Help Me Get to the Holy Land!

HEY Y’ALL, I have this crazy opportunity.

People who know me well might remember the year of college when I studied Hebrew (read: Biblical Hebrew consumed my every waking thought and hour). Since learning Hebrew and becoming more aware of justice issues surrounding the Holy Land, I’ve wanted to be able to experience it for myself.

I’m so excited that I have the opportunity to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia! From November 24th to December 5th, I’ll be traveling with a group from the diocese that includes the priest from my church and the bishop of the diocese.

We’re going during Advent, the time in the church to prepare the way for Jesus, and we’ll be visiting the significant places in Jesus’s life, from Bethlehem to Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee. I’ll also get to tour the St. Vincent Creche/Orphanage, which is offering Christian love and compassion to over forty abandoned babies and small children. It is the only facility of its kind in the West Bank.

But the only way I’ll be able to experience the Holy Land- from the Dead Sea to the Western (Wailing) Wall- is with your help.

This September, I’m entering my second year as a youth minister at an Episcopal church. I also started grad school this fall. As part of the Episcopal Service Corps, I made a commitment to living in community and intentional simplicity. This means I simply don’t have the budget to pay for transatlantic flights, room and board, and transportation in the Holy Land.

Your support would mean the world to me. It is an investment in not only my faith but my ministry, because this pilgrimage will not only affect me. I truly believe that God works in powerful and mysterious ways, and I hope that this pilgrimage to the Holy Land will inform how I continue in my youth ministry, how I interact with my community, and how I write about my faith.

I will be forever grateful for your love and support. I will pray for you by name every day until the end of the trip, and I will hold you in my prayers long after that. In Hebrew, “shalom” means not just peace, but a deep flourishing. I will be praying that you flourish.

Check out my gofundme to support my trip to the Holy Land! 

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Wheat and Weeds (Sermon from Sunday, 7/23)

Hey, if you’re new here, a heads-up: I’m a youth director at an Episcopal church, and sometimes they let me preach. Here’s a sermon I got to preach on July 23rd. You can find the lectionary texts for the week here (we used Track A). 

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When I first read this week’s collection of lectionary texts, it was a bit of a rollercoaster of emotion. On the one hand, I love Psalm 139 and Romans 8- they have comforted me in times of anxiety and grief, and in many ways are foundational to my theology. But on the other hand, the story of Jacob’s dream is a little boring and confusing, and Jesus’s parable of the wheat and the weeds is downright terrifying to me. These texts bring up questions about theodicy and eschatology and ethics, and as a 23-year-old with an English degree, I’m an expert in exactly none of these things. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to say or what direction this sermon was going to take. When I’m overwhelmed like this, I usually start looking for the most basic connections between the Scriptures.

So let me start here: on a dark night, in a desert, with one man alone until suddenly he finds that he is on holy ground. Jacob, like his father and grandfather before him, is promised by God that he will have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky. God says that They will never leave Jacob until this promise is fulfilled, and all of the families of the earth will be blessed by Jacob’s offspring. Now, in Romans, Paul says that Christians are the children of God, receiving the spirit of adoption that makes us Abraham’s children, and thus fulfilling God’s promise to Jacob. This is a Christian re-writing of a Hebraic story, of course, but Paul was writing to Gentiles who had until then been on the outside of the ancient rituals that marked them as children of God. To be claimed as children of the covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph, was to be adopted into a story and family much larger than themselves. It was saying that what mattered wasn’t our pedigree, but our faith.

I find it easier to jump into the gospel reading this week if we start with Paul’s writing in our mind. As I said, my first reaction to Jesus’s parable was “WHOA, calm down there, edge-Lord.” It is one of the Bible stories I struggle with, because of how often this parable and others like it have been used as a bludgeon. It would be easy to use the story of the wheat and the weeds as a way to create in-groups and out-groups: we are the grain, and “those people” are the weeds. The problem is that for me, “those people” start to look like anyone who disagrees with me, anyone who doesn’t follow my exact version of faith.

The idea of orthodoxy has been heavy on my mind this week. If any of you are my friend on Facebook or read my blog, you may have noticed that I accidentally went viral. The contents of my blog aren’t important to this sermon, but the reactions are: my family and I were accused of not having a true faith in Jesus, not adhering to the correct set of beliefs that will get us into heaven, or as one commenter so eloquently put it, “off the road that leads to perdition.” In this scenario, I was one of the weeds to be tossed into the fire at the end of the age.

