We Gon’ Be Alright!

So, this happened.

13433259_1174288329283208_2484024836893502329_o

And this.

ga222-belhar1_(custom)

And so did this!

13490614_10157084702930346_70495067760982960_o

Over the past week, I and my colleague Jan have had the honor, privilege, and responsibility of serving our denomination as the Co-moderators of the 222nd General Assembly. We have ushered our assembly (and been fabulously supported by staff) into some thoughtful and often difficult proceedings. And throughout the assembly, I’ve been deeply impressed by our members’ graciousness and resolve. When the hour got late and the questions got confusing or frustrating, we made a point to remind everyone that we’re going to be alright.

And we were. In fact, I think we’re better than alright. These faithful people tackled issues such as fossil fuel divestment, the merits (or not) of BDS in the Israel-Palestine conflict, organizational restructuring, and repentence for our role in oppression and violence with such grace, class, and love. Even those who didn’t get their way never lost their way. They stayed engaged, lovingly dissenting if they felt called to do so, and remained in the conversation and around the Table.

I come away from this assembly with more hope for the church and our denomination than I think I’ve ever had, because the 222nd General Assembly let me see anew what beloved community looks like. And for anyone who thinks young people are disconnected from our church, I’d suggest they meet our Young Adult Advisory Delegates, as well as the many young commissioners we had!

A lot of great work was done here in Portland. We’ve adopted a new confession — the Confession of Belhar — that rejects the sin of racism and division and lifts Christ’s call to the “visible unity” of the church. We elected a Stated Clerk to lead our denomination. And, while I understand that some feel some of our overtures didn’t go far enough, such as our acknowledgment of harms done to the LGBT community, I’m hopeful and confident that what was passed has set us on the right path. Wherever we landed this past week, it’s clear to me that God is not through with us, and to paraphrase our new Stated Clerk, we’re not dying, we’re being reformed.

To the commissioners, advisory delegates, volunteers, and observers of this year’s General Assembly, you have no idea how profoundly you’ve ministered to us! You have served and conintue to serve not just your denomination, but your Savior incredibly well! To the staff, I’m convinced you will never be appreciated proportionately for the work you’ve put into this, but I intend to try!

Presbyterian Church (USA), may the Lord God bless you “real good.” And, indeed, we gon’ be alright.

Suicide, Depression, and the Church

Depression

As the world reels over the apparent suicide of Robin Williams, the harsh realities of mental health are once again in front of us. And I am, once again, keenly aware of how unprepared some of us in the church are to deal with it.

Historically, the church has had a very muddy relationship with mental illness, addiction, and suicide. To its credit, the church has begun in fairly recent years to start addressing these realities holistically and step away  from the antiquated ideas it had once promulgated from its pulpits. But some of those ideas and attitudes linger, and it will take us some time to purge of them completely.

If you grew up in the church hearing that suicide is a sin, here’s why:

In the 4th and 5th centuries, a sect of Christianity called the Donatists (named after bishop Donatus Magnus) flourished in North Africa. They were known for their staunch opposition to any Christian who had formerly renounced the faith in the face of widespread persecution by Diocletian and now wanted to come back to the fold. Notably, they believed that suicide was a form of martyrdom, and that it would be better for a Christian to kill oneself than to be apostate. In his book, City of God, Augustine of Hippo vehemently opposed this view because in his estimation suicide was a violation of the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” And since you couldn’t repent of such a sin if you were dead, there could be no salvation for you. It’s Augustine’s influence on this subject that has most heavily informed the church’s approach to suicide for centuries.

While Donatism was indeed heresy, Augustine’s conclusion actually misses the mark. The Hebrew word used in that commandment, ratsakh, refers to unlawful killings such as premeditated murder which produce “blood guilt.” It does not refer to killings made in self defense, but killings that betray the fabric of the community. The commandment addresses righteous interactions with other human beings, not one’s own self. In fact, Talmudic understanding of this commandment is that murder can emcompass public shaming, slander, and personal attacks. Jesus himself even spoke about this. It is not a commandment against suicide.

That is not to say that we should encourage people to kill themselves. But what we have done is emcumbered people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts and the family members of people who have committed suicide in the most heartless of ways — and we’ve used God to do it.

Even as the church strives to become more aware of suicide and mental illness, there is still a tendency to dismiss illnesses such as depression and anxiety as indicative of a lack of faith. Schizophrenia and psychosis are even labeled as “possession” in many communities. As a person of faith, I do not discount the connection between body and spirit. I believe they are inextricable. But when it comes to mental illness, why do we ignore the “body” component? These are physical illnesses with identifiable physiological causes. If a sister or brother in our midst is diagnosed with cancer, we may pray for them, but we also fully expect them to see their oncologist. Too often, we expect people with crippling depression and anxiety to just “pray it away.”

Suicidal people are not selfish. They are sick. And what kind of church would we be if we turned our back on the sick?

