a few things we want you to know about God…

Judah, my son, in the morning I pray for you.  That you will sleep peacefully.  That God would slow your beating heart, wrapping you in Her warmth.  That your dreams would fill you with wonder and curiosity.  That your imagination would grow big and wild, waking you in the morning ready to run and play and create your world.  I pray that when a nightmare steals sleep that your nanny would be near to lift you close to her chest and hold you until your crying eyes close again.  And when you wake alone I pray that you feel God’s arms around you.   I don’t know what anyone has told you about God or what no one has had to tell you for you to already know about God.  Perhaps you will have a different name for God than we do.   Or maybe you won’t understand this feeling, this presence, as God at all, holding a deep appreciation for the human spirit, that glowing light within.

We told the social worker that we wanted you to choose your own spiritual path and we meant it.   Your mom and I put our faith in the person and way of Jesus.  We will tell you bible stories and our stories, but we’ll also introduce you to other stories and  storytellers.    We want to create the space you need to choose your own faith or  the space to let that faith  choose you.  We want you to see that the multifaceted, all-encompassing, beauty of the Divine is larger than any culture that reflects Her and more wonderful than any religious lens that attempts to behold Him.

But there are a few things we want you to know about God.  The bible says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” but also over and over again, “Do not fear.”  I know this is probably confusing.   I could explain all sorts of complicated things about the Hebrew and the Greek, but I will simply say this: God is the mystery that energizes, animates, and holds together every good thing in our lives.  I hope that you believe this, approaching every person, every plant and animal, every breath with wonder and reverence.  When you color or make up games, or sing silly songs, or dance around the yard, that is God moving in and through and around you.   When you fall and scrape your knee or feel overwhelmed with sadness for reasons you don’t understand, that is God also with you, feeling your pain, shedding your tears. “Fearing” God is being careful to remember and respect that God is in all things and all people.  “Fearing God” is not living carelessly, not hurting anyone or anything made in God’s image, especially yourself.

Sometimes God’s presence will scare you, because God will invite you to risk yourself to care for someone else or risk something you believe is important to become more of the person you were meant to be.  When you feel this fear, I pray you will face it with everything you have, knowing that it will never be easy, but it will always be worth it…even when you cannot yet see it.

But there is another kind of fear that is never from God.  Anytime you worry that you’re  not enough, anytime you’re afraid to be yourself, anytime you feel paralyzed by guilt and shame, that fear is not from God.  There will be many people who will tell you that God needs you to think or act a certain way to be loved and accepted.  Don’t believe it, even if (and when) we somehow make you feel that way.  God loves you just as you are.  Nothing can change that.  No matter what you do. No matter what you believe or don’t believe.  No matter who you love.  No matter where your life takes you.  Nothing.  Really nothing.  Nothing can separate you from the love of God. It’s taken me 31 years to even begin to believe that.  If one day you find yourself believing in God, know that though He has all sorts of hopes and dreams for your life, that all God asks of you is that you let Him love you.

And whether you believe in God or not, know that all I will ever try to ask of you is that you let me love you too.

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“Give me the Holy Spirit!”

Whenever the front desk calls saying that someone wants to talk to a Pastor,  I know that after the prerequisite testimonies and prayers there will be a plea for cash.

As I walked downstairs I let out a big exhale, trying to let go of my cynicism and frustration and find the patience to be present to whoever was waiting on the couch.

Steve [We’ll call him] asked me to help him understand the scriptures.   I began flipping through his white Gideon bible, careful not to drop the bus pass and homeless identification card marking pages, and careful to find passages expressing God’s universal presence and unconditional love.

 I read the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch who struggled to understand the scriptures until God sent Phillip to read with him and baptize him, and ultimately celebrate the way the Spirit was already at work in the Eunich’s life.   I read Paul’s words from Romans, “..the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”  and, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Steve grabbed my hand and loudly interrupted, “Give me the Holy Spirit!”

Everything within me protested.

I can’t give him the Holy Spirit.  He already has it.  We all do.

