Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Another due date

Another due date. Still no baby.

I am not hopeful like I was on our last due date. In fact, we conceived our son a week after my last due date, but, like the first baby, he died too. All my babies are dead, and I have since discovered that without genetic testing of an embryo before implantation, we have a slim chance of ever having a living baby, especially because I can't get pregnant easily in the first place.

And yet, as I preached from Paul's Letter to the Romans 5:1-5 and Rebecca Solnit's book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities just two Sundays ago, hope is not the same as positivity and optimism. That kind of hope disappoints, as I have suffered three years to receive the gift that I have known I wanted since I was twenty-months-old and became a big sister for the first time. I know that no matter how much I may hope to bear a child, I may never become pregnant. And I am comforted that the medical end of our journey to become parents is in sight. But hope is really about action; it is about living into possibilities that we cannot begin to imagine, but that we can still influence in one way or another. As we begin this journey in our new house and new city with new jobs, we continue to act to build our family. Because those actions may influence us to become better parents and better Christians and better activists and more authentically ourselves. Because those actions may be a glimmer of light for someone else who is struggling. Because those actions are ways we can move forward in love for ourselves, love for others, and love for God.

I didn't notice until after we bought the house, but there is a maple tree and a scraggly pine tree framing our home. Both are the trees I remember my autumn and Christmas babies by.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

You are a child of God

You are a child of God.

No matter what people think about you. No matter what you think about yourself. You are a child of God, and no one--- NO ONE--- can separate you from God's love. That's what we were reminding ourselves of today at the spring meeting of the Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church.

The Judicial Council is like the Supreme Court of our church, and for years their docket has been filled with complaints pertaining to human sexuality. Today's meeting was no exception. However, these meetings are not usually open to the public, except today. Today, the Judicial Council heard oral arguments over whether or not the election of a married lesbian to the office of bishop in the Western Jurisdiction is lawful under our Book of Discipline. The bishop in question is Bishop Karen Oliveto, a fellow Drewid who I have worked with at General Conference and marched beside on the fiftieth anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,'s "I Had a Dream" speech. She is a true leader and one of the most pastoral people I have ever met. She is also one of the most Wesleyan! Today, one of my professors from Drew described her as "one of the best of us" clergy. It is heartbreaking and horrifying to listen to a fellow clergyperson from the South Central Jurisdiction continually using the words "null, void, unlawful" when speaking of the ministry and person of such an amazing child of God. But then, the Book of Discipline itself uses the phrase "incompatible with Christian teaching" in reference to same-gender loving people, so why should we be so surprised?

But in spite of witnessing the church at its worst in this trial, I also witnessed the church at its best. I have not been organizing with this particular church community at the last convocation or General Conference because of depression accompanying my infertility and miscarriages, turning me inward, sapping my energy. Today, though, a clergy colleague called me up and encouraged me to drive to New Jersey with her, and I am so glad we went. I got to see old friends and professors and classmates. I met people I have only met online and made new connections. I sang Mark Miller songs and received communion. I saw people who have been beaten down stand up straight and live into their calling. I was witness to the persistence of the resurrection. I witnessed how no matter how much death we might experience, God is still bringing about new life.

When we arrived, we stood in the lobby to pray before going into the hearing. And we started to sing: "No matter what people think. Think or say about you. You are a child, you are a child of God! No matter what the church days, decisions, pronouncements on you, You are a child, you are a child of God!" And as we sang, Bishop Oliveto and Robin walked out among us on their way to the room where the hearing was and stopped to greet us. Here they were, and many of us were, feeling discouraged. Perhaps wondering what life could possibly be found in this United Methodist Church. But the life was this community, sprouting up from a deep grounding in love to show how we can live as children of God.


Before we left, we received communion from the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus. The tables where the members of the Jurisdictional Conference sat were covered in rainbow stones and bread and juice. The room where words were uttered rejecting the movement of the Holy Spirit and the ministry of queer people was washed in songs about grace and tearing down walls. We reclaimed a space of death for new life where all people are recognized as children of God. We spoke the truth that there is nothing, no one, not even the church, that can separate us from the love of God.   

I am not hopeful about the future of the church based on the work of the Judicial Council or the Commission on a Way Forward. I am hopeful about the future of this church led by the amazing people I saw witnessing to the resurrection today.

