Monday, January 30, 2017

An Afternoon in a Refugee Camp

The refugee camp in Bijelo Polje, 2004.
When I was fifteen, I visited a refugee camp in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I don't remember much about it--- I think the people there were refugees from Kosovo maybe? I don't remember much what the camp director told us about how the camp ran, how many people were there, how long people could expect to be there. But I do remember the children in the camp. How we tried to play games with them but really the kids were clinging to us so tightly we could barely move our arms to toss a ball, and the ball would come right back to us. My sister, who was fourteen then, said she still remembers the face of the little girl who held her hand the entire time. She remembers trying to get her to play but she'd just smile, shake her head and just hold her hand. I remember not all the children had shoes, but perhaps it was just because it was summer? I remember the concrete everywhere--- different from the images of tent cities with blue UN tarps like we usually see on TV nowadays. But this camp was concrete encased in a chain link fence. I remember the faces of the children pressed into the fence as we left.

The woman who translated for us while we were in Bosnia went on to work in a local school there and I remember her telling me that the children at that camp went to her school. So these refugees had different opportunities than ones crossing the sea or living in a tent on a border somewhere. But whenever I hear about refugees in the news, I remember the feel of tiny hands gripping mine with fierce longing. I remember the faces of children so desperate to be treated as something other than a criminal or a burden or unwanted that they were willing to attach themselves to a stranger like me who could not even remotely speak their language or, let's be realistic, throw or catch a ball.

And so when the president of my country issues an executive order banning refugees from entering the country for 120 days--- except those from Syria who will be banned indefinitely--- I get angry. How dare we prioritize a mythical concept of safety over the lives of children? I remember the faces of the kids watching us leave--- those were not the faces of terrorists. Those were not the faces of threats to our national security. They were the faces of children wondering why they lived in a cage. Wondering when they would have a home. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, 65.3 million people around the world have been forced from their homes, including nearly 21.3 million refugees. Over half of refugees are under the age of 18. These are the people we are really rejecting.

So let's stop allowing our politicians to feed us lies about our safety and instead embrace our fellow human beings. Call your representatives. Financially support organizations working with refugees. Reach out to local organizations that help with resettlement (if you are in the Baltimore area, check out the Refugee Youth Project). Pray and work for a world where people are not forced from their homes in pursuit of peace and stability. Remember that it is not our safety that is a concern but the safety of these children in camps.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The people who walk in darkness

Upper Chesapeake Medical Center has restarted a perinatal bereavement support group. I was the first speaker, and the group ended up being relaxed and informal, but this is what I had prepared to say.

In the last year, I have had two miscarriages. The last one was only a few weeks ago. We have been trying to have children for over two years. And I should tell you I am a pastor, so this is a busy time of year for me. It is Advent, the season of preparing our hearts and minds for the coming of Christ by remembering and even reenacting the birth of a baby. It's also a season of waiting.

Does this sound like a super fun time of year for a person dealing with the death of babies and wondering when, if ever, she will ever get pregnant again?

Hint: it's not.

One of the scriptures we read during Advent that I usually open Christmas Eve services with is from the prophet Isaiah. He writes, The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined (Isaiah 9:2). He writes about the Israelites, desperately hoping for a new reign of peace and prosperity after life under the oppression of the Assyrian Empire. Christians read it as the anticipation of Jesus's birth. And it is a scripture that has been sticking with me in this season. Because I feel like those people who walked in darkness--- not (necessarily) because of politics, but because of grief.

I knew I was going to have a miscarriage my first pregnancy. We had conceived on Christmas day last year, which is probably more information than you need to know, but this was after over a year of trying and my desperation was so strong that I basically missed a day of work every month when I got my period because all I could do was sit around and cry. When we learned we were going to have a Christmas baby, it seemed too perfect. I didn't trust it. Perhaps that says something about my faith, you can analyze that later, but this moment should have felt like dawn after a long night. Instead it just felt like more darkness. That is until just before the eighth week, when I finally started picking out baby names and researching potential Halloween costumes. Finally, that light seemed to be shining! And then I had a miscarriage. I remember sitting in the car on the way to the emergency room on my husband's twenty-ninth birthday while he prayed for us and he was still praying that our baby would be okay. I had no such hope. I already knew our baby was gone.

Now the days after our miscarriage were not as dark as that day. I could feel hope again. After all, we hadn't been sure we could get pregnant naturally but we did. And when it started to get dark again, after not getting pregnant for seven months on our own and with some help, the day of the baby's due date ended up being another experience of renewal that let some light seep in. And then I got pregnant again, a week after my first due date, and, even though I was cautious, I allowed myself to hope this time. To hold my belly and talk to the baby. To again try and decide on a middle name for a boy. But I only allowed myself to hope a little bit. I had grown accustomed to the dark.