My immediate reaction to these comments, of course, was to call my mom and rant about why exactly I was a shaft of wheat and not a weed. I wanted to make sure that I was part of the in-group and that they were the out-group. I wanted Jesus to tell me that I was right in holding a grudge against homophobic strangers on the Internet. Needless to say, I felt convicted as I started writing this sermon.

In Jesus’s parable, the master does not tell the servants to uproot the weeds; in fact, to ensure as much wheat as possible is saved, the master nurtures both weed and wheat. In this metaphor, humans are the plants growing up towards the sun, our root systems all entangled. In this metaphor, we the plants do not know who is wheat and who is weed.

I think the pairing of this parable with the passage from Romans 8 is intentional. Romans 8 tells us that as children of God, we are co-heirs with Christ. If this is true (and I believe it is), then our identity as children of God is the core part of ourselves, the power from which everything else flows. If we are co-heirs with Christ, waiting in anticipation with the rest of creation for the adoption and redemption of our bodies, then the parable of the wheat and the weeds is a call to love our neighbors as radically as if we are siblings. We have no way of knowing who, in the end, will be the children of God, because all who are led by the Spirit of God are His children, and therefore our family.

Lest you think I’ve gone all New-Age-y on you, a disclaimer: I’m not sure what heaven looks like, or who will end up there. I was raised too evangelical for any definite answer to sit peacefully in my mind. As best I can picture it, heaven looks like the line from the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’: “when we’ve been there ten thousands years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.” I am learning to sit in the tension that comes with hope in things that are not seen.

My study Bible notes that, “the inner testimony of the Spirit is experienced as intense yearning and hope.” This yearning and hope, this testimony to the Spirit of God, is manifested in as many different ways as there are different people in the world. And the power of the Spirit is that it transforms weeds into grain- poisonous, thorny leaves into nourishment. All of creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God– and if, by radically loving my neighbor, by being kind when I could have been sharp, by seeing everyone as a wheat instead of a weed, even one more person is adopted to the kingdom of God, then I think the Spirit has worked through me to ease the labor pains of creation.

This year, one of my roommates introduced me to a poem by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French philosopher and Jesuit priest. When I think of the slow, nurturing work of the Spirit in our lives, the effort to grow upwards towards the sun with our neighbors, this is the poem I think of:

 

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

 

I am learning to sit in the anxiety of incomplete belief. Learning to strive upwards and extend my roots to grow with everyone around me. I don’t know what happens at the end of the age, but I am convinced that none of us are right. And I am equally assured that we are adopted: we are children of God, and our frail bodies of belief will be redeemed.

Practice Resurrection (Sermon from Youth Sunday, 4/23)

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. -John 20:19-31

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            On the evening of Easter, the disciples were still in darkness. Even after Mary Magdalene had told them that she had seen the risen Jesus, the male disciples were still locked inside their house in fear of the Jewish and Roman authorities. The gospel passage today is a continuation of the gospel on Easter: it’s not a new chapter but rather the epilogue to Mary Magdalene finding Jesus in the garden and being called by name. It seems intentional to me that the disciples’ fear is not really the beginning of the story, but rather right in the middle, after all possible assurances have been made that Jesus is alive.

A friend of mine said this week that usually by Easter Sunday they are pulled out of the funk that Holy Week puts them in, but that this year it has been harder to leave behind that feeling of darkness. The journey through Jesus’s death and resurrection remind us who we are, and sometimes that is a hard reminder. We are a fearful people, even in the face of our greatest joy. The disciples were promised eternal life, and sundown on Easter found them in a room locked from the inside, afraid of death.

Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and university professor, writes about her search for “real life” in her book Leaving Church. She writes, “You do not have to [literally] die in order to discover the truth… You only need to lose track of who you are, or who you thought you were supposed to be, so that you end up lying flat on the dirt floor basement of your heart. Do this, Jesus says, and you will live.”

If Lent is a reminder of our humanity, of the ashes that we came from and shall return to, then the Easter season is the perfect time to lose track of who we are. It’s a time to forget that we are fearful, and doubtful, and probably not listening to the women trying to tell us something. Easter is time to let Jesus into our locked rooms, whatever they may be, and rejoice. Easter is a time to lose track of who we think we are and remember that God has made us a resurrection people.

Of course, that is often easier said than done.

Last year for Easter I was in Johannesburg, South Africa, having just spent a month in a tiny village in Swaziland. Swaziland is a landlocked country inside of South Africa. Some fun facts: it’s the last absolute monarchy in the world. It’s population is almost 100% ethnically Swazi. It is one of the youngest countries in the world, with over 35% of the population age 14 or younger, and at the current rate of HIV and AIDS infection, the WHO has predicted that by 2050 Swaziland will most likely cease to exist.

