Monday, June 29, 2015

For Christians Who Are Struggling

Why am I seeing so many Christians who are struggling with marriage equality NOW? They saw the Supreme Court decision from last Friday coming, didn’t they? If not in 2015, it was coming eventually. Surely this has been an inner unresolved issue for a long time for those who are now outwardly grumbling. And yet, until now, they chose to ignore it like a zit they’ve been told they shouldn’t mess with and in time it will go away on its own.

Maybe the issue of same gender marriage has been ignored because some Christians didn’t take it seriously, but I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s because it scares the bejeebers out of Christians who look to the Bible as a rule book. The fear is that once you start chipping away at those rules, what’s left? 

From their perspective, I suspect they can’t fathom how someone like me, someone who calls herself a Christian, can say the things I do when they so blatantly contradict what the Bible says. I’m not always sure what to do about this because it seems like we’re speaking a different language when it comes to the Bible. They quote Bible verses to convince me of the error in my thinking, and they might as well be speaking Urdu. It’s absolutely meaningless to me. I just don’t read the Bible like that.

What separates us is the way we allow the Bible to inform our lives. For many Christians, quoting the Bible is an effective way to make a point. This is the way it is, they’ll tell me, because it says so right here in the Bible. It’s the bumper sticker approach to Scripture: “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.”

Sometimes I wish it were that simple. Instead, for me, it’s more like: “One version of the Bible that is commonly accepted today says it. While trying to find meaning in my life, the Biblical writers are among the sacred voices that inform me. I’m open to some of the Bible’s truths for me as my journey continues to unfold.” It’s not as catchy as, “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” And it sure won’t fit onto a bumper sticker.

I could tell you some of the reasons why I’m not a Biblical literalist, but then, I’m not sure there is such a thing as a Biblical literalist. Even those who might be labeled as such are selective about which parts of the Bible they take literally.

What most of us probably would call a Biblical literalist is someone who looks to the Bible for definitive answers.

You don’t have to turn very many pages in your Bible to see that it was never intended to be read that way. It’s evident from the get-go, where we have two versions of creation in the opening chapters of Genesis. If there were one, we would be able to point to it and say, “There, that’s how it happened.” Instead, we have two entirely different stories describing how it happened.

If the Bible were written to give us definitive answers, we also would have one story about Jesus. Instead, we have four. When Matthew, Mark, Luke and John can’t agree about the way the story unfolded, how can we say that the Bible was ever intended to give us definitive answers? Which answers would those be?

I don’t think the Bible is intended to be a rule book. Jesus certainly didn’t use the Scriptures as a rule book. He often turned the law inside out and challenged what once had been accepted as truth. Much the same way, in the early Church, laws that once seemed ironclad were suddenly changed or discarded altogether. (Take the need for male converts to be circumcised, for instance.)

One of the things we can learn from the witness of the Scriptures is that part of what it means to be God’s people is to be open to new ways of understanding how God is working in the world. Maybe God changes, or maybe it’s just our understanding of God that changes, but clearly God is a God of transformation.

When the laws of Scripture are changed within Scripture, how can we think that those laws would suddenly become etched in stone once someone decided the Bible had been completed? Isn’t the Spirit still alive and active in the world today?

For me, the Bible is not a set of instructions that tells me how to live. It’s not prescriptive, but descriptive. It’s a collection of writings from people who have been in relationship with God. They’ve written about their experiences and the meaning they’ve gleaned from those experiences—as people of faith. Because I’m also a person of faith who searches for meaning in my own experiences, I treasure their witness. They enrich me, encourage me and often challenge me. I also feel free to disagree with them.

I think that’s how we were meant to read the Scriptures.

When I sit down with the adult Sunday school class at Holy Trinity, we get into deep discussions about what it means to live out our faith in the world today. We share with one another about how it’s working for us, what meaning we're finding along the way, how we struggle. We don’t always agree, but the Spirit speaks to us in those open discussions. I’m thankful to be a part of a community of faith where that can happen.

In the same way, the authors of the Scriptures are also a part of my faith community, and they speak to me. I may not always agree with what they have to say, but I trust that the Spirit is at work as they inform me along the way. Their witness has stood the test of time. They’ve spoken to millions of Christians throughout the centuries, and that gives them a level of credibility that makes them hard to dismiss. They’re a treasure to me. I can’t imagine how I would negotiate the life of faith without them. I suspect I’d be lost. And yet, the Biblical witnesses don’t tell me how to live.

