Category Archives: Ministry

Three Little Birds

A few years ago now, I was driving my niece somewhere. Beats me what the destination was, but it was the drive that made it memorable. At some point, Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds came on, and not being a particularly big Marley fan, I wouldn’t have turned it up, were it not for Sarahberry. The sweetness of her voice singing “don’t worry about a thing; every little thing is gonna be alright,” made me want to sing along. It turned a nothing moment into one I desperately tried to prolong.

Earlier this week, I was working on music trivia questions for work and I came across one for Bob Marley. The associating memory of my niece made me smile, so I opened a tab and found a stream of YouTube videos and listened while I worked. When Three Little Birds came on, I closed my eyes, smiled, and sang while I let the memory wash over me. A lot of life has been lived since that day, and I thought about how often it felt like I couldn’t make it anymore.

Last week, I talked to a former mentor, catching up on things. She was happy to hear that most of life is going well for me, or at least a lot better than it had for a few years. It feels strange to be on the other side of things, but I like it.

It was only three songs later in the playlist that I heard devastating news about a friend. A dear one, one who was unquestionably there for me during everything. Suddenly, the light hearted afternoon had betrayed me. I was stuck for words.

I got up and began my rounds of corralling people for the afternoon activity and as I walked up the stairs, I wanted to cry for my friend. “You have some explaining to do,” I arrogantly said to God as I stomped up the last few steps, knowing good and well that God doesn’t answer to me at all. God should have known that my friend doesn’t deserve this; I could have pointed God in the direction of a few people who are due for some retributive karma if I had known that this crapstorm was about to fall on someone.

I still don’t know what to say to my friend. I hate not being able to fix things. The line that keeps running through my head is what circled around me when my grandmother died: sometimes, the cruelest thing is that the world keeps spinning anyways.

Eventually, I think Marley is right. It has taken a long time to get to where I am, where more things feel right than wrong. The hard part is the “mean time,” when everything feels shattered and messy and irreparable. My friend was there for me, and all I can do is be there for my friend. Even if I don’t know how.

Take It – I Dare You.

You stripped me of my
rank in a crowded Starbucks
on dismal and damp Sunday
evening on your way home
from my war zone.
Your day had been calm
and joyful and you asked
me if it really had been all that bad.
Fuck you.

You mocked my scars and
turned off your ears.
You are done with me.
You don’t care about me, and
to be honest, the feeling is mutual.

But you lazy, incompetent fools:
you half-assed it, again.
You canceled my legal status
as a minister, as if my
ordination had anything
to do with you.

I am ordained, whether you
like it or not. God did that;
if you have a problem,
take it up with God.

Because so far, God has not
taken it away. I preach,
though my sermons are
now meted out in segments,
dispensed more often as acts
of love that don’t make sense
to the angry and selfish sheep
who frankly piss me off most days.

God still places me
with those who need counsel,
but not in my office
with cups of coffee and
planned responses, but behind
a truck stop counter, when she
told me she is terminal, or
she told me she cuts herself
to ignore her pain.

Rank is of no consequence.
Yours does not make you
a minister, just as losing
mine does not stop me
from it.

You took my title but damn
if you didn’t cock it up again.
Because you didn’t take
my ministry, my sermons, my
goddamned heart.
You couldn’t if you wanted to.

They were never yours to
give in the first place.

We’re ministers – even when we’re not. – BobbyJeff

Clearly, I was pretty angry when I wrote that. Some moments, I still am, and those moments are getting fewer and farther between. I’ve gone in circles about posting it, more because it’s just terrible. But it’s honest, and honesty is what I aim for more than anything else. If nothing else, hopefully, it will help in some way, whether it is that someone will understand me better, or will be able to relate and feel a little less alone. My most frequent emotion relating to the trauma that happened is a sense of outrage over injustice. The things that weren’t fair, the things that are overlooked now, the people who failed to do their job without consequence, the annoying prices I have to pay over and over again… It all adds up to a lot of annoyance. But days are getting better, I promise. 

A Surprisingly Big Voice

My family does not do quiet well. I blame my father, though it’s not quite his fault. See, he’s a very big man, standing 6’9″, so his lungs and vocal chords are bigger, which means his natural speaking voice is much louder than average. My siblings and I inherited that volume (even if I didn’t get much height), and we have natural “outdoor voices.” As if that isn’t enough, throw in a few years of choir training and I have never, ever needed a microphone. I’ve never been afraid of public speaking, either.

