Finding Junia

JuniaJunia was the first person in the Bible who lied to me. Well, to be fair, it wasn’t really
Junia
 who lied to me; it was the other people who lied to conceal her from me. 

I had been struggling with the issue of women in ministry for years. I come from a background that not only doesn’t ordain women, but doesn’t allow women deacons and elders, which does not allow women to collect offering or teach men older than 12. When I was in elementary school and people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I had an answer all prepared: “A pastor’s wife.”

See, I felt the call to ministry at a young age. I mean, very young. I was four. I have a distinct memory of sitting in the pew during a Sunday evening service, listening to a missionary presentation. I thought, “I want to tell people about Jesus!” From that day until this day, I’ve never questioned that I was called into vocational ministry; I just knew.

But the only way available to me was to be a pastor’s wife, and that’s what I did, by marrying an Army chaplain. I checked the boxes and was living the life to which I was called. 

Except, things are rarely that easy, are they? What followed was a life that didn’t line up with what I thought life would be like. I began seeing the cracks in my theology, in a version of Christianity that said to women: We don’t want to say you’re second-class, but

I knew – I KNEW – all of the biblical reasons why women were created to be helpmeets. I could use my apologetics skills to articulate the role of women to support the headship of men better than most men I knew. I would tell you that Timothy’s mother and grandmother were influential in Timothy’s life only because the men in his life slacked on the job (because, clearly, whenever God uses a woman, it’s always Plan B…). I would tell you about the requirement of elders to be The Husband of One Wife and could explain both sides of the debate about whether single men and/or divorced men were excluded.

I had all the answers…

                   …until I didn’t.

Junia first exposed that maybe, just maybe, some of my answers were flawed.
She is an apostle named in Romans 16:7. Let that sink in. Junia, a woman, is an apostle – an esteemed apostle, at that! The more I read, the more disheartened I was. See, a couple hundred years after Romans was written, church leaders decided that this apostle couldn’t have been a woman (at best; at worst, it was a deliberate deceitful choice…)… so they added an s to her name and made her male. For centuries, the Bible was translated hailing Junias – a man.

The first time I read about Junia, I felt like I had been punched in the gut, as though I was a victim of some 2000-year long conspiracy. My well-read Bible had failed me. How could I have been lied to all this time? How could they get away with literally replacing the name of a woman with the name of a man? I started questioning all the proof texts I “knew” about women in ministry. The more I learned, the more I realized that there was not just one “correct” way to look at any text – particularly those which have been used to oppress populations for centuries.

That’s when I knew I needed to follow my calling, not as the “plus one” on my husband’s ministry, but on my own. 

There was more to my decision than just Junia, of course. But when I saw Junia liberated, without that s that made her someone she wasn’t and kept her from being who she was, I knew that I could be who I was as well. 

May 17, the day I write this, is the Feast of St. Junia, a day we commemorate her contributions to Christianity, this esteemed apostle.

On this day, I remember all the other women whose contributions were erased from history because of their gender – or the women who were never allowed to make contributions because men would not let them. Today, I gather in my living room with women from my church, talking about faith and love, about church and community. I celebrate the young woman who is graduating from high school, who stood in my church’s pulpit two days ago and preached. I continue to work toward ordination and fully am who God has called me to be.

I think Junia would be proud.

On Being People of the (Red) Cup

“It’s called the ‘Christian Churches – Disciples of Christ.’ Chalice_High-2You might have seen our churches before; our denomination’s logo is a red chalice with St. Andrew’s Cross”

The other person stares at me blankly. I sigh.

“Ok, really, it looks like a red wine glass with a big white X on it…”

They say, “OOOOHH, yes! Now I know what you’re talking about. I’ve seen that before!!”

I find myself repeating this conversation often. Since my husband is an Army chaplain, I meet Christians of many stripes who frequently ask about our denomination; they’ve heard of Baptist and Methodist and Lutheran, but oftentimes aren’t as familiar with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I love taking the opportunity to share about this denomination and about my church.

And that’s why THIS red cup matters.