God’s ruach (breath, wind, spirit) hovered over the waters to create all things, blowing into dirt to form human beings in God’s image.  According to God in the Holy Qur’an, God is as closer to us as our jugular vein.  God’s Spirit is the animating force sustaining all of creation, all relationships, all work, all creativity… everything that brings us life, healing, and wholeness.  Jesus became human so that we could reclaim the divine presence in ourselves, our enemies, and those we marginalize.  Ultimately in Jesus, we find God’s spirit present in suffering and death.  The whole history of the church has been the struggle to remember and proclaim this truth.  I wanted to tell him that he already had everything he needed.

But instead I held his hand tightly and did what he asked, praying passionately for him to receive the Holy Spirit .  As soon as I said “Amen”, he shook my hand, put on his shoes and walked out the door saying,  “You have been released.”

Did Steve find what he was looking for?  In the last couple of weeks I have seen him over and over again, walking down the street, eating at the Agape Meal, or sitting in the back of the sanctuary.  I know my words didn’t have the power to bring the Holy Spirit into Steve’s life, but I wonder if perhaps God used them to help him see something that was there all along?  And if not, I hope he will ask again and again until he feels God’s presence so fully that all he has to do is breathe

Bàba ài nī

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“Bàba ài nī.”  I hit replay on my phone again and again to hear the words reaching for the fundamental truth I  want my child to know. “Daddy loves you.”  I was so overwhelmed that I could hardly repeat them that first time.

Now a day doesn’t pass without Jenny and me walking around the house saying, “Bàba ài nī!” “Māmā ài nī (Mommy loves you)!”, and “Wō ài nī! (I love you)!” to each other, the dog, our little boy’s picture, or an empty room.

It is hard to fathom that we could love this child so much.  We’ve never met him, never heard him speak, never been in the same room.  We only know him through pictures, videos, and badly translated medical charts…but we love him.  What is this mysterious space opening in our hearts, stretching wider through pain and joy, longing to pour out all that is within us to make space for this boy?   How is that this seed, the calling of adoption,  planted in the heart of my bride as a girl, sprouted and grew all these years, tenderly, quietly, until all of a sudden we found it breaking forth from the ground of our life together? It’s sprout pushing aside heavy layers of contentment and fear, replacing our laughter about the plight of friends with children with a blooming desire for children of our own.

Like any miracle, it’s a mystery too confusing and beautiful for words.

I’ve always struggled to understand love.  I’ve felt it.  I’ve received it. But it’s never made sense to me.  Something in my psyche tells me I have to earn the love of others.  It didn’t matter how much my Sunday School teachers told me God loved me, or my parents or grandparents told me they loved me, another voice told me that I had to make myself worthy of love.  When I received praise as a teenager and young adult, my already strong  self critic told me I didn’t deserve it.  Heartfelt words felt hollow and disingenuous.  Couldn’t they see my flaws, my mistakes, my failures?

Looking back I know that they did, but that they saw me through the eyes of love.  I didn’t understand what this meant until I married Jenny.  I was deeply embarrassed when she saw the messiest, most selfish, hidden parts of me and deeply moved when her affection did not wane.   It wasn’t that my words and actions didn’t matter or weren’t hurtful to her, but somehow her love for me was rooted in something deeper than my ability on any given day to love her well.  As I experienced this again and again, my ego began to crack and break until I could begin to receive her love without qualification, not even my own.

As I look at the picture of this little boy that will call me Dad my heart feels like it could explode.  I think I am beginning to understand a little more of how my parents feel about me and how all parents feel about their children.

This love is a grace beyond us.  We don’t will it or create it. It overcomes us.  A life-shattering gift.

I don’t need to understand it.  I just pray that I can stay open enough to receive it and generous enough to give it.

 

Reflections from the Baptist/Muslim Dialogue, April 16-19, 2018

Originally published on EthicsDaily.com May 2, 2018

Bearing Witness to Confront Negative Stereotypes about Islam

How do you begin conversations with parishioners and neighbors at home whose minds seemed closed by negative stereotypes of Islam?

