Monthly Archives: January 2016

One Nation Under God

** This post has some ‘fanciful’ moments where I speak in ways that are not reflective of my personal thoughts. Please be mindful of this as you read.  Not all the words in this post reflect my own opinions.

 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (NRSV)

This is the United States of America, and we are a Christian nation.

Okay, not really.  We might have been founded by Christians, but we were also founded on the precept of religious freedom.  We are a nation where people are free to worship as they please, or not worship at all.

Some people in this nation are Christian, some are Buddhist, some are Muslim, some are Sikh, some are Baha’i, some are spiritual but not religious, and some are atheists or agnostics who proclaim no faith at all.

For just a moment, though, let’s pretend that we live in a Christian nation governed by Christian values.  Let’s pretend that we are one Christian nation under a Christian God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

What would that mean and what would that look like?

John 13:34-35 “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (NRSV)

Okay, I guess it starts with love.  We must love one another.  I think we see Christian love for one another in this country; moments when our love for one another prompts great acts of kindness and sacrifice.  People traveled from all across the nation to help the people of New Orleans rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.  People all over the nation lined up to give blood for what we hoped would be the survivors of 9/11.  Firefighters nationwide volunteer every year to go and risk their lives to fight fires in parts of the West that are being overrun with brush fires. Just this week a number of celebrities including Jimmy Fallon and Cher have sent donations of bottled water to the people of Flint, Michigan. A satirical article about the rock group Insane Clown Posse sending a truckload of Faygo soda (a favorite soda of the band) to the people of Flint, Michigan led to fans of the band organizing a bottled water drive because they felt led to counter satire with genuine charitable action.

These are a few examples of the daily goodness that flows freely from the American people to their brothers and sisters, and yet…

Have you watched the news lately?  Have you seen the political rhetoric that fills the news broadcasts? What am I to say when Donald Trump says that he wants to ban Muslims from entering our country?  How do I respond to reports that many of our presidential candidates speak ill of the Syrian refugees who seek asylum in our country?  What am I to think of the suggestion that we build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants from Mexico from crossing our borders in search of employment?

Can we be a Christian nation if we seek to exclude those people who seek our borders for protection and economic stability?  What happens when we sacrifice only for the people already inside our borders?  I don’t know what to think anymore.

And so I meditate on the Scriptures while simultaneously letting my mind drift into the ether to sniff at the rhetoric that is posted on the Internet and broadcast on the nightly news…

1 Cor 13:3 “If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (NRSV)

Certainly Jesus must understand that we cannot support an unlimited population of immigrants who want to get fat off of our resources and our kindness; He cannot possibly expect us to sit by and let people stream across our borders who only have their own self-interests at heart.

We cannot be expected to accept an endless stream of immigrants from countries that are hostile to our way of life.  These people don’t care what they are doing to our economy or to our people; in fact, they want to kill us!  These Syrian people are just a bunch of ISIS insurgents in disguise and they will kill us if we give them the chance.  Why should I care if they destroyed their own nation?  Sure, some of them are innocent, but you know that there are ISIS members hiding in the ranks of refugees, waiting to get inside the US so that they can inflict as much damage as possible.

I Cor 13:4-8a “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (NRSV)

Oh, please!  I’m supposed to LOVE them? They HATE us!  They don’t wish us well.  They wish that we’d all die and fall off the face of the earth so that they can take our country!  They want to exterminate us as if we were cockroaches in their kitchen. So what if some of them are children who are starving and in dire need of medical care? So what if there are families who are just looking for a peaceful place to raise their children?  So what if they are supposedly God-loving Muslims who also believe that Jesus was a prophet of God?

They aren’t like us and I don’t have to let them into my precious country!

John 13:34-35 “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (NRSV)

It’s always good when the Word of God brings me back to reality.

When Jesus said that we should love one another, He didn’t put any limitations on this.  He didn’t put national borders on the command to love one another. He didn’t put any religious limitations on the command to love one another.  He didn’t put any skin colors or ethnic backgrounds into the mix, either.

