Breaking Bread with Bashar


Lately I’ve felt a little paralyzed in my preaching. All of the news out of Egypt and Syria has, for some reason, left me feeling rather empty and powerless when I step into the pulpit. I’d like to blame Karl Barth for this particular feeling of existential angst, but I’ve recently learned that it may not be (entirely) his fault.

Like many good seminary students, I was thoroughly steeped in the idea that one should preach with “the Bible in one hand, and a newspaper in the other.” For a while (confession: until this past week, so my entire preaching career…) I thought this idea implied that I should exegete current events to my congregation with the same competency and care that I apply to scripture. I thought Barth was telling me I needed to be both a scholar of the scriptures and a policy wonk, as devoted to The Economist as I am to my Hebrew lexicon.

For a while, I was able to sustain this in my preaching. Through a tricky combination of picking the right current event, the right Bible story, and ending every sermon with “Jesus says love everyone. So, love one another,” I was able to make this work. For a time. A lot of current events can be safely responded to with a little bit of “Jesus loves you! And you! And you! And you!” It’s almost Oprah-ish: “Everybody gets a car! You get a car! You get a car! And you, you get a car!” Guns in schools? Easy. Jesus loves people, don’t shoot them. Divisive election? Simple. Jesus loves all of us, no matter how we vote. It’s not deep, but it works. Kind of.

And then this week I came up short. Syria, it turns out, is a little too complicated for my simple equation. Sure, Jesus loves everyone. But what does that mean? What does that mean when we’re talking about a country with a dictator actively slaughtering his own people? What does it mean when ousting the leader might lead to the full-scale genocide of his supporters? What does it mean when chemical weapons are in play? Against children? What does it mean when there are over two million (million!) refuges, and they’re only the “officially reported” refuges? What does it mean when the US is considering targeted attacks, but France is the only other international ally in support? What does it mean when Christians support Bashar al Assad? What does it mean to say Jesus loves everyone?

I was coming up short, and so I did what any good, reformation-brewed Protestant would do. I went back to the sources. I used the Google machine to search out where good, old Karl had said we should preach with a newspaper and a Bible. Because I wanted to know what he really meant, in context. And you know what? Something funny happened. According to the Barth Studies Center at Princeton Theological Seminary, Barth never said this exact quote. He danced around this idea on a number of occasions, but he never actually said it. I thought that was interesting, and it started to make me think, maybe I had gotten something wrong in my desire to be both a preacher and a politico. So, I did a little digging. And what I found, well, it challenged me.

Although I couldn’t find the original quote, I did find something else Barth once said, in the 1963 cover article from Time magazine:

Barth recalls that 40 years ago he advised young theologians “to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” Newspapers, he says, are so important that “I always pray for the sick, the poor, journalists, authorities of the state and the church – in that order. Journalists form public opinion. They hold terribly important positions. Nevertheless, a theologian should never be formed by the world around him – either East or West. He should make his vocation to show both East and West that they can live without a clash. Where the peace of God is proclaimed, there is peace on earth is implicit. Have we forgotten the Christmas message?”

In all of my frantic desire to preach the “right” message about current events, to say something substantive about Syria or Egypt or whatever, to be both preacher and politician, I had glossed over a very important message. Christ came for all people. Christ sat at a table and broke bread with women and men, children and the elderly, prostitutes, tax collectors, Pharisees, and fishermen. Christ sits at a table today with my congregation, spread with our Green paraments and pale blue pottery. Christ sits at a table with the refugees, spread with their rationed bread and black market wine. Christ sits at a table with Bashar, spread with I don’t know what, but Christ is there.

It calms this preacher’s heart to look back at my dear, thoughtful Karl and realize he was never asking me to be an expert on both Syria and the Sacraments. Karl was reminding himself and each of us to stay connected to this world we are in, because in the end, we need to know the stories of our context, but our job is not to offer solutions. Our job is to proclaim. It’s not my job (praise the Lord!) to solve the civil war in Syria. It is my job to stand up and proclaim. Proclaim the peace of God, peace on earth, the “Christmas Message” that God has come to us in the form of a tiny, humble baby. A baby who was a refugee in Egypt, a poor carpenter in Nazareth, an itinerant teacher throughout Judea, a friend of dirty sinners and uncouth workers. A man who was executed for political crimes, a God who triumphed over death, a friend who sits at the table with us, still.