We Baptists wondered this aloud as we left the third national Baptist-Muslim Dialogue in Green Lake, Wisconsin.

We spoke at length about confronting Islamophobia in our churches and communities.

Does this mean correcting Uncle John at the Thanksgiving table? Sometimes. What about writing a letter to the editor of our local newspaper or our state representative? Absolutely. How about having an uncomfortable conversation with a Sunday School class? Certainly. But is this all we are called to do?

I then remembered Mohammed Elsanousi, director of the Secretariat of the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers, explaining earlier in the dialogue, “When we do things like this in Islam, we are not allowed to do them on our own. We are instructed to invite our non-Muslim neighbors to witness what we are doing to hold us accountable.”

He was speaking about his advocacy for the Marrakesh Declaration, a document authored by Muslim scholars across the globe urging Muslim-majority countries to protect Christians and other religious minorities.

As a Baptist, I was deeply moved by this effort that honored the legacy of John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams and John Leland, just as much as the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him.

I felt God calling me not to be a witness in the sense of accountability, but to “bear witness,” to share the good news about the compassionate, sacrificial work my Muslim neighbors were doing with all who would listen.

I felt this call again when Imad Enchassi, imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, who saw Christian soldiers massacre Muslims in his refugee camp as a child, embraced a Baptist pastor and called him his “brother from another mother.”

I felt called to bear witness as Anwar Khan, president of Islamic Relief USA, spoke about Islamic Relief’s work to feed Rohingya Muslims in Bangladeshi refugee camps and help hurricane victims in Tarboro, North Carolina.

I felt called to bear witness to the faith of brothers like Muhammad Adeyinka Mendes, resident scholar and imam at the Muslim Center of Greater Princeton, as he showed us how to wash our hands, arms, feet and head to cleanse ourselves from the dirt of our lives and invited us to pray shoulder to shoulder.

One of my new Muslim friends told me he feels closest to God with his face on the ground, and for a moment I understood what he meant.

I felt called to bear witness to the mystery of God I experienced as I fell to my knees and the kinship I felt as I heard “Peace be upon you” spoken to me over the shoulder of my brother.

Over the years, I have been quick to call out what I saw was wrong in talk about Muslims and Islam.

While I still believe this kind of critique is important, now I feel more compelled to bear witness to what is right about the lives of my Muslim neighbors.

What if we focused on telling the stories of their spiritual journeys and their acts of neighbor-love that rarely make the headlines?

What if we committed to give testimony to the connection we feel with God in conversation, prayer and shared meals with our Muslim friends? How might this change the conversation?

Perhaps it would open up just enough wonder to transcend our typical arguments.

Maybe it would build enough of a platform to allow us as interfaith advocates to stop being defenders of Islam and step aside to allow our Muslim friends to tell their own stories with the possibility of being known and loved in our communities.

Willie Jennings, associate professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale Divinity School, writes that the key to dismantling racism is not knowledge but desire.

We don’t change because we gain more knowledge. We change because we fall in love with those we have been taught to hate.

Could it be the same with dismantling Islamophobia?

I love my Muslim sisters and brothers and I will bear witness to the beauty of their lives, hoping that others will see what I see in them. I will not be silent.

Originally Published on May 3rd, 2018 in the Alliance of Baptists’ Connections

Renewed by the kinship built between Baptists and Muslims

by Drew Herring

“When we encounter diversity it is an opportunity for us to acknowledge our limits.” In these words from Dr. Raimundo Barreto, assistant professor of world Christianity at Princeton Theological Seminary, I heard God’s invitation to listen deeply and intentionally at this Third National Baptist-Muslim Dialogue April 16-19.

As Dr. Barreto spoke, I looked around the room at the Anglo, African American, Latino, Asian, and Arab brothers and sisters who had traveled across North America to Green Lake, Wis. Our gathering was specifically organized with the hope of mobilizing young leaders, but we were graced with the presence of many generations.

