Dear Church: It’s Time to Get Out of the Boat

The theologian Karl Barth was known to have said that preachers should write their sermons with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. If he were alive today, he might have amended that statement to say that we should preach with the Bible in one hand and our Facebook news feed in the other. I have to tell you, there were two topics in particular that came up in my Facebook feed this week that we need to discuss here this morning. And while it might not seem so at first, they are actually related to each other.

The first was an article about church decline. I’ve seen dozens of similar articles shared by clergy colleagues, stating facts and figures about Christianity’s demise in the West: noting a decline in church attendance and a decline in young clergy and the impending leadership vacuum it will create. All the statistics that we faithful people who come to church every week don’t want to hear. These articles all speculate as to the reasons why people aren’t finding church to be relevant anymore: we’ve watered down the gospel to create mass appeal, the enlightenment, the industrial revolution, capitalism and individualism, the internet, televangelists and millionaire celebrity pastors, church scandals, an increasingly secular culture… Perhaps all of these reasons are true, to a degree. The sum of it all, though, is what we need to pay attention to: that in rapidly increasing numbers, more and more people find church, Christianity, a life of faith, simply irrelevant.

The second was what happened in Charlottesville this weekend. In case you aren’t aware, a debate over removing the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from a city park in Charlottesville led to white nationalists planning a rally they dubbed “Unite the Right.” There was also a call for 1,000 clergy and faith leaders to come to Charlottesville in prayer and community to counter-protest, and many Episcopal priests and bishops, as well as bishops and ministers from other Christian denominations, some of whom are personal friends, were among those gathered in counter-protest.

Starting Friday night, radical white supremacist protesters against the removal of the Confederate statue descended on Charlottesville. In a scene all too familiar to many who were part of the Civil Rights era, they marched through Charlottesville with torches in hand, shouting hateful racist slogans and terrorizing the counter-protestors. One colleague of mine posted a picture that he called “an enduring image” as to why he was there. It was taken inside the church where he and hundreds more faithful counter-protestors were gathered and showed a young girl, probably eight or nine years old, being held and comforted by the pastor of the church, with a terrified look on her face because white terrorists with torches in hand had encircled the church outside and were not letting them leave. The one difference was that now, there were no white hoods to mask their faces. Thankfully, the protest eventually was disbanded and they made it out alive.

The planned protest was for Saturday at noon, but it was cancelled before it even started. Saturday afternoon, in an act of domestic terrorism, a radical white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring at least 19 more. Virginia declared a state of emergency, police were ordered to clear the area, and people were told to go home.

I’m so upset at this headline that I’m still struggling to find the words for it. I’m baffled, confused, and sickened. How was this allowed to happen? How can white supremacy—neo-Nazism—have such an organized stronghold, such legitimacy, in this country that literally fought against Nazis in a World War? Why are we calling this “white advocacy” and the “alt-right,” using words normally associated with political issues, to tame down a non-political movement that has proven itself to be nothing short of domestic terrorism? How can there be such strong bleed-over between radical Christian fundamentalists and radical white supremacists, while the church stays relatively silent and allows them to corrupt the gospel? Read more

Sinking: A Sermon on Genesis 37, Matthew 14, and Charlottesville

As the children leave, I ask of you a moment of personal privilege. I am grateful for the trust you give to your pastors and for the gospel which has been entrusted to all of us as people of faith. I also want to remind you that a pastor’s role in preaching, like the shepherd’s staff, is twofold. Sometimes sermons draw you near and bring comfort. Sometimes they prod and agitate. This sermon falls in the latter category. It is intentionally provocative. It may make you uncomfortable or even angry. I’m not flippant about that; all I ask is that you hear me out, and I promise to afford you the same courtesy should you want to remain in conversation. I believe our relationship as a family of faith can hold that tension. 

Keep your eyes open and pray with me: Lord, may your light shine. Lord, may your steadfast love endure forever. Lord, may justice flow down like water, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amen.

Small historical markers track the movement of the Athabasca Glacier in Alberta, Canada.

The snout of the Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rocky Mountains is just a few hundred yards away from Icefields Parkway, a stunning, scenic route between Banff and Jasper National Parks in the province of Alberta. When our family stopped to see the glacier just a few weeks ago, I underestimated the reflection of the sun off the ice and sustained a wicked sunburn. So I brought back from Canada souvenir tan lines which prove my lack of good judgment. But what has stuck with me even more than the sunburn is the memory of small historical markers along the walking trail leading to the glacier’s edge. I might have missed the first one on the far side of the parking lot just off the highway, except that my four-year-old was climbing on it. No more than 2 feet high, and definitely off the beaten path, the stone marker blended into the background. It simply said, “The glacier was here in 1843.” As we hiked toward the glacier’s edge on a trail of rock and rubble left behind by the glacier itself as it has receded, I noticed more of these markers—off to the side, unobtrusive, and yet still quietly telling the sad truth that the glacier is receding at an alarming and accelerating rate.