So, yes. This week, I think I will keep my Bible in one hand and my newspaper (laptop) in the other. But I think I’ll hold the two, not because I feel called to answer all the questions, but because I feel called to remind my people (and myself) that we believe in a God of peace. A God of reconciliation. A God who resurrects life out of the darkest and most hopeless corners of our world. Because that resurrection is a message I need to hear. Again and again and again.

God, Grace, and Breaking Bad


In preparation for the debut of the sixth and final season of Breaking Bad on AMC on August 11th,I have been imagesengaging in a marathon of previous seasons. I held myself back from watching the show for a number of years. The subject matter seemed depressing, and I tend towards more positive escapism. However, I was reminded as I watched the first few seasons again of the divine drama that sucked me into this gritty show in the first place.

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Majority rules

Image originally at:

Image originally here

The day the Supreme Court declared Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act to be unconstitutional in its failure to offer all people equal protection under the law, I did something I’d never really thought I would do.  I celebrated a simple communion service with my boss, a couple of parishioners and their best friends, in honor of the pair’s fifteenth wedding anniversary.

I never anticipated an event like this for several reasons: one, I’m a Methodist, and in my experience Methodist laity are far more likely to think we “do” communion too often (and that the liturgy takes too long) than to ever request what amounts to a private mass.  Secondly, though, I’d assumed that my status as ordained clergy in the United Methodist Church, and as such, as someone largely bound to uphold our Discipline, precluded me from getting to care for parishioners like Dan and Allan in this way.  I never thought I’d be the only straight person at a post-communion lunch, the only one at the table whose marriage has been legal for years and years and years, in every state of this union, even though I’m not yet 34 and they were all in their sixties. (How ridiculously unfair is that?) I did not anticipate this because I thought my denomination, to whom I have pledged, in this arena reluctantly, to be loyal, would mean that I didn’t get the privilege of marrying my gay parishioners.

Now, technically, I have not married my gay parishioners. I didn’t even celebrate the Eucharist last Wednesday. But I led some prayers, and I typed up the bulletin, and I celebrated the coincidence of their event falling on the auspicious day that it did.  Perhaps more importantly, if the opportunity arose for me to officiate at a same-sex marriage, and not just hang out reaffirming commitments, I have pledged before my annual conference that I would do so (along with several hundred of my colleagues committed to marriage equality and full inclusion).

I feel afraid typing those words, or rather posting them on the internet for all God’s children and all the trolls alike to see. I feel afraid telling this story. I feel afraid of zealots in my denomination, who think the Good News of Jesus Christ is, well, not the same as I think it is, and who would love to bring me and my comrades up on heresy charges which would challenge our standing and our ability to serve. And then I feel ashamed of my fear, for I am truly among the most privileged in any number of categories, and what I stand to lose is so inconsequential – and unlikely — compared to what so many LGBT folks have already lost and suffered daily and throughout the years.

As we got in the car to drive to lunch that day, my boss and I chatted about the ruling of the court, and I vented some of my frustration with my denomination, and how our last church-wide discussion of the issues surrounding LGBT inclusion went down.  (It was ugly. If you missed it, rest assured that it was not like the UCC joy-filled denominational affirmation of gay marriage this weekend.) She noted that the times are a’changing (she didn’t say that; she’s British and would never say that), and that soon the denominations will see what the masses see, and will come around to know what the majority of Americans know: that people are born gay, that sexuality exists on a spectrum, that this is the same love (S/o Macklemore!) poets and the faithful have extolled for years.

When she said this, I nodded. But I confess (as I blundered to her), that I am not sure what to make of a theology that is staked entirely on shifting majority opinion. That’s not really what she meant, of course, but in conversations with unchurched friends, I have heard similar sentiments. The church is off base (surely), how can they not see? Similar sentiments are echoed in the Barna Group’s work, published in Unchristian. Young people are staying away from the church in droves, because they perceive the church to be homophobic or, if not afraid, simply exclusionary and hate-filled toward their gay friends and family members. But — and I do so love cultural wisdom and popular culture — surely the church has to have better justifications for changed understanding then “well, if we want to popular with the post-college set…”

After the Supreme Court announced their decision in this case, Ralph Reed appeared on Meet the Press and suggested that the next step for Christian conservatives was to take this issue back to the states, and to work hard to turn out the evangelical vote to pass statewide measures to limit same-sex marriage. Rachel Maddow offered a response that suggested that Reed and his cohort had turned out the evangelical vote, and had yet lost. In increasing numbers of states, and in the hearts and minds of public opinion.  The culture is shifting. And what is interesting now is that a whole host of Americans – and the vast majority of my facebook feed – rejoiced when the Court finally saw fit to get with the cultural program, to see what we had already seen – that DOMA was wrong-headed in 1000 different ways.