In addition to the congregations and educational institutions we serve, our group of 62 participants represented the Alliance of Baptists, American Baptists, Baptist World Alliance, Canadian Baptists, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, National Baptists, Progressive National Baptists, Lott Carey, the Islamic Center of North America, and Islamic Relief USA.

Like the National Baptist-Muslim dialogues that preceded it, this dialogue included sessions highlighting theological distinctives and theological common ground between Baptists and Muslims, as well as both groups’ initiatives to promote religious liberty and social justice around the world. What made the 2018 dialogue unique was its focus on relationships. Each participant was challenged to begin, or strengthen, a relationship with a partner of the other faith tradition and create a covenant between their two congregations at home.

To empower us in this goal, our sessions were less academic and more rooted in lived experience. Our Muslim sisters and brothers spoke about the everyday consequences of Islamaphobia, telling stories of wrongful accusations, death threats, protests, loan denials and violence.

In a particularly poignant moment, Anwar Khan, president of Islamic Relief USA, reminded us that his experience of being held by the Transportation Secretary Administration (TSA) was not that different from the treatment his African American sisters and brothers might receive from police anytime they are behind the wheel of a car. Anwar had named the elephant in the room. While he appreciated the concern about Islamaphobia by our group of mostly white Baptists, he reminded us that we still had much intrafaith work to do to dismantle racism within our own tradition.

Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the United States. Global Christianity and the American Church along with it is growing fastest among poor and immigrant communities, particularly among Latina women. What would it look like if instead of choosing fight or flight, white Baptists like me decided to acknowledge our limits? What if we preemptively embraced our position outside of the center of the shifting religious landscape by giving up power? What if we

saw the growing diversity of Christianity and the broader community as an opportunity to listen and learn not just about our neighbors, but about the multi-faceted image of the God we share?

Returning from Green Lake, I am renewed by the kinship built between Baptists and Muslims in hard, side-hurting laughter and tender, tearful vulnerability. I am renewed by the God I met as I prayed with my face on the ground beside my Muslim brother and served communion beside my African American sister.

I am renewed in my calling to end racism and Islamaphobia, not just as a pathway to greater social justice but for a deeper participation in God’s work to break down the barriers that prevent us from seeing the fullness of God in and through each other.

I am grateful to be part of an Alliance of Baptists family that has responded to this call time and time again over 31 years, and continues toward the voice of the Lord together.

Week 1: What is Easter?

I poured a mug of coffee, read the familiar scriptures, and stared blankly at my journal.  The climax of the story I’ve staked my life upon taunted me like Rorschach ink blots, mysterious and silent.  So what?  I tied my brightest bowtie and drove toward the bells, brass, Alleluias and pastels.

What is Easter?

The answer that eluded me at my writing desk became more clear at the traffic light.

I saw Easter in the man walking from JPS, half-tied gown, hospital bracelet and drawstring bag.  Walking slowly, but walking forward.

I saw Easter in the woman with her bed roll, resting in the bus shelter but on her way somewhere.

Later that day I saw Easter in Sunday Schooled elders refusing to believe they’d arrived spiritually and wondering what new life might be found if they could let go of the stubborn bits of ego still lingering after all these years.

I saw Easter watching determined worshippers strut past parking lot protesters.  The meant to be derisive accusations about our “Gay Jesus” only causing greeters to hug friends tighter and welcome more cheerfully and a teenage boy with wisdom and compassion beyond his years to ask, “Why do they have to tell lies?”

Easter is not just a day or a season but a habit.   A continual, defiant, choice to not let suffering, fear, or hate have the last word.   A commitment to Wendell Berry’s command “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”

 

 

 

 

A Word for the Weary: Part I

 

Isaiah 50:4-8a

Every morning I read a psalm and a few gospel verses, set the timer, and write into the sunrise.   There are days when when my lingering in bed or the demand of an early meeting squeezes my 20 minute practice into 5 or 10.  There are days when I stare at my timer impatiently, ready to get on to the real work of the day.  There are days when I doubt the words I write are worth their weight in ink.