Does that make me a heretic? I don’t think so. It just means that when I read the Bible I’m not expecting answers. I’m expecting a conversation.

When I began seminary I read the Bible for answers. I didn’t know a lot about it, so I was hungry for those answers. Then I read passages that told me I shouldn’t be doing what I was doing—preparing for ordained ministry. The problem was that I knew beyond a doubt that the Spirit had called me to do this. So, I had to wrestle with how to interpret scripture. My interpretation had been too narrow. It had to expand so that it was big enough to contain what I knew to be true from my experience.

That’s the way we change and grow. When what we have held to be true is challenged and we’re forced to wrestle with a new truth, in one way or another we’re transformed. May this be such a time for Christians who struggle with the SCOTUS decision on June 26.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Do I hear bells ringing?

Do I hear bells ringing? Are they freedom bells or wedding bells? The answer is, “Yes!” At long last men who love men and women who love women will have the freedom to marry in this country, no matter where they live.

Last October, when we celebrated marriage equality in North Carolina, my tears of joy were tempered with tears for those who were still waiting in other parts of the county. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Dr. King once said. Today I celebrate an end to an injustice that has muted the bell of liberty and justice for all in this great nation of ours.

Even at that, with this victory won at last, there is so much that continues to muffle the clear sound of freedom so many of us long to hear. Still reeling from the events in Charleston a week ago, and now learning that a predominantly black church right around the corner from me has been deliberately set on fire, the lingering injustice done to people of color continues to trouble my soul. I see it in the criminal justice system, voter suppression, our education system… all outward signs of the inward racism we have so much difficulty owning up to as white Americans.

For today, I’ll celebrate this glorious victory. Woohoo! 

But there is much work to be done before freedom rings clearly in our land.

So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!
Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!
But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!" – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Why do we worship?

Why do you worship? Some people tell me that they don’t worship because it does nothing for them. Other people will say that, if they haven’t been to worship, their whole week seems out of whack. For those of us who worship somewhat regularly, it’s a question worth considering. Why do you worship?

I was thinking about this as I was working on our summer liturgy this morning and decided that it might be good to begin worship by paying attention to why we’re gathered together in a time and place set apart, with people we might never choose to associate with otherwise, for some strange activities that are a radical departure from the way we spend the other 167 hours of the week. So, I wrote a Call to Worship to begin our time together on Sunday.


We gather as people created in the image of God, reborn of the Spirit, called to follow the Jesus Way in the world:
to love God with our whole being;
to love our neighbors as ourselves;
to treat others as we would have them treat us;
to strive for justice and peace;
to have respect and compassion for every person
and for the whole of creation;
to forgive those who do us harm;
to love one another as Christ has loved us.

That’s the way we long to live. But in reality, we often fail.
We ask for your forgiveness and your help.

We gather because your ways are not the world’s ways, and the world has such an overwhelming influence on us. We know there is more to life than judgment and fear, violence and greed.
Open us to your Word. Teach us. Transform us.

We gather to be reminded of who you are and who we are.
You are God, and we are not.
All that we have and all that we are is a gift from you.
We are yours.

We gather to thank and praise you, to hear the good news proclaimed, to break bread and pray together. We reach out to you and one another for strength beyond our own.

And so we enter into this time of worship.


From my perspective, this is why we worship. But how would you answer the question for yourself? I invite you to really think it through. You might write your answer down and read it as a reminder before you gather for worship within your own community of faith, or if you resonate with what I’ve written, help yourself.

Worship is best entered into mindfully. Then it becomes more than just one more thing in a long list of stuff we do during the course of a week. It is at the center, where it belongs. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

In a comma coma

If you’ve spent any time with me over the past year, you are aware of why I’ve been so distracted these days. If you don’t know me very well, you might be surprised to know that I’ve been working on a book that is teetering on the brink of being finished. I just can’t bring myself to let it go and am wondering what will happen when I do. Will it take wing in the breeze and fly, or will it crash in the mud with a thud?

I had enough people encouraging me to write a book in recent years that I was seriously considering it when a friend of mine, who actually coaches people in the writing process, offered to give me some help. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. If I was ever going to do this, now was the time.

