Children, Church Life, Family, Reflectionary

Why would anyone go to church now?

“Why would anyone go to church now?”

The Boy wondered this, watching the news about the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas. He has reached the age where he hears about the news at school, so we have become more open to having him hear and see things on TV, rather than trying to shield him from the hard things that happen. We need to be able to answer his questions ourselves. I don’t know if you have heard the common talk of 7th grade boys lately, but it definitely requires some counter-influences.

“Why would anyone go to church now?” He asked us again. “The doors are unlocked! Anyone could come in.”

It’s true that in church we are a special flock of sitting ducks, focused in one direction, both physically and spiritually. I rarely look around in church, when I am sitting in the pews, other than when we pass the peace. I estimate how large a crowd is behind me by the sounds they make. I’m trying not to seem overly interested in who is late, or whose children are making noise; I’m trying to be a good pastor’s wife.

Up front, as the pastor and preacher, it’s different. I’m counting heads, noting who is missing. But even then, I am not worrying about disaster, or I haven’t been, even though I know Kathryn has a plan in case someone dangerous comes into the sanctuary.

Experts offering their two cents worth on cable news recommended that churches review their emergency plans and look into security systems of staffing appropriate to their size and situation. Maybe, they suggested, someone in the congregation is already wearing a weapon to worship.

I know this is true in some of my colleague’s congregations.

“Why would anyone go to church now?”

It’s not clear yet what the shooter’s relationship to religion was. His social media accounts were quickly archived, but not so fast that some bad actors didn’t have a chance to create alternative “likes” and loyalties for him. What does seem to be clear is that a man with a history of domestic violence threatened his mother-in-law, and then he shot up the church she attended. This morning the President suggested that had a neighbor not fired at the shooter, there might have been hundreds of deaths. A better guess is had he not been given chase, his next stop would have been his mother-in-law’s house.

“Why would anyone go to church now?”

We did our best to reassure The Boy, pointing out that the shooter did not choose a church at random. I’m not sure how comforting that is, really. How was a guy who cracked his infant stepson’s skull out on the street to do this? He choked his wife; he punched his dog. Why don’t we take these clusters of behavior seriously? We don’t because we undervalue harm done to women/children, overvalue white men and their chance of a future. This is magnified when we add race, sexual orientation, gender identity to the victim side of the equation.

The permission given to this man to keep assaulting other people, the pattern of abuse he inflicted on others before Sunday, the ready availability of a weapon that can kill, terribly, so many people, so quickly – all these factors remain for other abusers, other men who cannot manage their anger or their disappointment or their frustration, who cannot resist the temptation of power and have the means available to deal out death.

Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD. (Joshua 24:15)

It might not be fair for me to make suggestions about what churches should do about their security when I am not serving one right now. Our own history as people of faith is problematic. Joshua and his house pledged to serve the Lord, but in the Promised Land, they used all their available weapons and powers to kill the people they saw as enemies, and to gain the land they wanted. They saw being the chosen ones as permission to deal out death. We should not be surprised that righteousness and power have been confused and conflated throughout human history.

Why would anyone go to church now? Our boy doesn’t drop his questions until he gets a satisfying answer, and he usually asks them again, just to be sure. We will go because it’s what we do, just like we ride on a bike path, or go to the movies, or attend a concert. We will go because most of us cannot maintain the kind of hyper-vigilance required to be on watch at all times. We will go because we want to be with the people we know and love. We will go for solace, and solidarity.

That is not enough.

I’m not saying this is easy. In the United States, we worship our guns like no other nation in the world, and some will say more guns are the answer. I do not believe this. We need to be direct in saying the god of guns is a false god. As much as I believe Jesus is among the grieving, I believe he is also pressing on his church to engage with the powers and principalities and say “No more!” Our culture privileges the powerful; often our church culture does the same. Yet we know Jesus proclaimed a preferential option for people who are marginalized and oppressed. We need the church to be a place where we talk about why mass shootings happen. We need to have those conversations and let God be part of them. We need to decide whether the church will be not just a voice speaking but a body acting to bring change in human priorities and understanding. If we have any power left as an institution, we must work together for good, in Jesus’s name.

I could stay screened here across the street, watching for unfamiliar vehicles and people, but I want more than the safe view from my window.

As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.

cropped-cropped-view-from-my-window.jpg

 

Church Life, LGBTQ, Ministry

Dear Mainline Church people (a response to the Nashville Statement)

Dear Mainline Church people,

I’m writing this in response to the Nashville Statement, a pernicious manifesto issued today by a coalition of conservative Evangelical Christians. In a season when the church could be speaking out against White supremacy, agitating for peace in a troubled world, finally getting some clean water for Flint, and mobilizing to help after Hurricane Harvey, they felt it was instead the time to reiterate their condemnation of LGBTQIA+ people and to be particularly specific in their disdain for trans* people.

