Sunday, January 22, 2017

A short person's view of the Women's March in DC

So much has been said about the Women’s March in Washington, DC on January 21. I want to tell you what it was really like for me… on the ground. It was grueling, frustrating, physically painful, exhausting… and one of the best days of my life. 

Ever since the march was announced, I knew I had to be a part of it. And now that I live so close to DC, I felt it was my responsibility to be among those who gathered. As disheartened as I have been about our new president, I will not stand by and passively watch while my country moves backwards. I couldn’t not be there. 

Now, you need to know that I have an extreme aversion to big crowds. That’s one of the reasons why I always get my Christmas shopping done in early November. What I love most is cuddling under a quilt with my pets while reading a book or watching TV in the quiet solitude of my home. I would have thoroughly enjoyed a leisurely Saturday watching the marches around the country from comfort of my reclining couch. But for me, that wasn’t an option. I would never be able to live with myself if I were able to be at the Women’s March, and I decided to sit this one out. 

I was thrilled that my daughter Gretchen decided to drive down from NYC to march with me. She left after teaching school on Friday and, a trip that should have taken her 3.5 hours, took her 6.5 hours. After watching reports of people traveling via planes, trains, buses, cars from all over the country, I was starting to get a feeling that the turn out in DC was going to be bigly YUGE!

Gretchen and I boarded a morning bus with some friends from Ascension and we were off. Among the items I brought with me—a hand-made sign that read, “Hell hath no fury like 163,000,000 women scorned”, my cell phone charger, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and two bags of miniature Hershey bars.  

I felt a strong sisterhood with women on other buses that were on the road with us as we all converged on our nation’s Capitol. On the way we followed social media for reports of other marchers. That’s how we learned that the Metro was a mess. People were waiting for hours to board from the end of the line so that in the city all the trains were filled. We all had Metro passes but none of us used them. We would be walking the entire day. I can’t tell you how many miles it was, but by day’s end, I didn’t know how I could possibly take another step. It was brutal. 

So we headed toward Capitol Hill on foot. Along with hundreds of thousands of other people, we were struggling to figure out how to make our way to the rally. Everywhere we looked, streams of people were flooding by us, and they weren't all headed in the same direction. How can we get into the rally? Where is the entry point? No one could answer our questions. Well, I should say that they all had different answers. We had no way of knowing what was going on, so we just worked our way forward as best we could, no knowing if we were going the right way, but hoping that sometime soon we would receive some clarity. 

A few times we passed lines of people, a block or so long, waiting to use port-a-johns. There’s no way I’m standing in a line like that to relieve myself, I thought. Surely, there would better options when we got inside the Mall. 

We pushed ahead through the crowd. And then we came to the sardine can. Actually, that metaphor doesn’t begin to describe what we encountered. Imagine a million people crammed into a space that might hold 200,000 people somewhat comfortably. And imagine all those people trying to get someplace else. Well, the problem was, there was no place to go. 

The rally was going on, but we couldn’t hear it. We learned that it was taking place on the other side of the Air & Space Museum from where we were stuck. If we could just get around that building… It should be doable. 

You may know how it is working your way through a large crowd of people who are pressing against each other. If you see the slightest opening, you slide into it. If a line of people snakes past you, you slither behind them, hoping they might clear the way for you. Nine of us were together, inching our way forward. 

It became clear that there was no way in hell we were going to make it to the Mall. I finally got within sight of the bottom right-hand corner of a jumbo screen that was showing the stage. But as a 5’4” person surrounded by giants holding signs above their heads, that was as good as it was gonna get. 

At last I had a moment of clarity. Now I knew what we were up against. And I started to think about what would surely be our greatest challenge, and that was getting to a port-a-john before any of us had a bladder emergency. I suggested that we try to extricate ourselves from the mob and find a potty. My cohort was in agreement, and we decided that we would make our way to the Air & Space Museum. That was the first big turning point of my day. I led the way. 

I’ve been trying to find the correct metaphor to describe what the next hour-and-a-half was like. To return to the sardine can mentioned above, imagine sardines smooshed in a can so tight they can’t be separated. Imagine that can being the length of a football field. And then imagine one of those sardines, on the far end of the can, deciding that it’s going to make its way to the opposite end of the can... Well, I don’t know if that accurately describes the experience… Imagine that sardine trying to make its way through a concrete wall the length of a football field. That may be more of what I was up against. People were standing shoulder to shoulder. They were immovable, mainly because they had nowhere to move. And I was trying to squish between the cracks, often creating them as I went, pushing people aside and apologizing again and again.

I suspect I moved about a foot a minute as I made my way. There were a couple of times when I muttered to myself, “Just take me now, Lord, because I can’t do this.” But there was no room for me to lay down and die, so I had to push on.

Somewhere along the way, I left the people behind who were with me. I pressed on because I figured that we were headed toward the same place, and eventually we’d all meet up at the Air & Space Museum. I just had to press on. 

