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Be Gentle With You

My mind is pretty jumbly. It sometimes helps if I write things down. I could do that in a paper journal — but then I’ve done that eleventy times before. If you need a journal that is nearly empty but for the first 7 or 8 pages, I’m your girl.  So, maybe this kind of journaling will be better for me, OR maybe I’ll forget how to log in and leave this journal in the same pattern of the others…

 

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Home

I think I need to let you in.

There are parts of this that are a little too much, and I never really know how much to share…but then, I remember how healing it is to have company in pain and joy and wondering. So, maybe you’ll join me.

Early this morning, my generous daughter got up suuuuuper early and drove me to the airport, so I could catch a flight to Milwaukee for the Church-wide Assembly of my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I’m one of 927 voting members who are gathered to elect leaders, discuss and vote on various resolutions, and conduct the business of our church body. I love the ELCA. I’m proud of the work we do, the social justice initiatives we employ – I love the way we follow Jesus – not perfectly, for sure, but intentionally and with wide open arms. So, that early flight wasn’t a burden; I was happy to fly to Milwaukee.

As I stood in line to have my big, pink suitcase weighed and put on the conveyer belt, things got a little blurry when I realized the last time I took that big, pink suitcase to Milwaukee it was filled to the brim with some of Ken’s precious belongings I thought his family would want. And my carryon held a container of Ken’s ashes. He had requested that some of him would always reside at the summer camp where he worked when he was young.

Landing in Milwaukee brought the odd feeling of coming home to a place that…isn’t. Ken was born and raised here. With Ken I traveled “home” for holidays. I’ve been here many times, enough times that I have a favorite place to buy my cheese curds, but, I don’t travel here anymore. I grabbed my big, pink suitcase from the carousel and caught a shuttle across the city to my hotel. Turns out that hotel was “home” today. It was FILLED with my people. Some wore Live Generously (Thrivent) t-shirts, others had an ELCA backpack or wore their synod t-shirt. Inside, I was giddy, so grateful to have come “home” this way in this city. Hugs and sweet faces with expressions of, “So good to see you!” on every elevator, in every corner of the lobby was the family I love – and needed.

Ken loved Jesus.

He loved the ELCA, too. He would have loved to be here, in his city, with his people, about the work of the church. It would have all been too much for him. And I guess I actually mean that because more than once today I wondered if the height of this event would have triggered a mania for him. Grief is that way: one minute you are remembering fondly and imagining his delight – and the next you are fighting the guilt that comes splashing in when the sweet glow of imagining him so happy reminds you that you are glad you don’t have to live on that edge on which you balanced when you wondered if regular old joy was going to shift into mania. (This writing is difficult. That last sentence is clumsy, but I can’t seem to change it. So, there it sits…all awkward and scratchy.)

Ken went to worship with me today in a ballroom of a hotel where more than a thousand Lutherans gathered to praise the One who insists on love every time.

And you know who we sat by? Kai and Jessie.

And you know who we needed? Kai and Jessie.

Kai is a faithful leader in the church. He pours himself out for the sake of the young people God loves. He is gentle and funny, and he tells the truth. I am always glad when I get to draw near to Kai.

Jessie is a kid I just met. (Jessie is 100% not a kid. He is in his 20s. But, so are my kids…) Spirit tossed us together a month ago at a synod meeting, and we hit it off. He is funny and honest and God’s call on his life is strong and true. Also, this kid can sing. We grabbed some harmony lines during the many hymns we sang today during worship – bliss! The entrance hymn was All Creatures Worship God Most High, and we were singing it like 1,000+ Lutherans can sing while trumpets and percussion and organ do their thing. It. Was. Glorious.Social-Media-ELCA-Logo

And then we got to verse five. And the musicians cut out, leaving us to pray these words with one collective unaccompanied voice…a thousand people who are my home, two faithful young men on my left and right, and Ken’s widow sang:

And you, most gentle sister death, waiting to hush our final breath: Alleluia! Alleluia! Since Christ our light has pierced your gloom, fair is the night that leads us home. Alleluia.

1,000 siblings held me up. I actually love them. I’m so grateful they flew from the reaches of our country to stand in that ballroom sanctuary and sing when I couldn’t. It’s actually what we do. We hold each other up.

Then, we shared the Meal that joins us in Christ, and since I am persuaded to believe that not even death can separate us from Jesus, Ken was at the Meal with us, too.

Oh, and I forgot to mention that when I looked up during the sermon, the photo on the screen was of the gorgeous sanctuary of Christ Lutheran in Pacific Beach, CA, the congregation where I met Ken and where we married at the foot of the cross from which flows the river of life. It was all a bit much, Spirit. No need to work so hard tomorrow. I’ll notice you, I promise.IMG_20190805_153339_exported_792_1565069293981

Posted in Bold and Honest

On Healthy Leave-taking

As I prepare to leave my first call, I am desperate to do it faithfully.

Social-Media-ELCA-LogoIn the ELCA, there are rules in place for every pastor who leaves every congregational call, and those rules all really boil down to one thing: You are no longer the pastor of that congregation, and God is calling someone else to be their pastor.

In the days when my dad was a pastor, while it may have been emotionally difficult to sever ties with a congregation, it happened much more smoothly than it does today. We would pack up our things and move to a new city, get a new (land line) phone number, and Dad would begin serving a new congregation with very little contact from his former one. He didn’t have a cell phone number he kept when he moved from city to city. He didn’t have an email address for people to keep using. There weren’t social media platforms he had to make decisions about with regard to these relationships. We moved, and we would occasionally get Christmas cards from some folks in former congregations, but it was a fairly simple leave-taking.

Today, things are blurrier.

The reasoning behind a pastor really, truly moving on, moving away from the congregation is still the same: That pastor is no longer the pastor of that congregation, and God is calling someone else to be their pastor. How will people develop relationships of trust and vulnerability with their new pastor if they are still looking to their former pastor for that?

In Sunday school this morning, we were talking about it, and Heather said something like, “It’s really a matter of hospitality, isn’t it? How do we best welcome this new pastor into our faith community? Not by continuing to count on a different pastor. How do we honor the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing this particular leader into our congregation? Not by acting like we want our former pastor to still be our pastor.”

And I completely agree.

Y’know what? I agree with T.J., too. When we were talking this morning, I explained that if he texted me in a few years and invited me to attend his college graduation, like I just attended his high school graduation a few weeks ago, I would have to tell him I am proud of him, but I am not his pastor…and I would suggest that he invite his current pastor. T.J. said that sounded mean. So, I said, “What if Pastors Sue and Tim stayed connected to you, and a few weeks ago, you had invited them to your graduation, but not me?” He looked up and said, “Oh. It seems mean, but it’s not mean.”

Yes, T.J., you are spot on.