“The glacier was here in 1908” read the marker at the foot of the path. A ways later, “The glacier was here in 1925.” Then “The glacier was here in 1935.” We walked on, sometimes slipping and stumbling on the rocks left in the glacier’s wake. “The glacier was here in 1942.” We helped the children on the steepest parts of the climb. “The glacier was here in 1982.” By the time we reached the marker showing where the glacier was in 1992, the message these markers conveyed was growing painfully clear. At the 1992 marker, we were only about halfway from the parking lot to the glacier’s current position. You’re probably already doing the math. In the last 25 years, the glacier has moved roughly the same distance it had moved in the previous 149 years.

I could go on about shrinking glaciers and the truth they tell us about the damage we are doing to the environment God has entrusted to our care, but that is a sermon for another day. Read more

Pastor in the Pew

When I let it slide into conversation that I am a pastor, the natural follow-up question is, “Where’s your congregation?” For me right now, that answer requires extra explanation. I am a “pastor in the pew,” a phrase I am not entirely sure I am, but may be, coining. My national church body’s term for my status is “on leave from call for family reasons,” but in plain language, I am staying home with the kids for awhile. I do not believe at all that everyone should (even if they can, financially) do this, but for me and my family many factors converged at once to make this option the right choice for now.

I’m not alone. Others become “pastors in the pew” by going into specialized ministries as chaplains or counselors, by serving camp ministries or non-profits, by going to graduate school, by becoming professors or synod/regional church staff, or by retiring. No matter the method, there we are: in the pews of congregations of which we are not the pastor.

There in the pew, we hold the specialized education of seminary and also gifts and insights into various kinds of ministries developed through experience. We carry the confidence and wounds of being deeply embedded in congregational life. All of those gifts can benefit the congregation if noticed and stewarded by the thoughtful pastoral leaders in whose flocks we bleat. My skills for ministry continue to be useful. But what of my identity as “pastor?”

My church body does not ordain pastors until they have received a call from a congregation (only rarely to specialized ministry first), and we imbue the “call process” with spiritual weight, believing that the call of the Church is the action of the Holy Spirit herself. As I sit in the pew, I am plagued by the notion that if I am not actively leading a congregation, my call as a pastor comes into question. I ask again and again: how might I best be a faithful pastor in the pew? Read more

The Spiritual Art of Writing Icons

Jonah and the Fish

When I was diagnosed with cancer while in seminary, I started to question my faith and to question whether I was really following God’s call for my life. I knew I needed to find different spiritual practices to keep me grounded. So I started with the practices I knew: I would read the Bible and pray. Still, I felt like something was missing.

The Visitation

During one of my treatments, I noticed that a woman next to me would look at a card and then close her eyes. She and I began to have a conversation, so I asked about the card in her hand. She was holding a picture of an icon of the Virgin Mary and praying for Mary to intercede on her behalf. The icon itself was beautiful! She brought me a picture of The Visitation icon the next time we met, and I kept it inside my Bible. I enjoyed looking at it and being reminded of Mary and Elizabeth, but I used the icon in a different way.

Later, my husband heard of a local woman who taught iconography. He contacted her, found out there was an opening in one of her weeklong classes during the summer, and asked if I would be interested. Read more

Loving Across Difference, Living Without Fear

Not long ago, in conversation with a clergywoman I’d recently met, I mentioned that my husband is Muslim. “Cool,” she said, adding shyly, “Is that hard?” I laughed. “It sure is; but only because marriage is always hard. We’re not special.”

When Haamid and I started dating, it rarely occurred to me that being an interreligious couple might be an issue for other Christians. I grew up in a progressive Episcopal Church and a liberal town. My stepfather and stepsiblings are all Jewish, so I’d seen in my own family that love could not only transcend religious difference but be enriched by it. My brother married an African-American Buddhist; my sister, a Roman Catholic of Mexican heritage; and my oldest brother and his wife, a French national, are both atheists. (We joke that family holidays are like gatherings of the United Nations.) The San Francisco parish that sponsored my ordination, an overwhelmingly LGBTQ congregation deeply committed to social justice, had an expansive understanding of Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as ourselves. Also, did I mention that Haamid is kind of a great guy? No one in my Diocese or family hesitated to give us their blessing.