When I finally reached the steps that led to the museum entrance, I was elated. Climbing them, I heard the “Rocky” theme playing in my head. I got to the top, threw my arms in the air and then looked out at the crowd below. The only person I could spot who I knew was Gretchen, and she was about 50 feet away, which was much further than it sounds, considering all that stood between her and me. I held my big yellow sign above my head, and she saw it! 

We never laid eyes on any of the other people in our original group again until we returned to our bus at the end of the day. It was a miracle that Gretchen and I found each other, and I hate to think of what our day would have been like if I hadn’t brought that sign. 

I had spent a couple of hours making the sign on Friday. It was on foam-board, two-sided and laminated with clear contact paper. When we entered the Air & Space Museum, we had to go through a security check, which meant I had to leave my sign at the door. I would never be able to fight my way through the crowd again to get it back. I traded it in on a trip to the restroom, which, in such dire circumstances, seemed like a good deal. Yet when I later marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, I really wished I had it back. 

But I’m jumping ahead of myself. Do you really think Gretchen and I waltzed right into the Air & Space Museum? Ha! We had to wait. In line. For about an hour-and-a-half we stood in a line along the side of the building. This really wasn’t awful. For the first time, we actually could hear what the speakers were saying at the rally and, since we were going to be standing anyway, we had probably found the only place where we could do it without being suffocated and squeezed on all sides by the bodies of strangers. We enjoyed the people standing in line with us, and I had fun handing out chocolates to people who were passing by. 

There were desperate women that day who couldn’t stand in line for hours on end waiting to use the restroom. Some women formed circles to block the eyes of onlookers while they took turns squatting in the middle and doing their business. At times this happened over drains, and at other times, no drains were involved. Desperate women needed to take desperate measures. This may sound disturbing to you if you weren’t there, much like people who weren’t a part of the Donner party might not understand what they did to avoid starvation, but if you were there, you understand completely. The beauty of it all was that we were looking out for one another. And I found that to be true throughout the day. Given the intensity of the situation, people were patient, supportive and caring with one another. I think it’s because we were all family. 

Eventually, Gretchen and I got into the Air & Space Museum. This was the second big turning point of my day. I felt like we were entering a palace. It gave a whole new meaning to the words, air and space, as both were in abundance. Yes! This was when we waltzed. All the way to the restrooms. And… No lines. Empty stalls in abundance. Flushing toilets, sinks with electric hand dryers. We had died and gone to heaven!

We didn’t exit the building the way we had entered, which meant that at long last we found ourselves on the other side of the Air & Space Museum. This had been our goal about four hours earlier. Finally, we could see the Mall. 

As we made our way through the crowd, we were swept up in a tsunami. Where are they going? Gretchen and I looked at each other and said, “Let’s go with them.” As if we had a choice. 

We gradually realized that we were headed toward Pennsylvania Avenue, and we were in the middle of the protest march. This was the third turning point of the day for me. All the other discomforts of the day paled in comparison to the way it felt to march toward the home of the most powerful man in the world with people who were making it clear that we would resist any abuse of that power. 

A few times I had tears as I thought about the enormity of the moment. Marching beside my daughter, and knowing sisters and brothers were marching with me all around the world, I was caught up in something so much bigger than myself, or even this moment. This was why I had come. 

There was plenty of humor along the way. I wish I could show you some of the signs I saw, but I was savoring the moment rather than trying to capture it all on my cell phone. I also wish I could remember some of the things we were chanting along the way, but I can’t recall any of them. I only remember that sometimes they were defiant, and other times they were hysterical. Mostly, it felt good to be with so many people who felt as strongly as I do about the future of our country. 

I will never forget how deflated and defeated I felt on election night. Our march down Pennsylvania Avenue has filled my soul again. This is a great country! Always has been, always will be. Political powers will come and go, but basic principles of love, justice and human decency will get us through whatever comes. And the struggle will make us stronger. I’m thankful to be a part of it.

Following & Fishing

Preached at Ascension January 2, 2017.

“Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Really? No questions asked?

Well, I have a few questions… Like, are we sure Jesus didn’t already know these guys before that day? After all, he was living in the same town with them. Or wouldn’t it have been irresponsible for them to leave their family business, to drop everything and follow some wandering rabbi? Wouldn’t that have been leaving their families in the lurch?

From the text itself, all we have to go on are the simple words, “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”
Immediately is one of Matthew’s favorite words. Nothing happens in its good old sweet time. Everything happens immediately. There is an urgency to the gospel message that can’t wait. “Repent for the Kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus says. Not someday in the future. It’s here, now.

So, the crucial question for us to answer is this one: Does Jesus also call us to follow him? And, a follow-up question: does following him mean fishing for people?

The answer to the first question is easy. Yes, Jesus also calls us to follow him. But the second question is a little more complicated. If following Jesus involves fishing for people, what does that look like in Towson, Maryland in the year 2017?

