In fear, but also in hope: On Ash Wednesday and going to war

There’s something powerful about Ash Wednesday being the week you send your husband off to war. Again.

He was supposed to have been gone already – I thought the service would be my first time at church without him. Instead, it was our last time at churIMG_3154ch together before he left. As I faced the bowl of ashes, I was filled with dread.

It’s an odd thing, being someone who longs for peace, who views all war as tragedy, who chafes at the American Exceptionalism and Colonialism that so often infiltrate our foreign policy… to stand proudly and sing along during The Army Song (even if I must change a couple words to be able to sing it authentically). To have my house decorated with the signs of a family established during war on one wall… and mandalas drawn by Buddhist monks on another. To have an award that includes the motto “Strike Fear”… hanging on my office wall at church.

In fear, but also in hope…

I live in a tension of being so, so proud of the uniform my husband wears, while being ever aware of the blood spilled at the hands of Soldiers of war throughout history. I am proud of his work as a chaplain – of his commitment to bring about wholeness in a broken world – as he advocates for those on the margins in the military because of their religion, gender, orientation, and beliefs. He provides care for the wounded – those wounded physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. But our lives are marked by death and destruction. War is always tragic. 

In fear, but also in hope…

Last Wednesday, our foreheads bearing the marks of crosses of ashes, I couldn’t escape that tension. War is death. There’s no other purpose for it. People die. Soldiers die. Civilians die. Children die. The land is marred with blood and bullets. As people of faith we confidently proclaim the good news of life and redemption… and war destroys the hope of that life at every turn.

As an Army family, our marriage deals in death. On our first night as a married couple, we discussed what I would do if I I heard that knock on the door to inform me he had been killed in combat. I kissed him goodbye a week later – and he came home after our first anniversary. Our son attended a Soldier’s memorial ceremony when he was 5 days old. Our wills are updated. And yet, we live life in the present, knowing that none of us, really, is guaranteed another day.

In fear, but also in hope… 

And that’s the point of all this, I suppose. We long, we wait. There’s no way to get to Easter but to go through Lent. There’s no way to get to the final resurrection but to go through the brokenness that is life on earth, even while we plant seeds of hope and healing. Ashes on our foreheads reminds us of our own mortality, but we know that this is not the end, that there is a hope yet to come…

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.
~ Chalice Worship

In fear, but also in hope, we recognize that, though these 40 days reminds us of our own humanity, we now see through a glass darkly. And, even in the face of war, even with ashes on our heads, we confidently proclaim that someday, somehow, as a mystery we don’t yet understand…

Easter is coming.

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.

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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.

And We Have a Wall: refugees at our borders

I’m sure by now we have all seen the heartbreaking story of the little boy on the beach in Turkey. I read a piece by poet Warsan Shire – an immigrant herself – which read,

You have to understand,

No one puts their child in a boat

Unless the water is safer than the land.

I cannot fathom the emotions of a parent who ultimately makes that choice. I cannot imagine a world in which risking death was a better option than certain death.

And yet, I am so, so torn by what I’ve been reading about the Syrian refugees. I am glad it’s gaining attention, because it can be so easy to turn away from events happening on the other side of the world. I have been reading calls for peaceful countries in Europe to open their doors, to let in the stranger and the immigrant. Indeed. And I’ve hesitated mentioning this because I’m very bothered by “Tragedy Olympics” – you know, if you are sad about something, but I have a tragedy that’s even sadder, I dismiss your tragedy because mine is worse. As though empathy is a zero-sum game, and if we’re heartbroken about one thing it automatically means we aren’t about another. It’s the cries of “If you care about that thing, you really should care about this thing!” Because I hate that so much, I’ve remained silent thus far.

And yet.

This is a close-up of the wall. Though here it is bars - some say as a fence, some say as a prison - in other places the wall is solid.

This is a close-up of the wall. Though here it is bars – some say as a fence, some say as a prison – in other places the wall is solid.

And yet.

We have a wall.

Let me repeat that.

WE HAVE A WALL.

Thousands of people seek refuge in the United States of America each year. And we have a wall.

There is a sort of “conventional wisdom” which paints these folks as manipulative, drug-using, violent criminals.