Now, my Church people, some of you make space for your LGBTQIA+ siblings; we can really be part of the body of Christ with you. Some of you think you do it, but maybe you stopped at making a statement without doing any further work to figure out what might make us feel welcome to do things beyond coming to worship, or worry that if you have a rainbow anywhere on your premises, people will think you’re “the gay church.”

Meanwhile, our Evangelical cousins, empowered by the political success of the right, have doubled down on theology that is exclusive and cruel. They’ve affirmed their own superiority, denied the full humanity of LGBTQIA+ people, and declared that anyone who doesn’t agree and come over to their side of the line they are drawing is not a faithful Christian.

For Jesus’s sake and in Christ’s name, mainline pastors and leaders, have the conversations you’ve been putting off. I say these things with all love. Get clear about what it means to be welcoming and affirming. Fix up the forms parents fill out at Sunday School; why do they need to be gendered? Consider new signage for your bathrooms. Be ready when one of your young people comes out to you, ready to love and embrace that young person instead of setting them on the path of rejection. Have a Bible study and discuss alternative interpretations of scripture used by others to condemn, equipping yourselves for larger conversations in your neighborhoods.

Maybe even buy that rainbow flag for the outside of your church, so we know it’s safe to come inside.

Faithfully,
Martha

Children, Church Life, Ministry

Only love can do that

I’m in the strange-for-me position of being out of the pulpit for the foreseeable future, and at least for now, I am attending my wife’s church as a worshipper.

Yesterday, in the first session of a wonderful and thoughtful Sunday School on Peace, Reconciliation, and Forgiveness that includes all ages from 6th grade to Senior citizens, we were asked to share in small groups the names of people we thought of as truly good. I was proud of The Boy when he named Martin Luther King, Jr., then saddened to hear a trusted adult respond, “He was good, but he was not perfect.”

Now, this was going to be the further point of the discussion – we are all in need of God’s grace, as the Presbyterian Confession of 1967 was used to illustrate – but I felt frustrated that an adult would administer that kind of corrective to the one student in our group. No one questioned any other suggestions.

When the full class shared answers, The Boy whispered to me, “Don’t say it. Don’t say it.” My heart hurt.

img_0055Later, as we sat in our pew before worship, he picked up the bulletin and saw the quote on the cover. He pointed out the words and the name to me and said, “I wasn’t wrong!”

No, son, you were not wrong.

We went on to read portions of the Letter From Birmingham Jail as the Confession and the Statement of Faith, alongside a text from Luke reminding us that the hometown crowd tried to throw Jesus off a cliff.

Thus it has ever been with prophets, even the 6th-graders.

Church Life, Mother's Day, Prayers for Pastors

Because Mother’s Day

Heavenly Parent,

You are Father and Mother to all Creation.
You planted us and you nourish us.
You exist beyond our comprehension and
transcend the labels we use to describe you.

But we are label-makers,
and category-keepers,
and people-sorters,
and occasion-creators,
and this Sunday we face one
we just can’t get right.

Too much, and it hurts people.
Too little, and it hurts others.

Also, and you know this, we have our own stories.
Our mothers have died
or are still too close
or were never close enough
or never quite meshed
or smacked us too hard
or …
or nurtured us enough
or lived life with panache
or served you with whole hearts
or loved us unconditionally
or…
or all these things, in unequal measure,
over a lifetime.

That’s just to get started.

Some of your servants are mothers,
and some have lost children,
and some wanted them but never did have,
and some never wanted to,
and some had more than they expected,
and some gave theirs to other mothers,
and some feel it goes by too fast,
and some wish it went by faster,
and some worry what their kids think of them
and whether they will remember this awful card holiday
and sort of wish they would
even though it shouldn’t matter.

Bearing all of this in mind and prayer,
we ask, Holy One, with your heart for all people,
give us a measure of grace with one another,
an instinct for the places where some hurt and others chafe.
Give us a measure of mercy and a big dose of patience where our mercy is strained and a sense of humor when people get on our nerves and a heart full of the unconditional love you give so freely to us, ready to share with those who need it most. Amen.

*****

Originally posted as Because Mother’s Day (a prayer for pastors), May 10, 2014.

Church Life, Ministry

Why Do You Go to Church?

