Dance in the Hurricane

Thursday night the African American Episcopal Church in Lebanon had a vigil to pray for and with their sister congregation, Mother Emmanuel. A colleague and fellow UCC pastor went to the vigil both to find a space and place to share her own grief and to offer support to a community reeling from the surreal reality of the week. This pastor is not new to being in difficult situations. She’s not new to standing up and speaking out in places that might put her in danger. She’s not new to knowing that following Jesus can and does include risk. However, she had a new experience Thursday night. During a time where all gathered were invited to speak, A young white male stood in the back and said these simple words:
I was hoping that I would find a gathering like this tonight.
Chills ran down this pastor’s spine.
FEAR followed by a barrage of what ifs
Could be’s
And back up plans
She shared with me it was her first time she truly tasted lethal fear. Lethal fear in a place where you should never have that feeling. Lethal fear that now seems reasonable after the massacre in the South Carolina AME Church.

It turns out that her fear was not founded. This young white man was looking for a community to grieve and lament with. This young white man was upset about the shootings. It might have been otherwise.

Fear can fuel otherwise.

Fear is a powerful emotion: it quickens the heart; heightens the senses.
Fear transforms the body. In a life or death moment, it gifts us with super human strength. It is a very real and necessary emotion for survival.

Over the course of a lifetime, living in a sea of fear corrodes the body. It chisels away at the immune system, strains the cardiovascular system, and eats away at energy and vitality. Fear, though necessary in some moments, can take the human out of humanity. If unchecked, fear can divide people from themselves, their families, friends, and faith.

Fear is a potent feeling that when worshiped leaves little room for
Rational thought
Love of neighbor
The bigger picture
Hope for a different tomorrow

Fear convinces us that we are in our boat alone.
We need to take care of it ourselves.
Anything different from us or our plans is to be tamed, controlled, condemned—and in some cases even killed.

But fear–life or death, lethal fear is indeed potent.

It is that kind of fear that Mark first writes about in today’s Gospel passage. The disciples in the boat weren’t just afraid. They weren’t just unsure. They feared for their very lives.

They disciples ask Jesus–
“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
That’s fear.
Life or death.
Lethal fear.

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

I imagine in addition to being afraid; they were angry. After all, it was Jesus who told them to get in the boat. It was Jesus who decided to take a siesta below board. With Jesus in the boat, they shouldn’t have had to worry about storms anyway, should they? That’s what having Jesus in your boat means, right? A map to sail a smooth course. A guarantee to glide to the other side without storms. I know I have heard a lot of Christians talking about the power of having Jesus with them.
The power of Jesus to Save. Rescue. Fix. Cure.
Except in this story, Jesus is in the boat—and they sail into a storm.
Except that following Jesus—for the disciples and for us—often means sailing into the hurricane rather than away from it.
Except for some people the storms don’t seem to stop, and their ship really does go down.

Storms happen–with or without Jesus in your boat.

In this case, the disciples don’t even ask Jesus to calm the storm. They ask if he cares what’s happening to them. From his apathy below the deck, it can seem like he doesn’t. I don’t know that I believe Jesus doesn’t care, but I can understand how the fear of the moment would lead the disciples to believe this. I also know that Jesus’ snarky questions to the disciples –Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?–
might make me feel a little mad.

Really? Jesus? Really?
The boat was literally being swamped.
I imagine the disciples thinking

It can be easy for us as 21st century people to forget that we know what the disciples are just beginning to figure out.
Jesus is not your ordinary rabbi. Jesus is the incarnation. God with us.
In this story, they witness Jesus’ authority over the wind and the rain. His authority is beyond our wildest imaginings and how he chooses to execute his power confounds and confuses.

With Jesus the disciples may enter storms, but it will be possible to find a peace. In the midst of the turmoil, there is a deeper peace that can be found. What we know, that the disciples don’t, is that this storm is just the beginning. It is a simple foreshadowing of what is to come. For they will follow Jesus to the end. The disciples will witness his death, and their faith will be further tested. The disciples will see what seems to be the storm conquering. But what the disciples discover, and we proclaim as the Good News is that even death does not have the last word.
We know that after crucifixion comes resurrection.
We worship a God that not only knows what it is to sail in the storm but also to go down with it.
Our God also knows what it is to be raised from this drowning.
That is the promise of our faith.

