Blessed to be Broken

The following is a sermon I preached on Sunday, August 3, 2014 — the day I announced to the church that I had resigned from my position and would be leaving them at the end of the month. I thought the Revised Common Lectionary gospel reading for the day was a timely reminder that brokenness is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, God uses brokenness beautifully and without fail.

kitkat

“Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.”

— Matthew 14:19

When you think of the word “blessed,” what normally comes to mind?

Do you think of being in a place in your life where everything is running smoothly? Does it mean that things are perfectly in place, or at least on their way? Does it mean that you and everyone around you is healthy, happy, and prospering? Does it mean your career or your business is going well? Does it mean your friendships are in good places? Does it mean your love life is en pointe? Your marriage is thriving? Your schooling is going well?

I think if any of these things are in place, we would consider ourselves blessed. If we were to Tweet or Facebook about anything like this, we would probably include the hashtag “#blessed.” In fact, I know some of you who have!

But is being blessed an end to which we should strive? Is it a final destination? Do we work, pray, and work some more to arrive at the land of “blessed”? Or is being blessed just the beginning? Is it a precursor to something else? Rather than being a destination, is it instead a starting point? What if something comes after being blessed?

I would submit that being blessed is not in fact a destination; is only part of the story. It is just a beginning of any story that makes up the anthology of our faith journey. Whenever you sit back, take inventory of your life, and conclude that you are blessed, just prepare yourself. Something will come after that.

I notice in the gospels that Jesus has a habit of blessing things and then breaking them. Our text this morning is a prime example of that. Jesus thought he was going on vacation, but it turns out a lot of people needed him. But instead of saying, “I’m taking a break, leave me alone,” he had pity on the crowds and healed their sick. But it was getting late, and the disciples, being the pragmatists they were, suggested that Jesus send them away so they could get some food. Jesus had another plan — they would feed the crowds with the two little fish and five measly loaves they had among them. And he began this dinner party by blessing the loaves. Then, he breaks them.

Unless they were gigantic loaves, theologically, I must deduce that the only way five loaves of bread could feed 5,000 men (not including the women and children) is because they were blessed. They were first lifted to heaven and blessed, but even though they were blessed they were still useless. In order to be useful, the loaves had to be broken. They had to be broken so that they could be distributed to all those people. They had to be broken so that the blessing could be shared.

It’s good that we folks of faith know that the only way we can do the things we do is because of God’s blessings. It’s important to understand that if we enjoy any measure of health, financial security, career success, or any other such enjoyments, it’s because we’ve been blessed to do so. But being blessed by itself is useless. We must then be broken.

A story comes to mind of when I was in 5th grade. One of the school teachers was about to go run an errand and our teacher asked her to bring back a Kit Kat bar for her. So after our teacher stepped out of the classroom, we children had the idea to sing the Kit Kat jingle when she came back. We didn’t really want the candy. We just wanted to make her laugh. So when she came back in the room, we all broke out in song.

“Give me a break. Give me a break. Break me off a piece of that Kit Kat bar.”

Thinking we were so clever and funny and seeing her smile, we counted it as a success. But then something happened. She actually got up from her desk and proceeded to walk around the classroom and break us each off a piece of her Kit Kat bar! You should have seen the looks on our faces! And then she returned to her desk and ate the last piece just as contently as if she’d had the whole thing to herself.

I remember being amazed because as a ten-year-old chocoholic, there’s no way I would have done the same thing! Even at 35, I’m not sure I would share my chocolate with any of you! But she did, and she seemed happy about it, not sad about all the chocolate she was going to be missing out on.

I think we’re reluctant to be broken because we’re afraid of what we’ll be missing when it happens. When we’re broken in our relationships, we’re afraid of missing out on the times we used to share with those people. When we’re broken financially, we’re afraid of losing what we worked so hard for and what God blessed us with. When churches are broken — and they often are — we’re afraid that it will mean decline and the end of the faith tradition.

But the fact is God is especially good at using broken things. It’s in that brokenness that God can spread you out among those who need you. Perhaps losing a job means you can now volunteer at the local soup kitchen, or be more present with your family and friends. Perhaps a fractured relationship means that new ones can be fostered. Perhaps a major disappointment means you can comfort someone else in the midst of their own. God does not break things to leave them broken. Being broken is actually a sign that you’ve been blessed, and now the blessing’s reach has to go beyond you.