So, I’ve written a spiritual memoir called Threads: pulling meaning from the tangled mess. It’s about my life and the meaning I’ve been able to draw from it. I’m hoping that it will help other people in their own process of meaning-making along the way.

Let me tell you that I’ve gained new-found respect for authors. Especially authors who have other full-time jobs. Every spare moment of my life has been devoted to this book. I’m ready to move on to other things. Like enjoying the sunshine, reconnecting with friends, and getting rid of the dust bunnies under my bed, which have grown into dust elephants over the past year. But I’m having trouble letting go.

I thought I was finished a few months ago. Then, as I read the proof, I became painfully aware of how I was using conjunctions. I went through the entire book and made adjustments. There. Now I was done.

When I read the next proof, I got hung up on the word that. When do you use it and when don’t you? Argh. I went through the entire book again, struggling over each time I used the word and whether or not it was better to leave it in or take it out. And that was that. Definitely done.

The last proof came back, and I saw inconsistencies in the way I was using commas. All the rules were becoming confused and I realized I couldn’t let my work be seen by others until I got my commas straight. So, I went through every page, comma by comma, and did what I could until I was in a comma coma.

I’m waiting to get the proof back again before I sign off on it. And I’m almost afraid to look. There has to be an end to this!

Several proofs back, I asked my coaching friend, Peg Robarchek, "How will I know when it’s finished?" Here’s what she told me: “My personal criteria for whether a book was finished was whether I had worked on it so long and hard that I was sick of it and certain it should never have been written.”

Oh, yes, Peg. I'm definitely there! Won’t be long before I’m shoving this baby off the cliff and we’ll see where it goes.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Seeds and Bombshells

Many of you know that back in April I took part in a Moral Monday protest in Raleigh that resulted in me being arrested along with 9 other clergy types. Last Monday, bright and early, I drove up to the Wake County Courthouse along with Robin Tanner, the minister at Piedmont UU, who was arrested the same time I was. It turned out that this was just the initial appearance and this case will be going on, probably well into 2016.

I didn’t know that Dr. William Barber would be with us that morning. Dr. Barber is president of the NC NAACP and the founder of the Moral Monday movement. He is a national figure. It takes a lot to impress me these days, and this man is beyond impressive. He truly has become one of my heroes.

When I was there for the two year anniversary of the Moral Monday movement in April and we marched to the statehouse, Dr. Barber grabbed my hand and we walked together at the beginning of the procession. I was so overwhelmed that it was all I could do to keep from crying. Up until then, I had only seen Dr. Barber from a distance as he addressed thousands of people with such power and wisdom that he seemed almost superhuman to me.

So, last Monday we were together again, but in a much more intimate setting. We spent a lot of time waiting around, so I had the opportunity to stand and chat with him and I could see that he was just a person like all the rest of us. Well, maybe not like all the rest of us, but he’s a person. He’s kind, and gentle in a way I hadn’t realized. A very sweet man. And pretty funny, too.

I didn’t know that this court case was a big deal until I saw all the TV cameras. After the court proceedings, we gathered as a group with Dr. Barber for a press conference. And once again he grabbed my hand and pulled me close. “I want you standing right here beside me,” he said. And I’m thinking, what’s the deal with this guy, why does he always want me standing beside him and why is he always holding my hand? But then, as I looked up and down the group I understood why. I was the only little, old white woman with silver hair. Dr. Barber is a very large, imposing black man who towers over me, so the visual contrast between the two of us is striking. Both of us standing there, side-by-side, hand-in-hand, shows people the diversity of the Moral Monday movement. Did I feel like I was being used? Nope. I was being useful. And honored to do it.

Well, after things broke up, Robin and I accompanied Dr. Barber out of the building and waited with him for his ride. And here’s where things got really interesting for me. I imagined that it must have felt a little bit like it did for the disciples of Jesus who followed him around. This man is a celebrity. Everyone who saw him wanted to talk to him. They wanted to have their picture taken with him. He was always gracious and took the opportunity to speak personally with people. He wanted to know their name, where they were from, how he could help them. Really, the way he handled people was amazing to me.

In between all of this, he conversed with Robin and me. I hung on every word he said and wished I had a recording device because I wanted to remember it all. Actually, what I’d love to do is take about two months and follow the man around so I could record everything he does and says.