I miscarried again. And this time I saw no light. And when people reminded me that God was still with me, and that I have a wonderful supportive husband and church, and that I have so much to be thankful for, I just got more bitter. I wanted to be left alone in my grief. My eyes adjusted to the darkness and my heart adjusted to hopelessness.

But I don't think hopelessness is all the darkness of pregnancy and infant loss can teach me, and maybe teach us. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again...”1
 
One of those things I have learned is the power of community. I have always believed that community is beautiful, but it was not until I was stumbling in this darkness myself that I actually experienced it saving me. Like just his past Tuesday, when I was exhausted and ran into a family acquaintance in a hospital waiting room while looking for one of my parishioners. She asked me which of my sisters had lost the baby. I burst into tears when I told her it was me, not one of my sisters, even though I thought I was doing so well with not crying in public. But while I tried to blink back tears, she took my hand and told me about how between her two children, she lost five pregnancies. She told me about how her son was a twin, but his twin died at seventeen weeks. She had to carry the dead baby within her as she carried the living one. And she told me this story not with triumph, not with the smile and “See, one day you will have a beautiful baby too just like I did,” end to the story. She told me her story just to let me know I was not alone, and she had cried too, so many times.

I want to run the show. I want to be able to plan my pregnancies the way my mother did, when she decided she never wanted to be pregnant in the summer again, so my sisters' birthdays are June 1 and June 3. I want my doctor to tell me the next IUI will work. I want to know when I get that positive on the pregnancy stick that I will be pregnant for forty weeks, not seven or eight. But we don't run the show. We don't have control over our ovulation or the quality of our eggs. We don't have control over crying in the middle of a hospital waiting room with an almost stranger. But when I stop trying to control the outcome, I might start to see beauty and goodness in the light there is, even if it isn't the kind of light I wanted or expected. Like the beauty and goodness there was in sitting with a woman, listening to her story and not feeling so alone anymore.

The darkness of pregnancy and infant loss is horrible. I would give up this journey in exchange for a baby in a heartbeat. But there is still goodness in the midst of the horribleness, still light in the darkness, even if it is a just faint glow. And I believe that is because the darkness is not dark to God, as Psalm 139 tells us. To God, the night is as bright as day. God can work the good from even terrible situations. God can help us see beauty by that faint starlight even when the sun isn't shining.

So though even today I do not expect to see a great light, to feel the warmth of a smile on my face when I get to hold my baby for the first time, I know that this darkness we walk in the meantime is not just a place of death and hopelessness. That we can learn to walk in the dark, and to reach out to our siblings in this journey and help them walk too. And maybe together we will find that even the night can be bright.



1Barabara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 5.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Joy Happens In Relationship

This is  a sermon from Presbury United Methodist Church's Mismatched Nativity series. 


Scripture: Luke 1:39-58 (NRSV)
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home. 

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 

Sermon: 
Let us pray:  
Patient teacher, we probably don't all feel very joyful this morning. Maybe we are worried about a loved one in the hospital. Maybe we saw our credit card bill and are trying to figure out how long it will take to pay it off. Maybe we just got a bad night's sleep. There are so many things that keep us from rejoicing in you. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts show us how near you are today. For that is good news indeed. Amen.      

We are continuing our sermon series on a Mismatched Nativity. You can come up after worship, or just see from your seats that this Nativity is composed of many different sets, and many from places like Haiti and South Africa. Of course, there are also gnome and Snoopy nativities represented, so it is a bit of a strange concoction here. But it serves as a visual reminder for what we have been talking about--- these characters from the story of Jesus' birth were not so different from us. Their lives are not perfect. They had problems like we do. They messed up once or twice in their lives--- but, even if you aren't convinced they did mess up, everyone around them thought they did and judged them for it, made their lives harder for it. Zechariah prayed but really didn’t have hope. Mary was less pure and holy than spunky and courageous. Today, we are talking about Elizabeth, a person of faith who experienced joy but also still felt fear and anxiety, just like many of us do.    

Our scripture today is about joy pure and simple, from Mary to Elizabeth and back again. But remember that joy and happiness are not the same thing. We are not talking about a sense of contentment, like after a long day when you finally get to put your feet up and relax. We are not talking about the feeling of pleasure we experience when eating our favorite food. We are not talking about the warm fluttery feeling like the kind you get in your stomach when you realize the next Star Wars movie is out next week. Or maybe you don't get that feeling, but I do! Joy is a deeper feeling than those even though it is sometimes fleeting. Joy is a kind of resistance and resilience. Joy transforms us, and shows us possibilities we once thought impossible.     

