’re energized enough to walk, walk with one another until we’re motivated to act.

Community also forces us out of our comfort zones.

You had a choice to say, “You know what? I’m tired. I tried. Been there, done that. I’m comfortable now. Please God don’t make me go back there.”

Yet something caught your attention. Something drew you near to this place.

In scripture, we hear the Creator’s promise to be with us as we dip our toes in once again to this experiment in becoming something bigger than ourselves. We learn from our stories, and we keep pressing forward, walking in the purpose that Jesus proclaimed in Nazareth:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The hashtags and the headlines may be overwhelming.

Life may be overwhelming.

But the Spirit of the Lord is on this Church, and you have the opportunity in this community and with your neighbors to be present to one another.

You have the opportunity to live out that notion of ministry described by John Howard Yoder where “there would be no one ungifted, no one not called, no one not empowered, and no one dominated.” I would add, no one unheard.

Moses observed the oppression of his people. He tried to help, and he failed. But when God told him to go back and try again, he gave it another effort with God’s presence.

You are God’s presence for one another. You are the hands and feet that care for the poor, the prisoners, the blind and the oppressed. You are the mouths that proclaim the Lord’s favor.

And the more that we are brave enough to give it another go, to plant some seeds, and build some relationships, to break down some barriers, and listen deep, to speak out against oppression, and speak up for one another, the more you practice resurrection on earth as it is in heaven.

May we pay attention to the signs around us.

May we listen to the Spirit speaking to us.

May we have the courage to try, try again.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What do you know?

I participate in an online (and sometimes in person) community known as Emergent Village. EV has gone through several configurations over the year, but basically it is a community in which to have conversations about Christianity in a postmodern context – the practice, exploration and even rejection of the faith.

Anyone who has been a part of Emergent Village knows that it has its share of conflict and frustrations because of all the different personalities and intentions that gather at the table.

As an experimental practice to try to open up a space for conversation where people are coming at scripture from different backgrounds (and may be moving in different directions with their faith), we are trying to engage scripture passages from a lectionary with a few “simple” questions:

1) What encourages you about this passage? (gives you hope, inspires you to act, makes you feel peace or joy, etc.)

2) What disturbs you about this passage? (frustrates or confuses you, makes you angry or sad, etc.)

3) What questions does this passage raise? What would you like to explore more?

That’s it. We want to practice reading scripture as a community, in a way that is not mining for rules or feigning certainty, but rather as an honest reading where we feel safe to be vulnerable. We want to say what makes us angry, what doesn’t seem to add up. We want to say what brings us joy and fills us with hope. We want to express our questions and maybe even explore them more together.

This may be a practice you want to try in your own scripture reading or in your local community. I hope that it can encourage and enrich you, particularly if scripture has become something you avoid out of expectations that have been placed on you. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Rainy Days & Mondays

This morning I made a bad decision. Rather than take my normal old-highway-back-route in to my downtown office, I chose the freeway. Bad choice. Very bad choice.

I never saw a wreck. Never saw a cop (other than the highway patrolman in the lane next to me. Remind me again why they get laptops in the car and we can’t so much as look at a cell phone?). Regardless, it was 8:22 am before I was anywhere near my downtown exit.

By that point, nerves shot and patience thin, I deserved a little luxury to sooth my anxiety. That meant being one of those annoying people who pulls into the most ridiculously located Starbucks ever. Normally, I’d be the person complaining about the line holding up traffic and preventing people from getting to work. Today, I was the enemy. But dammit, I deserved it!

Waiting in line and listening to my obligatory Dolly Parton (St. Dolly is known to soothe the soul), I noticed a man squeeze by my window in his SUV to get past the drive-thru lane. Assuming he was going to park and run in, I instead watched as he drove straight through to the exit. As I got closer to the bend in the drive-thru, I noticed that rather than leave, the man had parked his SUV on the other side of the dumpsters and was walking in his suit around muddy puddles and through wet grass. “Geesh!” I thought, “this guy really doesn’t want to get trapped in the parking lot while going to get his coffee.”

I mean, I pretty much never stop at Starbucks on a weekday morning. I only did it today because I needed it. I deserved it! But this guy – this guy probably doesn’t even know how to brew his own coffee. His time is too precious to get stuck in a Starbucks. He lives by different rules.

I glanced back through my rearview mirror to chart his beeline to his caffeinated beverage of choice, and that’s when I saw the big picture. A homeless man who I don’t know by name, by definitely recognized by presence, was sitting off in the grassy area, alone. Mr. Suit was continuing his trek through the grass and mud, headed straight toward his neighbor. His neighbor I hadn’t even noticed in my haste to get my reward for a shitty start to my week. (Late to a good job? That’s practically a tragedy! My life is so hard!) He stopped his morning, pulled off the road, found a quick spot to park, and took his nice suit for a trip through dirty, wet grass to take food to a neighbor and offer him a bit of conversation.