As Dr. Barber, Robin and I were standing outside the courthouse, a couple of guys carrying Bibles approached us and they started telling us about their ministry with drug addicts. Dr. Barber was interested in what they were doing and engaged them in conversation. But then they started on what’s wrong with this country and they were lamenting the fact that this isn’t a Christian nation anymore and we all need to follow Christ and the way to do that is by putting prayer back in public schools. Now, when I hear people talking like this, I get my hackles up. I want to say something like, “Have you ever heard of the Bill of Rights?” and I let them know immediately where I stand. So, I was paying close attention because I wanted to hear how Dr. Barber handled it.

He listened, and he affirmed the importance of prayer, and then he turned it all around by saying something like just saying the name of Jesus and praying isn’t enough. What are we going to do about the cuts in teacher salaries? What are we going to do about taking money from public education and giving it to private schools? We fail to be Christian when we fail to invest in our children’s future. Since I didn’t have a recorder going, I can’t remember his exact words, but that’s the gist of it, as I recall. He didn’t argue with them about school prayer, he met them there and moved the conversation forward.

Afterwards, I turned to Dr. Barber and I said, “How did you do that?”

He explained to me that he always tries to meet a person where they are. For these guys, that’s the only way of thinking they knew, so that’s where he starts. He starts with what they know and he goes from there. 

He did it in such a loving way that I wasn’t sure they really heard what he was saying to them. He was disagreeing with them, but he said it in such a way that I suspect they thought he might have been agreeing with them. So I asked, “Do you think they got what you were saying?”

And here’s basically what he said to me. “That’s not my job. My job is to say it. And, whether they realized what I said or not, the Holy Spirit isn’t going to let them forget. The Holy Spirit will take it from here. We’re in this for the long term.”

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

That’s the kingdom of God. It’s like scattering seed on the ground. Once you scatter the seed, there is nothing you can do to force it to grow. You wait. It’s a long process. No one really understands how it works, but the seed breaks open and becomes a stalk. Then there is the head, and then the grain becomes ripe. The sower scatters the seed and waits for God to do the rest. 

Dr. Barber was teaching me about what it means to plant seeds.

Planting seeds is not my forte. I’m more about dropping bombshells. Some of you know how true that is. I’ve got some buttons and if you push one of my buttons, look out. I just did it at a meeting last week. Lord, have mercy.

I want to be gentle, I want to plant seeds, I want to be patient and give the Spirit time to work. I really do. But I don’t do so well at planting seeds. Instead, I drop bombshells. Now, the Spirit can use those, too, and sometimes my bombshells may turn into seeds. But more often, they’re just bombshells that explode upon impact. They can do some damage, but they aren’t of much use over the long-haul.

When I think of the people who have changed my life and the people who have changed the world—the ones who have had a lasting impact—it’s not the ones who have dropped bombshells that come to mind. It’s the ones who have planted seeds.

Who are some of the ones who have gone before us planting seeds that have produced the harvest we’re reaping now? And what seeds are we planting today for those who will come after us?

The kingdom of God is about dropping bombshells? Something Jesus never said—ever!

Here’s what Jesus did say: The kingdom of God is about planting seeds. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

I want to be that person

Only once did I move into a brand new house and start my yard from scratch. Otherwise, I’ve always moved into a place with established vegetation. When I moved into my current home, the backyard was a jungle. I don’t know why I didn’t take photos so I could show you before and after, but believe me, it was bad. I had major trees and branches removed so the sun could shine through. The yard itself was such a mess that a crew with a backhoe came in and removed everything on the ground so I could start over. Before they did this, I went all around digging up bulbs, mostly daffodils and irises, which I replanted then in the front yard.

I replaced the cracked concrete on my patio with pavers, which are now framed by my flower garden. The first spring I discovered that I had to enlarge the garden in a few places because lilies were forcing their way up out of the ground beyond the border to the flower bed that I had established. How they had survived the demolition, I’ll never know.

Their vibrant orange flowers usually appear right around Memorial Day. I had no part in planting them and don’t have a clue who did. Someone did the hard work and left them behind for an unknown person in the future to enjoy. I have no idea how they came to be planted in my yard or why. I don’t even know if the one who put them there ever had the opportunity to enjoy them.