That was Jesus’ pattern; to bless things only to break and distribute them. That was the path of his own life, to be broken on the cross only to get up on Sunday will all power in his hand. And with that in mind, thank God for brokenness! Thank God that he was crushed with pain. Thank God that he was wounded for our transgressions. Thank God that his punishment made us whole, because without his wounds — his brokenness — we could not be healed!

Brothers and sisters, wherever it may occur, do not fear the brokenness. Yes, it is uncomfortable. Yes, it presents some uncertainties. But trust in God’s willingness and ability to work in it. Trust that there will be beauty for ashes. Trust that where there is weeping one night, joy will indeed come in the morning! Trust that God will never leave nor forsake you. Trust that you are blessed — even and especially when you are broken! Amen.

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

it's over

Yesterday I announced to the congregation I serve that after this month I would no longer be their Pastoral Assistant.

For the past three years I have served this church in a non-ordained position as its English ministry leader. I came there as an Inquirer and the church walked with me as I became a Candidate and prepared for my ordination exams. It celebrated with me when I passed those exams and was certified ready to be examined for ordination. There was a time when I thought I would be ordained there, but after many months of delay and disappointment, I felt the Holy Spirit calling me to move on — without another call or back-up plan — for both the church and myself.

Having never left a church before, I had no frame for reference for what this would be like. Needless to say, this was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.  You don’t stay somewhere for three years and not develop abiding connections. You don’t provide care for that long without actually caring. You don’t lead the mission of a ministry for that long without becoming invested in their direction and their potential.  You try to dry their tears as you hold back your own. Even typing up my official resignation letter was excruciating. Just because it’s the right thing to do doesn’t mean it’s the easy thing to do.

But one thing is for sure: I couldn’t stay. I couldn’t rest on the relationships I’d built when the Holy Spirit had already said enough was enough. I couldn’t prolong the inevitable and make it harder for all of us later. A dear mentor put it perfectly in perspective for me when he told me that as ministers and leaders, our compassion makes us vulnerable. The very compassion that helped move them forward was now keeping all of us stagnant, and I couldn’t abide by that. Leaving was hard. Staying would have been harder.

In all of it I have peace. I have peace knowing that I loved them as Christ loves me as much as God empowered me to do so. I have peace knowing that our work there set the ministry on a good path. I have peace knowing that no one could question my integrity or my motivations because I gave everything I had and much of what I didn’t for the ministry (though I admit the wisdom in giving so much was at times questionable, but at least lessons were learned and it came from a good place). I have peace knowing that I did exactly what God called me to do there — not to exclude leaving.

And I have peace knowing that, while this chapter is coming to a close, the Great Author has not finished writing our story.

If you’re reading this, I covet your prayers. I covet your prayers for a peaceful transition for all of us as guided by the Holy Spirit. Pray for the broken hearts and disappointed souls, that God would mend and encourage them. Pray for my leadership as I now prepare them for my departure and try to focus their gaze forward. And pray for all of us in ministry, for the courage and wisdom to make the difficult and painful choices that are often necessary for us to move forward.

 

Is the Church Here to Serve You?

steeple

A few years ago I wrote an article on my other blog titled “Marriage Was Not Designed to Make You Happy.” It was written to anyone who may be under the  assumption that being married would address feelings of loneliness or emptiness. Basically, marriage doesn’t care about your happiness. It’s not here for you. You’re here for it.

That article got a lot of unexpected attention. My friends at Black and Married With Kids picked it up and it took off even further. I think the reason it struck a chord is because it challenged a widely-held notion, one that people had come to accept as basic truth. In hindsight, I think the message could apply not only to our approach to marriage, but to a number of things — including church. So in the spirit of challenging notions, I’m here to tell you that if you are a church-going Christian in America, you might be doing church the wrong way.