Yesterday, I was in a rough place. I took a long shower. I cussed. I cried. I messaged a friend who has been here before, having resigned ministry a few years ago herself. I sat on my bed with a towel on my head and did the only thing I could think of: I wrote. I wanted to write about how unfair it was, how angry I am sometimes, how justice doesn’t seem to be winning. Instead, I wrote what was harder.

I wrote some of the things I cannot utter out loud to my little brother and his wife, who are about to enter into full time ministry. He may be more than a foot taller than me, but I am still the big sister who is terrified that her little brother will experience some of the same hurts. So I wrote, thinking not only of my stories, but those of other officers. Though I want all of the cadets to have fewer troubles than I did, my deepest concern is for them. I needed to tell them, but when I need it the most, sometimes that “outdoor voice” shrinks and I have to write it instead. I feared sounding foolish, or arrogant, or jumbled. If I wrote it, I supposed, I could feel that I had said what needed to be said, even if they never saw it. It was just some words on my little blog, after all. I didn’t even tell then that I wrote it.

I just wrote it. And shared it like the rest of them. And my friend shared it. And another one did.

And then my meek little cop-out got shared again and again. Then, someone in the UK shared it and suddenly I got almost 400 hits in about an hour and a half. Considering few of my posts have come close to that EVER, that’s a lot for me. In a little over a day, nearly 1000 hits from Iowa to the Isle of Man to Egypt. It has been read by people on four continents so far. Not sure of how it ended up like that, I asked a group of friends if they had seen it somewhere. A few had, and I peeked at what had been said.

They were agreeing with me. They thought it was bold but not offensive. They liked my writing.

Suddenly, I had a big voice again, whether I meant to or not. And I was a little less afraid of it, but only slightly. I have reread that blog fifty times if I’ve read it once, half-panicked that I sound stupid in it. When I started my blog, I didn’t think it would have much consequence. Big-picture, it doesn’t, but it does have quite a bit of consequence for me. The last twenty-four hours have restored a little bit of the voice I lost when I stopped preaching. They have reminded me that the words I have can be big. That my thoughts have a little bit of substance to them.

I’m not saying that I’m going to start writing presidential speeches any time soon, but maybe –maybe- my voice doesn’t have to be so small. 

Dear Cadets

Dear cadets, especially Jeff and Sheena:

image

What's left of my uniform

You’ve been waiting for years. Some of you have been waiting for decades, paying off debt, selling homes and cars,  working through complicated hearts and minds in order to get into – and through – training. You’ve prayed, studied, lost sleep, sat through lectures so dull that you missed the joy-filled physics lectures from high school. You’ve listened to officers who’ve “been there,” heard about the glory days and the horror stories.

You’re weeks from commissioning. You’re working on the songs you’ll sing, practicing walking and sitting, staring at the commissioning uniform and trim hanging in the closet. It’s not much of a change, really. Red trim and a star instead of blues and bars. You can’t wait. You’re a bundle of nerves and excitement. Red shoulders… You’ve been waiting.

I am hardly the voice that your instructors want you to hear. I am the warning, the cautionary tale. Maybe that’s why I want to say something to you at all.

I used to wear red trim. I have been where you are. When I was in training, my session mates were sure we would be the exception, that none of us would leave. On one hand, I wish that had been true, that some of us had had different experiences as officers. On the other, I knew it was unrealistic.

I hope that your experience is so much different from mine.

For whatever it might be worth, here are the things I wish I had known years ago:

1. Your ordination is not given by The Salvation Army. They may be the ones to legally register you, but ordination comes from God. This is, perhaps, the most important thing. God gives you your ordination, your pastor’s heart, your love for people. That doesn’t go away. Ever. Never ever ever.

2. Most “fire” will be “friendly fire.” Unless you are in a developing country or one riddled with war, chances are, the most devastating and perpetual conflict will be with those in your corps and with other officers. Become students of conflict resolution. Try to make sure you are sending out as little fire as possible.

3. Your faith will change. You will have seasons of doubt. These are generally good things. If your faith doesn’t change in unexpected ways, you’re doing it wrong.

4. Position statements are not doctrine. There is no doctrine about abortion, homosexuality, pacifism, or the death penalty. You don’t have to agree on position statements. You won’t agree with everyone on them. This does not mean they, or you, get to judge another’s state of salvation/faith/intelligence because it is different.

