Colin Kaepernick, Take Us to Church – September Reflection

So here’s what I want you to do: Take your everyday, ordinary life and place it before God as an offering. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.

from Romans 12:1,2 in The Message

One month ago Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the singing of the national anthem as way of using his platform to call attention to continued levels of police brutality that affects black and brown people in our country. Since then we have seen a wide range of responses: NFL players from five other teams have and soccer athlete Megan Rapinoe joined Kaepernick in protest,  support has been offered from a variety of activist groups and, not surprisingly, Kaepernick has faced a fair share of criticism. The particular response that has been most startling to me, as a leader in the Church, is the vehement opposition and criticism Kaepernick has received from some Christian leaders.

Their outrage that Kaepernick is disregarding the authority of the US is particularly confusing to me given that our faith tradition is rooted in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’s  life was marked by a questioning and challenging of authorities purity laws, sabbatical restrictions and exclusionary practices. His opposition to them comes to a head in the Matthew 23, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven against men ..  For you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who are entering to go in. Woe to you hypocrites! You tithe but have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”

It is important to remember that Jesus’s issues with the Pharisees represent not just an issue with religious authority but also the Roman Empire. The Pharisees allegiance to Roman authorities allowed them to maintain a place of cultural power in Rome. We see this cooperation fully manifested in story of the crucifixion. Jesus’s attention to those who were marginalized by the establishment —  the poor, the persecuted, the captives, those who were weary and heavy laden — challenged the authority of the establishment. This way of being was passed onto the early Church who understood, deeply, that they were to be part of the world without conforming to its oppressive ways.

Our identification with the oppressor ended in 318 AD when Constantine outlawed persecution of Christians. Further, we became the establishment in 380 AD when, under Theodosius, all Roman citizens were ordered to profess the faith of the bishops of Rome. Christianity had become aligned with the state. This relationship between church and state continues today in the US. As a nation of immigrants our one common bond was the profession of Christian faith. Despite the supposed separation of church and state the Christian faith has become the culturally assumed tradition – to the point that still, in 2016, it’s assumed that a presidential nominee should be a Christian. Christians, like the Pharisees, have been allowed to exercise a certain amount of power in this country as long as we pledge allegiance to the country.

So we are often afraid to question, afraid to lose this assumed power – even when the US supports the oppression of the poor and persecuted by implementing discriminatory housing laws, failing to require equal pay for equal work, denying equal marriage rights andignoring the brutal terror experienced by black and brown people at the hands of state authorities. Which leaves us, as Christians, far from the model of leadership provided by Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.

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Embodying Christ – Thoughts On Discernment

This Sunday I heard a powerful sermon. The Rev. Lisa Hunt, rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church,  offered a reflection on the conflict between who we are and what we do.  Citing the Israelites recovering from the oppression of the Babylonians, Lisa noted that outside circumstances in our lives make it difficult for what we do to fully reflect who we are: a beloved and powerful child of God.

She went on to note that this contrast is especially challenging in the United States where such value is placed on what we do. In our culture often the first question asked is, “What do you do?” We are fixated on the work or the product of someone rather than the interests or passions that drive one another. This fixation can becoming especially discouraging when, for one reason or another, the structure of our lives change and we are unable to achieve or perform to our desired standards. Lisa encouraged us to remember that what we do, or do not do, does not define who we are as a person. Our understanding is that God’s divine presence is within and available to us all and in that, we can find hope, no matter our circumstances.

I walked away with a reminder that it is my life’s work to discern how, at each present moment, God is calling me to embody the love, light, and power of Christ. In other words, I am continually wrestling to unite what I do with who I am.  This sermon was especially poignant as it came three days after I got a letter admitting me as a Postulant for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Church.

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A Gospel of Dignity – What the Church Can Learn from Planned Parenthood

Last month I traveled to East Africa to launch an initiative of Planned Parenthood Global, the international division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, that will support local communities of advocates for sexual and reproductive health and rights in several countries in Africa. I helped develop the content for the training and prepared small groups of facilitators to work with Ugandan leaders in the sexual and reproductive health and rights sector.

The training team celebrates our hard work by having dinner together.
The East Africa training team celebrates a hard day of work by having dinner together.

While preparing for the training Jacob Okumo, my colleague from Tatua Kenya, asked me about my connection to Planned Parenthood. My eyes welled up as I told Jacob about how Planned Parenthood had been my primary healthcare provider when I was young. I grew up in a conservative family that attended a conservative church in a conservative state all of which believed that sex had one place, in a heterosexual marriage. As a sexually active teen who was trying to be responsible, I turned to Planned Parenthood for birth control, STD tests, and annual exams. Planned Parenthood continued to support me through adulthood, providing me with exams when I was uninsured, even inserting my IUD.