Nsoko, the town where I lived, was less of a town and more of a collection of army barracks, mud huts, a couple of small shops, and a bus stop where 18-passenger vans called koombees would pick you up and, for about 25 U.S. cents, take you 30 kilometers down the road to Matata, a town with a grocery store. If you took a koombee to Matata, you drove through endless fields that were mostly dry and brown. The entirety of southern Africa was—and still is— in the middle of a decade-long drought, and Swaziland is among the countries hardest hit both physically and economically, because it’s main export is sugar cane.

I was in Swaziland for most of Lent, and it was easy to remember that we came from dust, because I was constantly dusty. Orange dirt stained everything, including but not limited to: my clothes, my tent, my journal, and the entire book of Proverbs in my Bible. All month, I helped with feeding programs and taught kindergarten lessons to children who came to a care point run by local grandmothers. Most of the kids were AIDS orphans, being raised by an older sibling or some other relative. In many cases, the food the kids got at the care point was the only meal they would have that day. It was easy to remember that we came from dust.

We left Swaziland for Johannesburg on Good Friday, which, as a metaphor for coming out of Lent, was a little too on-the-nose for me. It was a hard month to leave behind. There are a lot of clichés that I could say about my month in Swaziland (or my mission program in general), but the truth is harder to get a handle on. I did not grow in my own spiritual life because of the poverty I saw around me, although it would be easy to say that. I did not learn to trust God in everything because of the faith of the Swazi people, although it would also be easy to say that. The truth is that on Easter last year, I was still in a locked room. As much as I wanted to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, in his blood poured out for me and for many for the forgiveness of sins, and in his emptying of the tomb, I was fearful. I doubted that the kingdom of God could ever come to earth in such a powerful way that these vast inequalities would be righted.

The doubt and fear might look different for you. I spent a year on an international mission trip. Maybe you spent a year trying to get pregnant, or trying to get sober, or trying to get a handle on your depression or anxiety. Maybe whatever’s inside your locked room is so private, so tender, that you haven’t even said the words out loud. It is easier to lock the doors than to believe against all hope that joy is coming. Clutching tight to all the threads we’re afraid of unraveling is sometimes easier than lying down on that dirt floor basement and waiting to see who we really are.

But I’m mixing metaphors. All of this is to say, this year I have a new sympathy for Thomas.

We don’t know where Thomas was when Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples, and this is the only story where Thomas plays a starring role, and it’s one of the most embarrassing moments of his life (to put it lightly). The other disciples had seen Jesus together. They had already touched his hands and side, and felt Jesus’s breath on them. And while all the rest of the disciples had finally moved out of the grimness of Holy Week, Thomas would not be moved until he saw proof with his own eyes.

In my study Bible, the note on this verse says, “Thomas refused the apostles’ ‘gospel’ about Jesus.” He refused the good news. I once gave a sermon on this same story and compared Thomas’s reaction to Mary Magdalene’s, how neither of them actually believed that Jesus would do what he said he was going to do. Neither of them believed in the resurrection until they saw it, the difference is how they reacted when they were faced with the truth. We don’t know exactly why Thomas didn’t believe his closest friends, the people he had been living with for three years. It’s easy to say that he doubted God’s abilities.

But I think beyond disbelief, there was hurt. I think a part of Thomas said, “Why would Jesus appear to my friends and not to me? Was I not good enough? Did I not also give everything up to follow him? If this is true, why wouldn’t Jesus wait for me?”

I am very good at holding on to hurt. Like Thomas, I stubbornly refuse the good news of the resurrection, because I want proof. The easiest way to win an argument is to provide evidence, right? There is so much evidence of suffering and of need in the world that it can be hard to listen to people telling us good news. My impulse is to trace the scars of the world before I talk about the joy there is to be grasped.

But ultimately the point of today’s gospel story is that Jesus comes to us in our locked room, in our demands for proof, in our newsfeeds inundated with bad news, and says, “Reach out your hand. Do not doubt, but believe.”

Jesus says, “This is my body broken for you. This is my blood poured out for you. This is the Holy Spirit, who is always with you.”

When Thomas touched Jesus’s wounds, he cried out “My Lord and my God!” It doesn’t say what his posture was, but I like to believe he fell to his knees. Christian tradition holds that later Thomas travelled widely, and died in India while preaching the Gospel.

In a poem called “Manifesto,” Wendell Berry says, “Be like the fox / who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.”

