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.”


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!).


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.


*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.

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. 

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!

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.