The two preachers at my house have a disagreement in principle about church attendance. Oh, we’re both for it under ordinary circumstances! We grew up in families where everybody went to church. We loved Sunday School and Youth Group and special choirs. Really, seriously, most of the time we are eager to get up and go on a Sunday morning, to lead worship in our respective congregations.

But on vacation? There we disagree. I love to visit other churches on vacation. My spouse does not. And she may have a point. Church is our workplace, and maybe the occasional Sabbath spent on a beach or walking in the woods is a good thing. (Although we spent the last joint Sunday off on the road returning from vacation.)

Perhaps when I visit other churches I do it with the keen, appraising eye of a professional, taking notes for my own worship leadership. In fact, I’ve been guilty of preaching at one church while taking vacation from another, a kind of busman’s holiday.

Why do you go to church?

Some do it out of obligation, and others to see their friends. Some do it because they always have; it’s a habit. Some do it out of fear they will end up on God’s bad side. I’ve heard people say they went to church every week when they were younger because in the day of the Blue Laws, there was nothing else to do and nowhere else to go. I find I wonder this about the people who come and listen to me on Sundays, particularly when they look unenthused about the experience. Believe me, I bring that home to ponder.

Why *do* you go to church?

In October we heard the Ten Commandments in worship and received the reminder to keep the Sabbath holy. Christians worship on Sunday to mark the Resurrection. It’s our less elaborate adaptation of the Jewish Sabbath. Most people feel no cultural pressure to attend, and some have no experience with church, and others have made other choices for legitimate reasons of their own including past hurts.

Why do you go to church?

In February I visited my childhood church in Virginia, where, yes, I preached on a vacation Sunday. It’s the place I first heard the words “I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord.” (Psalm 122:1, King James Version) And I think that’s the reason I keep going to church on Sundays, the reason I responded to God’s call to local church ministry: I go because I am glad, week in and week out, to go into the house of the Lord.

Why do *you* go to church? I would love to know.

Stained glass windows in the balcony at my childhood church.
Stained glass windows in the balcony at my childhood church.
America, Church Life, Racism

I flinched at their forgiveness

When I first heard they forgave him, I flinched. Why should they have to do that? So quickly?

My visceral response gave way to self-examination. Maybe, like the Amish families who lost their children to a shooter a few years ago, these families are better Christians than I am, with a deeper faith, a less questioning theology, a more profound relationship with God.

A woman who gave her name as Sista Soul Love protested during the morning service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina Photograph: Carlo Allegri/Reuters
A woman who gave her name as Sista Soul Love protested during the morning service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina Photograph: Carlo Allegri/Reuters

I came this.close. to writing something about it. Then I started reading blog posts and essays like this one by my friend Denise Anderson at her blog, and this one by Candice Benbow at Ebony, and this one, a great conversation at The Toast. They provided a different, and needed, perspective on what it means to be Christian when you are part of a minority and oppressed culture. If you only read one, read this one by Kiese Laymon about talking to his grandmother, at The Guardian. Then come back.

Ready? Okay.

I’ve been linking on Facebook to these essays and blog posts by African-Americans on the subject of shame and forgiveness and the trap created for the Black church simply by the attempt to survive in a majority white world. Wherever I read the ensuing conversations, the majority white participants, and particularly the Christian ones, resist the idea that there is anything multi-layered about the forgiveness offered by the families of the victims of the massacre in Charleston last week. They remind me that forgiveness is about letting go of things so you won’t be burdened by them, a psycho-spiritual approach popularized by Lewis Smedes in his book “Forgive and Forget,” a book I have recommended and handed along to many people.

One of the things on my mind is how disconnected our experiences as white people can be from those of others. I think it’s harder to ask people to apply that to massive, longstanding cultural wrongs.

And for white liberals of a certain age, this is a horrible time of reckoning as they – well, honestly, we – realize the dreams we had for a better more equal world, and the work they or their parents did in the 1950s and 60s was a drop in the bucket. I’m a little younger and better in tune with wider conversations about race, yet I am still having to tell the voice in my head that says “But really, things are better!” to shut up.

It’s not just that there is still a ways to go. It’s that we congratulated ourselves for making the three-point turn to get out of the driveway and never went further, and now we’ve backed down the street into eroding the Voting Rights Act and allowing police brutality instead of putting the car in Drive and actually making a difference.

We have been in denial, and especially for those of us who came up through religious communities, and maybe even had relationships with churches of not primarily the same racial makeup, or glad-handed or even genuinely welcomed the non-white visitors who stopped into our churches, we’re finally looking at how much more needs to be done. It’s uncomfortable, and we resist it, and we can’t figure out how to be allies and thought we already were. No excuses, just noting that there is a lot of reckoning occurring here.