Let's just look more carefully at Mary and Elizabeth's story. If we picture these women at all, which, let's face it, Elizabeth and Zechariah are left out of the Nativity so often we don't think of them as being a part of the story--- but if we picture these women, we picture halos and light, big smiles and big bellies. Scripture doesn't exactly tell us otherwise, though it does suggest that Mary probably did not have a big belly yet, but I wonder if the halos and smiles put us off from the part of the story we can best relate to--- that Mary and Elizabeth were afraid.     

We aren't really sure why Mary set out and went with haste to see Elizabeth. Yes, the angel had given her the good news, but it wasn't like she had a car and could just run over with cake and balloons. Rev. Adam Hamilton in his bible study about the geography of the story of Jesus' birth says that the journey by foot between Mary's and Elizabeth's homes could have taken nine days. He writes, “The fact that Mary was willing to travel nine days across three mountain ranges [hill country, the scripture tell us, remember] to see Elizabeth speaks volumes about how she was feeling. She longed for someone who might believe her and who could help her make sense of what was happening.”1     

Now in those days, women would often journey to family member's homes to help with pregnancy, delivery, and taking care of the newborn baby. It was probably not out of the ordinary for Mary to go on such a journey, or at least women Mary's age. But I have a friend who has another theory. She believes that Mary was kicked out by angry and frightened parents. We really have no idea, but think about it--- how many of you would believe a teenager, even the sweetest, most innocent teenager you know, if they told you that the Holy Spirit impregnated them with God? Maybe they got angry and sent Mary away, to wait until her delusion had passed or to negotiate with Joseph's family so no violence would befall Mary, since the law at that time, whether or not it was enforced, was to stone a woman who had committed adultery, even against her betrothed. Whatever you believe, I think these possibilities tell us that this journey to Elizabeth's house was not taken by Mary while she was skipping and singing to woodland animals like a Disney princess. She was afraid and uncertain. Her courage in agreeing to serve God was waning in the face of very real fears and anxieties.     

And Elizabeth, she was also full of fear and anxiety, despite the faith she exhibited when we read about Zechariah a few weeks ago. Of course, I could be projecting my own experiences onto Elizabeth, but two different people I talked to this week who had multiple losses and struggled with infertility agreed with me, so this is not isolated. As much as Elizabeth wanted to become pregnant, as much as she realized our God is a God of miracles, for those who experience pregnancy loss and infertility, pregnancy is scary. Every time I told someone I was pregnant this last time--- which was only a few people because I was so scared--- I burst into tears. And not happy tears. Every time someone responded with congratulations, I didn't feel like I could accept it yet. I felt like I was holding my breath--- and I could tell Aaron was too. I remembered seeing people post pictures not of 12 week sonograms but of the actual pregnancy test just weeks after conception and could not fathom how you could share something that was so uncertain.     

Elizabeth, you may remember from the beginning of chapter one of Luke's Gospel, went into seclusion for the five months after she conceived. Even though she was a woman of deep faith, a woman who proclaimed, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” Elizabeth felt like she was holding her breath. Did Zechariah really have a vision? Did God really mean this baby would be the one, or maybe she would miscarry and have another? God's time isn't our time after all. Even though she had faith, she was afraid. Rev. Hamilton points out that, “It seems to have been Mary's visit that drew Elizabeth out of her seclusion. Mary needed Elizabeth, but perhaps Elizabeth also needed Mary.”2     

Mary and Elizabeth were not these majestic superwomen who could do anything and everything easily and without any fear or worry just because God called them to do it. They were people full of faith, people seeking to love God more. And as people of faith, when their belief waned, when their fear reared it's head, they reached out to one another. And that reaching out made their faith even stronger. That reaching out gave them joy, true joy, based on the knowledge that they were not alone. That God was with them, helping them to see beauty and goodness even in the difficult things.3     

“Joy happens in relationship.”4 There isn't some magic formula for joy, some specific prayer or action that only haloed people with big smiles can experience. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child that would become John the Baptist leaped in her womb. But her heart leaped too. And she finally felt the presence of the Lord again stronger than her fear and anxiety over her pregnancy. She blessed Mary, crying out to her in joy, which then prompted the most joyful song in all of scripture, at least to me. The Magnificat. With Elizabeth's blessing, Mary was able to let joy fill her again after over a week of walking and worrying, seeking a friend. She knew God had remembered her because Elizabeth did--- not as a teenage mom, but as a person blessed by God.     

Do you have a person like Elizabeth and Mary had? A friend who is there to help you find God when it is hard, a friend who can help you hear God's voice when you can't? That is what this week was for me, from church people to life-long friends, to Muslim women, to a virtual stranger in a hospital waiting room, I encountered people like like Elizabeth, who emerged from their own pain to speak a word of blessing upon me.     

This is a congregation full of Elizabeths and Marys who need to take the journey to reach out to one another in love and let God transform them. So let us open our hearts to the joy God already has in store for us. In the spirit of reaching out, I invite you to turn to your neighbor and rejoice together, as Elizabeth and Mary did together. Offer one another signs of God's joy!    