But then there are those other days…

Days when I can’t write long or fast enough.  Days when my pen finally stops and I breathe heavily over pages filled with words somehow only partially my own. Words too desperately honest, too important, to be held back by my measured hand.  The seemingly formless scribbles concealing the rawest beauty.

Writing is the spiritual practice that helps me transcend the noise of my first conscious moments and listen.   Word by word, I am emptied like the body exhaling out every last bit of stale, constrictive, breath.  In the mystery of hand and mind moving at the same time,  I read back the surprising things I’ve written and breathe in refreshed, resting in a new space of center.

Writing invites me into self-examination before NPR tempts me with self-righteousness.   Writing affirms that I am enough before my inner-personal trainer tells me to run faster.   Writing (for myself and not anyone else) allows me see beyond my work the God who is working on me.

Writing is the discipline that reminds me that I need to hear the voice of the Lord before I have words to offer anyone else.  Isaiah writes, “The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.”   My worst writer’s block occurs when I forget that I am chief among the weary ones.  My pages stay empty when I write to meet my preconceived notions rather than whatever words my pen forms.  And so morning by morning I show up.  The timer is running…

Declaring my LGBTQ love: thoughts on the Illumination Project

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“Love is not what you say.  Love is what you do.”   I’m glad this quote is posted in the youth hall men’s room for our teenagers to see during the Valentines season.  These young men need to know that words of love mean nothing without a commitment to actions that make space for others to flourish, even and especially when that costs something (for this is why St. Valentine was martyred).  These young men need to think very carefully about telling someone they love them if they aren’t willing to embody that love.  These young women (I assume the same poster is  hanging in the ladies room?) need to learn to only believe the words “I love you,” when their partner shows them the kind of fidelity and care that love really is.

But I also hate this poster.   It makes me angry.  What we say matters.  Words break trust and wound souls.  Words dehumanize.   The nursery rhyme is a blatant lie: Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will cripple me far longer than physical injuries.

It is also true that what we don’t say matters.

I am proud of the many beautiful, thoughtful, courageous responses to the Illumination Project’s short-sighted conclusions and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship‘s  discriminatory policy  that prohibits the hiring of LGBTQ persons for any missionary assignments or key leadership positions.  With all of the Facebook comments, blogs, and articles, and sermons, I’ve wondered “What else is there to say?” And so I’ve said nothing.

In an Ethics Daily interview with the Illumination Project Committee, Suzii Paynter makes the point that what is most important is not the hiring policy of our denomi-network, but the love and care that LGBTQ persons receive in CBF congregations, even in congregations that are not welcoming and affirming.  In one sense it seems that Suzii and the Valentines poster are right: actions speak louder than words. This has been the message of many pastors and churches I’ve served over the years.  I’ve been encouraged to work for what I saw as justice slowly and gradually behind the scenes, being careful not to speak too loudly and offend people, especially if they have money.  This approach has been framed as balancing “the pastoral” and “the prophetic” or described in a favorite phrase of the Illumination Project as, “meeting people where they are.”

But I now see this type of voice as a voice of privilege and this type of love as incomplete.

I now see that not saying anything is only pastoral for part of my community.  I now see that speaking out prophetically is in fact the fullest expression of the pastoral office when the people I love are being excluded by the baptist family they hoped would be their home.

I will no longer be silent.

I will not personally attack any individual or organization, but I will speak up forcefully for and with the ones I love.  I will speak up with my gay friend seeking ordination.  I will speak up with the woman who stood in my kitchen with tears of joy as she gave thanks that her and her wife could finally worship together in a Baptist church.  I will speak up with one of the most gifted preachers I know as he receives rejection letters from search committee after search committee.  I will speak up with my future adoptive son’s adoptive”guncles” whose wedding I look forward to planning.  I will speak up with the couple who loved my aging grandparents, helping with groceries and doctors appointments, and becoming the sons they never had.  I will speak up with all of the LGBTQ people who have invited me into their homes and into their lives, teaching me more about love and grace than I ever could have known without their friendship.