5. Do not let the SA become all that you are. Please, my darlings, hold tight to what makes you so special. Stay weird, even if it means you’re not at the Cool Kids Table at officer’s councils. Keep on with your DC Comics glee, your intense love of the Oakland Raiders, your knitting needles. If you are a Cool Kid, sit with the dorks. The quiet officers, the officer who brings a Muppets blanket when she’s cold, or the one who laughs way too loudly.

6. There is life outside of the SA. There is ministry after officership. I know, you’re either nodding along and saying “I know, I know,” or you’re absolutely certain that it won’t be you, because you’re in for life. However, life, and officership, will take you in directions you cannot imagine. Please don’t ever think that this is the only way for you to fulfill your calling.

7. DHQ and THQ are not always right. Never be afraid of them. Ever. They only have as much influence and power as you give them. Do not let them intimidate you. Intimidation is the primary tool of the insecure fool and impotent manager. In the same vein, do not think that the red on your shoulder is license to intimidate employees or soldiers.

This may sound like a gloomy list, and I suppose that, when compared to a lot of what you have heard, it is. My goal isn’t to frighten you or make officership sound horrible. I just wanted to tell you a few things I learned that weren’t in the brochure, some truths that I wish I had known and held onto during my time wearing red.

You are both stronger and more fragile than you could possibly understand right now. Time and strangers will help you discover that. Whatever your journey is, however long it lasts, you are loved. By God, by me, and by every little boogery kid that walk through the door (even when none of us seem to be good at communicating that).

Please take care of yourself. Ask for help. Let others help you. Be ready to help others.

And breathe. No matter how many people are in the audience, just breathe. You can do this.

-Cindy

The Girl and the Warring Wolves

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who lived in a bland house, whose family had little money to spare, and who was burdened with a mind and heart that waged great battles between themselves. To many, she was invisible. To the government, she was a number. To herself, she was flawed.

But to her grandmother, she was lovely. Brilliant. Kind.

She loved spending time with her grandmother, sitting on the brown, worn carpet, eating lemon drops, and listening to stories. These stories, told over and over, belonged to both of them. They were the fabric of their shared history, the sole possession no one else could claim.

The girl felt sorry that she could offer nothing so prized in return. Her heart wanted to tell her grandmother how much she loved her. Her brain told her heart that everything fell short. Around and around, they went, warring over how they were going to resolve the matter.

The war raged on as she packed two bags for the walk through town to her grandmother’s. She hoped that the time walking would help her piece something together. The bag of food was heavier than she had anticipated as lifted it off the counter and it fell from her arms and landed with a thud. She picked it up, telling herself that carrying the bag was the least she could do, hoping she had not broken the jar of pickles that was packed with the things her mother had bought for her grandmother on her recent trip out of town. In the other bag, she carried two sweaters and a pair of horribly ugly, but practical, shoes her grandmother had forgotten at her house.

Her hair in a pony tail, sunglasses on her nose, she held a bag in each hand as she walked down the driveway and headed west. She breathed in, and as soon as she thought she had caught the notion of lilacs in the air, she sneezed, verifying their presence. Figures, she thought, everything I enjoy comes back to bite me.

Enjoy it anyways, her heart said. Lilacs are here to be enjoyed, it whispered, the scent getting stronger as she rounded the corner and saw the row of bushes lining the street, beautiful purple and pink bunches crowding their branches. She couldn’t resist them, and she nearly got petals up her nose when she leaned in, smothering her face in them, half of a deep breath in when she sneezed rather loudly.

“Do you need a tissue, honey?” came a voice from the other side of the bush.

She walked to the edge of the row and peeked around. An old man sat on a green painted park bench. He held a small plastic pack of tissues out to her, and she took it.

“Thanks.” She wiped her nose, shoved the used tissue in her pocket, and wasn’t quite sure what to do next. She had to get to her grandmother’s house, but the old man held her gaze as if he wasn’t through with her.

“My Mariann used to do the same thing. She loved lilacs, they were her favorite. In fact, she planted these bushes. She said they reminded her of the bushes that grew next to her swing in the yard when she was little. But they made her pay,” he laughed. “She would be out here all day in the spring, sneezing and wiping her eyes. By supper, her nose was as red as a clown’s.”

He hardly seemed to be talking to her until he blinked. “Did you know my Mariann? She used to work at the library, in the magazine room.”

The girl shook her head.

“Ah. Well, I suppose that was probably years before your time. It’s a great story, though, of Mariann in the magazine room. Would you like to hear it?”

“Um, OK, but I kinda can’t stay very long,” she said, sitting next to him on bench, grateful to have a place to set the bags down for a moment.