But this feels new, for the Court to be behind the culture, at least in the most obvious of analogous cases. When Brown v. Board of Education was decided, a good chunk of the people affected were not in favor of desegregating the schools. It was not a popular decision, and it was one fought tooth and nail by some state and community governments; we have the pictures to prove it. The Civil Rights movement was mobilized in response to a dominant popular culture rejecting the “elitist” decision of the Court. The Civil Rights movement helped bring the court’s decision to life and give it broader authority and legs.

In the United Methodist Church, the formulas which produce our representation in our democratically structured legislative body have left us in a place, still, where the majority can’t agree that living as a non-celibate gay person is not a sin. We can’t even agree that we read and interpret the Bible differently. After General Conference last year, I dreamed of a more authoritative body, a Supreme Court, to tell us that our homophobic disciplinary language had to be thrown out. But there is no such structure. We only have the majority, and for now, the majority of the church looks nothing like the majority of Americans.

In thinking this through with friends this week, I was offered two brilliant thoughts. The first is an experiment; imagine this:

What if you were a liberal Methodist preacher in North Carolina in 1954 when Brown came down? You might be with nine justices, half or more of the yankees, and  approximately none of your neighbors. That’s probably a good example of a time when the church was more liberal than some of its laity. How would you speak? How would you act? Can the pastoral clergy person challenge their congregants so directly?

The second expands on the first: Methodists (following H. Richard Niebuhr’s typology) like to view ourselves as working through Christ in transforming this world…but with LGBT inclusion, we (and others in a host of churches) find ourselves in a situation where we want the world to transform the church, at least to some degree.
This all goes to say that this week, I’m celebrating, and delighting in this huge milestone for so many people I love (and the accountants who will help them navigate the implications of this great news on their tax status). But I continue to want the church I love to find more and better ways to speak theologically about why same-gender love, sex, and marriage are holy and fraught, wondrous and difficult (just like they are for straight folks). I remain a Methodist for a host of reasons, and one of them is the conviction that the Spirit can speak through the democracy of the church, can speak through a majority. But I read J.S. Mills and the other Niebuhr, and I know the majority can be a tyrannical one as well; I heard about the decision around the Voting Rights Act last week, and knew the same could be said of a group of highly elite, appointed judges.
I celebrated with Dan and Allan, then I missed Pride. I didn’t actually marry them, but I did baptize the twin babies of a nice young lesbian couple a few days later. The opportunities we have for bearing witness are manifold, and I can’t help thinking that Christians have got to seek them out. But we also have work to do, to think about what it means to be a part of a cultural majority and a theological minority, and how we can best welcome all God’s children to the table and to full inclusion in our society and in our churches. Maybe the most important realization for me, though I love my theology and politics to be closely linked, is that society and our churches are not one and the same, and that might be to the good.


Bankstown Hospital Emergency RoomThe first copy of the soundtrack I owned was a cassette tape that contained most of the major songs from the musical. I wore it out. I handed it to the MRI technician every time I had to have a scan because the powerful beat of its music was almost as loud as that of the MRI machine. I played it in my walkman as I lay in my hospital bed on the bad days of my chemotherapy treatments – too tired and nauseous to do anything else. But then I graduated to the fully symphonic recording of Les Miserables. Three compact discs – the whole entire musical. Not a single word or note missing. It was magical. Partly because I loved the musical and partly because that CD set had been a gift from the cast and crew of the Broadway theater. As a part of my “wish” granted by the Make-A-Wish foundation (an organization that grants wishes to children with life threatening illnesses), I got to see Les Miserables, live, on stage in New York. And I got to go backstage, where I met the cast and crew and was given a number of production souvenirs, including the symphonic recording.