When I dealt with crippling clinical depression years ago, I wish I could say the church took me more seriously. But the truth is the only people who cared for me holistically were my psychiatrist and my therapist. I don’t fault the church for this; they simply didn’t know any better. And the fact is society as a whole, both religious and secular, could stand a better education in this matter. But because so many people come to their faith communities when they are struggling with these things (because who else is going to support you and sit with you in your grief like your faith community?) we need to be particularly prepared and armed with life-saving information and understanding.

The sad reality is we won’t be able to save everyone. We won’t be able to stop every single person from completing suicide, even in the church. But we could be agents of healing for those who are struggling. We could be the reason someone seeks help. We could offer a hand to hold on the path to wholeness. We could be that lone point of light for the person who is in their last days before a completed suicide. And we could be the arms that wrap around the family members who try desperately to get their loved ones help to no avail, and are eventually left behind to pick up the pieces. We can at least do that.

Resources:

 

The Church Sex Abuse We Don’t Talk About

ashamed

This week I read an article from Samantha Pugsley in which she bravely recounted her upbringing in the church and how it nearly ruined her sexually.

No, she was not molested by a minister or trusted adult (at least I hope not). She, like nearly all youth in the church, was taught that sex was reserved for marriage and that she should save herself for her husband. She was one of many young girls who took the “true love waits” pledge, stating that they would abstain from sex, sexual thoughts, and anything that would lead to sexual arousal.

This would be all fine and good, except that for Samantha, she was taught from a very young age that her identity in Christ was directly linked to her sexuality and her sex life, so much so that she came to define who she was by it. She was taught, perhaps not intentionally, that conversion equaled sexual abstinence. That was the hallmark of her faith — being a member of the V-Squad. Otherwise, who was she in Christ? And who was she at all?

She’d spent a lifetime being taught that sex was essentially bad, or at least  something about it was. So when she finally lost her virginity — on her wedding night — she couldn’t resolve that what she had done was good, natural, and okay. She still felt dirty.

Thankfully, she has a loving, supportive husband, but she still isn’t able to reconcile being a sexual being with being a Christian. While this saddens me deeply, I can’t help but understand it. It’s the story of so many of us who grew up in the church — especially girls. And it’s why I’m leery of so-called “purity culture,” not because I think that abstinence is bad (please, God, let my daughter wait!), but because I know that this is an area in which the church has likely done more harm than good. Much of these notions the church has had about purity, virginity, and girls’ bodies are profoundly (if unintentionally) abusive. It truly is a form of sex abuse in the church that no one talks about — and is, in fact, often sanctioned by the church.

Here are my issues with “purity culture” and the environment in which Ms. Pugsley was raised:

1. Abstinence is presented as a means of justification. Girls are taught to keep themselves “pure” because in doing so they show themselves righteous before God. Speaking from a Reformed perspective, the only thing that justifies us before God is grace. Justification is God’s purview. We can’t earn grace by what we do or don’t do.

We communicate to these girls that if they give it up before marriage, they are somehow ruined or spoiled. Should a person slip up and find themselves outside of the will of God, they need to know they are not ruined. God’s grace and love covers them. I think the church is so afraid of their youth making poor decisions that they go to great lengths to keep them away from certain behaviors and attitudes. But they (and we) cannot afford to live without grace. We will all fall short. Of course, that’s not an excuse to do whatever we want, but we need to remember that we can never “ruin” ourselves so badly that we’re out of God’s redemptive reach. And if we somehow could, then that means God is not omnipotent, Christ is powerless, and there is no reason for us to believe. Abstinence that is done out of a desire to be justified has missed the mark. Abstinence should be practiced as an expression of faith.

2. There’s an inordinate emphasis on sex life. In exercise circles, there’s a saying: Friends don’t let friends skip leg day. Otherwise, your upper body is ripped and strong, while you’re lower body is scrawny and weak. Putting this much emphasis on sex is like spiritually skipping “leg day.”

When your identity in Christ is so heavily connected to your sexuality, other areas of life remain untouched. What about in your giving? Your loving? Your service? Your embrace of the outcast and the downtrodden? Discipleship is all-encompassing; it doesn’t stop at what you do with your genitalia. Why the hyper-focus on “lusts of the flesh,” and even then only certain lusts?

3. It’s inequitable. Somewhere in America, a purity ball for girls and their fathers is being planned. Meanwhile, countless sons are being ushered off to football practice, where the locker room will be rife with lewd jokes and sexual innuendo while no one so much as bats an eye. We do not communicate abstinence and sexual responsibility in the same way to boys and girls. Girls are taught to save themselves. Boys, not so much. Girls are taught how not to get raped. Boys are not taught how not to rape. While it doesn’t end at the church, the church bears a lot of responsibility for dissonant messages our boys and girls receive concerning sex.

4. Girls are unfairly promised that their lives will be better for waiting. Waiting to have sex can keep us from a sundry of problems, including having children we can’t support, catching diseases we can’t get rid of, and making poor choices in partners who really want nothing more than to get off. But simply because we do things “God’s way” doesn’t preclude us from difficulties. After all, the rain falls on the just and the unjust, right? Jesus even told his disciples that they would have some troubles. Following God doesn’t mean that life will be all rainbows and butterflies, and we need to stop suggesting this to our kids. We would do better to encourage them in the knowledge that God is near to us especially when we’re brokenhearted.