1Adam Hamilton, The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2011), 63.     
2Ibid., 65.     
3I thought about this following a comment on The Young Clergy Women Project Facebook Group, posted 1 December 2016, accessed 10 December 2016.   
4Another comment this time on the YCWs Preach the Narrative Lectionary Facebook Group, posted 10 December 2016, accessed 10 December 2016.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Tear Down this Wall

Today is November 9. It is 27 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I've been to the Berlin Wall. I've seen the bits of it left standing, surrounded by modern buildings, covered in colorful graffiti. It seems so much smaller, almost quaint. But still it is eerie, to imagine the rest of the wall, sprouting along the trail, marking where it once was. I went to the Checkpoint Charlie museum, witnessed story after harrowing story of how people from East Berlin would escape into West Berlin, how they would escape into freedom. And often into the arms of loved ones long separated by the unforgiving concrete. 

Of course, it isn't too hard to imagine the rest of the wall, imagine the watchtowers with guns pointing toward the wall, the barbed wire, the bare ground between living spaces and the wall. It isn't hard because I have seen the wall in between the USAmerican and Mexican border. Now this wall isn't as much concrete as metal, jutting out of the earth in between families and communities. Graffiti and art installations still decorate that wall, but only on the Mexican side. The other side, the side of the land of the free and the home of the brave, is all guns and barbed wire. Though nowadays, graffiti covers both sides of the wall in Berlin, the museum speaks of the same, stark militarism that was once on the Soviet side of the wall. The USAmerican side was full of art, tributes to those walled off. The reversal of roles in our country today is unsettling.

Today, 27 years after the joy of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we woke up to find the president-elect of the USA is the candidate who promised another wall. "Build the wall," became the chant at his rallies. One of his big campaign promises from the beginning has been to stop the flow of immigration from the south. But when I hear the chant, "Build the Wall," I think of Berlin, split down the middle between freedom and totalitarianism. I think of craning my neck to see the sky over the wire topping the fence of the existing wall in Mexico. I think of fear and loss. And I wish that instead of chanting, "Build the wall," we were echoing (Republican!) President Ronald Regan's words, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

The work we have to do now, post-election, is this work of tearing down walls. Of putting this wall, and this whole campaign, in context with our shared history. Yes, there are some who feel disenfranchised, disenchanted, who wanted a big upset and change when they voted for the new president-elect. But now that the election is over, we need to step back and remember the reason we once fought against one wall. We need to spend some time tearing down instead of building up. Tearing down our walls, walls of hostility between white people and Muslims/Latinx/Black/queer/the-list-goes-on people, and the actual physical walls that divide families and communities. The actual physical walls that, even if they are built by the USA, fit seamlessly with a history of tyranny we ascribed once to the Soviet Union.

Because tonight is also the anniversary of Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass, when in 1938, people attacked synagogues and Jewish businesses in Germany, a pogrom announcing what would become the Holocaust. Glass shards splintered in the streets, inside buildings, marking the shattered ideal of community and safety. The shattered ideal of freedom. Could this be a possible outcome of this election? The rhetoric of this campaign season, 78 years after Kristallnacht, has been violent, pitting races against each other. While our president-elect has not called for a night of Broken Glass against Muslims or Latinx, in the fearful and violent world we live in it would not be far to journey to such a night. But we can still tear down walls of hatred before we shatter our ideals of freedom.

I was only two years old when the Berlin Wall fell, but I grew up listening to my parents talking about the power of the images of people with sledgehammers descending on the wall. You could buy pieces of the wall--- and I know many people who still have a piece. The crumbled wall was a symbol of freedom, of reuniting families. Of the Spirit of Democracy. Not like the shattered glass on Kristallnacht, symbols of division and hatred. But it is up to us what we will choose to build up and what we will tear down.

Tear Down this Wall

Today is November 9. It is 27 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I've been to the Berlin Wall. I've seen the bits of it left standing, surrounded by modern buildings, covered in colorful graffiti. It seems so much smaller, almost quaint. But still it is eerie, to imagine the rest of the wall, sprouting along the trail, marking where it once was. I went to the Checkpoint Charlie museum, witnessed story after harrowing story of how people from East Berlin would escape into West Berlin, how they would escape into freedom. And often into the arms of loved ones long separated by the unforgiving concrete. 