It can be easy to loose sight of this when fear looms large.
Let’s face it
Fear looms large right now.
We live in a culture of fear. A simple glimpse at the news is enough to make anyone paranoid about any other. See a person in a hijab. Sure enough that is a possible terrorist. See a person of color. They are taking over “our” country and a threat to the USA. See a Mexican immigrant—they want to sell drugs or take “your” job. See a police officer—they just want to brutalize people. The gospel of fear will convince you that anyone and everyone that is the least bit different from you is suspect. Go on high alert and be ready to tame, control, contain…and in some cases kill.

As Christians, we are not called to preach or practice the gospel of fear. We are to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.

In a week like this, what could that possibly be?

Friends, this week we need to remember that the nine women and men gunned down in South Carolina are our sisters and brothers in faith. We are part of one body. And when one part hurts–ALL hurt. When one part suffers–ALL suffer. When one part is targeted or terrorized–WE all are.

Friends, the women and men who were murdered at Emmanuel AME are our sisters and brothers
Our mothers and fathers
Our daughters and sons.
They have perished at hands of senseless violence
Like too many of our sisters and brothers of color.
It is just one more story in a long litany of stories of violence, murder, and betrayal.

Do we not care that they are perishing?

I can understand if our sisters and brothers of color would ask us the same question that the disciples asked Jesus.

Do we not care that they are perishing?

I don’t know about you, but I know I care.
My guess and hope is that you care too.
That you care more than you know or realize.
Perhaps you too have been mired in fear
Fear of losing
Fear of risk
Fear of change
Fear of not knowing what to say or what to do
Fear of doing something wrong
For doing nothing is better than doing something wrong.

Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase or seen the hashtag
I believe that hashtag is a way of asking us that question
Do you not care that we are perishing?
There has been a bit of pushback against this phrase. Most notably a counter statement that proclaims
To that I say, of course all lives matter!
We might do a good job of saying that
But sisters and brothers in Christ,
We had better start practicing it.

We can no longer afford to live in the paralysis of our fear. We are already in the storm. What matters now is how we choose to sail through it knowing that we have Jesus in the boat with us, knowing that we are not the authority over the wind and the rain, but we follow the One who does.

I was reminded of the importance of choosing how we sail shortly after I heard the news reports about the shooting in Charleston.
I heard a song on the radio called “The Eye” and the refrain continues to haunt me. Brandi Carlisle sings, You can dance in a hurricane
But only if you’re standing in the eye.

We may be in a hurricane. But I believe that our faith will lead us to the eye and keep us in the eye. Sisters and brothers from the eye we can accomplish most anything:
We can find the courage to ask for and truly listen to stories of people of color.
We can find voice to speak up, and when we see something, say something. And say it again And again, and again. Until change begins.
We can find the strength to take a stand against hate.
We can find the theological conviction to name the sins of racism and bigotry. We can name terrorism for what it is. Even when—especially when—it happens on our own soil by one of our own against one of our own.

Most importantly, we can find the audacity to dance. When terror strikes at the heart, we might be tempted to turn in, lock our doors, and say a prayer that it is not us or in our house. We might be tempted to turn away the other. This is the time to do just the opposite. It is time to fling our doors wide open. To take to the streets and sing the Good News at the top of our lungs. It is time to dance in the eye of the hurricane.

Hosting, Housing, or Harboring

For the past decade, a key word in the United Church of Christ has been hospitality. Not just any old hospitality. Extravagant hospitality. Lavish welcome. We were encouraged to create space that welcomed all…”no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey.” I have to say I have been blessed to be part of two congregations that took this call seriously. They do lavish extravagant hospitality on ALL who enter. If that is not enough, a table is often set after worship for people to meet and greet. And in many cases, newer faces are greeted.

Extravagant Welcome.

But that is just the beginning
Isn’t it?

What happens when new faces choose to move in?

If I were to be assessing myself as part of the church, I would say I have some room to grow in this area. I would say that we as a community have room to grow. Welcome is one thing. Housing. Housing becomes tricky. That means I might need to move some of the belongings that I have carefully collected. It might mean a change in style and decoration. It might even mean that I need to get rid of some of these belongings to make room for a few possessions for the person moving in. Extravagant housing requires a bit more change on my part than extravagant welcome. I can do extravagant welcome and go home the same person. I can do extravagant housing and not be changed. Not be formed and informed by the process. Like a new child entering the family, extravagant housing means the whole family cannot be the same. Sibling rivalry isn’t just likely to ensue. It’s to be expected. It’s what we do with it that matters.