The red cup means that the Table is our focus. This red chalice – representative of what was used by Christ during the Last Supper – shows that we are people of the Table. We have differing interperetations of the Bible, and have differing ways of living out our faith, but the Table unifies us. By partaking of this meal together, we remember the life and teachings of Christ; we are woven together, continuing the story of God’s people on earth. Disciples churches celebrate Communion every time we gather in worship. I used to think that the frequency would make it meaningless; on the contrary, it has become the most meaningful part of my week. As we partake, we are fed and filled and sent forth into the world. And because of that… 

The red cup means that ALL are welcome to the Table. We welcome all to the Table as God has welcomed us. There is no ten-page doctrinal statement to sign, no list of rules by which we must abide. We require no proof or documentation to partake. We do not tell anyone they aren’t good enough – or anything enough – to celebrate the Lord’s Table. Our value of inclusion does not end at the Table; as a woman, in the Disciples I am able to use all my gifts from God for God’s people and the church. Here, I am welcome. We take this from our doorsteps into the ends of the earth because…

The red cup means that we are a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As an Army wife, I am ever aware of the fragmentation of our world, of the conflicts that cause blood to be shed, families to be torn apart, and people everywhere to draw lines in the sand about who is in and who is out and why. People are hurt by the church; people suffer with loneliness and suffer because of oppression. Disconnection leads to all sorts of tragedies. We are continually fragmented from the earth and the interconnectedness of all life. And yet, as people of God, we are called to bring wholeness. We are called to live into God’s realm in the earth today, not only waiting for some future hope, but making that hope a reality now. I cannot think of any greater identity statement for a denomination. Which is why…

The red cup means that I am home. Brand recognition matters. Driving through a new community, a sign that says “Christian Church” could mean almost anything. But when I see that little red chalice with St. Andrew’s Cross? I know I’m home. As I’ve written before, my husband and I have only been Disciples for about six years now, and making this shift was an intentional and prayerful decision. We’ve been to Disciples churches all over the country, and each is remarkably different. And yet, in each, we are welcome; in each, we worship God together; in each, we celebrate communion every Sunday; in each, we are home.

—————————————-

We are diverse, we are faithful, we are God’s people but not God’s only people. We are the Disciples of Christ: People of the (Red) Cup.

CC (DOC): A new(ish) Disciple’s understanding of a “new” normal

Jonathan and I just returned from our first ever General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It is a gathering of clergy and laypeople from throughout the denomination for five days of learning, reflection, reunion, worship, and – of course – business. There were fewer people at this Assembly than ever before, and that was not lost on anyone.

One of the unintentionally remarkable things I heard at the Assembly was Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, our General Minister and President, say about the lower attendance, “This is our new normal.”

GA2015-Logo-HiRes-BlueBG

But for me, it isn’t.

For me, this is just… “normal.”

Jonathan and I were both raised in other (much more conservative) denominations. For us, being members of the DOC was a decision we came to intentionally and with much thought, conversation, and prayer. We had gotten to a point at which we knew we could not faithfully stay in our previous traditions and found a home in the DOC that we had never felt anywhere else. We first began attending Disciples churches in 2008, became a member of a church in 2009, and Jon’s ordination was recognized by (transferred to) the DOC in 2010. I am a licensed minister in Kentucky while I complete my MDiv through Lexington Theological Seminary and work part-time at a local church.

I understand the grief and loss that long-time Disciples must be feeling, because I have felt it about other organizations and such in my own life. But for me, if I hadn’t been told – repeatedly – that we’re in decline, I wouldn’t have believed it. I would have guessed that there were only 3000 people at the last assembly and we’re growing! I would have felt the energy in the room and sensed a moving of the Spirit that is indicative of a group ready to soar.

I had to read a book for an introductory seminary class about the “shifting” culture that impacts the church. The book presented these areas: lack of trust in authority, lack of trust in institutional church, etc. – as shifts that are currently taking place. But for people my age, they are history. I have never known a civil religion. I have never known a world in which church attendance was culturally expected. I have never known a time when “spiritual but not religious” was not accepted as valid.

I feel the same about the Disciples. As a new-ish Disciple, this IS normal. It’s not a NEW normal. This is what I signed up for. When Jonathan and I made that intentional, deliberate decision to join the DOC, we knew it was in decline as were all mainline denominations. We knew there had been disagreeing factions – and we knew that’s okay. Sure, there’s a lot we have learned, discovered – and critiqued – about the denomination in the last few years, but for us, the Disciples of today are all we have ever known.