This is not to say that we had our heads in the sand. Haamid emigrated from Pakistan in the mid-90s. When he first landed in a Midwestern college town, he encountered both racial and religious discrimination. Unfamiliar with common bathrooms, he was frequently pranked when trying to shower alone or clean himself after using the toilet. It pains me to hear stories about that time. He sought refuge and greater opportunity in large cities, first on the East Coast and then the West. But as he built his home here, eventually becoming a citizen, he became keenly aware of white, Christian privilege.

I grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a city with a long history of combating systemic racism, but I had not encountered much religious diversity as a child. I was a senior in High School when the twin towers fell. Though that probably wasn’t the first day I’d heard the word “Islam,” it was the first time I remember. (On the other side of the country, Haamid was among countless Muslims legally living and working in the United States who suddenly had to be fingerprinted every year.) I went on to study Islam and Arabic in college, discovering a rich history and a beautiful faith, just as my country was declaring war on Iraq. This education sensitized me to the Islamophobia rampant in our media and wider culture. Read more

Home

Houses aren’t meant to sit empty. It’s hard on them. They’re meant for occupying—pipes need water to move through them, not just to sit and corrode. Windows and doors need to be opened and closed, lest they get stuck in place, stifling the air inside. Roofs need someone to notice when they leak. Wires need to have a reason to connect, to come alive, to carry current. The walls and the beams need the warmth of occupation in the winter and the flow of breeze in the summer. Our houses—our homes—are creations of our own hands whose well being is directly linked to their connectedness with us.

This was the first thought that came to me when I opened my back door to my stifling house after it had been sitting vacant for a week. It looked like home, but it didn’t smell like home. It didn’t smell bad, just different—stale and empty and static. There were no lingering kitchen smells from a meal prepared, no pungent wafts of wet dog barging in through the door, no sweetness of beeswax candles burned or perfume of fresh farmer’s market flowers on the dining room table. I didn’t realize the rhythm of my life had a fragrance until it left my house with me.

I fiddled with the thermostat, dragged in my luggage, and began to unpack. I was completely and utterly exhausted from a red-eye flight and a week of people-ing in a time zone three hours different from my own. In the quiet of my solitude I felt every introverted cell in my body begin to relax, uncoil, and breathe. Yet the more I moved about, the more dust I kicked up, the more rooms I disturbed, the more I began to feel like I wasn’t actually all that alone. I was in the presence of Home, and that’s different than being by yourself.

It slowly dawned on me that this was the same feeling I’d felt a few nights before while I was in Vancouver for the YCWI conference. Read more

A Conference Story

As young clergy women gathered in Vancouver, Canada, for YCWI’s tenth anniversary conference earlier this July, the scenery was gorgeous and the weather was spectacular. The conference was uplifting, invigorating, challenging, and exciting. The keynote speaker, the Rev. Casey Fitzgerald, inspired us with her biblical storytelling and challenged us to consider where our stories intersect with God’s stories.

One of the things I love about YCWI is that my colleagues already know so much of my story. Indeed, they know much of it without me even having to say a word, because it is our shared story. It is the story of being a young woman ordained to ministry, and all the joys and struggles that go with that – the frustrations of receiving more comments on your hair or shoes than your sermon; the anger of coming up against the stained glass ceiling; the challenges of balancing dating and ministry, or motherhood and ministry. All of that, is held in the knowledge that we are called and gifted by God to serve the church in all that we embody as young women.

These are my people, my village, my church. And they are part of my story. Read more

Where Jesus Would Put the Kids in Worship

Learning about worship in the pray ground

Last weekend, I posted a picture on instagram of my husband with our two youngest children, playing in the child-friendly “prayground” space at my sister in law’s church. (Shout out to Shepherd of the Valley for general awesomeness.)

I snapped the picture because the light was good, and, in the interest of truth telling, I find my husband doing his amazing work of parenting really sexy, so I wanted a pictorial record of the moment.

I also mentioned that the play space in the sanctuary is a hill I’m willing to die on in future pastoral positions. (Take note, search committees of the future who may be reading my blog posts: if this sounds like a bad idea to you, we’re probably not a good fit.)

The photo was a hit with friends and several have asked me for my input on these sorts of spaces.

Here’s the thing: I can mostly comment as a parent of three kids who has spent a good deal of time sitting in the pews with my kids in last 6 years. Though, I bring a bit of expertise since I happen to have background and training in church ministry with children and families.