I love the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.   The CBF has financially supported my education, created space for me to discern my calling, opened up opportunities for employment, and brought me friends who have sustained my ministry over these last ten years.  I am proud of the CBF’s courageous efforts to elevate the voices of women, work for racial reconciliation, and respond to God’s work outside of traditional institutions with new church starts.  I truly believe that this is a movement that is seeking to follow the Holy Spirit.

I love the CBF enough to speak up when I believe that they are choosing to be less than God has called them to be.  I love the CBF enough to speak out when I see them choosing less than the fullness of God’s image, as they say “no” to the LGBTQ lives and the unique gifts they offer.  I love the CBF and my gay friends enough to lean into the tension. I know not all of us can or should walk this path any longer, but I will stay and speak up.

Who are the other lovers out there?  How will you speak up online or in person? How will you speak up in Dallas? With acts of protest or resistance?  With rainbow pride? With motions on the floor of the business meeting?

Love is not just about what you do, but what you say.

“Shut up!”

Mark 10:46-52

My mother really didn’t tolerate any “bad” words in her home but she never ever wanted us to tell each other to “shut up!”  Of all of the “four letter” words I heard playing basketball at the Y, or sitting in the back seat of the youth van, I couldn’t understand why these two were so bad…until I said them to the woman who would become my wife.  In an instant, Jenny who always seemed to radiate a quiet, easy-going joy completely shut down, doing exactly what I had demanded she do.

“I’m sorry!  I’m sorry!  I didn’t mean it,” I stammered, but the words that  floated like balloons beyond my grasp, unable to be contained.   Could their be anything more dehumanizing than angrily telling someone to stop speaking?  Than forcefully invalidating the emotions, needs, and ideas they are trying to share with you?

Mama was right.

“Shut up!” the crowds yelled at blind Bartimaeus as Jesus walked by.  But the beggar kept crying out for mercy until Jesus stopped.  We easily remember the stories of Jesus’  healing words and healing actions but we often forget that Jesus almost always asked first, “What do you want me to do for you?”  Instead of asserting he knew what was best for those he encountered (even if he actually did), Jesus asked questions and listened, creating space for others needs to be heard within the dignity of their own voice.

As I re-read this story yesterday morning, I felt righteous anger toward this crowd rebuking the beggar.  I felt sadness over the hardness of their hearts.  But then I thought about my own response to those who cry for mercy from the street corners.

Living in cities with large homeless populations over the last 13 years,  I’ve been trained by non-profits and pushed by city ordinances to direct people to services rather than giving out cash.  I occasionally make a gut decision to give a couple of bucks, but usually give away whatever food is in my car.  I sometimes offer to buy dinner or pay for a bus pass. When I don’t help, I try to follow the dignity-protecting way of my friend Heath, “I say no, but I look them in the eye when I do it.”

But more than I’d like to admit,  I just keep driving, just keep walking, I refuse eye contact or acknowledgement, saying in my spirit, “Shut up!”

A few weeks ago, a woman flagged me down as I left an empty parking lot. After I lied about not having cash in my wallet, she asked for a ride.   Still shivering from the chill of the 22° afternoon,  I unlocked the door.  My stomach turned as the smell of body odor, cigarettes, and booze filled my Father-in-law’s Lexus.  As she navigated across Raleigh, she weaved an intricate narrative about her father’s funeral, her daughter’s illness, and the Greyhound ticket she needed to buy to get her family home.  As she made her phone call, I prayed the light would not be red long enough for her to run away with my iPhone.   As she shared her testimony and called out left and right turns, new requests for help kept coming.  I offered to pay for her hotel room but after another phone call, she told me the hotel was paid for.  When I refused to stop at the ATM for the second time, she asked if I would buy dinner.  As the fear and resentment squeezed me from within I pulled into the Bojangles parking lot instead of letting her direct me to the restaurant of her choice.  I heard myself saying,”I’m sorry I won’t give you cash, but I’ve heard a lot of stories over the years and I just don’t do that.”  She told me she understood.  She agreed that there are a lot of hustlers and liars out there, but asserted that she wasn’t one of them.  She told me what I already knew in my heart of hearts, that they were just doing what they had to do to survive.