“Yes yes,” he said, but it didn’t seem at all like he had heard her. “I was a young man, a few years older than you, and I will start by telling you I was horribly in love. Oh, I hung on her every word, and knew every speck of her eye and every freckle on her face. She was perfect, and I knew she and I would be together forever. She would think so too, if she knew I existed.

“She worked in the magazine room at the library, where I saw her one day, when I needed an article about President Truman. I fell in love right when I saw her. I went back every day, requesting articles and back issues of Life Magazine until the day I left for boot camp.

“Soon, I was overseas, up to my knees in mud and pining for her. My mother, bless her, wrote often, and she added my name to the list at church. I wasn’t one to attend unless my mother prodded me through the chapel door, but the letters from her church friends were kind enough. One was from a young lady who wrote exceptionally well, and she and I began to write to each other more and more. I couldn’t help but fall in love with her, even though I was a bit sad to let go of my love for the girl in the magazine room.

“I didn’t come home for nineteen months, but her letters promised she would wait for me and welcome me home, and that she did. I was twenty-one years old when I stepped off the train, and saw her: my Mariann, in a dress the color of those lilacs there, holding my name on a sign like a cab driver!

“All that time, I had loved her, never knowing that the one writing to me was that same girl from the magazine room.” He finally paused. “So it was meant to be, me and my Mariann.”

The girl sat still, waiting.

“Someday, you’ll be that girl in the magazine room,” he said, placing his hand on hers. “You will get to live your own fairy tale, like my Mariann and I did. There will be dragons and earthquakes and miracles of your own, but oh, what an adventure it will be!”

The man stood, slowly.

“And here I am, an old man, keeping you from it!” He smiled and offered her a hand to help her stand, an unnecessary gesture done out of habitual chivalry.

It was then that the girl realized how long she had sat there, and knew she would have to walk faster to get to her grandmother’s before she started to worry. She picked up her bags and awkwardly smiled at him. “Thanks. I mean, well, um. She sounds like she was a nice lady.”

The words felt stupid falling out of her mouth.

“She was. And you’re a gentle one to listen to an old man talk. Go on, and pay attention to your adventure so that you can tell it to someone some day.”

The girl walked out of the yard and headed uphill. Of course I would have to walk twice as fast when I’m walking UP hill! she grumbled to herself.

Four blocks later, she gave up on switching the bags from one arm to the other; both arms were tired and she still had three blocks to go. The wind picked up and the sun seemed to be setting faster than usual. She pulled the hood on her sweatshirt up and tightened the strings.

The wind took that as a challenge, and began blowing into her face.

Despite her usual anxiety about hidden places, she turned into the alley behind the hardware store, a path that would save her both distance and time.

She was a little more than halfway through when she heard hushed, frantic speech that she couldn’t quite make out. Her heart pounded. She couldn’t breathe. To turn around would be a longer trek to the open streets, but to keep going could mean an unwelcome encounter.

It’s OK. Be cool. If you’re cool and act like everything is fine, they’ll leave you alone.

She tried to keep a steady pace and fake confidence.

She heard a sniff. A little rattling metal. A sigh, but not a human sigh. Her heart pounded even faster as she neared the end of the hardware store.

She saw the end of the sleeping bag first. Then the end of a tail. She slowed and looked around the corner of the building and saw a woman trying to make herself comfortable, braced against the wall, soothing the shabby dog that sniffed and sighed next to her. The woman made eye contact with the girl but said nothing, pulling the sleeping bag in a little tighter.

The girl stopped.

“Are you OK?” she asked.

The woman continued to fidget with the sleeping bag.

“Are you cold?”

The woman looked at the dog.

Why are you bothering? It’s not like you can do anything about it, her brain nagged at her, before her heart chimed in: give her the bags.

The girl felt helpless. This woman needed more, needed a rescue, a superhero, a… something else. Someone else. What good would it do to give her the bags, really? The bags really weren’t hers to give. But…

“I think it’s going to get colder, and I know it’s not a lot, but I have some food, and…” She set the bags down in front of the woman, who still said nothing. She turned and walked down the alley. She tried not to be so obvious about it when she looked sideways as she turned, and saw the woman laying back down, pulling the sleeping bag up over her shoulders, which were now snug into the confines of what used to be her grandmother’s sweater.

She walked, almost running for another block. She was disappointed. She was supposed to have used this time to come up with something good, something profound and worthy, but instead, she had only bought herself more trouble. She would have to explain why she was late, and why she had given away what wasn’t even hers. She was barely up the front steps when her grandmother flung the door open.

