Loving My Unlikable Neighbors

So one of my housemates is an asshat.

I say this, dear horrified Reader, knowing full well that name-calling on the internet is something we all need less of right now.  And I say this knowing that it is certainly unkind to tear someone apart in a forum s/he can’t see (and isn’t even aware of).  But I also say this from objective (read:  many others besides me) narratives and from subjective (read:  my own experience) narratives.  I say this from having several encounters with this particular individual that were, to put it lightly, unpleasant.  And I say this from exactly that place of hope for cleaner conversations in which we likely all sit right now in the wake of recent political injustices.  Why this particular person is an asshat doesn’t really matter to you since your experience with him/her should not be shaped by my interactions.  But s/he makes it really, really hard to do the Christian love thing.

WHICH IS PRECISELY WHY JESUS TELLS US TO DO IT.

7e2d5d2d9120ee69ea0c1c24bf0fe3eeThere is no shortage of people at which we can direct all manner of negative emotion right now.  It could be on a personal level, like my idiot housemate; it could be on a political level, like misogynistic senators; it could be on a celebrity level, or a random-stranger level, or whatever.  Don’t even try to tell me there aren’t people you seriously don’t love right now, Reader.  But the hell of it is, every single one of them is also a creation of God.

I was struck by this when I got back to the house after yet another ungodly long day of classes and meetings and all of the crazy that this semester is throwing at me.  The house where I live isn’t really a house; it’s kind of an apartment building with some shared open spaces on the first floor.  In that open space is a baby grand piano and this particular person was sitting (facing away from me) at the piano and pouring his/her heart out onto the keys.  S/he’s a pretty decent player and I just stood there and listened for a few minutes.  I love music and wish I were comfortable playing the piano (I have the most basic knowledge but haven’t made space to practice enough to gain any proficiency) and I just loved watching this person be so in that moment with the act of making art.  S/he was a person, a fully three-dimension person in that moment who loves and aches and laughs and plays the piano.

And is also an asshat.  Because the thing about loving other people, Reader, is that love does not mean everything becomes okay.  Let me unpack that:  if I love you, I love all of you, even the parts that drive me up the wall.  But when I love you, I do not allow you to be cruel or unjust; my love is not a permission slip to harm other people.  My loving you does not make you perfect.  Likewise, God love us all.  (YES, YOU.  GOD LOVES YOU.  DEAL WITH IT.)  But God’s love in and of itself does not make every action we do perfect.  We are still more than able to sin (trust me on this one, I know).  We are still more than able to be misogynist, or racist, or demeaning, or dismissive, or general asshats.  We are loved, but that love is exactly what calls us to be better versions of ourselves, to be more like the Jesus Who called us to such an impossibly difficult task as loving those who persecute us or even just really honk us off on a regular basis.

So what does this mean for my neighbor?  For starters, it means that this whole post is making me miss Mr. Rogers like whoa.  For seconds, it means that his/her actions are not excused because Jesus calls me to love him/her.  When s/he says things that are intentionally condescending to me or when s/he does things that negatively impact my ability to continue my day unharmed, that’s wrong.  Love doesn’t make that right.  It’s still wrong.  (For a lovely and well-written version of this in a more historical view, check out Magister’s examination of How to Read History Responsibly.)

But it also means that I don’t get to hate the very existence of this person.  I don’t get to talk about him/her with my friends and laugh about how annoying s/he is; I don’t get to ignore him/her when I see him/her in the kitchen like s/he’s not even real; I don’t get to tell you, Reader, all of the things that s/he does and have you agree with me about his/her asshattery.  I am called to love the personhood of this other, to respect that s/he also has ungodly long days.  When I call him/her out on the jerk things s/he does or says, I am called to do so from a position of knowing that Jesus died for him/her, too.  I don’t get to tear him/her down to bite size because I’m pissed off.  I don’t get to undermine his/her humanity.

Even though I really, really want to sometimes.

Because Jesus asks hard stuff.  And He knew it would be hard; this is that “pick up your cross“-level work.  This is “the rest of the world will think you’re stupid.”  This is “I am flipping the whole system over.”  Love is powerful.  It changes things, if it’s real.