So allow me, a newish Disciple, tell you what I saw at General Assembly:

I experienced a group of people who care about and love the church. They are not committed to traditionalism but genuinely want to help people encounter the Divine.

I experienced a group of people who are open to new ideas and ways of doing ministry.

I experienced a group of people who do not draw hard boundary lines around who’s in and who’s out. This makes discussions messier than in other denominations, but its inclusivity is its strength.

And because of that, I experienced a group who is better poised than any group of Christians I know to meet the challenges of this and future generations.

I experienced a group of people who is able to laugh (#CampbellCon, anyone?), is heartbroken at injustice, and whose lives have been transformed by their experiences with and understanding of God.

I experienced a group who cares so much about this denomination that nearly four thousand people came from far and wide to be together. FOUR THOUSAND. That is not a small number.

I experienced a group diverse in race, gender, ethnicity, orientation, and age. Let me focus on that last one a bit: age. When I looked around that room at all the under-40 clergy in attendance, I do not see a denomination that is going away! While it might look differently in the coming decades than it does now, I’m already making plans for General Assembly 2051.

I get grieving. I get naming the loss in order to move on. It is a sign of a healthy group when loss and grief can be named and integrated, and I’m glad to be in a denomination that allows that emotional language.

But for me? I’ve found my tribe, and I’m committed. I’m committed to joining the conversations, I’m committed to serving the people in the church so that those people can go be the church in the world. I left General Assembly feeling hopeful, inspired, empowered, and encouraged. I left confident that joining the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Ash Wednesday at Home

In the early days of Christianity, small groups of people met in homes to read Scripture, pray, and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. We invite you to remember Ash Wednesday in your homes, either in personal reflection or with your family.

Ash Wednesday is a time we reflect on our sinfulness and our need for connection with God. The 40 days of Lent mirror Jesus’ 40 day fast in the wilderness, culminating with Eater. Traditionally ashes are made from burning the previous year’s Palm Sunday leaves. The ashes are a sign of sin’s disfigurement and of our own mortality. You are invited to make the sign of the cross on your foreheads or hands, even without the use of ashes. The following is adapted from Chalice Worship and includes a meditation by Rev. Nathan Brown, the Senior Minister at First Christian Church of Hopkinsville, Kentucky. 


CALL TO WORSHIP
Leader: The day of the Lord is coming! The day of the Lord is near!
People: The time is fulfilled! The reign of God is at hand!
Leader: O people, repent! Believe in the gospel!
People: Come, let us turn and follow the Lord!

PRAYER
Almighty and Everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent.
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that,
lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness,
we may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect forgiveness and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

STATEMENT OF PURPOSE
Friends in Christ, we begin a forty-day journey toward Easter.
We enter the Lenten season to prepare ourselves
to welcome the risen Christ with lives renewed by the breath of his spirit.
We assume a discipline of self-examination, confession, and penitence.
We dedicate ourselves to meditate upon the scriptures and to converse with God in prayer.
We seek to be more faithful Disciples of Christ whose lives are shaped
by the one whom we confess to be Lord and Savior of the world.
To this end let us worship God.

REFLECTION (Written by Reverend Nathan Brown)

Dust is everywhere. It is the residue of our lives. It is under the couch. It is on the television set. It lines the car dashboard. It coats the windowsill. It is evidence that life has existed somewhere. Ironically, it is evidence that death is very much present too. Isn’t that what we hear in the words, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…?

Which, I think, is the reason getting rid of dust is a multi-million dollar industry. As individuals, we spend hundreds of dollars every year to rid the dust of our lives, buying swiffers and brooms, vacuum machines and dust-busters. Dust is a nuisance. It gets in the way. Mostly because it reminds us of our finitude—that we are imperfect, molded from the earth. Thus, we would rather sweep it into dustpans, under the rug, and off the back porch. We don’t like this reminder. We prefer the lure of immortality.

However, each year, as we begin the Lenten Season on Ash Wednesday, Christians are asked to embrace the dust, at least for a period of timeto let it stay, to not disturb it, that it might serve as a reminder to us. Death should be very much present too. It is the only way to true life in Christ. This is the reason we receive ashes on our foreheads and hear the words, “From dust we have been made and to dust we shall return.”

What, then, in your life needs to return to dust, in order that you might live? Do you need to let die selfishness or greed? Are you being called to put to rest a prejudice or bias? Do you need to bury an anger or resentment? What about an addiction or an obsession that keeps you from living more faithfully?