Tim and Sue Gamelin were the pastors of Emmanuel before I came (with the exception of David, a great interim pastor). When they left Emmanuel, they still lived one town over, and they easily could have remained in community with the people of Emmanuel. But Tim and Sue offered me such grace in their leave-taking. They told me they prayed for me, encouraged me whenever I saw them, and stayed away. They never once told someone, “Sure, I’d be glad to do your mom’s funeral…if it’s okay with Pastor Jennifer.” You know how I know they never did that? Because I never once got a call from a congregation member putting me in the position of seeming jealous and saying no…or relinquishing my pastoral position and saying yes. If anyone asked them, they must have said something like, “I’m sorry to hear about your mother’s death, and I will pray for you, but Pastor Jennifer is your (and your mom’s) pastor now.”

I intend to give that same gift to whoever comes after me.

But, it’s not as simple as just declining invitations to preside at weddings, funerals, baptisms, and such. With social media as prevalent as it is, how does a pastor unplug from a congregation? Because I don’t even have a land line, everyone at Emmanuel has my cell phone number. If they text me after I leave, what do I do? How do I not seem mean? The only way possible to do this is to talk about it now, show people the reasons for the rules.

Oh, and here’s another thing! Somehow, we can tend to think that WE’LL be the exception to the rule, that WE’LL figure out the perfect blend of loving relationship and faithful relinquishing of the pastoral role in the lives of the people we have loved deeply for years – while leaving lots of space for them to develop the loving, trusting relationship they should have with their new pastor. Well, I know that I am not the exception. I am not more clever or more faithful or more anything than others. So, I will abide by the boundaries set in place by the ELCA – even when it’s difficult.

Here are the boundaries as they are set by the ELCA.

When a pastor accepts a call to a congregation, a sacred covenant is established between that pastor and the people of God in that place. In order that the ministry might be strong and effective, it is important for that relationship to be strengthened and nurtured until God calls that pastor to another sector of ministry. When a pastor resigns/retires, that covenant ends. How does a pastor relate appropriately to members of congregations where one has previously served? We provide the following guidelines, with the hope that it will give direction so that good choices are made which do not negatively impact the ministry of the people of God.

Pastoral Ethics: For Pastors Resigning

1. It is your responsibility as a former pastor to decline invitations to conduct pastoral acts in any former parish. It is important that you do not pass the burden of such decisions back to the pastor who currently holds that call. If asked to function in a pastoral role, the best response is “because I am no longer your pastor it would not be appropriate for me to do that,” perhaps followed by “I will pray for you and would be happy to attend as a friend. Do not say “you will have to consult the current pastor.” That puts the current pastor in the no-win situation of either relinquishing the pastoral role to you, or appearing to be jealous and uncaring.

2. It is your responsibility as a former pastor to be supportive of your successor, even when that is difficult to do. If your ministry was appreciated, then you have great power to affect your successor’s ministry. If you can’t say good things, say nothing, and do it graciously. 3. While the above statements are addressed to pastors, spouses of pastors should consider the same factors, and also respect the recommendations made above.

Posted in Uncategorized

Back Down the Mountain

Not quite 100 of us gathered at Lutheridge this weekend for the Create In Me retreat. Not quite 10 of us were men. This blog is about women.

As I schlepped my stuff to my car this morning, I met a woman doing the same. She shook her head a bit and said, “This is the sad part.” I didn’t know what to say. I suppose I nodded and said, “Yah,” or something deeply pastoral like that. I wasn’t feeling sad, and it hadn’t occurred to me that others would be gloomy about leaving this morning.

Mary on Porch

A few minutes later, we gathered for worship on the porch of the Faith Center. People were kind of quiet as more of us arrived, offering hugs and admiring the fountain Mary (our retreat leader) and her team had crafted on the altar they had fashioned on the porch. I noticed a tenderness there on that patio, a clinging I suppose.

  • Let me pause here to say in seminary we were taught that one of the greatest gifts pastors can bring to a community is being a “non-anxious presence” for those who are in crisis of any sort. When tensions are high for any reason, standing in the middle of the tension and not bringing any of your own – provides the situation with a groundedness, a place to find a bit of balance when things are shifting.

Pastor Mary Canniff-Kuhn has this gift. She brings it everywhere she goes. And she brought it to the porch this morning when the anxiety of leaving such a sacred place was building. When people began to feel a little short of breath, Mary stood there being the non-anxious oxygen they needed.

In order to have a sense of why they might be sad to leave this morning, let me offer you a glimpse of our weekend together.

Jennifer lettering

We came to be creative, and creativity requires vulnerability. For three days, we moved through time and space together dipping brushes in paint and pinching clay between our fingers. Each room we entered was set up for creativity, some with a resident artist ready to teach us a hands-on lesson about sculpture or fanciful lettering or fabric embellishment, some with drop-in stations with materials and directions there on the table…and the opportunity to experiment and create. Because creativity is not only about art we can see and touch, there were workshops on meditation and the art of having faithful, difficult conversations.

Each thing we tried was deemed worthy of being in the gallery. Ours was not a gallery of perfection, but a gallery of exploration and creativity.

Art Gallery
Our gallery was empty when the weekend began. We filled it with ourselves.

We sang, we danced, we laughed, we tried new things, we ate exquisite food and gathered regularly for prayer and worship. We were nourished in every way God nourishes people.

So, when it all was coming to an end, there was a shift in the way people moved, spoke, stood together. And I looked around the circle on that porch and wondered about the women there. I didn’t know most of them before this weekend, and unless I sat at an art table with them and chatted, I don’t know much about their lives back home. So, this next part is fiction. Except it’s not. I don’t know which woman might fit which description, but I’d wager mightily that a group like ours holds all of these and more.

One of my sisters spent a whole weekend never once getting yelled at. She came and went as she pleased, and no one berated her for being too slow or too sloppy or too anything-at-all.

One of my sisters spent a whole weekend using the parts of her brain she shelved when she discovered making art for a living is risky and not a sure thing. Her job pays the bills, but it does not call upon the vast and varied gifts she often forgets she has tucked away in her gorgeous self.

hand painting

One of my sisters spent a whole weekend being cared for – rather than being a caregiver. She didn’t know how tired she was until she fell into bed Thursday night and nobody needed her, not even once, in the middle of the night. She woke up Friday morning and made her way to the dining hall where a huge breakfast buffet was waiting there for her. She ate her fill and looked around to see where to put her dirty dishes, and she was told to just leave it on the table. It would be cleared for her; maybe she would like to grab a cup of coffee on her way out? Clean mugs, coffee, and all the fixings were available to her all weekend. The only medication she managed all weekend was her own multivitamin and her low dose of a cholesterol med.

One of my sisters spent a whole weekend on her own schedule – rather than running a household with school-aged children. She didn’t carpool on Friday morning or pack lunches or remind anyone at all that she would be back to pick them up for their orthodontist appointment after 2nd period. She moved from station to station enjoying her time, remembering the art she used to make. It took her most of Friday to let go of the ever-present-responsibility she carries around. She went to the Jams and Jellies workshop and didn’t worry about little hands near the boiling sugar.