Even me.  And, hopefully, even my neighbor.  Provided I don’t punch him/her in the face first.

 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you, that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same?”  (Matthew 5:43-46, WEB)

The Liability of Mobility

Happy New Year, Reader!  I hope your holiday went well, or at least was tolerable.  I didn’t get into any fistfights with family this year, so I’m counting that as a win.

The bar is low in my life.

But while I’m sitting at my desk waiting until a concert tonight (the centerpiece of which is Holst’s Planets suite, which is one of my favorites), I keep looking over my shoulder at the parking lot behind my building and worrying.  The thing is that I live in a city and, in cities, parking is an incredibly tricky concept:  there are lots of cars, but not lots of spaces.  And they’re currently resurfacing my parking lot, which means I had to find somewhere else to put my car.

First world problems, I know; you may even be wondering why I have a car, living in the city.  I don’t use it much here—I walk to anywhere within about a mile and a half radius, which is the vast majority of the pieces of my life.  But I have it so that I can leave here.  My friends are several states away and I can’t afford to buy a plane ticket when I want to go home to see them; I sometimes have people or places I need to visit that are definitely not within walking distance and aren’t on any of the bus lines, either.  (Sadly, my city doesn’t have a subway or el system.)  I also have it so that I, as an up-and-coming pastor, don’t have to rely on the vagaries of public transit (rather less reliable and far-reaching here than in, say, NYC) to be able to get to my church or the hospital or one of my parishioners’ houses.

I also, to be perfectly honest, still have my car because of the freedom in it.  When my grandfather finally had to give up his driver’s license because he simply couldn’t see anymore to drive safely, he didn’t give it up voluntarily.  His sons had to wrest it from him because it was his last link to not having to depend on the rest of the family to get him around; it was his way of telling himself he wasn’t being a burden.  I get that, at a visceral level.  As a hella independent woman, I love that my car affords me the opportunity to leave if I must and go wherever I want (provided, of course, she holds together; she is almost 15 now, but I can’t even handle the idea of her demise and so refuse to acknowledge it).

In America, a car is a ticket to anywhere you have enough gas to go.  A car is a home—literally, for some, and I admit to having spent some nights in my car when I was travelling and couldn’t afford another option.  And my car is currently sitting in a lot where it might be towed.

Before you lecture me on taking risks with the possibility of towing, dear concerned Reader, let me say a) I know; there’s a story about a van in Chicago and a middle school youth group that has made me painfully aware of city towing consequences, and b) I did play by the rules for part of this.  One of the frustrating things about this parking lot makeover is that we weren’t given any avenues about what to do with our cars by the folks who own the building, simply the command last night to move them (I’m bitter about this mostly because they were supposed to do this repair over the holiday break when most of us weren’t here anyway, but nooo, now we’re all in the way…damn right I’m being petty about it).  So this morning I actually put my car in a lot, which wasn’t cheap.  But I could only leave it there so long, and besides, I had to get to work.  For the remaining hours, it’s not so much that I couldn’t afford the cost of meters or garages or whatever (I could definitely jostle other things in the budget to make it work, because even in being poor I’m pretty fortunate about the financial burdens I have; trust me, I’m aware that I could be a lot worse off and this is a tiny expense); it’s that it’s frustrating to me that I should have to simply because a company couldn’t be bothered to honor its commitments and my building super couldn’t be bothered to help a bunch of graduate students re-house their cars for a day.

sesser-pd-012Why am I complaining about so small a thing, you may well ask?  And what on earth does this have to do with God, especially as the first post of a new year?  Part of it is the simple amount of mental energy I’m putting into this.  My car has been tucked into the back of a lot that is usually half-empty for about three and a half hours now hoping against hope that the school that owns the lot won’t do a random sweep, and I tell you I have been nervous the entire time.  It’s exhausting, quite frankly, and of a far higher cost than the stupid garage would have been.  The principle of the thing is super ridiculous beside my concern that I might have to go rescue my car from the impound.