Why do I say that? I say that because, like me, you probably grew up on Saturday morning cartoons and their accompanying commercials. You probably have had things peddled to you since before you knew how to read. Before you even received an allowance, you were taught how to be a consumer. Whether it was cereal or action figures, you learned at an early age how to be a consumer of goods and services. You then learned how to be a consumer of institutions and even people. You probably chose your college because it was the best choice “for you.” You likely chose your romantic partners and friends because of how they made you feel when you were with them. You have learned that in all things your satisfaction is paramount.

That probably includes your church.

“I just need a church where I can be fed.”

“I need a church with some dynamic programs.”

“I hope the preaching/choir/praise band is good.”

“I need an early service so I don’t miss kick-off.”

Have you ever said any of these things or something like them? Then you’ve unwittingly learned to approach church as a consumer. I don’t blame you. Not only is it how we’ve been raised, but many churches have played into it and have crafted church services and church life to be convenient for you. Those churches that are blessed with enough resources can offer multiple services so you don’t have to forsake the fellowship of the saints due to other obligations. They can offer a really great Sunday School program for your children so you have something that engages them. I don’t think these are bad things because, well, is it really the Church if no one is there? But it is a problem if those things become how we gauge whether or not a church is worth our time.

What if we approached looking for a church with the intention of finding a place where we could serve rather than where we could be served? What if we could forgive a monotone preacher or an off-key praise singer if this church was a place we could start that homeless ministry we’d been thinking about? What if you sought out a church who needed your education background to help revitalize their Sunday School? What if you found a church that could use your financial expertise or your IT experience? What if what you found was more than just a comfortable place to come on Sunday mornings, but a place that would challenge you to be in community with others? What if, instead of merely going to church, we sought to be the church?

I definitely don’t judge anyone who comes to church looking for something. Hasn’t that been all of us at one time? But what if someone else was doing the same thing, and it just so happened that you were what they were looking for? Maybe, just maybe, this isn’t about you.

Why I Need Feminism… and Womanism, and Civil Rights, and…

“Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.” – Coretta Scott King


I was very saddened to learn from a recent Buzzfeed article that there is a Tumblr/Facebook page called “Women Against Feminism.”

I’m not sad that anyone (women in particular) would critique feminism. Plenty have, and have done so cogently and thoughtfully. My issue with such a page is that it doesn’t actually offer critiques of feminism. It instead critiques a distortion of feminism. It critiques what are in actuality the stereotypes associated with feminism as if they are feminism itself. For example:

“I don’t need feminism because… I respect men and don’t need to belittle them to empower myself.”

You’ve just played into the biggest misconception and distortion of feminism, because for centuries — millennia, even — the empowerment of men was built on the belittling and subjugation of women. So any movement that seeks to counter that must inherently employ the same tactics in reverse, right? Wrong. Feminism advocates for the equality of women and an egalitarian society in which neither men nor women are subjugated.

“I don’t need feminism because… I respect all humans, not just one gender.”

So does feminism. In fact, that is the very definition of feminism. Again, feminism is… let me just let bell hooks tell it: “Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression. This was a definition of feminism I offered in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center more than 10 years ago. It was my hope at the time that it would become a common definition everyone would use. I liked this definition because it did not imply that men were the enemy.” I emphasized the last part myself because it’s important.

“I don’t need feminism because… I am equal in America.”

Because one day, American patriarchy magically woke up, realized it was doing the women folk dirty, and corrected itself. Do you know how many of those feminists who you don’t need — women and men — had to speak up before you had the right to vote? Or the right to run for office? Or even the ability to obtain a driver’s license? And in 2014, women are still paid less than men for doing the same work. What strides we’ve made in gender equality are thanks in no small part to those feminists, so this point is moot. If you are equal in any regard, you have feminism to thank. And you still need feminism if the last bastions of inequality are to ever be breached.

The “Women Against Feminism” page highlights what I’ve observed as the disconnection between many of today’s young adults and the struggles of the past that have afforded them every opportunity they currently enjoy. They believe in the Utopian society that their forebearers dreamed and fought for, but they also believe we’ve already achieved that end. They are either ignorant of how we have made our current strides or seem to believe that things have always been this way (which, considering their age, is actually true for them). Furthermore, they’ve bought into the idea that anyone who continues to point out lingering inequalities is somehow perpetuating the problem or keeping alive the contentions of the past.

