When I Grow Up

What did you want to be when you grow up?

I don’t know about you all, but I was certain that I was going to be an agricultural veterinarian. I was going to specialize in Equine Care, and spend my days travelling to horse farms and stables caring for the these large, stately animals and the people who loved them.

But somewhere along the way, church caught me. It hooked me by the mind and the heart, and I found myself incapable of surrender. Church felt important—it oriented me outside of myself and towards justice, righteousness, and making the world a better place. My previous dreams simply couldn’t compete with the larger, big-picture worldview of God in Christ. Suddenly I was planning my future ministry, dreaming of ordination and robes and preaching and teaching, wondering if getting arrested is the sort of thing that a really committed pastor would do for the cause of justice, thinking about environmental ethics and the poor and multicultural church, and fantasizing about a Godly Play Classroom of my own.

Fast forward a few years, and these days I am not so sure. Sometimes I cannot imagine doing anything other than what I am doing in this very moment, serving a small suburban church near a big city. When we serve our neighbors, when I preach the Gospel, when I catch the neighborhood kids singing church songs at the playground and playing “baptism” with their dolls, I am caught again.

But other days, the days filled with long meetings, marked by congregational conflict and uncertainty, the days when we are fighting over carpet colors or worried that we don’t have enough money to feed the poor and help the helpless, the days when my church sucks the life out of me with endless meetings and neediness, … Those days I find myself returning to the same question: what on earth I was thinking?

I know I am not alone. Read more

The Kindergartener’s Gospel

moms 4.15 imageI remember well the famous “All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten” poster which hung in every one of my elementary school classrooms in Alabama, with its purple handwriting on lined paper, and a shiny red delicious apple followed by a typed list of dozens of kindergarten insights. The poster featured such gems as “share everything,” “play fair,” “don’t hit,” “say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody,” “flush” and “wash your hands.” Now that I have a kindergartner of my own, this poster has an entirely new meaning to me. My 6 year-old son Hill is a literal-minded rule follower. He speaks the lines of this poster on a daily basis. He’s been taught to clean up his own messes and to take care of other kids’ toys, so that’s what he does. Period.

My son is also familiar with another set of rules not listed on this poster. These rules come straight from his many Bibles and from his parents and his godparents. We are all God’s children. God loves all of us equally no matter how we act or look. No people are better than other people because God made all of us. God loves us no matter what. These rules have been hammered into our son’s heart; they make up the fabric of his very being. And while these rules might not be earth-shattering to us as Christian leaders, the ways in which they play out in my son’s life most certainly are.

Last month Hill’s teacher introduced the class to the Civil Rights Movement, but their cursory study left my son with more questions than anything else. Hill struggled to wrap his brain around what actually happened, so we checked out a dozen books from the public library and dove in deeper. While reading Nikki Giovanni’s Rosa, a beautifully written and magnificently illustrated story about Rosa Parks, Hill gently interrupted me to ask, “Did people back then not believe in God?” There it was. He couldn’t make a connection; these segregationists obviously could not believe in God if they acted in such hateful ways.

I could feel his heart breaking when I told him that the meanest people during the Civil Rights Movement were people who claimed to be Christians. “But we are all God’s children, “ he pleaded. “God loves us all the same no matter what we look like.” This so-called Christian behavior did not match the rules that Hill had been taught, but it also did not match the rules of Martin Luther King. I read bits of my favorite sermons by Dr. King to Hill along with several books about his words and his life. Then Hill added to his list of rules: loving is stronger than fighting and God wants all children to live long, happy lives.

A few days later Hill asked me if “bad guys could buy guns in Virginia” where we currently live. I told him that our state government allows it; even folks who hurt their families with their hands and get arrested can still buy guns in our state. “Doesn’t that mean they could hurt them worse if they have guns?” Shaking my head I said, yes, that’s what it means. And then he asked if he could talk to the governor about it. I told him that he couldn’t call the governor, but he could write him a letter when he got home so that’s what he did. This time with his own purple marker and lined paper he wrote Governor McAuliffe a letter about loving rather than fighting and about kids’ safety trumping the right to own guns.

I find it devastating that a kindergartener can so clearly understand God’s unconditional, universal love while grown ups have been misrepresenting that same love for centuries. I am a person who self-identifies as a Christian pacifist and activist. The fact that a kindergartener is willing to take that extra step working for a just world while most adults would rather wait for someone else to do it for them rends my heart. I believe that Jesus was on to something when he said, “let the little children come to me, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Most of what we learned in kindergarten really could get us through life.

Three years ago, I decided to take a break from parish ministry so I could spend more time raising our children. For most of those three years I’ve questioned whether or not I made the right decision, whether I’m honoring my call to the priesthood, whether I’m letting my gifts rot away in some dark corner. Then I have these conversations with Hill and realize that my work preaching the gospel and making disciples is actually thriving. My congregation is smaller than before, it doesn’t require wearing a collar and it doesn’t contribute to my pension, but it is still holy, sacramental and ordained by God. One day I’ll return to parish ministry, but until then I’ll be living the gospel according to my kindergartner.