Although most years come and go and I admire this gift of life without any appreciation for the person who gave it to me, today I’m thinking that I wish I knew whom to thank. How can I thank someone who has gone before me, leaving a thing of beauty for me to enjoy, when I have no idea who they were? The only way that makes any sense to me is to leave beauty in my own wake for those who come after me--the ones who will never bother to thank me, and couldn't even if they wanted to because they won't ever know who I was. 

Yes, I want to be that person. 

Thursday, April 30, 2015

An Act of Civil Disobedience

Yesterday, for the first time in my 62 years, I participated in an act of civil disobedience that resulted in my arrest.

I wasn’t alone. I was arrested that day with nine other clergy-types from North Carolina. That evening, another group of people was arrested, too. About 1000 people went before us as a part of the Moral Monday movement that began its third year this week. Before Moral Monday, there have been other movements that included acts of civil disobedience around the world, and in the United States. In fact, our country was started by acts of civil disobedience. I am honored to march with the millions of people who have gone before me, moved to step out for the sake of justice.

Ten years ago, North Carolina was considered a progressive state and I was proud to call myself a North Carolinian by choice. In recent years, I have grown increasingly frustrated with the decisions of our lawmakers in Raleigh and have watched us become a regressive state. There seems to be a complete disregard for justice. The poor are being trampled upon with no evidence of compassion as we enter a time in our country when the disparity between rich and poor is similar to colonial times.

For a while, I wondered if people were even aware of what was happening. The Racial Justice Act of 2009 was repealed, which had allowed inmates on death row to challenge their sentences on the basis of racial discrimination. (The problem in North Carolina is a proven fact.) Voting rights have been restricted. Women’s healthcare limited. Little regard has been shown for the environment. Education has suffered drastically, including cuts to teacher pay that has sent some of our best educators to other states. (This is a problem for our children that will cost us far more in the long-run.) People were cut off from unemployment benefits far earlier than they needed to be. The state opted out of Medicaid expansion, which was part of the Affordable Care Act and would have provided coverage to 500,000 North Carolinians who do not currently receive coverage. As a result, thousands of people have died without the healthcare that could have saved them. People are dying as a result of the decisions our General Assembly has been making. Was anybody seeing this? 

The fact is, since Dr. William Barber began the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina, people in our state are paying attention to what is happening in our General Assembly. They are aware of the unjust, immoral and at times criminal acts being perpetrated against the people of our state. Public opinion has shifted. So, I have no doubt that the movement has made a difference. At the center of that movement are acts of civil disobedience. Without them, Moral Mondays are like a barking dog, alerting everyone to the problem, but more annoying to our opponents than anything. The actions are what give the movement its bite.

Last week, my dear colleague Robin Tanner told our Wednesday morning Bible Study group that she would be going to Raleigh for the anniversary of Moral Monday and she planned to participate in civil disobedience that day. Robin is such an inspiration to me. She is a UU minister, younger than my children, and wise far beyond her years. She has a passion that drives her to organize others and speak eloquently on behalf of justice that truly amazes me. What a gift she has been to our Charlotte community in the few short years she has been with us. I have been one of her many cheerleaders.

When I learned that Robin would be going to Raleigh alone, I offered to drive her. I’ve been to several Moral Monday events in the past couple of years and I was glad to take part. 

Then I started watching the unrest in Baltimore on TV. Although it troubles me, it doesn’t surprise me. How much can people take from a system that is stacked against them, never seems to change, and in many ways is only getting worse? They are frustrated and angry. I get that. But as I watched the events unfolding on my TV screen I kept asking myself, What am I doing to help change the circumstances of our world that lead to such despair? 

I thought and prayed about my witness to the God of justice and love. The day before Robin and I planned to go to Raleigh, I knew the time had come for me to join in the march of the saints before me. It was cowardice that kept me from doing so before, and I wanted to look at myself in the mirror for the remainder of my life. This time I couldn’t stand by and watch others do something I knew I was also called to do myself.

I had to do it. And I’m glad I did. Was it easy? No. Was it uncomfortable? Yes. Was it necessary? I believe it was. Will it make a difference? It already has. I’m another person in a very long movement that has sided with the poor, the marginalized, and those who are treated unjustly. As I understand it, that’s where Jesus sided, too. It’s made a difference in the life of the world and, as of April 29, 2015, it’s made a difference in the life of me.