Naomi creating

One of my sisters is sick. Her physical health is an everyday struggle. She doesn’t always sign up for church events or retreats because she knows it will just be one more time when she has to say, “you go on without me” on that hike or across the campus or back to the car. This weekend, she got her body to one huge room filled with light and laughter and art supplies. She sat at one table for as long as she liked, then she walked a few feet to another opportunity to learn something new. If her bladder called her to the bathroom every 30 minutes, fine. If her ankle hurt and needed to be propped on a chair, fine. If sitting was hard, and she needed to walk around while the Bible study leader was teaching, fine. If she got too tired, and she needed to back to her room for a nap, fine.

One of my sisters spent a whole weekend feeling loved in the way she loves others, but doesn’t always receive. When she turned the key and opened the door to her room, she found a sweet note of welcome and a gift basket. When she arrived in the Faith Center, she was told right away that the markers and paper on the table were for her use – and that she was welcome to use them while people were speaking and teaching if she likes to draw and listen. She made a cup of tea from the counter with coffee and tea people had prepared for her. When she went to the restroom for the first time, she saw they had even provided a basket of things she may need during the weekend: cough drops, mouthwash, hand lotion, feminine hygiene products, and such! On the second day, she saw a note on the counter where the coffee is kept. It said, “In case your roommate snores,” and accompanied a container of ear plugs! Our sister who always thinks of others…felt cared for.

Snacks
fresh berries and vanilla yogurt for a snack

One of my sisters spent a whole weekend not worrying about money. Everything she needed was provided. The delectable food Chef Cliff prepared for each meal all felt like she was eating in a fantastic restaurant – which she never does. The art supplies at every single table were just there to be used! She could create one thing at each table…or more if she wanted, no cost to consider. There was fresh fruit over on a table all day, every day. Each afternoon and evening, someone would set out fun snacks to nibble. There was an offering at worship. She may have put some money in the plate; I don’t know or care.

One of my sisters spent a whole weekend feeling understood. She’s an artist. She creates things. The people in her life think that’s cute, but they don’t really “get” her, that she NEEDS to create things, that her intention and money and time is spent creating. And, y’know, her art isn’t the kind that every immediately loves. It’s not rainbows and butterflies and nice clean lines and the like. It’s dark sometimes, and it’s always layered, and people often look at it with furrowed brows. They don’t get it. So, they don’t get her. This weekend, when she grabbed the supplies intended for one thing and created something altogether her, her sisters said things like, “How did you do that!?” and “Did you wait between coats to get that effect?” and “Will you show me?”

Coaster Table

One of my sisters spent a whole weekend with her nose 10 inches from an art project and (for the most part) laid aside how much she misses her late husband. She wasn’t at home where his empty chair sits in the damn corner mocking her. When it was time for a meal, she didn’t have to decide what to make – and remember to only make one portion instead of two. His after shave wasn’t sitting on the counter top in her Lutheridge room. She didn’t take the chipped plate out of the cupboard, remembering when he lost his grip on it, landing it in the sink. He was present with her during worship; he always is. But, for long stretches at the art tables, her grief wasn’t quite so heavy.

Worship

One of my sisters spent a whole weekend not thinking, talking, reading, or arguing about politics. Her attention was on color and texture and pattern and technique. Her opinions were about those things, too. It was a relief to stop checking her phone and reading the latest news.

So, my sisters were teary this morning. Damn right they were. Driving down the mountain back into the fray is hard. The Sabbath is holy, the retreat is nourishing, and the time away so important. But, in some ways, time away manages to underscore the ways we are tired, worried, scared, and invisible.

A prayer for us as we re-enter our lives down the mountain: May the ways we have been nourished and nurtured during the Create In Me retreat stick to us like Mod Podge, make us sparkle like glitter, stitch us together like the hook and fingers that crochet. May we be granted courage to remember Who and Whose we are, created creatures who co-create with God. May we mark our calendars for next year, declaring our intention to carve out space to be seen and loved…and see and love others…right as we are. And until next year, may God grant us peace in the chaos. Amen.

SELFIE

Posted in Ordinary Holiness

Evolving Responsibility

~ make yourself at my home, tell me where you been ~ Flo Rida

Many months ago, I registered for a conference led by Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey at a beautiful conference center in the Blue Ridge Mountains. My wonderful congregation affords me a week for continuing education each year, and I knew that I wanted to spend three of those days with two authors that have formed my own faith in the last few years.

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Just a stage filled with a dozen authors, bloggers, and podcasters I read and listen to regularly. No big deal, you guys.

Their gentle invitation was something like: If you are a doubter who believes or a believer who doubts, if you have been hurt by the church or just can’t make sense of some things, if you are deconstructing unhealthy faith patterns or reconstructing healthy ones, come to the mountains with us and explore what it means to be living out an evolving faith. Thus was born the conference called Evolving Faith 2018.

I’ve been looking forward to this for months. I’ve been reading the books written by many of the presenters (click that link above and see the list of speakers). Some of my sweetest-friends-who-are-also-my-colleagues were going to be there, too!

So, it caught me off guard two days before the event when I got very nervous, and my normally positive self – who loves to gather with people and learn new things – started to feel a bit of…dread? Was it dread? If so, then why?

I asked my daughter to talk through some of my odd feelings as I packed my suitcase. And in the end, I discovered that I was feeling…

Responsible.

You see, the organizers of this event created a Facebook page where those who were registered for the event could get to know each other, find roommates for housing, etc. So, for months, I had been getting to know some of the folks who would be gathering on the mountain with me.

One person posted this question: Anyone else nervous about coming because you carry so much pain about church you aren’t sure you can handle hearing people talk about it?

Dozens of people responded with their own expressions of fear. And if dozens of people commented on the thread, were there actually hundreds of anxious, worried, hurting people coming to the mountain afraid that the truth will be too loud or sharp or icy?

I cannot overstate how kind all these people are. Seriously. They were offering to carpool with each other, be roommates with strangers, share expenses, and all other manner of favors and encouragement. 900 people with only this conference in common became a community of vulnerability out there in cyberspace – and soon we would inhabit the same physical space, we would be the incarnation of the thing we longed for: real community.

So, to learn how much pain people were bringing with them made me feel a lot of feels. A. Lot.

Firstly, they were all coming to North Carolina. They were flying from Canada and all over the United States (one woman came from Somaliland!) to come to our home. It made me feel like a bit of a hostess. You can tell me that’s ridiculous because I was not on the planning team, nor do I work at the retreat center. You can say that, but that doesn’t change the fact that I was feeling it. And Flo Rida was singing, “Welcome to my house…” in my ears whether it was reasonable or not.

Secondly, and way more importantly, I am currently a pastor, a leader in the Church (specifically, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). Many of the people traveling toward “my house” when this sense of responsibility was settling over me had been hurt – really hurt – by people who had been leaders in the Church. I’m a member of this cohort of clergy that crosses denominational lines, and I benefit from the respect generally afforded clergy. I cannot point over there to some other group of people who have (and often abuse) authority over the spiritual spaces where people gather to worship, study, and pray. I’m IN that group. Clergy are “my people” and my people have steamrolled over far too many precious lives. And those steamrolled lives…steamroll over others. The generational reach of our manipulation and spiritual abuse cannot be measured.