In fact, when Jesus ordered us to love one another, He didn’t specify genders, sexual orientations, national backgrounds, ethnicities, or religious limitations.  What Jesus said was that people would know we are Christians by the way that we love one another…without any limitations on the ‘other’ person or who they might be.

If we want to be considered a Christian nation, then we have to start following Jesus’ example.

We have to practice the commands that Jesus gave us, and that command is to Love. One. Another.

We are to love one another without limitation, without reason, and without a litmus test for who deserves to be loved.  We have to love one another the way that Jesus loved us.

I Cor 13:13  “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (NRSV)

Take that, Mr. Trump.

 

 

 

The Path of Placeholders

A single story in fractured pieces.  We can never know in advance how our divergent paths will converge, even when the paths are all our own.

One: 1997

During my first year of seminary I was given the chance to take a one-week intensive class in pastoral care and chaplaincy at the City of Hope Hospital in Duarte, California.  City of Hope is known for its work with with cancer and terminal illness, and the one-week intensive promised many chances to work with patients and their families. When my professor presented the information on the program, I felt God pricking at my heart and I knew that this was something I needed to do. I filled out the application and sent my money to the program director and started looking for someone to help my husband Phil take care of our children while I was out of town for the class.

The date for the class was fast approaching and I called the director of the program at City of Hope to get information about housing and transportation, only to be told that the class had been cancelled due to financial problems.  The hospital had been bought by an investor who was less interested in the not-for-profit ethos the hospital had been founded under.  They were even less interested in providing training for chaplains that would never work at the City of Hope on a regular basis.**  I was deeply disappointed, but what could I do?

Two: 1998

I sat in the kitchen and listened to Phil share horrible news: Lee had been diagnosed with Stage 4 Lymphoma.  Lee and his wife Tracy both worked at Boeing, and Tracy was on Phil’s team.  Phil’s team had lost their boss to cancer only a few years before, and now they were facing losing another coworker.  The diagnosis was all the more devastating because Lee and Tracy had three young daugthers.  Phil had spent many days taking care of our two girls while I was in California; he knew the burden of being a single parent intimately, even if he only had that responsibility for a few days a week.  He deeply sympathized deeply with Tracy and worried for her children.  I remember Phil asking me if I would be there for Lee and Tracy “at the end” as if somehow, they would ever ask for me…a coworker’s wife who wasn’t even an ordained minister yet.  Shocked, I said I would do anything for them if they wanted my assistance.

Three: 1999

Churches who accept student pastors do their best to make sure we get a full platter of pastoral experiences, and so I taught a Disciple Bible Study on Sunday mornings.  I had a class of 12 and we had become close as a group, praying for and with each other every week.  So when one member’s 18-month old daughter needed a heart valve replaced, the class covenanted to fast and pray on the day of the surgery.  I was going to be at the hospital with the parents and promised that I would pass on word to the class so that they could praise the Lord and break their fast when the surgery was successfully completed.

The surgery went on much longer than initially anticipated.  I stepped out into the parking lot so I could get a cell signal (ahhhh, 1999 cell phones…remember Nokia?) and called Phil to let him know that I would be home later than we had planned.  He was somber.  “They are transferring Lee out of the bone marrow transplant unit and into the hospice.  There are no more options.  He’s dying.  Can you go?”  Lee was only a few floors up from the surgical waiting room where I had spent the majority of my day.  I agreed to go but reminded Phil that Lee and Tracy had never met me and would likely want nothing to do with me at such a critical time in their lives.  I hung up the phone and headed back into the hospital to see what I could do.

Certain that I would be turned away, I got into the elevator and headed up to the bone marrow transplant unit, which was on the 12th floor.  As I stepped out of the elevator I looked up at entry to the unit and saw these words:

Welcome to the City of Hope!
An extension of the City of Hope in Duarte, California.

It took my breathe away.

Four: 1999

I went to the nurse’s station and asked them to speak to Tracy. I told them that I was a minister, that I was Phil’s wife, and that I would go away if Tracy was not interested in seeing me.  The nurse went in for a moment and Tracy came out of the room and invited me in.