This happens whenever we talk about feminism, womanism, racism, LGBT rights, immigration, or have any other discussion in which hegemony is called to the carpet. Since blacks and whites don’t have to drink from separate water fountains anymore, somehow race relations have sufficiently improved. Well, they’ve certainly improved, but sufficiently? It’s hard to think so when racial disparity still occurs in hiring, college admissions, and incarcerations.

I don’t know if this mentality exists because these young adults genuinely want to believe they live in a better world than that of their parents, or if acknowledging that we still have work to do would endow them with a responsibility they don’t want. Previous generations have fought, been jailed, and even died for what they believe in. Many of them have never had to take such a stand for the greater good. Their lives have for the most part been about what they want and aspire to be and have.

Whatever the reasons are for this aversion, let me go on record saying that I need feminism. Especially and preeminently in the Church, I need feminism. Whereas many churches conduct purity balls for their teen girls with no correlating event for boys, I need feminism. Whereas the Church  heavily depends on and benefits from the dedicated service of women in every area of the church except its leadership, I need feminism. Whereas the Church’s empowerment of women includes helping  them be good wives and mothers (or patiently single) but excludes advocating for their equal treatment under the laws of the land and the Church, I need feminism. Whereas the Church has been loud about sexual health and behavior, but silent on sexual violence, I need feminism.

I need feminism because if there truly is no male or female and we are all one in Christ (Galatians 3:28), I need Christ’s church to act like it. I need feminism and womanism and civil rights so that justice can really roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24). I need them until I don’t need them anymore — and if such a day even exists, I know all too well that today is not it.

The Question I’m Tired of Answering

No, it’s not when my husband and I are having another kid, though I am pretty sick of that one, too. I’m tired of being asked when I’ll be ordained.

In a denomination in which you’re not ordained until you receive a call, searching and waiting for that first call is often nerve-wrecking, heart-breaking, and can test the mettle of even the most resolute Candidates. My situation isn’t entirely unique. Right this second, there are a lot of gifted, anointed Candidates (and already-ordained Teaching Elders) who are fervently looking for calls with little to no success. Such is the nature of things in the Church today — it’s seemingly the laborers who are plenty and the “harvest” that is few.

Without sharing too much of what has happened in the year and a half since I was certified, I will say that this process of looking for a call has been one of the most emotionally taxing experiences of my life. It’s been full of delays, disappointments, dashed hopes, rebuffs, and entirely too much time and bandwidth spent on the Church Leadership Connection. It’s humbling to watch people who finished seminary after you get called before you. It’s awkward to watch well-deserved brothers and sisters get installed to positions you applied for, even if you are genuinely happy for them. And it’s downright frustrating to watch them interview with churches that took one look at your PIF and decided you weren’t what they were looking for.

"Put me in the game, coach!"
“Put me in the game, coach!”

Even still, it’s not so bad because I haven’t lost hope. In all of it I still trust God. I knew this wouldn’t be easy, though I honestly didn’t know it would be this difficult. But I think it would be much more bearable if I didn’t have to field the questions all the time.

How do you explain to people who see your work, who see the heart and soul you put into what you do, who serve on committees with you, who know you’re doing the work of Christ and operating in your call, that even after all this time and after all you’ve given you’re still not ordained? How many times do you have to turn down invitations to serve the Lord’s Supper from people who mistakenly thought you were already ordained before it starts to get under your skin? It’s a constant reminder of what hasn’t happened.

And, if I may be honest, I’m not a fan of this process. I find it a bit ridiculous that, after earning a Master’s degree, passing five of the hardest exams you may ever take in life, and countless conferences and face time with committees, all you’re working for is the possibility that you may be ordained one day. The possibility! Nothing concrete, just the green light to be further vetted. Can I at least get a cake and some balloons or something?

I recently did pulpit supply for a colleague who had to be at a conference. After a wonderful service, a very gracious member shook my hand and said, “I hope the church who calls you knows what they’re getting!” It was simultaneously a jab in my heart and a balm for it. It jabbed me in that it reminded me (once again) that I haven’t been called, but it soothed me in that it reminded me (once again) that I am called. I am called to do this. I was created to do this. I’m in the right place, doing the right thing. I’m exactly where I need to be.