“Where on earth have you been!? I expected you to – And where is – why is your face so red, are you OK?” Her grandmother spit out questions and half-questions faster than the girl could answer.

Grandma!” The girl nearly shouted.

Her grandmother stopped.

Not having had the time to put something polished together, she simply started talking. She told her about the lilacs and the old man, about his Mariann and the look on his face when he spoke of her. She told her about the dark pathway, when she was afraid until she found someone who was probably more afraid, about how her heart told her to give the bags to the woman, even if it wasn’t much. She told her about how she was supposed to have spent the time being clever and ran out of time.

The grandmother was silent.

She brought the girl over and sat on the brown carpet with her, reaching up onto the coffee table for the dish of lemon drops.

“My girl,” she finally said. “What you did today is better than words you could have said. You listened to the heart that needed to be heard. You shared without expectation. You’ve made me proud of who you are.”

“You’re not mad?”

“I was worried, but no, I’m not mad. The day didn’t end up like we had planned, but how can I be mad at you loving when there were people to be loved?”

Let’s Kill the Church!*

(((I am going to try to write this without ranting. I am likely going to fail.)))

Several years ago, I got mixed up with the “wrong people.” People who were on the fringe of my old denomination, who questioned the standard Sunday School answers, who read things from writers who are suspect… Who (mostly) thought like I did. Who felt alone like I did.

These glorious misfits became my tribe. When I fell into the group, we had less than a hundred people. Now, we are well past six hundred, and growing every day. They are the ones I turn to for prayer, the ones I pray for first, and who have been the Scotch tape and bubble gum that has held me together in dark times. We talk about everything from LGBTQ+ inclusion to pacifism to Australian immigration issues to fonts, food, and sports.

And we seem to be the thing the denomination fears more than anything.

They are afraid because they were sure we didn’t exist. Most of us were afraid to speak out because dissent or questions are frowned upon, so we didn’t know that others felt the same way. Now that we know and know of each other, we are less afraid. And when people lose fear, they gain power.

Leadership fears us because power is shifting. It’s a sickeningly patriarchal system, with immense power at the top of the structure, but that was much easier when the people at the bottom on the pyramid were less able to converse. It’s unfolding much like the power shifts during unionization efforts:
– The people at the bottom start talking.
– The people at the bottom want change.
– The people at the top don’t like that the people are talking.
– The people at the top are afraid of losing power, so intimidation and blame begins.

Right now, we are being blamed for driving people away from the church. Because four people have claimed that encounters with our group have influenced their decision to worship elsewhere, we are being blamed for harming the “Bride of Christ.” This is despite the admission from the accusers that those who left were quite possibly scapegoating. This is also despite the scores of people who have chosen to stay, return, or positively reconsider The Salvation Army because of our group. Leadership is “not interested” in discussing the overall impact of the group. They just want it to shut up and go away.

Well, Commissioners Seiler, Colonels Smith, and Colonels Bukiewicz: if we all walk, you are screwed. Off the top of my head, I can think of fifty units of US Central officers who are either members of the group or who agree but stay out because of manipulation and intimidation from insecure superiors. That is a whole division worth of officers. And do you want to even think about the number of employees and soldiers you would lose? That is at least another division worth of people. You would be screwed without us.

The group of people you wish would just shut up and lay down are people who work, sweat, and breathe the mission of loving God and loving others. We are the ones who dig The Salvation Army out of a lot of public relations holes, when we try to convince donors, clients, colleagues, and friends that The Salvation Army isn’t the bigoted mess that people see.

We have been accused of harming the church. While I am only speaking for myself here, I want to be exceedingly, abundantly clear: my mission is not to harm their “church;” my mission is to kill their church.

*I want to kill the church that is tyrannical in its response to diversity.
I want to kill the church that is abusive to its clergy and lay people.
I want to kill the church that is unwelcoming to the oppressed.
I want to kill the church that raises money in the name of social services and spends it on itself.
I want to kill the church that has taken over what can be a great organization only to replace it with a Republican regurgitation machine.

I don’t want to kill The Salvation Army. I still believe that many people within it are wonderful people, and its mission is respectable. However, I don’t hesitate to say that I am quite serious about killing the false church that has poisoned it.

Perhaps then a church that is not characterized by exclusion, monotony, secrecy, and intimidation will take its place, and the US Central Territory will actually look like the kingdom of God. A church focused on listening to and loving people won’t have to spend innumerable resources trying to sustain itself.