At the opening of the initial training for the small group facilitators who would carry out the training in Uganda, we answered the question, “Why do I care about sexual and reproductive health?” As we went around the table I heard stories of women who were fired for being pregnant, shamed for needing birth control, discarded for being sexually active. Many of the stories carried the same disturbing theme: as a woman in East Africa your worth was undeniably tied to your body.

This theme was incredibly disturbing but even more so was the realization that although I was raised in a very different context, this was my story too.Read More »

Trust – An Inconvenient Path to Healing

Recently one of my good friends and I hurt one another. It has been a hard two weeks, filled with frustration, both with him and with myself. Last night I found myself dealing with the pain by trying to fill that empty space with a combination sexual attention, vodka sodas and the false promotion of how completely brilliant I am. Needless to say, it didn’t work so well.

I woke up this morning still feeling pretty empty so I decided to spend some extra time in my chair. It was a beautiful time, I feel much better now so I wanted to share the prayers and reflections that came to me in the hopes that they may resonate with some of your experiences with pain.

Help me be in this place

Help me to choose a way of life that loves me through this loss rather than becomes angry at me for failing. Help me to be compassionate to myself.

Help me trust that you are here, even in this most empty place. Help me to  find you in love and beauty: the sun, the rain, the smiles of my friends and the faces of strangers. Help me to have the strength to look for you rather than the absence of you.

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Texas Pilgrimage – Thoughts on Going Home

“Everybody has to leave, everybody has to leave their home and come back so they can love it again for all new reasons.” Donald Miller

It is 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve in Houston, Texas. The air is hot outside – maybe 70 degrees. We are seated around a table, full of empty wine glasses, dirtied plates and candles that have nearly reached their wicks. My sister Lisa and I decide on this night, of all nights, to talk about the obsessive eating habits I have carried around with me for the last fifteen years.

Before going any further, Lisa deserves an introduction. Lisa is our second born sister; she is 5 ft tall and fiercely loyal to the end. She is brave, smart, beautiful, caring, ruthless and powerful. When one is with Lisa you are keenly aware that you are being observed and measured. Lisa was my first friend. We spent the first decade of our my life playing together, the second decade learning how to grow-up together and the last decade learning how to disagree, yet remain together. It is safe to say that ere are few opinions I value as I do Lisa’s.

So, when Lisa admonished my energy to let go of these traits as week and limited I was wrecked.

“I am trying”, I insist, “And I’ve made so much progress in the last few years.” She retorts, “Yes, you have grown but I believe you can be 100% better.” My dear 81-year-old grandmother attempts to relieve the heavy tension by commenting on how different people understand mercy, self-will and compassion.

Lisa and I carry on for another ten minutes, debating about healing. She presents her closing argument, “You have all you need to get better and we all love you and are supporting you.”

Grace enters the room and my mind clears. I see something in a new light, this letting go of my behaviors; it’s not just about me. These habits are not benefiting anyone, namely Lisa and/or our family I love so dearly.

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The Path to Life :: Finding Balance

October 3rd will henceforth be known as my own D-Day. Highlights from the day include falling asleep in at Kenyan Immigration Headquarters, crying over a parking situation, purchasing five pastries out of frustration, snapping at Evans for pretty much anything that came out of his mouth, taking a passport photo that could easily be confused with a mugshot … I need not go on any further.

A holiday was in order. Wednesday night I checked into a Nairobi guest house and slept for a good 9 hours. I’ve spent the last four days at the gym, reading in the sun, listening for God, getting my hair cut and laughing endlessly with good friends. I’ve got two more days of this bliss … I have threatened to not go back to work. All holiday all the time.

Clearly, this is not possible. Even if it was possible I’m almost positive within a month or so I’d be ready to get some stuff done. So the rub becomes, especially for a black/white kind of girl like me: how do you live in between holiday and 12+ hour days for weeks on end? The same question can be asked many ways. How do you find a balance between calorie counting and pizza/ice-cream/chocolate parties? How do you manage to watch your wallet without needing to record every receipt? Basically, what does moderation look like in real life?

Over the past few months I’ve been very slowly making my way through the Psalms. I have become especially drawn to a concept in the collection of prayers which I believe echo my quest for moderation.