But, I have yet to successfully pull off the concept of kids truly having their own space to play in the church, particularly in a place that is sort of up close to the front and visible.

Had I been in full time ministry for the last few years, leaving the Sunday morning pew parenting solely in the (more than capable) hands of my husband, I honestly do not think I would be as adamant about the need for these spaces. I didn’t fully realize, in my first five years of parenting, how difficult it is to parent kids in a way allows them participate and be present in the faith community, because I was up front leading worship, or in the back greasing the gears of programmatic ministry: my husband was the one doing the hard work in the pews.

There are churches that have been doing things to encourage children’s presence in worship for years, and even some that have done so in similar ways to the prayground. As far as I can tell, the prayground concept came to full fruition (or at least got national attention) under the leadership of the Reverend Andrea Roske-Metcalfe, who pastors at Grace Lutheran Church in Apple Valley, MN. Last year, she told fellow members of Young Clergy Women International (at that time, the organization was called the Young Clergy Women Project) that she was developing this space in her sanctuary where kids could play during worship. She asked for help in brainstorming names. Someone suggested “prayground.” Andrea ran with it, got it running in her church, and it was soon featured in an ABC news segment.

Other churches have adopted the concept and the name, including my sister-in-law’s congregation.

To me, the things that qualify something as this prayground concept are: Read more

Vulnerable

A word
about vulnerability:
This morning, I revisited my first love–
ballet class.
I haven’t danced in years.
I have lacked the courage to step
into dance studio space
for a while now,
because
I’m overweight,
and society says:
Shame on you.
I’m out of shape,
and the dance world says:
Shame on you.
I am carrying many burdens right now
emotionally and physically.
Society says:
Keep that to yourself.
So I did what I used to tell my students to do.
I took it to the studio
and

danced

it

out.

I lacked strength,
endurance,
balance.
I struggled to learn and remember combinations.
I lagged behind everyone else in the class
and made a lot of mistakes.
I was dancing alongside Juilliard graduates.
People could say
I made a fool of myself.

But I held my own.

Alongside some of the best dancers in the world.
And when I thanked the teacher afterward,
she said,
“You looked really beautiful.
You really must have danced pretty seriously before.”
I don’t know
what made the nourishment of dance
finally outweigh the starvation
of fear,
shame,
and insecurity.
But it was helpful to be reminded
that vulnerability
is a risk
worth taking.

book of common prayer

One Book, Many Cultures

book of common prayerHidden away on our bookshelves is a little black book dating from the 1930s. When I hold it, my hand feels the imprints of my grandfather’s fingers on the cover. My thumb rests effortlessly at the end of the title: “Common Prayer – Hymns A & M.” Eight years ago, I brought this book with me from England to America to remind me of my grandparents. It never occurred to me that it would be a way of connecting with a congregation here, but that is exactly what has happened at my new parish.

Anglicans around the world would understand the shorthand in that title. “Common Prayer” refers to the 1662 revision of The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England, while “A & M” means “Ancient and Modern.” The Book of Common Prayer was an attempt by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer to bring unity to the English church following the Reformation by mandating one form of worship for everyone. Hymns Ancient and Modern was an attempt to consolidate the most popular Anglican hymns of the late 1800s into a single volume. It was this little black book that British missionaries took with them as they went out around the world to spread the good news – and to reinforce the power structures of the British Empire.

I am keenly aware that what joins me as a white priest to my mainly black congregation is the colonial past, which includes the shared heritage of The Book of Common Prayer and the hymnal that went with it. My parish is around forty percent West African and thirty percent Caribbean, while the remaining thirty percent is made up of North Americans (both white and African-American) with a splattering of Europeans. There is also an emerging Central American congregation that worships separately in Spanish, led by another priest.

Ministering into this tension that is the shared heritage of the Anglican Communion means being aware of the privileges that I have as the priest and as a white person, and at the same time acknowledging the shared experience of being an immigrant. Almost everyone in the English-speaking congregation comes from a country that is a former British colony or still belongs to the British Commonwealth. A number of the Caribbean parishioners have told me that they remember being sent “the latest young priest from England” when they were growing up, and so there is something familiar about having a young, white English person pastoring their congregation. Although they have shared this a positive memory, I cannot ignore that our present reality together comes with a colonial power dynamic based in both culture and race.

Almost all of the members were also raised as Anglicans. Like me, they came to the Episcopal Church because it is part of the Anglican Communion. Read more