To Be or Not To Be… A “None”

July 2014 Emily and brothersMy brothers and I were raised in a medium-sized Presbyterian congregation in a small southern city. We went to Sunday school, worship, and the Wednesday night program. Our parents were at various times youth advisors, ruling elders, worship leaders, and members of a supper club. We liked our pastor; we liked our church. But by college, none of us felt comfortable saying the Apostles’ Creed. Today, after a rather unusual conversion experience in college, I am a Presbyterian minister. My younger brother lives and works in India with his wife, who was also raised Presbyterian. He is both skeptic and seeker, and is not currently affiliated with any faith community. My youngest brother is agnostic at best. The three of us remain close friends, however, and religion is not a taboo subject. These poems explore our various experiences of being “nones,” a growing category of young adults in America today who identify with no faith tradition. The first poem is a meditation on the term itself—as viewed from each of our perspectives. The second poem takes on the voice of my youngest brother, the true none. The third adopts the perspective of the middle child, and the final one tells my own story. My challenge as a poet is also my challenge as a Christian and as a sister—to really listen to the other without moving too quickly to judgment.

I. Prologue: none

The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the US public—and a third of adults under 30—are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling. —“‘Nones’ on the Rise” (2012)
I like it.
It has a nice ring.
Faith? None.
Religion? None.
God? None.
Obligations? None.
Objections? None.

* * *

No one way to say God.
No one way to say Truth.
No one way to say Love.

* * *

No one to call Maker.
No one to call Savior.
No one to light on your lips like a tongue of fire.
No one to praise when the vista brings tears to your eyes.
No one to call Abba Father when the bottom falls out of your life.
No one to bless your beautiful, broken self.

* * *

The difference between
a “none” and one
who believes is so small really.
A penned arc,
an answered prayer
a slight tear in the tightly woven
fabric of assumption and experience.

II. A none’s integrity

There’s a lot about church I like, an open-minded one at least.
Community outside work, volunteering, discussions of
meaning, ethics. I see the value of that.
The problem is worship. If you don’t believe in God,
the whole thing is pretty awkward, if not bizarre.
I don’t mind being a spectator; why
should church be any different from the rest of my life?
But I can tell they think I am one of them, a Christian, a believer,
a setter-aside of the obvious absurdity of absolute truth claims in a pluralistic world.
I want to represent things as they actually are.
It’s like why do people say I love you?
It means something different to everyone, so what does it even mean?
They should say instead, I feel great when you’re happy.
Or, I want to protect you. Or, I’m hanging up now. Good night.

III. An almost-none’s almost-story

Everyone wants a story,
but the slide into something
less than faith but not quite
atheist isn’t terribly
climactic. It’s having
more questions than
answers and being in the middle
of ten thousand things and moving
every couple of years and loving
every idea and sensation and riding
an auto rickshaw to work and seeing
the Muslims on their knees and the Sikhs
feed their fifty thousand daily and thinking
about the people in churches
like moths at a front porch light,
but still kind of hoping
that something
bigger than our monkey brains
will reveal itself.

IV. I too was a none

I was raised Presbyterian
in a sea of Southern Baptists,
went to church camp, learned the creed, knew myself
loved by God and Sunday school teachers.
I liked that every sermon ended with a question;
it gave me permission to start asking,
as I wondered whether my parents really believed.
By college, I loved the preacher’s son but not the Lord—
Jesus just a character in one holy book among many.
Myself just another “none” among the too busy—
Friday and Saturday nights our mad worship,
sleeping in, our half-Sabbaths of recovery.
Because overachievers may be mistaken
for believers and young Presbyterians
were in short supply, I found myself
nearly nineteen, a “youth advisory delegate”
at the Presbyterian version of Congress in Long Beach,
eyes glazing over, backside numb from
never-ending meetings, hearing speech after speech—was this
a leadership opportunity or a desperate recruiting attempt
by the league’s worst team? Jesus was the last
person I expected to see—assuming him to be
bound to the errant page, icon of a different age,
having been passed on the right and left
by football, science, and the American Dream.
Meanwhile, the protesters gathered
decently and in order
a circle of white shirts and rainbow crosses
outside the sanctuary doors—
Soul Force ready and willing to fight injustice
with a few hundred handshakes and a smile.
Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist soldiers raged nearby,
signs proclaiming the good news
that God hates—well, you know, and
it occurred to me then
where God most certainly was not,
but before I could follow that thought
to its logical conclusion I was shaking
hands with a smiling man,
whose innocuous spiel I could barely hear,
as a torrent of emotion rushed over me—
centuries of pain caused by fear and loathing in La Iglesia
(“Perverts,” “Keep Away From Our Children,” “Abomination,” “SINNER”)
and when I came up for air, a voice in my head saying,
“Whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.”
And there he was, the Jesus-I-Didn’t-Believe-In in my face,
saying, “Here I am, outside the Church,
what are you going to do about it?”
And that was only the beginning
of the Acts 10 reenactment—first the weird visitation
to declare the unclean clean,
then the partnered gay pastor
knocking on the door of my life,
then the Spirit pouncing again and again
when I least expected it, and sometimes
even when I demanded it—putting the Lord my God to the test
with all the hubris of a spoiled child.
Maybe the only cure for a None
is a healthy dose of the One,
who is
(unfortunately for America)
(thank God)
not for sale.