Thus began several hours of going back and forth between the surgical waiting room where my friend waited for word that her daughter’s surgery had gone well, and the room where Lee was being prepped for transfer to a hospice bed.  It seemed that the timing was always perfect as I moved between locations; guided by God’s timing I arrived at each spot just as the doctors came to speak to the family, just as critical decisions were being made. I went back and forth repeatedly, watching the families receive words at opposite ends of the spectrum of emotions from their doctors.  Your daughter is doing well and her heart is strong.  Your husband’s organs are failing.  She’ll be going home soon.  He won’t home for Christmas; he won’t live that long.  I struggled to contain my emotions as they swung from one end of the spectrum to the other.  I called my class members to relay the good news and then to ask them to pray for a family friend who would probably not be alive come morning.

With the surgery over and the family comfortably settled in the room with their daughter, I headed upstairs to the hospice wing.   When I got there, Tracy asked if I would be willing to stay for a few hours while she went home to see her children in their Christmas programs at school.  She planned to tell them afterwards that their father would not live until Christmas and would never come home again.  I agreed to stay and prayed with Tracy before she left for the last fun evening her girls would have for quite a while.

Death can be a painful thing even with medications, and I watched Lee move in and out of pain as I sat at his bedside.  I wanted to be useful and comforting, so I tried reading the Psalms out loud, very quietly. I prayed between each Psalm.  As a sat there watching Lee suffer, I realized a horrible truth: every person faces their death alone.  There are plenty of pain medications, but not one thing that can be done to ease the pain of leaving behind everyone you love, knowing that they still need you.  And it disturbed me to know that there was nothing that I could do to take that pain away from Lee.  Essentially, he was all alone in this journey and I could do nothing but sit and watch.

So I sat and watched and wondered why I didn’t know what to do.  I was a pastor, I was trained…isn’t there something I’m supposed to be doing?  Isn’t there some relief that I’m supposed to bring?  Certainly I provided assistance to Tracy, but what could I offer Lee?  He was dying!  Reading scripture wasn’t going to help him much, and even if it could help, most of the time he wasn’t conscious to hear it. I prayed but he didn’t hear that either and what was I supposed to pray for…a quicker death?  I sat there for several hours feeling futile and useless and stupid.  The critical moment of pastoring had come and I had nothing to offer. I felt like a failure.

I finally made it home later that night.  Phil and I went into the bedroom, sat at the edge of the bed and cried bitter tears.  He felt Tracy’s pain and loss acutely, and I deeply identified with Lee who was leaving his children behind much like I left mine behind week after week to attend seminary.  We sat and cried and tried to comfort each other.  It was all we could do.

Five: 2000

Even student pastors go home now and then, and so I would occasionally cut out of services at my student pastorate and attend church with my family.  St. Matthew UMC was the church that confirmed my call into the ministry and sent me off to seminary; attending worship there felt like coming home.  It was springtime and we were all gathered on the patio after worship for coffee and doughnuts.  That was when Dan approached me.

“Thank you for being there for Lee at the end. We really appreciated it.”  I was stunned!  How did Dan know Lee, and how did he know that I was there at the hospital for Lee and Tracy?  I discovered that Dan was Lee’s boss at Boeing, and that he and his team had been devastated when they found out that Lee was going into hospice.  They hadn’t known what to do.  Should they call?  Should they send someone to the hospital?

“That’s when word came from Tracy’s team that Phil’s wife, the minister, was there at the hospital to take care of Lee and Tracy.  I knew you and I told the team about you…and we were okay after that, because if felt like one of us was there, because Phil is one of us, and you’re his wife, and I knew you…you know what I mean?”