Communion reclaiming Judicial Council space

Friday, April 14, 2017

Finished: A Good Friday Sermon

This year Presbury UMC worshiped with Lord of Life Church (ELCA) for Good Friday.


Scripture: John 19:25b-30 (NRSV)
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Sermon: Finished
Let us pray:
Patient teacher, we hear this story year after year. But even though it may be familiar to us, we ask that the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts startle us into transformation and new life. Amen.

Jesus was dying. The women watched as he, already brutalized, was dragged through the city. They watched as the nails went into his hands, as the cross was lifted up. Their eyesight may have been blurred as they wept, their hearing may have been obscured by their own wailing, but they knew what was happening to their beloved teacher, healer, and savior. They knew his life was finished, and, with it, theirs as well.

We have not been to public executions. They are considered barbaric, though of course this week I learned that the state of Arkansas prepares to put seven people to death in ten days because the drugs they use in executions are set to expire. And of course, you can see plenty of footage on Youtube documenting police shootings in our own country. And of course, we hear almost daily it seems of bombs being dropped, on our behalf we are told, in other parts of the world. But while with these reminders we may catch a glimpse the shame of public executions, the senseless violence of it, most of us do not really understand it. But we do understand pain. And the women at the foot of the cross in the Gospel of John are like we have been at one point or another or maybe like we are now, consumed by our own pain. Wondering how our lives could go on.

 And while the women stood there, hearts breaking, helpless, angry even, Jesus said, “It is finished.” And then he died. So what is finished?1 His life? We know that not to be the case. His work? Well, I don't know. Have you ever met someone needing healing, redemption, salvation? So then “it” couldn't refer to sin either, since we know there is still some sin left in the world, right? Maybe “it” meant pain, his and others? The women at the foot of the cross could tell you otherwise. We could tell you otherwise. 

Like so much of the Bible, the statement “It is finished” is open ended, resisting easy answers. So you may read it differently than I do. Tomorrow I may read it differently than I do today. But today, I think that Jesus didn't mean all pain was over when he declared, “It is finished.” He didn't mean sin was gone. We read this statement as an ending, but instead it is a beginning.2Even as he was dying, Jesus was promising us a new way to live.
You see, in the Gospel of John, “while the world hurls forth the worst it has to offer, Jesus remains unfazed and triumphant."3 Can you imagine what the women at the foot of the cross felt when they heard Jesus' words? They were despairing and fearful, but he was calm and confident. He wasn't belittling their pain, though; in fact, just a few verses earlier in our scripture, he encouraged them to continue to lean on one another when he told the beloved disciple and his mother that they were family now, saying, “Woman here is your son.” But death did not shake him the way it was shaking them. Because he trusted in God's transforming power. And he declared, even though no one could see it yet, that the old life was gone and new life was beginning already. It is finished.  

Frankly, I always preferred the Jesus of the Gospel of Mark, who cries out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). I want a God who knows my pain. But in the Gospel of John, the women are the ones who know my pain. They are huddled together, broken. But Jesus reaches out to them, not allowing the ugliness of the world defeat him and inviting us not to let it defeat us either. He does not let sorrow have the last word, or pain. In the Gospel of John, new life does not begin in the empty tomb, but even before, even from the cross. Because Jesus shows us possibility where we might never see it. Before the resurrection, he shows us how to remain triumphant even in the midst of pain.

I don't know about you, but this is a lesson I need in my life. Presbury knows that my family and I have struggled a lot in the past year. This is not the first, but the second Easter in a row that I would have been pregnant if I had not miscarried. And I have still not yet experienced the promise of new life. I cannot see it. I don't have certainty that next year or the year after we will finally have a baby. The bitterness gets so overwhelming at times. But Jesus in the Gospel of John on Good Friday tells us we don't need certainty. And he tells us that we don't have to let pain overwhelm us. He tells us it is finished. He doesn't tell us how or when; when he says, “It is finished,” he invites us even in the midst of our pain now, today, to live differently.