But what if I were even half as aware of God as I am currently of my car?  I don’t mean that someone could take God away from me, but how often have I considered the freedom God gives with the dedication I have to the freedom of this vehicle?  In this new year, how do I understand God’s place in my life—in relation to the car or not?  How can I live with the passion of appreciating God even more than that with which I appreciate my car?

UPDATE:  The lot is finished, my car was not towed, and she’s safely back in her spot.  I’m almost ashamed of how much my body unwound, Reader, when I saw her sitting right where I left her.  When have I ever had that intense of a reaction to realizing God is still, and always, with me, right where I walked away from Him?

 

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  (Matthew 6:21, LEB)

Christmas Day: Women and Religion

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.

    On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned.
You have made the nation great;
    you have increased its joy.
They rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest,
    as those who divide plunder rejoice.
As on the day of Midian, you’ve shattered the yoke that burdened them,
    the staff on their shoulders,
    and the rod of their oppressor.
Because every boot of the thundering warriors,
    and every garment rolled in blood
    will be burned, fuel for the fire.
A child is born to us, a son is given to us,
    and authority will be on his shoulders.
    He will be named
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
There will be vast authority and endless peace
    for David’s throne and for his kingdom,
    establishing and sustaining it
    with justice and righteousness
    now and forever.

The zeal of the Lord of heavenly forces will do this. (Isaiah 9:2-7, CEB)

Merry Christmas, Reader!  It has been quite the journey this particular Advent; now we come to the “payoff,” so to speak.  Christ is born—alleluia!  The Church year has restarted and soon the calendar one will as well—but what shall happen to the women when Advent ends and the Church follows the very much male Jesus through His life?

Today’s particular passage from Isaiah, besides being a pair of great pieces from the Messiah oratorio by Handel, is applicable not least because there are so many ways in which we walk in darkness.  From the context of this female-affirming Advent series, we walk in the darkness of those who continue to overlook the gifts and presence of women within and outside of the Church.  We walk in the darkness of humorous nativities that still don’t challenge the lack of women in our faith stories (you can have an iPhone but not a female angel, really?).  We walk in the darkness of those who are still arguing God intended women to be utterly submissive to men.  We walk in the darkness of clouded glass ceilings.  We walk in the darkness of having to choose and defend pronouns for God as though God actually has a gender and inclusivity of both “He” and “She” somehow challenges God’s ability to be God.  We walk in the darkness of inequity and injustice.

And oh, how good to see a great light.

In this passage Isaiah hails one who made the nation great—long before red hats ever proclaimed the campaign slogan, Cyrus of Persia sent Israelites back home to rebuild their temple after having been in exile for hundreds of years.  Christians of the early Church took the passage and remade it to recognize the risen Christ who would make all nations great in shattering the binding yokes and oppressors’ rods.  In this new place with this new ruler will be justice and righteousness flowing like the rivers Amos invoked in his prophecies.

feminism_fair_enidePart of that justice, part of that righteousness, is the Church’s commitment to honor its people through the year.  Mary and Elizabeth fade back into the Christian tapestry now that Jesus is born, but their voices are not silenced.  Mary continues to appear in Jesus’ life as an important figure, and other Marys and a Martha and many nameless women walk across that world-changing stage.  Women do not drop out of the narrative, then or now; their voices continue to be important, their gifts continue to deserve development, and their place in the work of bringing God’s reign into human life continues to matter.

So how can the Church work into this justice?  Listen to women’s stories; hear their voices without trying to correct them or reshape them.  If you are a woman and you feel comfortable doing so, tell your story; speak of what religion and faith mean to you and the places within your tradition where you find acceptance.  Actively seek to place women in leadership roles—and women, do not settle for not having them.  Learn about the damaging history the Church has with women and pay attention to the ways that those words and actions continue in the present day.  Challenge fellow Christians not to let passive sexism slide.  Challenge yourself to call out those who make crass comments or jokes to you.  Pray for guidance in relationships with those identifying as female.  Read through Scripture, paying attention to the places women are and aren’t.  Love the women around you, whether as a woman yourself or as an ally and supporter.  Recognize that Jesus, Wonderful Counselor, did not turn away from women, and neither can we.