Now, that’s a reason to be late. That’s a way to start a week. Let’s go & do likewise.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Listen Up, Y'all!

If we are going to be in community with one another, whatever form that takes, we have to learn to listen to one another.


If we are going to grow, to take deeply honest looks at our faults, to repent and turn in a healthy direction, we have to be willing to hear one another.

If I ever hope to become a wise elder, I have to first be wise enough to slow down, to listen, to hear, to process… these things proceed all understanding.

Questions are healthy. Not having the answers is ok. Exploring the mystery together is growth. Listening together to how the spirit is moving, challenging, illuminating – this is an essential practice of the body of Christ.

When we fail to listen to those who feel their voices are being silenced, we dismiss their experience and receive their challenge as a something negative to be sneered at, rather than something valid and valuable from which we can grow.

This is a common response to those of us who speak from the margins of evangelical Christianity about issues around gender, race, and sexuality, and it’s an effective one because it appeals to something most of us value deeply: Christian unity… far too often, the “stop-being-so-divisive” line is used by those in power to diffuse, or even silence, difficult conversations about why things might need to change… I don’t like being divisive. Believe me. But I don’t like being silenced either.”
~ Rachel Held Evans, “On Being ‘Divisive’…”

When we fail to listen to those who feel their voices are being silenced, we miss out on the beauty, honesty and healing that can come when we release our tight grip of control, and step out into the risky unknown of growth and change.

"To me, the marginalized are those who, for all kinds of different reasons, are on the border or edge of whatever groups or systems they are part of. They are not in the center where the power and resources flow, but instead are in the white blank space that lingers on each side of the center… So much beauty emerges from the margins, and I get to see it almost every day. Truth so pure that it is like gold. Beauty so glorious that it can’t be matched. Honesty so raw that it pierces souls. Healing so deep that it transforms the most hardened heart.”
~ Kathy Escobar, “Truth from the Margins”

Adam McHugh, who has an upcoming book on listening, recently tweeted, “We are, in large part, a result of the voices we choose to listen to. Pick good and diverse voices.” And also, “If the people with power in your community do not practice listening, odds are no one else will either.”

Who am I choosing to listen to?

How am I practicing listening?

Am I willing to learn from the voices that are speaking into my life?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Live Everything

“But if the truth is to be told, let us not leave out any part…”
Life is Hard, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros

"…be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."
Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke

“We don’t live or become real if nothing ever happens to us.”
– Madeleine L’Engle

“Real isn't how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,' he asked, 'or bit by bit?”

“It doesn't happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.”
The Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Color, Snappy Weather & Flocks of Birds

We interrupt this blogging hiatus for a cross-post on every blogger’s favorite subject: autumn.

I realize that the autumnal equinox was technically on September 22nd this year, but it’s the transition to October that usually seals the deal for me.

While every seasonal change is well and good, and brings with it something new, what I love about autumn is the feeling of shedding – of shaking off the old, letting go of what is no longer nurturing.

(Never fear – I also still love lattes, cozy blankets, anything pumpkin, and all other requisite fall activities and accoutrements.)

I’ve posted it before, but I am drawn back every year to my favorite literary excerpt about autumn, from Kaye Gibbons’ The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster:

Watch me walk, I carry my hands to the sides. I don't lurch or slope. There's not a hunchback dome on my back. I can walk rested in the shoulders and loose armed, or I can walk with dignity, like a queen. After three years here, it's only loose ends left to manage, but when the list of things you have left to do on yourself includes items such as healing from terror that comes and goes and frequently gets in your way, it looks like the large job of work it still is. The good news was I was on the brink of October.

If you think about October's role in the calendar, you'll see it was custom-created to relieve the sensation of unsettledness and the mingling fears and needs that still edged in if I took a brief vacation, and let my mentalities go lax the way people my age who don't have to feel old as vampires have the privilege to do. October promises a difference and brings it, the changes it says are coming always come. When the air crispens, it splurges on symbols, dropping beautiful proof at your feet. It doesn't lie or leave out, saying death will be around eventually but only because life was already here, and here's some color and snappy weather and flocks of birds flying south to allow you to breathe deeply in trust that the universe knows what to do and when to do it. There won't be haywire shocks to wound the sky and shatter down another dose of jagged edges. October knows you've had enough.

Also (because: October.) I feel the need to pay homage to my home state, in which I always find beauty:

"You Run Deep In Me" - Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism from Jones Film Video on Vimeo.

Here’s hoping the blustery winds blow in some much needed blog inspiration – it’s way too quite around these corners, y’all!