What happens when new faces choose to move in and need harbor?
Safe harbor.
At a first read, this notion of safe harbor is romantic and ideal. What else are we here for but to welcome the outcast and provide safe harbor. Again, that is until the practice begins. Harbor suggests that people will indeed move in but not be ready or able to begin contributing the home. I will need to change. And make room. And maybe get rid of belongings. And change. But I won’t get to share the load. My chores will increase and maybe even change. There might be a need to completely repurpose a room. Or learn new styles of cooking. But I won’t get the advantage of extra hands. At least not right away or not in the way I think.

Extravagant harbor doesn’t seem fair at all.
And it isn’t.

I don’t think it is supposed to be. For all of Jesus’ emphasis on equality, he does not seem to get caught up on whether it’s fair. A disciples life is rarely easy. Or fair. Repeatedly we are instructed to scatter our abundance, to share our talents–even if it is only one, and if all else fails, give away all our possessions and follow. None of these seem fair. They are not fair.

That’s what it means to be part of God’s realm and to say yes.
We are told the reward will be an abundance–the likes of which I believe we can hardly imagine.
What might a summer of shifting to extravagant housing and harbor look like?
Imagine the harvest.

Demon–Thy Name is PTSD

I recently read a post from a friend asking for prayers and positive energy.  He took the courageous step of publicly asking for help with his lifelong struggle with depression and anxiety.  As someone who also struggles with this wicked cocktail–served as PTSD–I know how crafty and cunning the demons of depression and anxiety can be.  I know the shame I have felt for wrestling with and living with these demons.  I know how hard I’ve fought to conquer these foes only to be reminded that they live with me.  I know I have not written about this struggle because simply seeing the words in black and white makes these demons real.

Intellectually, I know naming them is the best way to disperse their power.  But somehow, their voices seem to drown out the still-small voice that whispers, “You are not alone.  You are God’s beloved.  You, with all your foibles and faults, are worthy.”  Perhaps people who haven’t wrestled with these demons can’t comprehend the courage it takes to break the isolation and ask for help.  Perhaps people who haven’t traveled regularly with these demons can’t comprehend the challenge it is to admit you’re not making it.  Perhaps that’s why we have trouble understanding Jesus and demons.  

These stories don’t make rational sense.  That’s the thing about demons.  They aren’t rational.  But just because something isn’t rational, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.  Jesus seemed to intuitively understand this.  From his encounter with the man with the unclean spirit or the Gerasene demoniac, Jesus doesn’t shy away from the power of these demons.  Nor does he deny them.  He names the reality, and once the reality is named, the power of the demons shrinks.

Today I speak out to honor a friend who has reached out for help.  I speak to name the demons with whom so many people silently struggle.  May speaking their names shatter the power our silence grants.

Not Quite What I Was Planning

That six word memoir could be mine.  I suspect it could be many people’s.  Tell me your life story in six words:  Not Quite What I Was Planning.  

Something that struck me this Lent is that this six word memoir could be Jesus’, too.  I imagine the way the story played out was not originally what he planned.  It certainly could be the memoir for all the disciples.  This Jesus.  This Son of God.  This Savior was to free them from Roman oppression not die at the hands of it.  This God-Man was supposed to be a warrior that could rival Jupiter or Zeus.  Not someone who walked toward Jerusalem armed only with prayers and prophetic words.  And yet, that is how the story goes, and if it went any other way, resurrection could not happen.

This Lent I can’t believe the comfort I find in the “not what I was planning” aspect of this memoir.  So much of this past year has not been as I would have planned.  I never in a million years would dream that I would be a step mom b. ordained; c. a book-keeper; and the list goes on.  More than that, if you were to tell me that I would be in a wilderness without a clear career direction and handling health issues, I would assume that I would be devastated.  And yet, I’m not.  It’s as if this wilderness reminds me that gaining life truly does mean taking the risk of losing the old one first.  That God really does show up in the most unexpected ways and places.  And that the Christian life can’t be anything that I would plan.  Where would there be room for Mystery to enter?  How could I possibly preach a story of resurrection if I hadn’t allowed myself to risk?