16.6 The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places

66.12 We went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a spacious place

I love the idea of God putting us in a wide open field so we can run wild yet drawing boundaries that keep us in ‘pleasant places.’ It reminds me of how I used to guide Rebecca through life, just enough freedom to make choices but not enough freedom to hurt herself severely. As a child our care-takers create these spaces for us but as we grow it is our God granted responsibility to draw these boundaries. This is a task that (for me) requires a constant willingness to open my heart and return to square one. I’ve yet to mastered – see Wednesday – and likely never will. I’m fine with that.

Though it can be unbelievably painful it is this quest for the figurative place where freedom meets discipline that I come to know who God is calling me to be and how He intends to get me there.

16.11 You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy’ in your right hand are pleasures forevermore. 

So we thank you for this quest. We thank you for the lows, the highs and everything in between. Thanks be to God, who working in us can do more than we could ever imagine.

Getting Grace :: A Lesson in Letting Go

I grew up in a home where grey wasn’t a color – everything was black or white. One of my Scandinavian father’s favorite phrases was, “there is a right was and a wrong way to do everything.”   We had a protocol for the amount of milk to be poured, the distance a napkin should be from a plate, the appropriate volume to knock on the door … you get the picture. As the oldest of five girls I loved this order. Knowing I had colored in the lines produced a sense of safety I couldn’t find in an uncertain world.

This translated into a childhood of ‘best citizen awards’ and an adolescence where I rarely missed curfew. This predilection for perfection made me an ideal candidate for a conservative church which promised that if I was holy enough God would reward me. At the very least the church would laud me for being, “such a strong Christian.” How I loved this church. I’ll never forget the day I sat in a packed auditorium of youth and listened to the preacher speak on spiritual practices. I came home and promptly produced hundreds of 4X4 cards with a checklist of spiritual practices: quiet time, tithing, service work, Bible study, intercessory prayer. I had cracked the code to earning God’s favor.

Somewhere in this maze of rules I took a wrong turn and at 19 I found myself kneeling in my college bedroom blasting contemporary praise music and hoping to feel God’s love. My plan had failed. I had been doing everything ‘right’ yet I was depressed. I wondered if I’d ever feel joy again. This wondering morphed into disbelief and I spent a good 3 years searching for love (as they say) in all the wrong places.

Thankfully, the story doesn’t end there.

At 23 I found myself in a beautiful community of people who, like me, had deep yearnings for God. Also like me their paths had gotten a little twisted and they had found themselves in need of a serious restart. This community welcomed my imperfections, they acknowledged my messiness and suggested that perhaps it wasn’t my job to fix everything, just trust God’s love and keep trudging.

I’d love to wrap up this post with a trite remark about how that changed everything and since then I have lived in union with God’s love but that’s not my story. My story is that I’ve been trudging along for the last five years – still struggling to understand how God can love me in my imperfections. My story is that life, in all her glory, is constantly reminding me that I’ll never be done with this lesson.

I’m rereading Brendan Manning’s Ragamuffin Gospel – it’s a beautiful account of one man’s love affair with grace. I read it for the first time around 19 but I completely missed the message. I, again, created some sort of checklist for how to get grace. Shockingly this wasn’t the way to get grace. This time around I’m finally in a place to hear Manning’s powerful song. I find myself reading the book slowly, taking in each promise of grace like a sip of hot tea. Just Friday this gem found me,

Grace strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. … It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.

Manning is quoting Paul Tillich’s The Shaking of Foundations. These words go straight to my heart. Even when I glimpse the radical gift of grace I still understand it as a motivator for change. Tillich begs the question, what if it was enough JUST to experience grace. What if that moment,when you feel God’s all consuming love was in fact, enough? What if nothing more was required but to sit in the presence of God and bask in the goodness of grace? It is unbelievably risky but perhaps this is what it means to let go of every bit self-reliance and utterly trust in God.

I can already hear my inner critic asking, does this  mean we act irresponsibly to prove grace?! By no means am I advocating for a reckless course of action, rather I am suggesting that our entire role in salvation is to seek to fully understand the width and height and breadth of God’s merciful love for us – full stop.

I have this sneaking suspicion that if we boldly throw away our carefully crafted rule books and spend our time seeking  God’s love we will live more in sync with God than ever before. Alternatively, we can choose to spend our days seeking out righteousness and perhaps lose sight of the fantastic promise of God’s grace. The choice depends on us, grace on the other hand, is there regardless. Amen and Amen.