Merry Christmas.  May the love, the joy, the hope, and the peace of the season go with you to your places of celebration.  May the coming year truly bring us closer to the increased joy of a land on which light has dawned and women and men are both understood to be gifted and called into the priesthood of all believers equipped to go and bring that light to a dark world waiting for good news.

Advent, Week Two: Peace

Comfort, comfort my people!
    says your God.
Speak compassionately to Jerusalem,
        and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended,
    that her penalty has been paid,
    that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins!

A voice is crying out:
“Clear the Lord’s way in the desert!
    Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!
Every valley will be raised up,
    and every mountain and hill will be flattened.
    Uneven ground will become level,
    and rough terrain a valley plain.
The Lord’s glory will appear,
    and all humanity will see it together;
    the Lord’s mouth has commanded it.”

A voice was saying:
    “Call out!”
And another said,
    “What should I call out?”
All flesh is grass;
    all its loyalty is like the flowers of the field.
The grass dries up
    and the flower withers
    when the Lord’s breath blows on it.
    Surely the people are grass.
The grass dries up;
    the flower withers,
    but our God’s word will exist forever.

Go up on a high mountain,
    messenger Zion!
Raise your voice and shout,
    messenger Jerusalem!
Raise it; don’t be afraid;
    say to the cities of Judah,
    “Here is your God!”
Here is the Lord God,
    coming with strength,
    with a triumphant arm,
    bringing his reward with him
    and his payment before him.
Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock;
    he will gather lambs in his arms
    and lift them onto his lap.
    He will gently guide the nursing ewes.  (Isaiah 40:1-11, CEB) 

No justice, no peace!” we have heard many times this year.  “Peace” has come to mean “silence,” “acceptance,” “docility.”  “Peace” has come to mean not the absence of strife but the ignorance of it, the half-closed eyes that cannot or will not see it. The women of the Church do not want that kind of peace.

“Peace” is that which is often “passed” in church services, a synonym for greeting the others seeking peace in that hour.  Yet how often do we bring peace into a service, no matter our gender, in the heartache of a broken world?  How often do we have it to give?  If we are not at peace, if we are not still within our souls, how shall we pass anything but turmoil to our neighbors?  Shall we simply sit silent while greetings flow around us?  For women, the silence is both no option and the only option.  “Peace” is what many say as a way of saying, “stop talking.”  The chafing bonds of Paul’s injunctions spoken in a different time of specific context close women’s mouths in many denominations and they are told to be at peace, to have faith in this God-blessed structure.  “Peace” has become shorthand for a false tranquility that many women are told to feel so as not to be overly emotional, so as not to be disruptive, so as not to overturn the idea that women are somehow inherently gentler, more peaceful.

The Church must stop conflating peace with submission.  The Church, here in the expectant waiting of Advent with breaths caught in hope of all that the coming birth might do, must comfort its people, must “speak compassionately to Jerusalem” and to every city, to every nation, to every woman that “her compulsory service is ended.”  The Church must recognize that all are invited to see the glory of God, that there is neither male nor female in Christ, that the vision of the heavens is to see the valleys and the downtrodden raised up.

Peace is not silence.  Peace is not acquiescence.  Peace is not the status quo remaining unexamined or unchanged.  Peace is the active inclusion of the full body of Christ, peace is the ability to live without fear, peace is the solid truth that equity is part of God’s vision for God’s creation.  Eden was at peace when woman was included and valued; the false hierarchy of the Fall has no place in God’s heaven.  Peace comes when voices are raised to challenge the culture in which the Church exists, taking on the songs of the season like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” because people of faith will not be complicit in the denigration of women’s choices.  Peace comes when male leaders, both lay and ordained, empower women within their congregations to speak God’s word as pastors, liturgists, teachers, and board members. Peace comes when we challenge the sacred texts speaking of sin and “she” in one sentence; peace comes when we teach and learn that women are not inherently more sinful than men no matter how many times female pronouns are attached to wicked cities or abstract ideas.  Peace is something that we make happen; it does not come on its own but requires our midwifery as the people of God actively birthing peace.