As I pulled away from that shitty hotel, her words rang in my ears, “It’s all God’s anyway.”  Yes, she said them to shame me into giving her money, but she also spoke the truth.   Our time, our money, our very lives are God’s, not ours.   But I also felt frustrated about the hour I just wasted, foolish about letting her take advantage of me, careless for letting her navigate to an unknown place, guilty for not being present and pastoral, self-righteous about the control I exerted over the situation, angry that she ordered the family-sized, tailgate special (that I could easily afford), sad that her story might be true and sad about whatever had happened in her life that led her to make up a story like that.

Didn’t they tell us as children that serving others would make us feel good?

In so many ways, without saying it, it felt like I told that woman to “shut up!”  I also trust that she heard the voice of Jesus,through me and in spite of me, asking, “What do you want me to do for you?”   I pray that my anxious and distracted listening was life-giving for her, even if only for a moment.

And I wonder, “Aren’t we all just like this before God?”  Stinking of our own bad choices and the tragic circumstances that chose us? Earnest and manipulative?  Speaking directly and changing our stories? Asking for what we need and demanding much more than we deserve?

May we learn from the boldness of this woman.

May we shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Last weekend (next year)

Two Sundays ago, I preached a sermon that included the story of Jenny and me saying, “no,” to a adopting a child who was far more developmentally delayed than we previously thought.  This experience was crushing, but I believe our heartbreak helped us more fully understand the heart of the God who suffers with us and this child.  In this time we felt closer to the God who is the father of the fatherless and the mother of us all.

The exciting news is that we have been pre-approved by the Chinese government to adopt a little boy who will turn three in September.  We’re not ready to say more than that online, but we’d love to talk to you about it in person!

Knowing that we will be traveling this summer to pick up our son has changed the way we experience everyday events.

On Friday we went to the Rodeo.  As we watched the little boys run through the stock barn all we could see was our little boy in the cowboy boots we’d already picked out for him. I could hear us saying, “This is a cow.  This is pig.  This is a chicken.”   I thought about how the familiar sights and sounds and smells would move him forward in enchantment. How I long to see the world through his eyes of wonder and discovery!   We laughed at the parents buying the ridiculous light-up toys sold at the arena, but I knew deep down that he would be drawn to them and that our principled refusals would likely melt as quickly as asked.   When the arena lights went down, I imagined helping him stand up and take off his hat.   I thought about how when he got a little older he might ask why Mom and Dad stand up and put their hands over their hearts but also make little wry jokes about the way others worship his adopted country’s flag.  I thought about the conversation I would have with him when he got a little bit older about why it was inappropriate for the rodeo announcer to introduce the Episcopal Priest with a Ph.D in Hebrew Bible giving the prayer as, “a beautiful lady.” At the same time, I would also tell him how remarkable it was that an African American woman was even giving the prayer at this event so shaped by white American Christianity.  But mostly I just smiled thinking of the way his eyes would light up as the cowboys rode by swinging their lassos.

Thirteen hours later, we slipped into the crowd down Main Street. The repeated chant of “Love, not hate, makes America great!” ringing in my ears, I thought about my son again.  I saw him walking beside me, an immigrant holding a sign he decorated just like the little girls in front of us.  I would make sure he saw the other signs, especially the one that said, “Boys will be…(boys crossed out) good human beings,” and the one that said “Men of quality don’t fear equality.”  No doubt he will already know the strength and goodness of women.  He’ll know it through the nannies that raised him until now.  He’ll know it through the story we tell him about his mother who risked being arrested and shunned by her culture and endured the pain of letting go of her own flesh and blood that he might get the medical treatment and nutrition he needed to survive.  And he’ll know it through the mother who chose not to have her own child because of her calling to open her life to a little boy like him.  He’ll already know how strong and good and indispensable women are, but I will remind him year after year, because somehow as boys and men we forget. When he gets older, I’ll help him see the ways that more than forgetting, we make subtle and obvious choices to maintain our power and comfort at the expense of girls and women.  Or maybe he will help me understand?