So what has to be finished in your lives, and also in our world, for you to walk in this new beginning Jesus has made the way for? On a post-it note, I want you to name, on one side, what needs to be finished in your own life, and on the other side in the world, for us to walk in new beginnings. Maybe it is bitterness and jealousy, like I struggle with after miscarriage. It could be a sin that needs to stop controlling your life. It could be a toxic relationship or a job that keeps you from walking in new beginnings. And on the other side, what needs to be finished in our world? Let us trust Jesus' declaration that it is finished, even when we can't imagine otherwise. I want you to write it down and come forward and nail it or just post it to the cross. We will leave those things there, and prepare our hearts to follow Jesus into a new life trusting the old is finished and there will be--- that there is already--- a new beginning before us.

 1The idea that follows riffs on the commentary by Randall C. Bailey, “Good Friday,” Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A, eds. Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, and Dale P. Andrews (Lousiville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 192.

2Trygve David Johnson, “Homeletical Perspective on John 18:1-19:42,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Lousiville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 301 and 303.
 3Mary Louise Bringle, “Homeletical Perspective on John 18:1-19:42,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Lousiville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 309.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A Tribute to My Mother-In-Law

We lost my husband Aaron's mother a day before her fifty-sixth birthday and a week and a day before Aaron's thirtieth birthday. This is what I shared at her celebration of life. 

I am Shannon Sullivan, Bonnie's daughter-in-law. Or Ms. Bonnie, as I usually call her. What can I say--- it's hard to break habits from high school. We all know the stereotype of the relationship between mothers-in-law and their daughters-in-law, but it probably won't surprise you to know that Ms. Bonnie was not like that. In fact she supported me and defended me and continually checked in to make sure that Aaron was treating me all right. Even though my sisters insist that I am the reacher and Aaron is the settler in our relationship, Ms. Bonnie--- and David too--- always looked out for me. “That Aaron better be spending time with you instead of always going to the airport!” she would say to me.  

The first time I went to Aaron's house as his girlfriend, Aaron and I went walking through the woods and came back with the bottoms of my jeans caked in mud. She was mortified, worrying that my parents would never let me come back. So she made me borrow a pair of Aaron's pants so she could wash mine. And his pants fit me. Kind of a terrible experience for a fifteen-year-old girl who knew little about body positivity, but I later joked that we would have to get married because we would save so much money on pants if we could borrow one another's! But it was just the first of many ways she took care of me--- of us--- even while she made us laugh, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Mr. Mike told us the other night that she knew Aaron and I would get married when we went away for college even though we went to different colleges. But she never said anything to Aaron because she never wanted to influence him. Sure, she gave advice, but she always wanted us to make our own decisions and supported us no matter what we did.  

But it was her faith that really was transformational. There's a story in the Bible about the relationship between a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law. It's the book of Ruth. In it, a woman named Naomi loses her husband and both sons and decides to move back to her own country. One daughter-in-law kisses her and wishes her well but another clings to her and ends up going with her to Bethlehem. That one is Ruth, whose name means friend, and Ruth really took care of Naomi in the fog of her grief and nourished her into life. Bonnie was more like Ruth was in this story for me, and I was more like Naomi, especially this year. Naomi at one point says change her name to Mara, because Mara means bitter and she thinks God has dealt bitterly with her (Ruth 1:20). I felt a lot like Naomi this past year. Now, Ruth's life was one big struggle too, but she does not give up, as Naomi actually does and I felt like doing at times too. And Ms. Bonnie never gave up either. 

I was one of the people who helped care for my mother-in-law on and off for the past two years. I would come over to her house to help with meals and moving around, but I would bring my grief baggage and my frustration with God and my hopelessness that I would ever have a baby. Ms. Bonnie always had hope, for herself, for me. She was always there to give me an encouraging word. She would often say that it was so hard because she couldn't do anything, couldn't offer anything because she was so weak. Carrying hope for someone who doesn't have anymore is a pretty big offering. So is prayer. She and Mr. Mike would pray for Aaron and I every day, even while Aaron and my prayers were often focused on ourselves because of how isolating our grief and anxiety can be; she didn't let her physical isolation and even later her depression keep her from directing her energy for prayer towards others. She was a true friend, a woman who was always giving, always loving, in spite of her own pain and in spite of my frequent bitterness.  

Chaplain Allen Seigel at Upper Chesapeake read Proverbs 31:10-31 as Ms. Bonnie was dying. Verse 29 says, “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” Bonnie did surpass them all. And even though I am still thinking of changing my name to Mara sometimes, I give thanks to God for Bonnie's friendship, her guidance, her prayers. And I know the love of Christ that she taught us will still sustain us as a family always.

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.