When I was packed and ready to leave the next day, I laid in bed feeling heartsick.

The next morning, I went to my local store that only stocks goods made in North Carolina. I got small bags of Blister Fried Bertie County peanuts, small bottles of lotions made and bottled in Raleigh, muscadine flavored hard candies and peppermint puff candies made in Lexington, Chapel Hill toffee, and Moravian cookies from Winston-Salem. I didn’t really know what I was going to do with them. I mean, there were maybe 50 items in my bag, and there were over a thousand people registered for the event. But, I packed them into my backpack because…I guess because I needed to do something.

As I drove to Montreat, I tried to figure out why I had bought all that stuff and what in the world I was going to do with it. And I decided that I would simply walk up to a stranger and say, “I’m a pastor in North Carolina, and I’m glad you are here. Here’s a little gift made in North Carolina.” It promised to be awkward, and I guess it was.

Today, I had several of those short conversations as I handed out little gifts. The recipients were kind and funny, and there in Anderson Auditorium, with the incarnational gifts of eye contact, laughter, awkward stumbling sentences, and the physical gifts of candies, peanuts, cookies, and lotion, Spirit had her way with me.

My dread was gone.

My responsibility had become hospitality.

Evolving faith is the best kind of faith.

 

Posted in Ordinary Holiness

Sabbath – from different angles

I’m on vacation this week. It’s important to be sure this week is Sabbath-y.

Yesterday, I slept in and got a 90 minute massage…but I also went to the bank to manage some things, grocery shopped, and cooked a lot for the week. So, was it Sabbath?

Today, I got up very early (before dawn) to shower and get out the door in time to be in Columbia, SC for the funeral of a dear friend’s son.

I super duper hate getting up early.  Getting up early is never a part of my Sabbath plan. Neither is driving through Charlotte.  But, gathering in the name of Jesus to sing, pray, and hear the power of life over death is 100% Sabbath. And sitting behind a group of men who were in the same motorcycle club as the man who died…that felt holy and Sabbath-y, too.

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And listening to Deborah read Romans 8 like she believed it in her bones and she was honored to read it aloud for her friend, Brian, at his son’s service…total Sabbath.

And singing the last verse of A Mighty Fortress for the millionth time – and also the very first time – was breathtakingly Sabbath.

Hoardes of devils took Brian’s child and my spouse. Life has been wrenched away.  And also, the Kingdom’s ours forever. Sabbath.

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And the holy fellowship around food and pictures of Aaron after worship? Sabbath.

And hugging the necks of seminary friends – and professors who are now my friends? Sabbath.

And meeting in the flesh some beloved ones I have only met through Facebook? Sabbath.

When it was time to leave the church, I parked downtown and walked a few blocks in the perfect afternoon sun to a lovely restaurant for a perfect crab-y lunch of she crab soup and a crab cake salad.  Good food enjoyed in no hurry at all is always Sabbath.

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After lunch, I went to one of my favorite places in the whole wide world: Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary.  I parked my car and walked a bit down a sidewalk…and felt my heart quicken.

 

That’s just how it is on that campus. I was always grateful for every minute Ken and the kids afforded me there. I would sometimes sit down on the stairs as I was moving from one class to another…and just sit there for a minute, focusing on the gift I was receiving by being in seminary. Returning to that campus always feels like Sabbath.

I stopped by and sang a bit with Luther. He rolled his eyes because he thinks selfies are ridiculous, but he played along while I sang, anyway:

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Then, I headed on past Luther…

 

Then, I spent a little time on (in?) the prayer labyrinth. I’m terrible at it, actually. I think you are supposed to get lost in there, lose track of time, clear your mind…or focus your mind. I start out praying about something – and the next thing I know I’m wondering if I remembered to cancel that appointment or mail that letter or whatever. So, I have to refocus over and over.

So, I brought the worship booklet from the service and prayed the names on it as I walked. When I got distracted, I simply looked at the card with the names of the people in Aaron’s family and prayed the next name I saw.  I don’t really feel like I do labyrinth prayer right. I usually wonder if it would be better if I just sat on the bench next to it instead. But, I believe in God’s grace and Spirit’s breath, and I trust that I’m shaped a bit by the walking and thinking and forgetting and remembering and getting distracted and refocusing. I also trust in its Sabbath-ness.

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Then, I drove home.

On the way, I chatted with Ann for a while, then my mom. Sabbath and Sabbath.

Then, I did some dreaming about what God might have in store for me. Our bishop has asked us to have holy imagination about Spirit’s call on our lives, so I spent more than an hour imagining and dreaming. And stopped in traffic behind an accident on 85North. Even in traffic, it felt like Sabbath to intentionally dream.

Then, I came home to my stellar daughter and ridiculous dogs to eat good food and write a blog post.

Even with rising before dawn and 5+ hours in the car, I’m chalking this day up to Sabbath.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in God's Love, Ordinary Holiness

Was It Worth It?

It was worth it.

Every dollar.

Every minute.

Every drop of sweat.

Every late night.

Every early morning.

Every long line.

Every ounce of sunscreen.

It was all worth it.

Before leaving for the ELCA National Youth Gathering, I wondered on my blog about the cost of it all. Is the $1,000+ for each person a faithful use of the resources God has given us? I had decided that it was worth it, in part, because we who belong to small congregations need to feel how alive, enormous, and vital the Church is today. And while I know our kids will grow into adulthood and tell the story of growing up in a small ELCA congregation, I decided that the investment of all these dollars is faithful because at the Youth Gathering, they will learn to tell the story of growing up in a Church that serves and loves God and others in loud, brave, bright ways that change the world.

Because the youth group at Emmanuel, High Point is multi-cultural and multi-ethnic, we attended the pre-Gathering event called MYLE (Multi-cultural Youth Leadership Event) that ran the three days prior to The Gathering the 31,000 attended. MYLE is smaller, maybe 700 of us, on the campus of the University of Houston for a few days of intentional unity, praise, play, and service. If I’m honest, it’s a few days where my kids of color aren’t (pretty much) the only people of color at an ELCA event. We are the “whitest” denomination in America. I don’t like writing that sentence; I can’t take pride in that. But, we need to say it out loud, and we really need to face it. And work to change it, to embody the kingdom.

Though our church body has work to do, I am proud to be a pastor in the ELCA. Part of that pride comes from getting to see the ways we are acknowledging our lack of diversity, confessing the sin of clinging to our own kind, and taking a seat while non-white people, some of whom speak many languages, take the lead. MYLE is one of those ways.

At MYLE, our Puerto Rican sisters and brothers brought vibrance and resilience to any room they entered. The Glocal Band made up of talented musicians from many lands and languages invited us in and showed us the way as we sang of God’s love in Swahili, Korean, Spanish, English, Kannada, and other tongues!