Of course, it isn't too hard to imagine the rest of the wall, imagine the watchtowers with guns pointing toward the wall, the barbed wire, the bare ground between living spaces and the wall. It isn't hard because I have seen the wall in between the USAmerican and Mexican border. Now this wall isn't as much concrete as metal, jutting out of the earth in between families and communities. Graffiti and art installations still decorate that wall, but only on the Mexican side. The other side, the side of the land of the free and the home of the brave, is all guns and barbed wire. Though nowadays, graffiti covers both sides of the wall in Berlin, the museum speaks of the same, stark militarism that was once on the Soviet side of the wall. The USAmerican side was full of art, tributes to those walled off. The reversal of roles in our country today is unsettling.

Today, 27 years after the joy of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we woke up to find the president-elect of the USA is the candidate who promised another wall. "Build the wall," became the chant at his rallies. One of his big campaign promises from the beginning has been to stop the flow of immigration from the south. But when I hear the chant, "Build the Wall," I think of Berlin, split down the middle between freedom and totalitarianism. I think of craning my neck to see the sky over the wire topping the fence of the existing wall in Mexico. I think of fear and loss. And I wish that instead of chanting, "Build the wall," we were echoing (Republican!) President Ronald Regan's words, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

The work we have to do now, post-election, is this work of tearing down walls. Of putting this wall, and this whole campaign, in context with our shared history. Yes, there are some who feel disenfranchised, disenchanted, who wanted a big upset and change when they voted for the new president-elect. But now that the election is over, we need to step back and remember the reason we once fought against one wall. We need to spend some time tearing down instead of building up. Tearing down our walls, walls of hostility between white people and Muslims/Latinx/Black/queer/the-list-goes-on people, and the actual physical walls that divide families and communities. The actual physical walls that, even if they are built by the USA, fit seamlessly with a history of tyranny we once ascribed to Soviets.

Because tonight is also the anniversary of Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass, when in 1938, people attacked synagogues and Jewish businesses in Germany, a pogrom announcing what would become the Holocaust. Glass shards splintered in the streets, inside buildings, marking the shattered ideal of community and safety. The shattered ideal of freedom. Could this be a possible outcome of this election? The rhetoric of this campaign season, 78 years after Kristallnacht, has been violent, pitting races against each other. While our president-elect has not called for a night of Broken Glass against Muslims or Latinx, in the fearful and violent world we live in it would not be far to journey to such a night. But we can still tear down walls of hatred before we shatter our ideals of freedom.

I was only two years old when the Berlin Wall fell, but I grew up listening to my parents talking about the power of the images of people with sledgehammers descending on the wall. You could buy pieces of the wall--- and I know many people who still have a piece. The crumbled wall was a symbol of freedom, of reuniting families. Of the Spirit of Democracy. Not like the shattered glass on Kristallnacht, symbols of division and hatred. But it is up to us what we will choose to build up and what we will tear down.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Spontaneous Abortion, Shame, and Politics

I went to my reproductive endocrinologist the day after my miscarriage. She was wonderful and comforting, especially after a traumatic experience in the ER. But as we went to leave, she handed me a summary of the visit, in which I discovered that under my medical history, these words were now listed:
spontaneous abortion

That's the medical term for miscarriage. Spontaneous abortion. And I was shocked by the way my gut seemed to bunch up as I read those words, how tight my throat got, and how I kept sneaking a look at that part of the paper again and again wishing those words would disappear. I was shocked because I have been pro-choice my whole life. I have always supported a woman's right to choose what to do with her own body, have even been a one-issue voter for choice, interned for pro-choice organizations. My mother is pro-choice. My father is pro-choice. And yet when I saw that word abortion, I felt shame.

Already, I was feeling like a failure. Not only did my body have enormous difficulty getting pregnant, but when I did finally, blessedly, conceive, my body could not bring that baby to full term. My doctor had already assured me there was absolutely nothing I did wrong--- even kind of rolling her eyes at the idea that stress could have caused my miscarriage. She assured me that miscarriage is a natural, even if horrible, biological response to a non-viable pregnancy. But I still wondered. What if I hadn't eaten that spicy guacamole that one time? What if I put my feet up more? Did I drink too much coffee? Did I eat too much sugar? What was wrong with me?

Yes, the shame was partially a result of my perfectionism, my frustration with my lack of "success" rather than understanding what happened as natural. But a lot of the shame around the word abortion comes not from my own attempts to control my body but from the church.

I love the church. I am a pastor and a pastor's kid. But The United Methodist Church recently broke our relationship with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Freedom. My friends growing up were pro-life, my college religious group was pro-life, many in my current faith community (both congregation and county-wide) are pro-life. And I saw the agreements on Facebook after a certain political candidate commented on abortion. Speak for those who have no voice. God is a God of miracles. It's not your body... 