Until that day comes, I will continue to do my best to kill the church* by loving those it has pushed and kicked out of its doors. After all, that seems like a Jesus-y thing to do.

The Happy Little Heretic

Heretic. A crap ton of judgment, condemnation, and exclusion all wrapped up in one little word. It’s a heavy word, especially to those of us who put a great deal of study and consideration into where we stand. It’s also a word that gets thrown at me and some of my friends on a regular basis, most often from people who I think mean well, but who really come off as self righteous and arrogant instead.

I didn’t set out to be a heretic. I grew up in a very theologically and socially conservative denomination. I am the daughter of two preachers. I had quite a bit intentional, meaningful investment from goodhearted, Godly, loving adults who spent many hours over the years teaching and setting the example they hoped I’d follow. I am immensely grateful for all of it, and I cannot help but love them.

Teach a youth about the way she should go, even when she is old she will not depart from it. – Proverbs 22:6 (HCSB; pronoun changed, since I’m a woman)

This verse irritates the crap out of me because it is often used to imply that the outcome of a person is totally dependent upon one’s parents, which becomes a problem if the offspring ends up being an evil little monster. Life is more complicated than that. Like  with all proverbs, there is a general truth to it: kids follow examples set by others.

“I always wanted my kids to think for themselves, but I thought that they would end up thinking like me. I didn’t think about the fact that they might disagree.” My father said this to me years ago, when it was very, very evident that we disagree on a lot of things. Sometimes I think that the church sends really mixed messages to people: “Dare to think differently than the rest of society – be bold in your conviction – but if you don’t want to go to hell, you better agree with us!”

My parents and the other adults who raised and mentored me did a pretty good job, I think. I am a generally well functioning member of society who is most often kind and tries to love people, even when they are actively trying to make that a bigger challenge than it should be. I think for myself and try to keep a balance between feeling solid in my convictions and knowing that I don’t know everything. The problem, some may think, is that I came to conclusions that differ from their own. Conclusions that prompted one well-meaning friend to recently imply that I have made an idol out of “my God,” because my understanding of God is too different from her own.

So for kicks and giggles, I decided to list some of the “heretical” beliefs I have (at the moment, anyways; I’m always learning):

– I am kind of an agnostic Christian, to borrow a term from another pastor acquaintance. Basically, my study and experience tells me that there is a God, and that Jesus is the best human expression of what it means to be holy/divine, but there is a part of my brain that leaves the possibility that I could be wrong.

– I am sort of universalist in that I don’t think that salvation is limited to a super small group of people who get the secret, magical formula correct. I think we wrongly limit the image of God and grace when we limit try to limit who gets to have salvation. I’m not a total universalist, though, because I don’t quite think that people who keep evil hearts and never change experience salvation. Honestly, I’m still figuring this out, but I know that I think God’s grace is bigger than the church seems to think.

– I don’t think that salvation is limited to straight people and gay people who are celibate. I have way too many inspiring and devoted Christian friends who are LGBT+ to think that God rejects them because of this factor. Too often, they are defined as “gay Christian,” but that is too limiting. To describe or label them requires many more words: kind, compassionate, educated, intelligent, Godly, loving, funny, humble etc. Their example of love and grace is so often outstanding that I cannot fathom limiting them to the sole descriptor “gay Christian.”

– I don’t think sex outside of marriage is sinful. (Mom, pick your jaw up off the ground; I can already hear you using my full name.) There are tons of Biblical examples of sex with more than one spouse, and I’m not advocating on behalf of careless and dangerous promiscuity. But really, I have no problem with adults who have sex when they’re in a relationship. Be safe. Make sure consent is given and maintained. And stop the puritanical/Victorian fear of and control of sex.

– Swearing might be trashy or in poor taste, but it’s not sinful. Even a cursory look at scripture tells me that God is not concerned with whether or not I say “shit” when I smash my finger in the door but is concerned with whether or not my words – and heart – are arrogant or overbearing or unkind.

– I think the modesty movement in the church is actually pride and judgment wrapped up in long skirts and high necklines.

– I believe in science. I think young earth creationists are willfully ignorant of the God-given gift of science. I think anti-vaxxers are dangerous. I am baffled by climate change deniers who insist that they love and are inspired by the earth God created and yet so gleefully ignore the damage humans are doing to it. It’s probably where I am most guilty of being judgmental, but honestly, if you are so fearful of science that you reject it, I am not sure we are going to have very many conversations.