The English word “dust” actually has its roots in the Hebrew word, “Adam,” which is what God calls the first human created in the garden. So, while we are made of dust physically, we are also made of dust theologically. Physical dust is what binds the molecules and atoms that make up life and theological dust is what holds together our faith. At least, this is what we will experience again in Jesus of Nazareth over the next six weeks: only in death can there be new life.

ACT OF PENITENCE AND RECONCILIATION

You are invited at this time to make the sign of the cross on your forehead as you say, “from dust we have been made and to dust we shall return,” then pray the following together:

In fear, but also in hope, we come together with ashes on our heads. The planet is dying in our hands; people turn to each other for food and strength only to be shoved away. Each day we deal in death, yet pretend that we are good. Let us take forty days to look hard at our so-called goodness and see what it covers up. Then, we will join together in taking up the cross of living in the world as it is, for there is only one earth, and, as far as we know, only one human race. Join together in prayer by responding to each spoken petition with the words, “Hear our prayer, O God.” Let us pray:

That as Disciples of Christ we might start
using our hands, feet, money, time, and energy for the good of the poor,
let us pray to the God of mercy.
Hear our prayer, O God.

That citizens everywhere may realize that care for their neighbor
consists of more than the mere giving of money,
let us pray to the God of mercy.
Hear our prayer, O God.

For the needy, that they may not have to remain despondent and alone,
let us pray to the God of mercy.
Hear our prayer, O God.

For all of us here that we may be honest enough to admit
what we are selfish about,
and what we can do to remedy our lack of love,
let us pray to the God of mercy.
Hear our prayer, O God.

For those who share Christ’s charity toward sinners,
let us pray to the God of mercy.
Hear our prayer, O God.

Merciful God, the ashes are our pledge to take up the cross of life.
We came from the earth and we will go back to it.
In the meantime, beginning these forty days,
we will try to live here and make it a better home for everybody.
Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

DECLARATION OF MERCY
Hear the good news of God’s reconciling love toward all, and believe:
through Christ God chose to reconcile the whole universe,
making peace through the shedding of Christ’s blood upon the cross –
to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, through Christ alone.

BENEDICTION
Holy God, through the discipline of these forty days,
make your spirit’s cleansing fire burn within us.
Lift us from the dying embers of our inattention.
Mark us with the sign of your holy passion.
Make us ready to respond to the call of Jesus Christ.
Amen.

On Pastors’ Kids and Belonging in Church

I am a pastor’s kid.

Pastors’ kids have a bad reputation, as a group. Sometimes it’s earned; other times it’s not. Many times it’s because we place unrealistic expectations on the children of ministers – and on ministers with children.

When I was in first grade – the age Sophia is now – my dad became a youth pastor. We had attended that same church since I was two and my dad started Bible college, so it was a fluid transition. Having experienced that church as a young child, when I think about what church was like when I was a kid, there is one memory that tops the list:

Tom Ritchie.

Well, not so much Tom Ritchie, as the Tootsie Rolls he always kept in his pocket. As I remember it, all the kids in church knew Mr. Ritchie kept these delightful treats in his pocket and would visit him each week after church.

But the other thing I remember about Mr. Ritchie is that when he gave each child the candy, he would bend down on one knee and look us right in the eye and smile. You see, not many adults do that. Some adults barely acknowledge the existence of kids. Others smile warmly as they run past and remark how cute they are. Some might lean over and ask them what their favorite subject is in school, or what their teacher’s name is.

But every once in a while, you meet someone who kneels down to a kid’s level, looks them right in the eye, and talks to them. Not at them or around them or about them. To them.

I love church people. I really do. God’s people are some of the kindest, gentlest around, if you ask me. And when we all get together? It’s family time – at least, it should be.

What I remember about Mr. Ritchie and his Tootsie Rolls is that, when he handed one to me, I felt like I mattered. That I belonged in church, that I was just as welcome there as the grown-ups.

This is important, more important than we recognize sometimes. Kids – and teens – need to feel like they belong in church, that they’re welcome, that they’re not a nuisance or an annoyance. If we treat kids like they don’t belong – or that they only belong as they are seen and not heard – for 18 years, we shouldn’t be surprised when they leave for college and never come back.