What if We Actually Believed That Death was Not the End?

Last night I had dinner with a dear friend and colleague in ministry.  Even though we love to catch up on the details of family and life, our conversation can’t help but include a least five minutes about the church.  Last night’s five minutes (and then some) touched on the challenge that not only her parish faces and that I see when I supply preach, but the challenge that seems epidemic in Mainline churches–the struggle to survive.  The reality is many congregations face dwindling digits of dollars as well as donors.  Add to this the balance sheet that reveals that many regulars donate a weekly amount that is equivalent to a week’s worth of Starbucks coffees.  It doesn’t take an accountant to figure out that sooner or later there will be nothing to rob from either Peter or Paul.  Both of them will run out of resources.

This challenge is so widespread that books and blogs explore the ins and outs of how to solve this problem.  Churches need to do more to attract new people.  Churches need to educate people about stewardship.  People need to give more.   People need to embrace change.  Pastors need to preach the Gospel.  The list goes on.  While I believe that all of the above are true, I think it avoids talking about and sitting with a piece of reality:

People die.  Things die.  Organizations die.

If you profess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, the blessing to the above statements is that death is not the end.  Something comes after death.  Resurrection.  New life.  But here’s the thing that I think most people, including myself, struggle with…the resurrection can only happen after the death.  To put it in biblical terms, Jesus couldn’t be resurrected until AFTER he was crucified.  In order for him to be raised from the dead, he needed to die.

Perhaps the Good News is that none of us, not even churches, need to fear death.  Something comes after.  Perhaps the challenge of this Good News is that death comes first.  And death isn’t easy or fun.  Death means change.  Change means loss.  Loss means grief.  Perhaps what we’re most struggling with in the church isn’t to survive as much as it is to avoid the agony and pain of grief.    Grief.  What does it mean for the place people turn in their grief to be the very place living in grief?

According to Walter Brueggemann, one of the three prophetic tasks of the church is to “grieve in a society that practices denial.”  I can’t help but wonder, what would happen if we spent this Lenten season intentionally giving ourselves and our communities the safe space to do this?   Rather than starting a new program, beginning an outreach, or initiating a new stewardship campaign, we paused.  Rather than giving up chocolate or candy or Coke, we gave up denial.  Rather than walking through Holy Week as if it were someone else’s story, we named and grieved the places where it is our story.  

What if we practiced our faith this Lent living the belief that death is not the end?


Beginner’s Mind

Zen Buddhism encourages adopting a beginner’s mind.  Supposedly this mindset is the gateway to true peace, creativity, and wisdom.  

The Christian tradition speaks of following children.  Apparently, becoming like a child is the best way to encounter the Living God.  

On paper, I love both of these concepts.  On paper, I aspire to them.  Praise them.  Embrace them.

In practice, not so much.  

In practice, adopting a beginner’s mind, often means stumbling and fumbling…a lot.  Becoming like a child often entails admitting my own lack of knowing; asking a lot of questions; and trusting myself and God that the outcome will be good enough.  This practice is not easy or fun for the recovering perfectionist.

Malcom Gladwell believes it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a “master” of any discipline.  If one seeks to become a master at beginning, that is a lot of falling down!  That is a lot of fumbling and faltering.  Think of the skinned knees and bruised pride.  

As I settle into the wilderness and begin my tent-making as a barista, I know I have the divine opportunity to practice this discipline.  On paper, I’m delighted.  In practice, my knees are a little sore already.

A Prayer for the 11th Leper

Holy Physician,

I don’t understand your healing ways.

You encounter 10 lepers.

The sound of Your voice

Moves the molecules of their beings

And mid-walk

They all become

Completely clean.

What about the 11th leper?

And the 12th

And the 13th

And all the other lepers

Not mentioned in this story?

What about the many faithful

Who fall prostrate before You

But whose bodies seem

Immune to Your voice?

Do you stay silent?

Or randomly speak?

This wellness You offer,

This salvation You bestow

Breaks the boundaries

Of medical science, I know.

But some days

And some times

This answer seems like

A politically correct pill

To swallow.