I did know what he meant, but what Dan said had revealed something much larger to me. Suddenly, I understood what my purpose had been when I sat at Lee’s bedside. I was a placeholder. I sat there at Lee’s bedside as a placeholder for a number of people.  I sat there in Tracy’s stead until she could return so that Lee wouldn’t be alone.  I sat there in the place of each member of Lee’s team at Boeing, because they couldn’t be there and weren’t sure what to do.  I was there in place of each member of Tracy’s team who wanted to support her and be there for her in a terrible moment of need.  And I sat there with Lee to represent God, and God’s presence with Lee even in his final moments.  While there was nothing I personally could offer to comfort Lee as he faced death, I could hold the place of every person who wanted to be there.  I could be a placeholder for them so that Lee would know that he would be missed, that he was loved, that his life had value, and that God was present even as He eagerly waited for Lee to come home.

Six: 2000

When I returned to school after Christmas, months before Dan revealed my purpose to me, I told my Field Education professor the entire story.  I was still distraught and feeling worthless.  Strangely, several of my classmates had experiences similar trials in ministry and were feeling particularly broken as well.  The professor reminded us that God was not wrong when He called us to dedicate ourselves completely and entirely to the Kingdom.  She said that we can never know just who we are in the Kingdom or what good we have done, because none of it will be clear until all is revealed to us in Heaven. Until then, she said, all we can do is trust that God knows what He’s doing.  Then she read us this Psalm.  To this day, whenever I hear it, I think of Lee and Tracy and the revelation that all things, even me, have a purpose greater than what we realize at the moment.

Psalm 19:7-11, 14
The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

** This was back in 1997, so please do not levy judgment on the current leadership of the hospital.

I Told You That It’s Hard To Shut Me Up!

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.  The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give.  You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.  You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married.  For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.   Isaiah 62:1-5

There are days when I read the lectionary scriptures and ponder and ponder and ponder and…

Today was one of those days. It isn’t that the scriptures didn’t move me because scripture always moves me.  It was that the one verse that got stuck in my head was there because I listen to John Michael Talbot.  If you have never listened to his music, it is high time for you to go to Amazon or iTunes and get yourself some soul soothing, uplifting music.  Please understand me: I am a punk princess who likes to pogo to tunes from AFI and The Offspring, who has sweated to death at a three hour long Green Day concert, and who loves to get down to all manner of music meant to make you dance (are you listening Zumba fans?)  Still, I love some good worship music; despite my predilection for anything that makes me want to dance, sometimes you need to worship in the depths of your soul, soaking in the sweet and quiet space that you and God create.  John Michael Talbot is one of the artists that helps me find that sweet and quiet place.  So when I read the words “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be still” I instantly found my mind filled with music.  It is one of JMT’s more lively tunes and I just couldn’t get it out of my head.

Talk about an earworm.  Try to get worship music earworm out of your head just once.  Fat. Chance.

Finally I started wondering what it is that God might need me to say if this is where my mind and my heart found themselves focused after reading the scripture.  I realize that earworms are labeled earworms because they crawl into your head and refuse to come out despite their lack of reason for repeatedly playing over and over and over in your mind…but I am also aware that God has this habit of using the stuff I’d prefer to ignore to guide me and make His will more evident.  So I asked God to reveal the reason for the earworm.

And there it was: Willow.  Write about Willow.

I met with Willow on Tuesday night.  She and I go way back.  Her father Todd sang in the choir at my church and she attended our youth group.  I watched her grow up from a little girl to a young woman and then fell out of touch when she moved away to attend college. I’d see her when she’d come into town to visit her dad and of course, we’d talk, but that was about all. When Todd was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Willow shared her anguish with me.  We wrestled with what it is to lose a parent when we aren’t yet ready to be without our parents and the horrible injustice of dying before we get old.  Willow and I became friends during those texts and phone calls, and I was honored to sit at her side at her father’s memorial.  Nowadays we stay in touch mostly by text and occasional coffee dates when one of us is in the other one’s town.  I was down in Tucson this last Tuesday and Willow drove over to my hotel to meet with me.  We talked about all the normal stuff: jobs, partners, family…and of course life, death, and her father.  Sadly, Willow has a friend and colleague that is dying of cancer—again long before they grow old—and it is waking up all her grief over her father.