Each day, speakers would challenge us to imagine the world through the eyes of “the other.” And every speaker pointed to Christ as our freedom and unity, helping us see where we still have boundaries that need erasing. It seemed that each of my teenagers tucked in their pockets the words of different speakers because when we gathered at the close of each day to talk and pray together, each person had brought home different words and images from that day’s experience. Each one found courage for the task of self-examination and growth; some from a lyric, some from a speaker’s refrain, some on a service project, some in a small group.

One night, very late, there was this moment. I’ll let you eavesdrop on my precious group for a bit:

Teen 1: I saw lots of Wakanda Forever shirts today.

Teen 2: Wakanda Forever! (crosses arms over chest)

Teen 3: It’s whatever.

(We all kind of pause because something has changed in the room.)

Me: What’s up?

Teen 3 (born in Africa): It took a movie for everyone to figure out that Africa is beautiful and strong? It’s like, “Okay, we’ve been over there being beautiful and strong, and you looked past us. Now, there’s a movie, so you are looking at us?”

Teen 4: (slowly and quietly) That never occurred to me before.

Right there, at nearly midnight, in a small, gray dorm room with nine people perched on desks, beds, and chairs, sweaty from a very long Houston summer day, snacks and drinks everywhere…a boundary was erased. Okay, maybe it was simply seen for the very first time, but it was crystal clear that the heart of the one who saw something for the first time was looking around for his eraser. And the young woman who showed him the boundary felt seen.

It’s really all we can hope for! It’s the finest of Christian formation when something painful bubbles from one heart and is seen and heard as true by another…and confession falls from the lips of those who see and hear the pain…and hearts are changed…and lives are stitched together. And when all of that happens when the very next thing is the prayer prayed together at the close of the day, it is the holiest of moments, and the messy, smelly dorm room is the holiest of temples.

I have described MYLE as being spiritually expensive. Spending time attending to racial identity and reconciliation costs a lot of energy that is not easily replaced with a nap or a cup of coffee. The cost hangs around a while. MYLE was so packed with gorgeous, serious, funny, musical, brave, deep, and silly moments that by the time Wednesday came, and 30,000 of our closest friends were arriving for The Gathering, we were pretty tired. But, God had plans for our tired bodies and spirits, so we took naps, drank coffee, and pressed toward the stadium…where we received an I.V. infusion of the joy of 31,000 people who had been waiting for this holy party for three long years!

Now, I suppose I could write endlessly about The Gathering because the planners crafted a masterpiece of a Gathering. Each day was full of opportunities for worship, service, learning, play, music, and unity. And I’m sure some other blogger has written well about all of that.

So, let me tell you some of the words the speakers said that were like Velcro to my youth group, the words they brought back to the hotel with them for our late-night conversation and prayer. Each speaker had 10 minutes, and their speeches were packed with Christian hope, love, and light, but these are some of the words which have clung to the young people I love. I do hope I’m paraphrasing faithfully:

“We don’t have a hunger problem; we have a greed problem. There is enough.” Maria Rose Belding

“YOU are defiant hope in a broken world.” The Rev. Dr. Stephen Bouman

“You have a reason and purpose.” “Show up!” Joe Davis

“There’s grace for that.” Pr. Will Starkweather

“Your current situation is not your ultimate situation.” Pr. Nadia Bolz-Weber

“We are hope for the world. People need us!” Rebekah Bruesehoff

“I felt like the world was trying to break me, but one day my heart started to change.” Michaela Shelly

“If you can still feel, you have the strength to carve yourself into a new tomorrow.” Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton

“Am I willing to live for this?” Savanna Sullivan

Is there another setting where you can bring your youth group to hear people of varying ages, male, female, every-possible-shade-of-skin, immigrant, citizen, LGBTQIA, ordained pastors, poets, musicians, a terminally ill teen, and people recovering from addiction, eating disorders, and self-harm speak honestly about what they’ve been through…and point to Christ as their source of strength and healing, saying as plainly as possible that God’s call, hope, grace, and love change everything?

If you know another place to find all that, then you know of a rare and precious gem. Please tell us all where to find such a gift.

As for me and mine, we’ll start fundraising right away for our trip to Minneapolis in 2021. And in the meantime, we will continue to bear witness to God’s love and point to the cross of Christ – which changes everything!

Posted in God's Love

Is It Worth It?

It’s a whole lotta money.

9 people.

9 airplane tickets

4 hotel rooms

9 registration fees

27 meals a day

It’s more than a thousand dollars per person to attend the ELCA National Youth Gathering – and the pre-Gathering conference called MYLE (Multi-cultural Youth Leadership Event). When I think of what that kind of money could do for a struggling family, or how it could pay for attorneys to help immigrants at the border have their cases heard, I wonder if we are spending God’s gifts faithfully.

In that light, let’s ponder (some of) what we get for that large wad of cash:

6 years ago, my son went to the National Youth Gathering when it was in New Orleans. He texted me from the arena where 30,000 Lutheran teenagers were gathered to hear speakers and sing praises and sing songs that taste like electricity. I expected his texts to say things about a great band that was on the stage or how much fun it was to be in the city of New Orleans earlier that day. But, one of his texts was a question: “Why didn’t I know that our presiding bishop is amazing?” Another text was a quote about grace from one of the main speakers, Pr. Nadia Bolz-Weber. Yet another was an ALL CAPS exclamation about how, together, the youth groups had brought nearly half a million dollars in offerings for ELCA World Hunger…and someone had promised to match those offerings dollar for dollar!

He’d been a church kid all his life. But, let me tell you something about your average Lutheran church: it is not big, not flashy, not the one everyone is talking about at school. It has a name like St. Peter or Emmanuel or Holy Trinity, nothing edgy like Summit or The Gathering Place or something about a Hill or a Star or a Mountain Top…unless Mount Pisgah counts, which, it doesn’t. It has about 100 people on a Sunday morning. Some have hundreds of people, but most have one hundred. A handful of ELCA congregations can use the word “thousand” when they talk about worship attendance, but loads of us have 50 people gathered in sanctuaries built for 400 people in the pews decades ago when you went to church on Sunday morning because…it was Sunday morning.

Most kids who grow up in these congregations know about praise bands and projection screens because they worshiped at their friend’s church one time after a Saturday night sleepover. And there is probably a guitarist at their church with a great voice who sometimes sings a solo during the offering – a song you can hear on K-LOVE in your car or at Hobby Lobby. But, Sunday mornings at St. Peter/Emmanuel/Trinity Lutheran Church all over the nation most often sound like organs played by older people because the young ones aren’t learning to play anymore. Sunday mornings at small Lutheran congregations that dot the towns and prairies and cities of our country have small choirs and pastors who can sing well enough to lead worship.

Most ELCA kids are members of small, loving congregations.

And every three years, we gather as one big congregation for four days.