Abortion=Shame in the church world (even for those of us in the beautiful progressive church world in which abortion is not stigmatized, our voices aren't usually amplified enough). You did something wrong. You messed up His Perfect Plan. You are selfish. Even though I had a miscarriage, just the word association was enough to send me into a shame spiral. Which then made me wonder--- what about those women who had late-term abortions for the sake of their baby's and their own health? There are plenty of stories floating around in response to recent incorrect statements about late term abortion, stories of women who desperately wanted children but who, through counseling with family and their doctors, made the decision to end their pregnancy because their baby was suffering or they were suffering. Two of my friends, one of whom I have been trying to get to come to church, have made the awful decision to terminate very wanted pregnancies and shared the stories about it just this month. Often insurance does not cover abortive procedures, even in instances of fetal abnormality and maternal health, adding a financial burden to an already grieving family.

When you condemn abortion, for many women who hear your condemnation, you are just adding a little shame and stigma to an already shitty situation. You aren't speaking for those who don't have a voice. You aren't speaking out against murder. You aren't changing anyone's mind about abortion. You are triggering hurting people.

Women and our families don't need politicians telling us how awful abortion is. We need compassion; we need care. We need to make medical decisions with medical professionals. The words (and images and slogans) used against abortion are not often messages of truth and justice but weapons of shame and stigma. Instead, maybe we should practice a little more grace.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Prejudiced Prophets and Grace for All

A sermon preached at Presbury United Methodist Church.
Scripture: Jonah 3:1-10; 4:1,5-11
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.

...Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

Sermon:
Let us pray:
Patient teacher, we give you thanks for your gentle lessons, and your willingness to work with us even when we try to run away, like Jonah did, and even when we get angry with your judgment, like Jonah did. Help us to hear your wisdom in this story of grace and repentance. And help us to respond as the Ninevites did, not as your prophet did, so that we may always celebrate your mercy and steadfast love. Amen.

We all know the story of Jonah in the belly of the fish or whale. But do we really realize why Jonah ran away? It was not because Jonah just didn't want to. It was because he was deeply prejudiced.

Nineveh is introduced to us in scripture as wicked. If we go back further in scripture, we find that Nineveh is Israel’s enemy as the capitol of Assyria. In the books of Isaiah and Nahum, Nineveh is continually denounced by the prophets due to its wickedness. That is the whole reason why God wants to send Jonah in the first place: to tell the Ninevites they needed to repent. So maybe it isn't prejudice at first glance, right? He just doesn't want to be around wickedness condemned by God, right?

But listen to verse three of chapter one: when Jonah went the opposite direction of Nineveh, he went away from the presence of the Lord. He wasn't going away from wickedness. He was going away from God by avoiding the people God called him to help. Do we ever do that? A colleague of mine here in Harford County just told me a story about how he went down to pray in Baltimore with other clergy after the uprising, and he shared the experience with his congregation, since he had seen so much of God there. They didn't hear him. Instead they argued with him, telling him it was too dangerous to go, and besides why should they help people who don't want to help themselves? His congregation had their minds made up about Baltimore, like Jonah had his made up about Nineveh. And so they set their faces away from the presence of the Lord, away from the very real possibility of reconciliation and justice.

That's what this story is about. It is not about getting stuck in the belly of a fish and being spat back out when we are ready to do what God has called us to do, though that part of the story makes for good songs and cool imagery. This story is about possibility, about how God can transform the wicked Ninevites--- but even more about how God can transform a prejudiced prophet.

Jonah was not just prejudiced because he ran away from Nineveh. Look to the end of the scripture, the part we don't pay much attention to usually because we always talk about the fish part. The Ninevites hear the pronouncement on their wickedness. They listen to Jonah! And they repent. The whole city, humans and animals, fast and cover themselves in sackcloth and cry out to God. God hears them and has mercy on them. And that mercy made Jonah angry.

Oh Lord!” Jonah whines to try and cover up the cries of the Ninevites. “Is not this what I said when I was still in my own country. That is why I fled to Tarshish from the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. (Jonah 4:2-3). Then Jonah asks for death because, according to him, it is better to die than witness God's steadfast love and mercy transform those he despises. This is how small prejudice makes us--- how sick and warped and twisted it makes us. Jonah did not just try to go as far away from the people he hated as possible; he got angry when he saw that God loved them too. Jonah got angry that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

And God sighs. We read none of chapter two, but I encourage you to go home to read it. It is a poetic psalm of thanksgiving given by Jonah to God when Jonah was in the belly of the fish. Jonah laments, but he also names God as the one who brings us up from the Pit, who delivers us. Jonah has named God as deliverer, but yet he only wants God to deliver people like him. So God sighs when God listens to Jonah's whine. Rather than whacking Jonah upside the head, as I think Jonah needed, God made a bush. Jonah was out sulking outside the city, hoping God would change God’s mind and destroy the city anyway, and God created a big beautiful bush to shade Jonah while he sulked. But the next day God had the bush whither, leaving Jonah exposed to the heat. Which set Jonah off again. After listening to Jonah's rant, God pointed out Jonah's failing. Jonah had more love for a piece of shrubbery that he only knew for a day than he did for a city full of living creatures, living creatures created by God. We don't know what happened after God corrected Jonah. We do not know if Jonah repented, or if he went on sulking. But the story ends, leaving it open as a question: how would we respond? If God pointed out our prejudice and our failings to us, would we respond with repentance, or would we go on doing what we always have?