– I don’t think that the church or government or my friends or parents or anyone else should decide for me whether or not I have kids, and that includes my right to choose what happens (or doesn’t happen) in my uterus. Legal abortion doesn’t increase the number of abortions, it increases the safety of abortions. Criminalizing it doesn’t decrease the number of abortions, it makes it more dangerous to everyone involved – did “Dirty Dancing” teach us nothing?!? Similarly, it’s not my place to tell women what to do with theirs. If they want to have kid after kid after kid, that’s up to them and their partners.

– I think American patriotism/nationalism is idolatry. American flags have no place in chapels, and I find it hard to not roll my eyes when the military is put on a pedestal.

– Last one for today, a big one: I do not believe that the bible is the word of God. Jesus is the Word, the full expression of love and redemption. The bible is, as my old denomination subscribes, divinely inspired words about God written by humans (practically entirely men, though there are mutterings about women contributing to Hebrews and maybe some others). So reading it requires that I keep context in mind. I don’t think it’s inerrant, and that’s enough to make some people to dismiss what I say.

There are likely other things that would make the list if I wanted to think long and hard enough. Plenty of reasons for people to tell me that I’ve crossed the line, that I have gone too far to still call myself a Christian. Reasons for those who raised me to wonder what “happened,” not seeing that I have taken their instruction to think critically, study intentionally, and take my faith seriously only to have come to different conclusions.

I don’t enjoy being called a heretic. One of the reasons I chose to leave my old denomination was because of the incessant pleas from narrow minded conservatives to do so. I found that I had the strength to leave but not the strength to endure a lifetime of being told that I was not welcome, and had no place in their fellowship. Not that leaving was weak, but it is a different kind of strength. There are others who are strong enough to stay, who continue to serve and love and worship in spite of the calls of heresy. I appreciate their ministry and am hopeful because of them.

I do wish, though, that the church would more completely practice the “whosoever” it preaches. That we (because I am part of the church, too, and can be better at it) were less eager to accuse others of being wrong and more willing to listen to and learn from one another. I hope that we keep growing in our knowledge and understanding of God. My church reinforces the conviction that “God is still speaking,” and the corresponding need to keep listening.

I pray that God will keep me listening. That I won’t become so certain of myself that I become deaf. I also pray that we will have open hearts with one another, and understand that we can be unified through God’s spirit while holding different opinions.

The Message without the Motto

image

Digital art by Mary Ann Parks, Pennsylvania, 2/11/2015

My incomparable friend, Mary, shared this today. It wasn’t intended to, but it moves me.

It uses the colors and vague layout of our former denomination’s flag. For those who don’t know, it may not mean much. But for those who can see through the distress, the message of the gospel is there. The motto is gone – the trappings of the denomination are gone – but no matter how bruised, the message is still there. The gospel hasn’t gone anywhere.

My Friends, the SuperHeroes

If I had to choose, it really wouldn’t be much of a contest between Marvel and DC Comics – Marvel would win just about every time. That said, I happen to be friends with a family of superheroes that would probably fit right in with the DC gang.

image

SuperEwan being interviewed by the press on an Adventure Day!

Like every legend, it didn’t start out as a way to get publicity or notoriety; it started in the kind, epic heart of a little boy named Ewan, who wanted to help people who are homeless in Detroit, near where he lives. His parents decided to put Ewan’s heart into action, and through the magic of social media, it has become a cause that not only the family works on, but one that the community is helping make happen. Elderly widows, Boy Scout troops, and random strangers contact SuperEwan’s mom, Ange, and twice a month, they load up vehicles and take food, clothing, and other supplies to people who struggle. No questions asked. No names collected and turned into any agency. As far as I know, no one has ever been turned away.

SuperEwan is humble, silly, empathic, and smart. It’s no surprise that he is such an admirable kid when his parents are such welcoming, open-hearted people who continue to impress me with their honesty and grace. His younger siblings, a preschooler and a toddler, get in on it, too, packing baggies of toiletries and tagging along on “Adventure Days.”

If you haven’t seen his page already, pretty pretty please check out http://www.SuperEwan.org! There, you’ll find links to articles about their adventures, television interviews, and more. There are also ways for you to get involved, whether it’s a donation or reblog or other effort. There is a Facebook page, too, and he gets really excited about new likes/followers, do even if you can’t donate, a “like” will make him smile – and he has a great smile. SuperEwan is a nonprofit organization, meaning donations are deductible.

Gas Station Pastor

I should be sleeping. I have to be up for work in a few hours, and I’ll no doubt regret this in the morning, but I won’t sleep if I don’t write it.