But I’ve seen their faces. Last winter, on a trip with my seminary through an organization called Borderlinks, I met countless people who sought refuge in the U.S. and were turned away. And not just turned away. Arrested. Placed in unsafe detention facilities. Chained. Processed. Placed on a bus and dropped off on the other side of the wall, only to be met with violence, trafficking, and drug smugglers ready to force them to walk the desert.

I heard so many stories, but one in particular stands out.* When he was young – about 9 – he witnessed a murder in a parking lot. He and his mother were getting in their car, and suddenly gunfire started. They crouched down, the gunfire quickly subsided, and the shooters raced away immediately. The boy then looked up to see the man in the car next to him, shot dead.

His mom started having an attack – he thought it was a heart attack, so he was able to get her to the hospital. Tests revealed it was a panic attack – understandable given what they just experienced. When she was about to be released from the hospital, the doctor told her that the police were on their way to question her about what she saw, so she needed to stay. This made her uneasy. She had a gut feeling – thankfully so – and she and her son left the hospital before the police arrived.

Fast forward several months. The police were actually involved in the shooting – not a surprise, in the heavily violent and corrupt city in which they lived – and they began stalking her. She received death threats. Her son was followed to and from school. The police would park outside her house. Shootings in her neighborhood increased. The police began knocking at her door and intimidating her. She wasn’t safe – violence was all around her, and she needed to protect her son. So she chose the risk of death over the certainty of death. There was no boat in which to put her son – but there was a dangerous desert to cross. So they did. 

There is a physical barrier for several hundred miles of the U.S. – Mexico border. This forces those who wish to seek refuge in the United States to cross the desert on foot. The desert is filled with those who rob, rape, and kidnap. But the risk of death is a better choice than certain death. I cannot fathom being a parent and being faced with that choice. 

There is a physical barrier for several hundred miles of the U.S. - Mexico border.

There is a physical barrier for several hundred miles of the U.S. – Mexico border.

“But why don’t they just do it the ‘legal’ way?” you might be asking. This is much easier said than done. There are immigration limits, quotas, misinformation, constantly-changing laws. Put another way, if that’s the question you have about our own border, would you be asking that of the crisis in Syria as well? “Why didn’t those Syrians just do it the legal way? Plenty of European countries have paths to legal immigration – they should just fill out the paperwork and wait!” When you are fleeing violence – as they are fleeing in Syria just as they are fleeing in Central America and Mexico – that is not always an option. The United States refuses to call them “refugees” (because of our own complicity in the region), but that’s what they are. Sure, the violence in Syria looks different, but when people are killing and kidnapping your kids, it doesn’t matter why or under what organization they fall. 

My point here is that there is no difference between the Syrians fleeing violence and the Central Americans and Mexicans fleeing violence. And yet, we label one “refugees” and the other “illegals.” I believe that our call as people of God is to welcome and love the immigrant and the stranger – especially when they’re at our own door. 

*I’ll change some details to generalities for the sake of the young man whose story this is.

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.

It Happened to Them: Reflections on Charleston

If your Facebook feed is anything like mine, it is probably fairly reflective of your own perspective. I do have far-right and far-left friends, but I know they come from a nearly-all-white point of view. We love to share blogs written about race… by our favorite white bloggers. There is room for this – especially when they are confessional – but if you have only read about race from white voices, you have not read enough.

What I’ve listed here is a list of posts and pieces written about race by people of color. Because of the current events, they are primarily African-American. The title of this post is a play on the popular “It Happened to Me” posts, in which bloggers write about their personal experience with a given topic. But now? It’s not about me.

You might not agree with every word, and that’s fine. I can’t say I agree with every word of all these – but that isn’t the point. It isn’t our job to disagree right now; it’s our job to LISTEN. LISTEN. LISTEN. There is a wealth of helpful writing online – sometimes we just have to look for it.

Bree Newsome Speaks Out: Bree Newsome is the activist who scaled a flagpole to remove the flag of the Confederacy. “It is important to remember that our struggle doesn’t end when the flag comes down. The Confederacy is a southern thing, but white supremacy is not. Our generation has taken up the banner to fight battles many thought were won long ago. We must fight with all vigor now so that our grandchildren aren’t still fighting these battles in another 50 years. Black Lives Matter. This is non-negotiable.”