Either way, here's the thing: even filled with prejudice, God used Jonah to bring about grace and mercy. Even we, with all of our failings, can be used to bring about God's grace and mercy. If I were God, I would not want to work with a whiney guy like Jonah. But then again, Aaron could probably tell you that I can be a tad whiney myself sometimes. Guess what? God's grace extends even to whiners. The grace in this story is not just for the Ninevites, but also for Jonah. God did not give up on Jonah: insisting Jonah go where God called Jonah to go, and even coming up with a gentle lesson to help Jonah get why the Ninevites were so important. God does the same for us.

We can just make God's job a lot easier by opening our hearts in the first place.

I have been talking the last few weeks about church growth. I haven't really said the words “church growth” often, but that is what we have been talking about. I told you we would be completing a survey, trying to figure out what our next steps are as a congregation. You may be wondering what church growth has to do with Jonah. It is that openness, opening our hearts to everyone God loves, is necessary to growth.

Now, you may feel you are already a very open person. That you aren't prejudiced like Jonah, so crippled by cultural ideas of who is worthy of salvation and who is not that we would go in the opposite direction of where God is calling you. I know you all, and I know you have good hearts and mean well. I would hope you would say the same about me. But. Have you been on Facebook lately? And I know not all of you are on social media--- have you watched the news lately? You might not feel very prejudiced at the moment, but what if I showed you a bunch of pro-Trump memes and you are for Hillary? Or vice versa? How long does it take for you to talk to someone on the other end of the political spectrum from you before you write them off as stupid?

That's just one example. Even if we can escape overt sins of racism or sexism or classism, our culture seems to have lost the ability to have conversation and form relationships over partisan lines. If you are pro-police, you cannot listen to Black Lives Matter activist because they are wrong wrong wrong. If you are pro-choice, you cannot listen to someone who is pro-life because they are wrong wrong wrong. We do not believe that the group we are against can turn from their evil ways. If they actually do turn out to be nice people, this can be very displeasing to us, and we can become angry.

But remember what God tells us. Those people we disagree with are people God has created, just as God created the Ninevites, and God has offered them the gift of grace and redemption. Maybe, rather than getting all frustrated about what our brother-in-law or cousin or neighbor is posting on Facebook, we can talk to them about God's grace, which is something we need just as much as they do. That's how we can grow the church. By reaching out across our differences and sharing in God's grace.

So who do you need to share grace with? Who are your Ninevites? And when are you going to invite them to church?

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

After the flood you set in the clouds a rainbow: more reflections on miscarriage

I left my hair down because I am vain and thought I would look better in the pictures. In like three seconds, my hair was pasted to the side of my face and neck, supposedly waterproof eyeliner melting down my cheeks. My flimsy blue pancho caught the wind from the force of water hitting water as though it were a sail. Other tourists pressed in against us as we had the coveted spot front and center of the ship deck. Selfie sticks swarmed around us, and we couldn't hear a thing because of the rumbling of the falls before us and the boat's engine beneath us. It was an experience quite unlike the baptisms I celebrate as a pastor, where I bring a nervous but steady person in front of a quiet congregation and sprinkle water from a small bowl onto their foreheads. But this--- mist from Niagara Falls coalescing on my face, filling my shoes, and trickling down the front of my shirt as I leaned against the bow of the Maid of the Mist tourboat with Aaron at my back--- this felt like a baptism. As the spray fell across my face, I remembered my baptism and was thankful.

Thankfulness is a spiritual practice I have been clinging to in my grief, but today I was not intending to thank anyone for anything. I was going to hold Aaron's hand, walk a ridiculous amount, see Niagara Falls, and do anything and everything to distract myself. Because today, we should not be taking a spur-of-the-moment day trip to Niagara Falls--- we should be welcoming a baby into our home. Today is the due date for our first baby.

But our baby died.

Our baby died, meanwhile life has gone on and it seems like everyone else is pregnant and I am supposed to be happy for them. I have spent much of the last week angry, enraged really, and done with everything. I want to run away. I just want Aaron and I to go off and be hermits alone somewhere where we are far enough away from other humans that I can scream whenever I want and not disturb the neighbors. But today was different. Today, on the day when I was trying to distract myself from death, I felt new life.