A few months ago, my friend and fellow pastor told me about how often people seem to be drawn to him for the kind of listening ear and compassion that is the earmark of a good pastor, even when they don’t know he’s a pastor. I get it: he’s often a pastor as well as a friend to me, even though he didn’t necessarily sign up for the gig. I remember telling him that being a pastor doesn’t have to do with a title.

And then I resigned my role as professional pastor, and felt like my pastoring days were over.

I always felt weird thinking of myself as a pastor. I often feel like people are a huge mystery I’m always studying, only to find myself more and more bewildered by them. I certainly care for people, and have tried hard to maintain that, despite whatever hurts I’ve experienced. But pastor? I’m no meek Mother Teresa. I’ve spent days at hospital bedsides, but I can’t even wager a guess about how much of that time was painfully boring. Do you have any idea how often I (and the rest of the pastoring population) think “oh mercy, will you people stop talking and complaining for five stinking minutes!!!!” — only to immediately feel horrible for having had that moment of humanity? It’s in the billions of times, often before our first cup of coffee is done.

So because I felt so human in my pastoring, I often felt like I was missing something. Surely if I was a better pastor, I would feel less human. Less cranky. Less “strong-willed.” Don’t get me wrong: I spent all those hours in hospitals and listening and serving because it was what I wanted to do. It’s the only way I know to be, despite how human I am.

Officially, I am anything but a pastor now. Given the total crap economy in this former industrial city, the best job I could get with some measure of immediacy was as a manager at a truck stop. In a lot of ways, I hate it.

“I have to eat at work, because we have no food at home, other than what I can afford for my daughter,” explained one employee, as she ate the overcooked hotdog that had been pulled from the grill and had been destined for the garbage. A single mother whose oldest kids are in college, she does what she can to make it while her youngest is still home. Last month’s paychecks fell just so that it looked like she “made too much” for food stamps, so she is cut off until next month, when the state will deem her poor enough again. I hadn’t asked about – or particularly noticed – her eating the hotdog. I hate that we throw food away, so if anyone wants to eat it, fine by me. Yet for some reason, she felt comfortable offering such personal information. Maybe she was afraid I’d be mad at her for eating it, but I doubt that’s the case. It was shortly after she had asked about my tattoo (Deuteronomy 6:4; a giveaway that I’m a person of at least some kind of faith). Later that shift, she told me about her shaken faith, nearly obliterated by the death of her grandmother, who had been the religious glue in the family.

“You know, I – I – *sigh* I’ll be honest. I’ve just gone through a real big transition, and I just – I needed a new start. I got a new career, a new life, and so I painted the house. Then I colored my hair. Then I got my neighbor’s scissors, flipped my head over, and I chopped. Then I flipped my head up and chopped some more. And then I thought, ‘OK, now I’m ready.'” All I had done is compliment the in-store Subway manager about her hair. I didn’t expect for her to share about her tough season, or how she was eager to start over. Those are the kinds of things people tell pastors, not gas managers.

I’ve been trying to think about why my employees/coworkers seem to be so open and candid about their struggles. None of them know I was a minister. None of them necessarily know I go to church. I do listen a lot, though, whether it’s because I don’t know what to say or because I think they just need ears to hear their words. I don’t really offer solutions or answers because I don’t feel it’s my place as their boss to weigh in on how to deal with personal matters, so I say a lot of social worker sort of things like “I can see how that would be really hard to deal with.”

A lot gets said about the “ministry of presence” and “active listening” when in seminary, but I almost think I have more time for it now than I did when I was a professional. Instead of trying to figure out how to get hurting people to come into my church to be ministered to, I’m the one they see for hours every week.

I wish that these two things were taught to the lay people in our congregations. They are the ones who have the most contact with the outside world. How different would the church be if it was made up of people who were present and listening in their own communities? Not beating them down with immediate evangelism or invitations to some overly programmed Women’s Ministries function, but just listening.

I didn’t have a congregation for a few months while I was unemployed. I got to join a new congregation that I absolutely love. While I still kind of hate my job, the last two days have helped me see that while I may not be where I would pick, and while I am still trying to figure out how to not feel so embarrassed about my job, I am still a pastor. It’s a continual lesson in humility, but it’s not like I’m the first person to find themselves in an unorthodox, unofficial ministry position.

Hopefully, I’ll remember this tomorrow, when I am stupidly tired and maybe a little more cranky – and human – than a pastor should be.