So this morning, as the kids and I kissed Jonathan good-bye as we headed to church and he headed to chapel on post, I was nervous about how it would go. What would it be like doing church with kids without being able to tag-team parent?

At our church, there is an early service, then Sunday School, then another service. The first service doesn’t have children’s church, so I knew the kids would have to sit still and quietly.

But do you know what happened? People.showed.up. I mean, they showed up. The senior pastor’s wife – a pastor herself – showed up for first service just to help with my kids. She got them to Sunday School while I cleaned up the mess of crayons and activity sheets and visited with congregants.

During fellowship between Sunday School and church, people offered to help get the kids fed. I asked another mom to sit with my kids for second service until children’s church was released, and she was more than happy to do so. As soon as others saw the need, I got more offers for the future.

And in that moment, I realized how incredibly blessed my kids are. I mean, sure, they have to sit for more church than other kids. And yes, when Lenora sprawled out on the steps of the chancel during the Children’s Sermon in second service she got the mom-glare to sit.up.right.this.minute!

But they have other adults, people who recognize that It Takes a Village… especially at church for kids of those in ministry. We have never lived near family, but my kids have had stand-in grandparents and aunts and uncles everywhere we’ve lived. They have adults in their lives who make them feel welcome at church. They feel loved. They belong.

It can be a delicate balance, sometimes, with offering to help with other peoples’ kids. Sometimes an offer could be interpreted as a judgment that the parents are doing something wrong or can’t handle their kids. I’ll admit, I even have to swallow my pride to ask for – and accept – help. It’s not that I can’t handle my kids. When I offer my help to others, it’s not that I think they can’t handle the gig.

It’s just that – why should we do it alone? If I deny my children other adults to learn from, to watch, to observe, to give love to and receive love from – I am denying them the Body of Christ. I’m denying them things I could never teach them. I’m denying them the chance to learn that, when we’re in the place or the season to help, we need to step up and do so.

One of my greatest hopes for my kids is that they’ll always see themselves as belonging at church. I want them to see themselves as an integral part of the church, and the church an integral part of their lives. And today, as I watched Lenora cuddle with another girl’s mom, I was reminded that I have countless people to thank for the fact that they already do.

(Not Such) A Strange Way to Save the World

A few days ago, just before Christmas, I was driving down the road listening to Christian Christmas music. I find Christian music to be hit-or-miss; some songs I love and others have theology that makes me twitch. On that day, one song in particular gave me pause:

And Joseph said,
“Why me, I’m just a simple man of trade?
Why Him, with all the rulers in the world?
Why here, inside this stable filled with hay?
Why her, she’s just an ordinary girl?
Now I’m not one to second guess what angels have to say,
But this is such a strange way to save the world…”

I’ve heard this before: We start with OUR perspective, decide what would have made sense for GOD to do, then call God’s ways “strange” when God – surprise! – doesn’t look like us.

But what if, instead of placing our beliefs about what God should have done onto God, we start from the perspective of what God did do? What if we start with God’s perspective, not ours? What if we START at the unwed peasant teenage girl, what if we start at the manger, what if we start at the scandal, what if we start with the brutal world Jesus entered?

The more I discover about God, the less I think the story of Jesus’ birth is strange and the more it just makes sense. I mean, that’s kind of the way God usually operates: through the broken, the humble, the powerless. Most people who God called tried to get out of it, because they thought others would have made better candidates. God advocated for those without power through the prophets; Jesus spent his time with kids and tax collectors.  When God’s people are doing God’s work – and by that I mean feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoners, praying for their enemies, going about the general business of Love – they oftentimes aren’t looked on very highly… sometimes even by people who call themselves “Christians.” If you think the manger is strange, then you haven’t been paying very close attention to God.

It seems to me that we miss the point a bit when we chalk up a dirty manger and culturally subversive acts to “strange” then move on with our lives. When I think about how Jesus spent his time on earth – from his earliest days in that barn to his dying breath – I have to wonder where Jesus would be if he were alive today. Because THOSE places? Those places might not be the cleanest or the prettiest. The people Jesus would talk to probably wouldn’t be the ones you’d see on TV.

So instead of making God look like us then calling God’s acts strange, let’s endeavor to be more like God. And if you can’t find God, start looking in the places you might not want to go… that’s where God has shown up before.