If you were here last Sunday, you may remember that I talked about evangelism, sharing the good news, and how it’s not coercion or manipulation. It’s an invitation to come and see Jesus. When we invite in love at Ascension—which is the first part of our stated mission—when we invite in love, it’s not so we can get more people in the pews and more dollars in the offering plate. It’s so they can come and see Jesus. So they can see Jesus in us.

We all have opportunities to share our faith with others. This is something that’s not best done by accosting strangers on the street. It’s done in the context of relationships.

When I read today’s gospel lesson, I imagine Jesus already had a relationship with Peter and Andrew/James and John before he called them. He may have had a conversation with them about becoming his disciples. They may have even known he was coming that day. They may have discussed it with their families before walking away from the family business. Then, Jesus arrives on the scene to tell them it’s time to go. That makes sense to me, because sharing the good news happens within the context of relationships.

It may be a coworker, a family member, a spouse, a grandchild, a friend at school. When we share our faith with them, we don’t come at them with canned answers and tell them how it is.

First, we listen. We try hard to understand what it’s like to be the other person. And then we share our faith with them like one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. And then, we accompany them in their journey.

You’re here today because you recognize, as people of faith, that it’s important for you to be a part of a Christian community. That was important to Jesus, too. He didn’t do individualized instruction on how to live into the Kingdom of God. He gathered people around him so that they could live into God’s Kingdom together.

The Kingdom of God was so radically different than the world around them that they had to band together or they were dead meat. Of course, this is just as true for us today. 

And so, we invite people to come and see what it looks like for a community to strive to follow the Jesus Way in the world.

There is a difference between inviting people to see Jesus and marketing our product to consumers. But here’s the thing about that. We also want to make it as easy as possible for people to enter into a relationship with Jesus. That means we don’t throw roadblocks in their way. So there are things we do. We wear nametags to let new people know they’re welcome, we use social media effectively, we do the best we can to offer a worship experience that reflects what the relationship we have with Jesus means to us.

Church leaders have been expending a lot of energy lately trying to reach young adults, who are leaving the church in unprecedented numbers. Yeah, I know, it’s typical for young adults to wander away for a while, explore alternative religions, whatever. But that’s not what’s going on with today’s millennials, people who are under 30ish. There is a generational difference.

Research says that among people who are 18 to 29 and were raised in the church, 59% have dropped out. Those are church kids.

They have serious complaints about church, based on their experience. When naming some of the reasons why they don’t go to church, 87% say they see Christians as judgmental. 85% say Christians are hypocritical. 70% say Christians are insensitive to others. 91% say Christians are anti-homosexual. And they don’t want to be associated with people who are judgmental, hypocritical, insensitive, anti-homosexual.

That’s a good thing. It means we raised them right. But church people need to seriously look at the Jesus they are embodying to the world. Is it actually Jesus?

The author Rachel Held Evans has a lot to say about her experience with the church, as a millennial herself. She writes about how many churches have sought to lure millennials back by focusing on style points: cool bands, hip worship, edgy programs, impressive technology. And while these aren’t bad ideas, they aren’t the key to drawing millennials back to God in a lasting and meaningful way. She says, “Young people don’t simply want a better show. And trying to be cool might be making it worse.”

This is reflected in recent research from the Barna Group, where they found that 67 percent of millennials prefer a “classic” church over a “trendy” one, and 77 percent would choose a “sanctuary” over an “auditorium.” The researcher David Kinnaman notes that millennials “are not disillusioned with tradition; they are frustrated with slick or shallow expressions of religion.”

Rachel Held Evans says it so eloquently: “If young people are looking for congregations that authentically practice the teachings of Jesus in an open and inclusive way, then the good news is the church already knows how to do that. The trick isn’t to make church cool; it’s to keep worship weird.

“You can get a cup of coffee with your friends anywhere, but church is the only place you can get ashes smudged on your forehead as a reminder of your mortality. You can be dazzled by a light show at a concert on any given weekend, but church is the only place that fills a sanctuary with candlelight and hymns on Christmas Eve. You can snag all sorts of free swag for brand loyalty online, but church is the only place where you are named a beloved child of God with a cold plunge into the water.

“You can share food with the hungry at any homeless shelter, but only the church teaches that a shared meal brings us into the very presence of God.

“In other words, a church can have a sleek logo and Web site, but if it’s judgmental and exclusive, if it fails to show the love of Jesus to all, millennials will sniff it out. Our reasons for leaving have less to do with style and image and more to do with substantive questions about life, faith and community.”

Millenials are a gift to the church because they are forcing us to be the people Jesus calls us to be. What they’re looking for is what we’re all looking for in a faith community… authenticity. Are these people the real deal or not?

As followers of Jesus who are called to share our faith with others, we can’t ignore this. How will we, as individuals and as a faith community, embody the Jesus the world needs to see?