Because there are 30,000 of us, we gather in a city large enough to have an arena where we can meet, hotels to house us, restaurants to feed us. Also, big cities have lots of opportunities for service, and while we come to worship and play together, we also come to serve. 10,000 of us each day for three days are bused into the city to participate in healing and wholeness for our host city. Three years ago in Detroit, we cleaned up vacant lots, boarded up old homes, cleaned up parks and greenways, visited local schools and day care centers to deliver books and read with children. We gathered and delivered thousands of packages of diapers to the various agencies in the city that serve young children or families with young children. We also learned how gorgeous and kind and fun the people of Detroit are.

We are headed to Houston next week. It was decided years ago that the city would be Houston, and just last year, hurricane winds and rains were swallowing up Texas and the Gulf Areas. I was moved to tears when I realized that after the first wave of rescue and recovery was done, when things are still a mess in some places and there are still areas that need a work force…30,000 of us in bright orange t-shirts and work gloves are headed your way, Houston!

I am the pastor of one of those beautiful, small congregations; her name is Emmanuel. When we collect money for disaster relief, we gather a few hundred dollars and send it in. When we collect peanut butter and jelly for the local food pantry, we put our dozens of containers in grocery bags and someone drives them across town to restock the shelves that are bare. We generally work in numbers like dozens and sometimes hundreds. Three years ago, the ELCA youth brought diapers to Detroit and stocked every cupboard and closet in every agency that needed them. It was incredible to be a part of a huge effort like that.

This year, we are bringing children’s books. They gave us a list to buy books from, and we could have them shipped to a local congregation who would receive them and ultimately get them to the giant Gathering, or we could bring them with us. Here in North Carolina, a long-haul trucker offered to take a load of books to Texas for us, so we loaded them up. I suppose that happened around the country, and there will be (tens of?) thousands of books to deliver to local school, agencies, doctor’s offices, and wherever children might sit a while and read.

Three years ago, we brought half a million dollars in offerings for ELCA Walk for Water – for digging wells and providing fresh water access in places around the globe that need it – and our dollars were also matched, to make it more than a million dollars to affect true and faithful change in the lives of God’s people!

This year, that dollar-for-dollar match has been offered again. And this year’s focus is about farmers. ELCA World Hunger’s Global Farm Challenge (click here for a 90 second video) is working to support farmers around the world. And I do not doubt that we will meet the challenge, filling the bank account that makes withdrawals on behalf of those in need…to the tune of a million dollars or more!

Our youth will fill an arena and sing great songs at the top of their lungs, and then each at their appointed time, speakers will come and take center stage to talk for a few minutes about things that our young people need to hear. Maybe one will speak about mental illness, working to reduce and finally remove the stigma about it. Maybe one will speak about gender identity and how God is creative and loves nuance – and this life and these bodies are not just black and white. And speaking of black and white, maybe one speaker will talk about what it means to be a Christian and how we can be anti-racist. Surely, at least one of the speakers will say clearly into the microphone that we who are gathered in the name of Jesus, though we are young, we are not the future of the Church: We are presently the Church! And I hope our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton says something about how there are future pastors sitting all over that arena – because I know a young woman who needs to hear women say that over and over and over.

And our kids will feel something new.

They will experience the Lutheran Church in a way that many of them never have before. They’ll see how big it is. That their congregation of 50 is part of something so alive and enormous, something that is big enough to say, “Let’s raise a million dollars to dig wells, so God’s children can drink clean water.” And then watch as a million dollars rolls in. That their little Trinity Lutheran in rural Iowa is a part of something so alive and intentional about bringing resurrection life everywhere that their 30 books are stacked on another congregation’s 25 books and the stacks grow until there are semi-trucks filled with books driving toward Houston, so that every child in a huge city can have a leg-up in literacy.

Our kids will walk around the Interactive Learning Center and stop at a booth that has little old ladies with gray hair and soft bodies (that look just like the ladies at their own church) and hear one of those women say, “We are WELCA, the Women of the ELCA, and we will not stand for human trafficking. Because we love you, we have some education for you, so you can identify if someone is trying to groom you away from your family. We also have hundreds of backpacks here you can help us fill with these toiletries and other supplies. We always need a supply of these backpacks, so when a person is rescued from a trafficker, they’ve got some basics – and they know someone cares.”

So, here’s the thing:

Our kids will tell the story of the church.

They will.

With their words or their lives, they will either engage with or leave the Church. They will tell people what it was like to be a Lutheran kid in the early 21st century. I want them to tell the story of their small, faithful church who loved God and loved them and loved the community. But, I also want them to be able to tell this story, the big story that blew their minds when they filled a huge arena with Lutheran teenagers and raised enormous amounts of money and cried and cared and heard people say things from the stage they had to really think about. I want them to feel connected and electric sometimes – because a lot of life in the church is not electric. But those parts are holy, too. After all, our little youth group from a little congregation in the middle of North Carolina will be traveling together for a week, sharing rooms and meals and bug spray. Super regular stuff.

And every minute and dollar spent will have been worth it.

Posted in God's Love

Holy Hands

In the spring of 1983, dressed in a white robe with a red stole I had designed, I stood in the front of our church with eight other 8th graders as we affirmed our baptisms.

Confirmation Day Page 1983
I’m so grateful my mother has archived our lives on these pages. And I’m a bit overwhelmed seeing my name on this page. Long before I started wearing other people’s names, I was Jennifer Lynn Shimota. The two decades I was Jennifer Lynn Shimota were the safest of my life.

There were lots of words and promises and prayers, and I regret to say that I was likely more interested in the baby’s breath my mother had arranged in my up-swept hair. Or maybe it was the electric feeling of wearing high heels for the first time (apart from the hours and hours I wore my mother’s around our house). However, we had gone to the Gunne Sax outlet in San Francisco to find the perfect white dress. Layers of white gauzy fabric with white lace up the bodice and around the high neck – and crisp, white ribbon, sewn precisely around the cuffs at my wrists. So, I could have been waiting to get the robe off, so I could show off my dress.

 

Confirmation Class - Jennifer
See that stole my dad was wearing? I wore that today, as I asked Indigo and Chol if they renounce all the forces of evil that defy God.

It only occurs to me now, that the adults in the room were teary with pride and brimming with hope as the next group of young women and men claimed their own baptisms and became adults in the life of the church. Our parents had brought us to the baptismal font when we were infants, answering God’s call to raise their children in the Christian church, which for them meant the Lutheran church. They brought us to the waters of baptism and bore witness to a pastor saying things like, “sealed by the Holy Spirit forever” and calling upon the Holy Spirit to come and stir up in us, “the Joy of the Lord both now, and forever.”

We had attended confirmation classes and retreats. We had memorized the entirety of Luther’s Small Catechism. Our Confirmation Day was a lifetime in the making, but more specifically, it was two-years-of-preparation in the making.