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Death and Resurrection

512px-Boston_à_lheure_bleue_(4769294947)It has been just over two weeks since we all heard the terrible news of explosions in Boston. In a timeline that seems too familiar these days, a few panicked reports of an explosion, then two, near the finish line of the Boston Marathon bloomed across the internet and television news channels into cellphone video of the destruction, clouds of debris billowing and screams of terror, then an increasing number of images of the injured being rushed to medical tents, first responders running bravely toward the chaos still unfolding around the blast sites, numbers of suspected dead. As the hours passed the news coverage was all-pervasive, every channel showing the same clips, the same still photos, as on camera reporters did the journalistic equivalent of treading water with the limited facts available, grabbing at anything that seemed like it might give some insight into what was happening, something that might even start to break open the question of why.

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A Review of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead”


One of the most indelible memories Sesame Street has left in my mind is that of the letter and number of the day.  I loved, “Today’s episode is brought to you by the letter Q and the number 12.”  As a child I always longed for the day the episode would be brought to you by the letter K.  As I sat down to read and review “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg, this memory of Sesame Street came to mind.  I felt like I should begin this piece with the bold and italicized statement: “This Review brought to you by my husband, John!”  In fact, I feel like most all of my sermons and ministry should carry this pronouncement.  Boldly.  Front and center.  We are the pastors and people we are because of the love and support of those around us: our spouses, children, coworkers, friends, parents, and family.  I think one of the reasons I enjoyed Sandberg’s book was simply because she is aware of the fact that none of us is an island.  We can work together to promote our collective best; we can lean in to create change.

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Hope the Second Time Around

capitol“Washington is the problem and no good can come from politics.”  As someone whose career is in political issue advocacy, this is a sentiment I hear with some frequency.  In many ways the greatest obstruction we face in our national politics isn’t a party, or a philosophy, or even apathy, but our own overwhelming sense of disillusionment in the ability of our leaders to accomplish anything.  The most recent failure to avoid a self-inflicted penalty of massive, economy-suppressing cuts to the federal budget (known in DC as the sequester), serves as a prime example of our political dysfunction.

Without question our politics needs fixing, but there remains another question worth asking:  How much of our disillusionment is self-inflicted?  Are there times when we are victims of our own ideals?

Here is what I mean.  Just a few months ago, President Obama stood on the steps of the Capitol and delivered his second inaugural address, a stirring speech that many viewed as Obama returning to the ideals of his 2008 campaign.  Obama, perhaps more than any other politician in recent time, has risen to the level of a symbol, and inspired hope for who we want to be as a nation.  To many, Obama is a type of prophet.  And it’s not just the President to whom we affix these expectations.  We want our political leaders to be better than ourselves, to be a voice crying out in the wilderness, to be the courtyard prophet speaking words of truth, justice, and compassion.  And then, when they make compromises, when they play the political games, and bow to the constraints we would see them overthrow, the disillusionment envelops us.  We grow cynical towards government and despairing of the power of our political voice.

Politicians are not prophets.  How much of our disappointment could we avoid if we viewed that simple truth with sober eyes and honest judgment?  Politicians do not run to overturn the tables on Capitol Hill.  And while that’s exactly what many of us may want them to do in our heart of hearts, holding on to that hope ignores the political realities and constraints placed on those who hold public office and fails to understand the primary motivations of politics and politicians.  I repeat, politicians are not prophets.

The role of the prophet is to call us back to who we are meant to be – individually and as a society.  At times politicians can assume this role, casting a prophetic vision that appeals to our nation’s better angles.  But prophetic vision is just one tool in the politician’s toolbox and not the soul of his identity.  The role of the prophet is different.  The prophet must ever stand apart from power structures, from the people, from everything and everyone but God.  That’s not to say that a prophet never finds herself in favor with the political structures or the people; she can be.  But she can also just as easily be unwelcome anywhere, including her hometown.  And so the prophet must establish an identity that is not dependent on anyone’s favor or disfavor but God.

The job of the politician, however, is wholly dependent on the favorability of the people and the power structures at play.  A politician can buck them, certainly.  He can make a moral stand for one reason or another, but there’s always a political calculus involved about whether that stand will ultimately harm or benefit his chances of staying in office.  A politician’s primary motive is staying in office.

Before we take too cynical a view of that, consider that this can in fact be a noble motive for many.  There are good people in office, public servants who sacrifice any number of other paths in order to serve their country and make a positive difference in people’s lives.  But the only way to do that is by getting elected, and all that that involves.  Call it moral relativism, the reality of sin, or the simple fact that our leaders are constantly negotiating competing claims for how to promote the common good, very little in politics is black and white.  At best, the goal any politician can have when elected is to do the most good as possible for the people who sent him there.  And that means doing what is necessary to continue to serve.