Essay Series on What it Means To Be Black: They are adding a new piece every day for the next 10 days. I’ve looked through some of their past pieces as well and plan to start following this outlet. Also, spoiler: “What It Means To Be Black” is NOT contained to “the color of a person’s skin.” Blackness is much more than skin color, which is why being “colorblind” is not only impossible; the attempt is inherently dismissive of an entire culture and experience.

Last Battles: The Confederacy’s Final Retreat: Jelani Cobb is a writer for the New Yorker who writes on matters of race frequently. “We have for decades willfully coexisted with a translucent lie about the bloodiest conflict in American history and the moral questions at its center. Amid the calls last week to lower the Confederate battle flag at the state capitol, the defenders of the flag averred that it represents ‘heritage, not hate.’ The great sleight of hand is the notion that these things were mutually exclusive.”

Why Young Black Men Can’t Work“But a growing mound of research gives the lie to the notion that black men who fail in the modern economy have brought it upon themselves. Rather, it’s increasingly clear that they have instead been locked out of the male-tracked, skilled labor jobs that, for better or worse, still make the difference between poverty and working-class for many families. Even when accounting for failed personal responsibility, more and more research suggests that white men with similar backgrounds–without a college degree, and even with a criminal record–find far more opportunity than their black peers. One pre-recession study in 2003 even found that white job applicants with criminal records are more likely to get called back than black applicants with identical resumes and no record.”

What I Need You To Say Right Now: This is a uniquely Christian perspective, written by an African-American woman married to a white man. If a title like “Why Young Black Man Can’t Work” seems a bit much for you right now, I recommend starting here. I’m listening because we’re called to be reconcilers.  Like Jesus reconciled us to the Father- it’s a painful process.  A denying process.  A humiliating process.  But a Kingdom process, nonetheless.  “I’m listening” says, “yes, I have an opinion and yes I have strong feelings, and yes this makes me feel more than a little helpless, but I’m going to press into this specific pain and listen.”

The Only Logical Conclusion: “[When] the driving force of such a massacre is the very thing embedded in the roots of America, thriving on the branches of generation after generation, sitting in the pews unchallenged every Sunday morning in white churches- there is no reason why black Americans should feel safe.” This is also written from a Christian perspective, to the white church.

The Salt Project’s Strange Fruit: This 11-minute video just won an Emmy! Two ministers tell the story that inspired the song “Strange Fruit” made famous by Billie Holiday.

Let’s Not Forget Northern Racism: “That kind of white supremacy is furtive, not fiery. It happens behind desks, not under hoods. It is maintained by bureaucracy, not violent threat. The story of our two Americas, that is to say, is bigger than bigots. It’s also about African-Americans being denied opportunities even when there are no so-called bad guys. Racial inequality is often reinforced by organizational practices and government policies, such as exclusionary zoning, that lack discriminatory intent or at least provide plausible deniability for it…. It’s also effective.”

I started this post by mentioning Facebook, so I’ll add that there are ways to change this. For starters. like and follow Colorlines and Michelle Alexander (the author of The New Jim Crow) – read the stories they post, follow those they recommend.

If you have other suggestions, leave them in the comments!

Sticky Faith for Youth: Wow, Pow, Holy Cow, How

11041219_10205495899893173_6539258005921909942_nIf you are moderately interested in the church world and haven’t been living under a rock for the past week or so, you’re familiar with Pew’s recent report. Blogs upon blogs upon blogs have been written analyzing this report, but it instilled in me a sense of excitement about my job ministering to and with my church’s youth. How can we encourage the faith of kids and teens in such a way that they will WANT to continue being a part of the church in their adulthood? Do they see themselves as a integral part of the church now, or as an afterthought?

I am using the book The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family to spend the summer encouraging the parents of our teens to implement some of these ideas at home (and implementing them with my own kids!).

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Every night at dinner, the Smithson family discusses four topics related to their day: Wow, Pow, Holy Cow, How.

WOW is the best part of their day.
POW is the worst part of their day.
HOLY COW is something in their day that pointed them to God.
HOW is an opportunity in their day to be the answer to someone else’s prayer.

As family members share their experiences for each topic, the Smithsons discuss everything from softball tournaments and science tests to sales presentations and software design. To prevent things from feeling too fake or forced, family members are allowed to opt out of addressing any topic, but the more evenings the Smithsons have these discussions, the less anyone opts out.

Your Family:
*What are your family discussions at dinner like?