My dad was my pastor, so he was my confirmation teacher, and he was so good at it. He’s a story teller, and he is funny as can be. So, we really couldn’t have had a better teacher, and yet we goofed off in class, memorizing paragraphs just well enough to recite them to him and have him make a check mark by that portion of the Small Catechism. You see, he was a great and patient teacher…but we were 8th graders. And (I’ll only speak for myself at this point) I was in confirmation class because that’s what you do in the Lutheran church when you are in middle school. It was the next obligation. I had completed First Communion classes and had my first communion in 5th grade. Then, I guess 6th grade was just regular Sunday school. But, I knew that 7th grade was when you start confirmation classes.

I remember no movement of the Spirit.

I remember no holy tremble when I first knelt at the railing and received a piece of God into my hands, placing it in my mouth.

I was simply a part of the church, and she was offering what she had by way of education and experience, so I could more fully live into my baptismal life.

Now that I’m a pastor, I see all this from the other side. And today, two of my favorite humans, Chol and Indigo, stood in the front of our church and affirmed their baptisms. Was Indigo thinking about her dress? Were Chol’s new shoes on his mind? I don’t know. But, I was there for a miracle – even if they missed it.

There is a part in the rite where the pastor lays her hands on the Confirmand’s shoulder or head and prays the same words that were written about Jesus by the prophet Isaiah.

The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. (Isaiah 11:2-3)

This was written hundreds of years before Jesus was born. It’s a prophecy. Those who spoke and heard it believed it would happen. And it did.

So, we gather around our 8th graders and speak these words of prophecy. Today, I invited all the people who had ever been a part of Indigo and Chol’s faith lives to come and lay their hands on their shoulders as we prayed for them. There were so many people gathered around each of them that some people couldn’t reach them. The people on the outside of the clumps of humans who love Indigo and Chol touched the shoulders of those who were touching the shoulders of those for whom we prayed.

And with the weight of the hands of those who love them and the voice of their pastor who loves them, they were the center of the ancient prayer that the Spirit would rest upon them, bringing wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, fear (respect), and the joy of the Lord, forever!

I don’t know what they experienced today. They may have been distracted and not heard the words. But, there is no way they missed it when dozens of people stood up and walked toward them to physically draw near them. There is no way they missed it when “their people” showed up to pray.

And if they did miss it. If they weren’t really present for it, then I’m grateful that the church never stops offering us opportunities to be prayed for. I’m grateful that there are other times we receive the weight of the hands of our church family and hear at least one voice asking God for healing or guidance on our behalf.

I don’t remember the weight of my dad’s hands on that spring day in 1983. But, I remember it at the railing a few times on Maundy Thursday. And at El Camino Pines summer camp a few years after my confirmation day, my cabin mates laid their hands on my shoulders and prayed while I wept with sorrow I didn’t even know I was carrying. And when I left for college, my congregation gathered around me and prayed. And when I knelt at the altar of Emmanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church in High Point as I was ordained into the Ministry of Word and Sacrament, “my people” showed up with their hands and voices to pray for me. When I returned from bereavement leave after my husband’s death, I told a group of my pastoral colleagues that I was having a hard time re-entering into my role as pastor. I told them I didn’t really know what I needed to feel ready to re-enter, but that I felt “off” and would appreciate their prayers. I meant, later: in their own prayer lives, to remember me to the Lord. Instead, they moved closer. They drew near and laid their hands on my shoulders and prayed for me. The weight of their hands and the sound of their voices are fingerprints on my life.

Teresa of Avila said of our risen and ascended Lord, who no longer walks the earth with us, “Christ has no hands but yours.” So, I’m grateful that when I need to feel Christ’s presence, my human family draws near to touch me with the hands of Christ, calling to the Spirit, “Come!”

* If you are reading this and feeling claustrophobic, if the description of people drawing near you and touching you causes you to flinch, please know that we ask permission to offer our touch. In the case of confirmands, as we plan their service, we discuss if it is okay for people to come forward and lay hands on them. One year, I had a confirmand who only wanted his parents’ and my hands on him; we obliged because if it doesn’t feel like love, we don’t want to do it. If he had resisted any physical touch at all, then I would have stood next to him and spoken the words without touching him.

Posted in Bold and Honest

The Gravitational Pull of Shame

Shame’s extra dose of gravity is resting on my chest. It doesn’t press enough to labor my breath, nor bring any sort of panic, but the nerves of my scalp are wired into this additional pull. It’s been two days since shame laid its heavy head down.

Words will be the death of me.

Also, words are kind of the life of me.

Maybe because I spill so many words, it doesn’t always occur to me in a timely manner that some of them have not simply dribbled down my chin but have been spat into the center of a group where people look uncomfortably at them, then at me, then at each other, then back at my words throbbing there among us.

On Tuesday, it took a good hour to recognize the weigh of shame, the heaviness on my chest. On my drive home from a deeply meaningful meeting with some of the smartest women I know, my chest and scalp asked me to glance back at what I had said at the end of the meeting.

We were talking about women and the issues of strength, ego, timidity, and taking (or not taking) up space in our work lives. Someone said it was hard for her to claim her space because it meant shedding so much of her training as a young girl: make sure everyone else is happy, and do whatever you can to accommodate others.

I live in the South, now. Things are different here regarding genders and expectations. A dear friend of mine has indulged me in several long conversations about gender roles in his beloved South – and how it has been for me to encounter this since I moved here a decade ago. During these unhurried and thoughtful phone calls, we have talked about how he noticed I enter rooms differently, that I take up the space I need in a room or a conversation, that I perceive my role in a given setting differently than, say, the women in his family or his childhood church have in his experience. We have wondered aloud, maybe even hypothesized, about whether this difference in my manner is a California vs. The South thing. Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about this.

So, as the Tuesday conversation with that group of smart women turned to this topic I had considered in a labored and focused way, I asked the question that bubbled up from my gut. When one of my Sisters said taking up space in her work life takes some dismantling of her childhood training, I asked, “Is that because this is the South?”

My ability to be obtusely unaware when I have spat words into the middle of a sacred space is quite keen. I didn’t even notice my words were just lying there while my sisters stared at them. Nope, I just kept talking. I added words to the embarrassing pile, strings of words like, “I walk into rooms like I belong there. I take up the space I need. When I moved to the South, I found that it’s different here.”

Gratefully, one of the kindest, smartest, most articulate women I know stopped me short and said something like, “A better guess is that you won the lottery when it comes to your family of origin.” She was right, of course. My childhood was enchanted, and my parents were purposeful in their choices and patterns around affording every family member dignity and love. I learned that I belonged in rooms, conversations, projects, and planning because that’s what happened in my home. It could be that our cultural context helped shape it, too, but this dear woman offered me an out from the mess I didn’t even know I was making.

Until the meeting was over, and I was driving away.

Then my scalp prickled and my chest sank slightly under the weight of shame’s visit, which is seldom brief.

At the tail end of a productive meeting brimming with mutual encouragement, my curiosity and ego asked a question I had been mulling over. But, I hadn’t given any context of my months and years of observation and pondering. Instead, I basically said, “Huh. You Southern women are struggling with something that comes naturally to me. Y’know, what with being from California and all. I’m kind of kick ass and strong in ways we have just identified as important.”