I pray we should all be so bold, as the disciples were, to let Jesus into the locked room. Lie down on the dirt floor. Like Thomas, make tracks in the wrong direction, and come back again. In this Easter season, may we be so bold as to practice resurrection.

I’m Breaking Up With the United Methodist Church

Hey, UMC. We need to talk.

Next month, it will be twenty-three years since I was baptized in a United Methodist church in Kansas City; eleven years since I was confirmed at Alliance United Methodist in Fort Worth. A huge chunk of my brain is devoted to the hymns and liturgies of my childhood, which I learned in Sunday school rooms in Methodist churches across Missouri and Texas.

In college I went to the Texas Wesley, a United Methodist campus ministry at UT. The Rio Texas Conference of the UMC almost sent me to seminary to be a pastor. My parents still attend the church I grew up in: my mom is a Stephen minister; my dad teaches Sunday school.

But I’m breaking up with you, you beautiful mess of a denomination.

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It’s not you, it’s me.

I’ve never broken up with someone before, but I’ve heard this is what you say. It is half true.

It started out as about me, really. About halfway through my college career, I lost the language to talk to God. Then I lost the language to talk about God. I started going to Servant Church, a Methodist church plant with beautiful liturgy, new hymns that sound old and old hymns that sound new. Growing up in a town where every church looks and talks and feels a little bit Baptist, Servant Church shocked me a little, taught me a new way to do church, but it didn’t fill the void.

Then, the World Race, where I had to cobble together words for God that would translate into eleven different languages. In Eastern Europe, I found the Book of Common Prayer and I read the whole thing cover to cover. (Apparently, that’s not how you’re supposed to do it. Ignorance is bliss, my dudes.) I longed for even the simplest of liturgies at churches across southern Africa, and I applied to the Episcopal Service Corps because their application questions made me weep at three in the morning on a balcony in Colombia.

We just grew apart. Maybe it was inevitable; maybe I could have worked harder to hold onto our relationship. I believed in us, after all.

But I needed something more: a way of worshipping that better reflected how I relate to God; a language for prayer when I had none; a way to move between ancient tradition and this modern world that did not tear me in two. I found it, unexpectedly, in the Episcopal church.

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This is where it becomes about you.

When I came out six months ago, I knew the risks. The Rio Texas Conference would almost certainly never ordain me: while I was in college, two seminarians’ ordination processes were blocked because of their gender or sexuality. One of them was my friend, who has since moved to a different state to find a job in a church that would affirm his calling.

I could no longer get married in the church I grew up in. I was now an “issue” in the church, “divisive,” “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Former youth group members tried to “lovingly correct” my theology on Facebook, and people told me they loved me even if they disagreed with my “politics and theology.” My very being was now a stance to disagree with.

I am not leaving the United Methodist Church because of my sexuality, or because of your stance on it. There are over 140 LGBTQ+ clergy in the UMC, including an openly lesbian, married bishop named Karen Oliveto, whose consecration is currently being debated by the Judicial Council. LGBT people exist and thrive in United Methodist congregations all around the world, whether or not we are welcomed.

But I am leaving you, and the threatened schism over sexuality and gender was the final straw.

Maybe leaving makes me a coward. There is a constant debate in my head: how can I leave the UMC, when I could stay and fight the good fight for my peers and for future generations? How can I stay in the UMC, when my sexuality is not the only thing that defines me?

Here is what else defines me: the call I felt when I was seventeen and still do not fully understand. The group text with the friends I met in Sunday school when I was nine. Eleven months in eleven countries and eight months in a state so different from Texas it might as well be a different country. How you taught me to love with open hands and moving feet and a broken heart, strangely warmed by the Spirit.

Do you see how badly I want to stay? Do you see why I can’t?

How difficult it is, to lose a love like you. There are thousands of whispered prayers and lightbulb moments and layers upon layers of grace between us. Communion will always taste sweet like Hawaiian bread and grape juice.

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Here is fair warning: I’m going to be your psycho ex. I am going to stalk your Instagram and read every article about you. You were the church that taught me how to love, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fully divest from you.

But in three weeks, two days after my twenty-third birthday, I’ll be confirmed in the Episcopal Church.

Last Sunday, I preached at Saint Margaret’s, the Episcopal church where I’ve worked for the past eight months. For the first time in my life, I stood confidently behind a lectern. I did not shake. I talked about resurrection.

Later, the dean at St. Mark’s asked me how it felt. The truth, which I did not say to him, is that it felt like home. It cut me raw in that moment: for all the excuses I could use to leave the UMC, the truth is that we truly no longer fit together.

I love you, United Methodism. But I need to go home now.