I remember going to visit Willow’s dad during his final days.  Todd had chosen to spend his final days at home and so that is where I went to visit him.  It was the first time that I had a chance to see him outside of the church setting, and I was not surprised to find a ton of pictures of Willow everywhere.  The most prominent picture of Willow was quite striking. It was a black and white picture of Willow with duct tape over her mouth and the words “No H8” written on her cheek; her fist is raised in defiance to the discrimination and hatred aimed at LGBTQ persons every day.  It was the first thing I mentioned to Todd when I walked into the bedroom to visit with him.  He beamed at me.  “Isn’t it a great picture?!” He told me that it was featured in a national magazine and was somewhat famous.  Then he began to talk about Willow.  Todd told me how proud he was of her, and how great of a teacher she would be. He told me that he had always knows she was a lesbian and that was fine with that; the most important thing was that she was happy and had someone who loved her.  He went on and on about what an amazing woman she was becoming and then he said “She is the best thing I’ve ever done.”  I understood him completely.  No matter how great our life is, no matter what our accomplishments, for a parent the greatest accomplishment of all is a child who lives a vibrant, meaningful life—a child who is busy becoming all God created them to be.

Sitting with Willow Tuesday night, I chose to tell her that story. I wanted her to know what her father had said to me so that she would always know proud he was of her.  She cried.  So did I.

And this is why I cannot get Isaiah 62:1 out of my mind.  You see, Willow didn’t know.  She had always known that her father loved and accepted her totally and that he was very pleased with her accomplishments, but she had no idea the depths of his feelings about who she had become.

I believe that we often leave our most important words unsaid.  Maybe it’s because we think we’ll always have another chance to say them, but I think it’s more because we don’t realize just how frequently the people we love have no real idea of just how much we love them and how much we value them and their contribution to our lives and to the world.  When my father-in-law was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I remember calling his friends and family members to let them know; several of the people I called asked if I had any idea what my mother-in-law thought of me. I was a little startled by their question. My mother-in-law and I got along fine and enjoyed each other’s company, but I actually had no idea at all what she thought of me and so I told them so.  I was humbled when each of those people shared with me the things my mother-in-law had told them about me—how she felt about me as a wife and mother, but also how she felt about me as a pastor and counselor, as a woman and as her only daughter. I had no idea that she held me in such high esteem.  Over the next few months I became much closer to her as we worked together to help my father-in-law die a peaceful death.  I enjoyed every minute of our time together during the last three years of her life, and I will always be grateful to the people who told me what she thought of me.  They gave me a great gift.  My mother-in-law died in 2013, but every time I think of her I remember that I have no idea what others truly think of me.  I also remember that I am more loved than I know, and that my life matters more to others than I am aware of—that my actions impact them more than I realize.  I comfort myself with that knowledge when I feel low and it helps…a lot.

This is why I had to tell Willow what her father thought of her.  For her sake I could not keep silent, for Willow’s sake I could not be still.  She had every right to know what her father had said to me, because for Todd, Willow was everything he had ever hoped she would be.  I can only hope that knowing this will comfort her and lift her up when she is low, and that it will remind her to never value herself too little.  We are more powerful than we realize and we make more of a difference in the lives of others than we can ever imagine.

I suppose I should tell you to tell the people around you just how much they mean to you, so…you go do that!  Do that now!  Do not keep silent and do not be still.  But the greater thing to hear is this: when someone speaks praise or love to you about someone else, pass it on.  Pass it on because it is difficult to hear praise like that face to face and our humility stops us from hearing things full strength when they come straight from the source.  When it comes to third party praise, love, and admirations, go find the person and pass on the good words you heard about them…pass them on so that they can know without a doubt what they are worth.

“…you shall be called My Delight Is in Her

…for the LORD delights in you

…as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”

Just so you know, I did get Willow’s permission before posting this.  Each story that is told belongs to the one who lived it, and those stories are intimately woven into their very being and therefore deserve to be held in respect.