Just typing that makes me queasy.

My chest is still heavy, and my scalp still knows something is wrong.

But, my brain chimed in yesterday. I started thinking it through, and anger showed up. Now, anger and shame know full well they often arm-wrestle to decide how long I’m going to wear shame around to remind myself that I am a loser. Shame has very strong arms, and often wins the tussle. However, when anger shows up to the fight, she usually brings defensiveness along with her. When they win, I get to dismiss other people’s reactions and opinions as ridiculous.

This is what anger has to say about the clumsy words I spoke on Tuesday: “All you did was say something that’s true, that others have told you is true about yourself. You didn’t mean to hurt anyone, and if stating that you have confidence is a great and cardinal sin, then what was all that talk among your Sisters concerning ego, timidity, and taking up space about?!”

So, here I am tonight. Imagining calling up each of those Sisters to explain how much I’ve thought about the questions I posed, how I should have offered context, how if my words stung or were pompous – then, I apologize. And, I’m also a bit mad that my body has physically responded for two days, that my chest and scalp nudged me all the while I was at a writers’ conference I’d been waiting to attend.

Writing this here – and the possibility of sharing this publicly – has worked a bit of a miracle. Shame’s extra dose of gravity is not nearly so extra, anger and defensiveness really aren’t that interested, and the nerves in my scalp have mellowed.

In a writer’s workshop today, a presenter suggested we write 600 words every day. I’ve splashed more than a thousand onto this screen.

To quote Farmer Hoggett in Babe, “That’ll do, Pig. That’ll do.”

Posted in God's Love

The Really New Revised Non-Standard Version of the Passion of our Lord

I’m a pastor.

Every year, before we read the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, death, and burial, I remind people that when we read “The Jews” in this story, we are not talking about your average Jewish person. We are talking about the religious leaders. The priests, the people in charge of the Temple and the holy scriptures, the teachers and the preachers…THOSE are the people who go to Pilate and convince him to crucify Jesus.

And every year, as I explain that, I am struck that I am describing myself. I am a religious leader.

So, tonight, when I got home from leading Good Friday worship and reading the Passion of our Lord according to the gospel of St. John, I wrote myself into the story. I wrote some others in, too. It was an ugly thing to write. Tammy and Tim, I included you because of your roles. I hope you don’t mind. If anyone reading this thinks it is sacrilegious and wants to call me a blasphemer, you may absolutely do so. After pouring over this for the last hour, any name you want to call me will pale. I’m clinging to my baptism as I crawl into bed tonight.

A North Carolina Passion Story

Jesus went with his disciples to the Blue Ridge Mountains; there was a park there where he and his disciples often went. So, Judas brought a detachment of police officers and a squad of security officers the office of the North Carolina Synod of the ELCA had on retainer, and they came with cell-phone flashlights and a spot light and guns. Simon Peter had a gun, too, and he shot off the ear of one of the synod’s security officers. Jesus told Peter to put his gun away.

So, the police officers, their sergeant, and the synod’s security guards arrested Jesus and handcuffed him. First, they took him to Tammy Jones West, who was the Assistant to the Bishop at the time. She had been the one who had told the NC synod pastors, deacons, and deans that it would just be better for one person to die in this mess instead of many. Tammy questioned Jesus about his teaching, and he said, “Tammy, I’ve been teaching in the sanctuary on Sunday mornings. They record me and put it on the internet. Nothing I’ve said is a secret. Have you listened to my preaching? Have you asked the people at Nativity in Arden? How about Grace in Hendersonville? They know what I said. Why are you asking me?” When one of the officers heard this, he punched Jesus and screamed at him, “Is that how you answer the Assistant to the Bishop?!” And Jesus replied, “Which part of what I said was untrue?”

Then Tammy had Jesus handcuffed and sent to Tim Smith, who was the bishop at the time. But they didn’t get anywhere with the bishop, so the officers and some of the pastors in the synod (Jennifer Krushas was among the pastors who were furious and going to get something done about this Jesus.) brought Jesus to Governor Cooper, who was in Asheville to oversee a major festival, and Governor Cooper asked them, “What are the charges you are bringing against this man?” They said, “Sir, seriously, would we be here if he weren’t a criminal?” Governor Cooper said, “This sounds like it’s a religious issue, so maybe you should go to the synod council and see about ecclesiastical censuring or whatever you folks do in cases like this.” But Jennifer spoke for the group and said, “Governor, we can’t. We need you in this case because according to church doctrine, we can’t kill him.”

So, Cooper went into his chambers where Jesus was waiting and asked him some questions, but he didn’t really get anywhere with him. Jesus evaded questions, not quite pleading the 5th, but Cooper couldn’t get the straight answers he needed. He went back out to the pastors and deacons and said, “I can’t actually find anything to charge him with. But, I was thinking, you know how you have that thing every year during the festival that one person gets pardoned? Let’s have it be him this year. What do you think?” Jennifer and the other pastors looked at each other, then looked back at Cooper and said, “Not Jesus. Give us William Marks this year. We know he’s a murderer, but set him free and keep Jesus for trial and the death penalty.”

So, Governor Cooper took Jesus and had him beaten. And when he was bleeding freely from open wounds, the officers put a robe on him, and they made a crown out of thorns and jammed it on his head, so he bled some more. He just stood there as they mockingly bowed before him and said sarcastically, “Hail, King! Hail, King!” and hit him about the head some more.

Then, Cooper brought Jesus out to Jennifer and the other pastors and deacons again. He was all bloody and bruised, his blood soaking through the purple robe and streaming down his face and neck from the crown of thorns. All Cooper said was, “Here he is,” and those pastors and deacons and deans (and it’s likely the bishop and his staff were present by now) screamed, “Kill him! Kill him!” And Cooper said, “YOU take him and kill him if you want it so badly.” And Jennifer shouted about how there is a law about claiming to be the Son of God, and that law carries the weight of the death penalty.

Cooper was kind of freaking out at that point, so he went over to Jesus and questioned him about where he’s from, and Jesus refused to answer at first, but then he started saying that he’s not from this world and weird stuff like that. So, Cooper kept trying to release Jesus, but the pastors and deacons and synod staff kept coming up with new reasons for Cooper to convict Jesus and sentence him to death. So, he said, “You really want me to kill your King?” And they put their shoulders back and said resolutely, “We have no religious king. Our allegiance is to our country and its leaders.” So, Governor Cooper handed Jesus over to Jennifer and the other Lutheran leaders, so they could have him killed.

And when he had died, a couple of guys who weren’t very churchy, who kind of only went to church on Christmas and Easter, and who didn’t have any “God Loves You” t-shirts or listen to K-Love on the radio, who were never on congregation council or acolytes or anything…but things Jesus had done and said had shifted things for them…they asked if they could take care of Jesus’ body, and Governor Cooper gave them permission.