And I know that the call is not an end. It’s only the beginning. The testing didn’t stop at the Senior Ords. It will continue, and this is all a part of it. There will be days like some I already have in which I’ll question why I’m even here, whether or not I’d correctly heard the voice of God when God said, “Go.” And then I’ll be reaffirmed, maybe by a grateful church member, maybe by a colleague, or maybe by some other means. I think a worse fate than not having a call is being in the wrong one. For that reason, I’m content to wait on the Lord, and I’m strengthened in that waiting.

But in the meantime, can you do me a favor? Don’t ask me about it. Trust me, when it happens — when it finally  happens — you’ll be the first to know.

The PC(USA)’s Multicultural Conundrum

Photo Credit: http://pcusa.org
Photo Credit: http://pcusa.org
The following post was my submission to a special post-General-Assembly edition of the NCP Monthly, an editorial publication of the National Capital Presbytery. You can read the original issue here.

The 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA) has now concluded. Do you know how many times the ethnicity of our new Vice-Moderator has been brought up? A few too many for my comfort.

In case you’re not aware, Elder Heath Rada and the Reverend Larissa Kwong Abazia were elected General Assembly moderator and vice-moderator respectively. Let me say that anytime a woman/person of color/woman of color is lifted to a position of influence and visibility is, even in 2014, remarkable and worthy of celebration. But the conversations surrounding her ticket’s election leave me feeling that our still very white denomination is flailing awkwardly in this sea of diversity. On one hand, I hear her rightfully lauded for her work in making the PC(USA) a denomination that is now much more amenable to multicultural ministry and cooperation. On the other hand, I hear commissioners and observers alike crediting her race, her pastoral leadership of a multicultural church, and her “charisma” with handing her ticket a victory, which, if there is any merit to that, suggests that the PC(USA) might be hungrier for the appearance of diversity than truly achieving it.

I can’t begin to know what went on in the hearts and minds of commissioners from 172 presbyteries from across the country as they sought the Holy Spirit’s will in identifying our GA leadership, and I trust that the Lord’s will was truly done. But these suggestions about the election are triggering for me, simply because those of us who find ourselves in the margins often feel that when we are spotlighted, the intention is to say, “We’re not just white – Look at how diverse our denomination is!” It also brings to mind the micro-aggressions I’ve experienced right here in National Capital Presbytery from otherwise well-meaning sisters and brothers, such as when I was mistaken for a member of Christ the King Church at the stated meeting in which their chartering was celebrated. I found it curious that, even though there are a number of churches in our Presbytery that are either completely or significantly comprised of Blacks/African Immigrants, I was assumed to be a member of the one that was particularly visible on that day (it may be of note that I came to the stated meeting in my service to a predominantly Asian congregation). Whether it’s hearing Black Presbyterians United referred to as a “subgroup” (as opposed to the important witness it is within our denomination) to witnessing the lack of understanding of just why Korean churches often need to assert their autonomy, it’s very often clear to me that we have so much work to do in order that we may truly understand one another. And yet, I’m not entirely convinced that my brothers and sisters in the majority have that understanding.

This Reformation Sunday, Presbyterian churches have been encouraged to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Knox by uplifting “our” Scottish heritage. No offense to any church or Presbyterian who intends to do so, but the mere suggestion that we celebrate “our” Scottish heritage (even if we don’t mean personal or ancestral heritage) alienates a number of congregations who do not identify with a European/Western ethos. You probably won’t see any tartans hanging in a BPU church. No bagpipes will likely be played in an Indonesian church. What seems innocuous to many of us unintentionally ignores or disenfranchises others of us.

I can’t say enough how proud I am of this Presbytery and this denomination’s efforts to foster multicultural cooperation. However, I fear that we’re stumbling over our own feet to prove to ourselves that we are indeed multicultural, and if we’re not careful we will instead promote tokenism and create terms that are favorable to the majority. We have a long way to go, and I truly believe that’s okay; we will get there. It’s just going to take a lot of humility, a lot of listening, and a lot of courage. God be with us.