*Wow, Pow, Holy Cow, How might sound a bit corny to you or your kids, especially if they are teenagers. Another family tackles these topics by asking about “highs, lows, and how you saw God at work.” Another family simply asks, “How’s your heart?” More important than these labels you use are the conversations you have. Perhaps you could involve your kids in choosing the topics you’ll discuss and the words you’ll use to describe them.

~ From The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family, page 136

Egalitarian Marriage: The Myths

Last fall, knowing we were coming up on a decade of marriage, Jon and I decided to read a book together about relationships. We did this a lot when we were first married and hadn’t in several years, and we’re both firm believers in taking time to strengthen your relationship even when it doesn’t “need” it – or you’ll be scrambling when it is. So we started looking for a book from a Christian egalitarian perspective.*

200637_1003058833027_2194_nJon emailed me one day when he saw a list complied by Christians for Biblical Equality of books that they recommended, and we quickly purchased a copy of one that looked appealing and eagerly began reading it when the Amazon box arrived.

We didn’t even finish it. It was that bad.

It WAS good for our marriage, having a shared experience over a book that we could, frankly, make fun of – but it wasn’t exactly a book we would recommend to others. We chalked it up to an expanding market that no one had reached yet, and continued on our merry way.

But that experience has bothered me ever since. Why aren’t there more books about this? It certainly isn’t because all egalitarian marriages are perfect, and it certainly isn’t because complementarianism is the one “right” model of Christian marriage.

In reading about this over the last few years, it seems to me there are some myths about egalitarian marriage. I’ll admit that I had some… before I entered one. I will address some thoughts about what egalitarian marriage is another time, but for now I thought I’d start with what egalitarian marriage is not. The caveat here is that of course there will be anecdotal evidence against every single thing I say. Of course I am not speaking for all egalitarian marriages in all places and in all times for all eternity. What follows is my experience.

MYTH: Egalitarian marriage is inherently individualistic.
I used to think that people in egalitarian marriages basically cohabited and barely cared about their partner: “She lives her life; he lives his!” Egalitarian marriages are not necessarily loveless! And neither does one person have to settle or compromise everything they dream of in order for the other to succeed. Decisions don’t need to be made entirely independent of each other, and neither are decisions always either/or – with one partner always getting their way and the other always giving in.

MYTH: Egalitarian marriage is defined by the wife having a job.
Some couples hold very traditional views of gender roles in marriage, and the wife works. Other couples are very egalitarian, though – because of season of life, personal opportunities, or personal choice – the man is still the “breadwinner.” Egalitarian is not code word for “women working outside the home.”

MYTH: Egalitarian marriage is inherently comprised of man-hating feminists.
The misconceptions about feminism are beyond the scope of what I’m saying here, but it’s important to note that not all women in egalitarian relationships hate men. In fact, I know a lot of people in egalitarian marriages. And – gasp! – none of them hate men. None of them think that men are stupid or should categorically be blamed for All The Things. To claim that because a woman desires equal treatment, respect, and opportunities means that she hates men is absolutely false.

One other note here: To say that women are equal does not mean that one denies biological and anatomical differences between men and women. I have often heard complementarians say that egalitarians claim this, but I have never actually heard an egalitarian claim this. It’s a bit ridiculous.

MYTH: Egalitarian marriage is only good for women.
Men seem to like it too. At least the ones I know do. It is freeing for women to not be bound by patriarchal ideals of womanhood, and it is just as freeing for men to not be bound by patriarchal ideals of manhood. There is a great burden falsely placed on men in these patriarchal systems, and it is as unfair – and potentially damaging – to the men as it is the women.

As I write this, I’m sitting by a fire with my husband of nearly-ten-years. I read to him various drafts of this post, he’d nod in agreement with certain phrases and sentences, and offer suggestions about others. I’d edit and emerge with something new. Better. Different, but slightly. Mostly my words, some his, though all nearly indistinguishable from each other. Each sentence constructed from shared experiences and a conflation of our perspectives… as is every day of our lives.

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*Simply put, egalitarianism is the belief that men and women are completely equal and that personhood and roles are not dependent on gender. Complementarianism maintains that men and women “compliment” each other and are unique in roles and should act according to those roles to be pleasing to God. I’ll be quick to note that many complementarians do not intentionally use this as a tool to oppress women and would claim that their view of women is just as high as their view of men.