Peace cannot be a command from another who does not acknowledge the anger, the sorrow, the pain, the distance held within; peace must be a choice to be calm in our very souls because we actively decide to rest.  Peace comes as shalom, a wholeness of our very selves.  To the women of the Church, to the women of the world who wait in strife this second week of Advent says “peace” not as a directive but as a gift as yet undelivered.  “Peace,” it offers, knowing that peace has not come just yet, that action is still required though weary hearts are worn by the howling winds of all that is not peaceful.

May you find peace because you have chosen, in the full power of your own agency and value, to receive it as the gift of a God fully aware of all that is not at peace yet.  May peace, like hope, be your armor and strength.

Greetings from the Wicket Gate

In case you’re wondering where that is, here’s a short explanation.  As Magister so rightly pointed out, everywhere I go is the Land of Pilgrims, but I’m definitely in a different geographical spot than I was a week ago.  And you still don’t need to know exactly where that is; as ever with this blog, I want what I’m doing to be more important than who I am or where I’m living.  I also want you, Reader, to be able to map your own pilgrimage onto parts of mine, not because we’re doing the same thing but because any similarities our paths have may help us understand each other and this God Who sees the whole of it that much better.

So I’m here, and I realize that the metaphorical name for it doesn’t quite fit; as with any borrowing of metaphors, it’s not perfect.  I’m at seminary (at long last, you might be saying) and to say that it is the only narrow way to the King’s Highway would be a terrible miscarriage of what seminary is and what the King is expecting of His people.  But for me, Reader, this is a start to the journey even as it’s a continuation of what I’ve been doing and what God has been doing through me.

For now, I wanted to check in and let you know I’d safely arrived; thank you for your prayers and hopes for me in the transition, as it was quite a whirlwind.  I’m now mostly unpacked (no one needs this many towels, where did they all come from?) and convinced that I’m never allowed to have a full-sized house since I accrue stuff at an alarming rate if I have space for it.

And if I don’t.

It’s funny how one of my primary desires is to find home here—and, equally, to accept that I won’t.  My heart was left behind in the Land of Pilgrims and I don’t see that changing any time soon; I lost it in church this morning as I drowned under the first wave of homesickness for my family, my congregation, my rhythms and rites.  Yet even in that moment of missing people and place so much it hurt to breathe, the service reminded me that God goes where I go—rather, I go where God goes because He was there way ahead of me, waiting.  Communion here still involves bread and grape juice and the challenge of community just as it has in so many churches not only in this country but in others.  Music here—some of it the same that we sang at camp, which I think was God being rather heavy-handed in underlining the continuity—still has so much variety and breadth and is still calling me to pay attention to God’s presence in this sacred space.  The Bible here is still God’s word, and Jesus goes by the same name here.  Yes, it’s a whole different world and my home church doesn’t have a jazz trumpet in the praise band, but God is God is God is God no matter where I am, geographically or spiritually.

What an incredible gift.

And in the midst of all this change, I’m still connected to that family, that home; technology, that hated love of mine, has ensured that Interpreter, Prudence, and several others have been at my very fingertips while I navigate orientation and moving in and unpacking and job interviews and all manner of things that are oh-so-daunting.  The relationships will change, for sure, and I can’t say that I’m thrilled about that, but change does not have to equal challenge.  In fact, having them come along for this adventure can make the relationships that much more multi-dimensional.

And you, Reader, come with me.  No matter where you are, we remain in this corner of the internet together—and I can’t tell you what a gift it is to know that you are still here exploring with me, cheering me on, sharing parts of yourself and accepting these offered parts of myself.  Thank you for being my travelling companion, Reader.

And hang on.  This gate is going to be pretty intense.

 

 

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad and easy to travel is the path that leads the way to destruction and eternal loss, and there are many who enter through it.”  (Matthew 7:13, AMP)

Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth

Another.