And to be clear, you can wait until marriage and still marry a jackass. That doesn’t necessarily mean you did something wrong. It means you married a human being who, just like you, is in constant need of God’s grace and mercy.

5. Sex should be private. We look sideways at a person who talks constantly about their many sexual conquests. Why, then, should we parade virginity? Encourage it, yes, but parade it? When we do this, we put the weight of the world on these girls, so in the event that they fall — or even if they wait, as Ms. Pugsley did — the crash hurts a million times more.

Putting girls on these pedestals of purity fails to communicate to them what intimacy means. Intimacy means it’s between you, your partner, and, of course, God. Not your daddy. Not your church. Everyone doesn’t need to know when the proverbial cherry has been popped. Your body does not belong to us. Open conversations about sex are necessary, but that doesn’t mean you have to be put on display, whether you’re virginal or wanton. I think if we were more concerned about a true conversion of the heart rather than simply regulating actions, more of our young people would wait — and for the right reasons.

Ultimately, I wish healing for Ms. Pugsley and the legion of people who have been sexually damaged by both church and society. I’m sad that we use sex to bring people — girls and women in particular — into subjection, when it was always meant to be a gift to be enjoyed. But I hold onto hope that we can and will get it right one day.

How do you think we could do a better of job of addressing sexuality in the church?

Don’t Expect Me to Grow Your Church

Photo Source: The Central texas Conference of the United Methodist Church
Photo Credit: The Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church

When someone is in the market for a call, he or she will invariably come across a number of church profiles that indicate a desire for a pastor to who will help their church grow. I think this is akin to a Hebrew family in Goshen painting their lintel and posts with the blood of a lamb;  it’s a sure-fire way for your church to get passed over.

This is a classic red flag for anyone who’s been in ministry for longer than a minute because it suggests your church might have unrealistic expectations of what a pastor does or can do. We get it — for whatever reason your church is clearly not happy with its size. Maybe numbers have dwindled in recent years (as is the case with most churches). But instead of doing the hard work of looking inwardly and outwardly for why this may be happening and maybe even accepting this trend may be around to stay for a while, you are looking for a person in whom to put an inordinate amount of hope and to ultimately blame when their presence doesn’t miraculously usher in a new era for your congregation.

This expectation puts the onus of church growth solely on the pastor. To be clear, it is God and God alone who gives the increase, but that increase comes at the heels of some intentional planting, watering, and tending on the part of the entire community of faith. A church can have the most gifted pastor in the world, but all those gifts cannot take the place of the congregation. Liturgy literally means “the work of the people.” In other words, the people must work! It’s simply unfair to expect a pastor to initiate and complete a work that could have at least already been started by the congregation.  A relationship between a pastor and a congregation is one of mutual ministry. Particularly in my tradition, we are all ministers. Pastors/Teaching Elders may be called to a particular service, but the work of ministry belongs to us all. No congregation should forget that, and no congregation need put its life on hold waiting for Superman — or Wonder Woman.

Yet, I understand that sometimes what’s needed to start said work is effective leadership, and I respect a church that can recognize it has that need. Even still, it can be unrealistic of a congregation to expect growth if it’s been reluctant to adopt practices that would open the door for growth. Definitely do not expect a pastor to grow your church if:

  • You’re not already consistently, intentionally, and lovingly inviting your friends, neighbors, and family to come — even if you think they’ll say “No.”
  • You’re not willing to come to church more than once a week when necessary.
  • You’re not willing to enter into deeper relationships with one another. Just because you’ve served coffee and pastries alongside each other after church for years doesn’t necessarily mean you know each other.
  • You’re not willing to welcome the new people who come through the doors as they are, not as you want to “help” them be.
  • You insist on harping on what the church doesn’t have and can’t do instead of what God has and can do through us. No church can grow from an attitude of lack.
  • You intend to bristle at any suggested change, small or large, because, “We’ve always done it this way.”
  • Your church has had contentious relationships with pastor after pastor — and somehow it’s never  the congregation’s fault.

Not an exhaustive list, but you get the picture. And even if a church does all of this and more to encourage and welcome growth, it still may not see a growth in numbers. Perhaps the growth comes from within in the form of more mature and effective Christians. Greater numbers don’t indicate that a church is effective. Jesus did just fine with only twelve dudes and a handful of women!

If a church grows at all, whether spiritually or numerically, it’s because the entire congregation has caught the vision of what it means to be community, not a tribe. Tribes are necessarily exclusive and rigidly have their boundaries and cultural norms set and agreed upon with little interest in deviating from them. Some churches, whether they know it or not, are tribes.

Simply put, your church won’t necessarily be rescued from decline simply because you called the right person. The Church already has a Savior, and I assure you he’s not currently looking for a call.

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.