As I walked forward, I thought about how I would lift him up to see a crowd of people that look like his parents, and others who look like him, and others whose skin tones display an array of darker shades.  I thought about how I would tell him that he should be proud to be Chinese and American, because in God’s eyes it is the love that can bring so many different people together that can make America and all nations great.  But as child after child approached to ask if they could pet Lily, I knew he wouldn’t want to be on my shoulders for long.  I knew he’d beg to get down and reach out his hand, for that is what this same love looks like at three years old.

Undivided/Un-dividing

Lectionary(A), 7.23.17: Psalm 86:11-17 & Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.

“Lord give me an undivided heart…”  I find myself praying with the psalmist that I might worship God alone, not commit the idolatry of trying to worship God and my own comfort.  I find myself praying  that I might possess love alone, not love diluted by  judgement of self or anyone else.  I wonder if that kind of undivided love and undivided worship might be the same thing?   Hoping to find my way out of  what I interpret as humanity’s “original” and most destructive sin, I change the psalmist’s adjective “undivided” into the verb un-dividing. “Lord, give me an un-dividing heart.”  A heart not willing to divide people into categories of  “good” or “evil”, “worthy” or “unworthy.”  For I believe this dualism  prevents us from truly worshipping the one who created all.  I think this is why Jesus, the Lord of the harvest, tells the workers to cease and desist.  “You can’t tell the weeds from the wheat.  Stop! In your zeal you will destroy both.  You will surely hurt other people, but the life most uprooted will be your own.”

Trying to identify “the weeds” robs us of wholeness.  Rather than giving us the justification we desire, our constant judgement of others makes us more unsure of our own identity.   What we see and criticize in others often only intensifies our own self-doubt as we are forced to deal with “the weeds” we would rather not see in our own lives.   Obsessing over “the weeds” also prevents our own lives from growing and blossoming.   Instead of being grounded and reaching upward, we grow sideways pointing at the other plants, eventually becoming as warped as we think they are.

Caught up in our toxic patterns of “dividing” and judging, we often take the next illogical step of thinking that we  are the ones tasked with pulling “the weeds.”  We exclude.  We ignore.  We shun. And shamefully, we do so in the name of Jesus.

What reasoning, even in the realm of parabolic analogy, makes us think our role could be both wheat and weed puller?  How is it that we can believe that we have that kind of divine wisdom, authority, or responsibility? Anytime we do this we are forgetting our role in the story.   We are playing God…and not very well.

So what is God really like?

On a warm spring morning, a man surveys the green expanse of his back yard.  After hours of tilling, fertilizing, and watering, he can’t help but be exasperated at the weeds sprouting up in his otherwise perfect lawn.  As he contemplates a morning of pulling each and every alien plant out by the roots, he’s interrupted by a little girl’s laughter.

He shouts, “Stop! Don’t do that! If you blow on that dandelion they’ll spread all over the yard!  That’s a weed!”

“No, Daddy!” his daughter cries,”It’s a flower!”

After a few minutes of gentle debate, the little girl finally says, “I don’t care if it’s a weed…It’s so pretty!” and resumes her giggling and twirling around in clouds of fleecy, airborne, dandelion petals.

Is the God you worship like the anxious man futilely attempting to eradicate every single weed? Or is your God like the little girl dancing around, understanding that the dandelions are technically “weeds”, but delighting in them just the same?

Anne Lamott writes, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

Even when our judgements don’t reach the point we would call “hate”, I believe you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out God judges all the people you judge ( yourself included) in all the same ways you do.

I ‘m done trying to pull weeds. I don’t have the time or energy for that and even if I did, without the weeds I would’t have much left to call a yard…