But the reflection doesn’t end there.  Instead, it puts the onus back on us to have realistic expectations about what can and cannot be accomplished through our system of government.  Government can be a powerful agent of good in our world.  Through it, we can achieve noble goals and construct a society that appeals to our better angles and promotes the common good.  Government cannot bring about the Kingdom of God.  It is not flawless.  In fact, part of the genius of the Framers was that they understood all too well the nature of sin and the power of power to corrupt.  So they set up a system that assumes humans are a complex mixture of sinner and saint.  They put in safe guards to protect us from our baser selves while allowing  our capacity for justice, mercy and compassion to flourish.

In many ways our system of government is a theological statement on the nature of sin (and a bit on redemption too).  Politicians operate from self interest – sometimes a self interest driven by a thirst for power, sometimes a self interest in preserving an office that enables them to try to do some good.  In the face of this reality, we are called to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.  We have to be honest about human nature, our limitations, our mixed motivations, as well as our capacity to aspire toward justice, compassion, and love of the Kingdom of God.  We must be wise enough to understand that in a world mired in sin, we are subject to systems of power and self-interest beyond our control.  And we must be innocent enough to believe that despite sin, despite the disillusionment we can experience at the hands of our leaders, love and justice will prevail.

A Review of Making Paper Cranes: Toward an Asian American Feminist Theology by Mihee Kim-Kort

kim-kort-coverIt’s not every day you get to read a seminal, formative work in a still-emerging field of theology.  But that is exactly what Making Paper Cranes: Toward an Asian American Feminist Theology by Mihee Kim-Kort is.  If you ever find yourself agreeing with the writer of Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun,” pick up Making Paper Cranes and see if you can still say that when you are finished.


It’s not that feminist theology is brand new.  And while it is relatively new on the scene, this isn’t the first volume of theology written from an Asian American perspective.  It’s not even the first book to combine the two.


Kim-Kort’s work is formative and important to the entire world of theology because the way she pinpoints where her experience and the work of God intersect models the way all of us might undertake embodied theology—theology with meat on its bones. In this way her theology is neither a majority theology or a minority theology—it simply is authentic theology for a Korean American Presbyterian young woman in dialogue with all of the traditions in which she happens to be rooted.  As such, it is a model of how all of us might undertake similar theological pursuits authentic to each one of us as children of God.

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Sewing on the Compass Rose

Sitting down on a recent Sunday evening with Downton Abbey on in the background, I carefully sew the Anglican Communion’s Compass Rose and the Episcopal Shield onto my new tippet[i]. This seemingly simple task does not begin to capture the last decade of my life and the journey I have been on.

As a cradle member of the Church of England, passionate about working with youth and helping marginalized communities know the unconditional love of God, it should not have been a surprise when my priest asked me if I would consider becoming a priest – but it was.  My family includes prominent supporters of women’s ordination, but I had never imagined it as a path for myself, because I had almost no female role models to follow.

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Beyond Balance: A Review of Anne Bogel’s Work Shift

My husband was running just a few minutes late, the church rummage sale having exhausted all the spaces in the parking lot. My office is just down the hall from our older daughter’s preschool classroom, so when I noted that it was time for pick-up, I quickly saved my document and stepped out to get the girls. On Thursdays, we baby-sit twin sisters before and after school. It was originally just Ben’s job. He is, after all, the stay-at-home dad. But then we discerned that it was finally time for him to enroll in a certification program to become an addictions counselor, and he started taking a class on Thursday nights. The babysitting has shifted to my docket of responsibilities so that he has time to study and drive to campus. We were doing the toddler/vehicle hand-off at church, which is how my narrow office, lined with theology books and biblical commentaries, came to be inhabited with three preschoolers, one toddler, one husband, and one seriously harried associate minister.


I had just looked at my to-do list. It would have been fine – full, but fine – if I hadn’t signed on for way too many extras. I am a sucker for extras, especially if they involve writing. Generally speaking, writing gigs are an easy complement for my pastoral work. For instance, I have a great head start on my sermon for the Sunday after Easter in 2014, thanks to a writing assignment for a devotional book. But I’ve learned that I can handle only so many writing deadlines in any given month, and I suddenly found myself staring at three in one week. Thankfully, one of those deadlines included a review of blogger Anne Bogel’s recent e-book, Work Shift: How to Create a Better Blend of Work, Life, and Family.

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