We don’t really talk about shootings anymore, we talk about another shooting, another bombing, another loss of what could have been.  Our hearts fill and our stomachs empty at having another death before we’ve truly internalized the last one, before we’ve pulled our flags back to the tops of their staffs, before we’ve understood what happened.  Our hearts are hardening, thicker than Pharaoh’s as we hear the tears on 24-hour loops until we cannot hear anymore, we cannot cry anymore, we cannot know any more.  Our hearts have broken so many times that the pieces no longer stay together, even with the strongest glue, the hardiest tape.

How long must I take counsel in my soul
    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?  (Psalm 13:2a)

I have no more answer for these, no more energy to refute those who say that black lives cannot matter unless we bury them under the suffocating banners proclaiming that all lives matter, that surely proclaiming love of everyone means that everyone is loved.  I cannot continue speaking when my throat is dry, my voice rasping from saying that I am not anti-police for being anti-police-brutality, that I can mourn the five dead officers from Dallas even as my sorrow burns into anger for Philando Castile, for Alton Sterling.  I do not understand how better to fight a system from which I benefit, in which I am uncertain of what to change but certain that change must happen.

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
    light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
 lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
    lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.  (Psalm 13:3-4)

Yet to You, o God, I return if only because I have nowhere else I can think of going.  Interpreter opened the sanctuary today for a prayer vigil and I took lunch to go because I wanted that safe space to grieve, to massage my hardened heart back into feeling.  Few lights were on, allowing the sun streaming through the stained glass to provide illumination, allowing shadows to linger on the edges of the room.  Monastic chant played quietly as he lit one candle for the shooter(s) of Dallas for that person, too, is God’s creation.  Only a handful of us were able to come to this space and we lit candles for the officers, for the survivors still fighting, for the civilians.  The lighter proved difficult and so we used one of the acolyte candlelighters, bathing bruised souls in the old, old traditions of the Church and the shifting drops of flame.  We wept and prayed for all that is not changing, for the courage to continue believing and acting as though change is truly possible.

Oh that my head were waters,
    and my eyes a fountain of tears,
that I might weep day and night
    for the slain of the daughter of my people!  (Jeremiah 9:1)

There will be no post next week, Reader, because I am going back into the world of camping to act as counselor once more with middle schoolers.  Prayer is most welcome for me and how much counseling costs me emotionally, spiritually, and physically, but also for these kids.  How do I spend a week assuring them of the love of God when we all wait with shortened breath for when it is our loved ones, ourselves who die?  How do I tell them of God’s power and presence when our streets are not safe, our wars have crossed the seas to nestle in our beds and minds, our fears of those who are Different Than Us cause us to deny our own eyes and say there is no problem, there is no injustice, there is no reason to say that some lives seem to matter less than others?

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.  (Psalm 13:5)

I preached last week on the places we expect God to give us great miracles, show-stopping spectacles of power in proof of the movement of the Spirit; I preached on how we cannot make God fancy, how ours is sometimes a God Who is not in the wind or the thunder but in the still, small voice.

Reader, sit with me a moment that we might breathe together, that we might listen for that quiet Presence, that we might remember hope when it feels there are only bullets and pain, that we might light a candle to guide our way.

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow—
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.
 (Great Is Thy Faithfulness, stanza 3)

 

 Thus saith Jehovah: A voice hath been heard in Ramah, the wail of very bitter weeping,—Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted for her children, because they are not.  (Jeremiah 31:15, DARBY)

The Broken Body of Christ

I realized yesterday that apparently 2016 is Year of the Church Conferences:  Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (PC[USA]), The United Methodist Church (UMC), Unitarian Universalists (UU), the Orthodox churches, the Church of the Brethren (COB, but this is less impressive because they hold one every year), the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS, also known as Mormons; if I include the UUs, I can’t leave out the Mormons even though they also have a conference every year), the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) are all holding denomination-wide conferences this year.

And that’s just the ones I know about from friends and acquaintances.