I hate like hell that it took a shooting in a church to bring us to this moment – both because I hate that it happened in a church,  and because I hate that putting the spotlight on “respectable” victims makes it more likely that white people will have to face the truth. It seems like we have had plenty of chances already.

And this is not the problem of our friends in the Black church or in the more secular anti-racism movement. This is *our* problem. We need to listen and hear the truth and figure out how we are going to help make the change. We are complicit in it, and we need to suck up our disappointment, listen to other people’s stories, and stop telling them they are wrong about the White church simply because we’ve never seen anyone be discriminatory or spoken or heard anything terrible from our own pulpits.

I don’t want to hear that I am forgiven for these things; I flinch at the notion, although I need forgiveness for the ways I am part of the problem.

Let me, let us, sort that out with God. And Lord, my Lord, help me to see the ways I can make a difference.

Cats, Church Life, Orientation, The Inner Landscape

The Rescue Cat

At our house, the cat population recently went from 2 to 3. A friend in Harrisburg posted a picture on Facebook of an orange boy kitty, age 2, whose owner could not keep him. A response from my spouse caught my attention, and I thought, “Hmm. This might be the one.” Our little guy still grieves for the big orange cat he knew his whole life long until last year, and we had tentatively discussed adding another cat or a kitten to the family. This seemed like it might be the right one. Besides, he needed a home quickly, or he was going to the Humane Society, and no matter how much they may care about surrendered animals, there are 400 cats there. The odds are not great for any of them to find the right loving home.

The next day, we went to get him, and since then, we’ve been going through that process you do when you take in an animal whose habits are already formed and try to integrate him with other pets who think they are the boss of the territory. In our case that means my Old Lady Cat, who is 17+ and goes by the nickname “Six Pounds of Fury.” It hasn’t been long since she went through her own resettlement program, moving to Mechanicsburg from the only home I had with her in Maine. She came to me as a 2-year-old rescue herself, long ago in 1998.

The trouble with a rescue cat is you can’t know what really happened to them before they came into your home. They can’t tell you. You can only try to read their actions and their moods and hope they will settle down eventually.

The 5 Tool Cat
The 5 Tool Cat

Bryce Harper, as our little guy named the new orange cat (and be assured I, at least, call him by both names), arrived and hid for a few days after the Old Lady Cat gave him a piece of her mind and possibly her claws. When he surfaced again, he only came out at night. Even then, we could see he had pulled the ceiling insulation down in the cellar, looking for either escape or safety. We’re not sure if he got upside down because he stayed awake for a long time out of fear, or if his nocturnal habits are the reason he ended up in rescue in the first place. We will never know, but just like his elderly cat housemate, he brings with him the experiences and the traumas (if any) he suffered in his past life. We are committed to live with him and with those behaviors even when they are not convenient for us. So in those first weeks, we sat on the floor and scratched on the cushion he seemed to like, reassuring him it was safe to approach us. We closed the door to the room where the Old Lady Cat sleeps so he could roam free in the night. We waited patiently for him to feel at home.

People can be like rescue cats, too. When we have suffered, we may respond out of that pain and trauma, even to people who aren’t really hurting us. When people come to a new church after a bad experience elsewhere, they may carry the wounds and scars with them. When we hear a story of hurt or rejection, we need to be ready to be more than nice to that person, more than the usual amount of hospitable. We need to stretch ourselves farther and show by our actions that we are committed to being the people of God and showing welcome to all who seek a safe and welcoming community of faith.

kzj and I often say we want to be treated as ordinary, in church and in the world, but that may be the privileged thinking of two people who came out later in life. We haven’t lived with the external prejudices our LGBT sisters and brothers knew if they came out younger and longer ago. A lay leader said to me recently that churches need to do more than treat LGBT people like the rest of the congregation; churches need to be ready to listen compassionately to stories of harm done.

I’ve known my own hurts; I’m a little like a rescue cat myself, constantly calculating the margin between danger and sanctuary, even though the truth is now I’m loved and safe.

God, of course, already knows what the troubles are, where the injuries have occurred and what might help remedy the situation. God knows that people need time to heal and safe places to recuperate. Whether we’re licking our wounds in the rafters or trying to figure out how someone else got hurt, that is good news for all of us. However we may have been harmed, and no matter how inclined we are to hide from the world, God is with us.

“O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever.” (Psalm 136:1)

Our patience here is paying off. Last night I woke to find the Old Lady Cat on one side of my feet and Bryce Harper on the other. May God show us all how to be present to one another, whatever the hurt may be, whatever the rescue required.