Now sometimes with grief some events are easier than others. Sometimes anniversaries are easier than the mundane, every day part of grief. The most hope I have ever felt through this whole shitty two-year journey of loss and infertility was actually the day of my miscarriage. Perhaps this due date was just an easier grief, and next month when (I mean if?) I find out that my fertility treatments did not work again I will find myself wanting to smash glass, burn things, and rip out my uterus to drop-kick it. But today, I could breathe. I could sense God's arms wrapped around me. I could feel hope.

In The United Methodist Church's liturgy of thanksgiving over the water for baptism, we pray, remembering the story of Noah, "After the flood you set in the clouds a rainbow." The rainbow is a promise. Not that everything will be easy--- because even though the destruction we experience on the earth today is not caused by God as the flood was said to be, our world is certainly just as violent and horrific. And even though babies born after miscarriages are called rainbow babies, I do not believe God has promised me a rainbow baby. But in the rainbows dancing around Niagara Falls, I knew that God has promised and is promising to be with me. God continues to offer me new life, abundant life, cutting through the fog of grief  to incorporate me by the Holy Spirit into God's new creation. And the God of all grace will establish me and strengthen me that I may live in grace and peace. May God do the same for us all.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Building on Faith: A Devotion for Habitat for Humanity

Habitat for Humanity International invites us all to take part in Building on Faith Week, Sept. 11-18, 2016. Faith leaders from around Harford and Cecil counties contributed devotions and prayers on the theme of unity for our local affiliate. We will feature one of these prayers each day during this coming week. 

We will celebrate Building on Faith Week in Edgewood, which has also been named our Unity Build. Affiliates from across the country are joining efforts to bring people of all faiths, no faith, all ages and abilities together to help build affordable homes for our neighbors through their own Unity Builds. 

Scripture: Ephesians 2:10 (NIV)
Presbury and our Habitat family before work!
“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

Devotion:
Power tools have a way of bringing people together. This summer, for the third year in a row, my church in Edgewood partnered with a few churches in Northern Harford County to bring our youth on a mission trip with Appalachia Service Project (ASP), where we do construction work and partner with families. On our team, we had youth from Edgewood putting up drywall alongside Duck Farmers and private school kids. We had geeks and goths and preppy students all roofing together. We had black and white kids, Methodists and Baptists and atheists, holding hands with our host families and blessing one another.

I am always amazed at the way people come together when we do good works. I love seeing how our identities and affiliations transform from walls that separate us from one another into blessings that we use to work together. But I really should not be surprised. For unity in our diversity is what God created us to do. In the book of Ephesians, we read, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” We are God's handiwork, God's works of art, in all our diversity. And we were created this way so we can work together to do good, to love and serve our neighbor in all that we do.

On this day when we remember the terror of the September 11, 2001, attacks, let us also remember what we learn in Ephesians. We are all God's handiwork, not created for fear, but for good works.

Prayer
O God, our creator, we give you thanks and praise for the beauty all around us, though so often we are blinded to it by the terror and violence in the world. Bring us together on this build, as you created us to be. May we be a blessing to one another today, and may we fill this house with the goodness for which you created us! Amen.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

A Litany for the Fifteenth Anniversary of the September 11 2001 Attacks

I wanted to write a litany for my congregation to remember the tragedy of 9/11 together. But I do not want us to think we are somehow unique in our experience of violence, or that we are justified to fight violence with violence. I want us to turn to scripture, to turn to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, to learn how we are to respond to terrorism.  

L: Let us lament together:
P: This should not have happened.
L: It was an ordinary day, but, if we were old enough, we remember where we were when we heard the news. We may have been looking on from a distance, as those women who followed Jesus did at his crucifixion. Feeling helpless. Devastated.
P: This should not have happened.
L: We have listened to the stories of first responders, hearts racing, bodies racing even faster to get to the top floors, many of them showing a greater love, laying down this lives for their friends.
P: This should not have happened.
L: We turned to one another as Cleopas did to a stranger, looking sad, saying, “Are you the only one who does not know the things that have taken place in these days?” And the world grieved with us.
P: This should not have happened.
L: But it did happen and it still does. We hear stories of bombings in cafes. And we see mass shootings in schools and churches and nightclubs and movie theaters on the news. We even hear whispers of drones bearing our own flag striking down civilians in far away countries. Terror knows no religious, cultural, geographical, or political boundaries. In this world drowning in fear, we call out today as Jesus did: “My God, my God why have you forsaken us?”
P: This should not keep happening.
L: But God has not forsaken us. God reminds us not to be afraid over and over again throughout scripture. When Jesus was resurrected, he broke into the upper room, locked by his terror-filled followers, and he breathed peace onto them. So Jesus does with us. And with that breath, we are given the responsibility to build the kingdom of God, to pass the peace of Christ, and to live the promise of resurrection.
P: And that is what we should do. And that is what we will do with the help of the Holy Spirit. Amen.