I have no idea why this year is so big for church politics.  Maybe every however many years is this big and it’s just that I’m paying attention now. Maybe it’s because we’re all gearing up for next year, which is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses.  (I know I’m excited.)  Maybe it’s that we’re getting together more often in the face of a world that freaks us out rather a lot.

Whatever the reason, it’s a churchy political year.  I don’t think it’s at all an accident that it’s also a secular political year, because try as we might we churchy folk are most certainly in the world and often of it, too.  So what do churchy politics look like?

For my denomination, they look a little bipolar.  I won’t here speak of General Conference, which is the denomination-wide one, because I didn’t go to that.  But one of the things I love about Annual Conference (which, in the United Methodist Church, involves the conference level; conferences are regional bodies that usually correspond to a state or couple of states–e.g. there’s the North Georgia Conference, the Susquehanna Conference, the Dakotas Conference–or, outside the U.S., to a country or couple of countries–e.g. the Germany Central Conference or the Liberia Annual Conference) is the worship.  It’s not even necessarily whether the worship is good (although it almost always is) but that it’s wrapped into everything we do.  Starting the morning?  Worship!  Shifting to a new part of the agenda?  Worship!  Having a particularly difficult conversation before a vote?  Prayer!  Need to bring the floor to order?  Hymns!

It’s a living enactment of 1 Thessalonians 5:17, which is one of only about five verses I have memorized and it’s totally because it’s so short.  It’s a taste of monastic life in the sense of building an acknowledgment of God into everything we do.  And I love that because the normal life I live outside of AC is pretty secular and it is way too easy for me to reach the end of a day or a week and be like, “O hai God, thanks for hanging around.”

But one of the things that I hate about AC is that we cut our business away from that worship even more cleanly than in the day-to-day world.  It can feel like there’s no God in the budget, or in the legislative committees, or in the votes to close down unused churches.  We try, and I thank God for the many ways that we try, but it’s super hard to be worshipful when talking about parliamentary procedure.  The happy clappy spirituality of belting out Here I Am, Lord can be difficult to translate into voting on an amendment to an amendment to an original motion adding a sentence to a proposed statement of unity (which happened this year, really).

So how do we work as the people of God, as the Bride of Christ, as the hands and feet building the Kingdom?  I appreciate the frustration of the people who want to do away with denominational structures and go back to the early church that had way fewer rules, and I think they’re partly right.  But I don’t think we can go back; we’re too big.  Christianity has shaped the world, especially the Western hemisphere, in a way currently unmatched by any other religion.  We can’t pretend that rules, regulations, procedures, and conversations aren’t important.

And we shouldn’t try–our conferences, despite themselves, are doing good things.  At my conference this year we committed ourselves to continuing the conversation about our denomination and sexuality; we decided that gender and sexuality could no longer be factors considered in the ordination process for new clergy; we bound ourselves to standing against discrimination against Muslims, equipping and sending each church to stand in their communities in partnership; we decided that all churches in our conference will remain gun-free zones no matter what the state government says; we pledged to advocate with all of our resources for restorative justice to fight against the prison pipeline that so disproportionately tears apart minority communities; we gave authority to UMCOR to continue working in areas affected by natural and man-made disasters; and we even passed a budget.

Some of that might seem to be window dressing, speaking of action rather than doing it, and some of that might truly be window dressing.  But it is still the Church realizing that we must engage this world we are in, it is the Church trying to marshal its resources of literally thousands of people (there were almost 3,000 at this conference, I think) to have any reality in praying “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Yes, it gets nitpicky and exhausting, and yes, there are definitely lots of differing ideas about what God’s will really is in all this legislation.  We are the Body of Christ, but we are not perfect.  Like our world, we are broken; but, I realized today, so was Christ.  His body was broken, shattered; we remember this in every communion we take.  But it did not stay there; the Body, like her King, is not meant to limp along forever.  One day we will be raised in perfection—complete with scars from all the times we have fallen, but living.

Not a bad thing for which to keep striving.

 

 

Avoid foolish and thoughtless discussions, since you know that they produce conflicts.  (2 Timothy 2:23, CEB)